Wednesday, October 22, 2014

31 Days of Halloween - Day 22 - Movie 1

Christina Ricci plays Fall River's notorious ax murderer in the Lifetime original tv movie, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (2014) a historical drama revisiting the murder of Lizzie's parents and the trial that followed. Despite having a good cast, this movie is a dreadful bore. It seems to drag on forever, as if somewhere along the way they discovered that this story isn't really that interesting and could be summed up in about twenty minutes instead. In an attempt to inject some life into any scene that involves people walking outside, riding in a carriage, or just standing outside on the street, modern music that would sound at home in a Jack Daniel's commercial is played over these scenes. This choice was a bad one and only draws attention to itself since the music in no way enhances the scenes in a way that's pertinent to the story.

This may not be the worst movie I watch this month, but I doubt any other movie is going to prove to be more tedious to sit through.

31 Days of Halloween - Day 22

Leila Hyams, 1930.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

31 Days of Halloween - Day 21 - Movie 2

A tarantula injected with a synthetic super food nutrient breaks loose from the lab and continues to grow wreaking havoc on a small desert community.

Like Empire of the Ants (see previous entry), Tarantula (1955) mainly relies on combining photography of an actual tarantula with live action plates (and the occasional close up of a full size mock-up spider), but the effects in Tarantula still look amazing. It doesn't hurt that the story is better and the characters, while being a bit thinner as dimensional characters, are more engaging and likable. John Agar, as is often the case, plays the earnest young scientist. Model/actress Mara Corday is the love interest and scientific assistant to the man behind the synthetic super food nutrient (Leo G. Carroll), who in a b plot is also breeding monsters of the human variety in a series of disfiguring side effects when the nutrient is injected into humans. This fun monster movie is one of the last classics to come out of Universal Studios, and one of my favorites. The score by Ronald Stein is also top notch.

31 Days of Halloween - Day 21 - Movie 1

Joan Collins plays a shady real estate developer who takes potential clients to an island in the hopes of selling them beach front property. Little does she, or her guests, know that the island is overrun with giant ants.

Bert I. Gordon (The Amazing Colossal Man, Beginning of the End, Food of the Gods) continues his cinematic fascination with giant creatures with Empire of the Ants (1977) loosely based on a story by H.G. Wells. Formulaic by way of 1970s disaster movies in which a cross section of personality types are introduced so we can fathom who they are, then the horrible element is introduced and the characters are picked off one by one. It's schlocky, but somewhat entertaining. Coming out the same year as Star Wars, which really upped the ante on special effects, the effects here are awful when they fail, such as the transparent superimposed ants, but actually pretty damned good when they work out. The effects are a combination of macrophotography of actual ants inserted into footage of actors, or on miniature sets, mixed with full sized ant props which are shaken at the actors by off screen crew members. The story itself isn't all that interesting, or new, until very late in the film when it introduces an interesting plot development. By the time this comes to the forefront though, the movie is pretty much over.

If you like other 1970s nature gone mad films like Day of the Animals and Frogs, you may get a kick out of this. Everyone else though would be much better off watching Them! (1954)

31 Days of Halloween - Day 21

Myrna Loy

Monday, October 20, 2014

31 Days of Halloween - Day 20 - Movie 2

Bela Lugosi is definitely the star of The Corpse Vanishes (1942) as a horticulturist who uses an orchid of his own creation to put young women about to be married into suspended animation simulating death. He then steals these "corpses" and whisks them off to his laboratory so that he can extract fluids from the young women to inject into his aging wife in order to keep her beautiful. He is aided by a family of creeps. Luana Walters plays a reporter uncovering the secret behind the stolen dead brides.

This is a pretty ludicrous movie, even for poverty row, but it is pretty fun to watch. The diversity of the elements involved keeps it pretty interesting, and there's some novelty in the orchestration involved in turning the brides into "corpses" and then abducting them. Elizabeth Russell is an actress with a very otherworldly aura about her, which makes her perfect as Lugosi's ailing wife here, just as it benefitted her in movies such as Cat People and Weird Woman. This is no classic, but it's good for a late rainy night.

31 Days of Halloween - Day 20 - Movie 1

Today is Bela Lugosi's birthday, so, as per usual, I try to watch at least one of his movies in his honor. First up is Black Friday (1940) which sounds like he and Boris Karloff should be racing for hot ticket items at one of the big box retail stores on the day after Thanksgiving. Really though, Karloff plays a doctor who attempts to save his friend, a kindly literature professor, by transferring the brain of a dying gangster into his head. The professor suffers from a few back and forth Jekyll and Hyde moments as the dead gangster's personality takes over set on revenge against the criminals who killed him, including  Bela Lugosi in a small role (even though he gets second billing). There's also the matter of a lot of hidden money, which Karloff's character wants to get his hands on for his own experiments.

This is an okay movie with some really wonky logic in it, but it plays pretty well if you're willing to completely suspend disbelief and go along with it. This movie is really a showcase for actor, Stanley Ridges who plays both the professor and his Hyde character as two very distinct characters, even physically. He does a real good job, too. If you're looking for some classic Lugosi/Karloff chills, this isn't going to be the movie to provide them.

