THE MEG (2018) – Giant Shark Tale Ridiculous But Fun

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THE MEG (2018) is often ridiculous and about as scary as a Scooby-Doo cartoon, but this mega shark adventure is also something else: fun.

THE MEG opens with a deep-sea rescue mission gone wrong.  Rescuer Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) is in the midst of leading a rescue team to save folks trapped in a damaged nuclear submarine, but when something seems to attack the sub, Jonas makes the executive decision to leave some of his team behind in order to rescue the few lives he has with him. It’s a decision that does not bode well with others on his team, as later no proof of a powerful sea creature which Jonas said was attacking the sub is ever found.

In terms of opening sequences, it’s not all that memorable and sounds more exciting than it actually is.

The action picks up five years later at a deep-sea station off the coast of China where a scientist named Zhang (Winston Chao) is leading an expedition to travel to the very depths of the ocean, and beyond.  See, Zhang believes that at the bottom of what is considered to be one of the deepest parts of the ocean floor, lies a gaseous barrier rather than a solid bottom, and he believes beneath that barrier is another world. And faster than you can say Jules Verne, a mini sub is launched from the station to prove just that.

The sub breaks through the barrier, but before anyone can celebrate, it’s attacked by a mysterious unseen creature. And of course, Zhang and company turn to the one man who has ever attempted a rescue that deep in the ocean, Jonas Taylor. Jonas, of course, says he’s done with all that, wants no part of it, and nothing they can say will change his mind. His resolve lasts all of two seconds before he learns that the woman commanding the sub and one of the people trapped inside is his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee).

And so Jonas packs his bags and is off to the rescue, where of course he will come face to face with a massive prehistoric shark which may or may be the same creature which he encountered five years before. The film doesn’t really make that clear.

And this is only the beginning, because once the rescue is done, the mammoth shark decides he’s had enough of living so far below the ocean and comes up for a visit.

One of the main reasons THE MEG is so much fun is its story keeps evolving. It’s not just one long rescue mission tale.  Things continually change. As a result, the movie remains exciting throughout, and with some brisk pacing, there are very few slow parts here.

The screenplay by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber, based on the novel Meg by Steve Alten, also contains lots of lively dialogue which is sure to be a crowd pleaser. It also does a really good job developing its characters, which for a movie like this, is a pleasant surprise. In fact, that was one of my favorite parts of this movie, that its characters were all so likable.

But the story is not without flaws. A lot of things aren’t explained all that well. For instance, once the giant shark makes its presence known, everyone who doubted Jonas apologizes to him. Yet, at one point in the story, Jonas says the creature outside the sub in his doomed mission was destroyed in the subsequent explosion, so, just how the appearance of this prehistoric shark acquits Jonas is unclear to me. Just because there’s a huge shark around now doesn’t mean there was one that day Jonas left those people behind to die.

For such a deep-sea expedition, it seems to take only seconds for everyone to get down to the ocean floor and then back up again. And some of the later shark scenes are flat-out ludicrous but somehow don’t deteriorate into laughable material.

And while the story scores high on the adventure meter, it scores less so when it comes to conflict.  Nearly every plan our heroes suggest works.

Director Jon Turteltaub plays things safe. THE MEG is rated PG-13, so there’s not a drop of blood to be found. Yet, somehow, the movie doesn’t suffer for it.

The shark itself is okay.  CGI sharks just don’t cut it for me.  This one works best when we see it only partially, like shots from above where we see its massive form swimming beneath the waves. Those scenes are ominous, but seen up close, it’s nothing more than a frightening cartoon.

One of the strongest parts of THE MEG is its cast. Pretty much everyone in the movie is very good, and so that goes a long way towards making this film as enjoyable as it is.

Director Jon  Turtelbaub deserves some credit here for getting so much out of his actors in this one.

We’ll start at the top with Jason Statham, who’s been one of my favorite action movie stars over the past ten years or so. As he almost always is, he’s excellent here. He’s extremely believable in the part, except of course when he dives into the water for a hand to hand combat session with the supersized shark. Perhaps he should apply to become a Marvel superhero?

Even so, Statham does a good job making the ludicrous situations he finds himself in believable. His scenes with the little girl at the station, Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cal) are precious, and Shuya Sophia Cal is adorable and entertaining in the role.

Li Bingbing plays Suyin, Zhang’s daughter and Meiying’s mother.  She’s pretty much the lead scientist on the expedition, and she is definitely not a heroine in need of saving. She pretty much goes toe to toe with Statham’s Jonas Taylor, and the two of them lead the charge against the shark. She’s also very sexy.

Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight on THE OFFICE (2005-2013) plays the wealthy businessman who finances the expedition. He’s the guy you love to hate.

Cliff Curtis, who played Travis on FEAR THE WALKING DEAD (2015-17), is very good here as Jonas’ friend Mac. Likewise, Winston Chao is convincing as Zhang, as is Ruby Rose as the sexy engineer Jaxx who designed the deep-sea station.

Robert Taylor stands out as Heller, the doctor at the station who was there that fateful day when Jonas failed to rescue everyone from the nuclear sub, and for the past five years he had blamed Jonas for their deaths, claiming he had become unhinged. When the mega shark appears, Heller is quick to apologize to Jonas. Taylor, who plays Sheriff Walt Longmire on the TV show LONGMIRE (2012-2017), probably gives the best performance in the movie.

