Thursday, October 31, 2013

#1,172. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Directed By: John Carpenter

Starring: Sam Neill, Jürgen Prochnow, Julie Carmen

Tag line: "Lived Any Good Books Lately?"

Trivia: The building used as the mental institution at the beginning of the film is actually a Toronto-based water filtration plant

From the release of Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976 through to the late ‘80s, John Carpenter turned out some of the finest genre films of the last 50 years, including Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness.

Since the start of the ‘90s, however, the general perception has been that the quality of his work was more hit-and-miss. I subscribe to this theory, but only slightly. I’m a fan of 1998’s oft-criticized Vampires, though his most recent outing, 2010’s The Ward, didn’t impress me at all.

In the Mouth of Madness, Carpenter’s visually stunning 1994 film, offers a unique spin on the apocalypse, and, as far as I'm concerned, is proof positive the great director hadn't yet lost his touch.

Novels written by world renowned horror author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) have been having an unusual effect on their readers, causing everything from paranoia to all-out madness. Yet despite these severe side effects, Cane’s books always make money, and the author’s sudden, unexplained disappearance has left his publisher, Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), with no new book to print.

Having already spent millions promoting Cane’s as-yet-unfinished novel, In the Mouth of Madness, Harglow and his company attempt to recoup some of their losses by filing an insurance claim, at which point John Trent (Sam Neill), an investigator for the insurance company, enters the picture.

Believing Cane’s “disappearance” is nothing more than a publicity stunt, Trent, joined by Cane’s editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), hits the open road, determined to track down the elusive author.. Their journey leads them to Hobbs End, a small town that’s not on any map, but which has served as the central location for all of Cane’s previous novels.

Trent and Styles do, indeed, find Cane in Hobbs End, but quickly realize there’s more to this quaint New England town than meets the eye.

With the exception of one surprising twist at the end, the story that makes up In the Mouth of Madness is fairly straightforward. I even figured out what was going on well before John Trent did. What makes the movie so unique, so wonderful, are its visuals, from the opening sequence set inside a mental institution to the haunting visions that Trent experiences when he attempts to read Cane’s books (including a recurring nightmare in which a cop slowly mutates into a monster). The bizarre, almost Lovecraftian look that Carpenter and his team conjured up for In the Mouth of Madness only grows in intensity the moment Trent and Styles arrive in Hobbs End, a place where absolutely nothing is as it seems.

In the Mouth of Madness was the third and final installment in what Carpenter has deemed his “Apocalyptic Trilogy”, which also included 1982’s The Thing and ‘87's Prince of Darkness. Like those movies, In the Mouth of Madness gets inside your head, and will have you nervously looking over your shoulder as its horrific visuals dance across the screen.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

#1,171. Cockneys vs. Zombies (2012) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Matthias Hoene

Starring: Rasmus Hardiker, Harry Treadaway, Michelle Ryan

Tag line: "The undead are brown bread "

Trivia: Premiered at the 2012 London FrightFest Film Festival

A zombie comedy set in the heart of London? How could one not draw comparisons between director Matthias Hoene’s Cockneys vs. Zombies and 2004’s Shaun of the Dead

But with a bank robbery subplot and plenty of profanity-laced dialogue, Cockneys vs. Zombies actually has more in common with the early films of Guy Ritchie than it does Edgar Wright’s comedy gem.

To save the retirement home where their granddad (Alan Ford) lives (which is scheduled to be closed in two weeks), brothers Terry (Rasmus Hardiker) and Andy (Harry Treadway) stage a daring bank robbery, in the hopes it will net them enough money to buy back the home from the corrupt land developers that purchased it. 
With the help of their cousin Katy (Michelle Ryan), petty thief Davey (Jack Dioolan) and the psychotic Mickey (Ashley Thomas), the heist goes surprisingly well. 

Unfortunately, as the group is inside raking in the cash, the outside world experiences a... change, in the form of a zombie apocalypse!  By the time Terry, Andy, and the others dash out of the bank, zombies have already laid claim to the entire East End of London. 

Hoping to rescue their Granddad and his friends, the brothers battle their way through the hordes of walking dead, doing everything they can to reach the retirement home ahead of the zombies.

Aside from featuring actors who appeared in Guy Ritchie’s first two films (Dexter Fletcher, who played Soap in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, makes a cameo appearance as Terry’s and Andy’s father, while the always entertaining Alan Ford, aka Brick Top in Snatch, is at his hard-nosed best as the brother’s ever-resourceful Granddad), Cockneys Vs. Zombies also boasts a number of colorful criminals. Cousin Katy, played so well by Michelle Ryan, always speaks her mind, while Mickey, an Iraqi war vet with a metal plate in his skull, is so completely unhinged that you never know what he’s going to do next (The first time we meet him, he rams his head into the hood of Terry’s car, leaving a nasty dent). 

All this, along with some witty dialogue and a handful of fast-paced flashback sequences, had me believing Cockneys vs. Zombies took place in a world very similar to the ones found in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, or even RocknRolla.

Of course, what differentiates it from Ritchie’s crime movies are the zombies, which first turn up in the opening scene (two construction workers unearth a crypt sealed hundreds of years earlier, which houses a few corpses that refuse to die). Much like the Romero zombies, the living dead in Cockneys vs. Zombies move extremely slow (in one of the film's funnier sequences, an elderly man with a walker is being pursued by a number of zombies, resulting in a most unusual chase). What’s more, the scenes in which our heroes face off against the living dead are gloriously gory, with some of the movie’s violent images evoking a few laughs as well (when one character is bitten on the arm by a zombie, another shoots the top of the creature's head clean off, leaving nothing behind but its mouth, still clamped shut on its potential victim’s arm).

Aside from a few weaknesses, including CGI blood spurts that look incredibly phony, Cockneys vs. Zombies proved to be a wild, crazy, and hugely entertaining crime / horror movie with a hell of a lot of personality.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

#1,170. The Search for Dracula (1996)

Directed By: Joe Wiecha

Starring: Eli Wallach

Tag line: "The Legend is Real..."

