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Saturday, October 31, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 31: JENNIFER'S BODY (2009)

When your supposed BFF just ain't right.

Our story is narrated by our protagonist,  nerdy-but-cute high-schooler Anita "Needy" Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried), from behind the walls of a Minnesota women's mental institution, where she now resides as a violent inmate whose propensity for assaulting the inmates and the guards earns her frequent trips to solitary.

Needy has been best friends with Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) since their sandbox days, and one is hard-pressed to understand exactly why. Needy is a sweet girl buy Jennifer, one of that breed of sexually-aggressive high school goddesses whose stunning beauty and smokin'-hot bod practically guaranteed she'd end up a cheerleader, could kindly be described as an alpha female "mean girl," and she lords her position and social status over all around her. Needy is no exception, but apparently their very one-sided friendship serves a purpose for the nerdette.

Jennifer: a self-proclaimed "great friend " and a truly horrid human being.

On a night when Needy had intended to spend some quality time with her boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons), Jennifer demands Needy's presence as her wing man, as she wants to go to a local club (actually a dive bar) so she can stalk the hunky lead singer of the indie emo band Low Shoulder. This is just the latest time that Jennifer has hijacked Needy, thus derailing Chip's plans, and the exchange between him and Jennifer makes it clear that there is no love lost. Anyway, the underage girls get into the bar (which apparently does not check I.D.s at all) and Jennifer makes a beeline toward the band. She does not even attempt to hide her lady-boner for the singer, while Needy take sin instant dislike to him, considering him a "creep." While Jennifer hits the bar to get drinks for herself and her bestie, Needy overhears the band members discussing Jennifer and taking quite an interest in whether or not she's a virgin. Needy calls them out for that and attempts to keep and eye on the randy Jennifer, but a fire mysteriously breaks out, burning the bar to ground while many people, adults and the girls' classmates, are either immolated or crushed underneath the escaping panicked throng. The girls make their escape the the bathroom window, but the second they are outside the douchey singer takes the hand of a dazed Jennifer and tries to lure her into his bitchin' van. (I'm not certain but she acts likes she's either drunk or roofied.) Needy tries to convince Jennifer not to go with the band, but she's too smitten (and possibly wasted) to resist. As the singer leads her into the van, the singer smirks at Needy before slamming the door and driving off.

Needy, appalled at her friend ditching her for four strangers.

Understandably freaked-out by the carnage and also by Jennifer leaving with the band for god knows what fate, Needy calls Chip and tells him what happened. While on the phone with Chip, Needy hears an intruder downstairs, and she should be alone in the house because her mom is working the swing shift. The intruder turns out to be Jennifer, who's completely covered in blood and acting strange. She does not answer when the frantic Needy asks her what happened, instead raiding the fridge and devouring a roast chicken from the floor like an animal. She then does some EXORCIST-level projectile vomiting, only the spew is inky/jet-black, with unknown spiny objects within. Jennifer, in a display of inhuman strength, hoists the terrified Needy against the wall and begins sniffing around her neck like a vampire, but she backs off and leaves, leaving a horrified and confused needy to clean up the mess.

The following day, the girls' high school has become a place of communal mourning as the students come together over the loss of friends and family. A shell-shocked Needy is astounded to see Jennifer show up like nothing happened, and her callous disregard for the tragedy is the first clue that Needy notices that tells her her bestie is not right. From there matters escalate, as Jennifer, who is now more alluring than usual, embarks on a killing spree, targeting various males among the student body. Things deteriorate between the girls as Needy, spurred by her best friend's negative traits coming to fore more aggressively, tries to distance herself from Jennifer and reflects on the nature of their long-term so-called friendship. But Jennifer will not leave her alone and, in a weird attempt at keeping the friendship going, she climbs through Needy's window and tries to seduce her. The two start to get hot and heavy but Needy snaps out of it and demands to know just what the hell is going on of late. Jennifer states that there should be no secrets between besties, so she makes with an origin story:

On the night of the fire and her abduction, the members of Low Shoulder drive Jennifer into the deep woods, where Jennifer quite understandably fears that she's about to be gang-raped. Such is not the case, however, as Low Shoulder intends to sacrifice her to dark powers in exchange for success and fame, because things are hard for a struggling indie band. Jennifer pleads for her life, suggesting that the band kidnap some other girl, "someone who knows how to do sex things," as she claims she knows nothing because she's a virgin. The truth of the matter is that she has been quite sexually active since junior high, but she's not gonna tell the band that. Psyched at having a self-proclaimed virgin in their clutches, the guys do their best to scare her, because fear further purifies the ritual, and the end up stabbing Jennifer to death with a Bowie knife. They leave her for dead and drive off to hoped-for success.

Jennifer further explains that she came back from the dead — she does not know the how or the why of it — and during the time since the ritual murder she has discovered that she came back with a number of supernatural powers, such as inhuman strength, levitation, and a Wolverine-like healing factor that makes her damned near unkillable. The only hitch is that she must kill and consume human flesh, preferably male once per month, or her inhuman looks and sexual allure will fade. Appalled, Needy kicks her out and the two begin to grow distant.

Needy puts her nerd skills to good use and researches exactly what happened to Jennifer, studying several books on the occult, witches, and dark rituals, and she concludes that the band botched the ritual by offering an "impure" sacrifice, so a case of demonic transference took place, allowing Jennifer to become a vessel for a murderous succubus. She also discovers that the only way to stop the succubus is to destroy her heart. What follows in the best teen dance horror movie finale since the original CARRIE (1976), as matters escalate, betrayal occurs, and Needy truly comes to terms with the true nature of her relationship with Jennifer. When all is said and done, Needy does what needs to be done, resulting in unexpected side-effects...

 I skipped JENNIFER'S BODY when it came out, because it looked like just another shitty "teen" horror outing, starring two of my least favorite female leads, and also because it was universally lambasted upon release. I saw it for the first time yesterday and I am glad to say that it is a deeply misunderstood effort that is far more intelligent than the vox populi would have one believe, and bith Fox and Seyfried are fantastic in their roles. Written by JUNO scribe Diablo Cody, the film displays some of the most believably-written and believable-sound teenagers ever to grace the screen. I'm a guy who has always fit in better with my female friends, so I have seen and heard pretty much everything and seen all the ways that females interact since I was in high school, and Cody's examination of the specific inter-female dynamic seen here rings as very authentic, with Jennifer's demonic side being the sort of cunty inner beast that many high school hotties express, especially when dominating an easily-manipulated less-secure friend, only writ horrifyingly and homicidally large. Jennifer was always evil and bad friend, but it took supernatural madness to wake Needy up to that fact.