Olafur Darri Olafsson and Masi Oka are also very good as a couple of scientists, and likewise Jessica McNamee is memorable as Jonas’ ex-wife Lori.

Only Page Kennedy doesn’t  fare as well, as scientist DJ. He’s the one black character on the crew, and he’s also supposed to be the film’s comic relief, but a lot of the jokes I thought were cliché, and I think the one person of color in the movie deserved a better written role.

As shark movies go, THE MEG is one of the better ones. It’s a much stronger film than the recent 47 METERS DOWN (2017), and more fun than  THE SHALLOWS (2016).

That being said, it still pales in comparison to the Holy Grail of shark movies, JAWS (1975). It’s not intense like JAWS, and it’s certainly not realistic like JAWS. However, during the film’s third act, there are several nods to the 1975 Steven Spielberg classic.

THE MEG is a lot of fun, and as such, for a summer time popcorn movie, it comes highly recommended.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Necon 38 – The Con That Has Become An Extended Family

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The following re-cap of Necon 38 will be appearing in the September issue of the HWA Newsletter:

Necon 38

July 19-22, 2018

Baypoint Inn & Conference Center

Necon has been described as a con unlike any other, and as a place that is both so tight-knit and welcoming of new folks that it’s like family. Both of these descriptions are true.

The best part about Necon is that everyone is friendly and accessible. So, in addition to informative writer panels all weekend long that are chock full of knowledgable information about the genre and writing in general, you’ll find yourself socializing with authors and like-minded individuals the entire weekend. The bottom line is regardless of where you are in your writing career or if you’re simply a reader you will be welcomed, and you will not be alone.

The worst part about Necon is time doesn’t stop while you’re there. The weekend flies by fast.

Necon was begun by Bob and Mary Booth back in 1980, and following Bob’s passing in 2013, is now run by their adult children, Sara Booth, our current fearless chairperson, and Dan Booth.  They do a fabulous job, year in and year out.

I’ve been going to Necon since 2001, and I haven’t missed one since I started. That’s eighteen Necons for me. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that. I feel as if I should be so much further along in my writing career, and that having gone to so many, I should be much more in the thick of things, but that’s not my style. I tend to hang back at cons and take everything in.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy and appreciate everything there is about Necon as much as the extroverts do.

It’s been a run ride, and it continued this year with Necon 38.

Necon 38 had it all.  Heck, in the true tradition of being a family, we even had a wedding this year!  How cool is that?

Anyway, Necon traditionally opens up on Thursday afternoons, and this year was no exception, as the con started on Thursday, July 19.

Now, a lot happens at Necon, much more than I’ve recorded here. For example, I did not attend evey panel, and there were events that I missed. So, the following is admittedly a recap from my perspective only. It’s not meant to be all-encompasing, and I apologize to anyone in attendance whose name I didn’t mention because either our paths didn’t cross this year or our conversation was all too brief.

Thursday, July 19, 2018.

This year’s guests of honor included writers Helen Marshall, David Wellington, and Dana Cameron, artist Jason Eckhardt, Toastmaster Errick A. Nunnally, and Legends Brian Keene and Carole Whitney.

Registration opened at 2:00, and judging by all the Facebook posts I read, lots of folks arrived right around then,

I did not. Each year driving down from New Hampshire to Bristol, RI, I get stuck in dreadful traffic in and around Boston, which extends my normal two-hour drive to an elongated four-hour drive, usually stuck in traffic in hot sun. This year I decided to skip all that and travel after rush hour, so this year, I arrived much later, around 9:00 pm.

The first official Necon event this year was the Welcome to Necon, Newbies!: Kaffeeklatsch hosted by Errick A. Nunnally & Laura J. Hickman. This programming is another example of how Necon strives to make everyone feel welcome. First timers who attend this meeting receive a nice introduction to the con.

10:00 was the famous Saugy Roast, where those yummy saugies, that flavorful hot dog found only in Rhode Island, are grilled to they’re deliciously charred and blackened. From there, you can stay out in the quad socializing as long as you like.

Friday July 20, 2018

8:00 it was time for breakfast, and I enjoyed a good meal of eggs, home fries, and fruit as I caught up with my roommate for the past several years and master of the dealer’s room, Scott Goudsward.

At 9:00, lots of campers headed out for the first Necon Olympic Event, Mini-Golf. I did not attend as I was on the movie Kaffeeklatsch this morning.

While I try to go to as many panels as possible, I can’t go to all of them, and so I skipped the 9:00 panel to do some writing (it’s a writer’s convention, after all!) and I worked on my movie review of SKYSCRAPER (2018) starring Dwayne Johnson. My reviews are posted on—time for my shameless plug!—my blog, THIS IS MY CREATION: THE BLOG OF MICHAEL ARRUDA, at marruda33.wordpress.com, where you’ll find all my movie reviews and columns on horror movies, all for free, I might add.

At 10:00, I attended the Read Any Good Books Lately?: The Year’s Best Books Kaffeeklatsch, a look back at some of the best books of the year. This Kaffeeklatsch featured Barry Lee Dejasu, Jaime Levine, Erin Underwood, and Hank Wagner. There were lots of book recommendations, most of them offbeat, since this is Necon. Included were nods to A Tale of Two Kitties by Sofie Kell, and to the works of author Neal Shusterman.

