Thursday, November 16, 2017

#2,463. The Screaming Skull (1958)


Directed By: Alex Nicol

Starring: John Hudson, Peggy Webber, Russ Conway



Tag line: "WARNING!... This Ghost Will Haunt You Forever!"

Trivia: Though it is never credited, the film is based on Francis Marion Crawford's classic 1905 horror story of the same title








The Screaming Skull, a 1958 low-budget horror film, opens with a gimmick worthy of William Castle himself. 

A small set is decorated with flowers, and there’s a coffin smack-dab in the middle of it. A narrator then chimes in:

The Screaming Skull is a motion picture that reaches its climax in shocking horror”, he says. “Its impact is so terrifying that it may have an undesired effect. It may kill you. Therefore, its producers feel they must assure free burial services to anyone who dies of fright while seeing The Screaming Skull”. 

With that, the coffin opens, revealing a sign inside that reads “Reserved for you”. 

Well, despite this cryptic warning, I did survive my viewing of The Screaming Skull, and while it isn’t scary enough to give you heart palpitations, there are one or two moments towards the end that, at the very least, might make your pulse race a bit. 

Newlyweds Eric (John Hudson) and Jenni (Peggy Webber) have just arrived at Eric’s spacious country estate, where he once lived with his first wife Marion. Marion, it seems, died tragically a while back, and though Eric initially thought his heart perished with her, he found love again with Jenni, a kindly if somewhat timid heiress with a history of mental illness. 

Her personal demons aside, Jenni is determined to be happy, and even tries to make friends with simple-minded gardener Mickey (played by director Alex Nicol), who was very close with Eric’s first wife. 

But the longer they stay in the house, the more convinced Jenni becomes that something otherworldly is trying to scare her away. Is Marion tormenting Jenni from beyond the grave, upset that another woman has taken her place? Is Mickey causing all the chaos in an effort to keep Marion’s memory alive? Or is Jenni simply losing her mind? 

It takes a while for the real scares in The Screaming Skull to kick in (early on, the most frightening things that occur are a few bumps in the night, and a scene in which Jenni finds a portrait of Marion, which appeared suddenly in an upstairs room). In fact, I was able to figure out who was putting poor Jenni through the ringer well before the movie’s intense climax (I’m not bragging; odds are you’ll solve the riddle as easily as I did). 

What I can’t quite settle on is whether or not the film’s wild ending justifies its mundane build-up. The early scenes aren’t entirely devoid of thrills, but then the finale isn’t nearly as earth-shattering as that of Friday the 13th or Sleepaway Camp (for as slow as most of the movie is, though, the ending of The Screaming Skull is admittedly kinda cool). 

Ultimately, I’d say The Screaming Skull is worth checking out once (it’s a little more than an hour long, so the time commitment will be minimal). Just don’t expect to be blown away.







#2,462. The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)


Directed By: John Landis

Starring: Evan C. Kim, Bong Soo Han, Bill Bixby




Tag line: "This movie is totally out of control!"

Trivia: This movie inspired German Director Uwe Boll to make his feature film debut, German Fried Movie









Directed by John Landis and written by the team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (the creative minds behind 1980’s Airplane), The Kentucky Fried Movie is a mishmash of bawdy, often crude media-related skits that are guaranteed to make you laugh. 

With everything from commercials (including one for a headache relief medicine starring Bill Bixby) to movie trailers (the best, and most outlandish, being the preview for Catholic High School Girls in Trouble); and morning news shows (during a segment for A.M. Today, the host and a few others are attacked by an angry, somewhat embarrassed gorilla) to educational films (you won't believe how many things are made out of Zinc Oxide), The Kentucky Fried Movie is a collection of short films designed to tickle your funny bone. There’s even a “full-length” feature: A Fistful of Yen, which borrows heavily from both the Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon and 1939’s The Wizard of Oz

Some familiar faces pop up occasionally; along with Bill Bixby, there are cameo appearances by Donald Sutherland (in the trailer for the disaster film That’s Armageddon), Henry Gibson (presenting the extremely tasteless, but oh-so hilarious commercial “The United Appeal for the Dead”), and George Lazenby (another cast member of That’s Armageddon). Fans of Airplane will spot funnyman Stephen Stucker (aka Johnny in the 1980 comedy) as a court stenographer during the black-and-white docudrama Courtroom (which also features Tony Dow, reprising his role as Wally from the old Leave it to Beaver TV series); and the trio of writers responsible for The Kentucky Fried Movie turn up once or twice as well, most notably as technicians in the final segment Eyewitness News, where they get an eyeful of more than they bargained for! 

Landis would go on to make another film much like The Kentucky Fried Movie: 1987’s Amazon Women on the Moon. Of the two, though, I think I prefer The Kentucky Fried Movie. Both films have their moments, but this 1977 offering pushes the envelope a lot further, and much more often, than Amazon Women on the Moon, resulting in a motion picture that’s likely to offend a large portion of its audience. 

But even if The Kentucky Fried Movie does make you cringe a few times, odds are you won’t notice because you’ll be laughing too hard.







#2,461. Terror in a Texas Town (1958)


Directed By: Joseph H. Lewis

Starring: Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly


Tag line: "When the Texas Plains Ran With Blood and Black Gold!"

Trivia: Co-star Nedrick Young wrote much of the script, but b/c he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, he was not credited for it







Anyone who is a fan of western movies loves a good showdown scene, yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen one as unusual as what transpires in 1958’s Terror in a Texas Town

A hired killer, dressed in black, stands at the end of the street while his opponent, the film’s hero, walks towards him, followed by just about every honest man in town. We know right away that a showdown is coming, only the hero isn’t packing a traditional sidearm. No, he’s carrying a whaling spear! 

You heard me right… a whaling spear, and that little surprise is one of several elements that helps lift this otherwise humdrum western to a whole different level.

The hero is George Hansen (Sterling Hayden), a Swedish sailor who traveled to Prairie City, Texas, to live with his father Sven (Ted Stanhope), owner of a small farm just outside of town. Unfortunately, George arrived a few days too late; his father was recently gunned down by Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young), an outlaw employed by wealthy landowner Mr. McNeil (Sebastian Cabot). 

