Saturday, October 31, 2015

Vincent Price

Darkness falls across the land
The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood
To terrorize y'all's neighborhood

Vincent Price didn't always do scary movies, but he did enough of them over the years to be considered pretty much the embodiment of the genre for generations of film fans. I think his appeal lies in how many of his characters seem to take a gleeful delight in evil. On-screen, he comes across as a gentleman, a cultured man of breeding and refinement, but you know it's only a facade, and that he's just waiting for the opportunity to do you in somehow, in a manner that's as elaborate as it is painful.

And of course, he used this persona to great advantage throughout his career. Those of you from the Great White North, to pick just one example, might remember a children's program he hosted in 1971 called The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. Price wanted to do something for the kiddies, so he took part in this production for Canadian television, in which he filmed the intros and outros and various other segments within the show. Here, have a look at him in the opening theme. It's cute.

His place in film history is secure, given his roles in films such as Laura, Leave Her to Heaven, The Song of Bernadette (didn't the Four Tops sing that song?) and the 1948 version of The Three Musketeers, none of which I have seen yet, so I'm afraid I can't talk about them much. I can tell you that his first horror film (sort of) was a Boris Karloff flick called Tower of London, from 1939 - which he would make again with Roger Corman over twenty years later! - but it was 1953's House of Wax which firmly established him as a genre superstar. I remember watching this on TV, in 3D, as a kid, and always finding it great fun.

And whosoever shall be found
Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the hounds of hell
And rot inside a corpse's shell

Price has stars on the Walk of Fame not just for movies, but also television. In addition to appearing in the kinds of shows you'd expect from the early days of the medium, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Playhouse 90, Robert Montgomery Presents, GE Theater, etc. - not to mention his stint as Egghead on Batman - he did two episodes of a show called Science Fiction Theatre (AKA Beyond the Limits), a program whose stories were inspired by actual scientific technology and information from the 50s. Perhaps you remember Crispin Glover name-dropping it in the original Back to the Future. Here's one of the episodes in which Price appeared. It's not as dramatic as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, perhaps, but it's okay.

The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grizzly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom

Did you know Price was an art collector, who partnered with Sears to bring contemporary fine art to the people? The Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College was born out of Price's efforts to create a "teaching art collection" for students at the community college. This video takes you on a tour of the place and gives you a deeper understanding of Price's appreciation of art, and I have to say, as a visual artist, I find myself moved that he cared so much not only about art, but especially about making art available for everyone. He didn't make distinctions between famous and non-famous artists, either. He just liked good art, no matter where it came from. I hope to see this museum one day.

His horror roles debatably stop short of camp for the most part, but in looking at them, you can tell that he's having fun, and I think over the years, people have seen that and responded to it as well. Like Christopher Lee, he didn't consider these kinds of films as "slumming"; he saw the value in them and made the most of them, and even if they strike you as schlock, you gotta respect that attitude. Price was a class act.

And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of... the THRILLER!

Next: Shelley Winters

Films with Vincent Price:

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur   Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno   Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Creature From the Black Lagoon

The Universal Blogathon is an event celebrating the films of Universal Studios, presented by Silver Scenes. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

YouTube viewing

In the grand tradition of Universal movie monsters, one of the greatest, and at the same time, one of the least understood, is the amphibious terror known only as the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In this rare and exclusive interview conducted over Skype, I had the opportunity to get to know this unique, yet deadly monster as we discussed his sixty-plus year career in Hollywood as well as his future plans with the studio that made him a star.

Wide Screen World: I really appreciate you taking the time to do this. I realize how reclusive you tend to be.

Creature from the Black Lagoon: Well, it ain't that I'm reclusive so much as - ah, who am I kidding? You're right; I don't get out much. But I don't get many requests for interviews anymore, so there's that too.

WSW: What about the other monsters? Do you see them much?

CBL: Nah, most of them can't be bothered to come down here, the bums! [laughs] Actually, Wolfie and I still send each other Christmas cards. And I guess I wouldn't know if the Invisible Man's ever been here or not, would I? [laughs] That's a joke.

WSW: I thought so. Y'know, I was surprised to learn that you're online.

CBL: Actually, I'm talking from an Internet cafe not too far from the ol' Lagoon. Gentrification's happening here too, can you believe it?