I was going to review HEREDITARY as this year's final 31 DAYS OF HORROR entry, but I'd recently heard good things about JENNIFER'S BODY, so I gave it a chance. It's one of the best horror films of the early 2000's and is apparently finding the justice it deserves as it is reexamined and reappraised in a time that is more open to what it has to say. It was not helped by its studio focusing on Megan Fox's hotness and catering to her horny male fan base with the film's marketing, which made it look like another disposable and brainless teen horror flick, instead of the intelligent ultra-dark comedy that it actually is. Of this year's roster of 31 DAYS OF HORROR choices, this is one is my pick for the cream of the crop, an outstanding high school movie and equally superb as a demonic possession story, and I cannot recommend it enough. A must-see for all horror fans, both hardened grown-up "monster kids" and civilians alike.

Poster from the theatrical release. Talk about totally mis-marketing your film...

And with that, I bid all of you a safe and Happy Halloween 2020 in spite of the pandemic. If you can't go out, stay in and educate yourself on horror movies. And if you do go out, remember social distancing protocols and wear your mask! (By which I mean a face covering intended for use in the pandemic, ya sillies!) Thanks for reading CINE-MISCREANT and see y'all next year!

 

Friday, October 30, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020 -Day 30: NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (1962)

When you REALLY have no idea what the fuck you're talking about.

Psychology professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) lectures a class on superstition and occult lore, firmly establishing him as a man firmly rooted in the empirically quantifiable and the rational. He's relatively young and happily married and his future at the British university where he teaches looks bright, what with a pretty young student clearly making eyes at him, along with him being under serious consideration for advancement of his academic career. As far as he's concerned, everything is coming up roses, but his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair), knows better. She understands the subtleties of communication between women, specifically her interactions with the other university wives, and she has takes steps to ensure her husband's safety and that of his career against the perceived hostility of the other professors' spouses. You see, Tansy is into the mystic arts, specifically those she encountered during a trip to Jamaica and that she continues to foster on her solo weekends at her cabin getaway. Her position in the all-female power play is made clear early on, during a bridge game with the professors and their wives, and we see the vicious hatred and jealousy fairly radiating from the hateful university secretary, Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston), whose husband's career stalled when Norman arrived. Tansy, being unable to sleep after the bridge game, goes downstairs and discovers a crude voodoo doll made in her image and affixed inside a lampshade, where it was unlikely to be found. Tansy remove the fetish item, cracks it open, spilling its powdery contents into an ashtray and setting them alight.

 

A hidden item of voodoo.

One night while searching for a fresh pair of pajamas, Norman rummages through one of the bedroom dresser's drawers and finds a dessicated spider in a carved box hidden at the bottom of the drawer. When he confronts Tansy on this, she nervously laughs it off off, stating it was a souvenir from her last trip to Jamaica, a gift and "good luck charm" from a warlock whose acquaintance she had made while there. Upon returning home from work the next day, Norman notices a bell that Tansy has hung in the rafter above their house's front door. Puzzled and thinking back to the spider he'd discovered, Norman's knowledge of occult lore and superstition is activated and he searches the entire house, unearthing a plethora of items that are clearly for the use in spells and ritual, including some sort of juju pouch pinned inside the collar of his jacket.

A wife's charms exposed.

Disturbed by the trinkets and by his wife's actions, Norman demands the truth from Tansy, and he does not like what he gets: Two years prior, during their trip to Jamaica, Norman almost died and was so close to death that conventional practitioner of medicine had given up on him. The desperate Tansy voiced her desire to trade her life for her husbands, inspired by her witnessing of a local warlock bringing very dead girl back to life. Without having to forfeit her life, Tansy, inspired by what she has seen and now believes is unarguably real, begins practicing the arts of obeah, practices that "seem" to work. Since their arrival at the university, Tansy has been using her magic to improve things for her husband while warding off the other women. She declares that she is a full-on practicing witch, much to Norman's disgust and annoyance, so he demands that she burn all of her charms while declaring his disappointment at how someone as smart and rational as his wife would ever do something so "stupid." Tansy is distraught over this, stating that they cannot survive with her protections, but she nonetheless complies and watches in fear as Norman sets her wards alight. Funny how one's words can come right back to bite one on the ass, no? From the instant the last of Tansy's items goes up in flames, Norman's life and career turn into an ever-widening gyre of doom as the other witches are now free to utterly destroy him. A false rape accusation from his obsessed student, nearly getting run down by a lorry driver, a near-deadly confrontation with his most belligerent and now gun-wielding male student (who was interested in the rape accuser but was jilted in favor of her infatuation with Norman), strange noises in and around the house, a cursed audio tape and madness-inducing sounds from the telephone all add up to Norman beginning to believe, all while a stone eagle watches and waits. But Tansy is not down for the count. Not by a long shot...

 

It's merely a statue...

This British adaptation of legendary fantasy writer Fritz Leiber's classic story CONJURE WIFE (1943, but later published in extended novel form a decade later), does considerable justice to its source material, though it shifts the location from New England to the U.K. The book has long been one of my favorites, as I read it as if it were a dark version of the classic TV sitcom BEWITCHED (1964-1972). While BEWITCHED mined the concept of a with married to a mundane/mortal husband who tried (and failed) to get her not to use her powers for often-hilarious comedy, Leiber aimed for more serious and darker results, and came up with gold. The story was earlier filmed as WEIRD WOMAN (1944), but its narrative was reportedly re-jiggered as more of a mystery than a straight-up supernatural thriller. I have never seen it, so I cannot speak for its qualities, but I know if I had read CONJURE WOMAN and gone in expecting something close to the source and got a fucking mystery, I would have been pissed. Speaking as a fan of the novel, NIGHT OF THE EAGLE, which was re-titled BURN, WITCH, BURN for the American release, I very much enjoyed this adaptation of it definitely recommend it to those who, like me, love a good witchy yarn. If I had to sum it up in a nutshell, this is kind of THE CRAFT for grownups.

Poster from the original U.K. theatrical release.
 
Poster from the American theatrical release.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 29: GHOSTBUSTERS (2016)

I wish they'd aimed their proton blasts at my head and blown it off, rather than allow me to sit through this creative cul de sac...

I finally sat through the much-maligned GHOSTBUSTERS (2016) and while it is not the worst thing I've ever endured — far from it — it really is as bad as they say. As I endured it the other night, by about 48 minutes into it I decided against writing on it for this year's round of seasonal essays, but after mulling it over further I figured I'd just bite the bullet and let my voice be heard.

The 2016 GHOSTBUSTERS is basically an attempted remake/reboot of the classic 1984 supernatural comedy, and as such it's defeated as of frame one. The original was an unarguable case of lightning in a bottle, the prefect film that landed just at the right time in history and that went on to become a beloved touchstone. Everything about it, from its script to its performances to its superb practical effects, was right on the money, and anyone with a brain in their head could sit through it and tell you that it was the kind of thing that just cannot be replicated or sequelized without subsequent entries being doomed to be at the very least lesser than the source material. Such was the case with GHOSTBUSTERS II (1989), a sequel that was painfully lackluster in every way, and that's definitely the case with the 2016 iteration. There was a reason why the would-be franchise lay fallow for 27 years after the failure of the first sequel.

