Monday, October 28, 2019

The Terror (1963)

Andre (Jack Nicholson) is a Napoleonic soldier separated from his battalion. Exhausted and thirsty, he happens upon a hot young woman (Sandra Knight) who calls herself Helene. She leads him to water then tries to drown him. He wakes up in the cabin of an old woman who says he just imagined the young woman. Her mute servant tells him (just go with it) to seek the girl at the castle of the Baron Victor von Leppe (Boris Karloff), who says he just imagined the young woman. But Andre is obsessed.

There is so much wrong with this film. Jack and Barron henchman Dick Miller’s stilted and unnatural delivery appear to channel Keanu Reeves. There are extended shots of Karloff pointlessly walking, ape-like, around his underfurnshed mansion slowly coming to the realization that he will never again be in a good movie. The secrets of the movie are revealed in a haphazard way and the great twist at the end would make even soap opera fans groan.

What really happened here is that director Roger Corman finished early on The Raven (1963), sent everyone but Karloff and Nicholson home, then filmed random scenes of Karloff on existing sets. He then continued with Jack and a couple other actors trying to improvise a new movie. When the editors came back and said it was a mess, they had Nicholson and Miller do some exposition in a studio to try and fit it all together.

The core of the story isn’t bad. A witch mesmerizes a young woman who resembles the Barron’s dead wife to torment him for killing her son. Not great, but by B movie standards, not bad at all. But it doesn’t work because of the previously mentioned terrible acting, the ‘saved it in the editing’ filming schedule, and the mind numbingly stupid twists at the end (yea, that’s right, two stupid twists). Dick and Jack are fighting, then cooperate, then fight again. No reason. Fix those problems and you will have a serviceable if forgettable film. With those problems you have a film Jack Nicholson wants everyone to forget.

I remember a scene at the very end of a film I saw as a boy that stuck with me. I didn’t remember the content of the story nor the context of the scene. That film was this and that scene was dumb plot twist number two. I remember the actor reacting not with horror but with an ‘Ew, that’s gross!’ look on his face. That part was remembered correctly.

I’m sure Roger Corman turned a profit on The Terror. He was notorious for his tight shoots and tighter budgets. He wouldn’t spend a nickel to make a movie better unless it returned him a dime. He didn’t have the luxury of time here but I can’t help think that with a little better planning and some creative writing even the twists could have been successful. As it exists, however, AMRU 2.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Omega Man (1971)

Dr. Neville (Charlton Heston) is the last survivor of a biological world war. He travels around during the day collecting supplies and killing people… oh, yea. There are these other people roaming around in the darkness. Bizarre cultists he needs to gun down. Has to, otherwise they would kill him. They wear black robes, cannot stand the daylight, and hate all forms of modern technology because it destroyed the world. Can’t really argue with that point given the circumstances.

Anyhow, Neville wanders all day doing his “shopping” and looking for their ‘nest’ so he can wipe them all out once and for all. And trying to find a cure. That too. He is a doctor after all. Oh, look! A chick!

Dr. Neville is a very lonely man. He plays chess with a bust of Julius Caesar, hears phantom telephones ringing, and goes to the movies just to hear human voices. Strangely he watches the Woodstock film, not a very Charlton Heston-like choice. He watches with the same creepy, lecherous stare he eyes his new love interest with (Rosalind Cash).

Pretty light on the horror elements, this is the second of three major adaptations of Richard Matheson’s 'I Am Legend', the least faithful to the book and arguably the worst. The heart and humanity of the original story was replaced with an action hero gunning down evil zealots. Some will find The Omega Man fun. It has a free spirit attitude and lots of explosions, but Neville and the other characters behave illogically and the world makes no sense. Plus the score was terrible and the Heston stunt double looked nothing like him.

Omega Man is a shoot-em-up action film based on an intelligent novel. Is Neville a no-nonsense killing machine or a researcher trying to save humanity? Are the cultists evil monsters or the poor afflicted? At times the movie seems to want to have it both ways but in the end errs on the side of inane. Does the light of technology triumph over the darkness of superstition? The same superstitious darkness caused by our enlightened technology? This is a dumb movie based on a smart book that doesn’t quite work on it’s own terms. Wait a minute, is the Christlike Neville actually the villain? Naw! AMRU 2.5.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

House (1977)

A schoolgirl learns that her father is remarrying so she runs off to stay with her dead mom’s sister. For some reason she brings along her schoolmates. Turns out auntie lives in a haunted house.

Did I think Suspiria was weird? Christ, where to begin.

The story itself isn’t unconventional, save for the fact that all the characters are Japanese schoolgirls in appropriate uniform. So, there’s that. The girls travel to the house, auntie behaves weird, people go missing, then things go off the rails. Standard haunted house fare. The difference lies in the mise en scene.

