Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Not too long ago, I reviewed five movies from the silent film era of the 1920's. Due to favorable responses from the membership of Horror-Movies.ca, I have decided to continue moving forward through the years by reviewing five movies from each subsequent decade- right up to the most recent one. To kick off this trek, let me present the first of the ones from the 1930's... "The Monster Walks"...
Ruth Earlton returns home after years away for the reading of her father's will. Soon, the stormy night is filled with the chilly touch of death as some inhuman monster stalks through the halls. It's up to Ruth's fiance, Dr. Ted Carver to figure out what is happening before Ruth becomes the next victim...
This is a sad... sad movie.
It seems that in the transistion from silent to talking films, some of the art was lost. The sets aren't all that interesting or creative... nor is the story. While the camera work is still simplistic, you can start to see some innovation in the use of panning and tracking shots. There is also some interesting use of shadow in this movie as well.
The acting is wooden and almost hesitant- possibly, once again because of the recent transition from silent to talking films... after all, it's not like they HAD to remember their lines in silent films, right? The best acting is given by the ape in my opinion. The only other "saving grace" in this film was the comic relief provided by Willie Best as the unfortunately stereotypical black servent- but at least he lives. I found Rex Lease as Dr Ted Clayton to be rather overbearing and arrogant, making me wish he would be one of the ones knocked off by that monster that's walking. Vera Reynolds isn't bad looking... but I kept getting distracted by the size of her forehead in this movie- sorry, but it's pretty damn massive. I'd just like to say that I kinda enjoyed Sheldon Lewis' portrayal of her uncle, Robert, even though I was hoping he'd get killed too. The role that annoyed me the most was that of Hanns Krug- played by Mischa Auer. I didn't find him likable, interesting... or even all that sinister of a character... though he does deliver one line that I do love, in reference to the ape, "They never forget their hatred..."
I really felt sorry for Willie Best and the ape for having to appear in this film.
There is no way to avoid saying it- but this movie fits solidly within The Ugly. This monster should've just kept walking out the door...
Friday, May 27, 2011
Today- May 27, 2011 marks the 100th birthday of that master of horror- Vincent Leonard Price, Jr.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Price had a father who was the President of the National Candy Company, and a grandfather that invented, "Dr. Price's Baking Powder"- the first cream of tartar baking powder, which secured the family's financial security.
During the 1930's Vincent Price became interested in the theater, and started performing on stage in 1935. Soon, in 1938, Price made his film debut in the film, "Service de Luxe", but didn't start gaining recognition until 1944 when he starred in the Otto Preminger film, "Laura".
His first horror film was the Boris Karloff feature, "Tower of London" in 1939, which he followed up as the title character in "The Invisible Man Returns". he would reprise this role vocally at the end of 1948's "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein".
Price was often cast as a villain in his films- such as "The Web", "The Long Night","Rouge's Regiment", and "The Bribe". During this time, he was also active in radio work- portraying Simon Templar in "The Saint" from 1943 to 1951.
The 1950's saw Vincent Price star more and more in horror films. The first of his in this decade was, "House of Wax", which was the first 3-D film to be in the top ten of the North American box office in 1953. He also starred in "The Mad Magician", "The Fly", and William Castle's films "House on Haunted Hill" and "The Tingler". Stepping from horror to a more religious genre, Price also starred in "The Ten Commandments", as well as the ABC series, "Crossroads" which explored clergymen from different religions.
During the 1960's he teamed up with Roger Corman to produce several adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe's works- such as:
- "House of Usher" (1960)
- "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961)
- "Tales of Terror" (1962)
- "The Comedy of Terrors" (1963)
- "The Raven" (1963)
- "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964) and
- "The Tomb of Ligeia" (1965)
During this time, Vincent Price also made appearances on the "Batman" TV series as the villian, Egghead. Reportedly, Price quite enjoyed the role, and Yvonne Craig (who played Batgirl) has been quoted as saying that he was her favorite villain in the series. After a take was printed, he started tossing eggs at Adam West and Burt Ward. When he was asked to stop, he replied, "With a full artillery? Not a chance!" At this point, an eggfight erupted on the set. Fans can see a reenactment of this incident in the telefilm, "Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt" which discusses the behind the scenes events. Price also began appearing on the famous game show, "Hollywood Squares"- often using his famous voice to answer questions in a sinister manner.
