Tuesday, April 22, 2014

#1,345. The Pack (1977)

Directed By: Robert Clouse

Starring: Joe Don Baker, Hope Alexander-Willis, Richard B. Shull

Tag line: "They're not pets anymore"

Trivia: This movie was also released as The Long Dark Night

I first learned about The Pack in 2008, while watching 42nd Street Forever: Vol. 3: Exploitation Explosion, a collection of grindhouse-era trailers released by Synapse video. I was so impressed with the movie’s preview that I immediately searched for a DVD copy of The Pack, only to find one wasn’t yet available. So, every few months, I’d check Amazon.com to see if a release had been announced, and finally, in 2011, it was put out as part of the Warner Archive Collection. Needless to say, I quickly bought a copy, and I'm happy to say I’m not the least bit disappointed I did so; The Pack is a tense, engaging movie.

Seal Island, a popular vacation spot, is in trouble. Every year, tourists flock to the small isle, but before some of them leave, they abandon their dogs, which have become too much trouble to care for. Hungry and with nowhere else to turn, the dogs form into a pack, which, led by a ferocious mongrel, has attacked several people, mauling them to death. Jerry (Joe Don Baker), who recently moved to Seal Island with his wife Millie (Hope Alexander-Willis) and his two sons, first learns of the pack when they kill his beloved German Shepherd. As the attacks become more frequent, Jerry joins forces with his neighbor, Cobb (R.G. Armstrong), and a few others, putting together a daring plan that, if successful, will finish the ravenous canines off, once and for all.

While some of the films he’s appeared in over the years have been a bit suspect (like Congo), Joe Don Baker is, at the very least, always interesting to watch (along with his star-making turn in the original Walking Tall, he was excellent as the hired hit man in director Don Siegel’s criminally underrated 1973 thriller Charley Varrick). As Jerry, the lead character in The Pack, Baker is at his ass-kicking best, and the final showdown between him and the lead mongrel is intense, to say the least. And while the rest of the cast does an adequate job (with the exception of Sherry Miles, who’s beautiful but ineffective as Lois, a young girl brought along on a fishing trip), the supporting ‘character’ that makes the biggest impact is the mongrel, the leader of the dog pack, who’s downright vicious when he’s on the hunt. While leading a nighttime attack against McInnimmee (Delos V. Smith Jr.), a local resident of Seal Island, we get a glimpse of the mongrel as he peers through a window. With a wild look in his eyes and his lips curled in a snarl, it looks like a damn monster, and at that moment, we realize just how dangerous this dog can be.

The Pack is one of several good movies I discovered while watching the 42nd Street Forever trailer collection, which, as of this writing, is a five-volume set (along with Vol. 3, I also liked Vol. 5, with trailers hand-picked by the employees of the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Tx). If you haven’t yet seen any of the 42nd Street Forever DVDs, I strongly recommend you do so.

And after that, check out The Pack.

Monday, April 21, 2014

#1,344. Dolly Dearest (1991)

Directed By: Maria Lease

Starring: Denise Crosby, Sam Bottoms, Rip Torn

Tag line: "She has a life of her own. Now she wants yours"

Trivia: This movie, originally intended as a straight-to-video release, had a brief theatrical run in the U.S. Midwest

When it comes to killer dolls, flicks like Child’s Play and Puppet Master (along with their plethora of sequels) get the bulk of the attention. But there are others worth noting as well, including Magic (a 1978 movie starring Anthony Hopkins and a ventriloquist dummy), Demonic Toys (like Puppet Master, a Charles Wade / Full Moon Production), Stuart Gordon’s 1987 film Dolls, and James Wan’s 2007 scare-fest, Dead Silence (a picture I have serious issues with, but which is pretty damn creepy nonetheless). Dolly Dearest, a 1991 offering directed by Maria Lease, is a lesser-known entry in the horrific dolls sub-genre, a movie that, while it certainly has some problems, is entertaining enough to be mentioned alongside the ones listed above.