WSW: Wow.

CBL: The Studio rented the place out for today, though, so it's just me and a couple of baristas, but I come here sometimes if I need to use the computer. The locals know me; they respect my privacy, though that may change if more yuppies start coming in. They wanna build condos here! Condos! I remember when this whole place was nothing but a swamp!

WSW: So, what do I call you? I know some people refer to you as the Gill-Man. Do you have a given name, or --

CBL: No name.

WSW: Really?

CBL: Never needed one. Although the Studio tells me I should come up with something. They say I need to "brand" myself for the 21st century. So how do you feel about, say, "George," or "Doug," something like that?

WSW: I... think it's a start.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

New release round-up for October '15

Finally, I actually have new releases to talk about!

- The Martian. Cast Away meets Apollo 13 as once again Matt Damon needs to be rescued! This was breathtaking. It's been way too long since I was this excited about a Ridley Scott movie, but the master delivered the goods big time here. I went into this movie blind; I wouldn't have even known it was Scott directing except I justwasppened to glimpse a magazine cover story about him in a bookstore about a couple of weeks ago. Didn't even see the trailer! 

I thought the disco soundtrack was a direct response to Guardians of the Galaxy and their 70s-80s soundtrack, but I'm told that this was part of the original novel on which the movie is based, so there you are. I did think Guardians used their music in a more creative way, though. Regardless, it was very thrilling to watch, and I couldn't help but smile at the fact that a black guy named Rich plays a key role in the story...

- The Walk. I saw the Oscar-winning doc Man on Wire, the first film about daredevil wire-walker Philippe Petit and his insane 1974 wire-walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, back when I was living in Columbus, and while I liked it, there was a bit of an emotional distance I got from it, as if it didn't quite feel real. 

I had no such experience from watching The Walk, the dramatization of that film, directed by Robert Zemeckis. I watched it in 2D, because I knew there was no way in hell I could watch a film like this, given all its vertigo-inducing, computer-generated, bird's-eye shots of New York from over a thousand feet high, in 3D. The digital re-creation of the Twin Towers aside, I did feel more connected to Petit's story. He wanted to do this outrageous stunt, so he did it. Why? Who can say - and in the end, it doesn't matter that much. As a New Yorker, The Walk made me not only appreciate the Twin Towers in a new way, it actually made me miss them now that they're gone - and the movie very subtly acknowledges you-know-what at the end while not mentioning it at all, which was a graceful way to end a movie like this. I've seen some complaints written about Joseph Gordon-Levitt's French accent, but honestly, it didn't bother me.

- Bridge of Spies. This was a bit of a harder sell for me than a Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks movie should be, but in the end, I liked it. A Cold War movie shouldn't have much relevance in 2015, but this one does, especially when one considers the themes of due process and the court of public opinion. Hanks is great, as usual, but the surprise here is Mark Rylance, who projects a strong, quiet dignity as the accused Russian spy who remains true to his principles even in the face of anti-Communist sentiment. Give this one a shot.

- Steve Jobs. Vija saw this before me, and in her words, "There wasn't really a story other than Steve Jobs had a precarious relationship with his daughter." I find I have to agree. I'm still wondering why this left me cold but The Social Network, another Aaron Sorkin-written movie about a new media mogul who turns out to be an asshole, got me excited. The three-scene concept sounded like a great idea on paper, but they all followed similar patterns. And after awhile, I found it really hard to care about Jobs. Still, Michael Fassbender was dynamite; Oscar nominee for sure and he may even win. I think Seth Rogen will get nominated as well.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Changeling (1980)

The Changeling (1980)
YouTube viewing

The Changeling is one of those movies that would have a hard time getting made today, at least by a major studio. The cast is full of old people, the scary scenes in the movie rely far less on "jump-scares" than most, there's no real hook to hang this film on, like the "found footage" format, for instance, and it's far too quiet!

It just so happens that it's not an American movie at all, but a Canadian one, and it cleaned up big time at the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars, the Genies, winning eight awards including Best Motion Picture. Not that I knew any of this the first time I saw it, back at the ol' video store job a lifetime ago. This always made for a good early afternoon video, before the school kids came into the store and before the calls for pick-ups starting piling up.