The schoolgirls are named for their primary trait: Gorgeous is slightly prettier than the rest, Fantasy … ummm … sees ghosts, Prof is smart and wears glasses, Melody plays the piano, Kung Fu knows karate, Sweet is sweet, and the fat one is called Mac. You know, short for stomach. She’s not really fat, just has a round face and wears loose fitting clothing. The girls were models with little or no acting experience, not that you can tell. They went on to do little else. Only Aunty was a real actor.

The settings and action in the movie are augmented by silly set pieces, backdrops, and cartoon-like animation and effects. It’s hard to take anything seriously, even when things get violent. And things do get violent. The effect is a surreal, otherworldly experience. While you can like the characters, you never become emotionally invested in them. And when you think you know what will happen next, you are wrong.

House deserves a second viewing. It is absolutely bonkers and becomes more comedic as it becomes more graphic. It is remarkable if only for how absurd it is. I don’t know if it’s a good film, but it’s a memorable one. AMRU 4. So, Mac is Dopey, Prof is Doc, Sweet is Bashful, Melody is also Dopey …

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Suspiria (1977)

An American woman (Jessica Harper), travels to Freiberg to join an exclusive ballet school. When she arrives late and during a storm she passes by another student who is running away. Suzy later learns that the girl was brutally murdered later that night. No red flags there, so she proceeds to get to know here schoolmates and start training.

In another film I would say something like “all is not as it seems” but from the very offset, all does not seem well. Strange behavior, strange lighting, strange sets, strange score. Strange movie. The audience is on edge from the very onset, even when the main character doesn’t appear to be so.

Our hero Suzy befriends Sara, who was friends with Pat, the girl who fled (and died). She knows something strange is going on and tries to find out what. Originally the ballet students were to be young girls but a hyper-violent film starring tweens would have been problematic. So they hired twenty-somethings but kept some of the adolescent dialog. SSSSSSSS!

Running the ballet school is old friend Alida Valli (The Third Man, Eyes Without a Face) and Joan Bennett, who I’ve not seen in anything just yet. This is my first Dario Argento film which should not be a surprise as I’m not much of a fan of the Giallo style. It’s a good thing I started with his most famous and arguably best.

I experienced a few moments of confusion watching Suspiria. They were cleared up when I saw a video analysis which included footage that wasn’t in my version. I watched from TCM who prides themselves for showing films uncut, but clearly this was not the case here. I wonder what else I missed. The movie wasn’t as violent as its reputation.

Suspiria is a weird film. The strange narrative style, expressive sets, bizarre lighting, and oppressive score give the viewer a disquieting feeling. This cannot be overstated. Nothing looks real so the viewer does not know if the regular rules of reality apply. And what to make of the expression on the face of the character at the very end? I would definitely see it again even if my copy was uncut. This is a memorable film. AMRU 4.
“Susie... Sarah... I once read that names which begin with the letter 'S' are the names of SNAKES!”

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Exorcist (1973)

The sweet, innocent Regan (Linda Blair) starts exhibiting strange behavior, so mom (Ellen Burstyn) takes her to a doctor. They do invasive tests but can’t find anything wrong, so they give up and tell her to take her to a psychiatrist. Soon the psychiatrists give up and tell her to take her to an exorcist. After initially claiming that there is no such thing as exorcists, the priest gives in and performs the ritual. Things don’t go well.

Many films have apocryphal stories of extreme audience reactions. People diving out of the way of an oncoming train in The Great Train Robbery plus William Castle’s many legal waiver and fitness test gimmicks. On a similar note, people did not riot when they heard Wells’ radio performance of War of the Worlds. Here with The Exorcist, we have the real deal. Legit paramedics were occasionally called for hysterical viewers. Castle, I’m sure, was jealous. Before the disturbing horror scenes later in the film is a realistic angiograph scene which I am sure convinced many to not undergo the procedure.

The version I saw was titled “The Version You’ve Never Seen” so now that I’ve seen it, I don’t know what to think. This version includes an inverted crab walk scene that had been cut from the original. The Exorcist is a slow burn, even dragging a bit. But remember, before this film the general public did not know what an exorcism was. Nor did they know what they were about to experience, so we must forgive modern audiences with an “Get on with it, already!” attitude. Myself included. When we get to the Evil, The Exorcist does not disappoint.

Mom turns to Father Karras to exorcise her daughter. He cautions that this could make things worse, but there really isn’t anything worse. So Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) is called in to lead. The forty three year old von Sydow wore heavy old-age makeup to take on this role. He’s ninety now and still working. Some may remember him from The Force Awakens or as the Three-Eyed Raven back before the series tanked. Old friend Lee J. Cobb played a detective watching the action mostly from the outside.