31 Days of Halloween - Day 20

Nan Grey

Sunday, October 19, 2014

31 Days of Halloween - Day 19 - Movie 2

Radio crime reporter, Bob Hope and his assistant Willie Best find themselves travelling to Cuba in order to protect Paulette Goddard from a murder threat and ghosts and zombies with a haunted castle she has inherited.

The Ghost Breakers (1940) is a successful horror comedy not quite on par with Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, but still a highly enjoyable viewing experience. There's plenty of Scooby-Doo like shenanigans, a creepy zombie and ghost, and a number of guest stars ranging from Richard Carlson to Paul Lukas and Anthony Quinn. The castle set is great, and this movie was one of the inspirations for Disney's Haunted Mansion.

31 Days of Halloween - Day 19 - Movie 1

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) moves its story from a small town to a state of the art skyscraper in Manhattan, where Gizmo gets wet spawning more mogwais who eat after midnight turning into gremlins, which get wet spawning more gremlins and so on. This time things are complicated by an on site genetics lab where some of the gremlins are able to ingest formulas that merge them with spiders, bats, vegetables, and electricity. There's even a gremlin who increases his intelligence and becomes voiced by Tony Randall. Much of the original cast is back and together they must keep the gremlins contained within the building until they can develop the means to destroy them.

Somehow, I've never seen this movie until now. It was a real mixed bag for me. While I admired the social commentary and satire, sight gags, and the numerous homages to various pop culture touchstones, the gremlins themselves were really irritating. Joe Dante decided to go for a more cartoony approach than in the first movie, and Rick Baker came up with a lot of individualized gremlins that fit the bill, but their silly slapstic and screaming was like trying to watch an hour and a half of Tazmanian Devil cartoons if you removed Bugs Bunny from them. Gizmo was strangely absent from most of the movie with much of his screen time a build up to a one note bit based off of a movie scene, much like Gizmo's race car scenes from the original movie, only here it's not nearly as endearing.

31 Days of Halloween - Day 19

Ida Lupino

Saturday, October 18, 2014

31 Days of Halloween - Day 18 - Movie 2

Baron Boris von Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) creates the means of ultimate destruction and summons all of earth's monsters (except one) to his island castle in order to announce his discovery and his retirement as leader of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters, a role he plans to pass on to his clueless, human, nephew Felix. This leads to a number of the monsters and Frankenstein's assistant, Francesca, scheming to get their hands on the secret formula for themselves.

Mad Monster Party (1967) was created by the same people that brought us Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other beloved holiday classics. Like Rudolph, Mad Monster Party was created using stop motion animation on miniature sets with characters designed by Jack Davis. There are also a number of musical numbers.

Unlike Rudolph, and most of the other Rankin/Bass classics, Mad Monster Party has never won me over. I love stop motion animation and think it's a perfect choice for this film. I love the character designs and the sets too. I just think the characters themselves and the story (written by Harvey Kurtzman and Len Korobkin) are a bit flat and uninteresting, especially for a feature length movie that was clearly padded out to extend its running time with several scenes in the middle that serve no other purpose. This is similar to my reaction to A Nightmare Before Christmas. Both of these movies feature lots of things that appeal to me and I feel that I should love them, but I don't. The biggest problem here is that Felix is such an unlikable dweeb that it's hard to root for him and harder to believe in the romance that develops between him and Francesca.

I'm a big fan of Rankin/Bass, but as much as I want to love this movie, it just doesn't do much for me beyond the visuals.

31 Days of Halloween - Day 18 - Movie 1

Andy (Alex Vincent) receives a "Good Guy" doll named Chucky for his sixth birthday little knowing that his new best friend is really the soul of a voodoo practicing serial killer (Brad Dourif) inhabiting the doll until he can transfer his soul to the first person he revealed himself to in this form -- Andy.

I haven't seen Child's Play (1988) since it's opening weekend and I don't think I've ever seen any of the sequels. On its own, this film holds up really well. It maintains a sense of logic that is absent from many genre films these days and the suspense isn't built upon people being stupid. In fact a few characters catch on the what's going on pretty quickly, but how to convince anyone who can do anything that a living killer doll is responsible for a pair of violent crimes which are being attributed to Andy. The film really revolves around the relationship between lonely Andy and his mother, and Andy and Chucky instead of a gimmick, which makes almost heartbreaking when Andy realizes that Chucky never really was his friend to the end.

31 Days of Halloween - Day 18

Lillian Wells

Friday, October 17, 2014

31 Days of Halloween - Day 17 - Movie 2

After the still birth of their third child, a couple (Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard) decide to adopt nine-year old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) an adorable, polite and precocious child hiding a dangerous secret which tears her new family apart.

