Tuesday, May 31, 2011

#298. The Gravedancers (2006)

Directed By: Mike Mendez

Starring: Dominic Purcell, Clare Kramer, Josie Maram

Tag line: "Unrest in Peace"

Trivia:  The actors met for the first time just two days before shooting began

Right off the bat, let me state for the record that The Gravedancers is not a perfect movie; there are problems at the very beginning of the film (the story gets off to a slow, not to mention predictable,start) as well as the very end (the final few minutes are downright goofy). But any and all weaknesses present in The Gravedancers are ultimately overshadowed by a handful of very inventive, very creepy moments, which are held together by three of the most fascinating ghosts you're likely to ever come across. 

As the funeral for an old friend of theirs is winding down, college buddies Harris (Dominic Purcell), Kira (Josie Maran), and Sid (Marcus Thomas) decide to drive back to the cemetery to give their deceased pal a “proper” send-off. After a few hours of heavy drinking, Sid spots a black envelope leaning against their friend's headstone, inside which is a poem about the joys of life. In their drunken stupor, the friends follow one of the poem's instructions, and dance on several nearby graves. But they soon learn the error of their ways when, over the course of the next several weeks, all three start to experience strange phenomenons, some of which are violent in nature. In desperation, they turn to a pair of paranormal investigators, Vincent (Tchéky Karyo) and Frances (Megahn Perry), who conclude that the poem Sid found in the cemetery was, in fact, a curse, and that the spirits of those whose graves the trio danced upon have returned to seek their revenge. As the ghostly attacks grow ever more intense, the three friends must resort to extreme measures if they're to have any chance at all of surviving this frightening ordeal. 

As I stated above, The Gravedancers doesn't get off to a good start. For one, the scene in the graveyard, where the friends “dance” on the graves, feels a little awkward (probably because none of the three leads are particularly convincing as drunks). Also, their first few “encounters” with the supernatural are about as routine as you can get (While installing an alarm system, Harris hears piano music coming from the other room. Of course, when he investigates, there's nobody sitting at the piano). But all that changes the moment Harris' wife, Allison (Clare Kramer), has a run-in with a truly frightening ghost, one that seems intent on doing her harm. All at once, events in The Gravedancers begin unfolding at a rapid pace, leading up to what I feel is the film's best sequence, where we learn the identities of the spirits "haunting" the three friends. To avoid spoilers, I won't go into too much detail, but I will say that the back stories of the various apparitions are fascinating, to say the least. From there on, I couldn't wait to see how the rest of the story would play out, and with the exception of the ridiculous ending, The Gravedancers lived up to all my expectations. 

Imperfections aside, The Gravedancers is a very entertaining horror film, and while many of the ghostly scares won't be among the most original you've ever seen, the ghosts themselves, pent-up hostilities and all, will more than make up for it.

Monday, May 30, 2011

#297. In The Mood For Love (2000)

Directed By: Wong Kar-Wai

Starring: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung, Ping Lam Siu

Tag line: "Feel the heat, keep the feeling burning, let the sensation explode"

Trivia:  Filming was shifted from Beijing to Macau after Chinese authorities demanded to see the completed script. Wong Kar-Wai never uses scripts.

Out of our quarrels with others we make rhetoric. Out of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry.” – William Butler Yeats 

Lost love can be devastating, yet is not nearly as tragic as true love left unexplored. In The Mood For Love is the story of two people, Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), whose marriages are falling apart, yet in each other they find consolation, reassurance, and, eventually, feelings of a much deeper nature. 

Unfortunately, their personal beliefs keep them from acting upon these feelings. They have doubly suffered; first losing love, and then failing to grasp it when it was once again within reach.

The setting is Hong Kong in the 1960's. Mrs. Chan and her husband are renting a room in an apartment building, yet because he's frequently away on business, Mrs. Chan spends many evenings alone. Renting the room right next door to them is Mr. Chow. Mr. Chow's wife also works late hours, which means he spends a great deal of time alone as well. 

Before long, the two lonely spouses begin to suspect that their significant others are having affairs, and upon comparing notes, discover that the ‘other woman’ sharing Mr. Chan’s bed is none other than Mr. Chow’s wife! 

The mutual heartache Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow experience as a result of this infidelity develops into a friendship, and that friendship soon leads to a deep affection for one another.  Yet their refusal to behave as badly as their spouses prevents the two from ever becoming intimate with one another, thus denying themselves a love affair that might have changed their lives.

From this elementary story, In The Mood For Love weaves a complexly emotional tale of how convention and ethics can sometimes lead to loneliness and betrayal. Director Wong Kar-Wai, one of the most dynamic filmmakers of recent times, has often dabbled in the theme of lost love (his earlier film, Chungking Express, tells not one, but two stories of failed romance). With In The Mood For Love, he brings the injured parties together, yet does not follow the standard plot line by allowing them to become romantically involved (at least not on a physical level).

Along with its fascinating tale of unrequited affection, the cinematic style of In The Mood For Love is also quite impressive. As the scorned duo make their way through the lonely streets of Hong-Kong, the camera follows their movements in slow-motion, as if the two were walking along in a dream state. Aside from stylistically enhancing the film, scenes such as these also work towards developing the characters of Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow; as the world around them passes by, they are either unable or unwilling to keep up with it.

While exploring the turbulent emotions and conflicting societal mores that can make or break a relationship, In the Mood for Love manages to be simultaneously heartbreaking and poetic, flowing as smoothly as a classical sonata composed by a maestro. The story may be a simple one, but its execution, combined with the marvelously realized setting and oft-hypnotic tone, work to make In the Mood for Love an unforgettably marvelous cinematic experience.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

#296. Re-Animator (1985)

Directed By: Stuart Gordon

Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton

Tag line: "Herbert West Has A Very Good Head On His Shoulders... And Another One In A Dish On His Desk"

Trivia:  The special effects department went through 25 gallons of fake blood during the shoot

My first inclination as I sit down to write up my thoughts on Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator is to fling a series of superlatives your way. 

