IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936)

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Dracula's Daughter - PosterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, currently appearing in the August HWA Newsletter, on DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936).

  IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936) might be forever stuck in the shadow of Universal’s more famous classic monster sequel, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), and there’s a reason for this.  BRIDE isn’t just the superior sequel.  It’s one of the best horror movies of all time.

But DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, while admittedly not as good a movie as THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, is still a damn fine little flick, one that certainly shouldn’t be ignored.

The movie opens right after the events of DRACULA (1931).  The police discover the dead bodies of Renfield and Dracula and promptly arrest Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) for the crime, as he admits to driving a stake through Dracula’s heart.  Van Helsing seeks the help of his friend and colleague Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) with his legal defense.  He wants to argue that vampires exist, that Dracula was a vampire, and that he shouldn’t be sentenced to prison for destroying Dracula.  Garth wants Van Helsing to hire a lawyer instead, and he doesn’t really believe his mentor, but he does trust Van Helsing, and so he tells his friend that he will be there to support him.

Meanwhile, the police’s case against Van Helsing takes a hit when Dracula’s body disappears from police custody.  That’s because it’s stolen by Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who just happens to be Dracula’s daughter.  She and her very creepy manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel) cremate Dracula’s body in a large bonfire, in one of the movie’s more memorable images.

You might wonder why the Countess simply didn’t try to resurrect her undead daddy, and the answer might be that all was not well in the Dracula family.  It turns out Countess Zaleska isn’t happy being a vampire, and she turns to Dr. Garth for help, telling him she wants to be treated for an “obsession.”

With Van Helsing’s help, Garth comes to the conclusion that the Countess is a vampire, Dracula’s daughter to be exact, and that doesn’t sit well with him.  It doesn’t do much for the Countess, either.  She kidnaps Garth’s beautiful and feisty girlfriend Janet (Marguerite Churchill), who also happens to be his assistant, and threatens her life if Garth doesn’t help her.

The Countess flees to Transylvania, taking Janet with her.  Garth pursues them, as does Van Helsing and the police, and they all arrive at Castle Dracula for the film’s conclusion.

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER has an excellent cast.  Gloria Holden is OK as Countess Zaleska, aka Dracula’s Daughter, and the argument can be made that of the main cast, she’s the least effective.  That’s not saying she’s a disappointment in the role, but that everyone around her is that much better.

Leading the way is Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing, reprising his role from DRACULA (1931).  Along with Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Dwight Frye as Renfield, Van Sloan was excellent as Van Helsing in DRACULA, and these three men dominated that movie.  Only Van Sloan is back for the sequel, and he’s just as good here, although the role of Van Helsing is reduced to a supporting player this time around, as he takes a back seat to Otto Kruger’s Jeffrey Garth.

Still, Van Sloan has his moments.  My favorite is when the police inspector tells Van Helsing that Garth has taken a flight to Transylvania in pursuit of the Countess, news which causes Van Helsing to exclaim, “Stop him!  He’s going to his death!”  It’s a fine moment by a very talented actor, my second favorite film Van Helsing, behind Peter Cushing, of course.

Otto Kruger is also excellent as Jeffrey Garth, making the psychiatrist very heroic.  He more than holds his own against the Countess, and he’s one of the more memorable screen heroes from the classic monster movies of the 1930s.

And Irving Pichel, who would go on to enjoy both a productive acting and directing career, is perfectly creepy as the Countess’ servant Sandor.  He’s certainly the main villain in this movie, as he’s far more sinister than Countess Zaleska.

But my favorite performance in DRACULA’S DAUGHTER belongs to Marguerite Churchill as Garth’s assistant and love interest Janet.  She’s kind of Garth’s version of Pepper Potts.  Churchill is full of energy, feisty, funny, and terribly sexy in this movie.  When I think about the women roles in the 1930s monster movies, there aren’t a whole lot that stand out.  Churchill is the exception.  She’s great in DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, so good in fact, I wish there were other movies with her character and Kruger’s Garth.  They’re fun to watch and share genuine chemistry.  I would have liked to have seen them tangle with other Universal monsters.

As I said, Gloria Holden is okay as Countess Zaleska.  She’s at her best when seeking her victims.  Her best scene is when she seduces a young model under the premise that she wants the young woman to pose for her.  Of course, the Countess is only interested in one thing, the girl’s blood.  It’s a sexually charged scene, a welcomed sight in a 1930s movie.

Holden is less effective in her scenes with Kruger’s Garth, as she comes off as stagey and forced, although she does get to utter the famous “I never drink— wine” line.