The 1970's saw Price hosting the BBC horror and mystery series, "The Price of Fear", and made appearances on the Canadian children's TV series, "The Hilarious House of Frankenstein" (which I watched as a kid, and absolutely loved). He provided the opening and closing monologues, as well as red poems about the various characters on the show. Movie wise, he starred in "The Abominable Dr. Phibes", "Theatre of Blood", and "Mooch Goes to Hollywood"- where he appeared as himself.
Since horror movies were suffering from a slump in the 1970's, Vincent Price started doing more voice work- recording with Basil Rathbone, dramatic readings of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories and poems. He can be heard doing a voice over for Alice Cooper's first solo album, "Welcome to My Nightmare" in 1975, and appeared on the TV special, "Alice Cooper: The Nightmare". He starred in the radio series, "Tales of the Unexplained". He also made quest appearances on "Here's Lucy", and "The Brady Bunch". He also guested starred in an episode of "The Muppet Show", in which during one skit, he's attacked and bitten by a vampiric Kermit the Frog!
The summer of 1977 found Price performing in the one man stage play "Diversions and Delights" as Oscar Wilde. This play found success in every city it played in, except New York City. He even performed the play on a stage in Leadville, Colorado, where almost 100 years prior, Oscar Wilde himself had stood and spoke to miners about art. Price would go on to perform "Diversions and Delights" worldwide. Many of Price's family and friends thought this was was the best acting he ever did.
In 1982, Price lent his voice to Tim Burton's six minute film about a boy who switches from reality to a fantasy in which he IS Vincent Price. The film was appropriately titled, "Vincent". The same year, He once again dipped into the music world by performing a thrilling rap for Michael Jackson's, "Thriller". The next year, he appeared in the horror spoof, "Bloodbath at the House of Death", and the film, "House of the Long Shadows" with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine. He would also voice the character of Professor Ratigan in Disney's "The Great Mouse Detective".
During this time, he also hosted the PBS TV series, "Mystery!", and voiced the character of Vincent Van Ghoul on Hanna-Barbera's "The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo". Price also appeared in several horror themed commercials for Tilex bathroom cleaner. Vincent Price made a couple of appearances on Shelly Duvall's live action series, "Faerie Tale Theatre" in 1984. In 1987, he starred with Bette Davis in "The Whales of August", and followed it up in 1990 with Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorhands".
In 1987, Vincent Price was into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
Price was often a guest on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson", and was a noted gourmet cook. He once demonstrated to Carson how to poach a fish in the dishwasher. He has written several cookbooks, and hosted a TV cooking show titled, "Cooking Pricewise".
During his life, he was married three times, and fathered a son, Vincent Barret Price with is first wife, and a daughter, Mary Victoria Price with his second wife. His third wife, the Australian actress, Coral Browne starred with him in "Theatre of Blood", and became an American citizen to marry him, while he converted to Catholicism for her.
Vincent Price was quite outspoken politically- going so far as to end an episode of "The Saint" by denouncing racial and religious prejudice- declaring it a poison, and calling for Americans to fight against it since such prejudice only serves to support the country's enemies.
Emphysema and Parkinson's disease resulted in Price's role in "Edward Scissorhands" to be briefer than it had originally been planned, as well as led to him retiring from the TV series, "Mystery!".
On October 25, 1993, Vincent Price passed away from cancer. His ashes were spread off Point Dume in Malibu, California. Shortly after his death, A&E aired an episode of "Biography" honoring his horror career- but due to copyright problems, the episode has never been aired again.
