Thursday, December 31, 2015

#1,963. Anonymous (2011)

Directed By: Roland Emmerich

Starring: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis

Tag line: "Was Shakespeare a Fraud?"

Trivia: Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson play the older and younger versions of Queen Elizabeth respectively. In real-life they are mother and daughter

When you think of Roland Emmerich, the words “historical drama” don’t immediately pop into your head. And yet, this director of such big-budget disaster / sci-fi films as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 also turned out Anonymous, a 2011 drama / thriller set during the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, whose years on the throne coincided with the career of one William Shakespeare, a man considered by many to be the English language’s greatest writer.

But what if (as this movie’s tagline suggests) Shakespeare was a fraud? What if he didn’t write the sonnets or plays that have been attributed to him? What if he was a front for someone else, a man of noble birth whose rank and status demanded that he remain in the shadows, unable to take credit for his work?

It’s this theory that sets the stage for Anonymous, yet is just one of several stories told over the course of the movie.

Taking a page from Henry V, Anonymous opens with a modern-day setting: a theater in New York City. Arriving moments before the curtain goes up, Derek Jacobi rushes on stage to deliver the monologue that will set the tale in motion. From there, we’re whisked away to London, hundreds of years in the past. It’s a time of political unrest; Queen Elizabeth (played by Vanessa Redgrave, with Joely Richardson portraying a younger Elizabeth in flashbacks) has no legitimate heir. Her closest advisor, William Cecil (David Thewlis), is pushing for the Queen to name Scotland’s King James her successor, while several noblemen, including the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel), support the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), who many believe to be Elizabeth’s bastard son.

Though his father-in-law is William Cecil, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the Earl of Oxford, shows little interest in the turmoil that has shaken England to its core. Instead, he spends his days secretly writing plays, sonnets, and poems, much to the chagrin of his wife Anne (Helen Baxendale) and her Puritan family. Eager to share his works with the world, but knowing his name cannot be attached to them, de Vere approaches playwright / theater owner Benjamin Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), asking for his help in staging some of his plays, with the understanding that Jonson himself will take full credit for them. The night that the first play, Henry V, is performed, however, Jonson has second thoughts, and instead lists the author as “Anonymous”. Once the show is over, the crowd applauds wildly, calling for the writer to take a bow. Seizing the opportunity, an upstart actor named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), who is aware of Jonson’s arrangement but has no idea who the true author is, grabs the manuscript for Henry V and claims it as his own. The rest, as they say, is history.

Along with its political wranglings and artistic conspiracies, Anonymous delves into a few romantic scandals as well, chief among them an illicit affair that occurred years earlier between de Vere (played as a young man by James Campbell Bower) and the Queen herself, a coupling that led to the birth of a son, who, thanks to William Cecil, was immediately turned over to foster parents, with neither the Queen nor de Vere knowing the child’s new identity. With so much intrigue crammed into one movie, you might think that Anonymous spreads itself too thin, or is perhaps far too confusing for its own good. But I assure you that’s not the case. Never once during the film did I have trouble keeping up with things. In fact, each new wrinkle in its story proved just as fascinating as the last, and from start to finish, it held my undivided attention.

In addition to its riveting storylines, Anonymous looks fantastic, using a combination of sets, costumes, and CGI to bring this volatile era to life. I also enjoyed the sequences in which the plays themselves were staged (the scene in Henry V where the King addresses his troops before battle was both inspirational and moving), and across the board, the performances were exceptional (the standouts being Redgrave’s portrayal of the aging Queen and Rafe Spall as the oafish and somewhat vulgar Shakespeare).

Personally, I don’t buy into the theory that William Shakespeare was a fraud, though I admit it was fun to at least entertain that possibility for a few hours. It’s not often you use the word “fun” when describing a period piece like Anonymous.

But then, you don’t usually see one directed by Roland Emmerich, either.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

#1,962. Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (2014)

Directed By: Tommy Wirkola

Starring: Vegar Hoel, Ørjan Gamst, Martin Starr

Tag line: "Heads up. They're back"

Trivia: Shot in both Norwegian and English

After a brief recap of what went down in Dead Snow, director Tommy Wirkola’s 2014 follow-up, Dead Snow 2: Red Vs. Dead, picks up exactly where that movie left off, with Martin (Vegar Hoel), who cut a portion of his own arm off after being bitten by a zombie, trapped in his car while undead Nazi commander Herzog (Ørjan Gamst) and a handful of his troops attack him on all sides. What follows is an action-packed, sometimes hysterical sequence in which Herzog’s arm is also severed (it ends up falling into the passenger’s seat of Martin’s car). It’s a crazy opening scene, to be sure, but trust me when I tell you it isn’t half as insane as what’s to come!

Shortly after escaping the Nazis, Martin crashes his vehicle and is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he finds himself handcuffed to a hospital bed. It seems the cops don’t believe his story about marauding dead Nazis, and are convinced Martin is the one who slaughtered his friends. To make matters worse, the doctor tells Martin that he was able to re-attach his arm, not knowing that the limb he sewed on actually belonged to a zombie! Unable to control his new appendage, Martin inadvertently kills a few more people before finally stealing a car and speeding away.

Thus begins an adventure that sees Martin team up with three Americans: Daniel (Martin Starr); Monica (Jocelyn DeBoer); and Blake (Ingrid Haas), who call themselves the Zombie Squad. With the help of a museum employee named Glenn (Stig Frode Henriksen), Martin and his newfound friends attempt to stop Herzog’s army, which is about to unleash holy hell on a small Norwegian town. Realizing they’re outnumbered, Martin uses his powerful new arm to even the odds a bit, leading to a showdown of epic proportions.

People die by the dozen in Dead Snow 2, usually in grisly fashion, and no group (not even children or the handicapped) is safe from the onslaught. Even a mother out walking her baby is fair game, and the level of violence that Herzog’s army inflicts on their victims is off the charts (one poor guy is beaten to death with a bathroom sink, while the intestines of another are used to siphon gas from a tour bus into a WWII-era tank). Rest assured, however, that Martin and his zombie arm make a hell of a team, and he even manages to raise a few undead soldiers of his own to battle Herzog (I dare not reveal more).

As for the Zombie Squad, they’re basically nerds (Monica quotes Star Wars every chance she gets), but those who remember the Outhouse scene in Dead Snow know that director Wirkola has a certain affection for genre fans / social misfits such as these, so don’t expect this trio to be the comic relief. That role is instead filled by local police chief Gunga (Hallvard Holmen), who utters a few hilarious comments after realizing he and his men are caught in the middle of an all-out zombie war.