Director Lambert Hillyer is not known for his genre work.  He was mostly a B movie director, although he did direct the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi flick THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936).  He also directed the BATMAN serial from 1943, the better of the two Batman serials from the 1940s.

I enjoyed Hillyer’s work on DRACULA’S DAUGHTER.  He creates some atmospheric scenes and successfully captures the eeriness of Transylvania in the film’s conclusion.  He also gives the film some much needed sensuality.  The sequence where the Countess seduces the attractive young model, for instance, is beautifully shot and full of sexual tension.  And then there’s the playful sexual energy throughout the movie between Kruger’s Garth and Churchill’s Janet.

Garrett Fort wrote the screenplay, and it’s a nice follow-up to DRACULA.  He creates likable characters and tells a logical story (Van Helsing is arrested for murder, for instance), although I wish the Countess was a bit more sinister like her father.  She spends a lot of time feeling sorry for herself and wishing she wasn’t a vampire.  Fort also worked on the screenplay for FRANKENSTEIN (1931), as well as the play on which the Lugosi DRACULA was based.

When you think of classic 1930s monster movie sequels it’s THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN that comes to mind, and rightly so.  But DRACULA’S DAUGHTER is an excellent sequel and horror movie in its own right.

Attending some family gatherings this summer?  Be sure to visit DRACULA’S DAUGHTER.  I hear she does a pretty mean barbecue.  What’s that in the bonfire?  Is that a body?

—END—

If you enjoyed this column, feel free to check out my IN THE SPOOKLIGHT collection, available now as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.  It contains 115 horror movie columns, covering movies from the silent era and 1930s to the movies of today.  Thanks!

—Michael

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THE CONJURING (2013) Unoriginal Scary Fun

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the-conjuring-posterMovie Review:  THE CONJURING (2013)

by

Michael Arruda

 

THE CONJURING (2013), the latest horror movie by director James Wan, the man who directed SAW (2004) and INSIDIOUS (2010), is a classic example of style over substance.

There is nothing original about the story this movie tells, and some of the plot points are downright silly, but you know what?  I liked it, mostly because it’s directed with gusto by Wan, and he gives this one an eerie edge throughout.

It’s the early 1970s, and the Perron family move into their new home, which of course is going to be haunted, in this case by a demon.  You know, for once I’d like to see a haunted house story not about a family moving into a new home.  Maybe the demon can move in for once.  You know, the family’s been living there for years, and then this demon shows up looking for a new start in its demonic life— well, I digress.

The Perrons are your typical family, led by truck driver dad Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), sporting a very 70s haircut, and stay-at-home mom Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their five daughters, including the angst-filled teen who’s none too happy about moving into a new house, but to be fair, she stops complaining early on, so thankfully we avoid this cliché.

Strange things begin to happen in the Perron household (of course!), odd noises, foul odors, and unseen visitors, all of which eventually lead them to conclude that their home is haunted.

At the same time, the movie also introduces paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) a husband and wife team who go around the country helping people with their haunted houses and giving college lectures.

The movie tells parallel stories of both the Perron and the Warren families, until of course, Carolyn Perron contacts Ed and Lorraine and convinces them to come to her family’s house and take on the case.  And it’s here where the movie really takes off, when Ed and Lorraine arrive at the Perron home with their team, which includes another investigator Drew (Shannon Kook) and a police officer Brad (John Brotherton).

The rest of the movie follows this team’s efforts to identify the threat in the Perron household, and there are many—the house is occupied by anguished spirits and one very powerful demon— and then to protect the family and eventually exorcise the demon before it does what it wants to do, which is murder the Perron children.

I really enjoyed the cast in THE CONJURING, especially Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the husband and wife investigator team of Ed and Lorraine Warren.  They’re a very believable couple.

The Warrens have a cool room full of relics which were once haunted, including a demonic doll introduced in the film’s opening segment, where we see the Warrens handle an earlier case.  As Ed tells an interviewer, they keep all these things rather than destroy them because they believe they’re able to contain the malevolent spirits this way.  Burn the objects, and the spirits will be released.  Nice thinking, although I question why they’d store these items in a room inside their home where their young daughter lives.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to house these things somewhere else?

Patrick Wilson makes for a very heroic and likeable lead as Ed Warren.  I like Wilson more each time I see him.  He played the dad in INSIDIOUS (2010), and he was also Night Owl in WATCHMEN (2009).

As much as I liked Wilson, I liked Vera Farmiga even more as Lorraine Warren.  As Lorraine, she’s just as strong and heroic as Wilson, but with the added vulnerability of having been attacked at an earlier exorcism, the details of which she refuses to divulge to her husband.  She’s also a clairvoyant, and she provides the main conduit for communicating with the spirits in this story.  She’s an interesting character.