Many come leaping to mind, including ”thrilling”, “remarkable”, and even “fantabulous” (which is strange, seeing as I never once used that word before today). 

I could go on and on, filling this entire piece with one glowing adjective after another, strung together to convey the excitement I now feel at having re-visited this film.  But I will exercise restraint, and limit my praise to the following, simple remark: 

Re-Animator is one hell of an entertaining motion picture! 

Eager young scientist Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), who spent several years studying in Zurich, returns to the United States under the pretense that he wishes to continue his education at Miskatonic University, a prestigious Massachusetts-based medical school. 

But the truth of the matter is that West is just looking for some peace and quiet in which to continue his “experiments”: the re-animation of dead tissue. Shortly after settling in, West goes to work testing a serum he believes will bring the dead back to life, and even convinces his new roommate, Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), to assist him. 

The serum is a success, but with one terrible side effect: those brought back no longer resemble human beings!  They are, instead, bloodthirsty creatures that threaten the safety of everyone they encounter, including West himself.  

There isn't a bad performance to be found in Re-Animator. Bruce Abbott is solid as Dan Cain, the young man who is engaged to be married to Megan (Barbara Crampton), the daughter of Miskatonic's Dean, Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson). By assisting Herbert West in his questionable “experiments”, Dan puts his entire future in jeopardy.  

Also excellent is David Gale as leading brain surgeon and noted professor, Dr. Carl Hill, who quarrels openly with West. A shady sort, Hill also has his eye on Megan, and will stop at nothing to possess her. 

But the stand-out performance is delivered by Jeffrey Combs, who is wonderful as the oft-obnoxious Herbert West. Herbert is as arrogant as he is brilliant; when first introduced to Dr. Hill, Herbert insults him by calling his theories on brain death “out-dated”. He is a pompous, self-centered jerk, but an extremely bright one, and Combs perfectly conveys every nuance of this complex character's personality. 

To coincide with his engaging characters, director Stuart Gordon fills Re-Animator with plenty of eye-popping gore (an appropriate description, when you consider what happens to West's first human guinea pig). At one point, West and Cain sneak into a morgue and administer a dose of serum to a recently deceased patient named Melvin (played by Peter Kent). As expected, Melvin leaps to his feet and begins tearing the place apart, going so far as to bite off a few of Dean Halsey's fingers in the process. It's the first of several blood-soaked scenes, but far from the bloodiest. 

Lifting my temporary ban on hyperbole, let me conclude by saying that Re-Animator is a gloriously over-the-top horror/comedy featuring a number of fascinating characters, encapsulated within a story that flows with vivacity and verve. I simply cannot recommend this film enough.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

#295. S.O.B. (1981)

Directed By: Blake Edwards

Starring: Julie Andrews, William Holden, Richard Mulligan

Tag line: "Once upon a time in Hollywood..."

Trivia:  This was William Holden's last movie

S.O.B. is the cinematic equivalent of a scathing piece of hate mail, addressed by director Blake Edwards to every actor, producer, publicist and agent working in the motion picture industry. With its hilariously damning representation of the Hollywood system, S.O.B. leads one to the conclusion that, while Tinseltown may, indeed, be rotten to its core, it hasn’t lost its sense of humor. 

Producer Felix Farmer (Robert Mulligan) suffers a nervous breakdown when his latest film, an overpriced family movie titled Night Wind, bombs at the box office. 

When his numerous attempts at suicide fail, Felix does the next best thing: he buys Night Wind back from the studio, then sets out to turn his kiddie-friendly failure into a pornographic blockbuster! 

For his glorious plan to succeed, however, Felix must convince his estranged wife, squeaky-clean family film icon Sally Miles (Julie Andrews), to appear in a nude scene. Ignoring the advice of good friend Tim Culley (William Holden) and family doctor Irving Finegarten (Robert Preston), Felix goes ahead with his crazy plan, and in the process generates a media buzz unlike any Hollywood has seen before! 

The potshots that director Edwards takes at the so-called “professionals” populating the Hollywood system hit their mark often, and with deadly accuracy. David Blackman (Robert Vaughn), the president of Capital pictures, is a bottom-line executive who expects every film to not only turn a profit, but come in under a certain running time (if he feels a movie is too long, Blackman, who fancies himself a skilled editor, will personally cut it to shreds). 

Along with the executives, S.O.B. also takes a few pokes at the agents, who - if Edwards is to be believed - amount to little more than blood-sucking parasites. When Sally tearfully announces her intentions to divorce Felix, her long-time agent Eva (Shelley Winters) and publicist Ben (Robert Webber) abstain from offering any personal condolences, worrying instead about the effect a broken marriage will have on their client's “image”. 

As a parallel to its often cold-hearted approach to the business end of the industry, S.O.B. reveals, in no uncertain terms, that Hollywood is morally bankrupt, a place where sex and debauchery are used to seal million-dollar contracts. 

Amidst exposing all the treachery and tangled webs of deceit, S.O.B. also finds time to offer up a barrage of uproarious jokes and brilliant sight gags. Webber and Preston are especially funny in their respective roles, and a late scene, where they (along with Holden's Culley) get plastered is one the the film's funniest. 

It’s been rumored that Blake Edwards made S.O.B. in response to the horrible experience he had directing 1970's Darling Lili, a movie that went way over budget, then bombed at the box-office. Perhaps S.O.B. was a form of therapy, a way for the longtime filmmaker to release some of his pent-up frustrations. 

If you listen closely, you might even hear the sound of Edwards’ teeth gnashing in the background. 

That is, if you can hear it over the laughter.

Friday, May 27, 2011

#294. Lenny (1974)

Directed By: Bob Fosse

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine, Jan Miner

Tag line: "Lenny's Time Has Finally Come"

Trivia:  Singer Neil Diamond was originally selected to play Lenny, but declined the role

British author Horace Walpole once wrote “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think”. For comedian Lenny Bruce, whose career was plagued by censorship and legal battles, there was no differentiating between the two. In Lenny, comedy and tragedy existed as one. 