McNeil hopes to “persuade” the farmers and settlers to move away as quickly as possible (McNeil claims he has a grant proving he owns the entire area, and he wants every man, woman, and child gone before they realize how much oil is flowing beneath their feet). Most of the locals have been living there for 20 years or more, and refuse to budge, which is where Johnny Crale fits into the picture. As a warning to everyone else, McNeil had Johnny shoot Sven dead, a cold-blooded murder witnessed by Hansen’s nearest neighbor Jose Mirada (Victor Millan) and Mirada’s young son Pepe (Eugene Mazzola). 

Still, despite what’s happened, George Hansen has made it known that he intends to stick around a while; having sent money to his father each and every month, George now feels the property is as much his as it was Sven’s. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with McNeil or Johnny Crale, but will George be forced to face them on his own, or will the other farmers finally band together and fight McNeil and his team of killers? 

From a stylistic standpoint, Terror in a Texas Town has the look and feel of a TV movie, with basic set-ups and not much camera movement (immediately after making this film, its director, Joseph H. Lewis, would spend the remainder of his career working in television). Story-wise, it also treads in familiar territory (greedy land grabs, hired guns, revenge, etc), but what distinguishes this 1958 film from others of its ilk are its characters, some of whom are incredibly dark. 

Even the love interests have an edge to them; Johnny’s live-in girlfriend Molly (Carol Kelly) lets Johnny walk all over her, absorbing the verbal abuse he heaps upon her day and night, not because she loves him, but because being around someone like Johnny gives her a feeling of superiority, something she has yet to experience with any other person she’s ever met. Even McNeil doesn’t really like Johnny, keeping him around only to finish the job that needs doing (the various meetings between the two so-called “partners” are some of the film’s most contentious moments). As for Johnny himself (played wonderfully by Nedrick Young), we sense that his spirit died a long time ago. Now he’s just going through the motions, killing dispassionately without a care in the world, which makes him the most frightening character in the entire movie. 

On the other side of the coin, Sterling Hayden is perfectly believable as the strong-willed George (though he faces Johnny with a whale spear, we never feel as if George is at a disadvantage), and Ted Stanhope shines in his brief appearance as George’s equally determined father. In a film where everything else seems routine, the characters that inhabit Terror in a Texas Town are anything but, and it is thanks of them that this movie is so damned engrossing.







#2,460. Sugar Hill (1974)


Directed By: Paul Maslansky

Starring: Marki Bey, Robert Quarry, Don Pedro Colley



Tag line: "She's sweet as sugar... with a voodoo army of the undead!"

Trivia: The "Voodoo Museum and Research History" building is in fact, the Heights Branch of the Houston Public Library








‘70s Blaxploitation with a supernatural bent, director Paul Maslansky’s Sugar Hill merges the story of a lover’s quest for revenge with voodoo and zombies, resulting in a surprisingly satisfying crime / horror flick. 

Club owner Langston (Larry Don Johnson) refuses to sell his business to mob boss Morgan (Robert Quarry). So, Morgan decides to eliminate Langston once and for all, sending his goons, including Tank Watson (Rick Hagood), O’Brien (Ed Geldart), and Fabulous (Charles Robinson), to kill him in the parking lot of his own club. 

Distraught by the death of her lover, Langston’s fiancée Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey) vows to take revenge on his killers, and asks Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), an elderly voodoo priestess, for help. Though reluctant at first to assist a ‘non-believer’, Mama Maitresse eventually agrees, and summons the voodoo God Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who in turn allows Sugar Hill to command his army of the undead. With dozens of immortal zombies at her disposal, Sugar Hill starts picking off Morgan’s men, one-by-one, all the while dodging questions from police detective (and her former boyfriend) Valentine (Richard Lawson), who with each new murder becomes increasingly convinced that an unnatural force is at work, and that Sugar Hill is somehow at the center of it all. 

Like Coffy and Foxy Brown, Sugar Hill sets up the revenge portion of its story in the early going, showing us Langston’s run-in with Morgan’s gang, followed almost immediately by his murder (the scene ends with Sugar Hill cradling Langston’s dead body and sobbing uncontrollably). 

But the moment that Zara Cully’s Mama Maitresse conjures up Baron Samedi, Sugar Hill takes a turn towards the bizarre, and the stranger the movie gets, the more interesting it becomes; the film's best scene is when Baron Samedi orders his zombie followers to rise from their graves. Also pretty cool are the ingenious ways that Sugar Hill and the zombies finish off Morgan’s men, each one facing a particularly gruesome end (one is fed to some very hungry pigs, and another is forced, via a voodoo ritual, to commit suicide with a dagger). 

Though the supporting performances are hit and miss, both Marki Bey (as Sugar Hill) and Don Pedro Colley (as the always-exuberant Baron Samedi) are excellent in their respective roles; and the look of the zombies themselves is darn creepy (especially their silver eyes). Toss in a not-too-convincing-but-still-kinda-hot catfight between Sugar Hill and Morgan’s busty girlfriend Celeste (Betty Anne Rees) and a final showdown in the swamps that will make your skin crawl, and you have a Blaxploitation / Horror mash-up that’s sure to entertain.







#2,459. Popcorn (1991)


Directed By: Mark Herrier

Starring: Jill Schoelen, Tom Villard, Dee Wallace




Tag line: "Buy a bag, go home in a box"

Trivia: Director Alan Ormsby was replaced after three weeks of principal photography by Mark Herrier









As a film fan, I can’t help but love 1991’s Popcorn. A late addition to the slasher genre that also dips its toes in supernatural waters, Popcorn pays tribute to the great William Castle, and even has a few familiar faces among its supporting cast. Throw in a rollicking reggae soundtrack (the entire film was shot in Jamaica) and you have a movie that, even when it isn’t perfect, is always a hell of a lot of fun.

To raise money for their fledgling film club, a group of college students follow the advice of senior member Toby (Tom Villard) and host their very own horror movie festival. 