Trivia: This documentary originally aired on the Discovery Channel

While perusing my DVD collection, looking for something appropriate to watch for the Halloween season, I came across this documentary, which I’d purchased (used) for $1.78 at my local FYE store (I found the receipt inside the DVD case). According to its front cover, The Search for Dracula originally aired on the Discovery Channel, but when I tried looking it up on the Internet Movie Database, I came up empty (at 50 minutes long, it was obviously an episode of a larger program, yet I’ve no idea which one).

Anyway, The Search for Dracula is exactly that, a documentary in which scientists and scholars delve into the origins of the Dracula mythos, visiting cemeteries and ancient locales as they pursue the truth behind the legend. Presenting stories of alleged real-life vampires in both the U.S. and abroad, The Search for Dracula tries to separate fact from fiction, proving that, sometimes, reality is more gruesome than anything writers or filmmakers could possibly dream up.

The Search for Dracula contains dozens of film clips, featuring such famous cinematic vampires as Nosferatu and Bela Lugosi (though Lugosi’s sequences are lifted from White Zombie, not 1931’s Dracula), but, for the most part, the movie presents "factual material" pertaining to what it claims are real-life cases of vampirism. One such story stretches back to the days of the U.S. Revolution; using reenactments, The Search for Dracula relates the shocking tale of a Rhode Island farmer (and father of 14) whose children suddenly and inexplicably started dying. In all, seven perished, the first being his 19-year-old daughter, Sarah. Oddly enough, the last three to die claimed Sarah visited them in the night, pressing her hands against their chests. Fearing their daughter was one of the cursed undead, the farmer and his wife traveled to the cemetery and dug up each of their children’s bodies, all of whom had started to decompose, with the exception of Sarah. To end the curse, they cut out Sarah’s heart and burned it.

Not all of the stories in The Search for Dracula deal with the New World; there’s mention of a 1730 religious ceremony that took place in Serbia, where the body of a man believed to be a vampire was exhumed and a stake driven through his heart (according to witnesses, the body let out a groan when the stake was pounded into it). Rounding out the movie is an entire segment dedicated to Vlad Dracul, also known as Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century Romanian Duke who served as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Using professional testimony (as well as clips from a ‘70s Romanian film), The Search for Dracula paints a more subdued picture of Vlad, revealing a leader who, while undoubtedly bloodthirsty, always had his country’s best interests in mind.

In the end, I enjoyed The Search for Dracula, and while I’m sure a more in-depth documentary on the subject exists somewhere, this particular take on vampires is both informative and entertaining.

NOTE: The below trailer is for two movies, the first of which is called "Boneyard". The second trailer is for The Search for Dracula

Monday, October 28, 2013

#1,169. The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Directed By: John Ford

Starring: John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers

Tag line: "...Rides Where Only The Great Ones Go!"

Trivia: The film marked the beginning of mega-deals for Hollywood stars. John Wayne and William Holden received $775,000 each, plus 20% of the overall profits, an unheard-of sum for that time

Here’s a little-known John Ford adventure that deserves more recognition than it’s received. Starring the director’s favorite actor, John Wayne, The Horse Soldiers features an action-packed Civil War-era story, and is one rousingly exciting motion picture.

Hoping to cut off the Confederate army’s supply chain, U.S General Grant (Stan Jones) orders Col. John Marlowe (Wayne) to lead his cavalry unit hundreds of miles into enemy territory and destroy a railway supply center in Newton Station, Mississippi. Joined by the company surgeon, Major Henry Kendall (William Holden), Col. Marlowe drives deep into the heart of the Confederacy, engaging the enemy while, in the process, trying to tame an incorrigible Southern Belle named Miss Hannah (Constance Towers), who does everything she can to disrupt the Cavalry’s advance.

Wayne and Holden are excellent as the two officers at odds with one another (following the death of his wife, which occurred during surgery, Wayne’s Col. Marlowe has little time for doctors), and Constance Towers is also strong as Miss Hannah, the patriotic Confederate Belle who catches wind of the Union plan (to keep her from revealing it to the enemy, she becomes Col. Marlowe’s prisoner, accompanying his cavalry on their trek). The real attraction here, though, is John Ford’s impeccable eye for action, culminating in a number of terrific showdowns between the Union and the Confederates. Along with the thrills, there are other “Ford” touches as well, like the scene where the cadets at a Southern Military Academy, all of whom are teenagers, march out to meet the Northern army (when Col. Marlowe chooses not to fight and instead sounds retreat, the rebel teens let out a victory yell).

Produced three years after his classic The Searchers, Ford’s The Horse Soldiers is, along with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, one of the better films from the tail end of the great director’s career.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

#1,168. The Conjuring (2013)

Directed By: James Wan

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston

Tag line: "Based on the true case files of the Warrens"

Trivia: A movie based on the Perron family house has been in the works for over 20 years

James Wan’s 2013 horror film The Conjuring doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but even with all the time-honored clichés it's still one hell of a frightening movie.

The year is 1971. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) have dedicated their lives to investigating reports of the paranormal, yet nothing could have prepared them for the horrors they were about to encounter. 

After one of their lectures, the Warrens are approached by Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor), who, along with her husband Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters, recently moved into a spacious farmhouse in Rhode Island. Shortly after their arrival, the Perrons began experiencing unusual disturbances, from strange noises to the sudden, violent death of the family dog. Sure enough, the moment Lorraine Warren enters the house, she senses something terrible happened there. With the help of their assistant Drew (Shannon Kook) and a policeman named Brad (John Brotherton), the Warrens carry out their investigation, and in the process stir up a presence so evil that it threatens to destroy them all.

Throughout The Conjuring, director Wan feeds us a steady stream of standard, run-of-the-mill scares, almost all of which work as intended. Following their first night in the house, Carolyn Perron notices a mysterious bruise has appeared on her leg, and finds that every clock stopped running at exactly 3:07 a.m. From there, the disturbances become more intense, ranging from things that go bump in the night to ghosts tormenting the kids as they sleep. When the malevolent spirit finally makes its presence known, the result is an evening of pure terror, during which Carolyn is locked in the basement as oldest daughter Andrea (Shanley Casswell) is being attacked by a demon. The entity terrorizing the Perrons, a former witch named Bathsheba (Joseph Bishera), proves to be a particularly powerful spirit; when the Warrens begin their investigation, the evil latches onto them as well, following them home and nearly scaring their daughter Judy (Sterling Jerins) to death.

