Sunday, October 29, 2017

Horrorfest 2017: Dracula A.D. 1972

What better way to wrap up Horrorfest 2017 than with a Hammer Dracula movie -- DRACULA A.D. 1972 from, you guessed it, 1972. This sequel in the long-running Dracula series was directed by Alan Gibson and has both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee returning as Van Helsing and Dracula, respectively. This was listed as one of Tim Burton's favorites, and if you've ever seen his version of SLEEPY HOLLOW, it's pretty clear Burton's a huge Hammer fan.

The conceit this time is to take Dracula to the (then) modern day of 1972. This way he can bite the necks of swinging Londoners and Hammer can save money on sets and costumes. It's an interesting idea, although it renders most of the middle portion of the film kind of boring. The beginning is awesome, starting in the past as Van Helsing hunts Dracula down yet again and impales him on a broken stage coach wheel. And the ending is also awesome as Van Helsing and Dracula do battle. But the middle is just kind of there.

Christopher Lee's take on Dracula is interesting because although he looks and dresses like the gentleman version of the character that we've come to know, he basically acts like an animal. He just single-mindedly wants blood and wants to continue his eternal life and will do anything to reach those goals. There's not much sneaking around when it comes to Lee's Dracula. It's almost like after centuries of being undead, he's sick of all the pretense and is ready to get on with it.

Cushing as Van Helsing is similarly to the point, portrayed as both smart and badass, and willing to go to great lengths to see that evil is destroyed. In this movie things are a little different, since Cushing is playing one of Van Helsing's present-day ancestors, instead of the doctor himself, but it isn't long before we start to see the familial resemblance.

So there you have it -- another 31 horror movies down, just in time for another happy Halloween.

Horrorfest 2017: The War of the Gargantuas

For the last two entries of Horrorfest 2017 we turn to director Tim Burton and a couple of his favorites, starting with the Japanese production WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS from 1966. This entry in the "giant monsters attacking Tokyo" genre was directed by the master himself, Toshiro Honda who was responsible for the original (and great) GODZILLA, the not so great RODAN and my childhood favorite, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, along with probably every other big Japanese monster movie you've ever heard of.

After a little research I learned this movie is actually a sequel to a previous movie called FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD in which the Frankenstein monster grows to Godzilla-height and attacks Japan. So, the two monsters in WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS are the genetic offspring of the Frankenstein monster in the previous film, but mentions of Frankenstein were left out of the US version of the film to avoid needless confusion and hide the fact that this is a sequel. Aside from being humanoid and shape and kinda/sorta having flat heads, these monsters aren't easily visually recognizable as being of the Frankenstein-variety.

The story starts off with a bang as a cool, tentacle-waving sea creature attacks a boat at sea. These first ten minutes or so of special effects are more interesting than your usual "man in suit" effects, because we're dealing with a tentacle creature that's not humanoid. But then one of the Gargantuas shows up and kicks its ass, and it's all Gargantua all the time for the rest of the movie.

One Gargantua is bad and the other Gargantua is good. The bad one destroys Tokyo and other parts of Japan for the first half of the film, until it runs into the good one, who starts to fight back. As usual the human run around trying to figure out ways to stop the monsters but they're ineffectual and by the end of the movie can't do much but sit back and watch the two monsters fight each other, hoping the good one wins.

The Gargantua costumes are pretty gross -- you feel like you're looking at a couple of flea-bitten rabid animals for most of the movie. But, the miniature sets are pretty awesome, ranging from detailed city-scapes ripe for the destroying to scenes in nature that are pretty closely matched to real locations. My favorite part is always when the little remote control army trucks show up, and there's plenty of that, including helicopters for the Gargantua to swat out of the sky.

For the most part, this flick is a forgettable entry into the giant Japanese monster genre. There are better examples to watch if you just want to dip your toe into these movies, and you should probably only ever find yourself sitting through this one if you're trying to be a completist.

Horrorfest 2017: The Fall of the House of Usher

Here's a favorite of one of the greatest directors of all time, Akira Kurosawa: 1928's THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. This French version of the Poe tale was directed by Jean Epstein. The screenplay for the silent film was co-written by Luis Bunuel, who apparently left the project because it wasn't faithful enough to the original. It's funny to think of Bunuel being so concerned with something so literal.