Based on Julian Barry’s Broadway play, director Bob Fosse’s Lenny throws a spotlight on Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman), perhaps the single most influential stand-up comedian of his - or indeed any - generation. The film follows Bruce from his early days in the Catskills, working as a bit comic in strip joints and night clubs, to the height of his popularity, when his profanity-laced take on politics, society and everyday life brought him a notoriety most performers could only dream of. 

Unfortunately, fame had its share of hardships as well. With a style considered far too controversial for early 1960’s America, Bruce was arrested several times for obscenity, leading to a series of court battles that would drain his spirit as well as his bank account. 

In conjunction with it's title character's legal woes, Lenny also takes us behind-the-scenes, outlining the comedian's tumultuous personal life, including his marriage to former stripper Honey Harlow (Valerie Perrine) and his well-publicized drug problems, which would ultimately cost him his life (in August of 1966, Lenny Bruce was found dead in his home, the victim of an accidental overdose). 

Ultimately, it's this combination of public image and private turmoil that makes Lenny such an impressive cinematic achievement. When on-stage, Bruce was a dynamo of creativity, rattling off observations that were simultaneously poignant and hilarious. Dustin Hoffman does a masterful job harnessing the great comic's energy, but the film's most intense scenes are those that take place away from the spotlight, focusing on the drama that played out behind closed doors. With magnificent performances across the board, Lenny shies away from nothing, and in so doing becomes much more than your run-of-the-mill biopic. 

In the end, it was Lenny Bruce himself who provided his own epitaph, stating he owed everything to “the existence of segregation, violence, despair, disease and injustice”. By attacking such issues at a time when nobody else was doing so, and in a way no one else dared, Lenny Bruce captured the attention of the entire world, and it proved more than he could handle.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

#293. A Bothered Conscience (2006)

Directed By: Dennis Smithers Jr.

Starring: Dennis Smithers Sr., Stephen Martin, MacFarland Martin

Tag line: "Some family legacies...are better left alone!"

Trivia:  Writer/director Dennis Smithers Jr. used the pseudonym Reeve Gatlin for his credit as cinematographer

A word of advice: if you ever find yourself in the back woods of Arkansas, watch where you tread! 

Keller McGavin (Dennis Smithers Sr.) is a no-nonsense hillbilly who “protects” his land from any and all trespassers. Bottom line: if you take one step onto Keller's property, he'll make damn sure it's the last you ever take. Over the course of two decades, more than 40 people have gone missing in the woods surrounding Keller McGavin's home, and not even the Sheriff (MacFarland Martin) has been able to bring an end to the carnage. When Keller himself is murdered by a trespasser, his son, Lucas (Stephen Martin) has to step up and defend the family's land. But the young man must also deal with a horror his father never experienced; the spirits of those killed by the elder McGavin have returned, and are seeking their revenge. 

One of the biggest strengths of A Bothered Conscience is the film's two central characters: Keller McGavin and his son, Lucas. Dennis Smithers Sr. (who looks almost identical to Bill Moseley's Otis Driftwood from The Devil's Rejects) is a flat-out bad ass as Keller McGavin, and even though he isn't the most talented actor, I'd argue he's the perfect one for this role. When it comes to protecting his land, Keller is a cold-blooded killer, and we're privy to more than a few of his violent outbursts (an unlucky school teacher, played by Tina O'Neal, whose only crime was taking wildlife pictures, quickly realizes the error of her ways when she's introduced to the claw end of a hammer). A Bothered Conscience then takes an unexpected turn at about the halfway point, veering off into supernatural territory once Lucas assumes his father's role as protector. A few of these later scenes are damned eerie, and are anchored by the solid performance of Stephen Martin, who successfully conveys the inner turmoil of a deeply troubled young man. 

If I had one complaint about the film, it would be its structure; there are many times (especially at the outset) when A Bothered Conscience jumps from kill scene to kill scene with no real rhyme or reason. With so much disjointed violence, none of which is properly set up, I got the feeling I was watching a montage of random kills as opposed to a feature film. Structural deficiencies aside, however, A Bothered Conscience does offer more than its share of shocks, all of which are built around two very disturbing lead characters.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

#292. Savage Beach (1989)

Directed By: Andy Sidaris

Starring: Dona Speir, Hope Marie Carlton, John Aprea

Tag line: "Run for cover. This is no ordinary day in the sun..."

Trivia:  All principal actresses in this film were former Playboy Playmates

Savage Beach is an action/adventure about drug smugglers, spies, and stolen shipments of gold. It also has former Playboy Playmates in skimpy outfits firing automatic weapons. 

You tell me...which is the stronger draw? 

Donna (Dona Speir) and Taryn (Hope Marie Carlton), two drug enforcement agents based in Hawaii, have been chosen by their superior to transport vital medical supplies to a remote island hospital. The mission is a success, but on their return flight, the girls encounter a severe storm, and are forced to make an emergency landing on a seemingly deserted island. What they don't know is this island is the resting place of a lost shipment of gold, which the Japanese army swiped from the Philippines during World War II. Many parties (including the United States Navy) are interested in recovering this gold, and descend upon the island to join in a frantic search for its whereabouts. Caught in the middle of a dangerous situation, Donna and Taryn do their best to keep out of sight, all the while dodging a Japanese soldier who's been stranded on the island since the 1940's, and believes the war is still going on.