When American Elliot Wade (Sam Bottoms) becomes the new owner of a Mexican-based doll factory, he packs up his family: wife Marilyn (Denise Crosby), son Jimmy (Chris Dematral), and daughter Jessica (Candace Hutson), and heads south of the border, where he hopes to make a fortune mass-producing the “Dolly Dearest” toy line. Things take an unexpected turn, however, when archaeologist Karl Resnick (Rip Torn), who’s spent weeks investigating a nearby cave system, accidentally wakes an evil spirit, which flies to the Dolly Dearest factory and possesses one of the many dolls sitting on a shelf. After spotting this doll and claiming it as her own, Jessica falls under its spell, putting the young girl, as well as her entire family, in the greatest of danger.

As I said, Dolly Dearest has its share of problems; along with the pacing, which at times is painfully slow, I found it difficult to accept Rip Torn as a Mexican archaeologist (he’s an actor I admire, but wasn’t the perfect fit for this role). That said, the film does feature a number of effective jump scares (one in particular, set in a basement, really got me), and Candace Hutson gives a decent performance as the daughter who gets a little too cozy with a possessed doll. She’s especially good in the scene where a priest, who was contacted by the family’s maid Camilla (Lupe Ontiveros), shows up to bless the house. Without divulging too much, I can tell you Jessica doesn’t exactly welcome this priest with open arms!

Along with the issues I already touched on, Dolly Dearest also ends miserably, a climactic sequence so preposterous that it had me rolling my eyes. Yet even this didn’t kill the movie for me. Sure, Dolly Dearest will never be regarded as a classic (not even in the somewhat sparse killer doll sub-genre), but it does have its moments.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

#1,343. Thank you Mask Man (1968)

Directed By: John Magnuson

Starring: Lenny Bruce

Trivia: The audio for this film was derived from a recording of one of Lenny Bruce's routines

Like The 2000 Year Old Man, Thank you Mask Man, an animated short originally produced in 1968, contains audio from a live performance in which comedian Lenny Bruce attempts to answer the age-old question: Why did the Lone Ranger never wait around for townspeople to thank him?

Running a scant 8 minutes, Thank You Mask Man begins with Mr. DeAngelo (voiced by Bruce, as are all the characters in this film) trying to show the Lone Ranger some gratitude for saving his town. Each time he attempts to do so, however, the Masked Man rides off, refusing to accept any gifts. After a while, Mr. DeAngelo, whose mother went to the trouble of baking the Lone Ranger a cake, gets pissed off, and orders one of his neighbors to fetch the ungrateful hero and bring him back. When asked why he rides off so quickly, never accepting any thanks, the Lone Ranger launches into a story, the morale of which is he’s afraid too much gratitude will go to his head. With the townsfolk still insisting he accept at least one present for his good deeds, the Lone Ranger finally acquiesces, and makes a very shocking request.

With its abrasive language and an ending that many view as homophobic (while the gay community itself was initially critical of the short, it has since played at a number of gay and lesbian film festivals), Thank You Mask Man was every bit as controversial as the comedian whose work inspired it. In one instance, it’s said the film even cost a Texas theater programmer his job (he was supposedly fired when patrons complained to management that the movie was inappropriate). Yet, while it’s sure to ruffle a few feathers, there’s no denying Thank You Mask Man is a very funny cartoon, featuring Bruce at his rapid-fire best, tossing off jokes and one-liners at an incredible pace (he talks so quickly at times that it took me 3 viewings to figure out what he was saying).

A hilarious spoof of the legendary western hero that also shines a light on such topics as egotism and intolerance, Thank You Mask Man gives us Lenny Bruce at the absolute top of his game, which, in my opinion, is reason enough to see it.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

#1,342. Twins of Evil (1971)

Directed By: John Hough

Starring: Peter Cushing, Dennis Price, Mary Collinson

Tag line: "A new terror-filled X film"

Trivia: Mary Collinson and Madeleine Collinson were from Malta and still had thick Maltese accents. As they had done with other foreign actors, Hammer simply had their dialog replaced by British performers

The final entry in Hammer’s “Karnstein Trilogy” 1971’s Twins of Evil serves as a prequel of sorts to The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Lust for a Vampire (1971). More to the point, Twins of Evil tells a fascinating tale, while at the same time featuring some of the loveliest women ever to appear in a Hammer production.