At 11:00 it was time for the And the Oscar Goes to: The Year’s Best Films Kaffeeklatsch, featuring Michael Arruda (yours truly!), Scott Goudsward, Matt Schwartz, Craig Shaw Gardner, and L.L. Soares, with lots of input from fellow movie lover Bill Carl.  I started things off by saying that for me it’s been a tremendous year for Marvel, and I cited BLACK PANTHER as my favorite film of the year so far. Other nods went to the horror movies HEREDITARY and A QUIET PLACE. 

Other titles mentioned included the Netflix original THE BABYSITTER, ANNIHILATION, ISLE OF DOGS, THE RITUAL, TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID, HOTEL ARTEMIS, THE CYNIC THE RAT AND THE FIST, THE DEATH OF STALIN, and the Netflix original GERALD’S GAME, to name just a few.

At noon it was time for lunch, and a chance to catch up with more friends.

This year I joined the “Skeleton Crew,” that awesome group of volunteers led by P.D. (Trish) Cacek. I manned the seat by the dealer’s room entrance for a while, making sure folks didn’t bring beverages into the room, an effort to keep coffee and the like from being spilled on the merchandise. It was fun chatting with everyone who came in and out.

At 2:00 I attended the panel, The Spark: What Inspires a Great Short Story? moderated by Nick Kaufmann. Also on the panel were Meghan Arcuri-Moran, Christa Carmen, Toni L.P. Kelner, Ed Kurtz, and Helen Marshall. There were lots of interesting and insightful tidbits to come out of this panel. Highlights included the notion that not all short stories need to have a beginning, middle, and end, that some need only capture a moment in a character’s life. Another concise definition of a short story: it’s the most important thing to happen in the main character’s life.

At 3:00 I attended the panel, Invasion of the Pod People: Creating Your Own Podcast, moderated by Armand Rosamilla and featuring Amber Fallon, Chris Golden, Brian Keene, James Moore, and Mary SanGiovanni. Discussed were the ins and outs of doing a podcast, and for most folks on the panel, it’s a labor of love. Few people do podcasts to make money. However, it certainly can help book sales as people who listen to the podcasts often will check out your books.

At 4:00 I was back on duty by the Dealer’s Room, and at 5:00 we all assembled outside for the newest Necon tradition, the group photo. This started last year when we had to evacuate the building due to a fire alarm and decided to take advantage of the opportunity. This year we didn’t need a fire alarm for the picture. That being said, the fire alarm had different ideas.  More on that later.

At 7:00 it was time for the Official Necon 38 Toast by Toastmaster Errick A. Nunnally, followed by the comical Necon Update with Mike Myers, followed by the Necon Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. This year’s inductee was celebrated horror author and podcast host Brian Keene.

At 8:00 it was time for the Meet the Authors Party, that event where if you’re a reader, you get the opportunity to meet and greet your favorite authors and purchase signed copies of their books. It’s also the opportunity for the authors to set up shop and make their books available.

I was fortunate enough to share a table with some of my fellow New England Horror Authors, including my Cinema Knife Fight buddy L.L. Soares, Pete Dudar, Scott Goudsward, Trisha Wooldridge, and others. For me, if I can sell one book, I’ll count that as a successful evening. So, in that regard, I had a very successful evening in that I sold four of my books, including three copies of my short story collection For The Love of Horror.

I also purchased the highly touted first novel by Tony Tremblay, entitled THE MOORE HOUSE.  I can’t wait to read it. A book I really wanted to buy and will at some point is the brand new short story collection, her first, by Dougjai Gam Bepko, Glass Slipper Dreams, Shattered. I heard plenty of wonderful things about her debut collection this weekend. I also still haven’t bought Matt Bechtel’s highly praised debut collection from last year, Monochromes: And Other Stories.  The downside of living on a budget.

And there’s many, many more. That’s always the most difficult part of Necon. There are so many books to buy, way more than I can afford.

And after that, it was time for socializing on the quad, that time when you get to chat with friends, old and new, long into the wee hours of the morning.  This year I caught up with, among others, L.L. Soares, Pete Dudar, Paul McNally, Kelly Winn, John Harvey, Kevin Lewis, David Price, and Patrick Freivald, to name just a few.

 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

I attended the 10:00 panel, BOO!: Modern Ghost Stories, moderated by P.D. Cacek and featuring Tom Deady, John Foster, Michael Rowe, Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel, Tony Tremblay, and Dan Waters, which discussed, among other things, the differences between ghosts of yesteryear and ghosts of today. It was also suggested that ghosts are the easiest tropes to believe in, since most people believe in ghosts, as opposed to vampires, werewolves, and zombies, and so the ghost story author has that advantage in that its subject is one that people want to believe in.