For me, James Wan has been a little hit and miss; I liked the original Saw, and for the most part enjoyed Insidious, but felt Dead Silence was a mess (an occasionally frightening mess, to be sure, but a mess all the same). The Conjuring is, thus far, his best film, and while it doesn’t offer anything new (there’s even a scene involving an exorcism), it will still manage to scare the bejesus out of you!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

#1,167. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Directed By: Tim Burton

Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson

Tag line: "Close Your Eyes. Say Your Prayers. Sleep If You Can"

Trivia: This film features three actors who played Sith Lords in the Star Wars prequels: Ray Park (Darth Maul), Christopher Lee (Count Dooku), and Ian McDiarmid (Darth Sidious)

Based on Washington Irving’s 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is a visual treat, supported at all times by its very impressive cast.

The year is 1799. Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), a constable in New York City, insists that modern methods of crime detection should replace the archaic techniques currently employed by the police. As a way of testing his theories, the Burgomaster (Christopher Lee) assigns Crane to investigate a series of murders in the upstate farming community of Sleepy Hollow, where three people have had their heads lopped off. 

But when he arrives, Crane is horrified to discover that the locals believe these killings are the work of a Headless Horseman, a former Hessian soldier (Christopher Walken) who has returned from the grave to search for his missing head. 

With the help of Katrina (Christina Ricci), daughter of Sleep Hollow's wealthiest citizen, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), Crane sets out to prove there's nothing supernatural about this case, only to discover some legends are, in fact, very real.

As he did in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, Johnny Depp delivers a strong, if somewhat odd performance as Ichabod Crane, a hero not by choice, but by circumstance. As the only lawman in town, Ichabod Crane must appear to be in complete control of every situation, even if what he's uncovering scares the living hell out of him. His first night in Sleepy Hollow, Crane meets with the town elders: the Pastor (Jeffrey Jones), the magistrate (Richard Griffiths), the notary (Michael Gough), the doctor (Ian McDiarmid), and Van Tassel himself. When Van Tassel tells him the story of the Headless Horseman (which includes a pretty nifty flashback sequence), a clearly shaken Crane tries to remain calm, despite being frightened out of his wits. 

Later, while walking with the Magistrate, Crane has his first encounter with the horseman, and it’s more than he can stand (he faints straightaway). Depp does a fine job conveying his character's fear while at the same time always pressing on, determined to solve the case no matter where it leads him.

The unique style that Burton brought to Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and the Batman films is again on display in Sleepy Hollow. The town itself is a dark, gothic place where the sun never shines, a mysterious fog emanating from every corner. At times, Burton’s singular vision even manages to get a few laughs; Crane’s first encounter with the "Headless Horseman" - who is actually Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien) in disguise - ends with the constable getting a fiery pumpkin thrown at his head! Along with the humor, the story's more serious elements (like the various flashbacks to Crane’s traumatic childhood) fit just as neatly into the world Burton and his team have created.

In the end, Tim Burton’s oft-twisted imagination proved the perfect match for Irving’s short story, and with a little help from his cast he managed to bring this classic tale convincingly to life.

Friday, October 25, 2013

#1,166. Roving Mars (2006)

Directed By: George Butler

Starring: Paul Newman, Steve Squyres, Rob Manning

Tag line: "A Whole New World Awaits"

Trivia: The working title of this film was Mission to Mars

I have to admit, I’m having a great time watching these IMAX documentaries. Filled with gorgeous imagery, they offer a peek at areas of the world most of us will never visit. A few, like 2006’s Roving Mars, take us further still.

Narrated by Paul Newman, Roving Mars is a behind-the-scenes look at a special NASA project, where two rovers, nicknamed Spirit and Opportunity, were sent to Mars to explore the planet’s surface, collecting information that will assist researchers on earth as they attempt to determine if life ever existed on the red planet.

Interestingly enough, the first half of Roving Mars is very much earth-bound, introducing us to Steven Squyres, an astronomer / geologist responsible for overseeing the construction of the two rovers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory. As Squyres puts it, the rovers, decked out with the latest in geological equipment, will act like detectives as they traverse the Martian landscape, looking for clues to help researchers figure out what sort of life, if any, occurred on Mars (a now-desolate planet, its surface features numerous canyons and mountain ranges, suggesting that, a very long time ago, water may have flowed there, making it more “earth-like” than first believed). If successful, Spirit and Opportunity will beam back pictures offering a ground-level view of Mars while also gathering rock and soil samples, studying their make-up to shed some light on whether or not the red planet was ever alive.

Of course, if Roving Mars was all rocks and data analysis, it would make for one boring motion picture. Once the rovers land on the surface (which is recreated via computer animation), we’re treated to a collection of fascinating photos, images that undoubtedly looked stunning on an IMAX screen. (Though mostly barren, Mars is nonetheless beautiful). Those who fancy themselves scientists will enjoy learning something new about our nearest neighbor in the solar system, but for the rest of us, Roving Mars is one hell of a breathtaking journey.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

#1,165. The Uninvited (1944)

Directed By: Lewis Allen

Starring: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp

Tag line: "From the Most Popular Mystery Romance since Rebecca!"

Trivia: Some of the interior sets of Windwood Manor, such as the main staircase and parlor, were re-dressed sets from the 1942 film I Married a Witch

Any list of great haunted house films wouldn’t be complete without 1944’s The Uninvited,

Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) fall in love with a beautiful house in the coastal town of Cornwall, England. To their surprise, its owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), is eager to sell, much to the chagrin of the Commander’s granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell), whose mother died in the house. 

Once the deal is finalized, the Fitzgeralds move in to what they are convinced will be their dream house, and even invite Stella over for a visit. But when a ghostly presence makes itself known, Roderick and Pamela are forced to deal with the fact that their new home is haunted.