If I had to sum up Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead in a couple of words, they would be “glorious insanity”. It’s bloody, messy, gross, over-the-top, ridiculous, and just plain awesome. There’s no denying that 2009’s Dead Snow is an excellent zombie flick, but I have to tell you, once I watch Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead a few more times, there’s a damn good chance I’ll be ranking this sequel slightly ahead of the original

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

#1,961. Count Dracula (1970)

Directed By: Jesús Franco

Starring: Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, Klaus Kinski

Line from the film: "One of my race crossed the Danube and destroyed the Turkish host"

Trivia: Director Jesús Franco's first choice for the role of Van Helsing was Vincent Price. He was not able to obtain Price due to his exclusive contract with American International Pictures

Billed as the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, director Jess Franco’s Count Dracula features an all-star cast led by Sir Christopher Lee, reprising the role he made popular in countless Hammer horror films, yet playing a much different Count than he ever did before.

Acting on behalf of his employer, Jonathan Harker (Fred Williams) travels to Transylvania to meet with Count Dracula (Lee) and discuss the nobleman’s recent purchase of an estate in England. Ignoring the warnings of the locals, Harker makes his way to Castle Dracula, only to discover that the Count is, in fact, a vampire who intends to kill him. Following a daring escape, the frightened young man eventually ends up back to England, so shaken by his experiences in Transylvania that he’s committed to the sanitarium of Dr. Sewell (Paul Muller), where, for several weeks, he drifts in and out of consciousness.

It’s during his time here that Harker meets Van Helsing (Herbert Lom), a medical man who also dabbles in the black arts. Though initially skeptical of Harker’s claims that a vampire has moved to London, Van Helsing and the others soon realize the truth when Harker’s fiancée Mina (Maria Rohm) and her best friend Lucy (Soledad Miranda) pay a visit to the sanitarium. Having fallen under Dracula’s spell, Lucy is slowly drained of her blood, pushing her to the brink of death. Aided by Harker as well as Lucy’s fiancé Quincey (Jack Taylor), Van Helsing attempts to destroy Dracula, hoping to do so before he Count can sink his teeth into more innocent victims.

Shot in actual locations across Spain and Germany, Count Dracula definitely has an old-world feel to it, yet the film’s greatest asset is its cast. Herbert Lom, best known as Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther series, does a fine job as Dracula’s arch-nemesis Van Helsing, a man who, though slow to act, knows how to defeat the dreaded Count, In addition, Count Dracula features the beautiful Soledad Miranda (as the doomed Lucy) and the great Klaus Kinski (playing a mute version of Renfield).

Topping off this impressive group is Christopher Lee as Dracula himself, a role he had been playing since 1957 (the year Horror of Dracula was released). But unlike the Hammer films, this Dracula starts as an older man, gradually growing younger as the movie progresses (each new victim shaves years off his appearance). Count Dracula also afforded Lee an opportunity to deliver dialogue lifted straight from Bram Stoker’s novel; the scene where Dracula tells Harker about his family’s proud history, only to add that he’s grown “restless” in Transylvania and is looking for a change of scenery, is a definite highlight . And even though Dracula himself doesn’t show up all that often, Lee makes the most of each and every one of his scenes.

Though slower paced than your average vampire film, Count Dracula is nonetheless a fascinating take on a time-honored tale, delivering a version of the story that Stoker himself would likely enjoy.

Monday, December 28, 2015

#1,960. WarGames (1983)

Directed By: John Badham

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, John Wood

Tag line: "Is it a game, or is it real?"

Trivia: According to John Badham, the scene of the jeep trying to crash through the gate at NORAD and turning over was an actual accident. The jeep was supposed to continue through the gate

While it’s anti-nuke message may not resonate as strongly today as it did in the 1980s (when the Cold War was in full swing), there’s enough danger and excitement scattered throughout director John Badham’s WarGames to ensure it’s still a fun watch.

Teenager David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) is a computer whiz. He’s so good, in fact, that he has figured out a way to hack into his school’s network, changing both his grades and those of his new “friend”, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy). So, when David hears through the grapevine that a game manufacturer is planning to release a slew of video games in a few months, he does his darnedest to hook into the company’s computer system so he can get a sneak peek at them. 

After dialing in to what he believes is their mainframe, David and Jennifer select a game titled “Global Thermonuclear War”. Unfortunately, David hacked the wrong computer; he actually found his way into the military’s fully automated defense system, which, once the "game" started, became convinced that the Soviet Union was launching a surprise nuclear attack against the United States!

The military’s top men, located in the underground headquarters of NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command), take the necessary steps to retaliate against the Russians. Once they realize the Soviets aren’t attacking, both the system’s administrator Dr. John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) and Army Gen. Jack Berringer (Barry Corbin) order an investigation, which leads right back to David. 

Convinced he’s an enemy agent, the NORAD officials take the frightened teenager into custody. But the danger hasn't ended, because even though David has logged off, the system is still playing Global Thermonuclear War, and unless they can convince it that war hasn't broken out, the NORAD computer will launch an array of nuclear missiles, and it will be "game over" for the entire world in 24 short hours!

Setting the stage with an intense opening sequence at a nuclear missile silo (which features a very young Michael Madsen as one of two soldiers with his finger on the launch button), WarGames is both a solid adventure movie (to prevent the computer from starting World War III, David and Jennifer go to great lengths to track down the system’s original programmer, Professor Falkan, played by John Wood) and a first-class thriller (a scene where David sneaks out of the NORAD command center is a real nail-biter).

Broderick is convincing as the cocky computer nerd, and he and Sheedy make a good team as unlikely heroes going up against the U.S. military. Equally impressive is Dabney Coleman (playing the heavy once again, like he did in 9 to 5 and Modern Problems) as the suspicious administrator trying to cover his own ass, yet my favorite character is Barry Corbin’s Gen. Berringer, a hard-nosed leader of men who isn’t afraid let McKittrick know exactly what he thinks of his new-fangled defense system. The continuous give-and-take between Corbin and Coleman results in some of the film’s biggest laughs (as McKittrick and his associates discuss how to reprogram the computer, Gen. Berringer says, quite emphatically, that he’d “piss on a spark plug” if he thought it would help).

Modern audiences may find the final scene - complete with a “moral to the story” - a bit heavy-handed, though I assure you it didn’t seem as such back in the day, when nuclear war felt like a genuine threat.  Yet even if the finale does have you rolling your eyes a little, WarGames still packs plenty of thrills into what came before, and is a movie will keep you on the edge of your seat for the better part of 114 minutes.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

#1,959. The Dead Lands (2014)

Directed By: Toa Fraser

Starring: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka

Tag line: "Where the warrior spirit was born"

Trivia: Official submission of New Zealand to the best foreign language film category of the 87th Academy Awards 2015

Set hundreds of years in the past, 2014’s The Dead Lands follows Hongi (James Rolleston), the son of a Maori chieftain, as he tries to avenge the slaughter of his entire tribe. The trouble started earlier, when Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), the son of a rival chieftain, stopped by to pay his respects to the graves of his ancestors. Following a tense confrontation with Hongi’s father Tane (George Henare), Wirepa and his soldiers seemingly head for home, only to return later that night, attacking and killing Tane and many members of his tribe.