Vincent Price left a lasting legacy behind him through various means. Known for his fine art collection, Price donated 90 pieces from his own collection to East Los Angeles College in Montery Park, California- creating the first "teaching art collection". The Vincent Price Art Gallery continues to present world class artists, containing over 2,000 pieces of art- and worth well over five million dollars. Until his death, Price was also an Honorary Board Member of the Witch's Dungeon Classic Movie Museum in Bristol Connecticut. This museum features several life-size wax replicas of characters from his films- including, "The Fly", "The Abominable Dr. Phibes", and "The Masque of the Red Death". At Mary Institue and St Louis Country Day School (Vincent Price's alma mater), a black box theater is named after him. In addition, he's been lovingly parodied on "The Simpson", "Spitting Image", "Yacht Rock", and on "Saturday Night Live"
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
I started my exploration of the silent horror films of the 1920's (even if TECHNICALLY, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" isn't a horror film), with the artistic, German expressionist film, "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror". It is therefore, only fitting that I end my journey of that time with another artistic German expressionist film- "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari".
Alan and Francis visit a carnival in the small German town of Holstenwall, where one of the attractions is Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist. Caligari claims that is sleeping attraction can answer any question asked of it. When Alan asks when he'll die, his death is predicted for that night... a prediction that comes true. As Francis and his betrothed investigate Dr. Caligari, things seem to be more sinister than they first appeared...
The writers of the screenplay for this movie originally met shortly after World War I, and used their own experiences to come up with the plot. In 1913, while visiting Hamburg, Hans Jonwitz entered a park near Holstenwall, and witnessed a man walk into the bushes... where the body of a woman would be found the next morning. Carl Mayer brought his experiences with an autocratic, high ranking military psychiatrist to the screen play. The final inspiration came when the two saw a carnival sideshow called "Man and Machine", where the man made predictions while in a hypnotic state.
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" has often been cited as one of THE best horror films from the 1920's, and one of THE most influencial ones ever. I can not argue this. Of the movies I have reviews from that period, the only one that compares in my mind is "Nosferatu".
The most noticable aspect is the sets. They are just wild- weird angles, distorted perspectives, shadows and lights painted onto the floors, flat background. This gave it a very stage play feel to it, and I feel it would so simple (and cool too) for a small theater group to mount a modern stage production of this movie. In addition to that, the weird, distorted perception of the world fits in great with the surprise ending. As much as I enjoy the larger than life sets of my favorite Hammer horror films, I really simply enjoyed the smaller, artistic ones present in this movie.
The acting was great too, in my opinion- very flowing and once again, something a theater group could produce. The contrast between the slightly more subdued acting in the framing story compared to the manic gestures during the flashback was well done- and once again added to the logic of the surprise ending. Werner Krauss as the evil Dr. Caligari definately looked like a Doctor I wouldn't want to examine me, and Lil Dagover brought a nice dash of beauty to the movie as Alan's betrothed, Jane. Cesare, played by Conrad Veidt was a simple performance, but excellent.
As with most silent movies, the camera work was simple- but with sets like the ones seen in this film, they didn't NEED complex camera angles, etc to look interesting.
So, I end my travels through the silent horror films of the 1920's with "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"... and film the sits solidly in "The Good"
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Dr. Jekyll is a fine, upstanding member of society: respectable, intellegent, and giving of his time to the poor in his clinic. When criticized by his soon to be father-in-law, for his lack of worldly experience, Jekyll is determined to gain experience in the darker side of life. A potion he creates allows him to revel in humanity's depravity as Mr. Hyde... but soon Hyde begins to take over.
Of the many versions of Louis Stevenson's novel, the 1920 silent version is probably one of the most famous ones. The differences in this version and the novel are attributed to the fact that it was actually based on a stage play adaptation from 1887.
I really quite enjoyed this film. While the pacing isn't all that quick, I found that I had little problem staying interested in the story, possibly because the music was moody and interesting to me.
There wasn't really a lot of "acting" in this film other than characters walking, sitting, standing and talking. Most of the "action" was actually done by either Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Hyde- and done quite well. In keeping with the general style of the early silent films, John Barrymore presented us with a very theatrical performance. As with a couple of other silent film classic I've reviewed, I could almost imagine myself sitting in a darkened theater watching a live performance of this movie.
Barrymore was excellent in my opinion. The way he was able to contort his face and hands for the first transformation scene was remarkable to see. There was no make-up used for that first scene- it was all plain old acting skill. And watching him contort and convulse during the other transformations was startling and a little disturbing to watch too. Just a wonderful performance.