This time around the studio pretty much stuck to the concept of the original film, which was an origin story but clearly intended as a "done in one" piece, but this time around the four protagonists are played by well-known comedic actresses, three veterans of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE — Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon — and one all-purpose comedic mainstay (Melissa McCarthy, who was phenomenal in BRIDESMAIDS and the criminally underrated SPY).

In a nutshell: The group comes together after managing to capture a ghost, but the NYC Mayor's office demands that they shut down operations immediately, despite the Mayor knowing what they do is real, so as to avoid mass hysteria, and the officials also launch of campaign to discredit the Ghostbusters as attention-seeking frauds. Meanwhile, a disgruntled misanthrope plots to bring about the end of the world by opening a portal the beyond, killing himself in the process as part of his plan, thus becoming a ghost of considerable power. The final act is a rehash of the end of the original, only with modern CGI effects that make it look like watching someone else play a video game. Also, the film  is peppered with loads of catering to nostalgia, including useless cameos by the remaining principals from the 1984 original, a memorial bust of Egon Spengler (since Harold Ramis is the only original Ghostbuster to have died in real life),  a regular hearse pimped-out into the new Ecto-1 (which makes zero sense as the original Ecto-1 was clearly a vintage ambulance), an appearance by Slimer, and an awful contemporary version of the Ghostbusters theme (as if the original wasn't over-saturated ad nauseum, and it's still in fairly heavy rotation on oldies stations and during Halloween), none of which add anything to the overall narrative.

The cast seems to have been handed the most rudimentary of scripts and told to improvise and "be funny," and while all of the leads are quite capable of eliciting laughs elsewhere, the ad-libbing here was out of control and mostly crashed and burned. The bright spots in the performances include Kate McKinnon's deliriously weird engineer Holtzman, who's so strange that she often feels like she escaped from some other far-better movie. She the maddest of mad scientists and she's so bizarre that it's impossible not to want to see her in the spotlight. For me, McKinnon stole the film. The other standout, and a true shock to me, is Leslie Jones as Patty, a subway booth worker with real smarts and an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of New York City's buildings and landmarks, which comes in handy when she becomes the fourth Ghostbuster. I am not a fan of her work elsewhere, as I find her usual schtick to be loud, ghetto-stereotypical, and coonish to the point of bordering on minstrelsy (minus burnt cork), but here she was easily the most grounded, normal-acting, and relatable of the protagonists. And then there's Chris Hemsworth, who's about as far away from his signature performance as Thor as he could get. He plays Kevin, the hunky receptionist who gets hired because he's major eye-candy, despite the fact that he is dumber than a bag of hammers. Hemsworth was allowed to do a lot of ad-libbing, as he has proven himself quite capable of delivering laughs elsewhere (most notably in THOR: RAGNAROK), but here he ventures deep into the Twilight Zone of bizarro dumber-than-dumb character creation. Kevin is simply too stupid to live, and even within the context of a goofy comedy, he's just too much. No one in their right mind would hire him for any job imaginable, and his would-be wackiness utterly fails to land. To put it more succinctly, it wastes its cast — I'm looking at you, Charles Dance — with the exception of Kate McKinnon's aggressively loony distaff Egon Spengler, and and Jones's relatable everywoman who's thrust from the mundane world into paranormal weirdness and superheroics virtually overnight.

It's all a soulless and wholly unnecessary quasi-remake reboot that brings nothing to the table and apparently had no real creative vision going in, other than to establish a franchise that the studio could milk the shit out of. The jokes all fall as flat as a roadkill raccoon, and there is nothing as tragic as a comedy that utterly fails at its main goal, which is making the audience laugh.

GHOSTBUSTEWRS 2016 is a creatively bankrupt piece of cranked-out corporate product cinema, no more, no less. And don't blame its failure on its leads. Them being women has zero to do with it. This would have been a dud with anyone in these roles.  And now GHOSTBUSTERS AFTERLIFE looms, which is an attempt at course correction that chooses to ignore the 2016 iteration and instead focuses on a bunch of tweens who take up the Ghostbusters mantle. I hope it turns out to be good, but after the fialed direct sequel to the original and then the 2016 debacle, I have to say I have the lowest of expectations...

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-DAY 28: COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019)

Laser Floyd it ain't.

The formerly city-dwelling Gardner family moves to a remote country house after wife and mother Nancy (Joely Ricahrdson) undergoes a mastectomy, the idea being that the rustic tranquility of their alpaca farm will aid in her recovery. Along with Nancy are her husband Nathan (Nicholas Cage), stoner eldest son Benny (Brendan Meyer), Wiccan middle child Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), and Jack (Julian Hilliard), the youngest. All is going well, what with Lavinia performing amateur rituals to keep her mom's cancer at bay, and Nathan tenderly proving to Nancy how much he loves her (she is at a loss for grasping how he could possibly still find her desirable), but their charmingly idyllic world is irrevocably thrown into chaos when a meteorite plummets from the stars and lands in their yard, accompanied by a spectacular and rather lysergic lightshow. This out-of-this-world rock possess a number of strange properties, such as causing the local flora and fauna to mutate into creatures that are definitely not of this world, allowing young Jack to communicate with unseen "friends," contaminating fruit and vegetable crops, and rendering the local water sources undrinkable. Matters only get weirder as more strange life forms manifest, tempers flare, and a semi-catatonic Nancy cuts off some of her fingers while chopping carrots. From there things go full-tilt cosmic as Nathan basically goes completely mad and the entity from within the meteorite shows up to wreak unfathomable havoc. Sometimes being 12 miles away from any hope of help is a stone-cold bitch.

The latest mining of the vast lode that is H.P. Lovecraft and his concepts, COLOR OUT OF SPACE is one of the most evocative screen adaptations of the author's catalog, deftly managing to visualize his signature cosmic and unknowable sense of crawling dread and man's utter insignificance when stacked against powerful beings from beyond. The cast is solid, with Nicholas Cage stealing the show with a slow-burn full-tilt gonzo decent into madness (or what he simply calls Tuesday), and a fun turn by Tommy Chong as Ezra, the friendly hippie squatter who resides on the Gardners' property and who is the first to truly twig to what is transpiring.

I won't go into the surprises that film has in store, but I will state that the film's leisurely pace allows us to get to know all of the characters and actually care about them before the shit goes south. They are all likeable people and none of them deserve what turns up in their front yard. All I'll say is that the third act owes a large and disturbing debt to John Carpenter's THE THING (1982), and that COLOR OUT OF SPACE is absolutely worth your time. Very much RECOMMENDED.