Orphan (2009) is one of those movies that depends on characters acting stupidly in order to sustain its running time. It also chalks up a lot of obvious creepy bad seed child moments that don't challenge the audience either. In spite of all of that, I actually enjoyed this movie quite a bit. The adult characters are all played by very talented actors, but it's really Isabelle Fuhrman and Aryana Engineer as the younger, deaf daughter, Max, who make this movie worth watching. Not only do they both give outstanding performances, but their onscreen relationship is what holds the whole movie together and makes what otherwise would have been a completely mundane movie rise above it's clichés into something that kept me, at least, engaged throughout.


31 Days of Halloween - Day 17 - Movie 1

Thirteen-year old Lila (Cheryl Smith) the beloved singer in a church, receives a letter from a woman named Lemora (Lesley Gilb) telling her that she needs to come visit her gangster father before he dies. Lila leaves the reverend she lives with to do so, because she feels it's the good Christian thing to do. Her trip is like one long weird fairy tale journey into the haunted forest, or through the underworld. The town where she needs to catch her bus is populated by the dregs of human society, and the bus is meant for her alone. The bus is assaulted along the way by strange, formerly human creatures. From there Lila is dropped into the hands of witches and vampires including a batch of creepy undead children. Lemora is an odd, distant, cold, beauty like one of Disney's evil queens by way of Dracula's daughter, and her interactions with Lila are a predatory lesbian seduction. Each time Lila's will is tested, she takes strength in her beliefs as a Christian to turn away from sin, leading one to suspect that this movie is really a cautionary tale for teenagers thinking of running away from home made by a religious organization. That is until the end of the movie.

Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973) is an odd movie. It's pretty amateurish in its production, screenwriting, and much of its acting, but it never seems laughable. In fact it's really compelling to watch. The various creatures on screen have pretty rough make-up, so that I couldn't honestly tell you how many different types of monsters there are. There could be vampires, werewolves, and whatever those things were that attacked the bus, or they could all be vampires. Instead of being a detriment, this is a real strength. The no frills make-up seem to make these creatures a bit disturbing, as does the choice of sound effects applied to them to create their growling and snarling. Likewise, the vampire children, who look like normal kids, only their laughter is too loud and obviously not coming from them, making it far creepier. The one touch to make the kids physically monstrous is a nice surprise, and not over the top. Lesley Gilb as Lemora is the best part of the movie. There's a very quiet stillness to her predatory role, making her seem like a spider slowly trying to draw her prey across her web to where she can snatch it. She never even seems to blink, adding a further hypnotic element to her performance.

I think people will either love, or hate this movie, but it will stick with them either way.

31 Days of Halloween - Day 17

Betty Grable

Thursday, October 16, 2014

31 Days of Halloween - Day 16 - Movie 2

Hammer tackles the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), in which the obsessed scientist played by Paul Massie uncovers a means of unleashing his inner dark side in the form of Mr. Hyde (also Paul Massie).

Hammer played against expectations by making Jekyll the hirsute unattractive one and Hyde the clean cut handsome one. While Hyde is a loathsome, sadistic, sociopathic, hedonist and completely unlikable,   Jekyll's no one to root for either. He cares nothing for anyone except his experiments. His inattention to his wife has driven her into the arms of his alleged friend, Paul Allen (nicely played by Christopher Lee) who also sponges off Jekyll's generosity, using the scientist to pay off his own huge gambling debts. There are no characters to sympathize with, or root for here. The bulk of the supporting characters are criminals, drunks, prostitutes, and self centered hedonists like Hyde, including a young Oliver Reed.

Terrence Fisher's direction is up to his usual high standard with nice use of color and staging that takes advantage of the depth of the sets by using foreground, middle ground and background to tell the story. Unfortunately all of the colorful Can-Can girls and other visual spectacle cannot elevate this movie beyond a well made curiosity. Attempts at suggesting a love story, and setting up a tragedy are wasted because the love is between back stabbing adulterers, and tragedy befalls characters who seem to deserve what they get.  The problem really comes down to neither of Dr. Jekyll's two faces being part of a character we care about.

31 Days of Halloween - Day 16 - Movie 1

On her 21st birthday, Janet (Gloria Talbott) visits her benefactor (Arthur Shields) and learns that she's the daughter of the infamous Dr. Jekyll, and that his lycanthropy might be hereditary. She then begins to experience strange dreams in which a feral version of herself is slaying people who are found dead the next day. She becomes more and more troubled, and the locals more and more determined to destroy her. Only her fiancé (John Agar) believes her innocent and must find out the truth before it's too late.

There are a number of goofy elements to this film, and it's six day shooting schedule kept this from becoming a masterpiece, but Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) has a few things going for it. Director, Edgar G. Ulmer brings plenty of strong visuals to the film from fog shrouded woods and mansions to Janet's weird dreams. Gloria Talbott also turns in her best performance aside from her outstanding performance in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) as a woman falling apart from the strain of wondering if she changes into a killer monster at night. Bewildering is John Agar's striped jacket which makes him look like he should be selling ice cream.

31 Days of Halloween - Day 16

Dusty Anderson, 1945.