George C. Scott stars in this one, and if you go into this expecting General Ripper, be prepared for a shock: he gives a very subdued performance as a music professor and a widower, who moves into an old house with a ghost inside. His investigation into who it is and what it wants leads him to an old and unsolved mystery.

One of the things about this movie that fascinated me occurs during the seance scene, when a medium tries to contact the ghost using a concept known as "automatic writing," which is writing without using the conscious mind, as if the hand writes whatever it writes without the will of the brain. In the movie, the medium sits at a table with Scott and other people involved in the seance, and as she asks questions of the ghost, she writes in a trance-like state. It looks like scribbles at first, and she uses a lot of paper in the process, but the ghost "uses" her to communicate, and words appear without her knowledge.

This isn't too far removed from a trick we were taught during NaNoWriMo. For those who don't know, it's an annual writing event where the goal is to write a 50,000-word draft of a novel in thirty days, so speed is more important than quality. To get you writing, and more to the point, to get you unstuck from writer's block, one common trick is to take thirty seconds, or a minute or two, and just write - free associate without thinking about whatever it is you're writing, even if it's gibberish. 

The technique definitely freed me up on more than one occasion - and now I find it even helps a little bit in my writing group. When we spend the first hour writing, I'll often write whatever comes to mind, even if - especially if - it's not on my conscious mind at the time, and it has led to some unexpected bits of prose. I have yet to encounter any messages from the Great Beyond this way.

The confluence of ghosts, automatic writing and Scott's musician character also remind me of one of, if not, the scariest nightmares I ever had. In college, I knew this girl named Jolanta. Very sweet girl; very friendly. I wasn't what you might call close with her, but she was someone I cared about. We all cared about her. Anyway, I had a nightmare that she was murdered. She was pushed down a flight of stairs by this other girl in my freshman class. I remember arriving too late to stop her and seeing Jolanta's broken body at the bottom of the stairs and the other girl laughing. She wasn't someone I hated, so why I'd dream of her doing this is beyond me. I don't even remember her name.

I remember waking up convinced that Jolanta was totally and completely dead and I was so grateful when I saw her in school, alive and well. This was also back when I attempted to try my hand at music, and weeks later, I ended up composing an instrumental song inspired by that dream. Jolanta even offered a suggestion or two for it when I told her what I was doing, not that she was a musician. She just thought I should add a coda at the end representing her soul ascending into heaven, and I did. She took the whole nightmare thing pretty well, all things considered - better than me. I really did think she was dead!

Hungarian director Peter Medak has stuck to mostly American television throughout most of his career since The Changeling, though he did do such films as The Krays, Romeo is Bleeding and, um, Species II. Among the Genie wins for his movie include Sound and Sound Editing, and while it was difficult to appreciate the sound, listening as I was through my tiny little headphones, I can imagine how important it is to a film about things that go bump in the night, so to speak. This one's worth checking out if you've never seen it before.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Plan 9 From Outer Space

Plan 9 From Outer Space
YouTube viewing

Let's start with the question everyone asks: is it really the worst movie of all time? Friends and neighbors, I have seen a lot of movies in my life, but I haven't seen nearly enough to even be remotely qualified to answer that question. Personally, I think the "all time" label, while it's certainly well-earned, is also part hyperbole, a gimmick used to get people to willingly engage in what they believe to be a "campy" experience that they can tweet about later. 
I'm not even sure it's the worst movie I've blogged about - but it's down there near the bottom, all right.

If there's one thing I've learned in the five-plus years I've been blogging about movies, it's that one man's Manos: The Hands of Fate is another man's Vertigo. It's one thing to say such-and-such a movie is poorly written, with mediocre acting and dirt-cheap production design, but it's another thing altogether to say that same movie was hilarious and entertaining, however unintentionally. 

There's a quote that the late great Roger Ebert used a lot to describe his approach to movie reviewing; I forget who originally said it: "A man goes to the movies. The reviewer must be able to admit he is that man." Basically, it means you can't be a snob when it comes to evaluating a film. If those two dumb-ass robots in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen honestly made you laugh, you gotta own up to that. And lots of people laugh at the stupidest things!