Poster from the theatrical release. A very accurate depiction of just some of the film's events.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 27: THE BLACK ROOM (1935)

Gregor and Anton: twin roles that allow Boris Karloff to show of his considerable range

Hungary, the late 18th century: The twin heirs to the baronial clan de Berghmann are born, but their birth is not greeted with celebration. Their birth is a harbinger of the end of the family, as they are the fulfillment of a dire prophecy that states much as the line was begun by a pair of twins, the elder of which was murdered by his younger sibling, it was destined to come to an end when the same act of fratricide is committed by the next set of twin sons to come along. The catalyzing event occurred in the Black Room, a hidden dungeon featuring implements of torture and a deep it for the disposal of bodies. The identical twins, Anton and Gregor (both portrayed by horror legend Boris Karloff) are visually alike in every way, save for Anton being born with a paralyzed right arm. The boys grow up together in the castle and endure the deaths of their parents, and when their father passes Gregor, the elder of the pair, inherits the title of baron, along with absolute power over the local peasantry, while Anton leaves to travel abroad and study. Things skip ahead by many years and Anton returns to the castle, summoned by Gregor. His resemblance to his brother shocks the locals, who had more or less forgotten his existence, and Anton soon discovers that his brother is hated with a white-hot passion by all and sundry. In the years since Anton's departure, Gregor has proven himself to be a cruel and tyrannical ruler who also sidelines in the rape and murder of girls from the village, thus fomenting an imminent uprising by the locals. Upon arriving at the castle, Anton is warmly welcomed and attempts to verify the claims made against his brither, but Gregor shuts down his inquiries at every turn.

The pair are invited to the home of family friend Colonel Hassell (Thurston Hall), where Anton meets and is instantly smitten with the Colonel's lovely daughter, Thea (Marian Marsh). Gregor has long had designs on Thea and makes it known to her father that he intends to make her his baroness, but Thea's heart belongs to young soldier Lieutenant Lussan (Robert Allen), who distrusts Gregor and would kill him in cold blood if he could get away with it. With the love quadrangle in place, Gregor sets in motion a diabolical scheme that frames the Lieutenant for the murder of Gregor's mistress, Maska (Katherine De Mille), thus getting him out of the way, and arouses the ire of the locals who, having had enough of his evil, storm the castle with the intent to kill him. Gregor weasels his way out of his lynching by agreeing to leave the country for good, abdicating his title and responsibilities to Anton. Once the locals have agreed to this, Gregor Lures Anton into the Black Room, revealing that he summoned his brother home because he knew it was only a matter of time until he met his fate at the hands of the justifiably pissed-off peasants, and he intends to murder the kindly Anton and take his place. Anton is unceremoniously pitched into the pit while holding the knife Gregor attempted to stab him with, and he perishes, but not before swearing that he will kill Gregor, even if he has to return from the grave to do so. With that, Gregor seals the pit and reminds himself that from that day forward he shall become his brother in every way, even affecting his brother's paralyzed arm. Some time passes and Gregor then murders the Colonel, who who had figured out the deception. Unfortunately the Colonel did not act upon that knowledge sooner, as he has Gregor (as Anton) sign legal documents granting him custody of Thea as her guardian, along with giving him full access to all of her property and finances. He then capitalizes on Thea's grief over her father's death and sadness at her true love awaiting execution for a murder he did not commit, proposing that she become his baroness. It all builds to its inevitable conclusion, and end that can only come in the Black Room...

Is there anything more horrifying than family dysfunction?

THE BLACK ROOM is a tidy thriller that gives Boris Karloff ample opportunity to mine the thespic territory of the nice guy and the complete and utter rat bastard, and he plays both parts quite believably. The entire cast is game and the story moves at brisk pace, but with all of the plot details that I just recounted, anyone with half a brain in their head can easily predict where all of this is going, but the magic here is in seeing exactly how it reaches its foregone conclusion. I last saw this film in 1975 during an airing on New York's Channel 5, when I was ten years old, and though it had no monsters it held me riveted with its solid story, bleak atmosphere, and Karloff in two roles that were about as far away from Frankenstein's monster as one could get. It's an often-overlooked gem that deserves rediscovery, especially if you love the Universal horror cycle of the 1930's and 1940's. It's a Columbia release, but you get what I mean.

Lobby card from the theatrical release.

Monday, October 26, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 26: DOCTOR WHO "The Green Death" (1973)

Aka "the one with the giant maggots."
 
Llanfairfach, South Wales, 1973: In an abandoned coal refinery,  the corpse of a miner is discovered,  suffused with an unknown pulsing green glow, and it's only the first of several. Derailing his plans to travel to the planet Metebelis Three (after landing there and immediately being attacked by assorted monsters), the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) follows his UNIT assistant Jo Grant (Katy Manning), and the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) to investigate the situation in Wales, encountering the opposing factions of a chemical corporation's shady bigwig and a protesting environmentalist group led by a young bio-technic research scientist who reminds Jo of the Doctor. (You can see where that element is going...) The investigation reveals chemical waste has spawned enormous maggot-like larvae but another threat lurks behind the scenes as the chemical corporation's officials find themselves manipulated by their hidden "boss," with sometimes-fatal results.

 Truly a gag-inducing threat.
 
As matters escalate,  it is determined that the miners have died of an unknown virus, while the Doctor obtains one of the creatures' eggs that, much to the horror of all involved, hatches, swiftly maturing into an exponentially-enormous, vicious flying insect. Also, the big boss is unmasked, and the Doctor must race to simultaneously find a cure for the virus while sorting out a way to exterminate the maggots before the world is overrun with swarms of their airborne adult dragonfly-like version (which the Doctor perceives as "beautiful"). And let us not forget the menace of the increasingly-insane boss's agenda of world conquest...
 
The adult form.
 
Reflecting the growing environmental concerns of its era, THE GREEN DEATH tells its story over six half-hour chapters and starts off as rather a slow burn.  One of the things I love about classic-era DOCTOR WHO is its willingness to patiently weave a solid narrative, as it allowed the story to take its time when establishing scenarios and allowing us to get to know the characters. That is certainly the case here, and the earthbound nature of this specific story grants it a more recognizable flavor to its horrors than something taking place in some far-off future location crammed with aliens. There's something quite Lovecraftian about the hissing, squirming super-maggots, and the natural human revulsion upon encountering such vermin of normal scale is sent into overdrive here. The sequence where the Doctor and Jo employ a mine cart as a makeshift canoe while paddling through a flooded mine shaft swarming with squirming mega-larvae firmly illustrates this point.
 
The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee),  holding some stroppy creepy-crawlies s at bay.

Another element of this story is that after having portrayed the Doctor's companion and aide for about two years, Katy Manning opted to leave the show, so the always charming Jo Grant finds herself strongly attracted to the young scientist who makes her imagine a younger version of the Doctor. Until this point, Jo and the Doctor had something of a father-daughter relationship and it was clear that as their association flowered, Jo matured and, in essence, grew up, so it was only natural for her to want to spread her won wings and get out from her "father's" shadow. Over the course of the story the Doctor takes note of this, along with Jo's obvious interest in the scientist, so he resigns himself to the inevitable and lets her go. It's a poignant touch and the departure of of Jo is only mitigated by the introduction of Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, arguably the Doctor's most celebrated companion, as of the next story. 

