09 October 2010

2010 Horror Challenge - Week One

1 October
Bram Stoker's Dracula
On the whole, I liked it. It feels like an early 90s movie, right down to the ballad over the end credits. The first half hewed pretty closely to the source material and other adaptations I've seen; then it became a bit adventuresome. Kudos for playing up the eroticism, always a significant element of the "Dracula" mythology. I could have done without some of the jerky, first-person cinematography, though.

Also, Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins seemed to each affect different accents at various times; I can only assume that those sequences were shot together, and their voice work changed over the course of the production subtly enough no one really caught it. There are a couple times where Oldman sounds like his villain from 
The Fifth Element, which was really distracting.

2 October

Nightmare Man
Great self-aware humor, and some great suspense. (At least for me, since I have had a lifelong recurring nightmare of being in a house somewhere, stalked from the outside by someone I can't see.)

In 2008, my wife and I attended the Fright Night Horror Fest in Louisville, and we went to the awards show. Tiffany Shepis was in attendance, and while I don't recall now what she won, she injected the entire evening with a lot of genuine enthusiasm. Very delightful, and I wish I'd known who she was at the time!

She-Wolf of London
Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is happily engaged, but soon discovers a problem: the famed "Allenby Curse," through which she suspects she has begun to become a She-Wolf. I won't spoil anything for you, but the film feels much more like a primitive episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent than a Monster movie. Hearing so many obviously American voices in what is supposed to be London only cheapens the film--though that's not to say the performances themselves are bad. By the end of the 62 minutes, one wonders whether there wasn't something else in the Universal vault more worthy of inclusion here.

Based upon real events, a trio of young guys head across the border into Mexico and get mixed up with a local cartel run by a guy whose religious beliefs appear to have been inspired by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Interesting as a crime drama more than an outright horror film, but the performances and pacing were pretty solid. And that undercurrent of reality makes it rather compelling.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!
My wife was excited to introduce me to this one, it having been a favorite of hers for years. I loved the humor; even though it's in much the same vain as, say, Airplane!, which I didn't find all that amusing. Perhaps the complete absurdity of the tomatoes was more to my liking. Perhaps it was the appearance by the Famous San Diego Chicken. Whatever it was, I enjoyed the movie.

3 October
The Dark
Ah, The Dark. You had me at, "Starring Maria Bello." Here, she's brought her daughter to her ex-husband (Sean Bean) in Wales, where the daughter drowns...and releases from the dead a little girl of comparable age with a dark past. The performances are pretty intense at times; Bello really creates some convincing urgency and panic. Nice dash of Welsh mythology for good measure. I'm only terrified of two things, and one of them is water at night, so this one really spooked me.

WereWolf of London
WereWolf of London pre-dates The Wolf Man by six years and is the only title here "presented" by Carl Laemmle, the Universal executive responsible for shepherding the rest of their Monster franchises. It's really the most cohesive of the four films collected here, perhaps because it was produced prior to the rise of crossover sequels in which featured Monsters interact with one another. Anyway, botanist Wilford Glendon (Henry Hull) has returned to London with both a rare biological specimen...and lycanthropy, courtesy of the werewolf who attacked him during his expedition. Soon enough, Glendon is running around London and the body count rises. The tension between Glendon and his wife's former beau, her socialite friends and the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Orland) dominates the film so much that when Glendon transforms into the WereWolf, we are invested enough to fear for what he will do while almost grateful for the escape from the other story lines.

My third viewing; we saw it during its theatrical release last year, and rented it from Redbox earlier this year on DVD. We happened to notice it was airing on Starz during a four day free preview period and decided to rewatch it. I thought it was "okay," but fun originally...and now I think it might just be a masterpiece. It's wall-to-wall fun. Woody Harrelson has never been more enjoyable to watch, Abigail Breslin continues to impress and that Emma Stone chick is kinda cute (though a bit young for me at this point in my life). Also, I love that there's no real effort to explain the zombies; we just delve right into a world infested with them.

4 October
The Wolf Man
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is the prodigal son, returning home to his father's Welsh estate after his elder brother's death. He wastes no time pitching woo to a local woman, or in being attacked by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi), which turns poor Larry into a lycanthrope. Chaney is genuinely charming as Larry, creating a very sympathetic character, and screenwriter Curt Siodmak deftly balances parallel stories of a love triangle, as well as exploring a contentious father/son relationship. The werewolf story at times seems to intrude on these more interesting story lines. The film is far more dynamic than Dracula, but isn't quite as compelling as Frankenstein.

The Wolf Man with audio commentary by Tom Weaver
Weaver's commentary is informative, offering trivia about the story, the production and those responsible for making the film. This is a guy who clearly knows his Wolf Man, but doesn't take it so seriously that he doesn't rush to point out plot holes or continuity errors. His language is era-inappropriate at times, though, and while I'm certainly no prude, it was a bit distracting to hear some of the words that would never have been allowed in the film being discussed. If you can get past that minor detail, it's one of the better commentary tracks I've heard in quite a while. Sadly, this is the only commentary track to be found in this collection.