Next up for me was the all important 11:00 panel, Closing Time: Remembering the Life and Work of Jack Ketchum, moderated by Doug Winter, and featuring Linda Addison, Jill Bauman, Ginjer Buchanan, Sephera Giron, Gordon Linzner, and Bracken MacLeod. This was both a somber and celebratory event as the panel looked back on the life of author Jack Ketchum, who passed away earlier this year, known here at Necon by his real name Dallas Mayr. The overwhelming sentiment, which for those of us who attend Necon regularly already know, was how kind and generous Dallas was, and that for those who read him first and met him later, that was a something of a shock, since he wrote brutally dark fiction.

There were also plenty of fun stories and anecdotes, and as Sephera Giron prepared to tell one, a fire alarm— our second in two years— went off. Sephera quipped, “Dallas, it’s not that story!”

After lunch, I found myself working at the door to the dealer’s room once again.  While there, Frank Raymond Michaels and I had our annual Necon discussion of Universal Horror vs. Hammer Horror. I also found some time to relax out in the quad on a beautiful sunny afternoon and chat with friends.

I attended the 3:30 panel, When Your Book Has A Soundtrack: The Influence of Music on Your Writing, moderated by Matt Bechtel, and featuring Doungjai Gam Bepko, Rachel Autumn Deering, Gary Frank, Bracken MacLeod, Rio Youers, and Doug Winter. The panel discussed listening to music when writing, and the majority of the authors in the room acknowledged that they do indeed listen to music when they write. Some authors ignore the song lyrics and view the vocals as just another instrument making music. Other authors are inspired by lyrics, writing stories or even entire novels based on them.

At 4:30, I attended the panel It’s Kind of a Long Story: The Art of the Novel, moderated by Kristin Dearborn, and featuring William Carl, James Chambers, Nate Kenyon, David Wellington, Mercedes M. Yardley, Rio Youers, and Dyer Wilk.  This panel covered exactly what its title said, the nuts and bolts of writing a novel. A bunch of topics were discussed, including the use of outlines and the differences between writing a novel and a short story.

After dinner, I joined my fellow Skeleton Crew members including P.D. Cacek (our fearless leader!), Morven Westfield, Scott Goudsward, Scott Wooldridge, and James Chambers, among others, as we helped set up for the Artists Reception, that time where the attention turns to the artists and their fine works on display in the dealer’s room, as well as to delicious desserts and hot coffee.

At 7:30 it was time for That Damned Game Show featuring Craig Shaw Gardner & Doug Winter.  The “controversial” game show had been missing from Necon for several years now, but I for one was happy to see its return. It’s controversial because it tends to go on a tad too long.  I happen to love the game show. I think the running gag of the confusing overlong rules is hilarious, and it’s fun to see the “contestants” struggle with both the answers and the rules. That being said, it is too long, and going forward, if it’s cut in half, it would make for a very satisfying event.

Another reason I enjoy the game show is that when the contestants miss the answers, the questions go to the audience, and if you answer right you win one of Necon’s “valuable prizes.” I won two prizes this year, as I answered two obscure questions on the films of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.  And I love these valuable little joke prizes because I use them in my middle school classroom throughout the year. I have a wind-up walking brain, for instance, that my middle schoolers adore.

After the game show, it was time for The Infamous Necon Roast. This year’s “victim,” was Matt Bechtel. Hilarious as always, but no details here, because “what happens at Necon, stays at Necon.”

Afterwards it was more socializing on the quad, and more saugies!  Once again I joined my fellow Skeleton Crew members and helped set up the food tables.

And since Necon is a family, tonight we had something extraordinarily special: a wedding! Yes, James Moore married Tessa (Cullie) Seppala in a ceremony presided over by Bracken MacLeod. It was a beautiful ceremony, witnessed by the 200 Necon campers who were all assembled on the quad.

Sunday July 22, 2018

While there were two panels this morning, I missed them after a late night in which I was up to about 2:30 am.

I attended the 11:00 Necon Town Meeting, where all the Necon Olympic medals were handed out for events such as mini golfdarts, foosball, High-Low Jack, and ping pong, as well as various other awards, such as the FEZ’S, those famous Necon caps given out to folks at the con who were deemed “FEZ-worthy.”

The Town Meeting is also the time to look back and say what folks liked and disliked. As usual, there were plenty of likes and pretty much no dislikes.

The hardest part of Necon is saying goodbye to everyone. I tried to say farewell to as many people as I could find, but ultimately, with people leaving various times, it’s impossible to catch everyone.

The good news is that next year is another Necon, another opportunity to spend time with like-minded folks who are more than just good friends. They really are members of an extended family.

Until next year—.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE SKULL (1965)

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Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in THE SKULL (1965).

 

Amicus Productions, the other horror film company from Great Britain that competed with Hammer Films in the 1960s-70s, is famous for their anthology horror movies, but one of their all time best horror films is not an anthology flick but one that tells a single story.

It’s THE SKULL (1965), starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and it’s one of the better horror films to come out of the 1960s, if not for anything else, for its original story.

Of course, it helps to have superior source material.  THE SKULL is based on the story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” by Robert Bloch.

THE SKULL (1965) tells the story of Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing), a collector of all things macabre, who is offered the skull of the Marquis de Sade by the shady buyer and seller Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark). Not sure if he wants to add it to his collection or not, Maitland visits his friend Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) to seek advice on the item’s authenticity and is shocked when Sir Matthew tells him it is the real deal because Marco stole it from him. When Maitland offers to help Sir Matthew get it back, Sir Matthew tells him he wants no part of it and warns Maitland against purchasing it, citing the skull’s dangerous supernatural powers. Maitland scoffs at his friend’s warning and even calls him a coward, saying he’d welcome the full force of the skull’s powers if they existed so he could write about them.