Like any good ghost story, The Uninvited relies heavily on atmosphere, the feeling that someone (or something) is watching from the shadows, quietly observing every action, every conversation. There are moments of genuine horror, like when Roderick and Pamela are awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of a crying woman. For the most part, though, the film’s ominous tone is what will have you squirming in your seat.

Along with the scares, the movie is also an engaging mystery, yet not in the same vein as films like The Haunting or The Legend of Hell House, where the mystery (at least initially) stems from whether or not an actual supernatural event is taking place. In The Uninvited, there is no doubt that the Fitzgeralds' new house is, indeed, haunted, and they want to know why.

A number of solid ghost movies have hit the scene in recent years, including The Innkeepers and The Woman in Black, and in the late ‘90s, films like Stir of Echoes and The Sixth Sense had the hairs on the back of your neck standing at attention. Yet when it comes to spooky dwellings, nothing can beat the black and white classics, movies like The Haunting, The innocents, House on Haunted Hill, and The Uninvited. Some horror films lose their effectiveness over time, but these four are just as creepy today as when they were first released.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

#1,164. Sabrina (1954)

Directed By: Billy Wilder

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, William Holden

Tag line: ". . . the chauffeur's daughter who learned her stuff in Paris!"

Trivia: During production of the film Hepburn and Holden entered into a brief, but passionate and much-publicized love affair

Director Billy Wilder and star William Holden made some amazing movies together. Their first collaboration was 1950’s Sunset Blvd., an excellent film noir set in Hollywood that co-starred Gloria Swanson. From there, the duo went on to make Stalag 17, a taut World War II comedy/thriller about life in a German P.O.W. camp. They would again join forces in 1954 for Sabrina, only this time Holden was a supporting player, giving his co-stars, Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, plenty of room to work their magic.

For years, Sabrina (Hepburn), a chauffeur’s daughter who lived her entire life at the luxurious Larrabee estate, had a crush on David Larrabee (Holden), the handsome younger brother of Linus (Bogart). Unfortunately for her, David Larrabee was something of a playboy, and didn’t even know she existed. Hoping to expand his daughter’s horizons, Sabrina’s father (John Williams) sends her to a cooking school in Paris, and when she returns two years later, she’s blossomed into a beautiful woman. Even David Larrabee suddenly takes notice of Sabrina, which would be fine, if it weren’t for the fact he was already engaged to Elizabeth Tyson (Martha Hyer), whose family was about to sign a million-dollar agreement with Larrabee Industries. Fearing an ill-timed romance between David and Sabrina would jeopardize the engagement, and with it the lucrative business deal, senior executive Linus wines and dines the young girl himself, hoping to woo Sabrina away from his brother. But then something unexpected happens: Linus actually falls in love with Sabrina!

Holden is fine as the philandering younger Larrabee brother, who’s already been married three times and is about to tie the knot again, but its Bogie and Hepburn who steal the show. As the title character, Hepburn is positively enchanting, bringing grace and refinement, as well as a bit of naiveté, to the role of Sabrina. For Bogart, Linus Larrabee was something of a stretch (to that point, he’d mostly played characters with an edge to them, from hard-nosed gangsters, a la High Sierra, to tough-as-nails detectives like in The Maltese Falcon). As Linus, Bogie is all business… literally; a man who’s willing to toy with the emotions of a fragile young girl to save his family’s corporation. And yet, even when he’s play-acting, the scenes where he and Sabrina are together have a certain charm to them, and we know that, regardless of how cold and calculated his intentions are, Linus will eventually give his heart to Sabrina.

Thanks to these two excellent actors, odds are you’ll also give your heart to Sabrina. As romantic comedies go, it’s an absolute gem!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

#1,163. Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs (2007)

Directed By: Mickey Rose

Starring: Kristen Riter, Matthew Goldsby, Jerry Belson, Joe Flood

Tag line: "A Mystery 3,000 Years in the Making"

Trivia: This was released in IMAX 3-D

Over the past year, I’ve enjoyed a number of films originally presented in the IMAX format, movies that explored the world we live in, whether on land (Born to be Wild) or in the sea (Aliens of the Deep). Some (Chronos, Baraka) traveled to every corner of the globe, while Hubble reached far out into space, giving us a breathtaking view of the universe. In 2007’s Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs, we visit Egypt, a place of ancient mystery. But more than this, the movie is a trip through time, a guided tour of a once-great civilization that only recently revealed one of its best-kept secrets.

Narrated by Christopher Lee, Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs provides stunning images of some of Egypt’s most famous structures (the pyramids at Giza, the temples at Abu Simbel), as well as the mummified remains of its greatest rulers (those of Rameses and his father, Set I, are particularly well-preserved). The film also presents a number of well-staged reenactments, like Rameses (Boris Terral) and his queen Nefertari (Elana Drago) touring Abu Simbel, or ancient priests engaged in the mummification process. There’s a visit to the 19th century, when American Charles Wlbour (William Hope) coerced a couple of grave-robbing brothers into revealing the whereabouts of the tomb in the Valley of the Kings that housed dozens of royal mummies, and a brief layover at a modern research facility, where scientists are attempting to extract DNA from 3,000-year-old mummies. In short, Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs covers a lot of ground.

A little too much ground, unfortunately. Like many IMAX films, Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs runs for under an hour (43 minutes, to be exact), not nearly enough time to fully explore any one of the topics mentioned above, let alone all of them. As someone who loves ancient history, it would have been nice to see (for example) a feature-length documentary dealing with the investigation that uncovered the tomb in the Valley of the Kings. It looks like a fascinating story, with plenty of intrigue to keep an audience’s interest, and to dedicate only 10 minutes or so to it is almost laughable.

The movie is certainly beautiful, and offers a spellbinding glimpse into life in ancient times, but ultimately, Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs scratches far too many surfaces, never delving deeply into any one of them.

Monday, October 21, 2013

#1,162. The Sting (1973)

Directed By: George Roy Hill

Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw

Tag line: "...all it takes is a little Confidence"

Trivia: In a recent interview with The New York Times, Robert Redford confessed that the first time he actually saw The Sting was Christmas of 2004

One of the most refreshingly entertaining movies ever to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, George Roy Hill’s Depression-era comedy / drama The Sting features one incredible twist after another, culminating in a grand finale that is sure to amaze you.

