Tuesday, May 24, 2022

#2,758. The Last Winter (2006) - Winter Horror 4-Pack


Larry Fessenden is no stranger to genre fans. As an actor, he’s appeared in such memorable films as We Are Still Here, The Dead Don’t Die, and I Sell the Dead. But Fessenden’s contributions behind the camera are just as impressive. Over the years he’s been a producer (Stake Land, The Innkeepers) as well as a director, writer, editor (he handled all three of these tasks for “N is for Nexus’, one of the shorts featured in 2014’s ABC’s of Death 2) and even cinematographer (he worked the camera for 2016’s Stray Bullets, which was directed by his son Jack).

For 2006’s The Last Winter, Fessenden served as director, co-writer, editor, and even plays a small role (as Foster, an ill-fated executive). Set in the Arctic Circle, The Last Winter is a smartly written, expertly acted horror film that also manages to say a little something about the effects of global warming.

The North Corporation, an American oil company, has sent a team into the Arctic Circle to research the possibility of drilling in the area.

The team’s leader, Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), is anxious to get things rolling, but is opposed by environmentalist James Hoffman (James LeGros), who believes the rising temperatures may be releasing “sour gas” (which contains hydrogen sulfide) into the air. Hoffman is concerned that this gas might cause hallucinations to crop up among the team, and could even lead to insanity. His fears are strengthened when Maxwell (Zach Gilford), the youngest of the group, disappears for an entire day, then returns saying he “saw something” in the snow.

Still, despite Hoffman’s warnings, Pollack pushes forward, and demands that the environmentalist allow them to move heavy equipment into the area. But Maxwell won’t be the only one to see strange things in the snow, leaving Hoffman and the others to eventually wonder if any of them will get out of this barren wasteland alive.

Ron Perlman delivers a bravura performance as Pollack, the boisterous leader who wants nothing more than to start drilling, and it’s to the actor’s credit that, even when we don’t agree with his actions, we understand his motivations and even kinda like him (when he first arrives, Pollack gets everyone outside to play an impromptu game of football). LeGros is also quite good as Hoffman, the voice of reason, and the scenes in which his character and Pollack butt heads are among the film’s most compelling.

Rounding out the excellent cast are Zach Gilford as the troubled Maxwell; Connie Britton as Abby, Pollack’s former flame who is now romantically involved with Hoffman (causing even greater friction between the two men); Kevin Corrigan as Motor, the substance-abusing mechanic; Jamie Harrold as Elliot, Hoffman’s nosebleed-prone assistant; and Pato Hoffmann as Lee, a native Alaskan who believes the troubles are being caused by a Wendigo, an evil spirit that possesses humans and causes them to act out violently.

Along with the performances, The Last Winter is beautifully shot, capturing the stark, frozen landscape in a way that only adds to the overall tension, and there are even supernatural elements introduced in the form of ghostly animals that appear from time to time, stampeding across the snow. Though we’re never quite sure if these spirits are real or simply hallucinations, the scenes in which they are featured are among the most compelling in the entire film.

Throw in a pretty convincing plane crash, some decent make-up effects (one deceased team member loses his eyes to some hungry ravens), and a final 10 minutes you won’t soon forget, and you have a horror film that does more than simply deliver a message on global warming.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Saturday, May 21, 2022

#2,757. Phenomena (1985) - Dario Argento 4-Pack


Dario Argento’s Phenomena gets off to a fast start: distracted while taking pictures of the gorgeous landscape, a 14-year-old Danish tourist (played by Argento’s daughter, Fiore) misses the bus back to town. To escape the cold, she makes her way to an abandoned house. There, she is attacked by a scissors-wielding maniac, who chases her into the woods before cornering the poor girl in a cavern and finishing her off.

The surroundings are undoubtedly beautiful (portions of the movie were shot on-location in Switzerland), yet this initial sequence stays with you because it is simultaneously tense and violent (Argento utilizes a bit of slow-motion that is especially vicious), with Goblin’s incredible musical score setting the perfect tone.