Determined to make Wirepa pay for his actions, Hongi tracks him to an area known as the Dead Lands (thus named because the people who once lived there have died off), a supposedly cursed region that, according to legend, is guarded by a fierce warrior. Realizing he can’t defeat Wirepa and his men by himself, Hongi seeks out this warrior (Lawrence Makoare), who agrees to help him. But over time, Hongi will discover that the warrior, who many believe is actually a demon, has reasons of his own for joining the hunt.

Shot in New Zealand’s more picturesque locales, The Dead Lands is, start to finish, a beautiful motion picture, and features some thrilling action sequences. But, at its heart, the movie is a tale about honor and duty, both of which (if this film is to be believed) were of vital importance to the ancient Maori. As the only survivor of Wirepa’s attack (mostly because he hid while it was going on), Hongi feels both remorse for not having fought back (for Maori warriors, the only proper way to die is in battle), and duty-bound to avenge his loved ones; several times throughout the movie, Hongi (while asleep) is visited by his deceased grandmother (Rena Owen), who urges him to kill Wirepa and restore his family’s honor. Not to be outdone, the warrior who assists Hongi is himself living under a cloud, and looking for a little redemption of his own.

Yet as engaging as its story is at times, and as exciting as many of the battle scenes are (especially the climactic showdown), there’s nothing in The Dead Lands that we haven’t seen before, which, to be honest, disappointed me a little (not knowing anything about the Maori or their way of life going in, I was hoping for something a bit more substantial, but instead got what amounted to a well-made, though rather pedestrian, action flick) Those in the mood for a fast-paced, entertaining diversion will undoubtedly find The Dead Lands to their liking, but once the movie is over, it will quickly evaporate from the mind.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

#1,958. Jerusalem (2013)

Directed By: Daniel Ferguson

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jodi Magness, Farah Ammouri

Tag line: "Discover the Heart of the World"

Trivia: It took three years to complete this film

Distributed by National Geographic, Jerusalem takes us inside this ancient city, a place that, as narrator Benedict Cumberbatch puts it, is “The gateway to God for 3 major religions, and one of the most fought-over pieces of land in history, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims live side-by-side, but in separate quarters, each in their own Jerusalem”.

Jerusalem follows three young women: Muslim Farah Ammouri; Israeli Revital Zacharia; and Christian Nadia Tadros, as they take us on a guided tour of the Jerusalem they themselves are familiar with, each focusing on their own specific section of town. In addition, Jerusalem introduces us to Dr. Jodi Magness, an archaeologist whose team is piecing together the history (from the Roman era and earlier) of this most cherished land.

Conquered over 40 times by invading armies, Jerusalem is, even today, a city divided along religious lines (“Although we live in the same area,” one of the three girls says, “we don’t know a lot about each other”). Yet what I liked most about this 2013 IMAX documentary is that it didn’t spend time exploring the conflicts that separate the city’s residents, but instead centered on the similarities of each group, including the shared belief that Jerusalem is the cornerstone of their faith. Over the course of the movie, we visit such important locales as the Western Wall (the site of an ancient temple erected by Herod the Great and a place where Jews come to offer their prayers to God), The Dome of the Rock (which houses the Foundation Stone, a sacred artifact that Muslims believe marks the spot where the prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven), and The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (perhaps the holiest cathedral in the Christian faith, which, according to legend, was built where Jesus was crucified and buried). In addition, we witness various religions ceremonies, including a Bar Mitzvah, prayer during Ramadan, and the Easter Sunday ritual in which Christian pilgrims re-enact Jesus’ long walk to the crucifixion.

Though its citizens remain at odds with one another, Jerusalem shows us, in sometimes beautiful detail (as with many IMAX films, the cinematography is gorgeous), just how much they have in common.

Friday, December 25, 2015

#1,957. Varsity Show (1937)

Directed By: William Keighley

Starring: Dick Powell, Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, Ted Healy


Trivia: This marked the film debut of actress Priscilla Lane

A “Let’s put on a show” plotline?

Singing and dancing?

Dick Powell?

Must be another Busby Berkeley-inspired musical, and while 1937’s Varsity Show isn’t one of the best films to feature Berkeley’s unique style of choreography, it has enough charm to carry it through until the eye-popping finale.

It’s time for Winfield College to put on their annual song and dance show, but to the student’s dismay, tightwad professor Sylvester Biddle (Walter Catlett) is once again calling the shots. With his preference for the classics over more contemporary music, everyone knows that, if Biddle has his way, this year’s production will be a flop. So, with the (unofficial) blessing of music teacher Ernie Mason (band leader Fred Waring, who appears with his group The Pennsylvanians), a contingency of students heads to New York City to convince the college’s most famous alumnus, Broadway big-shot Chuck Daly (Powell), to help organize their show. After working out the details with his shifty manager Willy Williams (Ted Healy), Daly (whose career is on the skids) agrees to assist, but when Biddle and the rest of the faculty hear the students went behind their backs, they hit the roof, threatening to cancel the show. Will Biddle and his cronies have their way, or will the kids win out in the end?

Varsity Show follows closely in the footsteps of 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade, and as a result, the entire movie has a “been there, done that” vibe to it. Still, there’s plenty of music and comedy early on to keep things rolling at a decent clip. Most of the laughs come courtesy of Ted Healy (former frontman for The Three Stooges), who, as sly theatrical agent Willy Williams, talks circles around Professor Biddle (at one point, Williams even purposefully infects Biddle with a case of the mumps, which he himself caught from a lovestruck co-ed played by Mabel Todd). As for the first few musical numbers, the standouts include “On With The Dance”, sung by Fred Waring and co-star Priscilla Lane; and the swinging “Old King Cole”, performed first by cast member Johnnie Davis, but reprised by others a few more times throughout the film. And keep an eye out for a young Sterling Holloway (the voice of Winnie the Pooh), who plays Trout, one of the kids determined to make this year’s production a memorable one.

Like all good Busby Berkeley musicals, though, it’s the finale that makes Varsity Show such a rewarding experience. Choreographed, as usual, by Berkeley himself, the sequence begins with a tap-dancing / skat-laced routine performed by the duo of Buck (Ford Washington Lee) and Bubbles (John William Sublett). Next, we’re treated to a stunning, collegiate-inspired number, with a hundred dancers twirling batons, before moving on to an incredible tribute to some of America’s most prestigious universities, a sequence you’ll have to see to believe.