Following the death of their parents, twin sisters Maria and Freida (Mary and Madeleine Collinson) are sent to live with their Aunt and Uncle, Gustav (Peter Cushing) and Katy Weil (Kathleen Byron). The leader of a fanatically religious brotherhood, Gustav spends his evenings tracking down witches and burning them at the stake. Anton (David Warbeck), a musician whose sister Ingrid (Isobel Black) runs the local schoolhouse, opposes Gustav, accusing him of executing innocent young women without so much as a trial. But Gustav’s most dangerous foe is Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), a member of the aristocracy and an unapologetic Satan worshipper. After performing an ancient ritual, Count Karnstein is transformed into a vampire, and immediately sets his sights on Gustav’s niece, Freida, who, unlike Maria, is every bit as sinister as the Count himself.

Like The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire, Twins of Evil is loosely based on Camilla, a 19th century vampire novel written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Yet, despite the fact it’s primarily a vampire tale, the opening scenes of Twins of Evil focus instead on Gustav Weil and his Brotherhood. As portrayed in these early sequences, Gustav is a monster, a zealot whose strict religious views have clouded his judgment. Oddly enough, when Count Karnstein, the story’s true villain, is first introduced, we actually side with him against Gustav, who had led the Brotherhood into the woods to burn Gerta (Luan Peters), the Count’s concubine and a suspected witch. Of course, once we get to know the Count, we realize he’s the personification of evil, a follower of Satan who tortures pretty young girls to satisfy his own perverse appetites. Soon after the Count joins the ranks of the vampiric undead (his transformation is one of the film’s best scenes), he convinces Freida to join him, and together, the two strike fear into the hearts of everyone in town. It’s at this point Twins of Evil does a complete 180, making Gustav and his Brotherhood the heroes, and putting us in the unusual position of rooting for a character we have come to detest. Damien Thomas is deliciously menacing as the Count, but it’s Cushing who delivers the movie’s most convincing performance, portraying a man who’s dedicated his life to fighting the Devil, only to discover a member of his own family is one of the Dark Prince’s most ardent disciples.

Yet as well-told as its story is, the most memorable aspect of Twins of Evil is its cast of beautiful women, beginning with the twins themselves. Mary and Madeleine Collinson (who, the year before, became the 1st set of identical twins to do a spread for Playboy magazine) play Maria and Freida, and are stunningly gorgeous, something they have in common with pretty much every young woman appearing in this film. Made at a time when Hammer was experimenting with more risqué material, Twins of Evil is an entertaining horror movie, but it’s also a very sexy one.

Friday, April 18, 2014

#1,341. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

Directed By: Charles Lamont

Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Marie Windsor

Tag line: "They're back -- in their mummy's arms!"

Trivia: This was Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's 28th and final film for Universal Pictures

After watching them take on three Universal monsters in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, I figured the next logical step was to follow the comedy duo to Egypt, where they're chased and tormented by an ancient mummy and a handful of very dangerous (and very mortal) adversaries.

After overhearing Egyptian archaeologist Dr. Zoomer (Kurt Katch) discuss his latest find, the mummy of Klaris, with some reporters, Bud and Lou decide to offer their services by acting as bodyguards for the mummy’s upcoming trip to America. Little do they know that two other groups are also interested in the doctor’s most recent discovery, including the followers of Klaris, led by Semu (Richard Deacon), who have sworn to protect the mummy at all costs (according to legend, Klaris is the guardian of Princess Asa’s tomb, where untold riches still lie). At the same time, an ambitious businesswoman named Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) wants to get her hands on the sacred medallion of Klaris, which supposedly reveals where the Princess and her treasure are buried. But when our bumbling heroes locate the medallion first, they find themselves running for their lives from both parties, as well as one very angry mummy.

Released in 1955, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy proved to be the final movie the pair would make for Universal Studios, and, unfortunately, the two were showing their age. As it is with all of their outings, Lou Costello suffers the brunt of the abuse (in the opening scene, the boys visit the Café Bagdad, and as they sit quietly at their table, a female acrobat performing on-stage is tossed into Costello’s lap, causing his chair to shatter into a dozen pieces), yet his energy level is noticeably lower than it had been in previous films (which becomes apparent during a later scene, where he’s running through an underground chamber). What’s more, the witty banter that made Abbott and Costello household names is sorely lacking (I liked the “mummy” discussion early on, when Costello is shocked to learn “some mummies can be men”, but an exchange involving a shovel and pick, designed to resemble their famous “Who’s on First” routine, falls flat well before it’s over).