I'm fairly sure I've said it here before, but I think we need the bad movies, because how else can we recognize the good ones? And if some fun can be had with them at their expense, why not? That said, I'm not the type to revel in the bad movies simply because they're bad. I've seen The Room once, with an audience. I know what the movie is about; I understand why it's as popular as it is, and I'm glad I had that experience - but I don't need to see it again and again. Life is too short to wallow in bad movies.

I think I saw Plan 9 From Outer Space once before, during my video store years. In looking at it again last week, I asked myself: is this an irredeemably poor movie or, like the original Little Shop of Horrors, is it a good idea executed poorly? If I were the pitch man for this movie, I suppose I might call it The Day The Earth Stood Still meets Night of the Living Dead, for what that's worth (even though it predates the latter), but I would not want to try to sell this movie in any way other than - you guessed it - an unintentional comedy. And even that much is a dubious proposition.

Why would the aliens implement an experimental technology, which clearly hasn't been perfected, against the humans - and cheer its success on a grand total of three people out of a global population of billions? Why would they concentrate their attack on a Southern California suburb when they had an armada of flying saucers they could and did deploy around the country (and presumably, the world as well)? Where was the alien commander when the humans infiltrated their saucer and fought his henchmen? And they call us stupid?

Yesterday was Bela Lugosi's birthday. I swear I don't plan these things.
They just happen.

You get the idea. If I were to list all the plot holes in Plan 9, I'd be sitting here until next year... so let's talk about its camp value. The special effects are anything but special, but this film had a limited budget, after all. Tor Johnson and Vampira make for the un-scariest zombies ever, and the way they just wander aimlessly around the cemetery is pretty funny. 

It's hard to believe a movie this mediocre even managed to obtain distribution, but I imagine credit for that must go to writer-producer-director Ed Wood. Tim Burton's biopic on him may not have provided as complete a picture as it could have, but for better or worse, that's probably how most people see him now - and in his defense, I doubt he set out to make a bad movie. No one does that (except, perhaps, the SyFy Channel). Heck, the fact that he was able to sustain a career of sorts for as long as he did, despite the quality of his movies, certainly says something about his character and his persistence...

... but I wonder if he ever learned from his mistakes. I suspect he didn't, and that strikes me as a shame, because one who was as committed to the medium as Wood was ought to have experienced some kind of growth as an artist over time. I would need to see his post-Plan 9 work to determine for certain, but let's face it, have you heard of movies like Night of the Ghouls or The Sinister Urge

On the one hand, I suppose it's fortunate that Wood is remembered as well as he is, even if it's for the wrong reasons, but as a creative person, I can't help but find it a bit sad that any improvement he may have experienced as a filmmaker was minuscule at best. That's something, perhaps, that people rarely think about while they're laughing at Plan 9. After all, he could've just as easily faded into obscurity, forgotten and unloved. He had no way of knowing what the future held for him... and we all know what Plan 9 says about the future...

Monday, October 19, 2015

Prom Night

Prom Night
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One of the many nice things about the first Scream movie is how it is, among other things, a love letter to Jamie Lee Curtis. There were other actresses who built their reputations on horror movies before her, but Curtis, more than most, is not only primarily associated with the genre, she managed to transcend it as well, and become a more complete actress, appearing in comedies like A Fish Called Wanda and Trading Places, as well as action movies like Blue Steel and True Lies. Currently, Curtis is back in the spotlight as the anchor of a new TV show called, appropriately enough, Scream Queens. From what I've read, it appears to be a modern homage to the slasher flicks of yore that made Curtis a star, but it looks like it hasn't been received too well.

As you know, Jamie Lee Curtis is the daughter of a pair of Hollywood legends: Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. They married in 1951 in defiance of Curtis' studio, Universal-International, who thought it would ruin his career. Obviously, it didn't. It was the first of six marriages for Curtis, while for Leigh it was her third. They divorced in 1962. In addition to Jamie Lee, they had another daughter, Kelly.