Savage Beach is exploitation in its purest form. As the story opens, Donna and Taryn, with the assistance of fellow agents (and fellow babes) Patty (Patty Duffek) and Rocky (Lisa London), are conducting a drug raid on a heavily-guarded warehouse. There's action aplenty in this opening sequence, which features automatic weapons fire, hand-to-hand combat, and even an exploding van. So what's the first bit of slow-motion we're treated to? It's of a topless Patty jumping into a hot tub with her three cohorts (who are also topless) to celebrate their successful raid. Along with the skin shots, Savage Beach also offers lots of dialogue laced with sexual innuendo. In one hilarious exchange, Donna and her “boss”, the muscular Shane Abilene (Michael J. Shane), are reviewing some new weaponry the agency just sent over. “Are you comfortable with a big gun?” Shane asks Donna, to which she replies, “They have their advantages”. “This baby's bigger than most any other around”, Shane continues, practically licking his lips as he says it. “I'm not as impressed with size as I am with performance” she shoots back, staring into his eyes. And that's not even the half of it; the exchange goes on for another couple minutes, and gets steamier with each new syllable. By the time they finally packed the damn gun away, I was ready to light up a cigarette!

So, what's my final assessment of director Andy Sidaris' Savage Beach? I'll sum it up for you in the following two reflections: 

1. Despite being easy on the eyes, Playboy Playmates don't make the most convincing Drug Enforcement Agents. On top of that, the action scenes are poorly executed, and the whole “stolen gold” sub-plot is so ludicrously complex that it's impossible to follow. 

2. As Donna and Taryn are navigating their small plane through that heavy storm, they pause for a moment (in mid-flight, no less) to peel off their wet T-shirts and towel down. 

Now, I ask you, what's not to love about this film? 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

#291. Squirm (1976)

Directed By: Jeff Lieberman

Starring: Don Scardino, Patricia Pearcy, R.A Dow

Tag line: "The Night is Crawling with Killers"

Trivia: Kim Basinger was at one point considered for the female lead in this film

Before watching Squirm, a '70's horror flick in which man-eating worms attack a small town, I hadn't really thought all that much about earthworms, but did harbor a few preconceptions about them. First off, I always thought they were a little gross. Second, I didn't see any reason in the world to be afraid of them. After seeing this film, I have to admit I've changed my mind: earthworms are extremely gross.

But frightening? Nah...not in the least.

A severe storm has battered the Georgia coastline, and particularly hard hit was the small community of Fly Creek. Every road into and out of town remains impassable, and all electrical power has been knocked out. But that's the least of Fly Creek's worries. A few miles away, a downed power line is pumping thousands of volts of electricity into the wet soil, causing the underground worm population to go ballistic. Mick (Don Scardino), a native New Yorker, has just arrived in town to spend the weekend with his girlfriend, Geri (Patricia Pearcy). As the two are investigating the mysterious disappearance of a local antiques dealer, they uncover, instead, a shocking bit of information: the entire community is about to be overrun by carnivorous worms.

Considering it's a film about monster worms, Squirm gets off to a great start. For one, I was completely caught up in the mystery of what happened to poor old Mr. Beardsley, the antiques dealer who seemingly vanished into thin air. Sure, Mick and Geri find a skeleton lying on his property, but who's to say it's his? The way the two go about trying to determine the skeleton's identity is intriguing, to say the least. Along with the mystery, there's also a particularly solid special effects sequence, courtesy of award-winning make-up artist Rick Baker. As Geri is out on a boat, fishing with her dim-witted neighbor, Roger (R.A. Dow), Roger makes an aggressive pass at her. In trying to get away, Geri pushes Roger, causing him to fall face-first into the pile of worms they were using as bait. Suddenly, Roger lets out a scream, and when he stands up, we see why: the worms are burrowing into his face! It's truly an awesome sight, and also manages to crank the tension up a few notches when Roger, worms and all, runs off into the woods and disappears (for the time-being, anyway). Needless to say, at this point in the film, I was totally into Squirm, and couldn't wait to see what happened once the worms launched their attack on Fly Creek. If it's half as cool as that scene on the boat, I reasoned, then I was in for a treat.

Unfortunately, it isn't “half as cool”. It isn't even a tenth as awesome. In fact, the whole Worm Armageddon is downright lame, and all the build-up to it, handled so well for an hour and 15 minutes, falls apart in the closing scenes. Most disappointing of all were the attacking hordes of earthworms, which looked more like large piles of rubber bands being pushed along the floor. At the outset, Squirm left a lot to the audience's imagination. For example, we never actually see the worms attach themselves to Roger's face; we're only privy to the aftermath. By going for broke in the closing moments and attempting to show tens of thousands of worms taking their frustrations out on the innocent Fly Creekians (Fly Creekites?), Squirm opts for the visible over the vague, resulting in a series of scenes that fall flat on their face. Considering how absorbing the movie had been up to that point, this finale is a real let-down.

Poor ending aside, Squirm is an effective film for most of its running time; well executed, well paced, and truly entertaining. It's definitely worth a watch, and even if Squirm won't keep you up at night looking for worms underneath your bed, it will, at the very least, put you off your spaghetti dinner.

Monday, May 23, 2011

#290. In America (2003)

Directed By: Jim Sheridan

Starring: Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou

Trivia:  Samantha Morton, who plays Sarah, was 25 years old when the movie was filmed. She is only 14 years older than Sarah Bolger, who plays her eldest daughter, Christy, in the film.

What is it that prevents director Jim Sheridan’s In America from slipping into the category of a sappy melodrama? At first glance, not much. A handful of that particular genre's clichés are here for the taking: a family dealing with a tragedy, a difficult pregnancy, a terminally ill neighbor, etc., etc. 

Sounds like a TV movie of the week, doesn’t it? 

Well, I’m here to tell you that if you avoid this film because you've "seen it all before", you’re depriving yourself of a wonderful experience. Jim Sheridan has been called a master storyteller, and In America may just be his crowning achievement. 

Johnny (Paddy Considine), an actor who hopes to make it on Broadway, moves his family - which includes his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) and their two daughters Christy and Ariel (played by real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) - from Canada to New York City. Along with getting his career off the ground, Johnny is looking for a fresh start after losing his only son, Frankie, who died recently following a fall down some stairs. But making a life in New York isn’t going to be easy for Johnny, who struggles with Frankie’s death each and every day. Fortunately, the love and support of his young family may just carry him through. 