Even though his character didn't do a lot, I felt that Brandon Hurst (who would later play Jehan Frollo in Lon Chaney, Sr's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"), was well cast as Jekyll's soon to be father-in-law, Sir George Carew. He brought a look of arrogant respectability to the character, which I felt was perfect.
The camera work and lighting was fairly good, though the sets were rather plain. Despite the blandness of the sets, the use of shadows created a moodiness that lessened the negative aspects of the film's simplicity.
While, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" may have lacked the artistry of other silent films, I would certainly say it qualifies as one of "The Good."
Friday, May 13, 2011
Within the bell tower of Paris's Notre Dame cathedral a deformed hunchback by the name of Quasimodo lives. The only solace he has from the miseries of his lonliness are the ringing of the cathedral bells. After an act of kindness done for him, he falls in love with the lovely gypsy girl, Esmeralda. Unfortunately, both Jehan (the Archdeacon's brother) and Phoebus (the Captain of the Guards) have both been smitten by her beauty.
There are no surviving original prints of this film. Modern video copies have been made from duplicate 16mm prints that were distributed by Blackhawk Films in the 1960's and 19720's. The original prints from the 1920's were actually filmed on tinted film stock- the tinting being lost when duplicated.
I have to say, that as much as I enjoyed "The Phantom of the Opera", I enjoyed "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" a bit more.
For starters, there's more energy and action in this film, compared to the later "The Phantom of the Opera". The pacing of the on screen action was brisk and flowed smoothly, and the balance between title cards and performance was good. I had no problem maintaining interest and focus on the story and characters.
The acting wasn't great- in fact, I found Norman Kerry's performance as Captain Phoebus to be a little laughable (as was his hair in this film). Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda was passable, though I found her quite pleasing to the eyes. I also found Ernest Torrence's performance a little too theatrical, and found his "crazy eyes" more chuckle inducing than anything. The real stars of this film in my opinion were Lon Chaney, Sr as Quasimodo, and Brandon Hurst as Jehan Frollo. Hurst was suitably sinister as the Archdeacon's evil brother who lusts and conspires for Esmeralda's hand. Every time I saw his sneer, I wanted to poke him in the eye with a sharp stick.
Lon Chaney, Sr was marvelous in this film. He created and applied his own make-up for Quasimodo- which I found to be simply amazing given the time period. It was this film that began his habit of creating his own make-up. He brought such energy to the role as scene when he's climbing down the outside of Notre Dame, leaping up to swing on the ropes to ring the bells, and riding the bells themselves. And given how the make-up pretty much hides the vast majority of his face, it's amazing how well he expresses emotions. Just an all round great performance in my opinion.
The sets are fantastic, and bring a real feel of 15th century France- even if the costumes are something out of a cheap high school Robin Hood play. The sets are large and detailed- setting the mood of the scenes effectively. The camera work is simple- as to be expected from the 1920's, but still manage to frame some beautiful shots.
Given all of this, I have no problems rating, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" as one of "The Good"
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Not too long ago, I reviewed the silent horror classic, "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror", and wound up being in the mood to view a few other of the silent horror films in my collection. The next one I watched was "The Phantom of the Opera", starring Lon Chaney, Sr, and released in 1925.
A mysterious stranger has been threatening the star singer of the Paris Opera House- someone who has signs his letters simply as, "The Phantom". This stranger wants to clear the way so his protege, Christine Daae can ascend to stardom herself. Soon, her love for the Comte de Chagny collides with The Phantom's desire for Christine forcing both to take drastic actions in order to be with the one they love.
"The Phantom of the Opera" actually underwent three periods of re-shoots and editing, due to poor reception and test viewings. In 1930, a sound version was created- often assumed to be what is called "The Eastman House Print". It is this version that is most commonly seen today, due to the amount of wear seen on negatives of the original release.
This is one of those films that has earned a valued place in the annals of horror film history- though mostly for its technical aspects than its storytelling qualities. Now, the story isn't bad, but the pacing is a little slow, and I did at times find my mind wandering a bit. There really isn't that much action that happens in this film, so younger horror fans will probably get bored quickly.