As Scream laid out so explicitly, Jamie Lee Curtis was a long-lasting Final Girl in horror movies like the Halloween franchise and today's subject, Prom Night, because her characters always followed The Rules, but in addition, she always struck me as being so much more mature than her peers. She was 22 when she made Prom Night, only two years after Halloween, but in watching her, she seems to have a certain poise, one that's so unlike so many of the teeny-bopper starlets that inhabit contemporary horror movies. I mean, she wears a jacket with elbow patches in this movie and gets away with it! And she has aged so gracefully too. Must be all that yogurt she eats!

Leslie Nielsen doesn't play as big a role as you might expect. Pity.

Prom Night is somewhat different from most slasher movies in that the killings don't start until the third act. The premise is simple: six years ago, a group of kids were playing around in an old abandoned building and one of them accidentally falls out of a window when their game gets a little too out of control. The other kids make a vow to not reveal their part in her death, but now, on the night of the high school prom, someone who knows what they did is targeting them for assassination.

The first two-thirds of the film set up the characters and their relationships to each other, though after awhile I found myself eager for the killing to begin. Maybe I'm too used to the formula of movies like this, though there must have been a time when this sort of thing wasn't old hat, no? I kinda wish I could watch a movie like this when it was brand new, before the genre was debased with numerous ridiculous sequels and spin-offs and reboots, before audiences were genre-savvy to all the tropes that movies like this established. I feel like I'll never be able to truly appreciate it any other way.

That said, there were some things I genuinely liked. Curtis has some decent dance moves that she shows off here. There's a little nudity, which is always welcome. Some of the slayings are genuinely surprising - one pivotal character gets beheaded and his head rolls out onto the catwalk of the stage at the prom, scaring the hell out of everyone! That was pretty funny. Another character struggles with the killer while driving a van. The scene goes on longer than it should; the way it plays, one could put some Benny Hill music behind it and it wouldn't feel out of place.

I'd have to say that Prom Night is no Carrie, but it's worth watching for the nostalgia factor, and to appreciate the career of a fine, enjoyable and (still) sexy actress in Curtis.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Ruby Dee

Last year, there was a 25th anniversary block party celebration in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Do the Right Thing was filmed. Absent the building where "Sal's Pizzeria" stood, it's more or less the same now as it was in 1989. On that day there was a stage at one end of the street, flanked by booths down the block and banners hanging from the gates and fire escapes of the surrounding brownstones. There was one banner devoted to Ruby Dee, who had died in June. It hung from a front gate; it was a recent picture of her next to the legend, "We speak your name!"

I don't need to tell you how important and groundbreaking that movie was, nor how it continues to speak to America today. Dee was one part of a huge ensemble cast in writer-director Spike Lee's film, all of which were meant to be evocative of the kind of people you might see in an urban black neighborhood in 1989 (although I don't remember anyone in my old neighborhood like Mother Sister).

You can't talk about Ruby Dee without also talking about her husband of over fifty years and nine movies, Ossie Davis. I used to imagine that in the movie of my life, they would play my parents, especially Davis. He didn't look like my father did exactly, but there was something about his screen persona that reminded me of my father so much: the warmth, the wisdom, the physical presence (IMDB lists him as 6' 2"). My mother isn't as short as Dee was (5' 2 1/4" - Davis dwarfed her!), nor is she as skinny, but Dee could've gotten away with it, and honestly, I wouldn't have wanted anyone else. It's a moot point now. (My current choices: Dennis Haysbert and Loretta Devine.)

Dee with long-time husband Ossie Davis
You may be aware of Dee and Davis' political activism over the years. Dee, for example, was a member of the NAACP, CORE, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They were both friends with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and rallied other actors to their social justice cause under the banner of the Association of Artists for Freedom, the group they co-founded.

Did you also know they once experimented with an open marriage? In their joint biography, With Ossie & Ruby, they say that they tried it in an attempt to avoid lies about affairs. To quote Dee:
...we both came to realize that we were very fortunate that, in all of the deep profound, fundamental ways, we really, really only wanted each other. It was like a rediscovery of something from the beginning. It's not something that you'd recommend to everybody. But often Ossie has said - and I've thought too - the best way to have somebody is to let it go. If it doesn't come back you are free in another kind of sense - in that you find the strength to let go and wish somebody well. So, we thought an open marriage was appropriate for us but it turned out not to be.
From what I know of open relationships (which is more than you would think), I know that it is possible to love one person while sleeping with someone else, but personally, I think it's more trouble than it's worth. It sounds like Dee and Davis beat the odds by discovering that they preferred each other in the end. That's good.