THE GREEN DEATH is must-see classic DOCTOR WHO, though I honestly wonder if it would be so well-remembered today, nearly fifty years after originally airing, if not for the nauseating nature of the maggots. It's good, but admittedly a tad overlong in telling this story in six chapters. It could eaasily have been tightened up by making it as four installments.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 25: SANTA JAWS (2018)

No, you are not going insane.

"He who holds this pen holds great power. With generosity and heart, it can only do good.  Beware of he who uses it for selfish gains."

 - translated from German

Port City, Louisiana:  It's shortly before Christmas and high school-age aspiring comics creator Cody (Reid Miller) illustrates a comic book story about "Santa Jaws," a Great White shark that eats a homicidal Santa, is infused with his evil,  and becomes a sea-roaming force of carnivorous malevolence. As his family gathers for what looks to be a tension-filled holiday, Cody's posted-to-social-media drawing of his tyrannical principal lands him a week of being grounded, which throws a monkey wrench into his plans to attend a party at local comics shop. Upon being banished to his room, Cody finds an early Christmas gift from his grandfather, Papa Joe (Richie Montgomery), an antique-looking ornately silver-and-gold-adorned fountain pen in a wooden case engraved with a mysterious German phrase, and sets about inking one of his illustrations of Santa Jaws. (If you've ever seen a horror movie, you know what an old magical item looks like on sight, and that fountain pen falls squarely into that category.)  But it's Papa to the rescue, as he wakes Cody early for their annual morning of Christmas Eve fishing trip. If Cody sneaks out with Papa, Papa will swing him by the party on the way home. The pair make it to the pier, but a mysterious green surge of energy below the surface manifests a Great White shark whose fin sports a Santa hat. Yes, Santa Jaws has magically come to life, given form by Cody's wish to be rid of his annoying family, and her first move is to eat Papa.

Just when you think you've seen everything ridiculous.

A distraught Cody returns home and alerts his family to Papa having been dragged to a savage end in the depths, but none of them believe him and instead berate him for spinning lies. As the family leaves him at home by himself, Mom having taken away his cell phone and threatening grave reprisals if he should sneak out again, Cody nonetheless sets out to investigate how and why Santa Jaws somehow corporealized into reality. Aided by a small Scooby Gang of friends and family, Cody learns that Santa Jaws is attracted to Christmassy things — a Santa hat, spilled eggnog, Christmas lights, a guy in an elf costume who's eating lunch on the dock — and that it can be harmed by items associated with the holiday.  Things become desperate as the body count grows, but Cody proves his mettle by facing up to his fears and by remembering the value of his family.

 More of a comedy than an actual horror film — Seriously, how could it not be ? — SANTA JAWS is that rare effort of ridiculousness that knows exactly how utterly stupid its concept is but plays it straight, thereby upping its silliness. The gravitas with which the characters treat a shark with a Santa hat on its fin is hilarious in and of itself, and it only gets more idiotic when, in an attempt to put a stop to Santa Jaws by impaling her, Cody draws a candy cane harpoon being driven through the shark's head, only to have that strategy backfire and turn her into a Christmas-themed killer demi-narwhal. 

                                   When a savage devouring proves laugh-out-loud hilarious.

And while a comedy, some of the deaths are rather nasty, and in some cases quite unexpected and shocking, but when one of the plot's key elements is a magic pen in the hands of a protagonist who can tell visual stories on paper and make anything happen, the ending is pretty much a foregone conclusion and kind of a forgivable cop-out.

SANTA JAWS is utterly and charmingly shameless for knowing exactly what it is and delivering its madness with a straight face, and as such it's a good addition to the roster of off-beat Christmas films. Its gore is minimal, so it's perfectly suitable for anyone over the age of six, and it makes up for its lack of visceral shocks by having its heart in the right place and by being genuinely deadpan funny. A ture surprise and definitely RECOMMENDED.

Promotional image for the film.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 24: DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)

When you'd prefer to let dormant ghosts lie, but that is not an option.

Decades after the events of THE SHINING (1979), psychic Danny Torrence (Ewan McGregor) has grown up and goes by "Dan." His experience at the Overlook Hotel traumatized him deeply, and in an effort to keep his "shine" powers bay, he has followed in his father's dysfunctional footsteps and degenerated into a violent alcoholic drifter. His wandering brings him to New Hampshire, where he is shown kindness by Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), a stranger who, having once been in Dan's shoes, recognizes Dan's need for help. He secures Dan a place to live and a job operating a kiddie-scale train, but Dan also finds a part-time gig as an orderly in a hospice. While there, he follows the lead of the facility's cat, an animal that always senses when a patient is about to die, an infallible talent that allows the patients to know for certain that it is their time. Dan enters the room of the dying and comforts them with his shining power, alleviating their fear and suffering, and one of the patients pays him the honor of dubbing him "Doctor Sleep."

Meanwhile, a cult of, for lack of a better way to describe them, psychic vampires called the True Knot roams America in search of children who possess powerful shining talents. Once tracked down, the True Knot abducts and tortures their victims, stating that fear and pain purify the "steam," the powerful life essence of those gifted with the shine. This horrifying clan is led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Furguson) who, like her followers, is a near-immortal, and they all feed upon the steam to stay (hopefully) forever young. The more powerful a victim's shine, the greater the power imbued upon the predators. (Their murder and torture of a terrified and screaming Little Leaguer is perhaps the film's most genuinely scary sequence.)

Evil incarnate: Rose the Hat.

Time passes after Dan's arrival in New Hampshire, and he celebrates eight years of sobriety. He also begins receiving telepathic communications from Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran), a 14-year-old girl whose shining's power may have no precedent. We're talking telepathy, telekinesis, astral projection, in other words she's a gifted Swiss army knife of psychic badassery. And the True Knot wants to find her and use her as a reservoir to replenish their dwindling supply of the steam.

Powerful shining prodigy Abra Stone.

Once she knows they are aware of her existence and that it's only a matter of time before they descend upon her, Abra reaches out to Dan and asks for his help. Their battle against this implacable and heartless evil takes several turns that lead Dan to realize that the True Knot may be too powerful for he and Abra to defeat on their own, so Dan opts to lure Rose to the site of where all of his nightmares began: the Overlook Hotel.

I've been an avid Stephen King reader since 1979, and the source novel for DOCTOR SLEEP is one of my favorites of his more recent works. It's a sequel that satisfies, and the movie does it justice with only a handful of minor alterations here and there, mostly tightening some of the narrative points and trimming unnecessary fat. If you have not seen THE SHINING, watch that before sitting through this, though I would argue that one does not have to have seen it in order to get what's going on and enjoy what it brings to the plate. Simply put, this is one of the top tier King adaptations and it should be experienced by his devotees.