Farmiga is currently starring in the TV show BATES MOTEL (2013-14), and she’s been in a lot of other movies as well.  She was memorable as the police psychiatrist Madolyn in THE DEPARTED (2006), the woman who becomes involved with both Matt Damon’s crooked cop and Leonardo DiCaprio’s mob infiltrator.  She delivers the best performance in THE CONJURING.

Lili Taylor is also very good as Carolyn Perron.  She does a nice job, at first playing the concerned mother, and then later, as the demon sets its sights on her, she gets to be the frightening possessed monster.  Taylor was one of the highlights of the otherwise underwhelming thriller THE COURIER (2012) in which she played an assassin named Mrs. Capo.

The five young actresses who play the Perron daughters are also all very good.

THE CONJURING has very little to say that hasn’t been said before, but there were things about the screenplay by Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes that I liked.  I definitely enjoyed the emphasis placed on the paranormal investigative team of the Warrens.  Their presence made the story much more interesting than had it been only about the Perron family tackling the ghosts on their own.  This was done to some degree in INSIDIOUS, but the Warrens are a much more compelling team than the investigators in INSIDIOUS.

The Perron family also remains believable throughout and avoids many of the cliché pratfalls of movie haunted house families.  As soon as the Perrons learn what’s going on, Roger wisely says “we have to get out of this house,” but Ed tells him that it’s not the house that’s possessed, but his family, and the demon would only follow him.  Again, this concept is not new (see INSIDIOUS) but it’s still handled well, mostly because the movie doesn’t insult our intelligence.

But the best part by far of THE CONJURING is the energetic direction by James Wan.  This movie is not at all graphic, and yet, it includes many frightening images and some decent scares.   As a horror movie fan, you’ve got to love it.  Some of the memorable images include a gruesome hanging body, a grieving spirit anguished over the death of its daughter, a creepy toy with a mirror in which you can see the face of a ghost, and who can forget the eerie demon doll sitting inside the locked glass cabinet of the Warren household?

This movie is chock-full of fun horror elements.

But is it scary?  Well, it’s not the most frightening movie I’ve ever seen, and sure, it could be scarier, but there are enough thrills and chills to keep most horror fans satisfied.

It also gets the pacing right.  Things start off slowly, but as soon as the Warrens arrive to investigate the Perron’s home, the movie cranks it up and never looks back.  This is how a movie should be paced.  It should get more intense as it goes along, which is exactly what happens in THE CONJURING.  That being said, the ending isn’t quite as satisfying as I’d hoped, but it’s still pretty darn good.

THE CONURING also has an excellent music score by Joseph Bishara, who also did the music for INSIDIOUS.

THE CONJURING is far from perfect, and it doesn’t have an original bone in its body, but it is one very fun very satisfying horror movie.  I definitely recommend it.

—END—

THE CONJURING (2013) Unoriginal Scary Fun

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the-conjuring-posterMovie Review:  THE CONJURING (2013)

by

Michael Arruda

 

THE CONJURING (2013), the latest horror movie by director James Wan, the man who directed SAW (2004) and INSIDIOUS (2010), is a classic example of style over substance.

There is nothing original about the story this movie tells, and some of the plot points are downright silly, but you know what?  I liked it, mostly because it’s directed with gusto by Wan, and he gives this one an eerie edge throughout.

It’s the early 1970s, and the Perron family move into their new home, which of course is going to be haunted, in this case by a demon.  You know, for once I’d like to see a haunted house story not about a family moving into a new home.  Maybe the demon can move in for once.  You know, the family’s been living there for years, and then this demon shows up looking for a new start in its demonic life— well, I digress.

The Perrons are your typical family, led by truck driver dad Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), sporting a very 70s haircut, and stay-at-home mom Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their five daughters, including the angst-filled teen who’s none too happy about moving into a new house, but to be fair, she stops complaining early on, so thankfully we avoid this cliché.

Strange things begin to happen in the Perron household (of course!), odd noises, foul odors, and unseen visitors, all of which eventually lead them to conclude that their home is haunted.

At the same time, the movie also introduces paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) a husband and wife team who go around the country helping people with their haunted houses and giving college lectures.

The movie tells parallel stories of both the Perron and the Warren families, until of course, Carolyn Perron contacts Ed and Lorraine and convinces them to come to her family’s house and take on the case.  And it’s here where the movie really takes off, when Ed and Lorraine arrive at the Perron home with their team, which includes another investigator Drew (Shannon Kook) and a police officer Brad (John Brotherton).