Following the murder of their mutual friend Luther (Robert Earl Jones), two-bit grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) teams up with Henry Gondoriff (Paul Newman), a professional confidence man from Chicago, to pull the ultimate con on gangster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), the man responsible for Luther’s death. 

Hoping to bilk the unsuspecting criminal out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Hooker and Gondoriff, with the help of fellow grifter Kid Twist (Harold Gould) and a few dozen others, put into play a reliable old swindle called “The Wire”, which involves horse racing and an off-track betting parlor.

And what a great swindle it is! In fact, for the majority of The Sting, we the audience are as much a sucker as anyone in the film, continually getting the wool pulled over our eyes as we try to figure out who is conning who. In the midst of planning their grand scheme, Hooker is approached by FBI agent Polk (Dana Elcar), who wants his help in bringing Gondoriff to justice (Gondoriff has been laying low for years to avoid the Feds). Reluctant at first to give his new partner up, Hooker has a change of heart when Polk threatens to put the heat on Luther’s widow instead. This introduces yet another twist to the story: will Hooker sell out Gondoriff to the Feds, or is he working an angle of his own?

Just four years after their initial pairing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Newman and Redford again play likable thieves in The Sting, but with a slight spin on their characters; this time around, Redford is the brash, impulsive one, while Newman portrays the sturdy professional. Slipping comfortably into their roles and supported by a strong cast (also of note is Charles Durning, who's at his slimy best as a corrupt cop on Lonnegan’s payroll), the two actors are as charming as ever, all in service of a story so wonderfully clever that it will keep you guessing to the end.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

#1,161. The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Directed By: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Gilbert M. 'Broncho Billy' Anderson, A.C. Abadie, George Barnes

Trivia: The film was originally distributed with a note saying that the famous shot of the bandit firing his gun at the camera could be placed either at the beginning or at the end of the film

The Great Train Robbery is a landmark film, an 11-minute motion picture that’s widely regarded as the first narrative movie ever made. Directed by Edwin Porter, who had previously worked as a cameraman for the Edison Company, The Great Train Robbery showed the world what movies were capable of.

The plot of The Great Train Robbery is pretty much given away in its title; a group of bandits (Broncho Billy Anderson, Justus D. Barnes, Frank Hanaway and Adam Charles Hayman) stage a daring robbery, holding up first a telegraph office and then a train, all in broad daylight. Everything goes according to plan until the posse shows up, resulting in a violent showdown with the local Sheriff (Alfred C. Abadie) and his men.

To review The Great Train Robbery with a critical eye is a bit silly. I mean, how do you attack a film for its lack of close-ups when close-ups hadn’t really been invented yet?  Instead, I like to imagine how those audience members who saw the movie way back in 1903 might have felt, gazing in wonder at images dancing across a screen, something many had never seen before (a few viewers supposedly ducked during the final scene, when Justus Barnes fires a gun directly at the camera).

The Great Train Robbery is today more of a museum piece than a work of entertainment, yet the significant place it holds in the history of the medium makes it a movie that all film buffs should see at least once.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

#1,160. House of Frankenstein (1944)

Directed By: Erle C. Kenton

Starring: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine

Tag line: "All the Screen's Titans of Terror - Together in the Greatest of All SCREEN SENSATIONS!"

Trivia: Kharis the mummy, another Universal classic monster, was slated to be in the movie but was removed because of budget restrictions

Despite its title, House of Frankenstein gives us more than one Universal monster. In fact, it features an all-star cast in what is essentially the very first monster mash-up.

Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) has spent that last 15 years in prison, convicted for trying to duplicate the experiments of Dr. Frankenstein. During an electrical storm, the jailhouse he’s in is struck by lightning, collapsing the outer wall and allowing Dr. Niemann, as well as his hunchback friend Daniel (J. Carrol Naish), to escape. While on the run, the two stumble upon a traveling horror show that features the actual skeleton of Count Dracula (John Carradine). Niemann resurrects Dracula by removing the stake from his heart, then sends him off to kill Bürgermeister Hussman (Sig Ruman), one of the men responsible for putting him behind bars. But when Dracula also tries to seduce Rita (Anne Gwynne), the wife of the Bürgermeister's grandson Karl (Peter Coe), he loses track of time and fails to return to his coffin before sunrise

From there, Niemann and Daniel, accompanied by a pretty gypsy girl named Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), head to the abandoned castle of Dr. Frankenstein, where Niemann hopes to recover Frankenstein’s research notes. Once there, they find both the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) frozen in ice (harkening back to the conclusion of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man). Once he's thawed out, the Wolf Man returns to human form, reassuming the identity of Lawrence Talbot. Niemann tells Talbot he can remove the curse that causes him to transform when the moon is full, all while trying to revive the monster so it can continue the hunt for those who did Niemann wrong.

Marking Karloff’s return to the Frankenstein series (albeit as a mad scientist), House of Frankenstein also features an excellent turn by John Carradine as Dracula (the look on his face when he surprises the Bürgermeister one evening will send chills down your spine). Chaney Jr. is his reliable self as Talbot / the Wolf Man, and Karloff steps into the role of the mad scientist quite nicely. There’s even a brief appearance by Lionel Atwill as a police inspector. The truly stand-out performance, though, is delivered by J. Carrol Naish, whose Daniel falls in love with Ilonka, only to be cast aside when she develops feeling for Talbot.

Story-wise, The House of Frankenstein doesn’t make a lot of sense, and gets a little confusing at times (I completely lost track of which brain was going to be transplanted into which body). But if it’s classic monsters you want, look no further than this film.