Maitland goes ahead and adds the skull to his collection.

You should have listened to your friend’s advice.

Because it turns out that the skull is indeed evil, and it leads to the death and destruction of everyone who comes in contact with it.

THE SKULL has a lot of things going for it, and it’s one of those movies that has aged well and holds up better today than when it first came out.

For starters, it’s one of the first Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee horror movies not to be a period piece. It’s set in modern times, and as such, as much as I enjoy all the period piece Hammer Films, THE SKULL plays like a breath of fresh air.

THE SKULL also gives Cushing and Lee a chance to appear in the same scenes together and actually hold some intriguing conversations. Prior to THE SKULL, most of their movie scenes together involved them dueling to the death, with Cushing’s hero usually gaining the upper hand over Lee’s monster. Here, they share some noteworthy scenes together. My favorite is their conversation over a game of pool where they argue over the power of the skull. With a little imagination it’s easy to perceive this scene as a dialogue between Baron Frankenstein and Scaramanga. It kinda has that feel.

There’s also a neat dream sequence— or is it?— where Cushing’s Maitland is whisked away by some weird gangster thugs and taken to a secret court where he’s forced to play russian roulette with a loaded pistol. It’s a bizarre sequence, but it really works.

The special effects here for a 1965 movie aren’t half bad.  The skull looks pretty cool, and the scenes shot from inside the skull, an idea conceived by director Freddie Francis, also work.

But what works against the movie, and in the past, used to prevent me from truly loving it, is it has pacing issues, especially towards the end, where there are long scenes of Peter Cushing sitting and staring at the skull, which are hardly all that thrilling.  There are a couple of reasons for this.

One, according to director Freddie Francis, the script by producer Milton Subotsky was largely unfinished and resembled more of an outline than a full-fledged screenplay. According to Francis, he had to add quite a bit to the film’s story to make it reach feature-length.

Also, while Freddie Francis directed a lot of movies, he’s more known for his cinematography, for films in the 1950s, and later, on such classics as THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) and GLORY (1989). He’s not one of my favorite horror movie directors, although I did enjoy his work on DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) which I think is his best horror movie.

But as I said, THE SKULL has aged well, and I regard it much more highly than I did say thirty years ago.

The pacing remains slow, but that seems to matter less now, because its scenes of horror have only gotten better. It opens with an extremely atmospheric graveyard scene which takes place in the 1800s, and so even though this one isn’t a period piece, it begins that way, which makes its switch to modern-day later all the more effective.

There’s something very intelligent and artistic about the entire production, and that’s the part that seems to have gotten better with age. The other notable thing about THE SKULL is it’s not a movie where the good guys win. The forces of darkness are the victors here. In fact, the entire movie seems to be seeped in an aura of evil. It really resonates.

And the film has a very strong cast.  Of course, you have Cushing and Lee, but they’re supported by folks like Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Peter Woodthorpe, and Michael Gough.

Peter Cushing always delivers a top-notch performance, although his best work is when he plays the hero or the villain. Here, as Christopher Maitland, he’s a flawed character who isn’t strong enough to fend off the powers of the skull, but as such, it’s rather refreshing to see him play this kind of role.

Christopher Lee’s Sir Matthew Phillips is largely a supporting role, but it is an excellent performance nonetheless. As many of Lee’s early performances so often were, it went largely unnoticed by critics, but he is quite good here as the man who, unlike Maitland, realizes just how dangerous the skull is and tries to tell his friend to walk away from the supernatural object.  Lee does a terrific job creating a character who shows both strength and fear.

Producer and writer Milton Subotsky had a vision for this film to be a feature-length horror movie with very little dialogue. He once said in an interview, “It’s a fantastic film and I think, will someday be considered a horror classic.”

It may have taken over 50 years, but I think Subotsky was right.

We’ve reached the point where we can safely call THE SKULL a classic horror movie from the 1960s.

–END—

 

 

IN THE SHADOWS: J. CARROL NAISH

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J. Carrol Naish as Daniel the hunchback in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

 
Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS,  the column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Today in the shadows it’s J. Carrol Naish, one of the most respected character actors of his day, and while he’s certainly known for his horror roles, one of my favorite Naish roles is not from a horror flick at all, but from a superhero tale.

No, they weren’t making Marvel movies back in the 1930s and 40s, but they were making DC serials, and Naish starred in one of the best, BATMAN (1943), starring Lewis Wilson as Batman. This 15 episode serial marked the first time Batman would appear on the big screen, and it remains one of the better interpretations of the Caped Crusader, even all these years later. Another reason this one is so memorable? J. Carrol Naish plays the evil villain, Dr. Daka.

Since Naish was known for his multitudinous accents, he was a natural choice to play the Japanese Dr. Daka.  Remember, this was 1943, smack dab in the middle of World War II, and just two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and so it made sense to feature a villain of Japanese descent. Still, this one unfortunately contains some racial slurs which were redubbed in the VHS release, then restored in the later DVD release. Interestingly enough, Naish was originally signed to play the Joker, but the villain was changed to fit into a more contemporary and pressing storyline. Some remnants of the Joker still remain, like his hideout being inside a carnival.