It is a great opening, and as we’ll soon discover it’s just one of many such memorable scenes scattered throughout this superb horror film.

Several months after the above events, teenager Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connolly), the daughter of a famous American actor, travels to Switzerland to attend the prestigious Richard Wagner Academy for Girls. She befriends her roommate Sophie (Federica Mastroianni), but Jennifer quickly finds herself at odds with the school’s Headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzarro), and her unique ability to “communicate” with insects makes the new arrival an outcast among her classmates.

When Sophie is murdered by a killer targeting teen girls (the very same who attacked the tourist in the opening scene), Jennifer joins forces with Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance), a local Entomologist who is convinced her unique connection to the insect world may hold the key to tracking down this psychopath.

Argento’s flair for visuals is evident throughout Phenomena. Aside from the masterfully-shot opening, there’s an amazing sequence involving thousands of flies (which come to Jennifer’s aid as her classmates tease her), and a late underwater sequence is especially breathtaking. As a sharp contrast to its stunning imagery, Phenomena tells a brutal story of murder and mutilation (the killer likes to collect body parts), and the last half hour of the movie (by which point the killer’s identity has been revealed) will have you one the edge of your seat.

The performances are a mixed bag; Pleasance is quite good (right down to his Scottish accent), as is Daria Nicolodi (who was married to Argento but divorced him around the time this movie was made) who plays Frau Bruckner, the Headmistress’s assistant. The rest of the cast, however - including Jennifer Connolly - is only so-so (though I quite liked Professor MacGregor’s chimpanzee, Inga, which becomes an important part of the story).

In addition to the lackluster performances, the narrative gets a bit confusing at times (Jennifer’s sleepwalking incident is jarring, to say the least), but in the end, Phenomena’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, and the finale is so bizarre that it’s sure to linger in your mind well after the movie is over.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Thursday, May 19, 2022

#2,756. Suspiria (1977) - Dario Argento 4-Pack


In 2020, Collider put together a list of the greatest horror movie soundtracks of all-time. It featured a few obvious choices, like the music for John Carpenter’s Halloween and Bernard Herrmann’s iconic Psycho score.

Yet another predictable entry was the soundtrack for Dario Argento’s Suspiria, composed and performed by the Italian band Goblin. There are moments in this 1977 film that will shake you, and Goblin’s music features prominently in pretty much all of them.

Now, it may seem a bit strange to start off this review talking about the music. Yes, Goblin’s score is the stuff of legend, but Suspiria, in and of itself, is considered by many to be Argento’s masterpiece, not to mention one of the greatest horror films ever made. While I may not fully agree with such assertions, I also cannot bring myself to dismiss them outright; Suspiria is, indeed, a horror masterpiece, but it’s the film’s stylistic elements – the set design, cinematography, gore effects, and, yes, the music - that make it so.

The first entry in Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy (which also includes 1980’s Inferno and the dreadful 2007 film Mother of Tears), Suspiria stars Jessica Harper as Suzy Bannion, an American dancer who travels to Germany to study ballet at the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy.

Though turned away when she first arrives - at which point she also witnesses the hasty departure of another student, Pat Hingle (Eva Axen), who flees the academy and runs into the nearby woods – Suzy is eventually accepted into the fold. She meets the school’s lead instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), is introduced to the Headmistress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), and befriends fellow student Sarah (Stefania Casini), with whom she will become quite close.

But as Suzy eventually discovers, there’s more to the Tanz Academy than meets the eye. In fact, this well-respected school may just be a front for a coven of witches!