After renting the theater (which is weeks away from being demolished), the students, aided by master showman Dr. Mnesyne (Ray Walston), begin their preparations, knowing full well that the only way they can make the movies (a trio of 3rd-rate sci-fi / horror films from the ‘50s and ‘60s) more appealing is by relying on some William Castle-like gimmickry (electric buzzers in the seats, odor pellets released through an air duct, etc). 

Yet what starts as a good, wholesome bit of merriment quickly takes a dark turn when Toby discovers a short film stashed among Dr. Mnesyne’s props. The movie, made over 20 years earlier by a cult leader / killer named Lanyard Gates (Matt Falls), aka “The Possessor”, contains images eerily similar to those that Maggie (Jill Schoelen), one of the students, has been experiencing in a recent string of nightmares. While Maggie herself finds it all terribly exciting (she’s convinced her warped dreams have the makings of a great horror flick), her mother Suzanne (Dee Wallace) is more than a little worried, and tries to convince her daughter to forget about the festival and leave town altogether. 

What is Maggie’s connection to “The Possessor”, and is she truly in as much danger as her mother believes? The answers to these questions will eventually be revealed, but only after innocent blood has been spilled. 

With its tale of a murderous cult leader who supposedly rose from the dead, Popcorn offers viewers a few supernatural-inspired thrills (the best of which occurs when Dee Wallace’s Suzanne visits the darkened movie theater, prepared to do battle with “The Possessor”). In addition, the kill scenes (which, admittedly, are more creative than gory) harken back to the slashers that were so popular in the previous decade. 

Yet, for me, the strongest sequences in Popcorn are its “films within a film”, snippets from those movies shown during the festival, including Mosquito (a take on the giant bug flicks of the 1950’s), The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man, and The Stench, a Japanese import that relies on a gimmick similar to Odorama. All are cheesy as hell (Mosquito stars a flying bug that’s obviously moving along a wire), but their cheesiness only adds to our enjoyment of them, and I found myself wishing that all three of these mock movies actually existed. 

Along with Ray Walston and Dee Wallace, Popcorn also features Tony Roberts in the role of Mr. Davis, the teacher who helps Toby, Maggie and the others get their horror festival off the ground. As for the students themselves, all are competently portrayed, and most of the movie’s humor is a direct result of their shenanigans (especially good are Elliott Hurst as the wheelchair-bound Leon and Ivette Solar as Joanie, who is secretly in love with Toby). 

And while I can definitely see it grating on the nerves of some viewers, I really enjoyed the reggae soundtrack, particularly the two songs performed by Ossie D. and Stevie G. (a cover of “Saturday Night at the Movies” and a tune titled “Scary Scary Movies”, written for this film). 

Popcorn did have its share of production woes. When the initial director, Alan Ornsby, fell behind schedule, he was dropped in favor of Mark Herrier (though some of Ornsby’s work, primarily the three “films with a film”, did make the final cut); and Amy O’Neill, the actress originally cast to play Maggie, was replaced midway through by Jill Schoelen (as a result, several scenes had to be re-shot). 

Yet while neither of these changes had an adverse effect on the film, the movie’s main plot ("the Possessor" looking for revenge) never gels as it should, and the big twist at the end is revealed way too early (which quickly takes the edge off of it). But with so many other things working in its favor, Popcorn proved to be one of the more entertaining horror movies to emerge from the first half of the ‘90s.







Thursday, November 9, 2017

#2,458. The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978)


Directed By: John Barry

Starring: Tony Curtis, Jackie Earle Haley, Tomisaburô Wakayama



Tag line: "They never met an adult they couldn't drive crazy"

Trivia: This film was followed by a 1979 CBS-TV series








Remember the story I told about my first trip to a drive-in theater? 

Probably not, but as a reminder check out my reviews of Jaws 2 and Rollercoaster, which was the double feature that night way back in 1978. 

The only other thing I recall about that particular evening was the trailer for The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, which, if memory serves, played during the intermission between the two movies. It dawned on me recently that I’d never actually seen this 3rd entry in the Bad News Bears series, and that maybe I should rectify that oversight as soon as possible. 

Well, today was the day, and to be honest I should have quit while I was ahead with the trailer; The Bad News Bears Go to Japan sucks. 

When it’s reported that the United States is refusing to send a little league team to Japan to face a collection of that country’s all-stars, the hapless Bears, led by their captain Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), decide to take up the challenge. Unfortunately, the Bears don’t have enough money to make the trip, nor is there an adult willing to chaperone them during their stay in Tokyo. 

Enter Henry Lazar (Tony Curtis), a talent agent / swindler who owes money to every bookie in town. Convinced that he can talk a major U.S. network into covering the game, Lazar has each member of the Bears sign a contract, then packs the team up and flies them to Japan. Of course, setting the Bad News Bears loose on foreign soil does have its consequences, but Lazar, who is determined to make a boatload of cash, vows to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the game goes off without a hitch. 

Part of what made the original The Bad News Bears a surprise hit was its collection of child actors, whose foul language and crass behavior was usually good for a few laughs. Even The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, the middle film in this “trilogy”, realized this on some level (though it didn’t pull it off as well as the first movie). In The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, however, the Bears are rarely more than background characters, with most of the story instead centering on Tony Curtis’s Lazar. We tag along with Lazar to a martial arts championship bout (which gets completely out of hand, and not in a funny way) as well as the live broadcast of a Japanese TV variety show, which features the kids from the opposing team, along with their coach, Shimizu (Tomisaburô Wakayama, star of the Lone Wolf and Cub / Shogun Assassin series of movies), belting out a couple of songs. In each of these sequences, and many others, the Bears are given very little to do. 

This approach might have worked had Tony Curtis delivered even a halfway decent performance. But he doesn’t. In fact, he’s terrible; in every scene, he’s trying way too hard to be funny, rattling off silly one-liners and going over-the-top as his character attempts to hustle the Japanese team; an American television network; and even the Bears themselves into believing he knows what he’s doing. Lazar, who is only interested in making a few bucks, is a pretty nasty person, actually, and we don’t believe for a minute that any parent would permit him take their child halfway around the world. Tony Curtis was certainly not a bad actor (he was good in Spartacus and The Vikings, and superb in The Defiant Ones and Sweet Smell of Success), but you wouldn’t know it from the crappy performance he delivers here. 