Even if you weren’t impressed with what went before it, this last 10-15 minutes of Varsity Show are guaranteed to bowl you over!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

#1,956. Stalking Santa (2006)

Directed By: Greg Kiefer

Starring: Chris Clark, Daryn Tufts, Lisa Clark

Line from this film: "Zoom right in on that belt. If it's plastic, we got a fake"

Trivia: Won Best feature Film - Comedy at the 2007 International Family Film Festival

So is there a Santa Claus, or isn’t there? Ask Lloyd Darrow (Chris Clark), founder of Tangible Evidence Real Discoveries (or TERD for short), and he’ll tell you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Santa is 100% genuine. What’s more, he intends to prove it. Aided by his (unpaid) intern Clarence (Daryn Tufts), Lloyd has dedicated his entire life to uncovering clues that Santa does, indeed, exist. With Christmas just a few days away, Lloyd and Clarence are intensifying their investigation, cruising the malls to expose phony Santa’s in the hopes they’ll weed out the imitators and, eventually, track down St. Nicholas himself.

Though he has the support of his beloved wife Barbara (Lisa Clark) and daughter Kylie (Sierra Squires), Lloyd’s only son Keith (Simon Taylor) believes his dad is cracking up, and wants him to call the whole thing off. But Lloyd has no time to listen to naysayers; he knows in his heart he’s closing in on the truth, and is convinced he’ll soon have concrete evidence that Santa Claus, his reindeer, and his elven assistants are, in fact, the real deal.

Produced as a mockumentary and narrated by William Shatner, 2006’s Stalking Santa has some genuinely funny moments, many of which involve its two lead characters, Lloyd and Clarence, cruising department store parking lots to secretly videotape “fake” Santa’s (“Zoom in on that belt”, Lloyd tells Clarence as the two drive by a Salvation Army Santa Claus. “If it's plastic, we got a fake”). In addition to their storefront research, the pair also explore other avenues they believe support their hypothesis that Santa exists. The cameras are there when Clarence pays a visit to the Destry family farm, where owner Ben Destry (Jake Suazo) has uncovered a crop circle in his corn field. According to Lloyd, crop circles are, in reality, alternate landing pads for Santa’s sleigh, and are usually found next to houses that don’t have a chimney (leaving Jolly ‘ole St. Nick with no choice but to bring the sled down in a safe place and walk through the front door). It’s proof like this that Lloyd believes will eventually validate his entire theory (he scoffs when told that some think crop circles are the work of aliens from outer space, a notion he finds completely ludicrous).

As good as Lloyd’s investigation is, it’s the film’s “historical evidence” that impressed me the most. Relying on images from olden times (including a papyrus dating back to Ancient Egypt which shows a large man in red & white with a reindeer standing behind him); audio clips (when played backwards, a wax cylinder recorded during a 1893 séance offers further confirmation that the big guy is real); and, of course, the Garner Expedition Film of 1947, when two North Pole explorers captured actual footage of what might be Santa Claus, strolling through the snow. Taking a page from such TV shows as In Search Of and Unsolved Mysteries, Stalking Santa conjures up a bizarre reality (complete with a conspiracy theory) that's as clever as it is hilarious.

Featuring interviews with actual kids, saying what they think of Santa Claus, and containing practically no offensive material whatsoever (the movie was rated PG by the MPAA for “Brief Mild Language”), Stalking Santa offers something for parents and children alike, and is a nice holiday alternative that the entire family can enjoy.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

#1,955. A Shot in the Dark (1964)

Directed By: Blake Edwards

Starring: Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, George Sanders

Tag line: "The screen commits the perfect comedy! "

Trivia: The role of Maria Gambrelli was originally given to Sophia Loren, but she became ill and couldn't do it

Though only a supporting character in 1963’s The Pink Panther, bumbling French police Inspector Jacques Clouseau, as played by the great Peter Sellers, managed to steal that movie away from his co-stars. With 1964’s A Shot in the Dark, Clouseau moves into the lead role, showing all of Paris, and indeed the entire world, how incompetent he truly is.

A murder has been committed at the Ballon Estate, a large mansion owned by millionaire Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders), who resides there with his pretty young wife Dominique (Tracy reed) and his numerous servants. The dead man is the Ballon’s chauffeur, Miguel, and the main suspect is their maid, Maria Gambrelli (Elke Sommer), with whom the deceased was having an affair.

It seems like an open and shut case: Maria Gambrelli was found holding the murder weapon in the very room where the killing occurred. The rest of the household staff, as well as the Ballons themselves, have air-tight alibis, and Maria admits Miguel attacked her just prior to being shot dead. So, the logical conclusion is that Maria Gambrelli is the murderer.

But that’s not how inspector Jacques Clouseau sees it; in spite of the overwhelming evidence against her, Clouseau is convinced Maria Gambrelli is innocent, and is keeping quiet to protect the real killer. Of course, nobody else believes this, including Police Commissioner Charles Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), who wants Clouseau taken off the case. But someone higher up overrules him, and as Clouseau meticulously conducts his investigation, the dead bodies continue to pile up, each one seemingly murdered by none other than Maria Gambrelli! Is Clouseau correct in his assertion that Maria is innocent, or is he so entranced by her beauty that he refuses to see the truth?

The second entry in the Pink Panther series, A Shot in the Dark introduced a pair of characters who would become regular fixtures in the later films. The first is Kato (Burt Kwouk), Clouseau’s Asian valet, who launches surprise attacks against his employer every chance he gets. Designed to keep Clouseau on his toes, these attacks usually occur at the worst possible times (at one point, Kato leaps at Clouseau while the inspector is having a bath), and, in most cases, end with Kato sprawled unconscious on the floor.

Next, we have Clouseau’s superior, Chief Inspector Dreyfus. Knowing full well that Clouseau is a buffoon, Dreyfus’s sanity slowly slips away from him as the Gambrelli case unfolds; he develops a facial tick, laughs maniacally for no apparent reason, and even becomes a danger to himself (while using his novelty guillotine to slice the end off of a cigar, he accidentally severs his own thumb). Watching poor Dreyfus’s mental health deteriorate is one of the funnier aspects of A Shot in the Dark, and we can’t help but wonder just how far he’s willing to take his hatred of Clouseau (“Give me 10 men like Clouseau”, Dreyfus says, “and I could destroy the world”).

Yet as funny as both Kwouk and Lom are, it’s Clouseau, Peter Sellers’ inept alter ego, who takes center stage. Equal parts fool and egomaniac, Clouseau is definitely accident prone; in his very first scene, he steps out of a police car and tumbles into a water fountain. The biggest obstacle Clouseau has to overcome, however, is his gross incompetence. To keep an eye on Maria Gambrelli without her knowing, he disguises himself as both a hunter and a balloon salesman, only to be whisked away to jail because he didn’t have a license to do either! Sellers is at his comedic best in A Shot in the Dark, and gets himself into one uproarious situation after another (the nudist colony sequence is flat-out hilarious).