Oh, yeah, they also made movies and TV shows! Dee was a six-time Primetime Emmy-nominee, winning for the 1990 TV movie Decoration Day, with James Garner, and a three-time Daytime Emmy nominee for her voice work in animation. She and Davis also won a Grammy in 2007, in the Spoken Word Album category for the audio version of With Ossie & Ruby, awarded after Davis' death.

And of course, she won that Supporting Actress SAG Award for American Gangster. I remember how that came as a surprise. That was the year of Cate Blanchett's gender-bending role as "Bob Dylan" in I'm Not There, which received massive critical praise, as well as Tilda Swinton's turn in Michael Clayton. All three women would go on to get Oscar nominated, with Swinton winning, but as I recall, Dee didn't exactly rack up a lot of major critics or guild awards by comparison, hence the surprise. Still, Dee was very good in her limited role in the film, and I'm glad she won the SAG.

I wish I could say I've seen more of her movies. There's A Raisin in the Sun, of course. Dee was part of the original Broadway cast of Lorraine Hansberry's play, as well as the film version. Dee had worked with Sidney Poitier in the American Negro Theater, and she was also part of the American Shakespeare Festival for a time. It's easy to take her role in Raisin for granted, compared to the showier roles by Poitier and Claudia McNeil, but she has excellent chemistry with Poitier, and I think her character, more than anyone else's in the play, keeps him grounded - a necessary element, and one she performed well.

Individually, Dee and Davis were exceptional, principled actors. Together, they were an inspirational, loving couple who were one of the rare examples of a successful Hollywood marriage. The industry, and the world, seems slightly diminished with their absence.

Next: Vincent Price

Movies with Ruby Dee:
A Raisin in the Sun

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur   Edward G. Robinson   
Rita Moreno   Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell   James Dean   Ethel Waters   
William Powell   Tod Browning   Edith Head
Joel McCrea   Thelma Ritter   Douglas Fairbanks   
Gloria Swanson   Robert Wise   Saul Bass

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Horror Express

Horror Express
YouTube viewing

So Christopher Lee left this world for a better one earlier this year, and while I knew little about his life and career at the time, some of the things I've learned have been quite surprising - none more so, perhaps, than his recent sideline as a heavy metal singer!

What I've always found to be the hilarious thing about classic metal, especially British metal, is the way they took the most preposterous, over-the-top, apocalyptic lyrics and performed them so sincerely. Bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath refined it to a fine art, and it helped that they were fronted by singers with mighty, high-pitched pipes: Ronnie James Dio, Bruce Dickinson, and the Metal God himself, Rob Halford.

So to hear someone with such a deep and resonant voice as Lee's perform songs in that same spirit makes for a startling contrast - and he only got on this kick a few years ago! As you can imagine, though, he had a history of vocal talent, and in his case, it ran in the family, as he explains in this videoLee's voice reminds me a little bit of Thurl Ravenscroft, the singing voice of the Grinch in the animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, among other things, roughened by age. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure Lee's metal songs are to my taste; maybe I'm just so used to high-decibel, Halford-esque shrieking in metal that the contrast is off-putting. Still, how can you not respect someone like him accomplishing this so very late in his life? It's quite inspiring.

As for Lee's acting career, in looking over his filmography, I've noticed that he tended to stick to genre material time and again. One imagines he could've easily crossed over into "straight" material, and indeed, one can see he made movies like A Tale of Two Cities, Julius Caesar and Treasure Island, but movies like these almost seem like footnotes in a career that also included films with titles like Uncle Was a Vampire, To the Devil a Daughter, and my favorite, The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism! It's no wonder that he's as embraced as he is by the geeks.

Horror Express is the kind of film that the hardcore horror-philes no doubt love to pieces, and as much as Lee and his long-time cinematic wingman Peter Cushing try to class it up, it's still derivative schlock (apparently, it's inspired by the same novella that brought us the original The Thing From Another World, if IMDB is to be believed). It's entertaining, though. I like the idea of a monster running loose on a train, and Telly Savalas totally hams it up in his limited appearance.