There are other problems with The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, including a romantic subplot between Kelly and a teenage geisha / musician named Akira (Hatsune Ishihara) that’s crowbarred into the narrative; scenes that end suddenly, with no resolution; and some racially insensitive remarks uttered by the Bears early in the film (though, thankfully, the slurs were kept to a minimum, and one of the story’s better aspects was the friendship that developed between the team and their Japanese rivals). Worst of all is the amazingly uncomfortable scene in which Lazar tries to explain to 6-year-old Mustapha (Scoody Thornton) what goes on inside a Japanese massage parlor! 

Perhaps I was a bit naïve, but I did have high hopes going into The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, mostly because Michael Ritchie, the director of the original film, was back for this 3rd installment, acting as producer (it was directed by John Barry). Alas, not even a guy as talented as Ritchie could save this mess. The Bad News Bears Go to Japan is a muddled, unfunny piece of dreck, and it should be avoided at all costs.







#2,457. The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)


Directed By: Anthony Mann

Starring: Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness




Tag line: "Spectacle! Passions! Savagery!"

Trivia: Alec Guinness admitted that he never saw more than twenty minutes of the completed film









Having already produced such epics as El Cid, King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking, Samuel Bronston next turned his attention to ancient Rome, and his 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire is a grand, sweeping, monster of a movie, with enormous set pieces, thousands of extras, and action scenes galore.

The year is 180 A.D. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) is in the north, leading his armies against a fierce band of Germanic invaders. Old and in poor health, Marcus knows his days are numbered, and that it is time for him to name his successor. But instead of selecting his son Commodus (Christopher Plummer) to follow him, Marcus chooses Livius (Stephen Boyd), his most trusted General, to be the next Roman Emperor.

Livius, who is close friends with Commodus, has no interest in ruling such a vast empire. Though urged to accept by Lucilla (Sophia Loren), his lover and Marcus’s only daughter, Livius instead steps aside, allowing Commodus to succeed his father (who is poisoned and dies before he can sign the official document naming Livius his heir). 

But while Marcus Aurelius was a man of peace, his son Commodus, who spends the majority of his free time training with gladiators, rules the empire with an iron fist, doubling all taxes and promising to deal harshly with anyone who opposes him. Realizing that his friend has become a tyrant, Livius, with the help of Marcus Aurelius’ former advisor Timonides (James Mason), defies Commodus by showing mercy to the Germanic tribes of Ballomar (John Ireland), who were recently defeated in battle. Angered by his actions, Commodus banishes Livius, only to recall him a short while later when the Eastern provinces rise up against Rome. 

Will Livius do as Commodus asks and crush the rebellion, or will he instead join forces with Lucilla, now the wife of King Sohaemus of Armenia (Omar Sharif), who wants nothing more than to see her brother deposed? 

Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because Ridley Scott’s 2000 Best Picture winner Gladiator is set in this exact time period, and features many of the same characters (oddly enough, Richard Harris refused the role of Commodus in this 1964 film, only to play the young Emperor’s father, Marcus Aurelius, in Gladiator). 

Being something of a history buff, I’ve always enjoyed The Fall of the Roman Empire (sure, it’s not 100% historically accurate, but what movie is?). The opening sequences, in which Marcus Aurelius and the Roman forces fight the Germanic tribes in the snow-covered North, are wonderfully realized (you can just about feel the chill hit your skin whenever the wind howls), and the various battle scenes scattered throughout the film are as exciting as they are impressive (especially the Battle of the Four Armies that occurs late in the movie). The real spectacle, though, is the immense Roman Forum, which, if some sources are to be believed, was the single largest set ever constructed up to that time (it measured 1312 x 754 feet, or 400 x 230 meters). 

As for the performances, most are exceptional; the only one that rubs me the wrong way is Stephen Boyd’s portrayal of Livius. He’s certainly not terrible in the role, and based on his turn as the villainous Messala in Ben-Hur he obviously had a knack for playing larger-then-life figures. In The Fall of the Roman Empire, though, Boyd comes across as flat, and the early love scenes between him and Loren’s Lucilla have zero energy (to be fair, the chemistry between the two does improve as the movie progresses). 

Again, Boyd doesn’t hurt the film, but it’s best moments (aside from the battles) are those that feature either Alec Guinness or Christopher Plummer, both of whom are in top form (Guinness is especially strong as the aging Marcus Aurelius, and when his character dies we’re as convinced as the Romans themselves are that a great man has been lost). 

Much like 1963’s Cleopatra, The Fall of the Roman Empire was a late entry in the historical epics genre, and while the movie itself was a box office bomb (rumor has it producer Samuel Bronston had to declare bankruptcy as a result of this film), it’s a massively entertaining motion picture, and stands as a shining example of Hollywood at its decadent best.







Sunday, November 5, 2017

#2,456. The Penalty (1920)


Directed By: William Worsley

Starring: Lon Chaney, Charles Clary, Doris Pawn



Line from thuis film: "Laughter burns a cripple like acid"

Trivia: Lon Chaney could wear the harness for only ten minutes before the pain became intolerable








Lon Chaney was freakin’ amazing!

Aside from his prowess as a make-up artist (as seen in both The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), he often put himself through hell for a role, yet always delivered a solid performance. Take, for example, 1920’s The Penalty, in which he played a double-amputee. In order to make it look as if he had no legs, Chaney created a harness that attached to his knees, and with the help of a few belts and some oversized clothing he managed to conceal the bottom half of his legs. It must have been uncomfortable for him to act with this sort of restriction, but the effect worked perfectly, and even under these severe conditions, Chaney proved to be the most charismatic performer in the entire film.

His character, a criminal mastermind known as Mr. Blizzard, wasn’t always handicapped; when he was a young man, a surgeon named Dr. Farris (Charles Clary), barely out of medical school, unnecessarily amputated his legs (Dr. Farris believed he was saving Blizzard’s life, only to realize later on that he made a terrible mistake). Though 27 years have passed since that unfortunate operation, Blizzard has not forgotten, and is as determined as ever to make Dr. Ferris pay for his error.