Argento’s artistic sensibilities, as well as his flair for visuals, are on full display throughout Suspiria. In an early scene, Pat Hingle, the student who ran from the Academy when Suzy first arrived, rushes to an apartment complex to seek refuge with a friend. Soon after her arrival, Pat is attacked by an unknown assailant, who drags her onto a balcony and stabs her repeatedly, going so far as to slice Pat’s chest open and puncture her still-beating heart! The sequence ends with Pat, a cord wrapped around her neck, breaking through a stain-glassed ceiling and plummeting until the cord reaches its end, and she is left dangling in mid-air. It is a thrilling, vibrant, yet ultimately horrifying introduction to the world of Suspiria, and it’s Argento’s eye for visuals as well the pulsating, nerve-racking Goblin score that makes this sequence so unforgettable.

Along with praising Argento (who co-wrote the screenplay with Daria Nicolodi, inspired in part by the 1845 Thomas de Quincey essay Suspira de Profundis), kudos must also be given to production designer Giuseppe Bassan (the red walls that line the upper floors of the dance academy are a sight to behold) and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (the camera glides in an almost effortless fashion throughout the movie, capturing the film’s many colorful set pieces while simultaneously enhancing the story’s supernatural elements). Their work, as well as Argento’s stylistic approach (even something as simple as Suzy walking out of the airport into a rainstorm, the wind lifting her hair as she does so, has a sense of dread about it), proved much more interesting than the story itself.

And if Suspiria has one downfall, it is that: its story is never quite as interesting as what we’re seeing. There’s a lot to love about Suspiria, but it’s tale of witches, covens, and secret societies isn’t one of the film’s strongest elements.

Still, if you want to see Argento at the height of his creativity, Suspiria is a great place to start.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

#2,755. Deep Red (1975) - Dario Argento 4-Pack


Whenever I think of Dario Argento’s 1975 giallo Deep Red, there’s one scene in particular that pops into my head. Occurring late in the film, it’s a sequence in which Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri) is alone in his study. Suddenly, a creepy mechanized doll, the size of a small child, comes walking through the door towards him. The doll sports a sinister grin, and approaches at a hurried pace. Frightened, Giordani grabs a fireplace poker and smashes in the doll’s head. His relief at ridding himself of this threatening toy is only short-lived, however, and Giordani soon meets a violent, terrible end at the hands of the real killer.

It is, as I mentioned above, a memorable moment from a classic horror film, but seen in context with the rest of the movie it makes little sense. The doll serves no real purpose, except to possibly distract Giordani while the killer gets into position. But even this explanation feels like a stretch (from where the killer finally strikes, it’s doubtful he/she could have gotten there without Giordani seeing them). And yet the scene works as Argento intended, unnerving us almost as much as the intended victim, Giordani.

This is what separates Deep Red from its director’s earlier Animal Trilogy (Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet). Like those films, this 1975 horror / thriller is undoubtedly a giallo, but one in which story and plot take a back seat to cinematic style.

Prior to his run-in with the doll, Giordani had been assisting the film’s lead character, British jazz musician Mark Daly (David Hemmings), who witnessed the murder of his neighbor, psychic Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril). The first on the scene after Helga is killed, Mark immediately calls the police, yet by the time they get there he is convinced one of the pictures that was hanging in Helga’s apartment when he first arrived has since disappeared. Unfortunately, he cannot recall which picture, or what image it contained.

Teaming up with reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), Mark spends the remainder of the movie trying to connect the dots, hoping to somehow remember the missing picture, which he believes might hold the key to revealing the killer’s identity.

It’s a standard giallo storyline, and actually has quite a bit in common with Argento’s first foray into the subgenre, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. In addition, there are POV shots (from the killer’s perspective) scattered throughout the movie, and a central mystery that grows more perplexing as the story unfolds.

And yet Deep Red is more than a giallo; it is an exercise in style, with Argento utilizing sweeping camera movements, long shots (several early street scenes featuring Mark and his musician friend Carlo, played by Gabriele Lavia, are shot from a distance away), and moments of extreme violence (an author, played by Giuliana Calandra, meets a particularly gruesome end in a tub of scolding hot water). There is also an extended, expertly shot sequence in which Mark investigates an abandoned house, where he makes several startling discoveries.