Poster from the theatrical release.

Friday, October 23, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 23: THE STEPFATHER (1987)

The perfect suburban family...

Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn) is a real estate salesman who aspires to live "the American Dream" by crafting the picture-perfect suburban home and family, a la what he grew up watching on 1950's and 1960's television. In short, a fantasy that can't exist and never did. He's married to Susan Maine (Shelley Hack, late of CHARLIE'S ANGELS), whom he met about a year ago, shortly after her husband died, and along with that commitment comes her high school-aged daughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Stephanie is having issues with her dad's death and repeatedly causes disturbances at her school, which leads her to being forced to see an analyst. She reveals to the analyst that she is indeed having problems getting over her father's death and consequent absence from her life, but part of the problem is the presence of Jerry and his aggressive Ward Cleaverism. The two regularly butt heads and Jerry tries to make things work with his new family, but Stephanie instinctively senses that there's just something not right about Jerry, a fact driven home when she witnesses him utterly lose his shit in the basement during a neighborhood cookout, the basement being his "man cave" and also where he goes to be alone and let his hair down...

True colors exposed.

You see, we, the audience, are informed from Frame 1 that "Jerry" is too good to be true, as we see him with shaggy hair, a 'stache, and glasses, washing off the blood he's covered with, the blood of his previous "family," who all lay dead and butchered in their house's living room. "Jerry" is a serial killer whose M.O. is to insinuate himself somewhere in and around Seattle, Washington, where he changes his appearance, assumes a fake name, gets a job and sets himself up as a well-liked and trusted new citizen, and becomes involved with widows or divorcees with kids, in a never-ending obsessive quest to create the perfect American family of his twisted fantasies. While things with a given family go swimmingly, he's the model husband and father, but if anything happens that threatens to shatter his fabricated white picket fence paradise, it's murder time and the quest begins anew.

Jim Ogilvie, the brother of his previous murdered wife is beside himself over the loss of his sister in such a brutal and senseless manner, so he embarks on his own investigative crusade to find her killer. He even approaches the detective who handled his sister's case, but all that the cop can tell him is that the killer has done this several times, under several different identities, and he's so smart about what he does, they have nothing on him other than his false names. Meanwhile, Stephanie, spurred by witnessing Jerry's basement meltdown and having heard of his previous unsolved murders, sets about investigating him herself, so it's only a matter of time before the two amateur investigations yield some sort of fruit. But Jerry's behavior is becoming more and more erratic and unhinged, so it may be time to clean the slate and start all over again...

I last saw THE STEPFATHER on VHS 31 years ago, having skipped it in the theater due to being oversaturated on slasher films during their '80's domination of the the screen, and many of them were outright cheapjack trash. THE STEPFATHER looked like it would be another "nothing special" effort, but that snap judgement was proven quite wrong when I finally saw it. (A friend wanted to see it, so she rented it and invited me over.) It's leagues better than the majority of that era-defining sub-genre's efforts and should more properly be considered a psychology horror film and a compelling character study of a would-be idealized father and husband and those within his twisted orbit. As opposed to the majority approach of slathering the screen with as many gory kills and as much gratuitous female nudity as they could get away with in order to excite its audience, THE STEPFATHER benefits from a rock-solid script first and foremost, penned by legendary crime author Donald Westlake (aka "Richard Stark," author of the deservedly-famous Parker series), and that effort is capably carried by the entire cast. Terry O'Quin is terrific as the chameleonic "Jerry," being the Ward Cleaver-esque patriarchal ideal in public and around friends and family, but there's always a note of overripe phoniness about his persona that Stephanie twigged to early and has confirmed when she witnesses his assumed-to-be-private freak-out. He's clearly unhinged and it's made quite clear that his veneer of impossible perfection is never too far away from shattering and unleashing a savage monster in the all-too-familiar form of "dad." Hints are given here and there that point to "Jerry" having been brought up in a rigid environment that strictly enforced 1950's-style family values and behaviors, and he also seems to have been heavily and unhealthily influenced by the image of the picture-perfect suburban American family unit put forth by the TV shows of his youth.

There's a lot going on in this film and it deserves rediscovery, especially as a strong counterpoint to the assembly line hack-'em-ups that it landed amidst. I never bothered with either of its two sequels, and I'm almost afraid to out of fear that they would tarnish the memory of this semi-forgotten gem, but maybe someday...

Poster from the theatrical release.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 22: THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (2009) Unrated

The very definition of "unwanted guests."

1972's THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was a landmark in the annals of cinematic nastiness due to its unflinching, no-holds-barred violence, gore, and depravity, bolstered by cinematography that gave its tale of torturous rape and revenge the look and feel of the most low-rent basement-lensed pornography, or a snuff film. It broke new ground in what could be depicted onscreen in thrillers and horror movies, even now, just shy of five decades after its release, the film still holds a savage, genuinely unpleasant power that has been known to unsettle even the most hardened of exploitation mavens and seasoned gorehounds. (To give perspective, it's second only to 1978's infamous I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE as the definitive rape/revenge shocker.) So why bother remaking it? The answer to that is twofold: 

  1.  To presumably cash in the name-recognition.
  2.  Because the filmmakers were creatively bankrupt and had zero by way of original ideas in their heads. 

If you are familiar with the details of the original THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, you already know the plot for this version, so I'll spare you the recap. (For those of you who have not seen it, click here for my review/analysis that includes spoilers.) As this remake came along in the early 2000's, as part of the wave of unnecessary remakes of items that have become cult classics for a reason, I was curious to see just how watered-down it would be when stacked against its brutal template. To put it mildly, the remake, while still quite nasty by the standards of most decent individuals, castrates the 1972 version by slicking-up the production with an aesthetic, cinematography, and overall storytelling that never lets one forget that they are watching a standard cranked-out Hollywood "product" film. Gone is the unsettling snuff film vibe, replaced instead by a standard thriller that could quite casually run at the two-screener in the local mall. No potential grindhouse perennial, this.

"Are we there yet?"

As previously stated, the plot is basically the same as what audiences got 37 years earlier, so we once more get two sweet teen girls attempting to score weed from the wrong people and enduring all manner of horrific abuse from their four captors. This time, however, the junkie son of the tormentors' leader is treated with sympathy as he has clearly been abused all of his life by his awful father, and he survives at the end, a pitiful, burnt-out shell who now must live with the guilt over what transpired with the girls. The girl who is not the daughter of the vengeful parents is the only one of the teen pair who meets her fate at the hands of the fleeing criminals who have kidnapped them, while the other girl is raped but not tortured, and left to die, which allows her parents to find her, so she too survives to the end of the film. The parents, meanwhile, take the killers into their home during a sudden storm, figure out what went down, and exact vengeance that is nowhere near as wrenching and visceral as that found in the 1972 version. 

BREAKING BAD's Aaron Paul gets vile.