Friday, October 18, 2013

#1,159. Pacific Rim (2013)

Directed By: Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi

Tag line: "Go big or go extinct"

Trivia: Approximately a hundred Kaijus and a hundred Jaegers were designed, but only a fraction of these appear in the film

Looking back over the films I’ve covered thus far during my challenge, I was amazed to learn I haven’t watched many of the Kaiju movies that Toho Studios turned out over the years (Kaiju is a Japanese word that means “strange monster”). In fact, the only Kaiju I’ve included thus far has been Mothra, which is really sad when you consider I spent a big chunk of my childhood watching flicks like Rodan and the Godzilla series on Saturday afternoons (in addition, when I was 6 years old, my two favorite TV shows were re-runs of Ultraman and Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot). 

What’s more, I’ve also ignored the great Guillermo del Toro (to date, I haven’t covered a single one of his films!) So, with 2013’s Pacific Rim, a big-budget action / sci-fi movie about gigantic monsters, I’m killing two birds with one stone.

Mankind is locked in a struggle for its very survival, fighting giant monsters (called “Kaijus”) that have made their way through a crack in the sea floor. To defeat these creatures, which are big enough to destroy entire cities and kill tens of thousands in the process, the world had to create some monsters of their own, mega-sized robots they’ve nicknamed Jaegers (a German word meaning “hunters”). 

Controlled by two pilots, the Jaegers have, for years, been man’s only line of defense. But when the Kaiju start getting bigger and stronger, more and more Jaegers are destroyed. Before long, the governments of the world decide to retire the Jaegers, opting instead to construct a large wall designed to protect the major cities. When this, too, fails to stop the attacks (which are also occurring much more frequently), the fate of the earth once again rests in the hands of the now-renegade Jaeger program, which, under the command of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), continues to battle the Kaijus. 

In fact, Pentecost and his crew have devised a plan that, if successful, will seal the breach at the bottom of the Pacific once and for all, thus preventing any future Kaiju attacks. But he’s going to need more Jaegers to pull it off. So he enlists the help of former pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), whose brother (and co-pilot) was killed in battle five years earlier. But can the Jaegers complete their mission in time, or will the world be overrun by giant monsters?

Like Toho’s Kaiju movies, it’s the spectacle that makes Pacific Rim so entertaining, from the design of its monsters (all of which are unique) and the massive destruction they cause (in the opening moments of the film, we watch a Kaiju demolish San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge) to the battles waged between these creatures and the Jaegers (one particular fight, which occurs late in the movie, practically levels Hong Kong). Thanks to some impressive CGI (the best I’ve seen in years), Del Toro and his team bring all of these aspects convincingly to life, giving us one hell of a fun motion picture. 

And yet, like most Del Toro films, there’s more to Pacific Rim than mindless action and special effects. The relationships that develop between the Jaeger co-pilots are intensified by a process known as “the Drift”, where the minds of the two pilots are melded together, forming them into a single unit and thus a more efficient fighting team (the scenes depicting “The Drift” are as cool as those featuring the Kaijus or Jaegers). 

The selection of Raleigh’s new co-pilot also raises some issues; he wants Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a young woman who, in simulations, has destroyed 51 Kaijus in 51 attempts. But Stacker Pentecost, who’s been like a father to Mako since her parents were killed in a Kaiju attack, fears she may snap under pressure and allow her hatred of the monsters to cloud her judgment. The Kaiju / Jaeger confrontations are, indeed, outstanding, yet amidst all the flash and flair, Del Toro gives us a little something extra as well.

I had a blast watching Pacific Rim. More than this, though, it reminded me of the great Kaiju pictures I fell in love with as a kid, and also has me chomping at the bit to see Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, and the two Hellboy movies again.

Here’s hoping Pacific Rim has this same effect on others.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

#1,158. 42nd Street Forever, Vol. 5: Alamo Drafthouse Edition (2009):

Directed By: Various

Starring: Various

Trivia: One of the movies featured is Une Fee... Pas Comme Les Autres, aka The Secret of Magic Island, a 1956 children's movie in which animals act like humans (including a dog tending bar and a duck taking a shower)

And so we come to what is thus far the final volume in Synapse’s 42nd Street Forever collection of movie trailers from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. And what better way to close the series out than with trailers hand-picked by the employees of the Alamo Drafthouse, a well-known movie theater / restaurant in Austin, Tx., that shows a variety of films, everything from new releases to exploitation movies of days gone by? An evening at the Alamo Drafthouse, where you can enjoy a fine meal while watching a movie, is surely a unique experience, almost as unique as the collection they’ve assembled for this volume of 42nd Street Forever; no kidding… some of these trailers are mind-numbingly bizarre!

For example, Vol. 5 is what first introduced me to the 1977 movie Chatterbox, a comedy about a woman who discovers her vagina can talk. Among the other unusual titles presented in this collection are Lucky Seven, a kung-fu / comedy from the ‘80s starring a group of kids who get tossed around and, in some cases, beaten to a pulp by their adult rivals (I’ve included the trailer below. Trust me when I tell you, you’ll be amazed at what they put these kids through!). Several other unusual choices include James Tont: Operation O.N.E., a mid-‘60s Italian spoof of the James Bond franchise; and the incredibly homophobic Redd Foxx picture, Norman… Is That You?, in which Foxx, whose wife recently left him, pays a visit to his son, Norman (Michael Warren), who, as it turns out, is gay (at one point in the trailer, Foxx even goes so far as to say “My son has become a Tinkerbell”!)

Mixed in with the weird and irregular are some truly kick-ass trailers, like the one for the ‘70s Sonny Chiba film, The Bodyguard (“Viva, Chiba”!). But when compared to the rest of the series, 42nd Street Forever, Vol. 5 definitely shows a penchant for the odd and peculiar. And I absolutely love it!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

#1,157. Thunderball (1965)

Directed By: Terence Young

Starring: Sean Connery, Claudine Auger, Adolfo Celi

Tag line: "Look Up! Look Down! Look Out! Here Comes The Biggest Bond Of All!"

Trivia: The title song was originally to be "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" sung by Dionne Warwick, but was changed at the last minute to "Thunderball" sung by Tom Jones. The producers were concerned about a main title song that did not include the film's title as the song title

Whereas Goldfinger ushered in a new style of storytelling, the next film in the Bond series, 1965’s Thunderball, upped the ante by featuring more action than its predecessors, making it one of the franchise’s most exciting entries.

In its never-ending quest to terrorize the world, the criminal organization SPECTRE assigns one of its top agents, Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), to oversee the hijacking of a NATO bomber equipped with two nuclear warheads. Once the bombs are safely tucked away, SPECTRE issues its demands to the world: turn over millions of dollars in uncut diamonds, or a major city in either Britain or the U.S. will be destroyed. Believing the bombs are hidden somewhere in the Caribbean, agent James Bond (Sean Connery) of her Majesty’s Secret Service heads to Nassau, where he cozies up to Domino (Claudine Auger), Largo’s main squeeze, in the hopes she will help him find the warheads before it’s too late.

Along with Connery’s return as 007 (a role he'd mastered by this point), Thunderball also showcases such series staples as a pre-title sequence, in which 007 is attending the funeral of a rival who, over the years, killed two of his associates. But when Bond notices something a little unusual about this funeral, it leads to plenty of fisticuffs, as well as a daring escape with a jet-pack. This is followed by an elaborate main title sequence, where naked women in silhouette swim across the screen as Tom Jones belts out the title song.

Some familiar faces pop up throughout Thunderball, including M (Bernard Lee), Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), C.I.A. agent Felix Leiter (played this time by Rik Van Nutter) and, of course, Q (Desmond Llewelyn), who supplies Bond with high-tech gadgetry you just know will save his life at some point in the movie.

As for SPECTRE, Largo, with his black eye patch and stone-cold brutality (he has a swimming pool full of sharks, for God’s sake!), makes for a memorable villain, and early on we even spend a little time with SPECTRE’s leader, the elusive Ernst Blofeld (an uncredited Anthony Dawson), who is holding a meeting with the organizations top agents, discussing the results of their criminal endeavors. During the meeting, Blofeld deals rather harshly with an agent who has been embezzling thousands of dollars from the organization.

And then there are the “Bond girls”, all of whom are beautiful. Along with Domino, there’s Paula (Martine Beswick), Bond’s assistant in Nassau; and Patricia (Molly Peters), who 007 hooks up with during his brief stay at a spa. Even SPECTRE has the gorgeous Fiona (Luciana Paluzzi), one of the organization’s best assassins. On a scale of 1 to 10, the ladies of Thunderball register an eleven.

But where Thunderball truly distinguishes itself is its action sequences. The extended scene in which the plane is hijacked is positively electrifying, and features some impressive underwater photography. In fact, the movie’s most sensational moments occur underwater, culminating in an all-out battle between SPECTRE and the forces of good, in which dozens of combatants duke it out with knives and spear guns. A few thrilling scenes are set on dry land (there’s a tense chase through the streets of Nassau), but the real excitement happens deep beneath the sea.

Prior to today, it had been a good 20 years or so since I last watched Thunderball, and in that time, I’d forgotten how well-paced and entertaining it was. Arguably the last great Bond film to star Sean Connery, Thunderball ranks as one of the series’ most exhilarating motion pictures.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

#1,156. Man-Made Monster (1941)

Directed By: George Waggner

Starring: Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Nagel

Tag line: "The most amazing monster the world has ever known "

Trivia: The film was shot in three weeks and was the cheapest film made by Universal in 1941

A little-known Universal horror film from 1941, Man-Made Monster features Lon Chaney Jr. months before he became a star with The Wolf Man, as well as a deliciously evil turn by Lionel Atwill, playing a mad scientist bent on controlling the world.

We open on a rainy night. A bus, racing down a wet stretch of road, is unable to navigate a tricky turn and skids into an electrical tower, resulting in a fiery crash. The only survivor of the accident is Dan McCormick (Chaney Jr.), aka “Dynamo Dan, the Electric Man”, who performs tricks at a local carnival by pretending to “absorb” electricity. To try and determine why he survived the accident, Dr. Lawrence (Samuel Hinds) invites Dan to his laboratory, where he conducts experiments to see if Dan is truly immune to electricity. Also interested in Dan is Dr. Lawrence’s somewhat disturbed partner, Dr. Rigas (Atwill), who believes he can harness the power of electricity to control a human being, in essence turning anyone he treats into a mindless servant. But when Dr. Rigas’ “treatments” lead to tragedy, it’s Dan who’s thrown into jail, accused of a murder he committed against his will.

Despite the fact he’s the “monster” of the title, we can’t help but feel sorry for Dan, who Chaney Jr. portrays as a likable guy caught up in something he doesn’t understand. Yet as good as Chaney is, Man-Made Monster belongs to Atwill, who relishes the role of the nearly-mad Dr. Rigas. During the course of his experiments, Rigas “feeds” Dan high doses of electricity, increasing his strength, but only temporarily (Dan’s power fades when the electrical current surging inside him has run its course). Hoping to make the effect more permanent, Rigas boosts the dosage, filling Dan “to capacity”, as he writes in his journal. This large amount of electricity is what turns Dan into a dangerous creature, making him incredibly strong while, at the same time, taking away his free will. Dan McCormick may, in fact, be a monster, but Atwill’s Dr. Rigas is clearly the film’s most monstrous character.

A strong combination of sci-fi and horror with some pretty cool special-effects [Dan “lights up” whenever he’s fed electricity], Man-Made Monster is one of Universal horror’s best-kept secrets.

Monday, October 14, 2013

#1,155. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

Directed By: Dominique Othenin-Girard

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Danielle Harris, Ellie Cornell

Tag line: "He's Back With A Vengeance"

Trivia: This film was released straight to video outside of North America

Picking up exactly one year after the events of Halloween 4, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers opens with Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris) recovering in a children’s psychiatric hospital, so traumatized by her encounter with her uncle, Michael Myers (Don Shanks) that she’s lost the ability to speak, and plagued by nightmares that suggest Michael is still very much alive. Jamie’s condition piques the interest of Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), who’s convinced she now shares a psychic link with Michael, which he hopes will help determine the killer’s whereabouts. Sure enough, Michael did survive his ordeal with the state troopers, and is once again searching for Jamie, putting the young girl, as well as her step-sister Rachel (Ellie Cornell) and family friend Tina (Wendy Kaplan), in great danger.

Like Halloween 4, a major strength of Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers is the performance of Danielle Harris, who shines as young Jamie Lloyd. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Jamie, who's fast asleep, flashes back to the events of one year earlier, causing her to wake up in a panic (she tries to scream, but nothing comes out). It’s a truly inspired performance, with Harris perfectly conveying her character’s deep psychological trauma, often doing so without the use of dialogue. In turn, Don Shanks slips nicely into the role of Michael Myers, who’s just as violent as ever (a Halloween party, which is being held at a local farm, features some particularly memorable kills). Throw in a mysterious man in black, who seems to be shadowing Michael as he makes his way through Haddonfield, and you have a movie even casual fans of the series will enjoy.

Halloween 5 does have its problems, chief among them the character of Dr. Loomis, who’s more unhinged this time around than in any of the previous movies, making him much less sympathetic (at one point, he nearly attacks poor Jamie while she’s lying in her hospital bed, demanding that she tell him where Michael is hiding). I also wasn’t keen on the addition of two bumbling cops (played by Frankie Como and David Ursin), who were clearly intended to serve as the comic relief (they were way too stupid to be either believable or funny). Yet, in spite of these issues, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers is a decent enough horror film, and an effective continuation of the Michael Myers saga.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

#1,154. Stripes (1981)

Directed By: Ivan Reitman

Starring: Bill Murray, John Candy, Harold Ramis

Tag line: "The story of a man who wanted to keep the world safe for democracy...and meet girls"

Trivia: Among the crowd at the Graduation Parade (albeit unseen) was P.J. Soles' then-husband Dennis Quaid

After taking the comedy world by storm in Meatballs and Caddyshack, Bill Murray decided to up the ante by joining the U.S. Army in 1981’s Stripes, with uproarious results.

After losing his job and his girlfriend in the same day, John Winger (Murray) decides it’s time to turn his life around. So, he and his closest friend, Russell Ziskey (Harold Ramis), enlist in the U.S. Army. And even though his relationship with drill instructor Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates) is strained at best, Winger proves he’s got what it takes to make it as a soldier, and is hand-picked to carry out a top-secret mission (which doesn’t stay secret for very long).

Like Tripper in Meatballs, Bill Murray’s Winger is a wise-ass of the first order, and his sarcastic wit doesn’t always go over well with his superiors. At one point, he mockingly refers to Sgt. Hulka as the company’s “Big Toe” (“an army without leaders is like a foot without a big toe”, he says), something the hard-nosed Hulka doesn’t appreciate. Over time, Winger takes on a little more responsibility; even going so far as to help train the company when Sgt. Hulka is temporarily incapacitated (their final routine at graduation, supposedly choreographed by Winger himself, is a definite high-point of the film).

While Murray is excellent in Stripes, he also gets plenty of support from his co-stars. As Ziskey, Harold Ramis generates a few laughs of his own (before joining the army, he had a job teaching English to recent immigrants, but instead of having them recite simple words and sentences, he has them repeat the chorus of the ‘60s hit song "Da Doo Ron Ron"). Warren Oates is perfectly cast as Sgt Hulka, the career military man who refuses to take any shit from Winger, while John Candy is his usual funny self as Ox, a fellow soldier who, in one hilarious scene, mud wrestles some bikini-clad babes. Then there's John Laroquette’s Captain Stillman, who's almost as bad a soldier as Winger, only he’s in a position of authority (Stillman orders a soldier to fire a mortar even though the weapon isn’t properly set, leading to one of the film's funniest moments).

That’s not to say Stripes is flawless; the final third of the movie, which involves a rescue mission in Czechoslovakia, isn't nearly as entertaining as the earlier basic training scenes. But thanks to Bill Murray and the film’s solid cast, Stripes easily overcomes its weaknesses, earning its reputation as one of the finest comedies to emerge from the 1980s.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

#1,153. Dragonslayer (1981)

Directed By: Matthew Robbins

Starring: Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson

Tag line: "In the Dark Ages, Magic was a weapon. Love was a mystery. Adventure was everywhere... And Dragons were real"

Trivia: To create the dragon fire, the FX team used a pair of military-style flamethrowers

Weaving a tale of wizards, knights, and a fire-breathing dragon, director Matthew Robbins' 1981 movie Dragonslayer is a hell of a lot of fun. 

For years, the kingdom of Urland has lived in fear of a terrible dragon, which they have managed to keep at bay by occasionally offering one of the village's young women, chosen by special lottery, as a sacrifice. 

Hoping to rid themselves of the creature, a delegation from Urland, led by Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), pays a visit to Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson), the only wizard powerful enough to defeat the dragon once and for all. But when Ulrich is struck down by Tyrian (John Hallam), who serves King Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre), the task instead falls to Ulrich’s apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol), who, despite his lack of experience, is Urland’s only hope of restoring peace to the land. 

Dragonslayer has all the makings of a fine fantasy film, giving us not one, but two wizards, each capable of performing amazing feats. Ralph Richardson is wonderful as the aged Ulrich, and MacNicol is equally good as Galen, the brash newcomer who, though talented, is in way over his head. Galen can conjure up simple parlor tricks, yet his attempt to trap the dragon inside its cave doesn’t end well. 

Along with its duo of wizards, Dragonslayer features a handful of dramatic sequences that center on the lottery, during which Urland selects the next young lady who will be sacrificed to the dragon. In a key scene, Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman), upon learning that her father the King has, for years, kept her name out of the lottery,  takes matters into her own hands. And keep an eye out for Ian McDiarmid, aka the Emperor in the Star Wars saga, who appears briefly as a holy man. 

Of course, what makes Dragonslayer so memorable is the dragon itself, brought to life by renowned special effects gurus Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett, both of whom contributed their talents to the original Star Wars trilogy. While some of the effects may not look as realistic today as they did in 1981 (especially when the dragon is in flight), a later sequence, where the creature rises out of the water to attack Galen, is still damn impressive. At one point, we’re even treated to some baby dragons, which are featured in a particularly gruesome scene.

Dragonslayer is, at all times, a good fantasy film, but it's the dragon that makes it great.