Other themes and subtexts are featured throughout Deep Red as well, including the “battle of the sexes” that develops between Marc and Gianna Brezzi; along with a humorous scene in which Gianna challenges Mark to an arm-wrestling match, there’s the even funnier recurring image of Mark in the broken passenger’s seat of Gianna’s car, which, because it has collapsed onto the floor, makes him look like a child whenever they’re driving down the road. Argento also makes great use of the film’s superb musical score, composed by the band Goblin, whose work would reach legendary status in the director’s next film, 1977’s Suspiria.

More than anything, though, Deep Red is a bridge between the Argento of old - the master of the giallo - and the Argento yet to come, whose subsequent movies such as Suspiria, Opera, and Phenomena put the emphasis more on spectacle than narrative.

But Deep Red did more than just straddle the line between Argento’s distinct personalities. With its engaging central mystery combined with a plethora of cinematic bells and whistles, it ultimately proved to be the best of its director’s two worlds.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Sunday, May 15, 2022

#2,754. The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971) - Dario Argento 4-Pack


Dario Argento’s follow-up to Bird With The Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’ Nine Tails is a giallo with plenty of style that also features one hell of an intriguing mystery.

Reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) joins forces with blind man Franco Arno (Karl Malden) to try and solve a string of recent killings, all of which seem to be connected, in one way or another, to a nearby genetic research institute.

Unfortunately, there are very few clues and a growing list of suspects, including Professor Terzi (Tino Carraro), the head of the institute, and even Terzi’s daughter Anna (Catherine Spaak). But as Giordani and Arno close in on the truth, the elusive killer turns his attention to them, going so far as to kidnap Arno’s young niece Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), threatening to kill her if the two amateur sleuths don’t back off.

As he did with Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Argento infuses The Cat O’ Nine Tails with style to spare; throughout the movie, we’re treated to a series of POV shots – from the killer’s perspective – that build both the tension (we know the minute we’re seeing through the killer’s eyes that something terrible is about to happen) and the overall mystery (as one potential suspect after another is polished off, we cannot help but wonder whose eyes it is we’re actually peering through). And while The Cat O’ Nine Tails is far from Argento’s most violent film (it’s not nearly as bloody as Suspiria, Deep Red, or Phenomena), a few of the kills are fairly brutal, including one set on a train station platform.

As for the tension, it reaches a fever pitch in a sequence where Giordani and Arno break into a cemetery crypt late one night, only to be surprised by the killer. Yet as good as this scene is, it’s outdone by the film’s superior rooftop climax. Argento even stages one hell of a car chase, when Anna, driving Giordani’s car, attempts to elude the police!

It’s in the story department, however, where The Cat O’ Nine Tails truly excels, building its central mystery piece by piece, with shady characters (all of whom seem to have something to hide) and plenty of false leads, resulting in a payoff that’s both surprising and entirely satisfying.

Bird With the Crystal Plumage may, indeed, be Argento’s best giallo, but I rank The Cat O’ Nine Tails right up there alongside it.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Friday, May 13, 2022

#2,753. The Shootist (1976) - John Wayne in the 1970s


1976’s The Shootist is notable because it features John Wayne’s final movie role, and is quite fitting in that the legendary actor plays an aging western gunman who discovers he is dying of cancer (Wayne himself was suffering from cancer when the film was shot).

Wayne stars as J.B. Books, who recently learned he has terminal cancer. Advised to take it easy by his good friend Doctor Hostetler (James Stewart), Books settles in Carson City, Nevada, renting a room from recent widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), who lives with her son Gillom (Ron Howard) and several other tenants.

Though Bond is none too happy to discover she has a famous gunfighter living under her roof, Gillom quickly befriends Books, and does what he can to help the dying legend with his final wish: to go out in a blaze of glory!

The opening images of The Shootist are just about perfect: a western landscape, in stunning black and white. Using footage from previous John Wayne movies like Red River and Rio Bravo, director Don Siegel gives us his lead character’s backstory (narrated by Ron Howard), establishing Books’ reputation as a shootist. From there, we discover right off the bat that J.B. Books is still a force to be reckoned with when he out-draws a potential thief!

Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard are both superb as the mother and son who welcome Books into their home. Also solid in support are some of Wayne’s co-stars from his Hollywood heyday; James Stewart, who starred alongside Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, plays Doc Hostetler, who has the unenviable task of confirming a previous diagnosis that his pal Books is dying. Harry Morgan, who appeared alongside Wayne in a key scene in How the West Was Won, plays Carson City’s marshal, who isn’t exactly heartbroken to discover his newest “citizen” is critically ill (Morgan’s glee at Books’ misfortune borders on comedy). In addition, there’s Richard Boone (The Alamo) as a former adversary of Books’ who is itching to be the one to end his life; and John Carradine (Stagecoach) as an opportunistic undertaker.

But The Shootist is all about John Wayne, and he is outstanding in the lead role, delivering an understated performance as a man past his prime who nonetheless commands respect, and maintains his strength and dignity throughout; he kicks the ass (literally) of an exploitative reporter (Rick Lenz) who wants to write an expose of his life, and the scenes in which he and Bacall’s character butt heads, only to develop a mutual respect for one another, are a definite highlight.

Bacall was nominated for a BAFTA award as Best Lead Actress, while Ron Howard received a nod from the Golden Globes for his supporting role in the film. Both nominations were well-deserved, but The Shootist is John Wayne’s movie, and he delivers a performance that ranks right up there with his turns in Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers as one of his best.

How fitting that in his final performance, Wayne played a man very much like himself: an icon from a bygone era who knows the end is coming, and is going to go out on his own terms. The Shootist is a movie to treasure.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

#2,752. Brannigan (1975) - John Wayne in the 1970s


Both McQ and Brannigan were John Wayne’s take on the Dirty Harry persona; a no-nonsense cop who isn’t above exacting a little vigilante justice to bring the bad guys to their knees (Wayne reportedly turned down the lead role in Dirty Harry, a decision he came to regret). And don’t let the fact that he was in his mid-to-late 60s at the time throw you: these are two solid crime movies, both featuring gritty performances by their iconic leading man.

Chicago policeman Jim Brannigan (Wayne) is sent to London to fetch notorious American gangster Ben Larkin (John Vernon), who, with the help of his lawyer Mel Fields (Mel Ferrer), has been hiding out there. Shortly after Brannigan arrives in London, however, Larkin is kidnapped by a pair of goons, who demand a huge ransom for his return.

Teaming up with Commander Sir Charles Swann (Richard Attenborough) of Scotland Yard, Brannigan does what he can to track down the kidnappers and retrieve the missing gangster, all the while dodging a killer (Daniel Pilon) hired by Larkin, who is bound and determined to ensure that Brannigan never gets out of London alive.

As it was with McQ a year earlier, Wayne is a force to be reckoned with in Brannigan. In the opening scene, he confronts a Chicago-based counterfeiter, relying on less-than-legal tactics to coerce information out of him, and when in London Brannigan consistently butts heads with Commander Swann, who objects to the fact that his American counterpart is always packing a gun.

The London setting is also used to great effect, and added an intriguing “fish out of water” element to the story (how ironic that one of the last movies John Wayne, the most American of actors, appeared in was set almost entirely in Jolly Old England). There’s also a great car chase scene that concludes on a partially raised London Bridge (it’s my favorite sequence in the movie).

Along with Wayne’s tough-as-nails title character, Vernon delivers a strong performance as the gangster on the run, while Judy Geeson also shines as Detective Sergeant Jennifer Thatcher, who acts as Brannigan’s partner while he’s in the UK.

Throughout his long and storied career, John Wayne made only two significant cop films, both of in the waning years of his life. And while McQ is undoubtedly the better action film, Brannigan, which also boasts a handful of genuinely funny moments (the best being a barroom fight sequence in which both Brannigan and Swann duke it out with the drunken patrons), is the more entertaining of the two.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10