 Once the killers are dispatched, with the leader left alive while the family takes the daughter and the abused boy to a hospital for medical attention — dad is himself a surgeon, so after stunning the leader, he paralyzes the villain with some quick surgery, leaving him for when he returns after making sure his daughter is being cared for — dad returns to the site of the mayhem and off the lead villain by sticking his head into an open microwave oven, turning it on, and causing his head to explode. I can't speak for anyone else, but that moment completely took me out of the movie because a properly-working microwave will not function if its door is open. They are built with a fail-safe switch that only allows the unit to work once the latch of the closed door trips the switch. Unless dad came back and did some quick sabotage of the device, which we do not see him do, I call complete and utter bullshit on this.

It's the bland and vanilla wearing a party mask of the savage for the titillation of those too chickenshit for really strong meat, freshly torn from the bloody carcass and straight from the celluloid charnel house. Stick to the original, nasty and vicious though it absolutely is, and skip this flaccid imitation. In fact, I'll give this the ultimate insult that I can muster: This is what you'd get of the Lifetime network tried to get edgy. If I could sit my 87-year-old mother through a LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT remake and she would be fine with watching it, it's a film that has nothing to offer for me or, I would wager, the majority of you reading this.

Poster from the theatrical release.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 21: FRANKENSTEIN AND MONSTER FROM HELL (1974)

More fun with Baron Frankenstein.
 
Having survived the conflagration at the climax of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969), Baron Frankenstein blackmails his way into being the secret power within a mental institution, lording it over the alcoholic and lecherous head administrator and being allowed to treat the patients. Into this scenario is thrust young surgeon Dr. Simon Hedler (Shane Briant), a talented practitioner who seeks to follow in Frankenstein's footsteps by crafting a man from choice components and animating it. Hedler's pilfering of corpses and body parts is discovered and he is sentenced to a minimum of five years in a mental asylum, despite clearly not being insane. Fate lands him at Frankenstein's looney bin and in no time they develop a master/acolyte partnership, aided by the beautiful and mute Sarah (Madeleine Smith, late of1970's  THE VAMPIRE LOVERS), aka "the Angel," and Helder reveals an obsession with the secret of life that rivals his mentor's. 
 
The Baron, the Angel, and padawan.
 
From there it's pretty much what we have come to expect from a Hammer Frankenstein outing, as the Baron slowly lets Helder into his close circle of trust, revealing that he is once more attempting to create life from the dead, only this time garnering his choice parts from the remains of two inmates who expire under, er..."mysterious" circumstances, and using the hairy, hulking body of a homicidal "neolithic" throwback as the main chassis. Resembling a foul-tempered Sasquatch more than a human being, the creature (played by a pre-Darth Vader Dave Prowse) was once a man possessed of inhuman strength and a fascination with glass, which he enjoyed breaking and using to stab his victims in the face. The body, odd though it is, will do, but Frankenstein seeks the hands of an artist (that he lops off of the murdered body of an insane sculptor) and the brain of a genius (a professor of music and advanced mathematics, whose suicide by hanging via his own violin strings was prompted by the Baron making him aware that he would never be released, despite him only being locked up for something minor and curable), and once the Baron obtains them, the shenanigans begin...
 
Shopping for parts.
 
By the time FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL was released, it was pretty obvious that the writing was on the wall for Hammer, as their once-shocking brand was more or less rendered passe by the new permissiveness of onscreen sex and violence — which they had helped to usher in over the previous 17 years — and the flavors of horror shifting away from "adult fairytale Gothic" to outright festivals of carnage like BLOOD FEAST, 2000 MANIACS, and THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. To be honest, and I say this as a Hammer devotee, their best years had been behind them for a while and they had begun to run out of ideas as the 1970's dawned. But at least this final outing for the wicked Baron was a case of the Frankenstein series going out with a bang. There's no sex or nudity in this one, but the story is solid and the lashings of gore are quite vivid and satisfying. 
 
Back in 1974, this sort of thing got you an "R" rating.
 
The Baron is as evil and coldly aristocratic as ever, and it's a delight to see him reduce the hospital's sadistic and corrupt staff to fearful lumps of jelly when he takes them to task for their abuse of the patients. (Including serial torture and rape.) The Baron may be a bastard, but even he will not abide wanton cruelty inflicted upon the clearly helpless and mentally-unwell.

"Pikachu...I choose you!"

The monster is one of the most unique designs for the classic shambling abomination, and Dave Prowse acquits himself nicely with a role dependent more upon his gym-earned physical presence than the sparse amount of lines the creature is given. He's definitely version of the famous creature that no one would ever want to tangle with, what with his super-strength and a mind that is subsumed by the body's natural propensity for mutilating people with glass...

The creature.

When it's all over, the Baron and his accomplices live to cause mayhem and blasphemous crimes against nature another day, with them set in place in their asylum base of operations should the series have continued, but such was not to be. 

As a final entry in a series that had run on and off for 17 years, FRANKENSTEIN AND MONSTER FROM HELL is a lot of fun, though certainly not up to the standards of some of the installments that preceded it. Nonetheless, it's a good entry-level shocker for the older monster kids. (If released today, this would earn a PG-13.)

Poster from the American theatrical release.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 20: NEVER HIKE IN THE SNOW A Friday the 13th Fan Film (2020)

 

Winter sports with Jason Voorhees.

It's the dead of winter and hiker Mark Hill (Courtlan Gordon) makes the fatal mistake of snooping around the abandoned site of Camp Crystal Lake in hope of snapping photos of where all of its infamous murders took place. Unfortunately for him, Jason Voorhees is not just some local legend or boogeyman, which he finds out less than five minutes into the film.

 

Shades of Marian Crane: Our presumed protagonist, less than five minutes into the story. 

The rest of the narrative involves a pair of local cops handling the fallout from Jason murdering the snooping 17-year-old, while Jason retreats to one of the camp's dilapidated cabins and spends quality time with a vision of his doting mother. 

NEVER HIKE IN THE SNOW works quite well as a followup to 2017's impressive NEVER HIKE ALONE, and its filmmakers, fans of the actual FRIDAY THE 13th franchise, have once more crafted a fan film that's better than any of the franchise's actual entries. It's a 30-minute episode that ups the previous effort's ante by trimming all traces of fat, giving us a nasty kill almost immediately, and holding our attention through what follows. Within its short running time the film establishes that Jason is largely considered a local legend, reveals the sheriff to be aware of exactly what he's facing, depicts the horrific fate of a young cop assigned to clean up the scene of Mark's murder, and restores Jason shrine to his mother, a la the one seen to great eerie effect in FRIDAY THE 13th PART II (1981).

 A remembrance of mommy.

It's short and sweet and absolutely worth your 30 minutes, especially if you're a diehard Jason fan.
Promotional image for the film.

Monday, October 19, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 19: THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964)

It had to happen sooner or later...