The acting was a bit stiff, I found as well, though watching Lon Chaney, Sr was a joy. His style was theatrical, and larger than life- just what you would expect from the almost mythical "Phantom of the Opera". He gave me a sense of someone who was living an opera himself. He also brought some pathos of his character, despite the cruel things he did to those around him.
And speaking of Lon Chaney, he created and applied the make-up for his role as The Phantom. It was rare for an actor back then (let alone today) to do so, and he became famous for his make-up designs- ultimately earning the nickname, "The Man of a Thousand Faces". It was reported that when The Phantom's face is revealed for the first time, people screamed and fainted.
This movie is also noteworthy for a scene that features early Technicolor- the Bal Masque scene where The Phantom comes down the stairs dressed as the Red Death, which is another reason why it's been assumed that commonly seen version is the "Eastman House Print". This is a beautiful looking scene, though it's a bit jarring to go from solid black and white to colour, and then right back to black and white again.
There are some nice shots in this film, and the sets are fantastic, but the camera work is almost too simplistic. While I was watching it, I was craving some of the artistry that was present in "Nosferatu". Even if they had simply tinted some of the scenes, I probably would've been happier... and it would've helped to cut down on how jarring the Bal Masque scene was.
"The Phantom of the Opera" has earned a place in horror film history, for good reason- but it's not a film I would be inclined to re-watch more than once a year. I'm going to have to place "The Phantom of the Opera" in "The Bad".
Saturday, May 7, 2011
"Death on Demand" definately wasn't one of those jewels.
Twenty years after a mountain climber is traumatized by an experience with a Yeti- culminating in his butchering his family during a nice dinner, a sleazy business man holds a contest in the now supposedly haunted house- a sort of scavenger hunt where the couples involved are looking for clues as to WHY the aforementioned mountain climber hacked his family to bits. Unfortunately, they awaken his still insane spirit... and death ensues.
Up to the point where the blood starts to flow, you would swear that "Death on Demand" was filmed for the Family Channel. It has that "feel" and look to it. The camera work is very simplistic, and brightly lit... almost cartoony. The acting is sit-comy, and the humour rather immature. The characters were flat and overblown stereotypes. It was hard to care about any of them- even the main character. Even the premise was dull and rather derivative of "Halloween: Resurrection"... which did the internet webcam broadcasting angle much better.
There WERE some kernels of potential in this movie: the gore, and the kills. I was baffled by the contrast between the kills and the plot development scenes. The kills were well shot and interesting compared to the rest of the film.
But unfortunately, since I didn't give a damn about the characters to begin with, the kills weren't enough to make this movie a satisfying experience. I have to plop "Death on Demand" solidly into The Ugly.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
"Nosferatu" is one of those films.
During World War One, Albin Grau- one of the founders of Prana Films was inspired to do a vampire film when a Serbian farmer informed Grau that his father was one of the Undead. In 1921, Grau and his partner, Enrico Dieckmann assigned Henrik Galeen to come up with a screenplay based loosely on Bram Stokers novel, "Dracula". French-German film critic Lotte Eisner described Galeen's Expressionist screenplay as:
"full of poetry, full of rhythm"
Thomas Hutter is sent to Transylvania to meet a new client by the name of Count Orlok. Despite being warned about Count Orlok and the presence of werewolves, Hutter continues to his new clients castle. Soon, Hutter is in a race against time as he realizes that Count Orlok has set his eyes on making Hutter's beautiful wife, Ellen, his own bride.
This entire movie was filmed with only one camera, creating only one original negative. Director F.W. Murnau followed Galeen's handwritten notes regarding camera positioning, lighting, etc- which is rare in cinema today, where it's usually the Director that decides on those things. Murnau did, however have to rewrite 12 pages of the original script as Galeen's text was missing from the Director's working script. The final scene of the film is actually Murnau's contribution to the script. He used a metronome to give the actors an idea of the pace of the scene, and used early styled storyboards to plot out the action.