So fare thee well, Sir Christopher. Yours was a long and full career, and even if most of the films you made weren't necessarily my cup of tea, I hope you had a lot of fun making them.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro

Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage Blogathon es un evento dedicado a celebrar los logros de los latinos en la industria del cine a lo largo de la historia, organizado por Once Upon a Screen. Para obtener una lista de bloggers que participan, por favor visite los enlaces en cualquier sitio.

Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro (AKA Samson vs. the Vampire Women)
YouTube viewing

Long before the Rock, Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura or Rowdy Roddy Piper, there was El Santo - a professional wrestling legend from Mexico who parlayed his success in the ring into the movies and other media, as part of a career that spanned almost five decades. Was he any good as an actor? Nope - but this is one of those cases where acting ability was kinda beside the point.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Little Shop of Horrors: 1960 vs. 1986 (and also, 1982)

The They Remade What?! Blogathon is an event in which the goal is to compare an original film with its remake, presented by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the host site at the link.

It's common knowledge now that Little Shop of Horrors began as a semi-obscure Roger Corman movie from the sixties, if for no other reason than it was one of the first screen appearances of Jack Nicholson. How did it inspire a hit Broadway musical and a film adaptation of that musical? Thereby hangs a tale...

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House
YouTube viewing

The Old Dark House was less of a horror movie than I expected, but it wasn't bad. I should have expected as much from director James Whale. Let's talk about him for a minute or two. 

Whale's movies really stick out from other films from the dawn of the sound era in Hollywood. For example, he wasn't afraid to move the camera for purposes other than following the physical action. There's a scene where the camera pans across a dinner table and back, focusing on the diners and what they're eating. It doesn't necessarily advance the plot, but it's an unexpected and unique little character moment in an ensemble film with a variety of unusual roles.

Whale got great and memorable performances out of his actors. Here, in a cast featuring such heavyweights as Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton, and solid players such as Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Stuart (old Rose from Titanic), the one who stood out for me was Eva Moore as the crazy old lady who steals scenes left and right. A religious fanatic, she mocks her brother, Ernest Thesiger, for his weakness and taunts Stuart in this terrific scene where she goes into the history of her effed up family.

Notice in this scene in particular how the shots are composed and edited: During her soliloquy, we see Moore surrounded by candles in one moment, then there's a cut to another shot of her, deeper in shadow, and then another cut to a bizarre, distorted image of Moore through a cracked mirror. After she's gone, we see Stuart looking at herself through that same distorted mirror and then there are cuts to those previous shots of Moore, as her words ("Laughter and sin!") echo through Stuart's brain and freak her out. Whale creates a sense of dread and paranoia with this sequence, and he pulls it off brilliantly, but it's Moore who sells this scene as her character's jealousy and spite towards her family comes gushing forth, taking out her frustrations on poor Stuart. Dynamite stuff.

This was another nice character moment.

There's a disclaimer in the beginning of House which clarifies that Karloff is, indeed, the same guy from Frankenstein. It turns out that his name was omitted from the publicity materials for that movie (but not from the closing credits), so House is actually his first credited starring role. In the early days of his career, he, like Greta Garbo, was a one-name-wonder, billed as simply "Karloff." (Nobody does that these days, it seems, except pop singers.) His role as the stalking butler isn't far removed from that of the Frankenstein monster, though I think he's better in that than in this.

Whale had the goods, having directed some of the most iconic monster movies of all time, including Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, of course. The 1998 film Gods and Monsters was a wonderful tribute to the man, as portrayed by Ian McKellen. If you've never seen it, it's worth checking out.

Monday, October 5, 2015

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

House on Haunted Hill (1959)
YouTube viewing

The original House on Haunted Hill was better than I had remembered. We don't see any actual ghosts in the story, but the possibility that they exist isn't entirely ruled out, either. The plot doesn't quite hold up under closer scrutiny, but it's still entertaining. It's a William Castle movie, so you know it's meant to have an audience-related gimmick: in this case, it was "Emergo," a giant glow-in-the-dark skeleton that hovers over the audience during the film's climax. I can't say I missed its absence while watching the film on my laptop, but at least I've seen Emergo in action - even if it was for the wrong movie.