I love Naish’s performance in BATMAN. Every time he gets the upper hand on one of his victims, and they lament, he tends to say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” Not quite a catch phrase, but there’s just something about his delivery that cracks me up every time.

But horror fans remember Naish for his horror roles, especially that of Daniel, the sympathetic hunchback in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

Here’s a partial look at Naish’s whopping 224 screen credits, focusing mostly on his genre films:

THE OPEN SWITCH (1925) – Naish’s first screen appearance is in this silent crime drama.

GOOD INTENTIONS (1930) – Charlie Hattrick – Naish’s first screen credit. Another crime drama.

DR. RENAULT’S SECRET (1942) – Noel – horror movie also starring George Zucco as the mysterious Dr. Renault. Naish plays Noel, Renault’s strange assistant, whose real identity, is Dr. Renault’s secret.

BATMAN (1943) – Dr. Daka – 15 episode serial remains one of the better screen interpretations of the Batman. Also the first. Naish plays the villain, the evil Dr. Daka, which happens to be my favorite Naish role.

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J. Carrol Naish as the evil Dr. Daka in the 15 episode serial BATMAN (1943). 

SAHARA (1943) – Giuseppe – Classic Humphrey Bogart World War II adventure tells the story of a group of survivors in an army tank facing the Nazis in the desert. Naish was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

CALLING DR. DEATH (1943) – Inspector Gregg- Horror movie with Lon Chaney Jr. where Chaney plays a doctor who believes he has murdered his wife.

THE MONSTER MAKER (1944) – Markoff – Naish plays a mad scientist who injects his victims with a serum that causes them to become seriously deformed. Why? Because he can! Also stars Glenn Strange as the giant, who would go on later that year to play the Frankenstein Monster in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), which would also star Naish.

JUNGLE WOMAN (1944) – Dr. Carl Fletcher – horror movie featuring Paula the ape woman. (Not to be confused with Mildred the Monkey Woman. Or Clara the Cat Woman. Or Madge the Avon Lady. Seriously, though, Paula the ape woman???) Also stars Evelyn Ankers.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) – Daniel – my second favorite J. Carrol Naish role after Dr. Daka. Naish plays the hunchback Daniel, assistant to Boris Karloff’s evil Dr. Niemann, who falls for the beautiful gypsy woman Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) but his love is not returned as she has eyes for the doomed Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) in one of the film’s better story arcs. With Boris Karloff as Dr. Niemann, Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man, John Carradine as Dracula, and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster.

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Naish and Karloff searching the ruins of Frankenstein’s castle in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

A MEDAL FOR BENNY (1945) – Charley Martin – Second and final time Naish was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in this war drama based on a story by John Steinbeck.

STRANGE CONFESSION (1945) -Graham – another horror movie with Lon Chaney Jr.

THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1046) – Ovidio Castanio – classic horror movie starring Peter Lorre about a murderous severed hand. Written by Curt Siodmark.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (1966) – Uncle Giuliano- guest spot on the popular 60s spy TV show in the episode “The Super-Colossal Affair.”

GET SMART (1968) – Sam Vittorio – guest spot on the classic Don Adams comedy in the episode “The Secret of Sam Vittorio.”

DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971) – Dr. Frankenstein – Naish’s final film role is in this dreadful horror movie which falls under the “it’s so bad it’s good” category. Plays a wheel chair bound Dr. Frankenstein. Also notable for being Lon Chaney Jr.’s final movie. He actually fares worse here than Naish, as his character doesn’t even have any dialogue. Horrible, grade Z stuff.

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Lon Chaney Jr. and J. Carrol Naish in DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971), the final film roles for both these actors.

 

Naish passed away on January 24, 1973 from emphysema at the age of 77.

J. Carrol Naish – January 21,  1896 – January 24, 1973.

I hope you enjoyed this partial look at the career of J. Carrol Naish, one of the hardest working and most effective character actors of his day.  His horror movies were few and far between, but he was always memorable in them.

Thanks for joining me today on IN THE SHADOWS and I hope you’ll join me again next time when we look at the career of another great character actor.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

HEREDITARY (2018) – Stylish Horror Movie Can’t Keep It All Together

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hereditary poster

I had heard good things about HEREDITARY (2018), the new horror movie by writer/director Ari Aster, with some folks comparing it to last year’s hit GET OUT (2017), and so I was really looking forward to seeing this one.

Alas, after seeing it, I can’t say that I share this opinion. To me, it’s less like GET OUT and more like THE WITCH (2015) another critically acclaimed horror flick that for me simply fell flat and didn’t work.

That being said, there are parts to HEREDITARY that I really liked, but taken as a whole, the film didn’t do it for me.

HEREDITARY opens with an obituary. Which is as good a way as any to open a horror movie. From the obit we learn of the passing of the grandmother of the Graham family, and judging by the eulogy given by her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), she was a complicated and often demanding woman who wasn’t going to be missed in the traditional sense.  After the funeral, Annie returns home with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and 13 year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) to the house which they shared with the now deceased matriarch of the family.