Still, like any Abbott and Costello outing, there are laughs to be found in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy; the sequence mentioned above, where Costello is running through the underground chamber, ends with him sliding about 10 feet across a polished marble floor, and an earlier scene, where he and Abbott are looking around Dr. Zoomer’s house, has its moments as well (the funniest of which involves a tape recorder). So, despite the fact the pair had lost a step, they still managed to turn their encounter with the mummy into a pretty good time.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

#1,340. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (2002)

Directed By: Rolf Forsberg

Starring: Pierce Brosnan

Trivia: This hour-long documentary is narrated by Pierce Brosnan

The Great Pyramid of Giza. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia. The Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The Colossus of Rhodes. The Pharos, or lighthouse, of Alexandria. These marvels of antiquity constitute what are today referred to as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and while only one (the Pyramid at Giza) is still standing, the legacies of all seven have been passed down through the ages, and remain as awe-inspiring today as they were to the conquerors and historians who first visited them thousands of years ago.

Narrated by Pierce Brosnan, The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World travels to the areas where these structures once stood, and, relying on historical re-enactments and digital effects, recreates all seven, displaying them in all their glory. Along with these trips into the past, we also hear from scholars and engineers who, over the course of this hour-long documentary, offer their own theories on how these spectacles were constructed in the first place. The video then draws comparisons between these ancient structures and modern marvels, such as the Statue of Liberty and the glass Pyramid outside the Louvre in Paris, showing that, even if the wonders themselves have disappeared, their influence lives on. 

Being something of a history buff, I found The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World a fascinating watch, and especially enjoyed the segment dedicated to the Temple of Mausolus, which, for me, has always been the most amazing of the group (it’s from this Wonder that we get the modern term Mausoleum). Looking at it objectively, however, The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World might prove tedious for those who don’t share my interest; the recreations are nothing spectacular and the various digital effects were obviously done on the cheap. But if you’re like me, and enjoy documentaries that explore the ancient past, then this is a movie you’ll definitely want to check out.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

#1,339. We Are What We Are (2013)

Directed By: Jim Mickle

Starring: Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner

Tag line: "Blood is the strongest bond"

Trivia: This film screened in the Directors' Fortnight section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival

Being a fan of both Mulberry St. and Stake Land, I couldn’t wait to see what writer/director Jim Mickle was going to come up with next. As it turns out, his third feature, We Are What We Are, is a remake of a 2010 Mexican film (of the same name) by Jorge Michael Grau. Yet, despite the fact Mickle’s version shares thematic elements with Grau’s movie, 2013’s We Are What We Are takes the story in a very different (and altogether fascinating) direction.

At first glance, Frank Parker (Bill Sage) and his family seem perfectly normal, but the truth is they’re hiding a terrible secret, one that centers on a religious ceremony passed down from generation to generation for well over 200 years. Days before this ritual is to be performed, Emma (Kassie DePaiva), Frank’s wife and the mother of his 3 children: Rose (Julia Garner); Iris (Ambyr Childers); and Rory (Jack Gore), unexpectedly dies, leaving Rose and Iris to assume her responsibilities in the upcoming ceremony. But when a torrential rainstorm threatens to reveal their secret, Frank must take drastic measures to protect both his family and their chosen way of life.

Director Mickle approaches We Are What We Are much differently than he did either Mulberry St. or Stake Land in that he doesn’t provide any background information on his characters or their story, choosing instead to drop his audience smack dab in the middle of things, and then challenge them to keep up. Aside from a few subtle hints early on that all is not right with the Parkers (from how they communicate with one another to the subservient nature of the two daughters, which stems more from a fear of their father than it does parental respect), Mickle takes his time revealing what it is that makes the family so unique. This adds a level of mystery, but it also shows Jim Mickle’s confidence as a filmmaker, building his story in such a way that, even if we’re not sure what’s going on, we want to know more, and are willing to wait patiently as he pulls back the curtain, ever so slowly, to expose the truth.

Featuring marvelous cinematography, some top-notch performances (especially Garner and Childers, who are near perfect as the daughters forced to participate in something they’re not ready for), and a shocking finale that will leave you speechless, We Are What We Are is a rarity in modern horror: a remake that looks and feels like a completely original film.