The rest of the movie follows this team’s efforts to identify the threat in the Perron household, and there are many—the house is occupied by anguished spirits and one very powerful demon— and then to protect the family and eventually exorcise the demon before it does what it wants to do, which is murder the Perron children.

I really enjoyed the cast in THE CONJURING, especially Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the husband and wife investigator team of Ed and Lorraine Warren.  They’re a very believable couple.

The Warrens have a cool room full of relics which were once haunted, including a demonic doll introduced in the film’s opening segment, where we see the Warrens handle an earlier case.  As Ed tells an interviewer, they keep all these things rather than destroy them because they believe they’re able to contain the malevolent spirits this way.  Burn the objects, and the spirits will be released.  Nice thinking, although I question why they’d store these items in a room inside their home where their young daughter lives.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to house these things somewhere else?

Patrick Wilson makes for a very heroic and likeable lead as Ed Warren.  I like Wilson more each time I see him.  He played the dad in INSIDIOUS (2010), and he was also Night Owl in WATCHMEN (2009).

As much as I liked Wilson, I liked Vera Farmiga even more as Lorraine Warren.  As Lorraine, she’s just as strong and heroic as Wilson, but with the added vulnerability of having been attacked at an earlier exorcism, the details of which she refuses to divulge to her husband.  She’s also a clairvoyant, and she provides the main conduit for communicating with the spirits in this story.  She’s an interesting character.

Farmiga is currently starring in the TV show BATES MOTEL (2013-14), and she’s been in a lot of other movies as well.  She was memorable as the police psychiatrist Madolyn in THE DEPARTED (2006), the woman who becomes involved with both Matt Damon’s crooked cop and Leonardo DiCaprio’s mob infiltrator.  She delivers the best performance in THE CONJURING.

Lili Taylor is also very good as Carolyn Perron.  She does a nice job, at first playing the concerned mother, and then later, as the demon sets its sights on her, she gets to be the frightening possessed monster.  Taylor was one of the highlights of the otherwise underwhelming thriller THE COURIER (2012) in which she played an assassin named Mrs. Capo.

The five young actresses who play the Perron daughters are also all very good.

THE CONJURING has very little to say that hasn’t been said before, but there were things about the screenplay by Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes that I liked.  I definitely enjoyed the emphasis placed on the paranormal investigative team of the Warrens.  Their presence made the story much more interesting than had it been only about the Perron family tackling the ghosts on their own.  This was done to some degree in INSIDIOUS, but the Warrens are a much more compelling team than the investigators in INSIDIOUS.

The Perron family also remains believable throughout and avoids many of the cliché pratfalls of movie haunted house families.  As soon as the Perrons learn what’s going on, Roger wisely says “we have to get out of this house,” but Ed tells him that it’s not the house that’s possessed, but his family, and the demon would only follow him.  Again, this concept is not new (see INSIDIOUS) but it’s still handled well, mostly because the movie doesn’t insult our intelligence.

But the best part by far of THE CONJURING is the energetic direction by James Wan.  This movie is not at all graphic, and yet, it includes many frightening images and some decent scares.   As a horror movie fan, you’ve got to love it.  Some of the memorable images include a gruesome hanging body, a grieving spirit anguished over the death of its daughter, a creepy toy with a mirror in which you can see the face of a ghost, and who can forget the eerie demon doll sitting inside the locked glass cabinet of the Warren household?

This movie is chock-full of fun horror elements.

But is it scary?  Well, it’s not the most frightening movie I’ve ever seen, and sure, it could be scarier, but there are enough thrills and chills to keep most horror fans satisfied.

It also gets the pacing right.  Things start off slowly, but as soon as the Warrens arrive to investigate the Perron’s home, the movie cranks it up and never looks back.  This is how a movie should be paced.  It should get more intense as it goes along, which is exactly what happens in THE CONJURING.  That being said, the ending isn’t quite as satisfying as I’d hoped, but it’s still pretty darn good.

THE CONURING also has an excellent music score by Joseph Bishara, who also did the music for INSIDIOUS.

THE CONJURING is far from perfect, and it doesn’t have an original bone in its body, but it is one very fun very satisfying horror movie.  I definitely recommend it.

—END—

NECON 33 – More than a con. It’s Family.

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Panel audience at NECON 33.  That's me, Steve Dorato, and Scott Goudsward in the front row.  Nick Cato and friends behind us.  Thanks, Nick, for the photo!

Panel audience at NECON 33. That’s me on the left, next to Steve Dorato and Scott Goudsward in the front row. Nick Cato and friends behind us. Thanks, Nick, for the photo!