One of the things that saves In America from becoming a typical melodrama are the excellent performances. The film was graced with three Academy Award nominations, two of which were for acting (Samantha Morton for Best Actress, and Djimon Hounsou, who plays the sickly neighbor Mateo, for Best Supporting Actor). But as wonderful as Considine, Morton and Hounsou are, the real showstoppers in this movie are the Bolger sisters. These girls shine in every scene they appear in, and their characters bring a spark of life to a family suffering incredible hardships. It’s through their eyes that we see the hope for better days, even if those days usually seem a bit out of reach. 

That said, the pivotal character of In America is one who never appears on-screen: the deceased son, Frankie. Johnny has never fully recovered from Frankie’s death, and at one point says to Mateo, “The last time I talked with God, I made a deal with him to take me instead of Frankie. Instead, he took us both”. Johnny walks through life as if he were a ghost, devoid of any feelings, a definite drawback for a man trying to get a job as an actor. Lucky for him, Sarah, Ariel and Christy (who doubles as the film's narrator) are there to remind Johnny he has something to live for. 

By taking the standard plotlines and molding them around a wonderful small family, In America stands as a shining example of how a formula, when done with warmth and energy, can still seem entirely fresh.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

#289. White Zombie (1932)

Directed By: Victor Halperin

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn

Tag line: "The Dead Walk Among Us!"

Trivia: Rob Zombie named his first Heavy Metal band after this film.

Considered the first feature-length zombie film ever made, White Zombie is also one of the best, boasting yet another top-notch performance by the legendary Bela Lugosi.

The setting is Haiti. Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harron), who are engaged to be married, are traveling by horse-drawn carriage to the home of wealthy plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). Beaumont has agreed to allow Neil and Madeline to have their wedding on his enormous estate. 

What the young couple doesn't realize is that Beaumont himself is in love with the bride-to-be, and intends to prevent the marriage from taking place. To this end, he enlists the help of Murder Legendre (Lugosi), a voodoo master who has developed a potion that transforms a normal person into a mindless zombie. Legendre agrees to help, and gives Beaumont a sample of his elixir to use on Madeline. 

The potion works as promised, but Beaumont comes to regret turning the love of his life into an emotionless zombie, and asks Legendre to change her back. When Legendre refuses to do so, it kicks off a battle of wills between the two men, one that takes a horrifying turn the moment Legendre summons his “associates” to join in the fracas.

Fresh off his star-making role in Dracula, White Zombie provided Bela Lugosi with yet another chance to show off his patented “hypnotic stare” (when he first meets Madeline, Legendre gazes directly into her eyes, mesmerizing the young girl so completely that he is able to snatch a scarf from around her neck). Of course, the real stars of White Zombie are the zombies themselves, and for a film made almost 80 years ago, these creatures are really quite alarming. When we first lay eyes on the undead, they are creeping down the side of a hill towards the carriage carrying Madeline and Neil to Beaumont's estate. Their faces are hidden by the shadows, but as they slowly make their way forward, the driver of the coach, a native Haitian, realizes who (or should I say what) they are, and speeds away. 

We see even more of them at Legendre's “factory”, where, to save money on labor, the evil voodoo expert has put his mindless guinea pigs to work. An unfortunate zombie even falls into the equipment at one point and is instantly killed. The others pay no mind whatsoever to his demise, and carry on with their work as if nothing happened.  It's a scene that, even today, will send a chill racing down your spine. Just imagine how it played to an audience in 1932!

Aside from being the first of its kind, White Zombie is also a bona-fide classic, a film that, like many of the great Universal horror movies, has withstood the test of time.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

#288. The Naked Spur (1953)

Directed By: Anthony Mann

Starring: James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan

Tag line: "Packed with Technicolor Thrills!"

Trivia:  When this film was released in Spain, its title was changed to "Colorado Jim"

James Stewart teamed with director Anthony Mann on five westerns, starting with Winchester 73 in 1950 and continuing through to 1955’s The Man from Laramie. Aside from turning out five excellent films (which also included Bend of the River and The Far Country), this pairing marked a change of pace for Stewart. Gone was the disillusioned do-gooder of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; the loveable underdog of It’s a Wonderful Life; and the eternal optimist of Harvey. Under Mann’s skillful direction, Stewart explored intense characters, men hardened by life who were looking for a way to come out on top, whatever the cost. In thee movies, James Stewart got his chance to walk on the dark side, and by all appearances he was just as comfortable in the shadows as he was the light. 

Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a bounty hunter from Kansas, has been tracking wanted murderer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) for hundreds of miles. With the help of two partners he picked up along the way: unlucky prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and dishonorably discharged Union soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), Kemp does finally capture both Vandergroat and his companion, Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), a young girl the fugitive has been looking after for some time. 

Unfortunately for Kemp and the others, the journey back to Kansas to collect the $5000 bounty is fraught with dangers on all sides, not the least of which is the threat they pose to one another once greed rears its ugly head.  Before long, each man is looking for a way to claim the reward for themselves. 

As with many of Mann’s films, there are no clear-cut heroes in The Naked Spur, nor are there any obvious villains. Stewart’s Kemp is bound and determined to bring a wanted man to justice, but only so he can collect the reward. The fact that Vandergroat may actually be innocent means nothing to him. “it’s him they’re paying the reward on”, he reasons. Kemp even tries at one point to swindle Roy and Jesse, who helped capture Vandergroat, out of their share of the bounty. 

On the reverse side of the coin, Vandergroat is wanted for murder, but has also set himself up as a father figure to Lina, the daughter of his deceased best friend. Vandergrost has gone out of his way to care for the young girl, even if he does use Lina from time to time to stir up tension between Kemp and his ‘partners’. Then there’s Roy, a soldier who was thrown out of the army for taking up with an Indian chief’s daughter (whether the chief’s daughter was a willing partner or not is never disclosed). Wonderfully portrayed by Ralph Meeker, Roy has a nasty disposition, and makes unwanted advances towards Lina every chance he gets. 