As for the murder, we do eventually discover who killed Miguel the chauffeur, but, really, who cares? Like most of the Pink Panther films, A Shot in the Dark is a straight-up comedy that doesn’t give a damn about the mystery it creates (the finale, when all is revealed, is as outlandish as the rest of the movie). That’s OK, though, because what the film lacks in whodunit intrigue, it more than makes up for in comedic hijinks, and thanks to the creative team of Peter Sellers and director Blake Edwards, A Shot in the Dark gives us plenty to laugh about.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

#1,954. Quantrill's Raiders (1958)

Directed By: Edward Bernds

Starring: Steve Cochran, Diane Brewster, Leo Gordon

Tag line: "The Hell-Horde they called The Butcher's Battalion! "

Trivia: In Brazil, this film was released as Heroic Ambush

William Quantrill, a Confederate Captain during the American Civil War whose guerrilla tactics made him one of the conflict’s most notorious figures, has been a character in a number of films over the years, including Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command (Raymond Massey played the infamous leader, whose name was changed slightly to “Cantrell”) and Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil (in which John Ales appeared briefly as Quantrill). Released in 1958, Quantrill’s Raiders is a fictionalized account of Quantrill’s 1863 raid on Lawrence, Kansas, and while the event as re-created in the film is far from historically accurate, Quantrill himself, played with gusto by Leo Gordon, is simultaneously the most interesting and most frightening individual in the entire movie.

Posing as an ex-Union soldier turned horse trader, Alan Westcott (Steve Cochran) is, in reality, a Confederate Captain sent by his superiors to pass along an order to William Quantrill (Gordon): destroy the Union arsenal in the town of Lawrence, Kansas. While his “hit and run” tactics have made him something of a legend in the territory, Quantrill is, as Westcott quickly learns, a ruthless risk taker more interested in looting than in winning the war. And after getting to know the residents of Lawrence, including Sue Walters (Diane Brewster), who runs the local boarding house; and her nephew Joel (Kim Charney), Westcott begins to wonder if Quantrill’s harsh methods are the Confederate’s best option, or if he himself should lead the raid. Not that it matters, though, because whether he’s invited or not, William Quantrill has every intention of being in Lawrence when things go down, and God help anyone standing in his way.

Though he plays what amounts to the lead role in Quantrill’s Raiders, Steve Cochran isn’t nearly as effective as Leo Gordon, whose Quantrill is a volatile military leader hell bent on destruction, a man who has no problem ordering the slaughter of innocent women and children, and isn’t above slapping around his best girl Kate (Gale Robbins) when she gets out of line. Despite being the title character, Quantrill is clearly the villain of this 1958 film, and Leo Gordon’s sometimes venomous turn ensures that the audience never once feels anything but contempt for him.

Set during the Civil War, Quantrill’s Raiders, with its impressive landscapes and exciting chase scenes (mostly on horseback), is a better western than it is a war movie (the opening battle, where Quantrill and his men ambush a Union patrol, is lackluster at best). But Leo Gordon’s spirited portrayal of Quantrill, coupled with a finale that’s as thrilling as they come, make Quantrill’s Raiders a fine action movie, not to mention an entertaining film overall.

Monday, December 21, 2015

#1,953. Day of the Animals (1977)

Directed By: William Girdler

Starring: Christopher George, Leslie Nielsen, Lynda Day George

Tag line: "The terrifying movie of a world gone mad!"

Trivia: Aside from her on-screen role, Susan Backlinie worked as an animal trainer, and served as Lynda Day George's stunt double for this film

In June 1974 Drs. F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of the University of California startled the scientific world with the finding that fluorocarbon gases used in aerosol spray cans are seriously damaging the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Thus, potentially dangerous amounts of ultra-violet rays are attacking the surface of our planet, adversely affecting all living things.

This motion picture dramatizes what COULD happen in the near future IF we continue to do nothing to stop the damage to nature’s protective shield for life on this planet.

And (with the above scrolling text) so begins Day of the Animals, a 1977 cautionary tale directed by William Girdler (who also helmed 1976’s Grizzly) in which the planet’s animals, from giant brown bears to small, furry rodents, turn the tables on mankind, grouping together to unleash a fury so terrible that it threatens to destroy everything, and every one, in its path.

Steve Buckner (Christopher George), an outdoorsman who makes his living as a tour guide, embarks on yet another trip to the nearby mountain with his next round of clients. They include: arrogant ad man Paul Jensen (Leslie Nielson); Reporter Terry Marsh (Lynda Day George); Native American Daniel Santee (Michael Ansara); A university professor named MacGregor (Richard Jaeckel), injured pro football player Roy Moore (Paul Mantee); Bickering couple Frank and Mary (John Cedar, Susan Backline); young lovers Bob and Beth (Andrew Stevens, Kathleen Bracken); and recently divorced housewife Shirley Goodwyn (Ruth Roman) and her adolescent son John (Bobby Porter).

After being shuttled to the top of the mountain by a pair of helicopters, the group begins their trek downward, which is scheduled to last a few days. What they don’t know, however, is that harmful rays seeping in through a hole in the ozone layer are having an adverse effect on animal life, causing creatures in the higher elevations to become violent. Following a nighttime attack by some angry wolves, Buckner and the others realize they’re in a ton of trouble, and, cut off from the rest of the world, they have no alternative but to continue their long walk back to civilization, one short step ahead of some very pissed-off animals.

Director William Girdler kicks off this “man vs. nature” showdown with a subtle, yet creepy scene set high atop the mountain, where, all of a sudden, Steve and his clients realize everything has gone mysteriously silent (only the wind can be heard rustling through the trees). After a few moments, the silence is interrupted by a bird’s screech, followed by another… and another... and another. It’s then that the group notices the surrounding trees are filled with birds of prey, one of which glides down and brazenly lands on a rock right next to young John Goodwyn. From this point forward, the encounters grow increasingly more violent, and as you’d expect, not everyone makes it out alive. Along with the perilous conditions on the mountain, Day of the Animals features several scenes set in the town below, where the Sheriff (Michael Andreas), after receiving the news that the military just declared martial law in the area, has a confrontation of his own with some ornery rats.

While the science that inspired Day of the Animals may seem a bit naïve nowadays, the movie itself is still very effective, weaving a terrifying tale of survival in which characters have no idea what creatures are stalking them, or from which direction the next attack will occur. In often grisly fashion, director Girdler and his talented cast show us what might happen if the animals of the world joined together to fight mankind, and if this movie is any indication, they’d make for one hell of an adversary!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

#1,952. Which Way is Up? (1977) - The Films of Richard Pryor

Directed By: Michael Schultz

Starring: Richard Pryor, Lonette McKee, Margaret Avery

Line from this film: "I saw... a woman! A short woman with two tall midgets!"

Trivia: Several lines at the beginning of this film were sampled in 2 Live Crew's 1989 hit "Me So Horny"

A year after he and Gene Wilder set the box office ablaze with Silver Streak, Richard Pryor broadened his comedic skills by playing not one, but three roles in 1977’s Which Way Is Up?, a comedy about a California farm worker named Leroy Jones (Pryor) who, thanks to some bad luck, has his picture taken alongside union leader Ramon Juarez (Luis Valdez). Though far from a rabble-rouser himself, the picture convinces the bosses that Leroy is pro-union, and, instead of beating him to a pulp, they offer him a one-way bus ticket out of town.