5 October
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
I was largely underwhelmed. I felt the story had all the complexity of an episode of Scooby-Doo, though I admit the dinner scene was pretty "out there." It's chilling because it was based on real events, but strictly in the context of being a film I never had a chance to really connect with, or care about, any of the characters. Great production design, though.

This one kicked off a rather lengthy back-and-forth discussion that led to my Flickchart User Showcase entry, "The Casablanca Chainsaw Massacre: Dealing with Underwhelming Greatness," which in turn provoked its own interesting discussion.

6 October
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
Larry (Chaney) seeks out Doctor Frankenstein in hopes that he will know means through which Larry can end his suffering. Unfortunately for Larry, the mad scientist has already been killed in one of the intervening Frankenstein pictures and surviving daughter Elsa wants nothing to do with her family's legacy. Again, it's the non-monster stuff that's the most compelling.

At one point, Elsa is in the same room as The Monster (Lugosi), who for all intents and purposes is her "uncle," and Larry is accompanied by Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) who has sort of adopted Larry in lieu of the fact it was her son who was responsible for infecting him in the first movie. No one ever says a word about the odd family dynamics in the scene, but they're unmistakable. Throughout the whole affair, the monster-weary villagers of Vasaria add pressure to the efforts to end Larry's life--which he'd gladly consent to, if they actually had it in their power to kill him. The family dynamics and the commentary on death are poignant, but they are quickly displaced by gratuitous monster-on-monster violence, and the third act feels tired and offers no real resolution for these themes.

7 October
The Evil Dead
Good God, was that a young Bruce Campbell! The effects are delightfully dated (though the make-up was still pretty convincing). I liked it, but thought it would have more humor than it does. Lost track of some of the characters's whereabouts at times, but that was probably because I had to pause the movie three different times on account of my stupid guts. In a straight-through viewing, I don't know that I'd have paid as much attention.

The Last Man on Earth
Based on "I Am Legend," Vincent Price is the titular last man alive after a vampiric virus has decimated humanity. The first act is pretty dated, depicting much less sophisticated survival behavior than we're accustomed to today (the guy still puts on his sport coat when leaving the house), but the second act where we see in flashback the rise and spread of the virus has some genuinely compelling moments as we see his personal losses. The final act calls to mind Fahrenheit 451 and its manhunt, and has some genuine tension. It may not be the most amazing production of all time, but the sincerity sells the source material.

8 October
The Bat
"Murder, She Wrote with Freddy Krueger's cinematic ancestor" is the best way to distill this plot. I confess; my mind was racing with speculation about whom would be revealed as The Bat. There's a very unnerving casualness that the characters have to the rash of murders and being stalked that borders on the absurd, but somehow grounds the film in scenes that might otherwise have gone over-the-top. I really enjoyed this one.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space
First time viewing, and I loved it. They did a great job riffing on the standard clown routine bits and making them simultaneously creepy and darkly humorous. Making a balloon animal dog to follow the trail of the humans? Genius! It's definitely a dated film, but enjoyable. I didn't expect much, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself engaged throughout the entire movie.

9 October
Jeff Goldblum drowns after a car accident and is brought back through an experimental procedure...and what did he bring back with him? Is he blacking out and killing young women? The CGI hasn't aged well (contemporary screensavers are more advanced), but the cast is solid--including a trio of Law & Order principals: Goldblum (from Criminal Intent), Jeremy Sisto (from L&O proper) and Alfred Molina (from Los Angeles), Christine Lahti and Alicia Silverstone. We own this because it was based on a Dean Koontz novel, and he's my wife's favorite author.

Circus of Fear
One of six titles collected in our "Price/Lee Horror Collection," a daring robbery of an armored car leads to a circus with some shady folks, including the lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee) who only goes around wearing a mask. On the horror side of things, I found it greatly disappointing; it was never really menacing at all, but as a whodunnit, it was likable enough. The performances were material-appropriate (at times convincing, at other times, cheesy), but the A/V quality here was distractingly bad--I know nothing about it, but it looks like someone taped it off a TV broadcast.

Beau Kaelin played the trailer for this the night we went to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at Baxter Avenue Theater (I think that was the movie, anyway) and it piqued our interest but we missed its screening. In any event, it's about a teen girl with notions of valuing virginity who discovers she has vagina dentata, teeth in her vagina that make her the wrong girl to attack. I enjoy movies where I find myself rooting against the victims, and every one of the guys in Teeth have it coming.

It's an interesting commentary on social sexual biases and mores, and one that I would certainly recommend to those seeking to better contextualize the "torture porn" sub-genre. The emphasis here is not on the violence--the assault scenes happen quickly and aren't drawn out--but rather on the sexuality. "Sex positive" viewers will find its commentary simplistic, and prudes will find it somewhat mocking, but I think it does a decent job of ultimately showing how misguided a lot of our sexual standards (and double-standards) really are.

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