The Exorcist is rightly an icon of horror. It's a well written, well acted, very original shocker. Production was very troubled. The shoot was a form of hell for the actors, but the result was unquestionable. Maybe they beat us over the head with the "Regan is sweet and innocent" message, but that's forgivable. Don't care why demon is doing this, that's ok. you aren't subjected to exposition. Do care? The hints are in there. AMRU 4.
"The Power of Christ Compels you!"

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Mummy (1959)

A noted archaeologist plunders … I mean excavates the tomb of a beautiful Egyptian princess. While his young son (middle-aged Peter Cushing) nurses a broken leg, an Egyptian in a fez warns dad not to desecrate the burial site lest he incur the wrath of Karnak. But desecraters will be desecraters. Dad is alone in the tomb when something happens and he spends the next three years in a home for the mentally disordered (been there). Finally dad explains that he was reading a Scroll of Life he found when a mummy came out of nowhere and attacked him. The game is afoot.

I have never been too charmed by these Hammer horror updates. They are a brightly colored, slightly sexy and bloody, simplified versions of the originals, and The Mummy is no different. What they add in blood and cleavage they lose in creepy atmosphere. Here the story elements are mostly stolen from various Universal Mummy films with little new added. So, why was I so immensely entertained by it? The best reason I can figure is that after watching The Love Wanga, the high quality print, bright set pieces, flowery language, and decent acting was a very welcome change. There was no question how the story would end, only the details.

Once again Christopher Lee plays the monster while Cushing plays our hero. Kharis is doomed to stand guard over his beloved Princess because he tried to use that very same Scroll of Life to bring her back after she was embalmed, and if you saw the sexy, sexy embalming scene, you’d understand. Gosh, is Cushing’s lovely bride the spitting image of Kharis' long dead Princess? Of course she is.

Lee looks great at the Mummy. Distinctive from the Universal movies and downright menacing. Sure, the ending is dumb and it has the cleanest, least ornate, and most brightly lit ancient tomb on film, but I loved every second of it. The Mummy is by no means a great film. IMDb rates it lower than the Frankenstein and Dracula efforts, but based on my reaction on the night I watched, I rate it a bit higher. AMRU 4.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Love Wanga (1936)

or Ouanga, or Drums of the Jungle ...

Pretti Klili (Fredi Washington) is the daughter of a Haitian plantation owner and a practitioner of voodoo. When her white lover returns from New York with his new white fiancee she declares that if she cannot have him, nobody can. Enter into this is Adam’s overseer LeStrange (Sheldon Leonard) who says if he can’t have Klili, nobody can. Something of a love rectangle. Love stinks.

This film made my radar because it is the second ever to feature zombies after White Zombie. It is super low budget and surprisingly hard to get. I contacted another blogger who turned me on to Something Weird Video. When I thanked him, he ominously replied “Better watch it first -- THEN decide if you want to thank me!” I’ve watched it. While it’s no White Zombie, I do thank him.

Our protagonist appears to be voodoo priestess Klili. Absolutely the villain but it’s she whom the story follows. We understand her motivation. We understand her desire to use voodoo to harm lovely blond Eve because she earned Adam’s affections (wait, what? Adam and Eve? Goddammit …) Anyhow, Klili is on screen for almost the entirety of the film. We don’t hate her, we kinda root for her.

One cannot watch old films, especially Hollywood films, and completely ignore the issue of race. Many discriminate through exclusion. Films, even those set in the underbelly of the city or even inside prisons, won’t have even a single black person on screen. And those that do cast them either as comic relief or in servant roles. A few were well meaning but the scenes don’t age well. Here is another approach. Klili is a light skinned Haitian in love with a white man. He chooses to marry Eve even though she is no whiter than Klili. It’s what’s inside that matters, but not in a good way. LeStrange cautions her to keep to her “own kind” (let’s ignore for the moment that Leonard Sheldon looks nor behaves nothing like any of the other Haitians).

This somewhat mirrors Fredi Washington’s real-life experience. White enough to “pass”, she refused and that cost her better roles. But our characters aren’t expressing what is true or right (except, ironically, maybe our villain) but the reality of the time and culture they were in. Somewhat thought provoking. I am curious to learn the perspective of the non-white bread.

Interesting as these elements are, The Love Wanga is a very low budget film. The story is rather simple, the dialog trite, the acting stilted, the video quality terrible, and the audio even worse. It was a tough film to watch for those reasons, but it did feature two bona fide zombies. And for this it is memorable. Still, I can’t bring myself to rate it any higher than 2.5. By the way, a Wanga (or Ouanga) is a voodoo spell.