NECON 33 Recap

By Michael Arruda

Every summer a bunch of writers and readers descend upon Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI for Camp Necon, a writers’ convention unlike any other.

Here’s a brief recap of this year’s Necon, NECON 33, held July 18-21 2013, at the Roger Williams Convention Center.

On Thursday July 18, things got off to an emotional start with the Rick Hautala memorial.  For those of us who knew Rick, which is pretty much everybody at Necon, it was a poignant evening, filled with fond remembrances, stories, and even a picture slide show.  Rick really was everyone’s friend, and as was said that night, Necon was Rick’s Christmas, the event he looked forward to most each year, the days when he would be reunited with his “family.”

That was one of the prevalent themes of the weekend, how Necon is a family.  It is.

On Friday morning, July 19, I attended a new Necon event, the Kaffeeklatsch, a more laid back version of a panel where we sat around in comfy chairs over coffee.  The very first Necon Kaffeeklatsch was hosted by Matt Bechtel, on the subject of All Things E-Books.

Two more Kaffeeklatschs followed.

After lunch, I spent some time in the dealer’s room, spending time at the New England Horror’s table, keeping NE Horror head honcho and my Necon roommate Scott Goudsward company.

I attended the 2:00 panel on Writing Across Media, moderated by Craig Shaw Gardner.  Also on the panel were Richard Dansky, John Dixon, Errick Nunnally, and Brian Keene.  A good chunk of the panel was spent discussing John Dixon’s very exciting— and very much deserved— contract with CBS which is producing a TV show based on Dixon’s latest novel.

The 4:00 panel on That Line We Crossed:  How Explicit Is Too Explicit with Robert Devereaux, Jack Ketchum, Hal Bodner, Sephera Giron, and moderator Jeff Strand, discussed the intriguing premise that taboos of today have less to do with sex and violence than political correctness and race/religion issues.  It turned out to be a very thought-provoking panel.

After dinner Toastmaster Rio Youers delivered a hilarious toast which lampooned last year’s Necon and poked fun at this year’s, and it was followed by the equally entertaining Necon Update with Mike Myers.

This was followed by the Necon Hall of Fame Induction, which saw the induction of both Chet Williamson and Mary Booth.

The Hawaiian Shirt Competition followed, and this year it was won by good friend and fellow Cinema Knife Fighter Barry Dejasu.  Congrats Barry on that homemade shirt!

Later that evening came the Meet the Authors party, where Necon attendees can meet and greet their favorite authors, including Christopher Golden, F. Paul Wilson, Tom Moneteleone, Jack Ketchum, Doug Winter, Linda Addison, Kealan Patrick Burke, P.D. Cacek, Gary Frank, Craig Shaw Gardner, Brian Keene, Nate Kenyon, Elizabeth Massie, Mary Sangiovani, and Jeff Strand, to name just a few.  How about that for a partial author line-up?

I set up shop next to fellow authors Nick Cato, Tracy Carbone, and Dan Foley, and I was fortunate enough to sell and sign a couple of copies of my new print edition collections, IN THE SPOOKLIGHT and FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR.

I finished the evening talking movies with Craig Shaw Gardner, and I always enjoy hearing what movies he has to recommend.  This year he pointed me towards THE INKEEPERS (2011) which I hope to check out very soon.

Actually, this isn’t really how my evening ended.  Necon social gatherings go well into the night, some not ending at all, and so I my night ended much later than this.  It’s one of the best parts about Necon, staying up forever chatting with friends.  Yep, it’s the best part— until the next morning when you have to wake up for an 8:00 breakfast.

Saturday, July 20, there were panels all morning, but I actually decided to stay in my room and get some writing done.  This is a writer’s convention, after all.

I did attend the 11:00 panel on Don’t Do It Like That II:  Mistakes I’ve Stopped Making moderated by Doug Winter, and featuring Tom Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson, Chet Williamson, and Heather Graham.  This was a very informative and education panel, but I couldn’t help but think that this was exactly the type of panel that Rick Hautala would have been on.  I missed his words of wisdom this year.

The other driving emotional force of this year’s Necon was the presence of Bob Booth.  For those of you who don’t know, Bob Booth, “Papa Necon” himself, the man responsible for starting Necon 33 years ago, is battling lung cancer.  To see Bob here, to hear him speak at the Town Meeting and elsewhere, was truly inspirational.

In fact, for me, the highlight of this year’s Necon was spending a moment with Bob, shaking his hand, and wishing him well.

.