With the line separating good from evil erased, none of the individuals in The Naked Spur are particularly trustworthy, character traits that bring a level of unpredictability to the proceedings.  With each man capable of any action, right or wrong, we the audience have no idea what to expect from scene to scene.

And that, my friends, is what makes an Anthony Mann western such a rewarding experience.

Friday, May 20, 2011

#287. Shock Waves (1977)

Directed By: Ken Wiederhorn

Starring: Peter Cushing, Brooke Adams, Fred Buch

Tag line: "Once They Were Almost Human! Beneath the living... Beyond the dead... From the depths of Hell's Ocean! The Deep End of Horror!"

Trivia:  Headlining stars John Carradine and Peter Cushing each worked four days and earned $5,000 each

If there's one image that will stay with you after watching Shock Waves, it's that of a Nazi soldier, fully decked out in his uniform and wearing dark goggles, slowly emerging from the deep, dark sea. It's repeated several times throughout Shock Waves, and no matter how many times you see it, it'll still manage to unnerve you. 

When the boat they're traveling in collides with a mysterious ship, a group of vacationers find themselves stranded on a strange island inhabited by a former SS Nazi Commander (Peter Cushing). Having been on the island since the end of the war, this commander tells the story of an elite SS unit he himself created, one so powerful that the Allies could never defeat them. What made these particular soldiers so unique was that they were zombies, soldiers killed in battle who were resurrected so they could go on fighting. Now, as a result of the accident, these zombies have awoken from their watery grave, and unless the vacationers can find a way off the island, they'll surely be the undead soldier's next group of victims. 

Despite the fact it was made on such a small budget (estimated at $200k), Shock Waves co-stars two icons of the horror genre, whose roles, though admittedly brief, add quite a bit to the finished film. John Carradine is at his cantankerous best as the crusty old sea captain, bellowing out orders to his crew and ignoring the concerns of his passengers. He's a mean old cuss (in a fit of anger, he even chucks the boat's radio overboard), bringing a little flavor to the film's opening scenes. Yet it's Peter Cushing who gets the more prominent part as the SS Commander whose “army” has come back, looking for blood. Cushing, a veteran of Hammer's various horror franchises, spends most of his screen time worrying, and the rest dolling out warnings, yet his very presence is enough to get the audience's attention. 

Shock Waves is definitely a slow burn, and those looking for non-stop action chock-full of blood and gore may ultimately be disappointed. But if you're patient enough to stay with it, Shock Waves will prove a chilling bit of escapist entertainment.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

#286. The Devil Commands (1941)

Directed By: Edward Dmytryk

Starring: Boris Karloff, Anne Revere, Amanda Duff

Tag line: "This mad wizard kills at will in Satan's service!"

Trivia:  The story was adapted from the novel The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane.

The Devil Commands tells a fascinating story, that of a scientist who, having discovered a means for recording human brain wave activity, utilizes his research in an attempt to communicate with the dead. Of course, the fact that the scientist is played by none other than Boris Karloff doesn't hurt matters, either. 

Dr. Julian Blair (Karloff) is a University scientist who believes he's found a way to map the distinct pattern of human brain waves, a precursor, he believes, to being able to read one's mind. But when his beloved wife, Helen (Shirley Warde), is tragically killed in an auto accident, Blair refocuses his attention, using his research into brain patterns to try and build a machine that will allow him to communicate with the dead. Having moved his laboratory to a secluded New England mansion, Blair cuts himself off from the rest of the world, and not even his daughter, Anne (Amanda Duff) or Richard (Richard Fiske), his faithful assistant of many years, are able to dissuade him from continuing his mad experiments. Things go from bad to worse when a nosy maid (Dorothy Adams) uncovers the true nature of Blair's 'experiments', which are more ghastly than anyone could have ever imagined. 

Throughout The Devil Commands, we watch as Dr. Blair slowly descends into madness, a fall made all the more tragic thanks to the multi-layered performance of Boris Karloff. As the film opens, Blair is demonstrating his equipment for reading brain patterns to a group of his associates at the University, during which he possesses both a sharp mind and an eager attitude. His wife, Helen, even makes an appearance, interrupting the experiment to remind Blair that they're picking their daughter up at the train station later that evening. The love Blair feels for his wife is well conveyed in these scenes, which only deepens our feelings of remorse when she's killed a short while later. The death of his wife proves much too much for Blair. Blair's daughter, Anne, who also acts as the film's narrator, says at one point “I lost my mother that night, and when she...went away, I started to lose my father, too”. The incisive, intelligent man we were introduced to at the start of the film slowly disappears before our eyes, replaced by one who will stop at nothing to reconnect with his dead wife, not even grave-robbing. Like the type of character one might expect to find in a story penned by Edgar Allan Poe, Blair is a truly tragic figure, a man who has thrown his life away in the pursuit of love, and Karloff is nothing short of brilliant in the role, carrying us from one extreme to the next with the greatest of ease. 

The Devil Commands does fall apart in the end, resorting to the age-old cliché of angry townsfolk storming the mansion (I swear one of them had a pitchfork), ready to dish out their own brand of vigilante justice on the man who's caused so much grief in their community. That slight failing aside, The Devil Commands does succeed in weaving an interesting tale, with a great performance from Boris Karloff to support it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

#285. The Wild Bunch (1969)

Directed By: Sam Peckinpah

Starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan

Tag line: "Unchanged men in a changing land. Out of step, out of place and desperately out of time."

Trivia:  The shootout that ends the film took 12 days to shoot, and when completed, had used sonewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 rounds of simulated bullets

"The outlaws of the west have always fascinated me”, director Sam Peckinpah once said, “They were strong individuals. In a land for all intents and purposes without law, they made their own”. 

In The Wild Bunch, we meet a few of these "strong individuals", and, along the way, discover that the ability to make your own laws doesn't necessarily equate to freedom; in fact, the opposite can be true. Having known nothing but lawlessness for many years, these characters are now trapped, unable to break free of the lives they've created for themselves.