Leaving his frigid wife Annie Mae (Margaret Avery) and his elderly father Rufus (also Pryor) behind, Leroy heads to Los Angeles, promising to send money home as soon as he finds steady work. There, he meets Vanetta (Lonette McKee), a union organizer, and the two quickly fall in love. But before she commits herself completely to him, Vanetta makes Leroy promise that, as long as they’re together, he won’t sleep with another woman… not even his wife. He gladly agrees, but about a year later, fate intervenes again, and Leroy is made an executive with his old company and transferred back to his home town. To keep up appearances, Leroy moves in with Annie Mae, while Vanetta and their young son, Leroy Jr., live in a furnished apartment across town. Still, despite the arrangements, Leroy keeps his promise to Vanetta, resulting in a series of misunderstandings that end with Leroy seeking revenge against the local minister, Rev. Lenox Thomas (Pryor yet again), who “comforted” a distraught Annie Mae a bit more intimately than he should have.

The supporting cast is good (especially Avery and McKee as the two women in Leroy’s life), but, start to finish, Which Way Is Up? was a vehicle for Richard Pryor, who, In addition to the lead role, also plays “Pops”, Leroy’s eternally horny, foul-mouthed father (in the opening scene, “Pops” is having sex, loudly, with a woman half his age while, one room over, Leroy is striking out with Annie Mae). With his profanity-laced observations, it’s “Pops” who gets most of the early laughs, while Pryor’s turn as Rev. Lenox Thomas dominates the movie’s second half (the scene where the good reverend puts on his “healing glove” is hilarious). Yet as funny as these two characters are, it’s his turn as Leroy that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt Richard Pryor was leading man material, able to handle the romance as well as the comedy (he and Lonette McKee make for a convincing couple, and their scenes together are actually quite touching).

Though he would star in a number of fine comedies throughout the ‘80s, including Bustin’ Loose, Some Kind of Hero, and Brewster’s Millions, Which Way Is Up? has always been my favorite Richard Pryor film. And with this 1977 comedy, we actually get three Richard Pryors for the price of one!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

#1,951. The Gate (1987)

Directed By: Tibor Takács

Starring: Stephen Dorff, Christa Denton, Louis Tripp

Tag line: "They're Here and They Want to Meet the Neighbors"

Trivia: The diminutive demonic minions are played by actors in rubber suits who were made to look tiny by being shot in forced perspective

A horror film geared towards young adults, 1987’s The Gate doesn’t feature much along the lines of blood and gore, but its story of backyard demons and hell on earth is, even 25+ years later, enough to give some kids a nightmare or two.

When a large tree topples over in his backyard, Glen (Stephen Dorff) notices smoke rising from the hole it left in the ground, and hears strange noises emanating from it. At first, Glen shrugs it off, but his best friend Terry (Louis Tripp) believes this sudden hole is actually a portal into the underworld, a gate of sorts that, if not closed, will release an ancient demon powerful enough to destroy the world. 

Left in the care of his older sister Alexandra (Christa Denton) when his parents (Scot Denton and Deborah Grover) go out of town, Glen invites Terry to spend the night, and together they try to seal off this "gate". But will they close it in time, or has something already made its way through?

Stephen Dorff, who would later co-star in movies like Blade and The Iceman, was around 13 years old when he made The Gate, and while his performance as Glen is far from his best, he is plenty effective as the young man trying to ensure that an evil God doesn’t wake from its thousand-year slumber. 

The real stars of this film, however, are the special effects, which bring the demons (both small and large) so convincingly to life.  Creepiest of all are the mini-demons, which look like the creatures in the 2010 remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Despite their size, these tiny monsters will give you the willies; when Terry accidentally falls into that backyard hole, these diminutive demons chew on him, and attempt to drag him deeper down. In addition, there's a zombified workman (Carl Kraines) who shows up at key intervals throughout the movie, and is guaranteed to make your skin crawl.

Though it has its slow points (especially in the middle) and suffers a bit in the story department (the “rules” to close the gateway seem arbitrary, and change as the film progresses), the well-realized special effects make The Gate one of the few kids-centric ‘80s horror flicks that works just as well today as when it was first released..

Friday, December 18, 2015

#1,950. Lenny Bruce Without Tears (1972)

Directed By: Jesse Hibbs

Starring: Audie Murphy, Marshall Thompson, Charles Drake

Tag line: "The Exciting True-Life Story Of America's Most Decorated Hero"

Trivia: This movie features clips of Lenny Bruce on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show

Lenny Bruce Without Tears, a 1972 documentary written and directed by Fred Baker, does, on occasion, delve into the late comedian’s troubles: his drug use, his numerous arrests for obscenity, and so on. But the movie primarily focuses on what it was that made Lenny Bruce great: his comedy routines (or “bits”, as he liked to call them), many of which will have you laughing out loud.

Though structured like a biopic, Lenny Bruce Without Tears spends very little time reviewing Bruce’s early life. We learn that his parents divorced when he was young, and he spent a great deal of his childhood being raised by relatives and family friends. At 16, he joined the Navy, serving in Europe during World War II, and upon his return expressed a desire to become a comedian. Featured for a short time on television (including appearances on Steve Allen’s Plymouth Variety Show and a failed attempt at his own series), Bruce’s jokes went over better in jazz clubs, which booked him regularly. Married for a short time to stripper Honey Harlow (the couple had one child, a daughter, before divorcing in 1959), Bruce also began experimenting with drugs, and his comedy, which had always dealt with social issues such as religion, politics, and bigotry, suddenly became edgier, with more colorful language. As a result, he was often arrested for obscenity (his legal troubles made their way into his act, an on occasion, he’d read directly from court transcripts). Bankrupt and depressed, Bruce died of a drug overdose in August of 1966.

Yet most of the above is mentioned only in passing. Instead, Lenny Bruce Without Tears gives us clips of Bruce doing what he did best: making people laugh. Introduced by Steve Allen as “the most controversial comedian” working at the time, Bruce had the audience in stitches with his rendition of a kid (as played by actor George MacReady) discovering that airplane glue could get you high; and imagined what it would be like if the lamp holding the genie in 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad ended up on the shelf of a New York gift shop (owned by an elderly Jewish man, whose only wish was to visit Atlantic City). Some of his routines do, indeed, push the envelope, yet he always managed to get a laugh (during one bit, he pokes fun at a real-life incident where a man was arrested for blowing up the plane his mother was on, with Bruce imagining, for a moment, what it might have been like if the pilot and co-pilot were Laurel and Hardy). The clips of Bruce’s later days, including an interview he did in Canada when his legal woes were at their height, are difficult to watch at times, yet even here, his charm and sharp sense of humor shine through.