The other equally memorable moment for me was being able to give Holly Newstein Hautala, Rick’s wife, a warm embrace.

Yes, Necon is family.

At 1:00, I attended the Guest of Honor Interviews, where Toastmaster Rio Youers interviewed Guests of Honor Kealan Patrick Burke and C J Henderson.  It was great to hear these two authors speak about their backgrounds, and of the journeys which got them to this point in their careers.

I spent some more afternoon time writing, and then caught the 4:00 panel We’ve Got You Covered: How Print Cover Art Happens, featuring Caniglia, Jill Bauman, Courtney Skinner, Stephen Gervais, and moderator Duncan Eagleson.

The Artists’ Reception followed dinner, in which art work was on display, along with coffee and desserts for all to enjoy.

The evening’s festivities began with That Damn Game Show! hosted by Doug Winter and Craig Shaw Gardner, and included their running gag of the simple rules, which are anything but simple.  This year’s game show was surprisingly quick— unbelievably so— and Chris Golden emerged the winner.

This was followed by the shaving of Rio Youers’ head for charity, for the Jimmy Fund to be exact.  This was prompted by a bet last year between Youers and Chris Golden, over who would go further into the NFL playoffs, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.  You should have listened to Chris Golden, Rio.  I know I’d never bet against Tom Brady.

The Infamous Necon Roast came next, and this year’s roastee was three time Bram Stoker Award winner and poet Linda Addison.  It was hilarious as always.  Courtney Skinner has a deadpan Bob Newhart style down to an art form, and Brian Keene takes no prisoners.  His humor is brutal and honest and always a hoot.

Sunday, July 21.

My Sunday began bright and early, as I was on the 9:00 panel, Cinema Knife Fight:  Best Genre Films of the Year.  On the panel with me were Sheri Sebastian Gabriel, Nick Cato, Barry Dejasu, Craig Shaw Gardner, and moderator William Carl.

We tried something new this year, as we ran the panel like the old Match Game show, in which Bill Carl would ask questions, the panel would fill in the blanks and two lucky contestants would try to match our answers.  This worked very well, and Bill Carl deserves a lot of thanks for writing up the questions and getting the prizes.

The panel pretty much agreed that it really hasn’t been the best year for genre films, and that some of the best horror films continue to come from foreign countries.

Necon concluded at this year’s Town Meeting, and the sentiment here was that this year’s con went exceedingly smooth, and that high thanks were in order for Bob, Mary, Sara, and Dan Booth, and Matt Bechtel.

I know that Necon is always a special weekend for me.  Good friends, good times, professional panels which are as entertaining as they are informative, and the intangibles.  It’s a family, no doubt about it, and is why I keep coming back year after year since my first Necon in 2001.

Yep, Necon is one of the highlight of my year.  Isn’t it time you made it yours?

—Michael

THE MECHANIC (2011) Decent Jason Statham Movie

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The Mechanic posterBlu-Ray Review:  THE MECHANIC (2011)

By

Michael Arruda

Okay, I admit, I’ve become a fan of Jason Statham, and so it’s possible I may like his movies more than the average moviegoer.  I like Statham because he’s a convincing tough guy hero, and I believe it when he wipes out more than one bad guy at the same time.

That being said, THE MECHANIC (2011), a remake of the 1972 Charles Bronson movie of the same name, is just OK.  While it certainly showcases Statham’s talents, at the end of the day, it’s nothing special.  But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it.  I did.

In this new version of THE MECHANIC, which I missed when it opened in theaters and only recently caught up with on Blu-Ray, Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a hit man, or “mechanic” who works for a secret organization that employs him and others like him to kill people.  When the organization orders Bishop to kill his mentor Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), Bishop seeks a meeting with his boss Dean (Tony Goldwyn) to verify this information. Dean explains to Bishop that Harry had betrayed the organization and was responsible for the death of several of their agents.  As a result, he’s become a liability and needs to be eliminated.

Ever the professional, Bishop carries out his mission and kills his friend Harry.  Afterwards, Bishop reaches out to Harry’s estranged son Steve (Ben Foster), who at first wants nothing from his deceased dad’s friend, but later changes his mind and expresses an interest in doing what Bishop does.  Steve wants Bishop to teach him the business, but Bishop tells him no.

But then for some reason— guilt, perhaps? — Bishop changes his mind and takes Ben under his wing and trains him in the fine art of being an assassin.  As the two men work together, they both make realizations.  Bishop discovers information that contradicts Dean’s story that Harry was a traitor, while Steve discovers the truth about who murdered his father, setting up an ending that sadly is all too predictable.