I watched the Roger Corman/Vincent Price version of HOUSE OF USHER last year and at that time I made sure to go on at length about the masterpiece my friends and I shot in the 90s also based on THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. So, in the interest of full disclosure, I mention it again here: having created my own glorious rendering of the tale, I am biased.

This version of the tale takes some pages from DRACULA and some pages from THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY to spice up the usual tale of USHER. As usual, the tale begins with a man (Charles Lamay) traveling to visit his friend, Usher (Jean Debucort), who has fallen ill. Upon arriving at Usher's crumbling castle-like mansion, which is surrounded by swamps, we learn Usher's wife (Marguerite Gance -- in the original, this character is Usher's sister) has also fallen ill and is fading away.

In this version, Usher is obsessed with painting his wife's portrait, and as he adds life to the portrait, the life seems to drain from his wife until she eventually perishes. That's when one of Poe's favorite subjects comes up -- being buried alive.

As with most silent films that have withstood the test of time and are still rembered today, the visuals are stunning, mostly revolving around the blustery weather that seems to burst in on the massive interiors of Usher's home. Books fall from shelves, papers blow around and leaves blow into the house, blurring the line between outside and in. The filmmakers even effectively use slow motion in a few key moments, and it occurred to me that you don't see slow mo in silent flicks very often.

There's an interesting juxtaposition made between Usher and his unnamed friend in this film -- Usher seems to have heightened senses and perceives everything going on around him intensely and immediately. His friend, on the other hand, is both hard of hearing and needs a magnifying glass to see. Has Usher gained some transcendent second sight as a benefit of his madness, while his friend suffers from the blindness of the mundane? Maybe, but Usher seems to be blind, as well, when it benefits him. For instance, he neglects to notice that his wife is a human who is suffering and not just an object to be painted.

Horrorfest 2017: The Driller Killer

Now for Nicolas Winding Refn's last movie on this list, THE DRILLER KILLER. This 1979 indie slasher was directed by Abel Ferrara, who went on to direct the infamous BAD LIEUTENANT. THE DRILLER KILLER is infamous itself, mostly due to its sensational title. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess, depending on your point of view), while the movie does feature a driller killer, it is not the movie most gore fiends would imagine.

Ferrara himself stars as a starving artist living in an apartment in Union Square, New York City. He has a couple roommates but can't make the rent, can't pay the phone bill and can't stand the racket from the neighboring punk rock band. His landlord is not sympathetic and his connection to the art world won't give him an advance on his next masterpiece, but promises to buy it -- if it's any good. Problem is, he'll have to create the painting first, and that's the hard part.

Our young artist eventually descends into madness and becomes the titular driller killer, both killing random transients on the streets that he resents, and later moving on to murdering his own friends, acquaintances and enemies.

I guess the greatest strengths in the film lie in the rare glimpses into late 70s New York at a gritty street level, among the punk counter culture, in seedy neighborhoods and trashy apartments. I guess they had to add the stuff about drilling killing in order to get the movie made and released, but there probably could have been a slice of life movie to be made here, or even a documentary.

As it is, the movie is definitely worth looking at as an oddity, but it does not have the memorable qualities of other indie innovators like HALLOWEEN. While it's an interesting conceit to have a horror movie where half the run time is devoted to exploring a subculture and lifestyle, I don't think it quite works here and, thanks to the title, you end up sitting around wondering when the drilling killing is going to start. Maybe that's the point. Maybe I'm supposed to be like "OMG I can't believe I'm a monster who can't wait for a murder to happen." But probably not.

Horrorfest 2017: Demons

Back to Italian horror for Nicolas Winding Refn's second favorite on this list, DEMONS, a 1985 shocker directed by Lamberto Bava. It was co-written and produced by horror master Dario Argento so going into it I figured it stood a chance of being good, but I was disappointed.

The movie starts off promisingly enough, with a young woman (Natasha Hovey) being stalked by a masked man in a Berlin subway. This is suspenseful and effective because it's the kind of situation anyone could easily find themselves in -- scared in a subway. Turns out the masked man just wants to hand her a flyer advertising a movie premiere, and she decides to attend.