To this end, he volunteers to model for Ferris’ daughter Barbara (Claire Adams), a struggling artist who is attempting to sculpt a bust of Satan. It’s Blizzard’s hope that, through Barbara, he’ll gain access to the good doctor and force him to perform a second operation, to correct the one he botched all those years ago.

In the meantime, Blizzard continues to prepare for his next criminal undertaking, but what he doesn’t know is that Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), a new girl working in his sweat shop, is actually an undercover cop sent in by her superior to gather as much information as she can on Blizzard’s future plans. Yet neither she nor anyone else could have guessed just how ambitious that scheme would be, and if they don’t act quickly, Blizzard is sure to bring the entire city of San Francisco to its knees.

In films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Laugh Clown, Laugh, Lon Chaney portrayed characters that, though capable of violence, remained sympathetic throughout. Mr. Blizzard, on the other hand, is a vicious crook, a murderer and thief who doesn’t seem to care about anyone or anything (he’s especially harsh to any poor women who dares to show him a little kindness). We do feel sorry for the character early on, when Dr. Farris’s mistake cost him his legs. But at that point in the film Blizzard was a boy (portrayed by a young actor whose name is not listed in the credits). By the time Chaney takes over the role, all traces of humanity have been stripped away, leaving nothing but a hardened psychopath whose goal is to cause as much chaos as he possibly can. As mentioned above, Chaney is The Penalty’s most charismatic performer, but the character he plays is as loathsome as they come.

Alas, The Penalty falls completely apart at the end, with a twist (concerning Blizzard) that takes the story in a most unfortunate (and highly improbable) direction. Yet as cringe-inducing as the finale is, it doesn’t detract from what went before it, and the movie stands as yet another shining example of why Lon Chaney is considered the greatest actor of the silent era.







#2,455. The Siege of Firebase Gloria (1989)


Directed By: Brian Trenchard-Smith

Starring: Wings Hauser, R. Lee Ermey, Robert Arevalo



Tag line: "Against all odds they went to hell and back"

Trivia: Writer William Nagle was an Australian S.A.S. soldier who served in Vietnam between 1965 and 1969








After directing a number of exploitation films in the ‘80s (Turkey Shoot, BMX Bandits, Dead End Drive-In), Brian Trenchard-Smith closed out the decade with 1989’s The Siege of Firebase Gloria, a straightforward war flick that’s as engaging as any movie he’s ever made.

The Tet Offensive is underway, and the U.S. Army’s upper echelon has ordered Sgt. Maj. Hafner (R. Lee Ermey) to lead his men to Firebase Gloria, an outpost that is in danger of falling into enemy hands. After wrestling control of the firebase away from its drug-addicted commanding officer (John Calvin), Hafner, with the help of his second-in-command Cpl. Di Nardo (Wings Hauser) and the firebase’s 1st Sgt. Jones (Albert Popwell), prepares for an all-out attack by the Viet Cong, which is gathering en masse in the nearby forest. 

Though his forces outnumber the Americans by five to one, the Viet Cong commander, Cao Van (Robert Arevalo), remains cautious, telling his troops that they must take Firebase Gloria within 48 hours, before the U.S. can send in any reinforcements. 

As difficult as their task may seem, Hafner and his men vow to protect the firebase as long as they can, knowing full well that doing so may ultimately cost them their lives. 

Two years removed from his career-defining role as the Marine drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, R. Lee Ermey plays what is essentially the lead in The Siege of Firebase Gloria, and even doubles as the movie’s narrator. A former Marine himself as well as a veteran of the Vietnam War, Ermey delivers a strong, surprisingly heartfelt performance as the commander who realizes the odds are stacked against him (according to Trenchard-Smith, Ermey also helped re-write portions of the script, to make them more realistic). 

Wings Hauser is equally as good playing the unpredictable Di Nardo, as is Robert Arevalo as the enemy commander, who also manages to get a few laughs along the way (when his artillery unit fails to prevent a U.S. helicopter from landing and taking off again, a frustrated Cao Van tells his subordinate that their troops “couldn’t hit my old grandmother in the ass from two paces”). 

Along with the fine performances turned in by its cast, The Siege of Firebase Gloria features some intense battle scenes, and the opening sequence, in which Hafner and his men stumble upon a Vietnamese village that’s been massacred by the enemy, gets the film off to a grim start. But it’s the siege itself, filling the movie's entire second half, that builds the tension to an almost unbearable level. 

While it doesn’t shy away from offering an opinion or two about the conflict in Vietnam (Sgt. Maj. Hafner is especially critical of the Army’s top brass, who seem slow to act on the information provided by the men in the field), The Siege of Firebase Gloria isn’t the kind of film that examines the effect that war has on the individual (a la Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter), nor does it question America’s involvement in Vietnam (as Oliver Stone did in both Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July). It is, from start to finish, a straight-up war movie, filled with action and drama, and on that level it’s a resounding success.







Friday, November 3, 2017

#2,454. The Man from Earth (2007)


Directed By: Richard Schenkman

Starring: David Lee Smith, Tony Todd, John Billingsley



Tag line: "From one of the acclaimed writers of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone comes a story that transcends both time and space... "

Trivia: The last work by screenwriter Jerome Bixby before his death







If I were to tell you that, for 80+ minutes, director Richard Schenkman’s 2007 film The Man from Earth features a group of people who do nothing but sit in a single room and talk to one another, I’m guessing you might say “No thanks”.

But what if I added it’s also an incredibly intriguing motion picture, and that I didn’t want it to end? 

Would that pique your interest? 

If so, good: you’re in for a treat if you decide to watch this movie.

If not… well, you’re missing out on something quite special.