Because he was a friend of Bruce’s, director Fred Baker paints the comedian in a positive light, interviewing those who admired and respected him (he even gets a former prosecutor to apologize for what he did). In addition to being one-sided, the film is a tad haphazard in its construction (throughout the movie, Baker inserts scenes from a handful of motion pictures, including The Pink Panther, which play, silently, over top of audio from Bruce’s night club performances). So, if you’re looking for an unbiased, professionally-produced account of Bruce’s life, you’d be better off watching Bob Fosse’s Lenny. But if you want to see the comedian at his best, acting out his own brand of free-flowing comedy at the height of his career, Lenny Bruce Without Tears will do the trick, and is guaranteed to brighten your day.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

#1,949. The Invisible Menace (1938)

Directed By: John Farrow

Starring: Boris Karloff, Marie Wilson, Eddie Craven

Line from the film: "Wasn't anyone doing anything we can check up on?"

Trivia: This movie was an adaptation of a Broadway play called "Without Warning"

A year after making West of Shanghai, director John Farrow reunited with star Boris Karloff for The Invisible Menace, a comedy / mystery in which the horror icon is the main suspect in a murder case. But unlike their previous outing, not even the great Karloff can save this 1938 film from mediocrity.

So they can be together on their wedding night, army private Eddie Pratt (Eddie Craven) sneaks new bride Sally (Marie Wilson) onto his base, and while trying to find a safe place to hide her, he interrupts a murderer whose only just finished off his victim (Eddie tries to subdue the man, but gets slugged across the chin for his troubles). During their investigation into the killing, base commander Col. Hackett (Henry Kolker) and his advisor, Col. Rogers (Cy Kendall), become convinced that a civilian doctor named Jevries (Karloff) is the guilty party (years earlier, on the island of Haiti, the dead man carried on an affair with Jevries’s wife, then framed him for a crime he didn’t commit). But is Jevries truly to blame, or is the killer still at large?

From its opening scene, where Eddie loads Sally into his duffel bag and sneaks her onto the base, I knew The Invisible Menace was in trouble (despite playing newlyweds, Eddie Craven and Marie Wilson have zero chemistry, and while the intention was to make them the film’s comic relief, never once did I find them even remotely funny). Equally as bad as the comedy is the so-called mystery; at regular intervals, the filmmakers toss out clues to help identify the killer (from the lump he left on Eddie’s chin when he punched him, it’s believed the murderer was wearing a ring), only to ignore these revelations until the finale (while questioning Jevries, nobody checks to see if he has a ring on his finger).

And as military bases go, the one depicted in The Invisible Menace could be the most inept ever portrayed on the big screen. Despite being in lock-down mode ever since the victim’s body was found, the killer somehow manages to toss a live grenade through a window, fire a rifle at several people (hitting one), and even knock a crate off of a second-floor loft (nearly crushing two people below), all without being discovered!

Karloff does what he can with what’s basically a lifeless role (in a flashback scene, it’s revealed that Jevries was a cuckolded husband who did nothing to stop his wife from cheating on him), but the movie doesn’t meet the actor halfway. Failing as both a comedy and a mystery, The Invisible Menace is one to avoid.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

#1,948. West of Shanghai (1937)

Directed By: John Farrow

Starring: Boris Karloff, Beverly Roberts, Ricardo Cortez

Tag line: "He'll kill you on a moment's notice!"

Trivia: Some of the sets used for this movie were left over from 1936's The Charge of the Light Brigade

Any day I watch a Boris Karloff film is a good one, and even though he’s absent for the first 20 minutes or so of 1937’s West of Shanghai, he still manages to dominate the screen, delivering what may be the weirdest performance of his career.

Eager to swing a deal that would partner his company with a large oil field in North China, Gordon Creed (Ricardo Cortez), a salesman working abroad, hops a train heading in that direction. To his surprise, a rival oil man, Myron Galt (Douglas Wood) and his daughter Lola (Sheila Bromley) are also on the train, traveling to the same locale. After having dinner together, the three head to the railroad car that Creed is sharing with General Chow Fu Shan (Vladimir Sokoloff), the top man in the Chinese army. As Creed and his guests chat the night away, the lights suddenly go out, and when they come back on, the trio realizes General Fu Shan (who was sleeping) has been stabbed in the back, and is dead. The local police, who are investigating the incident, question Creed, Galt, and Lola, all of whom are cleared of any wrongdoing, but it’s a nerve-racking start to their journey all the same.

Things aren’t much better at the oil field. For one, the American who runs the operation, Jim Hallet (Gordon Oliver), is in love with Creed’s estranged wife, Jane (Beverly Roberts), causing some tension between the two men. What’s more, a revolution has broken out, which allows rebel General Wu Yen Fang (Karloff), the man responsible for Gen. Chow Fu Shan’s assassination, to take control of the entire area, including the oil field. A charming, yet highly unpredictable warlord, Wu Yen Fang quickly alienates the American visitors when he attempts to seduce Jane, but a past encounter the General had with Jim Hallet might just save them all from the firing squad.

The opening scenes of West of Shanghai, before Karloff makes his grand entrance, are serviceable, though not spectacular (even the assassination of Gen. Chow isn’t much of a mystery; we watch the killer sneak on the train just before it pulls away). Fortunately, things liven up when Karloff's General Fang hits the scene. While he’s not the least bit convincing as an Asian military leader (his accent is laughable at best, and at worst, racist), Karloff is so charismatic in the role that he steals the movie right out from under his less-talented co-stars (some of the supporting performances are bad, bad, bad!). In fact, there were times throughout the picture when I was sure Karloff believed he was making a comedy (when looking over the American women, Gen. Fang insults Lola’s hair and mouth, which he says is as wide as a fish’s; and he always refers to himself in the third person, usually doing so with a bit of flair).

West of Shanghai doesn’t rank as one of Karloff’s best films, but if you want to see him camp it up a little (and do so with plenty of style), this is the movie for you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

#1,947. Prep & Landing: Operation: Secret Santa (2010)

Directed By: Kevin Deters, Stevie Wermers-Skelton

Starring: Betty White, Dave Foley, Derek Richardson

Tag line: "No one does stealth like an elf"

Trivia: This movie premiered following the 2010 broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas

Prep & Landing: Operation: Secret Santa was my first experience with Disney’s Prep & Landing series, which began with the aptly-titled Prep & Landing, a television special that aired on ABC in December of 2009.