I have always felt that a TRUE horror fan has an appreciation for recent films, but a fine appreciation of older films, and how they built the basis for what we see today... and that includes silent black and white films like "Nosferatu". This film has a place of honour in the horror genre, and deserves it.
"Nosferatu" is a masterful piece of work. The use of shadows and light create a creeping, stalking atmosphere of unease. The acting is theatrical and larger than life. I could almost imagine myself sitting in a theater and watching it being acted out on a stage (which, in my opinion would be pretty dang cool). The pacing is strong and flows nicely from one shot to the next. This is helped by the fantastic camerawork. Without the use of complex camera movements or angles, "Nosferatu" has provided the world so many iconic images, you HAVE to admire the skill of those involved.
Greta Schroder was beautiful as Thomas Hutter's wife, Ellen... but the real star of this film is Max Schrek as Count Orlok. Let's face it, his acting skills is only enhanced by the astounding make-up. In my opinion, the make-up used for the Count not only stands the test of time, but rivals some of the stuff that's been put on screen today. I mean, just LOOK at how fantastic it is:
Now, tell me that THAT isn't just a masterful piece of creepiness, eh?!? This make-up was a huge influence on the look of the vampire, Kurt Barlow in 1979's TV movie, "Salem's Lot".
While, many of the younger horror fans of today would probably be bored with this movie, those of us in the 30+ age group will probably have a fine appreciation of this film, and probably enjoy watching it. In fact, I would have no problem watching this film as part of a triple feature with Lon Chaney's 1925 "Phantom of the Opera", and his 1923 "The Hunchback of Notre Dame".
"Nosferatu" fits solidly with the category of "The Good".
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
I first heard about the "Ghost of Flight 401" as a kid, and saw a movie... appropriately titled, "The Ghost of Flight 401". I'd heard that it was based on true events, and was interested in learning more about this case of the paranormal. What I didn't know at the time was that it was also based on the book of the same name by John G. Fuller.
Then one day, while rummaging through the Paranormal section of one of my favorite book stores, I came across this book. Remembering the case from my childhood, I that it would be a good addition to my collection. And it was.
John G. Fuller was a journalist/author that at one time wrote a regular column for the magazine, "Saturday Review". He also wrote several non-fiction books regarding UFO's and the paranormal, including, "The Interrupted Journey: 2 Lost Hours 'Aboard a Flying Saucer'", "Incident at Exeter: The Story of Unidentified Flying Objects Over America Now", and "The Airmen Who Would Not Die".
"The Ghost of Flight 401" starts out with Fuller investigating how an urban legend starts- which is what he considered this ghost to be. What interested him most though was how, unlike most urban legends, the details remained the same regardless of who told it. It was always the same airline, same type of jet, same flight number, and crew members named. Fuller then begins to research the story in order to figure out how such a ghost story could develop in our "modern world". Things then begin to take an interesting turn after he meets a female flight attendant from the airline that's been the subject of the stories... and he finds himself in the middle of the paranormal events.
This books is a very well written, interesting, and thorough investigation of the paranormal events surrounding the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 in 1972. It covers details of the actual crash- as well as the investigation into it. It then covers the reports of ghost sightings of the plane's Captain- Robert Loft, and the Second Officer, Donald Repo on planes supposedly fitted with parts from the crashed airplane. The book smoothly evolves from one type of investigation into another where the Fuller details the paranormal events surrounding his investigation into the case.
The original premise- researching how an urban legend begins was unique and interest catching, and I found it interesting to read as it the focus of the writing changed from that to the investigation of actual paranormal happenings. Fuller has a very personable and conversational style of writing that I found to flow smoothly. I came to like him as his viewpoint on the paranormal expanded. He is also a very engaging writer in that he doesn't just recite facts, nor does he write like he has all the answers. Fuller confidently puts his uncertainty and doubt about the validity of his own experiences down as he grows to accept the things happening around him. Many writers of paranormal non-fiction write to dramatize the events. Fuller doesn't- he's quiet, and down to earth in his writing. He simply says, "This is what happened... either believe it, or don't..."
For people interested in paranormal non-fiction, I can honestly say that I'd rate this book as one of "The Good"