This third entry in Hammer's Frankenstein series is hands down the weakest of the lot, offering little or nothing new while being surprisingly turgid for on of this studio's efforts from its heyday. To be honest, I fell asleep during the first half-hour while watching it, and upon finishing it I lamented the 84 minutes of my life that I wasted on it and will never get back. It's wholly mediocre and dull, which are two unforgivable sins for any movie, but they especially rankle in a film released by a trusted studio and starring a favorite actor.

THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is so rote, its details barely even merit recounting. The basics of this one amount to "after once more being discovered up to his ghoulish shenanigans and driven out of town, the Baron and his assistant return to his hometown of Karlstaad and once more mayhem and vengeance ensue." It takes the well-worn Frankenstein cliches and just leaves them on the screen in much the same way as one would imagine someone setting a Thanksgiving table with a cheap rubber turkey as the main attraction and expecting those in attendance to be satisfied with it. Peter Cushing returns as the Baron and appears largely bored throughout, nearly all of the surrounding characters are cookie cutter "types" common to Frankenstein movies in general, and the monster looks like it was rejected from a cheap local TV station's "spooky" afternoon kiddie show, or maybe a first pass at Peter Boyle's makeup from YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (only unintentionally humorous).

Kiwi Kingston as the monster.

I've certainly endured worse movies but, as I have said elsewhere, Hammer ste a high standard for itself, so when it issued a dud, it stung. I expect better from them, a lot better, and this one is weak tea at best. Worth seeing only for hammer Frankenstein completists and definitely the sickly runt of the litter. If you opt to skip a Hammer Frankenstein, make it this installment.

Poster from the U.K. theatrical release.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 18: THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)

Taking the concept of "homemade" a tad too far.

Here we are, at the Hammer imprint's Ground Zero. 

Though Britain's Hammer Studios had been around for a while, it was 1957's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN that put them on the map (along with the following year's HORROR OF DRACULA). WWII was only 12 years in the past, so memories of real-life horror were still quite fresh, and it was also the era of the fugue state between the Profumo scandal and England losing its cherry to the sexual and psychedelic excesses of the swinging Sixties, so the U.K. simply was not ready for Hammer's flavor of shocks. The Universal cycle was swiftly becoming an antique during a market dominated by alien invaders and gigantic monstrosities spawned by the dawn of the atomic bomb, so something new was needed to sate audiences. What Hammer brought to the table was lush (some would say garish) color, a pervasive Gothic atmosphere that felt like dark fairytales for grownups, a more "adult" sensibility — remember, the British had just endured WWII, so hiding the nastiness of the world was no longer an option — stories geared more toward the audience's experience as adults, a reasonable amount of "sauce" in the form of generous, heaving bosoms, and the groundbreaking depiction of then-copious amounts of fire engine-red blood (that always looked to me like Sherwin-Williams house paint). Hammer kicked off their horror run proper by reinventing horror's two biggest stars, Frankenstein and Dracula, by putting spins on them that worked from the late-1950's/early-1960's, and in the case of Frankenstein, the focus was shifted from the creature to the creator.

If you have seen pretty much any Frankenstein movie, you know the basic building blocks (and the fact that only the germ of them were cribbed from the classic source novel):

  • Obsessed scientist with a drive to create a living man from the dead bits and pieces of assorted corpses
  • A hapless, misunderstood creature that did not ask to be created, possessed of superhuman strength
  • The robbing of graves and pilfering of necessary organs from medical schools
  • A female character to get in the way of the ghoulish medical shenanigans, often betrothed to the scientist
  • Some sort of rampage by the monster
  • A tragic climax

All of those elements are present in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN,  so there's little need to bother recounting the details of film's plot. All you need to know is that it's the 1800's in Switzerland and we are introduced to the aristocratic Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing, in one of his career-defining roles), a wealthy scientific/medical genius who, with the aid of his tutor-turned-lab partner, Paul (Robert Urquhart), builds a man from random deceased components and seeks to grant it life. The pair discover the secret of life (which is conveniently not explained to the audience) and they have the hanged corpse of a highway man with which to get started. Now, all they need is a decent head and, preferably, the brain of a genius. As things escalate, Paul suffers bouts of conscience, while the baron forges ahead with a single-mindedness that can be read as madness.

 The Baron (Peter Cushing) goes shopping.

Matters are complicated when the Baron's cousin, Elizabeth (Hazel Court), arrives to take up residence at Victor's mansion. The Baron supported her and her mother since she was a child, but now her mother is dead and she has been promised to the Baron in an arranged marriage, which she's totally down with, but her presence throws a hitch into the Baron's ongoing affair with Justine (Valerie Gaunt), his lusty FRench maid. It all comes to head, and once it does, the Baron finds himself awaiting execution by guillotine, recounting his story to a priest in his dungeon cell. 

The film was a massive hit, despite the open revulsion expressed by critics and certain sectors of the general public over its then-shocking bloodiness, medical gore, and mention of the French maid being made out-of-wedlock pregnant by the Baron. Other than those daring elements, it's a well-made but pretty standard Gothic yarn, with its other big difference being that it was made in color, which it certainly took advantage of.

If I have one gripe about the film, it's that its creature, brought to (un) life by Christopher Lee (who, like Cushing, became an icon for his subsequent Hammer roles, most notable his especially evil take on Count Dracula), really doesn't resonate much, other than for his visual aspect.
 

Christopher Lee as one of the most pathetic variations on Frankenstein's monster.

The creature has no personality and does not speak, as the genius brain was severely damaged during an altercation between the Baron and Paul, and it moves with an impaired stiffness that does not allow it to do much. It does manage to escape briefly and shamble about the local woods, but over the course of the story the creature racks up exactly two kills, both offscreen. If you're into Frankenstein movies, then this is definitely not the film for you. Some of us, however, are in it for the monster's creator, and here is where things get interesting.

Peter Cushing, redefining Frankenstein from a mere mad scientist to an obsessed and cruel aristocratic sociopath.

Hammer's stroke of genius with its Frankenstein franchise was making the Baron the true monster of the cycle, and relegating the creature to mostly the role of being a goal to be striven for. The Baron rich and thinks himself beyond the laws of man and the Church, and he will stop at nothing to achieve his ends. Ghoulish grave-robbery and acquisition of fresh organs, abuse of those around him without a second thought, utter disregard for general human compassion and decency, the list goes on and would be further refined as the series progressed. He's a total hateful piece of shit here, but this is just the blossoming of the cold and vicious assholism that he would display further down the line. Cushing is always a delight, but his Baron goes so against his actual nice old man personality, it's astonishing. But, hey, such ifs the pint of acting.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, though rather tepid by today's standards, is a landmark and as such it is worthy of your time. It's not my favorite of the Hammer Frankensteins, but it's certainly a good entry with which to get the ball rolling. A solid origin story and definitely recommended.

Poster for the British theatrical release.