When Annie sees an apparition of her dead mother inside the house, she realizes she is more troubled by her mother’s passing than she has let on, and so she attends a support group for people who have lost loved ones, and it’s there through Annie’s testimony where we learn her family’s history of mental illness and the horrific events which took place because of it.

When more tragedy strikes Annie’s family, she struggles to hold both herself together and the rest of her immediate family, often appearing unhinged and unbalanced, which will leave the audience guessing, is what is happening due to undiagnosed mental illness or the supernatural?

If only the movie offered a satisfactory answer.

Again, there were parts to HEREDITARY I really liked.

The acting is off the charts good.  Toni Collette knocks it out of the park as Annie, the mother who may or may not be dealing with her own mental health issues. The pain Annie feels over the losses in her family are among the most disturbing scenes in the movie.  Collette brings this wounded troubled character to life, and there are a couple of scenes in particular where she is grieving that are almost too disturbing to sit through. In fact, you could make the argument that the best scenes in HEREDITARY aren’t the traditional horror scenes, but the dramatic ones.  There are some truly powerful moments in this film that pack a wallop.

Gabriel Byrne is also excellent as husband Steve, the calm, rational father who offsets the high-strung Annie perfectly. It’s an understated performance, but it is just as effective as Collette’s.

The two teens are also superb. Alex Wolff is phenomenal as Peter, and his relationship with his mom is as pained and problematic as they come.  Any parent of a teenager will relate to this dynamic. While there are obviously good days and bad days to raising teenagers, the scenes in this film capture perfectly the darkest days of the experience in scenes that are again way better than the traditional horror scenes. While Wolff’s performance here isn’t quite as good as his chilling performance as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in PATRIOTS DAY (2016), it’s still very memorable.

And Milly Shapiro does a fine job as Charlie, the daughter who was very close to her grandmother and most impacted by her death.

So, you’re not going to find better acting in a horror movie.

And the film really gets off to a good start. I really enjoyed the first half of this one, perhaps even the first two-thirds. It’s not until I realized that so many of the themes put forth here just were not coming together that things began to take a downward turn.

Writer/director Ari Aster presents us with an impressive canvas of themes to work with, especially for a horror movie. The opening shot after the obituary shows an intricate doll house, which is what Annie does for a living, design miniatures models, and the camera closes in on a miniature bedroom where we see a figure in bed which amazingly morphs into live action as we are introduced to Peter as he wakes up for his grandmother’s funeral. As opening shots go, it’s a keeper.

And it plays into a central theme of the movie, which is the debate of free will vs. fate. Do we have choices in life, or is everything that happens to us already predestined? This theme runs through the first half of the movie.

Then there’s the mental health angle. Does Annie suffer from mental health issues? Based on her behavior and on the information we learn about her family’s history, as well as the movie’s title HEREDITARY, the answer seems to be yes. In addition, the question must also be asked, what about the children?  Do they suffer from mental health issues? Again, the answer could be yes.

On the other hand, the answer could just as easily be no because there are plenty of supernatural elements occurring in the story. For two-thirds of this movie, it does a good job keeping its audience off-balance with these questions.

One of the best scenes in the movie, if not the best scene, features a dinner table conversation between Annie and Peter, where dad Steve largely remains silent, and it takes place at a point where Annie seems the most unhinged. And yet when she loses it in the conversation and lashes out at her son, and at her entire family, saying that she’s sick and tired of no one in the family owning up to their actions and always letting the guilt fall on her, she actually makes a lot of sense, which throws the audience a curve, because here’s this character who seems unbalanced but yet her argument comes off as true and valid. And then Peter backs it up by once more not owning up to what he did and instead implying that what happened was his mother’s fault.

The real horror in this movie is the family dynamic.  We see a family that comes off as very real, with little or no sense of wanting to harm each other, but through their actions can’t seem to do anything to bring themselves together.  It’s a dynamic which is much more powerful than the supernatural parts of the movie.

Which is why the movie’s ending is so disappointing.

Ari Aster throws all these themes at us, and creates a compelling family back story, but then does little with it.  The answers given here are simply not satisfying, and when the film makes the choice near the end to go full throttle towards the supernatural, it falls several notches. It simply takes away from what was shaping up to be a high brow horror tale.

The pacing is also dreadfully slow, and at two hours and seven minutes, that’s a long time to sit through a slow-paced movie. I didn’t mind as much during the first half, because the pace helped set the mood, but as the film went on, it seemed to grow slower and slower.

HEREDITARY also borrowed a page from the IT FOLLOWS (2014) playbook, featuring naked adults in creepy poses. It’s a thing that worked better in IT FOLLOWS than it does here.

There are parts to HEREDITARY that I definitely liked, as the first half of this movie held so much promise and offered so many possibilities, but it simply failed to deliver on these possibilities during its second half

As a result, HEREDITARY is a mixed bag. Its stylish and nontraditional horror style works for a while, but when it finally decides to shed some light on its questions and provide some answers, well, at that point, it simply becomes a little more traditional and a little less innovative.

I left the theater thinking, that’s it? That’s what the whole story was all about?

I think a better answer to the questions posed in this movie is that we are all predestined to act in a certain way based on our heredity and our family genes, and as such we are doomed to repeat our ancestors’ flaws, but that’s not the answer this film gives. Instead, it goes for another definition of hereditary: the right to a title based on inheritance, and in this case, that take is much less effective.