I enjoyed both Jason Statham and Ben Foster in this movie. Statham does what he does best, which is act tough and kill people without batting an eye, and looking believable every second he does it.  While some may complain that Statham keeps playing the same guy in his movies, I like his persona and have no problem with it.  It’s what countless action stars have done before him, from John Wayne to Sylvester Stallone.

But as good as Statham is, it’s Ben Foster who delivers the best performance in the movie.  As Steve McKenna, he’s not just some young kid emotionally distraught over the murder of his dad.  He’s a hothead, a psycho in the making, and the more interesting thing here is these traits don’t get in the way of his being an efficient assassin.  They make him better.

And this brings me to one of the things I didn’t like about THE MECHANIC.  I didn’t quite buy the relationship between Statham’s Arthur Bishop and Foster’s Steve McKenna.  Bishop is supposed to be mentoring this guy, and sure, he does teach him the tools of the trade, helping him to become a professional hit man, but because Foster’s performance is so riveting, I just didn’t buy into Steve as a guy who needed that much mentoring.  He seems pretty confident and deadly on his own without any help from Bishop.

To me, Foster should have been on equal footing with Statham throughout this movie, and the two should have been adversaries.  I would have preferred a story pitting these two guys against each other.

THE MECHANIC is the beneficiary of two fine performances by Jason Statham and Ben Foster.  I like Foster a lot, and this is yet another in a growing line of his notable movie performances, which include 3:10 TO YUMA (2007), 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007), and PANDORUM (2009).

In his brief screen time, Donald Sutherland adds some seniority to the film, and his Harry McKenna is an interesting character, one I wish had been in the movie more.

On the other hand, Tony Goldwyn as Dean makes for a rather flat villain.  He gets to say a few threatening lines here and there, but he doesn’t really get to do a whole lot.  As a result, THE MECHANIC really lacks a main villain.  Goldwyn was more effective as the dad in the remake of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (2009).

THE MECHANIC was directed by Simon West, who also directed THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012), a film I enjoyed much more than THE MECHANIC.

Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino wrote the screenplay.  Wenk also wrote THE EXPENDABLES 2, while Carlino wrote the original THE MECHANIC with Charles Bronson.

The story here is pretty standard.  From the get-go, you know that young Steve is going to discover that Bishop murdered his father, and you know that he’s going to be none too happy about it.  It’s not too difficult to figure out where the story is headed, and so there’s not much suspense involved here.  And I must say that the payoff at the end is nothing to write home about.

However, one part of the story I liked is the way Statham’s Bishop goes about killing his targets. He studies the various ways people die naturally, and so many of his hits are made to look like a natural death, to avoid any suspicion.  Bishop is a very shrewd assassin and is quite the interesting character.

There are a couple of cool scenes in the movie, like when Steve takes down his target, shunning Bishop’s expert advice, yet getting the job done anyway.  The brutal fight between Steve and the much larger man he’s been contracted to kill is one of the highlights of the movie.  But there simply aren’t enough scenes like this in the film.

Yet, I liked THE MECHANIC, for the simple reason that I enjoyed watching both Jason Statham and Ben Foster.   Sometimes, excellent performances in an average move are enough to save it.  Such is the case with THE MECHANIC.

For Statham fans, this just might be enough.

—END—

Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean At The End Of The Lane” Creates Believable Fantasy

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Ocean at the end of the Lane - coverWhat I’m Reading – The Ocean At The End Of The Lane By Neil Gaiman

Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

I picked up Neil Gaiman’s latest novel The Ocean At The End Of The Lane the other day and found myself unable to put it down.

I’m not the biggest fan of fantasy stories, but Gaiman’s writing here drew me into its imaginary world with ease, and I found myself not wanting to leave it, even as it became a very dark place.

Having returned home for a funeral, a middle aged man takes a drive to the neighboring farm of his childhood home.  Once there, he’s flooded with memories, and he remembers his childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, a girl who was several years older than him, who used to live there. She has since moved away to Australia. At the farm, he finds Lettie’s mother, Mrs. Hempstock, still there, and she invites him inside

Later, the man visits the pond behind the Hempstock farm, a magical body of water which Lettie used to refer to as her ocean.  As he sits by the water, memories from his childhood return, flooding his senses with an all-consuming deluge that enables him to remember details of events long forgotten.

He was seven and Lettie was eleven that year, the year when his life was invaded by sinister forces from another dimension, the main one which comes in the guise of his new nanny, Ursula Monkton, that would have killed him, if not for the protection of Lettie, her mother Ginnie, and her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is driven by Gaiman’s writing.  His style is so strong you’d believe pretty much anything he dishes out. Concepts like coins appearing in a boy’s mouth, a worm living inside the foot of a boy, in a hole leading to another dimension, are described so naturally and matter-of-factly that I couldn’t help but believe them.