In the days leading up to World War I, an aging gang of outlaws, under the leadership of Pike Bishop (William Holden), sets out to rob a Texas bank, a heist they hope will provide a pay-off big enough to fund their retirement. Their robbery is foiled, however, by Pike’s old partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former outlaw who has been hired to bring his 'associates' to justice, Pike and his gang, which includes his good friend, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), and the Gorch brothers, Lyle (Warren Oates) and Hector (Ben Johnson), are forced to make other arrangements. 

With no money and little opportunity to obtain any in America, they ride south of the border, where they land a job stealing guns for General Mapache (Emilio Fernández). Mapache is a violent military leader bent on conquering all of Mexico, and lacks only the firearms to make his dream a reality. 

But when Mapache changes the terms of their agreement, Pike and his men decide it's time to give the General a taste of his own medicine.

Through bloody violence and a raw depiction of life on the run, Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch single-handedly deglamorizes the American West, stripping away the mythology of righteousness that was forged for decades in the furnace of Hollywood. 

In its place, we're left with the brutal reality of a land without order, where trust and honor are a rare commodity. For the aging outlaws in The Wild Bunch, who are tired of killing, tired of running, and tired of a west that has afforded them no peace whatsoever, there is little honor to be found, no freedom to comfort them. 

There is only the cold reality that falling asleep with a gun in your hand isn't a precaution; in this land, it's a necessity.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

#284. The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982)

Directed By: Stephen Carpenter, Jeffrey Obrow

Starring: Laurie Lapinski, Stephen Sachs, David Snow

Tag line: "When the kidding stops... the killing starts!"

Trivia:  This film was also released under the title Pranks

The Dorm That Dripped Blood opens with a guy on the run, trying to elude an unseen stalker. He jumps into some nearby bushes, hoping they'll shield him from whoever it is that's after him, but his assailant's one step ahead, grabbing the victim's throat from behind before slicing his hand with a butcher's knife. It's just the sort of opening you'd expect to find in an early 80's slasher film, which is exactly what The Dorm That Dripped Blood is. Adhering to formulas already well-established by 1982, The Dorm That Dripped Blood is an entertaining entry in what quickly became an over-crowded sub-genre. 

Morgan Meadows Hall, which, for decades, functioned as a co-op college dormitory, is scheduled to be closed. With most students already gone for Christmas break, five remain behind to pack up the soon-to-be abandoned hall. Under the guidance of student leader Joanne (Laurie Lapinsi), they have two weeks to clear the building out from top to bottom, which means they'll have to work quickly. But there's someone else at Morgan Meadows also moving pretty fast, a mysterious killer who's set his sights squarely on the five unsuspecting volunteers. 

As you can imagine, The Dorm That Dripped Blood is every bit a standard 80's slasher flick, from its story (a group of kids stalked by a homicidal maniac) right down to the POV shots that occasionally pop up, where we're looking through the eyes of the killer. There's even a twist ending (one that's long on exposition, and short on credibility). Where The Dorm That Dripped Blood distinguishes itself from the others is its creative kill scenes. Debbie (played by Daphne Zuniga, in her screen debut) is one of the five staying behind to clean up the Hall. Unfortunately, Debbie's mother called, and she wants her daughter home for the Holidays. But when Debbie's parents arrive to pick her up, someone else is watching their every move. As her father (Richard Cowgill) ascends a dark flight of stairs, the killer is on his way down them, brandishing a baseball bat with nails sticking out of the end of it (a weapon that, for some reason, always gives me the heebie-jeebies). It's no mystery what happens when they meet up, and The Dorm That Dripped Blood isn't shy about showing it all, and in graphic detail (I counted nine whacks to the head). It's the first of many such slaughters, with the killer using everything at his disposal, from a pressure cooker to a power drill, to finish off his unsuspecting prey. 

By the time The Dorm That Dripped Blood was released, slashers had already taken the cinematic world by storm. Films like Halloween and Friday the 13th broke box-office records, while firmly establishing the formulas that would dominate the sub-genre for years to come. The Dorm That Dripped Blood doesn't break any new ground, but it gets the job done, and is a film most slasher fans will undoubtedly enjoy.

Monday, May 16, 2011

#283. Dial M For Murder (1954)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings

Tag line: "Is this the man she was waiting for... or the man who was waiting for her?"

Trivia:  Ranked #9 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 Greatest Mystery Films

Peter Bogdanovich once asked Alfred Hitchcock why he directed 1954’s Dial M for Murder, a thriller based on Frederick Knott’s successful stage play. The reply that he received was pure Hitchcock. “When the batteries are running dry”, Hitch told Bogdanovich, “take a hit play and shoot it”. 

Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), a retired tennis pro living in London, recently discovered that his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) is having an affair with American Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Fearing he’ll be tossed aside, and thus cut off from Margot’s vast fortune, Wendice devises a plan in which his wife will be murdered by a complete stranger, clearing the way for him to inherit her money. 

To set his scheme in motion, Wendice blackmails Charles Swan (Anthony Dawson), a former college acquaintance with a shady past, and coerces Swan into killing Margot one night while he himself is out. But things go very wrong, forcing Wendice to quickly concoct a plan ‘B’, the success of which depends on his ability to convince a nosy Inspector named Hubbard (John Williams) that Margot herself may be guilty of murder. 

Hitchcock’s first choice to play the tennis pro-turned-wife killer was Cary Grant, but having seen Dial M For Murder several times now, I can’t imagine anyone other than Ray Milland in the role. Milland is so devilishly calculating as Wendice, so deliciously deceitful, that I was convinced his character had planned the perfect murder. In fact, about 20 minutes of Dial M for Murder is dedicated to Wendice setting his plot in motion, first blackmailing Swan to carry out the killing, then explaining in full detail exactly how he wants his unwilling accomplice to pull it off. Wendice is smart, cunning and manipulative, and Milland is positively magnificent in the role. In him, Dial M For Murder has a lead who successfully conveys a dual personality, bringing his character’s slimy disposition to the surface, then, when necessary, concealing it behind a mask of flawless sophistication. 