Released a year later, Operation: Secret Santa is a 7-minute short featuring the further adventures of Wayne (voiced by Dave Foley) and Lanny (Derek Richardson), a pair of elves who are part of The North Pole’s elite “Prep & Landing” team, whose job is to sneak in and prepare the houses that Santa (W. Morgan Sheppard) will visit on Christmas Eve, ensuring nothing will get in his way as he delivers toys to children around the world. This time, however, the mission is of a more personal (and highly secretive) nature; after being briefed by their superior, Magee (Sarah Chalke), Wayne and Lanny enter a darkened room, where they find none other than Mrs. Claus herself (voiced by Betty White)! Apparently, she’s planning a very special gift for Santa this year, but needs one vital piece to complete it. So, she wants the two elves to retrieve that piece for her. The problem is: it’s in Santa’s personal workshop, and seeing as it’s close to Christmas Eve, the big guy is spending 24 hours a day in there. Despite Lanny’s worries that Santa will discover them and put them on the “naughty” list, the duo sneaks into the workshop while Santa is sleeping and searches for the item, knowing full well they have exactly 5 minutes before the cuckoo clock on the wall chimes the hour, waking Santa from his slumber.

The idea of elves being used to “pave the way” for Santa as he makes his round-the-world flight is a clever one, and I kinda wish I’d seen the first entry prior to watching Operation: Secret Santa. Fortunately, you don’t need to be familiar with the characters or their backstory to enjoy this 2010 short, which is funny (Lanny’s worrisome nature causes him to daydream a “worst case scenario” while the two are mid-mission), smart (the high-tech equipment Wayne and Lanny use includes a device that tells them whether Santa is “Stirring”, or if he’s in a deep sleep), exciting (they have a few close calls in the workshop), and even touching (the final scene, where we see what Mrs. Claus was building, brings the story to a heart-warming conclusion).

Alas, after Operation: Secret Santa, only one other short was produced for the Prep & Landing series: Naughty vs. Nice, a half-hour special broadcast on the ABC network in December, 2011. Having thoroughly enjoyed Operation: Secret Santa, I’m looking forward to seeing the other two entries, and I hope, somewhere down the line, that the good folks at Disney’s Animation Studios realize there are still plenty of stories to be told about a pair of elves and their various misadventures.

Monday, December 14, 2015

#1,946. A Christmas Horror Story (2015)

Directed By: Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, Brett Sullivan

Starring: William Shatner, George Buza, Rob Archer

Tag line: "You Better Watch Out"

Trivia: This movie was retitled "A Holiday Horror Story" to be sold at Walmart stores

A few years back (2007, to be precise), an excellent Halloween-themed horror anthology titled Trick ‘r Treat was released. For many genre fans, it has since become a holiday tradition, a movie they watch each and every October to put them in the right frame of mind for the big night. 

After hearing some positive buzz about A Christmas Horror Story, I was hopeful this 2015 film would join the ranks of 1974’s Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night as one of the Christmas Season’s better horror offerings. Perhaps, like Trick ‘r Treat, it might even be a movie I’ll pop into the Blu-Ray player every single year… 

Of course, all bets were off if A Christmas Horror Story wasn’t any good, but the idea of a Holiday horror anthology featuring the great William Shatner gave me hope that it was going to be something special.

Directed by Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, and Brett Sullivan, the movie whisks us away to the tiny metropolis of Bailey Downs, where radio DJ “Dangerous” Dan (Shatner) is hosting his annual Christmas Eve show. With plenty of Holiday cheer (and a couple glasses of alcohol-laced egg nog), Dan says he’s certain this Christmas is going to be better than the last, when two students were found murdered in the basement of St. Joseph’s Academy, a parochial school that, years earlier, had been a convent. 

In fact, three current students, Molly (Zoé De Grand Maison), Dylan (Shannon Kook) and Ben (Alex Ozerov), are putting together a documentary about this gruesome tragedy, a crime that, to this day, has not been solved. Armed with a camera, they sneak into the school and make their way to the basement, where the murders occurred. Unfortunately, the door locks behind them, trapping the three inside, and it’s while looking for a way out that they solve the riddle of last year’s killings. But will they survive long enough to tell anyone about it?

While this is going on, Scott (Adrian Holmes), the police officer who investigated the murders last December, is leading his wife Kim (Olunike Adeliyi) and young son Will (Orion John) into the woods to look for a Christmas tree. Ignoring signs that they’re trespassing on private property, Scott finds what he believes is the perfect tree, but while he’s cutting it down, Will wanders off, seemingly disappearing into thin air. After a frantic search, Scott and Kim find Will hiding in a hollowed-out tree. Relieved, they head home to start decorating for the holidays. It isn’t long, though, before the couple realizes there’s something not quite right about Will, who, since his disappearance, has refused to talk. What happened to him while he was missing?

Next, we join the Bauer family: dad Taylor (Jeff Clarke), mom Diane (Michelle Nolden), and kids Caprice (Amy Forsyth) and Duncan (Percy Hynes White), who are on their way to visit Taylor’s estranged (and quite wealthy) Aunt Edda (Corrine Conley). After a tense car ride, they arrive at their destination, only to find Aunt Edda isn’t exactly happy to see them. As Taylor and his Aunt talk in private, Duncan admires a pair of holiday figurines depicting Santa Claus and his arch-enemy, Krampus. When told by Gerhardt (Julian Richings), Aunt Edda’s caretaker, to leave them alone, Duncan purposefully breaks the Krampus statue, at which point the family is asked to leave. But they never do make it home, and before the night is out, the Bauers will discover what happens to those who don’t behave as they should.

Finally, we make a trip to the North Pole, where Santa (George Buza) is preparing for his annual Christmas Eve flight. But something is wrong with his elves, which are growing more aggressive as the big night approaches. It soon becomes apparent that the elves have contracted a deadly virus, one that causes them to die, then rise again, leaving Santa and Mrs. Claus (Debra McCabe) to fight for their lives against an army of zombie elves!

With tales spanning a variety of horror genres (supernatural, zombie, monster, etc.), A Christmas Horror Story is, for the most part, an entertaining watch. Shatner is at his smarmy best as Dangerous Dan, who professes a love for Christmas yet needs a few drinks to get through his show; and I was a fan of two of the movie’s segments: the one with the cop and his family, who find themselves dealing with something they can’t possibly understand, and the argumentative Bauers, who see the errors of their ways only when it’s too late to do anything about it. 

Though creepy at times, the story set in the school treaded familiar supernatural territory, and despite an interesting conclusion didn’t bring anything new to the table. Most upsetting of all, however, was the sequence that should have been the best: Santa and his workshop full of zombie elves. Alas, it really isn’t all that frightening, and scenes meant to be funny didn’t make me laugh (once turned, the elves shout obscenities directed at Santa and his wife, which continue until Santa, armed with his shepherd’s staff, finishes them off for good). Though this particular tale did feature the finest ending of the bunch, it was, for the most part, a disappointment.

Overall, I enjoyed A Christmas Horror Story, and will likely be watching it again (probably next December), but to be honest, it didn’t blow me away like Trick ‘R’ Treat did. 

So, will it become a yearly Holiday tradition? It’s hard to say at this point. Check back in 12 months, and I’ll have an answer for you.