The characters are fleshed out wonderfully.  The three women characters, in particular, Lettie, her mom Ginnie, and Old Mrs. Hempstock are the best characters in the book and the highlight of the story.

The novel is saturated with memorable lines and ideas, and reading it was one of the more rewarding reading experiences I’ve enjoyed in a long time.

Consider the opening to Chapter 1.  “Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.”  Talk about gaining sympathy for your main character right off the bat.  Here’s this little boy, the party is all set up at his house by his mom, and nobody shows but his sister.  The painful description follows of how his mom proceeds with the party anyway, being the loving parent that she is.  And yet, we find out later, that when the boy leaves the barren party and retreats to his room to read some books, that he’s really not all that upset, as he says, “Books were safer than other people anyway.”  And he goes on to say that those kids who didn’t show up to his party weren’t his friends anyway.  They were just children he went to school with.

The novel is full of truisms.  “Adults follow paths.  Children explore.”  This statement begins a sequence where the boy must escape from his house in order to reach the Hempstock farm, and with those two concise sentences, Gaiman enables the reader to know and understand why it’s so easy for the boy to escape, because he’s already spent day after day of his childhood exploring these routes.

And “Growing up, I took so many cues from books.  They taught me most of what I knew about what people did, about how to behave.  They were my teachers and my advisors.  In books, boys climbed trees, so I climbed trees, sometimes very high, always scared of falling.  In books, people climbed up and down drainpipes to get in and out of houses, so I climbed up and down drainpipes too.”  Which is how he escapes from his house.

There’s also a perfectly horrifying scene where the boy’s father, under the influence of the evil forces around them, attempts to drown him in the tub.  When the sequence is over, and the boy is still alive, his father coldly says to him, “Go to your bedroom.  I don’t want to see you again tonight.”

The best part of the novel though is its strong sense of place, in particular the Hempstock farm.  Gaiman creates a place that is a safe haven for the boy.  Most people have a place like this from their childhood.  For me, it was my grandmother’s house, that place where you feel safe from all of life’s evils, and as a child with an overactive imagination, these evils can take all sorts of shapes.  For me, it was the fear that the Wolf Man would come smashing through the window and eat me, but not at my grandmother’s house.  The windows there were supernaturally strong.  No monster could break through.

As I read this novel, and read about the boy’s experience at the Hempstock farm, I couldn’t help but remember my own experiences as a child.

When the Hempstocks give the boy hot soup and a warm bath, he says “I felt safe.  It was as if the essence of grandmotherliness had been condensed into that one place, that one time.  I was not at all afraid of Ursula Monkton, whatever she was, not then.  Not there.”

There’s also a neat sequence in which Old Mrs. Hempstock removes the worm from the hole in the boy’s foot.  It’s not for the squeamish, and yet it’s described in the most comforting and natural language.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane  is a quick read, yet it’s a rich and rewarding experience.  I was awed by its sense of place, the farmhouse and the magical ocean at the end of the lane, drawn into its detailed characters, and appreciated the truth surrounding this story.

There are strong fantasy elements throughout, but this is a story that uses fantasy as a backdrop to a tale of a young boy and his friendship with the young girl down the road and her family.  How he felt protected by her, how he trusted her, and how ultimately, she saved his life.

My favorite stories are the ones full of truth, where things stated are pulled from common experiences, where the story as outlandish as it may seem, is believable.  The Ocean At The End Of The Lane tells an incredible tale, but because it’s narrated by a person who is ultimately very believable, I believed it.

 The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is one of my favorite reads of the year.  I recommend it highly.

—Michael

PICTURE OF THE DAY: London Premiere of HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

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Dracula1958PICTURE OF THE DAY

Here’s a photo I found online of the London premiere of DRACULA (HORROR OF DRACULA here in the United States) in 1958.

If I had a time machine, this is definitely one of the events I’d attend.  I’d also go to the New York City premiere, an event attended by both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee who were there signing autographs.  Ah, the good old days!

I would love to have seen the artwork and promotional materials shown in this picture in person and in color.  It reminds me of some of the old fashioned monster houses from amusement parks of yesteryear.

Yep, my heart melts with nostalgia when I look at this photo.  Anyone out there who attended this premiere in person?  Love to hear from you if you did.

In the meantime, I’ll keep seeing movies in cinema multiplexes here in the 21st century.  At least there’s still popcorn.

—Michael