Later this month, I'll talk more about Vincent Price in general, but here I'll say that he's marvelous, as you might expect, in the kind of role that solidified his reputation as a master of the macabre. He and Carol Ohmart, who plays his wife, have a War of the Roses-kind of vibe between them; the way they trade pointed barbs at each other is a big part of the entertainment value.

The house itself is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed edifice known as the Ennis House. Watching the film, I took note of its unusual facade and layout; it doesn't look like the traditional Gothic manor we tend to associate with haunted houses. It was built in 1924 by Wright's son Lloyd for retailer Charles Ennis, made of over 27,000 concrete blocks. It has quite a history in the movies. Besides Hill, it was first used in the Ruth Chatterton pre-code film Female. In more recent years, it has appeared in Blade Runner, Rush Hour, The Day of the Locust, and The Karate Kid Part III, among others, as well as such TV shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: The Next Generation and also for commercials, fashion shoots and music videos. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It is said that the success of Hill is what inspired Alfred Hitchcock to make a horror movie, which would go on to be Psycho. We may bitch and moan about horror movies today, but perhaps the reason why we do is because not enough A-list directors, like Hitchcock, make them. Hill may come across as low-brow, especially with the Emergo gimmick, but it was a big hit, and if it's true that its success led, however indirectly, to the creation of a masterpiece like Psycho, then it kinda makes one wonder what a Blair Witch Project or a Paranormal Activity or an It Follows could inspire, if a big-name director was willing to take that chance. Just a thought, anyway.

As for the remake, all I'll say about it is that with his mustache, Geoffrey Rush is the spitting image of Price.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fear the walking links

...and we're back. I got quite a bit done on my novel last month, though perhaps not as much as I would've liked. It's a slow process, at least for me, which is ironic since the first draft was written during National Novel Writing Month (which is next month), where speed is key to success. Maybe I've forgotten some of the lessons I've learned from that event; I don't know, but it's not like I'm writing this under a deadline. I made progress, which is what matters, and I expect to keep going.

We've reached the three-quarter mark of The One Year Switch and I knew I was gonna take a hit stats-wise last month, and I did. So be it. I think I've made whatever point I was making with the gimmick posts, so I'm gonna ditch them for the rest of the year, except for the profiles. Maybe I'll bring some of them back next year, depending on which ones were popular and which ones I liked doing.

This month, however, I thought I'd try one more thing I've never done before by devoting (almost) the entire month to classic horror movies. I've got nine of them tentatively planned, emphasis on "tentatively," but I don't anticipate any big scheduling problems. Plus, the two blogathons planned for this month will also tie into the classic horror theme. And now that Oscar season has begun in earnest, I expect to actually see some new movies, so I'll have that to write about once again in the new release round-up at month's end. So stick around; last month was a necessary lull, but we're gonna get back into the swing of things again. The fun begins in earnest October 5.

Big thanks to Fritzi from Movies Silently for assisting me with this month's banner. Go check out her blog for everything you'd ever wanna know about silent movies. She came up with the logo, but if you look closer, you can see she also made some splatter effects that make Karloff look even creepier. Cool, huh?

Lotta links this month:

Courtney thinks awards can be as much of a curse as a blessing. (And he's right.)

Danny knocks it outta the park with this review of Gold Diggers of 1933.

And then there was that time when Paddy met William Wellman as a kid. (Also, if you're in Toronto this week, check out Paddy's short play.)

If you need to shoot a movie in New York, you could do a lot worse than go to Staten Island for location shots.

Why do people in old movies talk weird?

Here's a review of a new book about the era of the video store.

The original cast of The Warriors recreate their cinematic ride from The Bronx to Coney Island.

The daughter of Leonard Nimoy, and her husband, are making a movie about her father with an emphasis on the disease that took his life through his many years of smoking.

In other Star Trek news, Nichelle Nicholls recently took a trip into space.

In preparation for Star Wars Episode VII (which I will write about here): I saw a Facebook conversation about how to watch the previous six Star Wars movies, and someone posted a link to this article, which offers a pretty good suggestion. Long but worth reading... if this sort of thing interests you.

EDIT 10.2.15: I wrote a short piece about my glorious writing career for the Newtown Literary blog.