After 10 years on the job, college professor John Oldman (David Lee Smith) has tendered his resignation, and is moving on. His colleagues, including archaeologist Art (William Katt); anthropologist Dan (Tony Todd); biologist Harry (John Billingsley); theologian Edith (Ellen Crawford); psychiatrist Dr. Will Gruber (Richard Riehle); and John’s assistant Sandy (Annika Peterson), all gather at John’s remote cabin for an impromptu farewell party, wishing him well but at the same time wondering why he’s in such a hurry to leave. One by one, they pressure him for an explanation, and it’s at this point that John makes a shocking confession: he has been alive since the era of Cro-Magnon man, approximately 140 centuries ago, and during that entire time he hasn’t aged a single day! 

Naturally, no one believes him, and a few even think their friend may be losing his mind. Over the course of several hours the group discusses a wide range of topics, peppering John with question after question in an attempt to prove that he’s lying about his past. 

But what if John’s claims are true, and he really is tens of thousands of years old?

Writer Jerome Bixby (who also penned the story for Forbidden Planet as well as several episodes of the original Star Trek series) reportedly spent decades polishing his script for The Man from Earth, finally completing it right before his death in 1998. And if you ask me, his patience and hard work paid off in a big way; the film’s greatest strength is its intelligent, though-provoking dialogue, flawlessly delivered by a talented cast. Following a brief debate on whether or not it’s possible for a “caveman” to live for centuries, the conversation branches off in a number of different directions, covering everything from history and art to what it is that makes us human. The movie also tackles religion, both ancient and modern; and even throws a few interesting twists our way, including an ending that, though arguably a bit contrived, caught me completely off-guard.

I’m tempted to delve a bit further into the film (I even jotted down a few of its more memorable quotes, in the hope I might be able to work them into the above review), but I dare not do so; The Man from Earth is a movie that deserves to be seen, and it’s surprises should remain a secret to all but those who have watched it. 

I’ll say this for it, though: The Man from Earth is, without a doubt, the most fascinating dialogue-heavy film that I’ve ever experienced.







#2,453. Scum of the Earth (1963)


Directed By: Herschell Gordon Lewis

Starring: William Kerwin, Allison Louise Downe, Lawrence J. Aberwood


Tag line: "Depraved. Demented. Loathsome. Nameless. Shameless. These are the Scum of the Earth!"

Trivia: The last scene (Kim walking into Craxton College) was shot at the entrance of North Miami Senior High School







Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, Scum of the Earth is considered by many to be the first “Roughie” (a sexploitation subgenre that sprang up in the early-to-mid 1960’s, Roughies were notoriously misogynistic and featured scenes in which women were tormented and abused by men). Though definitely more subdued than some of the subgenre’s later entries, Scum of the Earth is not an easy movie to watch, and is an even harder one to recommend.

Photographer Harmon Johnson (William Kerwin) is the less-than-enthusiastic employee of Mr. Lang (Lawrence J. Aberwood), a pornographer who pays top dollar for pictures of nude women, which his young associate Larry (Mal Arnold) then peddles at the local high school. And when Lang’s customers start demanding even “harder” stuff, he has Harmon shoot the models alongside Ajax (Craig Maudslay Jr.), an egotistical, muscle-bound thug who is none too gentle when forcing himself on the unsuspecting beauties.

Despite the fact she’s made a lot of money working for Harmon and Lang, Sandy (Sandra Sinclair), their most popular model, wants out of the smut business. But instead of simply releasing her from her contract, Lang makes Sandy responsible for finding her own replacement, and the first young hopeful she stumbles upon is Kim Sherwood (Allison Louise Downe), a teenager trying to save up for college.

To lure her in, Harmon pays Kim $50 for a few harmless bikini shots, and then sends her on her way. A week later, Kim calls Harmon asking if he has any more work for her, at which point he tells the naïve teen that she can make even more money if she’ll pose in the nude. Though hesitant at first, Kim reluctantly agrees, and once the photos are snapped both Larry and Ajax threaten the poor girl, telling Kim they’ll show the pictures to her elderly father (Edward Mann) if she doesn’t pose for more.

Frightened and confused, Kim starts to model for Harmon on a regular basis, all the while hoping that Mr. Lang won’t pair her up with the brutish Ajax.

Scum of the Earth was released in 1963, the very year that Lewis and his longtime producer David F. Friedman revolutionized the horror genre with their gore-infused B-movie classic, Blood Feast. In fact, both films feature many of the same actors, including William Kerwin, Sandra Sinclair, and Mal Arnold (who was much more convincing as the middle-aged killer in Blood Feast than he was playing Larry, Scum of the Earth’s resident juvenile delinquent and a character not yet 18 years old). Of course, seeing as this is a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie, I use the term “actor” quite loosely; aside from the always-reliable Kerwin, the performances in Scum of the Earth range from mediocre (Arnold, Aberwood) to terrible (Allison Louise Downe is dreadful as the oft-maligned Kim). 

As for the film’s more “extreme” content, Lewis shies away from showing any sustained nudity (there’s one or two very quick breast shots, and nothing more), and spares us from having to witness Ajax’s cruelty (a late scene in which he pulls a woman into a motel room, beats her with his belt, and then rapes her is mercifully short, with most of the assault occurring off-screen). That said, Scum of the Earth still has its share of objectionable material; at one point, Lang berates Kim, calling her “damaged merchandise” and “no better than the girl who sells herself to a man”, but the film’s most troubling sequence occurs when Kim walks into a neighborhood coffee shop and encounters Larry, who tries to embarrass Kim by showing her nude photos to some of his pals.

If you feel the urge to see at least one “roughie” before you die, Scum of the Earth is the way to go; it’s not nearly as brutal as The Defilers, and is positively tame when compared to The Sinful Dwarf. But even without the nudity and graphic violence, Scum of the Earth is an upsetting motion picture, and don’t be surprised if you want to jump in the shower the moment it’s over.







Thursday, November 2, 2017

#2,452. The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)


Directed By: André Øvredal

Starring: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond




Tag line: "Every body has a secret"

Trivia: Martin Sheen was originally cast as Tommy, but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. He was replaced by Brian Cox








I was blown away the first time I watched The Autopsy of Jane Doe, so much so that it not only made my top 10 horror films of 2016, but my overall top 10 list as well. 