Dial M for Murder has been unfairly relegated to the level of ‘minor Hitchcock’, a film that the director himself, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, said he “could have phoned in”. It is a tribute to the Master of Suspense that, even on cruise control, he could thrill an audience so completely.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

#282. The Oblong Box (1969)

Directed By: Gordon Hessler

Starring: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Rupert Davies

Tag line: "For the first time... the classic tale of the restless dead and their unspeakable hungers!"

Trivia:  Originally, the Markham brothers were meant to be twins and Price was to play both Julian and Edward

Released by American International in 1969, The Oblong Box is a late entry in a series of motion pictures based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Like many of the earlier Poe films (most of which were directed by Roger Corman), The Oblong Box stars Vincent Price, whose very appearance in a movie of this nature is cause for celebration. True to form, the great actor does not disappoint, providing an excellent turn as Julian Markham, a wealthy landowner who's taken it upon himself to safeguard a terrible family secret. But there's more to The Oblong Box than Price's masterful performance; the film also features an incredibly intriguing story, one filled with enough twists and turns to keep its audience guessing to the very end.

The year is 1865, and Julian Markham has just returned to England after spending time at his plantations in Africa. But he didn't come home alone. While in Africa, Julian witnessed a voodoo ceremony that left his brother, Edward (Alister Williamson), terribly disfigured and teetering on the brink of insanity. Kept locked away in his room, Edward longs for a chance to be normal once again, and employes the help of Trench (Peter Arne), the family lawyer, to assist him in breaking free. With money supplied by Edward, Trench hires the services of N'Galo (Harry Baird), a voodoo specialist who concocts a drug that will send Edward into a trance-like state, giving others the impression that he has died. The drug is effective, but before Trench has a chance to steal Edward's “body”, Julian places his brother in a coffin and nails it shut. Yet fate will intervene on Edward's behalf in the form of graverobbers employed by a Dr. Newhartt (Christopher Lee), a surgeon who experiments on the bodies of the deceased. Finally free, Edward's first move is to exact a little revenge against those who were only too happy to allow him to be buried alive.

Plot-wise, The Oblong Box bears no similarities whatsoever to Poe's short story, which was set on a sea voyage from South Carolina to New York. Yet the deviations from the original work will only bother the staunchest Poe aficionados, primarily because the film spins a fascinating tale in its own right, one ripe with mystery and suspense. The Oblong Box is a movie that jealously guards its secrets, chief among them being the appearance of Edward Markham's face. Like Julian, we witness the voodoo ceremony that disfigured Edward, yet we have no idea how deformed he actually is; the opening scenes are shown from Edward's point of view (as if looking through his eyes), and later on, his features are hidden behind a crimson mask. Those unfortunate few who do gaze upon him shrink in horror at the sight, yet we're left wondering how grotesque his appearance truly is. More than this, we have no idea why he was disfigured in the first place. What did he do to deserve such a punishment? These questions, and more besides, will be answered, but all in good time.

One could argue that The Oblong Box is a much more effective mystery than it is a horror film; the grim atmosphere so excellently crafted for earlier Poe-influenced works such as The Pit and the Pendulum is notably absent in The Oblong Box. But what this film lacks in the macabre, it more than makes up for in suspense, weaving a tale that manages to keep us planted firmly on the edge of our seats from start to finish.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

#281. Reap the Wild Wind (1942)

Directed By: Cecil B. DeMille

Starring: Ray Milland, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard

Tag line: "CECIL B. DEMILLE'S MIGHTY SPECTACLE! Men Against Giant Sea Monster 50 Fathoms Down!"

Trivia:  The underwater 'Southern Cross' scenes took two months to film

Cecil B. DeMille was one of the most influential filmmakers in Hollywood history, creating such big-screen spectacles as The Sign of the Cross, The Crusades, The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments. As you can tell by this brief filmography, DeMille had a knack for making big movies, which told larger than life stories and were decked out with casts grand enough to support them. Initially, one might be a bit reluctant to put Reap the Wild Wind in the same category as these other DeMille epics, but I believe that's exactly where it belongs. Reap The Wild Wind is every bit as ambitious as any of the movies I mentioned above, and deserves to take its place among the filmmaker's most exciting works. 

In 1840, the business of America was conducted by sea, and the waters surrounding the Florida Keys were some of the most traveled in the country. Of course, where there are trade ships, you're also likely to find pirates, not to mention profiteers, who grow rich salvaging the cargo of wrecked ships. Loxi Claiborne (Paulette Goddard), a Captain of her own salvage vessel, rescues Capt. Jack Stuart (John Wayne) and his crew when their ship collides with a reef, leaving it paralyzed. But as Loxi is busy pulling the men out of the water, the area’s most notorious profiteers, the Cutter Brothers (Raymond Massey and Robert Preston), make off with Stuart’s cargo. Determined to end the tyranny of the Cutters, Stuart sets out to bring both men to justice. In order to do this, however, he must team up with Steve Tolliver (Ray Milland), the second in command of the shipping company for which he works. Unfortunately, Stuart and Tolliver don’t like each other very much, and their already strained relationship is further complicated when both men fall in love with Loxi. 

If you’re looking for excitement, then Reap The Wild Wind will give you your fill, and then some. The movie starts strongly, with an extremely tense shipwreck scene, and continues at this same pitch through much of the film, culminating in a nail-biting underwater battle with a giant squid. The scenes at sea are especially thrilling, and while I admittedly found the love triangle that develops between the three leads to be somewhat of a show-stopper (another trait of DeMille's, unfortunately: heavy-handed romances that intrude on the action), it wasn't enough of one to hold the film down for long. In true Cecil B. DeMille style, Reap the Wild Wind is a good, old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle.