Wednesday, April 30, 2014

#1,353. Harry and the Hendersons (1987)

Directed By: William Dear

Starring: John Lithgow, Melinda Dillon, Margaret Langrick

Tag line: "When You Can't Believe Your Eyes, Trust Your Heart"

Trivia: According to co-writer Bill Martin, the character "Harry" in this film is named after singer Harry Nilsson

I spent exactly one day (or, to be more precise, a few hours) in the Los Angeles area. It was in August of 1986, during a family trip to California. We were driving from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, and on the way stopped off in Hollywood to take the Universal Studios tour (seeing as I was the only real cinephile in my family, this was done solely for my benefit, and for that, I’m eternally grateful). Needless to say, I had a great time. I got to see (among other things) the Psycho house, and the “European” set where many of the studio’s classic horror films (such as Frankenstein) were shot. It’s a day I’ll never forget.

Anyway, while we were taking the tour, our guide informed us there were several movies in production on the lot that day. Of the three she mentioned, the only one I remember is Harry and the Hendersons.

While driving home from their camping trip, the Hendersons; father George (John Lithgow), mom Nancy (Melinda Dillon), and kids Sarah (Margaret Langrick) and Ernie (Joshua Rudoy), accidentally run down an animal that darted in front of their car. At first, they think they hit a bear, but upon further examination, discover their victim is actually a Sasquatch… the legendary Bigfoot! Hoping to cash in on the notoriety this amazing find will bring him, George ties the gargantuan creature’s lifeless remains to the hood of their car, then heads home to Seattle. Unfortunately, there’s a problem: Bigfoot isn’t dead. In fact, he’s alive and well, and tearing up the Henderson’s house. When George, a skilled hunter, can’t bring himself to shoot their unwanted guest, he looks for a way to get Bigfoot, who they lovingly nicknamed “Harry”, back to the mountain woods he calls home, all while trying to dodge big-game hunter Jacques Lafleur (David Suchet), who’s hoping to bag what would quickly become the most impressive “trophy” in his collection.

Harry and the Hendersons is a good ‘80s family flick, with plenty of comedy to keep the kids entertained (one highlight is a scene where George teaches Harry to “sit”, with predictably disastrous consequences). What lifts the movie above the normal family fare, however, is Harry himself, brought to life through the combined efforts of make-up artist Rick Baker (who’d win the second of his 7 Oscars for his work in this film) and actor Kevin Peter Hall (whose next role would be as the title alien in 1987’s Predator). Aside from his appearance, which is very convincing, Harry has a childlike quality, an innocence that immediately endears him to both the Hendersons and the film’s audience. Though he speaks only a single word (which doesn’t come until the final minutes of the movie), we always know exactly what’s on Harry’s mind by looking into his eyes (the early scene where George, trying to save his house, prepares to shoot Harry in the head, only to stop when he catches a glimpse of the creature’s sorrowful eyes, is arguably the film’s most poignant moment). Harry and the Hendersons is fun, but it’s Harry himself who’ll stay with you well after the picture is over.

Aside from Harry and the Hendersons, there’s one other movie that figured prominently in my all-too-brief visit to the Hollywood area. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

#1,352. Live and Let Die (1973)

Directed By: Guy Hamilton

Starring: Roger Moore, Yaphet Kotto, Jane Seymour

Tag line: "More Action. More Excitement. More Adventure"

Trivia: Roger Moore was 45 when he made his debut as 007, making him the oldest actor to do so.

Live and Let Die, which marked Roger Moore’s first appearance as James Bond, combines voodoo and tarot cards with the action-packed world of espionage, creating a unique, and fairly exciting, motion picture experience.

Three agents have been murdered in the last 24 hours (in New York, New Orleans, and the small island nation of San Monique), and MI6 wants their top man, James Bond (Moore), to find out if these killings are related. The prime suspect is Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), the ruler of San Monique and a U.N. diplomat. With the help of his good friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison), Bond follows Kananga and his henchmen through the streets of New York, during which he has a run-in with a mysterious drug lord named Mr. Big. Stopping off briefly in San Monique, Bond discovers that Kananga is the head of a massive heroin operation, and has a plan that will make him the one and only distributor of the drug. Aided by his gorgeous “advisor”, Solitaire (Jane Seymour), Kananga thwarts Bond’s every attempt to disrupt his operation. But how long will it be before Solitaire succumbs to 007’s charms?

Relying more on his wit than his fists, Roger Moore makes for a lighter, more humorous Bond, with a one-liner for every single occasion. Even when facing danger, Moore’s 007 usually finds a way to make us smile (his escape from the alligator-infested swamp is a prime example). While much different from Connery’s (and even Lazenby’s) take on the character, this approach works to Moore’s advantage (he was, after all, in his mid-40s when he took on the role), and would follow him through each of his seven films in the series. What’s more, Live and Let Die gives us a villain unlike any Bond had faced previously, a man whose unyielding faith in tarot cards puts him one step ahead of 007 in nearly every situation. Thanks to Yaphet Kotto’s understated performance (only once or twice does he get “flashy”), Kananga is one eerie Bond villain, but it’s two of his henchmen: Tee Hee (Julius Harris), a giant of a man with a metal hook for an arm; and Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder), a voodoo master with a decidedly sinister laugh, who make the biggest impression. And as Bond girls go, you can’t do much better than Jane Seymour’s Solitaire, a tarot card expert and one of the most beautiful women 007 would ever encounter.

While Live and Let Die marked a definite shift in tone from the previous movies, it still featured plenty of those things that made the Bond films such a hit with audiences, including gadgets (Bond’s wristwatch is also a super-magnet, able to deflect a bullet or, more importantly, unzip the back of a ladies’ dress), an exotic opening credits sequence (as well as a kick-ass Paul McCartney theme song), a variety of locations (Bond spends quite a bit of time in New York, San Monique, and New Orleans), and fast-paced action (there’s an exciting scene set in New York, where Bond attempts to steer an out-of-control car through heavy traffic, but the highlight of the movie is a high-speed boat chase in the swamps of Louisiana, with Bond on the run from both Kananga’s men and the local authorities). And even though Desmond Llewellyn’s “Q” is nowhere to be found, both Bernard Lee’s “M” and Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny make an early appearance (turning up at Bond’s apartment), thus tying Live and Let Die in with the rest of the series.

While Moore’s tenure as 007 would be tainted by a few of his later films, Live and Let Die, at the very least, got him off on the right foot.

Monday, April 28, 2014

#1,351. The Little Mermaid (1989)

Directed By: Ron Clements, John Musker

Starring: Jodi Benson, Samuel E. Wright, Rene Auberjonois

Tag line: "Somewhere under the sea and beyond your imagination is an adventure in fantasy"

Trivia: "Part of Your World" was nearly cut; Jeffrey Katzenberg felt that the song was "boring", as well as being too far over the heads of the children for whom it was intended

After languishing through much of the ‘80s, Disney Animation rebounded in a big way with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, a movie that ushered in a new period of creativity for the studio, an era commonly referred to as the “Disney Renaissance”.

As any mermaid will tell you, life under the sea can be pretty great. Unless, of course, that mermaid happens to be Ariel (voice by Jodi Benson). The daughter of King Triton (Kenneth Mars), Ariel is tired of swimming, and longs to experience life on dry land. Against the direct orders of her father, and ignoring the pleas of the king’s crustacean advisor, Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), Ariel and her good friend Flounder (Jason Marin) swim to the surface, where Ariel catches a glimpse of the handsome Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes), a mortal with whom she falls instantly in love. Ariel ends up saving the Prince when his ship is caught in a storm, but despite her good deed, her father the King forbids her from ever visiting the human world again. For help, Ariel turns to Ursula the Sea Witch (Pat Carroll), who promises to transform the young mermaid into a human for three days if Ariel, in turn, surrenders her voice, meaning she’ll be with Eric, but unable to speak to him. Per her agreement with Ursula, Ariel must receive “true love’s kiss” from Eric during her three days as a mortal. If she fails to do so, she’ll return to the sea, where she will immediately become Ursula’s slave!

Based on the classic fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Mermaid is a gorgeously animated motion picture, bringing its underwater world to life in brilliant detail. What I love about the movie, though, are the musical numbers composed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, two Broadway veterans brought in specifically to work on this film. The songs they contributed are positively unforgettable. The wild and exuberant “Under the Sea”, in which Sebastian tries to convince Ariel that life at the bottom of the ocean is much better than anything above, won the Academy Award for Best Song, and, in my mind, is second only to “Part of Your World”, where Ariel, surrounded by the various “dry land” trinkets she’s collected over the years (everything from combs to corkscrews), expresses her desire to be “where the people are”. With a handful of other fine tunes, including “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Kiss the Girl”, The Little Mermaid features what I consider to be the finest collection of songs ever created for a Disney animated film.

Disney would keep the “renaissance” going through much of the ‘90s, turning out classic pictures like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Not since the reign of Walt Disney himself had the “House of Mouse” experienced such a level of success (aside from the impressive box-office returns, the majority of these movies were also critically acclaimed; Beauty and the Beast was the first Disney animated film to be nominated for Best Picture by the Academy).

And they had The Little Mermaid to thank for it!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

#1,350. The Unholy Rollers (1972)

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Directed By: Vernon Zimmerman

Starring: Claudia Jennings, Louis Quinn, Betty Anne Rees

Tag line: "A locker room look at the toughest broads in the world!"

Trivia: Several scenes from this film were edited into the 1976 movie, Hollywood Boulevard

My second roller derby film in three days, 1972’s The Unholy Rollers is much different than Kansas City Bomber. Where Bomber was the dramatic tale of a single mom trying to make ends meet, Rollers is straight-up exploitation, a Roger Corman-produced action / comedy, with B-movie beauty Claudia Jennings playing a spitfire who will to do whatever it takes to become a star.

After quitting her job at a cannery, Karen Walker (Jennings) tries out for the local roller derby team, the Avengers. Cheered on by her best friend Donna (Candice Roman) and Donna’s boyfriend Greg (Alan Vint), Karen not only makes the Avengers, but quickly becomes its newest star. Yet while her often bizarre antics endear her to the fans, they don’t impress her teammates, including Mickey (Betty Anne Rees), who, prior to Karen, was the Avengers’ leading scorer.

It's not a rip-roaring comedy by any means, but The Unholy Rollers is, at times, pretty damn funny. I laughed during a scene when Karen and a group of others (most of whom were so uncoordinated they could barely stand up straight, let alone skate in a circle) were trying out for the Avengers. But what makes the movie so entertaining is the performance of Claudia Jennings, who is both strong and sultry as the out-of-control Karen. Far from a sympathetic character, Karen is a hothead. In one early sequence, she loses her cool in a grocery store, knocking over a display before skipping out without paying. She can also be a temperamental bitch, whose standoffish nature sometimes alienates her teammates, so much so that, when the opposing team gangs up on Karen, nobody comes to her defense.

Yet while Karen may not be the most likable gal we’ll ever meet, we definitely admire her, mostly because she’s not afraid of anyone or anything. At one point, she even tells off Stern (Louis Quick), the Avengers’ owner, when he threatens to replace her. And Jennings is also drop-dead sexy, oozing charisma and sexual energy in damn near every scene.

Where The Unholy Rollers falters is in its roller derby sequences, which, shot primarily in close-up with a dash of POV, never capture the inherent excitement of the sport. Because we’re so close to the action, we don’t get to ‘experience’ the game. Rarely do we see a hit lined up or a point scored. This turns what should have been the film's most thrilling moments into lifeless throwaways. Unlike Kansas City Bomber, which handled its skate scenes perfectly, The Unholy Rollers is a much better movie off the rink than it ever is on it.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

#1,349. White Dog (1982)

Directed By: Samuel Fuller

Starring: Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives

Tag line: "When man's best friend becomes his fiercest enemy... "

Trivia: Five white German Shepherd dogs played the unnamed central "White Dog" character

During his 40+-year career, writer / director Samuel Fuller never shied away from controversy, tackling such issues as patriotism (Pickup on South Street), mental illness (Shock Corridor), even homosexuality (which he alludes to in his 1955 film, House of Bamboo). Yet, of all his movies, the most provocative is 1982’s White Dog, a picture that deals with racism in a way that had never been seen before.

While out driving one night, struggling actress Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNicol) accidentally hits a stray dog. After taking the injured animal to a veterinarian hospital for treatment, she brings it home with her, watching over it until she can find its rightful owner. But when the dog saves her from a would-be rapist, Julie considers adopting it herself. That is, until she discovers her new pal has one very serious flaw: it viciously attacks every black person it meets! As it turns out, the animal is what is commonly referred to as a “white dog”, trained by a racist to attack African Americans on sight. Not willing to give up on the misguided canine, Julie looks for someone willing to “re-condition” it, a search that leads her to a trainer named Keys (Paul Winfield), who also happens to be black. Having had prior experience with white dogs, Keys makes it his personal mission to break the animal of its hatred, even if doing so means putting his own life on the line.

A nail-biting thriller, White Dog shows us racism in its most visceral, violent form. At times, it’s a tough movie to watch, especially the scenes where Keys attempts to re-educate the dog (mostly because his efforts usually end in failure, leading us to wonder if he’s fighting a losing battle). What’s more, the film toys with our emotions: like Julie herself, we go from feeling sorry for the dog (which clearly had no control over its training) to wanting to see it destroyed (at one point, it breaks free and mauls an elderly black man to death inside a church). More than a commentary on bigotry, White Dog reveals the effects of hatred, and how deeply engrained it can become, forcing us to confront the very unpleasant reality that, even if Keys, by some miracle, experiences a breakthrough, there’s no guarantee the dog can ever really be trusted.

This concept proved far too controversial for the executives at Paramount, who, fearing protests from groups like the NAACP, refused to release White Dog (it wasn’t until 2008, when the movie finally premiered on DVD, that U,S. audiences got a chance to see it in its original, uncut form). While certainly challenging, White Dog is also one of the most thought-provoking films ever made about racism, which, from the looks of it, may be more difficult to stamp out than we imagined.

Friday, April 25, 2014

#1,348. Kansas City Bomber (1972)

Directed By: Jerrold Freedman

Starring: Raquel Welch, Kevin McCarthy, Helena Kallianiotes

Tag line: "The Hottest Thing On Wheels "

Trivia: Phil Ochs wrote a song with the same title that was originally going to be the title tune. It was never used, so he released it as a single instead

Having seen the sport only a few times on TV, I know next to nothing about roller derby. Luckily, I didn’t need to know much to enjoy 1972’s Kansas City Bomber, a drama about a single mom who supports her family by lacing up her roller skates and pummeling her opponents.

Diane Carr (Raquel Welch), aka “K.C.”, the darling of roller derby in Kansas City, has been traded to Portland (to make it easier for the fans to digest, the management of the Kansas City team arranges a grudge match between K.C. and her teammate, Big Bertha, played by Patti ‘Moo Moo’ Cavin, with the stakes being the loser has to get out of town for good. Obviously, K.C. loses). As for K.C., she welcomes the change of venue, mostly because it brings her closer to her two kids, Rita (a very young Jodie Foster) and Walt (Stephen Manley), who live with her mother (Martine Bartlett) in California. What’s more, the owner of the Portland team, Burt Henry (Kevin McCarthy), has big plans for K.C., and promises to make her a star. This doesn’t sit well with her new teammates, especially team captain Jackie Burdette (Helena Kallianiotes), who, after 6 years on top, isn’t willing to play second fiddle to anyone. Can K.C. make a go of it in Portland, or will Burt’s wheeling and dealing land her in yet another town?

Raquel Welch is likeable but not convincing in the lead role, and the melodrama is, at times, heavy handed (one nighttime scene, where Jackie and K.C. duke it out on some railroad tracks, really pushed the envelope), but none of this really matters because the life line of Kansas City Bomber is its skating scenes. Shot in a manner that maximizes the excitement, these sequences kick the energy level up each and every time, and with professional skaters joining the cast members, we’re treated to some honest-to-goodness roller action (more than once, I found myself swept up by the exhilaration of it all).

As much as I enjoyed the roller derby scenes in Kansas City Bomber, I have to admit I’m still a little fuzzy on something: is what happens in the rink real, or is it staged, like they do in professional wrestling? The movie doesn’t offer a definitive answer. Some moments were clearly staged; the opening showdown between K.C. and Big Bertha was done for the crowd’s sake, seeing as K.C. had, by that point, already been traded to Portland. But then, the movie gives us a few segments where the action appears to be 100% genuine (Quite often, when K.C. gets into a fracas or hits the deck, she looks to be in actual pain, a look she carries with her into the dressing room). To be honest, though, I didn’t care if it was real or not. It was fun, and watching Kansas City Bomber had me wishing I’d paid more attention to Roller Derby when I was a kid.

I would have probably loved it.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

#1,347. Man's Best Friend (1993)

Directed By: John Lafia

Starring: Ally Sheedy, Lance Henriksen, Robert Costanzo

Tag line: "Nature created him. Science perfected him. But no one could control him"

Trivia: For her work in this film, Ally Sheedy was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Actress

Following up on a lead that EMAX, a corporation specializing in genetic research, has been experimenting on animals, reporter Lori Tanner (Ally Sheedy) pays an after-hours visit to the facility, sneaking into the main lab to take a look around. 

Along with various other animals, she finds a large dog named Max, who she accidentally releases from his cage. As Lori attempts to re-capture Max, Dr. Jarret (Lance Henriksen), the scientist heading up the experiments, enters the lab and chases Lori off, but before she can drive away, Max jumps into the car with her. 

Against the advice of her boyfriend Perry (Fredric Lehne), Lori takes Max in, and the two become fast friends. What Lori doesn’t realize, however, is that Max was part of a top-secret experiment designed to breed the perfect guard dog, and without the proper medication, he’ll eventually lose control, attacking anyone he feels is a threat to his new buddy.

Released in 1993, Man’s Best Friend is, for the most part, a very uneven movie, yet there are things about it I enjoyed. First and foremost, it co-stars Lance Henriksen, who delivers yet another solid performance (he’s at his cocky best when reporting the break-in to the police). Along with Henriksen, some of the attack scenes, where Max puts his “abilities” to the test, work as intended (especially when he cuts loose on the mailman). 

But the best sequence occurs when Lori, after realizing Perry and Max can’t stand each other, tries to find the super canine a new home and takes him to live with a guy named Ray (William Sanderson), who owns a junk yard. At the risk of spoiling it, let me say this scene ends with what is easily the film’s most satisfying kill.

Unfortunately, these intense sequences are consistently undercut by the movie’s comedic tone, which often comes across as downright childish; aside from a parrot that blurts out obscenities (ha ha), there’s a scene - where Max and another dog are getting acquainted - that actually features the 1960 Paul Anka tune, Puppy Love

Even more perplexing is the background music, which, at times, is so light and bouncy that it sounds like it was lifted straight out of a Disney picture. According to, Man’s Best Friend is a horror comedy, but while it contains some genuinely frightening moments, I can honestly say I didn’t laugh once throughout the entire film.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

#1,346. The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Directed By: Alexandre Aja

Starring: Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan, Dan Byrd

Tag line: "The lucky ones die first"

Trivia: Over 16 different nationalities worked on the movie, which was filmed in Morocco

Directed by Alexandre Aja, this 2006 remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes strikes a nice balance between old and new, matching the brutality of the original while at the same time updating the story in a way that makes it all the more unsettling.

The tale is a familiar one: “Big Bob” Carter (Ted Levine) and his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) are heading west to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Joining them are their teenage kids Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda (Emilie de Ravin), as well as eldest daughter Lynn (Vinessa Shaw), who has brought along her husband Doug (Aaron Stanford) and their newborn baby. 

While traveling down a lonely stretch of desert road, they have an “accident” that completely disables their vehicle, leaving them stranded in an area once used for nuclear testing. Bob and Doug stroll off in separate directions to look for help while the rest of the family, thanks to their state-of-the-art mobile home, makes the best of the situation. 

The moment the sun goes down, however, the Carters realize they are not alone, and find themselves fighting for their lives against a family of cannibalistic mutants.

Many of the intense sequences from 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes - from the fate of Big Bob and the attack on the Carter family to the kidnapping that kicks off the second half of the movie - are recreated for this recent version, with Aja ratcheting up the ferocity  (a la violence and gore) to make each an equally powerful experience. Where this new version sets itself apart from its predecessor is in the “family” that is stalking the Carters, who, instead of backward mountain folk, are straight-up mutants. Deformed by leftover radiation, this family is a collection of grotesqueries; men, women and children who look every bit as frightening as they act (instead of living in a cave, as in Craven’s film, they reside in one of the artificial towns put up by the government years earlier, which were built to determine the extent of damage from a nuclear blast).

As much as I admire the original, which, for me, ranks among Craven’s best efforts, this recent version of The Hills Have Eyes is a vicious, sometimes cruel motion picture that will get under your skin, then linger in your mind for days. Like Wes Craven before him, Alexandre Aja has crafted one hell of a horror movie!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

#1,345. The Pack (1977)

Directed By: Robert Clouse

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

Tag line: "They're not pets anymore"

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

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

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

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

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

And after that, check out The Pack.

Monday, April 21, 2014

#1,344. Dolly Dearest (1991)

Directed By: Maria Lease

Starring: Denise Crosby, Sam Bottoms, Rip Torn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 20, 2014

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

Directed By: John Magnuson

Starring: Lenny Bruce

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 19, 2014

#1,342. Twins of Evil (1971) - Hammer Horror Movies

Directed By: John Hough

Starring: Peter Cushing, Dennis Price, Mary Collinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 18, 2014

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

Directed By: Charles Lamont

Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Marie Windsor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

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

Directed By: Rolf Forsberg

Starring: Pierce Brosnan

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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

Directed By: Jim Mickle

Starring: Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner

Tag line: "Blood is the strongest bond"

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

#1,338. Jan-Gel: The Beast from the East (1999)

Directed By: Conrad Brooks

Starring: Conrad Brooks, Rock Savage, Gary Schroeder

Tag line: "Jan-Gel, The Monster, is More Horrifying Than Frankenstein!"

Line from the film: "This is some mystery"

Conrad Brooks is probably best known to B-movie fans as the actor who appeared in several Ed Wood pictures, including Glen or Glenda (where he portrayed a Banker, a Reporter, and a “Pick-up Artist”), Bride of the Monster (in the pivotal role of “Suspect Outside Office”), and Plan 9 from Outer Space (“Policeman”). In fact, the opening moments of 1999’s Jan-Gel: The Beast from the East, a film Brooks wrote and directed, offers the following:

This movie is dedicated to Tor Johnson, the Swedish angel, and Edward D. Wood, Jr.

This made me smile. A picture dedicated to Ed Wood and Tor Johnson? What’s not to love about that?

Little did I know this was going to be the highlight of Jan-Gel. It’s all downhill from there.

The “creature” of the title is an ancient caveman king named Jan-Gel (Dale Clukey), who, after being discovered frozen in the ice, was on his way to America when the boat carrying him sank in the Atlantic. But not to worry... a little thing like dropping to the bottom of the ocean isn’t going to stop Jan-Gel! Now completely thawed out, the royal Neanderthal makes his way to West Virginia (don’t ask how… it’s never explained), where he commits a series of murders. With no idea who’s behind these vicious killings, local authorities turn to the only man who can possibly solve this mystery: Conrad Brooks (playing himself, though not well)!

Jan-Gel: The Beast from the East is nearly unwatchable. Shot with what appears to be someone’s home video camera, the movie, at times, looks dreadful, and Brooks’ uninspired direction doesn’t help matters much. As for Jan-Gel, how this lumbering ox manages to murder anyone is probably the biggest mystery of them all; his first victims are a married couple (Glen Hendrickson and Beverly Kane), wading in their backyard swimming pool. Seeing as they were smack dab in the middle of said pool, I can’t figure out how Jan-Gel even got hold of them. Was he that good of a swimmer? Couldn’t the couple simply paddle to the other side and run away (later on, a guy walking down a motel hallway side-steps Jan-Gel, escaping with almost no effort at all)? I ask these questions because Brooks doesn’t show us what happens. He simply cuts to the next scene right after the couple spots Jan-Gel and screams. In fact, we see very few of the killings. Hell, the picture quality is so bad that, occasionally, we see very little of anything. And I hesitate to bring up the ‘acting’, because that might lead you to believe there were actors present. From the looks of it, Brooks pulled innocent people off the street and asked them to be in his movie. Criticize the actors? I feel sorry for them.

As it is with Ed Wood’s movies, you’ll find plenty to laugh about if you decide to watch Jan-Gel: The Beast from the East, though I’m not recommending you do so (like I said, the film is awful). In all honesty, I can’t even draw a comparison between this movie and one of Ed Wood’s pictures; next to Jan-Gel, Glen or Glenda looks like Lawrence of Arabia. It’s that bad.

But dedicating it to Wood and Tor Johnson? Yeah, that was a nice touch.

Monday, April 14, 2014

#1,337. The Land Unknown (1957)

Directed By: Virgil W. Vogel

Starring: Jock Mahoney, Shirley Patterson, William Reynolds

Tag line: " Lost and Terrorized in Prehistoric Time"

Trivia: This story was allegedly inspired by the discovery, in 1947, of an area of inexplicably warm water in Antarctica

The Land Unknown, a 1957 “Lost World”-style fantasy / adventure, was originally going to be a big-budget extravaganza. With Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula) set to direct, the plan was to shoot the movie in color with an all-star cast. Unfortunately, the dinosaurs (one of which was mechanical) cost so much money that Universal had to cut the budget in other places; color was replaced with black and white, and B-list actors were cast in the key roles. Because of these changes, Jack Arnold stepped aside, clearing the way for Virgil Vogel to take the reins.

A U.S. Navy Expedition is sent to Antarctica to investigate a patch of warm water, which, according to reports, exists in the otherwise icy region. While patrolling the area in a helicopter, Commander Harold Roberts (Jock Mahoney); Lt. Jack Carmen (William Reynolds); mechanic Steve Miller (Phil Harvey); and reporter Margaret Hathaway (Shirley Patterson) are forced to fly through a storm. As a result, their helicopter is damaged in mid-flight, causing it to crash land in a tropical valley, situated hundreds of feet below sea level. To the group’s amazement, this valley is populated by a variety of dinosaurs, long thought to be extinct, and one human: Dr. Carl Hunter (Henry Brandon), sole survivor of a plane crash that occurred during Admiral Byrd’s 1947 Antarctic expedition. Hunter believes he has the equipment needed to repair the group’s damaged helicopter, but will only help if they agree to leave Margaret behind with him!

While it does have its flaws, The Land Unknown, even without all the bells and whistles, is a mildly successful film. The cast does a fine job, and there are moments that really stand out (the scene where the main characters inadvertently discover the “Lost World” is handled wonderfully). I also liked how the film incorporated stock footage of Byrd’s ‘47 expedition, which added a sense of realism. The problem is the dinosaurs. Ranging from a guy in a suit (the T-Rex) to a mechanical sea monster (I’m guessing this is the one that cost so much money), these creatures, even by 1950s standards, are pretty poor (sadly, the expensive sea monster is the worst of the bunch, moving, at all times, in a way that makes it look 100% motorized).

As I said, The Land Unknown is far from a terrible movie, yet I can’t help but feel a little depressed when I think of what it could have been.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

#1,336. Son of Kong (1933)

Directed By: Ernest B. Schoedsack

Starring: Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, Frank Reicher

Tag line: "Laughs! Thrills! Pathos!"

Trivia: Recordings of Fay Wray's screams from King Kong were used in this movie

Following the runaway success of King Kong in 1933, RKO approached Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack about making a sequel. Naturally, the studio wanted to rush it into theaters as quickly as possible, thus giving the two men only a limited amount of time to put something together. The resulting film, Son of Kong, was released nine months after its predecessor, and while it’s definitely a step below King Kong, the fact that it’s a decent movie, considering how quickly it was produced, is itself a minor miracle.

We pick up one month after King Kong tore New York City apart. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), the man responsible for bringing “The Eighth Wonder of the World” to America, is facing numerous lawsuits, and has just learned the Grand Jury is going to investigate the disaster, which could result in jail time. Looking for a way out of this situation, Denham hooks up with Englehorn (Frank Reicher), the ship’s captain who helped him bring Kong back, and agrees to accompany him to the Far East. While attempting to take on cargo in the Dutch port of Dakang, Denham befriends a young lady named Hilda (Helen Mack), whose father was murdered by Nils Helstrom (John Marston), the Norwegian Captain who originally gave Denham the map of Kong Island. Looking for a way out, Helstrom tells Denham and Capt, Englehorn there’s still treasure on Kong Island, leading the two men to quickly change course. But Helstrom is working an angle of his own, one that might just maroon his new “partners” on the island where their troubles first began.

As a sequel to what is arguably the greatest monster film ever produced, Son of Kong is something of a letdown, they key problem being the majority of the movie is spent away from Kong island, following Denham as he attempts to put his life back together. It’s not that these scenes are bad; on the contrary, Robert Armstrong takes advantage of the added screen time to flesh out his character more thoroughly (in the end, he even gets the girl). But, alas, very few people go into Son of Kong wanting to know more about Carl Denham. They want an exciting, action-packed movie that rivals the original, and Son of Kong isn’t it. Once the group finally arrives on the Island, the special effects take over (one of the film’s more thrilling moments comes when a Triceratops chases several characters through the jungle), but this entire sequence, while effective, is also abbreviated. And as an unrelated aside, if “Little Kong” is King Kong’s son, what happened to Mama Kong?

I have to admit that, even with its weaknesses, I enjoy Son of Kong. Robert Armstrong does a decent job carrying the action forward in the early scenes, and the special effects (once again provided by Willis O’Brien) are, at times, on par with the original. Taken for what it is, Son of Kong is an entertaining diversion. But if its action and thrills you’re after, re-watch the classic original.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

#1,335. This Island Earth (1955)

Directed By: Joseph M. Newman

Starring: Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason

Tag line: "2 1/2 Years in the making!"

Trivia: a planned sequel to this film, undertaken in 1956, was scrapped by the studio because it was going to be too expensive to make

For their 1996 feature film debut, the gang at Mystery Science Theater 3000 took aim at a ‘50s sci-fi movie titled This Island Earth, and, on the whole, did an outstanding job lampooning it. But unlike many of the flicks that Mike and the ‘bots have ridiculed over the years, This Island Earth is actually a decent motion picture.

After constructing a strange communication device sent by persons unknown, Nuclear Physicist Cal Meachem (Rex Reason) is contacted by a mysterious man know only as Exeter (Jeff Morrow). Without offering an explanation, Exeter asks Cal to join him at an undisclosed location, an invitation the curious scientist quickly accepts. Once there, Cal finds himself in the company of some of the world’s most brilliant minds, including his old colleague, Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue). Teaming up with fellow researcher Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson), Cal and Ruth try to figure out who Exeter is, and why he’s gathered them together.

This Island Earth gets off to a good start, building a perplexing mystery that Cal is anxious to solve. Aided by his assistant, Joe (Robert Nichols), Cal passes Exeter’s “test” by successfully building an interocetor (the above mentioned communication device), gaining him acceptance in Exeter’s scientific fraternity. With their large, protruding foreheads and bright white hair, its obvious Exeter and his accomplice, Brack (Lance Fuller), aren’t from around these parts, but the question remains: who are they, and what are they after? This Island Earth does eventually answer these questions, at which point it becomes a thrilling sci-fi adventure, featuring vibrantly colored set pieces, impressive costumes, and some pretty nifty special effects.

While I definitely recommend Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, I suggest you first watch This Island Earth in its original form. An imaginative, well-made film, This Island Earth is a rarity in that it’s every bit as good without the MST3K commentary as it is with it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

#1,334. Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985)

Directed By: Danny Steinmann

Starring: Melanie Kinnaman, John Shepherd, Shavar Ross

Tag line: "A New Beginning to the first step in terror"

Trivia: Corey Feldman's scenes were shot on his day-off from filming The Goonies

It’s been a while since I last wrote about a Friday the 13th movie (over 3 years, to be precise), and Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning is the reason why. From the start, I promised myself that, if I addressed an entire series, I’d do so in sequential order, so, after writing up Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter in Feb. of 2011, A New Beginning was next on the list.

And I hate this damn movie! Hate it!

That’s not a word I’ve used often here, mostly because I take no joy whatsoever in despising a movie. I’m sure there are some out there who relish the chance to really lay into a film, cutting it to shreds with a scathing review, but I’m not one of them. When I love a movie (or at least really like it), the words come easy. If everything about a film rubs me the wrong way, my energy level drops to the point I want to steer clear of it. But seeing as there are later entries in the Friday the 13th series I feel are worth addressing, I knew, sooner or later, I’d have to tackle this stinker.

So here goes…

Haunted by the memory of his encounter with Jason Voorhees, Tommy Jarvis (John Shepherd) has spent years drifting in and out of mental hospitals, none of which have been able to help him. His latest stop is the Pinehurst Halfway House, a facility situated in the middle of the woods that’s owned and operated by Dr. Matt Letter (Richard Young). While a bit of an outcast at first, Tommy soon befriends Pam Roberts (Melanie Kinnamen), Dr. Letter’s assistant; as well as a young boy named Reggie (Shavar Ross), whose grandfather (Vernon Washington) works in the facility’s kitchen. But when one of Tommy’s fellow patients, a mentally slow teen named Joey (Dominick Brascia), is brutally murdered, it leads to a series of killings that suggest Jason Voorhees has returned from the grave.

Nearly everything about A New Beginning gets on my nerves, starting with its cartoonish characters, the most annoying of which are Ethel (Carol Locatell) and her son, Junior (Ron Sloan), the facility’s ornery neighbors who show up from time to time, acting as if they were the wife and son of Yosemite Sam. I cringed whenever these two popped on-screen, and while they were definitely awful, a few of Tommy’s peers at the Halfway House are almost as annoying (Joey, whose murder gets the story underway, is ridiculously over-the-top). Along with the characters, A New Beginning has scenes that left me scratching my head, like when Anita (Jeré Fields) serenades her boyfriend Demon (Miguel A. Nunez Jr.) while he’s in an outhouse, taking a dump. Of course, the absolute worst aspect of A New Beginning is something I can’t really discuss here: the final reveal. Even if the first 90% of the movie doesn’t bother you, the last few minutes will undoubtedly have you seeing red.

I suppose it’s not all bad; the opening scene, a dream sequence featuring a cameo by Corey Feldman, was effective, as were a few of the kills (Tina and Eddie, played by Debi Sue Voorhees and John Robert Dixon, break a cardinal rules by having sex, and pay dearly for their indiscretion). But in the final tally, the weaknesses far outweigh the positives, making A New Beginning the worst entry in the Friday the 13th series, and a strong contender for my least favorite movie of all-time.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

#1,333. Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007)

Directed By:Jeffrey Schwarz

Starring:Forrest J Ackerman, John Badham, Diane Baker

Tag line:"He was just another movie director...until he found himself a gimmick"

Trivia:This movie won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2007 AFI Fest

If any filmmaker deserves to be the subject of a documentary, it’s William Castle. As much a showman as he was a storyteller, Castle produced and directed low-budget horror movies, then devised “gimmicks” to get people into the theaters to see them. Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, a 2007 documentary produced, in part, by Castle’s daughter Terry, covers a few of his incredibly imaginative “campaigns”, while at the same time painting the picture of a man who longed for more respect than he usually received.

An orphan by the age of eleven and a high-school dropout, William Castle’s life forever changed when, as a young man, he attended a stage production of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. From there, he learned not only how to tell a good story, but sell one as well. After several years working as a hired hand, assisting George Stevens on Penny Serenade and buddying up to Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn, Castle set out on his own, making films such as House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler (both with Vincent Price), and 13 Ghosts, and taking an active part in the promotion of each and every one.

And what promotions they were! For House on Haunted Hill, Castle arranged for a glow-in-the-dark skeleton to emerge from the back of the darkened theater and, at a key moment in the film, fly over the audience’s heads. For The Tingler, he went a step further, installing an electric buzzer in the seats and giving viewers an “electric shock” as they watched the movie. He was even bold enough to offer those too frightened to sit through 1961’s Homicidal their money back (seeing as they had to go to an area called “Coward’s Corner” to receive that refund, I’m guessing very few people took him up on it). Then, in 1968, Castle finally hit the big time, producing the meg-hit Rosemary’s Baby. But with the notoriety came a little heartbreak; Castle received hate mail, not to mention the occasional death threat, from Christian groups upset he’d made a picture about the devil.

Spine Tingler! is, in many ways, a standard documentary, with archival footage and plenty of interviews featuring those who knew Castle, and the filmmakers he influenced (director John Waters is a particularly vociferous fan). Yet, despite the usual trappings, Spine Tingler! is a fun motion picture, which I’m sure has something to do with its subject matter.

Decades after his death, William Castle can still sell a movie!