Still, I wasn’t sure if it would hold up on repeat viewings; along with its creepier elements (which are plentiful), The Autopsy of Jane Doe is rife with mystery, and many of its early surprises set up the horror that takes over in the final act. Would the film be as effective the second time around as it was the first? 

The answer is a resounding “yes”.

The nude body of an unidentified young woman (Olwen Kelly) was discovered at the scene of a triple homicide, and it’s up to local coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son/assistant Austin (Emile Hirsch) to determine how she died. Shortly after they begin their examination of ”Jane Doe”, however, the two realize this is no ordinary corpse, and sense that someone – or something – is trying to thwart their efforts. But Tommy refuses to quit, and the closer he and Austin get to learning the truth about Jane Doe, the more dangerous their predicament becomes.

The mystery surrounding Jane Doe is what drives the film’s initial scenes, and each new cut that Tommy and Austin make into the body - each new examination - raises more questions than it answers. Tommy, so well-played by Brian Cox, is a man who deals in facts, but with Jane Doe the “facts” he’s presented with don’t add up. Her lungs are black, as if she’d been burned alive, and her internal organs have scars that suggest she was repeatedly stabbed, yet her body is in pristine condition, and she shows no outward signs of any trauma (these revelations are, indeed, intriguing, but are far from the autopsy’s most amazing discovery).

Who is this girl? Where did she come from? And how did she die? Tommy and Austin do eventually close in on the answers to these questions, at which point the horror kicks into high gear. Thanks to director André Øvredal, we’re as invested in Jane Doe’s story as his lead characters are, so the film’s sudden turn towards the supernatural is jarring, to say the least. All at once, The Autopsy of Jane Doe transforms from a perplexing mystery into a nerve-racking experience, and even something as simple as a ringing bell, or a radio that self-tunes to the song “Let the Sun Shine In“, drags us to the edge of our seats.

Like Tommy and Austin, we know these strange goings-on have something to do with the body they’ve been examining, but the big reveal at the end, when we learn the truth about Jane Doe, still catches us off-guard.

Working as both a mystery and a horror film, and with the superior performances delivered by its small cast (including Ophelia Lovibond, who has a brief but memorable role as Austin’s girlfriend), The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a motion picture that I’m convinced will stand the test of time, and odds are I’ll enjoy it just as much on my 10th viewing as I did my first (and second).







Wednesday, November 1, 2017

#2,451. The Eyes of the Mummy (1918)


Directed By: Ernst Lubitsch

Starring: Pola Negri, Harry Liedtke, Emil Jannings




Tag line: "All the charm and mystery of the East caught into a passion-swept romance of irresistible appeal"

Trivia: In Denmark the film was released as The Orient's Daughter








The Eyes of the Mummy, a 1918 German-produced drama / horror film, was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who a few decades later would prove himself a master of comedy with movies like Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be. In addition, the film co-starred Emil Jannings, six years away from his extraordinary turn in F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Jannings was also the recipient of the very first Academy Award for Best Actor, which he won in 1929 for his performances in both The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command). 

And for you horror fans out there, The Eyes of the Mummy also features several key elements that would make their way into Universal’s Mummy series, chief among them the idea that a curse would befall anyone foolish enough to enter the tomb of an ancient Egyptian ruler. 

These bits of trivia aside, however, The Eyes of the Mummy is a less-than-stellar movie, with poor pacing and a story that, even in a film that’s only an hour long, doesn’t generate enough excitement to sustain a full-length motion picture. 

While on a sojourn to Egypt, British painter Albert Wendland (Harry Liedtke) decides to visit the centuries-old burial chamber of the Egyptian monarch Queen Ma, in part because he wants to test the theory that the Queen’s tomb has been cursed, and anyone who braves it will slowly lose their mind. Greeted at the entrance by Ragu (Jannings), Wendland ventures inside the tomb, where he finds not an ancient mummy but a very real, and quite beautiful, woman, whose name also happens to be Ma (Pola Negri). 

According to Ma, she has been Ragu’s prisoner for some time, forced to play a part in the deceitful Arab’s money-making scheme (it was Ragu who started the rumor about the curse, hoping it would pique the interest of wealthy tourists). Having fallen in love with Ma, Wendland helps her escape, and before long the two are married and living in England, where the exotic Ma quickly becomes a dance hall sensation. 

But when Ma learns that Ragu is also in England working as a servant for Prince Hohenfels (Max Laurence), she fears that her old captor may attempt to track her down. 

Jannings, so good in both The Last Laugh and Faust, delivers a solid performance as the diabolical Ragu, easily the film’s most fascinating character (though he’s the villain, the movie only seems to come alive when Ragu is on-screen). Equally as strong are the early scenes set in Egypt; along with a handful of well-shot desert sequences, the set piece for Queen Ma’s tomb, which was designed by Kurt Richter (who also worked on 1920’s The Golem) is pretty darn cool. The moment the action shifts to England, however, The Eyes of the Mummy slows to a crawl (thanks in large part to a few ill-timed dance hall sequences), and never recovers.

Die-hard movie fans might find it a curiosity, and enjoy the early glimpse of Emil Jannings at work, but for everyone else The Eyes of the Mummy will probably put them to sleep.







#2,450. San Andreas (2015)


Directed By: Brad Peyton

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario




Tag line: "Where will you be. Who will you be with"

Trivia: A large amount of the film was shot in and around Brisbane, Australia








I love disaster films, and not just the “classics” from the ‘70s (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake), but modern disaster flicks as well, like Volcano, The Day After Tomorrow, The Core, and 2012

No, I can’t really defend them. Volcano is ridiculously improbable; The Day After Tomorrow contains some awful dialogue; and the “science” behind The Core is so ludicrous it would make a 5th grader burst out laughing. Yet there’s something about cinematic destruction on a mass scale – an entire city reduced to rubble on-screen in the span of a couple of hours – that I find endlessly entertaining.

So, while I’ll be the first to admit that 2015’s San Andreas doesn’t bring anything new to the table, and features moments so outlandishly over-the-top they make Independence Day look subtle by comparison, I still had a hell of a good time watching it!

Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is an L.A. helicopter pilot with 600 documented rescues to his name. Unfortunately, the one thing he wasn’t able to save was his marriage; Ray’s wife Emma (Carla Gugino) has filed for divorce, and is about to move in with her new boyfriend, millionaire Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd).

As Ray is preparing to lead his team into Nevada, which a short time earlier was rocked by a major earthquake (one that completely destroyed Hoover Dam), Los Angeles itself is hit with a quake measuring over 9 on the Richter Scale. Ray, already in the air when the tremors started, manages to rescue Emma, who was in the city having lunch with Daniel’s sister Susan (Kylie Minough).

But according to Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti), a Seismology professor at Caltech, the L.A. earthquake was just a precursor of things to come. Hayes, who developed a system that can predict when an earthquake will strike, reports that the San Andreas Fault line has shifted, and if his information is accurate, San Francisco, already heavily damaged by the tremors that shook L.A., will soon experience what could potentially be the largest earthquake ever recorded.

In an effort to save their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), who flew to San Francisco earlier that morning with Daniel, Ray and Emma head north, while Blake and her two new friends, brothers Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson), make their way to higher ground. But with a few hundred miles between them, Ray knows there’s a good chance he won’t arrive in Frisco before the next quake hits, and he hopes that his daughter will somehow survive what is sure to be the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

Like many of the films that preceded it (including The Day After Tomorrow and 2012), San Andreas uses widespread destruction as a backdrop for the personal dramas affecting its main characters; as Ray is rescuing Emma from the roof of a high-rise building (an admittedly tense scene), one skyscraper after another topples over behind them, killing what we assume must be tens of thousands of people in a matter of seconds. Still, we breathe a sigh of relief when Emma climbs aboard the ‘copter and is no longer in harm’s way (hey, someone has to survive, right?).

Director Brad Peyton and writer Carlton Cuse even try tugging at our heartstrings a little, when Ray and Emma discuss the tragic death of their other daughter Mallory (played in flashbacks by Arabella Morton), the very event that triggered the trouble in their marriage. So, while millions of Californians are struggling to stay alive, we can at least take comfort in the fact that Ray and Emma are finally communicating.

Yes, it’s all quite silly, but to be honest I didn’t pop the Blu-Ray for San Andreas into the player to see two people rekindle their love for one another; it is chaos and mayhem I was after, and this movie has both of them in spades. After kicking the film off with an exciting (and highly implausible) rescue mission, in which Ray and his crew attempt to save a girl (Morgan Griffin) whose vehicle went over the side of a cliff, San Andreas starts wrecking things, beginning with Hoover Dam (an impressive sequence) before moving on to L.A. (an even better one). 

But it’s in San Francisco that stuff really starts to get dicey, resulting in an entire second half that is non-stop action. Dwayne Johnson and the rest of the cast do manage to make us care about their characters, but the real stars of San Andreas are its special effects, all of which do their part to convince us that California has been destroyed.

As with some of the millennium’s other disaster flicks, San Andreas is a hard film to defend. I’m sure a good many of you will find the movie laughable, and perhaps even a little insulting, but San Andreas delivered everything I hoped it would, so I’m happy I saw it. 

There’s even talk of getting the gang back together for San Andreas 2, and while I admit that I rolled my eyes when I heard the news, odds are I’ll be one of the first in line the moment this sequel hits theaters.







Sunday, October 29, 2017

#2,449. Hidden (2015)


Directed By: The Duffer Brothers

Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Andrea Riseborough, Emily Alyn Lind




Tag line: "Fear will find you"

Trivia: The movie contains no credits at the start (just the title)








It isn’t long after 2015’s Hidden begins that we realize The Duffer Brothers (who wrote and directed the film) are setting us up for a major surprise.

For the last 301 days, Ray (Alexander Skarsgård), his wife Claire (Andrea Riseborough) and the couple’s daughter Zoe (Emily Alyn Lind), have been living in an underground bunker. Despite the tight conditions, Ray and Claire go out of their way to make things comfortable for Zoe, playing games with her and reading her stories, yet at the same time reminding the young girl to be as quiet as possible, so as not to alert the “Breathers” lurking above.

While dealing with an unwanted pest (a rat that had been digging its way into their canned goods), Ray and Claire inadvertently start a fire, then work frantically to hide all evidence of it, hoping that the Breathers took no notice of their unfortunate accident.

What happened to drive this small family underground, and who (or what) are the Breathers that are searching for them? The answers to these questions will eventually be revealed, setting up an ending that’s guaranteed to shock the hell out of you.

Yet as astonishing as the final ten minutes of Hidden are, it’s the time we spend with its three central characters, huddled together in the claustrophobic confines of their subterranean shelter, that draws us in and captures our attention. Ray, played so well by Alexander Skarsgård , has a special bond with his daughter, taking her side whenever a disagreement about dinner arises and playing a nightly game that reminds them all of the life they left behind. Andrea Riseborough’s Claire, on the other hand, is more grounded in the “here and now”, worrying about their food supply and coming up with a series of rules designed to keep Zoe’s mind off the Breathers (one of the main rules, in fact, is that they can no longer mention the Breathers by name).

Both Skarsgård and Riseborough are excellent in their respective roles, and Emily Alyn Lloyd proves to be one of the better child actors to come along in a while, conveying the fear, anxiety and frustration of being cut off from the world above, yet remaining hopeful that brighter days are ahead. Thanks to these three finely-realized characters, Hidden keeps us watching as we wait patiently for its big reveal.

The Duffer Brothers do drop a few hints (by way of flashbacks) as to what brought the family to this desperate state, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that, even though we’re fully expecting a twist at the end, it still manages to surprise us once it rolls around.

Hidden may not be the most original movie, either in its storyline (1985's Day of the Dead was set primarily in an underground shelter, as were more recent movies like The Divide and Beneath) or its execution (Starting with his 1999 movie The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan has given us one twist ending after anoither), but because of the extraordinary performances turned in by its cast, we’re more than happy we went along for the ride.