Thus follows many scenes of people watching the movie. It's a horror movie. I stared at the screen in disbelief as shot after shot cut to reactions from the audience. How long are these people going to watch this movie, I thought. Turns out a long time. DEMONS is only 88 minutes long but it's a long 88 minutes.

Eventually a demonic outbreak strikes the theater the premiere is in, and Hovey is forced to fight for her survival with another cinemagoer (Ubrano Barberini) but it's too little too late. What should have been an awesome premise -- basically DAWN OF THE DEAD in a movie theater -- becomes a depressing slog through gore and endless chases.

I think there's a good movie in here, somewhere, but it's hard to watch a movie about other people watching a movie and not be bored. I mean, it can be done -- see MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 -- but it's not done here.

There is a nice metal soundtrack, though.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Horrorfest 2017: Maniac Cop

Now we switch to some favorites of Nicholas Winding Refn, director of such great films as DRIVE and such crazy films as ONLY GOD FORGIVES. First on the list: MANIAC COP. You'd think I would have seen this 1988 exploitation flick directed by William Lustig before because it stars Bruce Campbell, the greatest actor of all time. But I just now got around to it.

The premise is simple: someone in a cop uniform is going around New York city killing innocent people. At first the cops don't believe it could be an actual cop, but one detective (Tom Atkins) buys it and follows some leads until he gets to beat cop Bruce Campbell, who has been framed.

There is one nice scene near the beginning where we're not sure if Campbell is the villain of the piece or not. I guess I ruined it for you. Then again if you think Campbell can be anything other than heroic, think again. Here he teams up with the afore mentioned detective and his officer girlfriend (Laurene Landon) to track down the real maniac.

This is a fairly low budget affair but makes the most out of its limitations. There's lots of great New York location shooting even though apparently they only shot in the city for a couple days. It's pretty convincing. This includes footage of the St. Patrick's Day parade at the climax of the flick.

For some reason I always figured this movie would be pretty awful, I guess based on the title and premise and everything. In fact I think I even read where Bruce Campbell himself said it wasn't very good. But I disagree. For most of the run time the movie keeps you guessing and is an interesting mystery. Lustig shoots from interesting angles and his camera is always energetic.

Horrorfest 2017: The Terminal Man

Here's the second of Kubrick's favorites for the month, THE TERMINAL MAN, directed by Mike Hodges and based on a novel by Michael Crichton. Off the top of my head, I'll say this is the 2nd best movie made from a Crichton property, after JURASSIC PARK, and so good it's kind of a bummer it seems to have been forgotten by the passage of time.

This sci-fi horror story came out in 1974. Knowing it was a favorite of Kubrick's makes me wonder if it was a direct influence on THE SHINING. Both films have sharp, exact visuals, both are adapted from mainstream beach reads and both intersperse "day of the week" title cards to break up the action.

They're also both about a man's descent into insanity. In this case it's George Segal as a guy who undergoes a controversial new form of brain surgery to hopefully stave off seizures he's been suffering from. The seizures lead to blackouts, and Segal becomes violent during the blackouts, so the operating doctor (Richard Dysart) hopes the surgery (involving stimulating the brain with electrical impulses via implants) will help him return to a normal life. Oh yeah, did I mention Segal, a computer programmer, also suffers from paranoid delusions that machines are going to take over the world?

As you may have guessed, the surgery goes wrong and Segal eventually spirals into a psychosis where he's trapped in a blackout state most of the time, hunting down the doctors who operated on him, including a psychologist who wasn't convinced this was the best idea (Joan Hackett), and endangering innocent bystanders along the way.

Like JURASSIC PARK, THE TERMINAL MAN gets a lot of mileage out of the first half of the story by convincing the audience that this is REAL SCIENCE. Of course it's all BS, but we get to see basically the entire operation scene, and it's totally convincing as well as suspenseful. The way it's mocked up for the movie, you can visually understand the concepts of what the doctors are trying to do. That way, you're totally sold by the time we get to the last half of the movie that's all action.

Segal is great in his role and it was interesting to see him as something other than a nice old guy, which is basically all I've seen him play on TV in the last couple decades. Of course that's me forgetting that he was also in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINA WOOLF, but that movie's so scary I think I might have blocked it out on purpose.