So much so that in several of the key scenes near the end, folks in the theater were laughing. Not a good sign for a horror movie.

You can do a lot worse than HEREDITARY. It’s ambitious and creative, well-acted and at times powerfully emotional, but you can also do a lot better. It throws a lot of themes at you but then fails to keep things tight. It meanders along and allows itself to lose momentum as it slowly creeps towards its disappointing traditional conclusion.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE CURSE OF THE FLY (1965)

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the curse of the fly poster

THE CURSE OF THE FLY (1965), the third movie in the original “FLY” series, is the odd duck of the FLY family.

First of all, the monster known as “the Fly,” that human-fly hybrid with the hideous fly head atop a man’s body does not appear in this film. Second, neither does Vincent Price who starred in the first two films. And third, whereas the first two movies were American productions, this one hails from the UK.

As a kid, I never liked this movie for the simple reason that the “Fly” did not appear in it. But don’t let that major omission fool you, because at the end of the day, THE CURSE OF THE FLY is a well-written horror story that has a lot of things going for it, which is a rarity, because usually by the time you get to the third film in a series, there’s a lot of repetition.  Not so here. THE CURSE OF THE FLY pretty much stands on its own.

The original THE FLY (1958) was about a scientist Andre Delambre (David Hedison) whose experiments with a teleportation machine went awry when unbeknownst to him a fly got trapped inside the device with him, and during the transport. their genes were spliced together, and what emerged from the machine was a monster with a fly’s head on a man’s body.

The sequel RETURN OF THE FLY (1959) followed Andre’s adult son Philippe (Brett Halsey) as he continued his father’s experiments, and he too had fly trouble and was also transformed into a fly monster. Vincent Price appeared in both films as Francois Delambre, Andre’s brother and Philippe’s uncle. Strangely, in spite of Price’s star power, his roles in these two FLY movies were simply supporting ones.

In THE CURSE OF THE FLY, we meet yet another son of Andre’s, Henri Delambre (Brian Donlevy) who with his two adult sons continues to work on saving the Delabmre legacy by continuing to tinker with the teleportation machines. At least these folks are careful and make sure there aren’t any flies in the machines with them. So, while there is no fly monster in this movie, there are mutants. See, in spite of all this tinkering, the Delambres still have not perfected the technology, and the mutants are all the victims of their experiments. The Delambres keep them locked in secret rooms on their property.

THE CURSE OF THE FLY is mostly about Henri’s son Martin (George Baker) who in spite of his father’s dedication to the cause wants out of the family business.  Good thinking there, Martin!  Instead of helping his dad, Martin decides to get married, and he surprises his father when he returns home with his new bride, the lovely Patricia Stanley (Carole Gray.)  Henri believes this is a bad idea, having a stranger on the property when they’re conducting their experiments, but once he meets Patricia, he changes his mind and welcomes her into their home.

But unbeknownst to both of them, Patricia has escaped from a mental institution, and this is why THE CURSE OF THE FLY is such an interesting movie. It has a really neat story. In fact, the film opens with Patricia running aimlessly along a dark road where she is almost hit by a car driven by Martin. Yep, this is how the two of these characters meet, and shortly thereafter, they fall in love and get married. For Martin, it’s all part of his getting away from his dad, and for Patricia, it’s about her getting away from the institution.

And later, when she begins to see strange things at the house, like the mutants, she begins to wonder if she’s going crazy again. So really, even more so than the Delambres, THE CURSE OF THE FLY is about Patricia and pretty much follows her story arc.

THE CURSE OF THE FLY was directed by Don Sharp, who directed a few Hammer Films, including their highly regarded THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963), Hammer’s follow-up to THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960). Sharp also directed the first two Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies, THE FACE OF FU MANCHU (1965) and THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966).

Sharp gives THE CURSE OF THE FLY a definite British feel. It’s creepy throughout, and its black and white photography only adds to the mood.

And that’s easy to do here because THE CURSE OF THE FLY has a strong screenplay by Harry Spalding. The story is believable and the dialogue matter-of-fact and realistic, and I love the dueling story arcs.  You have Patricia’s story on the one hand crossing paths with the whole Delambre plot.  It’s really a neat story.

Carole Gray is convincing as Patricia, the young woman with mental issues who finds herself living in a house with people conducting strange experiments.  Gray also starred in the thrilling science fiction movie ISLAND OF TERROR (1966), which was directed by Terence Fisher and starred Peter Cushing.

George Baker is just as good as Martin Delambre.

Brian Donlevy, who enjoyed a long career spanning four decades, and who starred in two early Hammer movies, THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (1955) and ENEMY FROM SPACE (1957) gets top billing here.

While there are no “monsters” in this one, there’s lots of creepiness, making THE CURSE OF THE FLY a worthy entry in the FLY series.

Summer time is almost here. So the next time you grab the mustard and curse the fly you’re swatting off your hot dog, think of poor Patricia, living in a house with mad scientists and mutants, in the nightmare world of THE CURSE OF THE FLY.

—END—

 

 

 

 

BAD SAMARITAN (2018) – Routine Thriller Not That Thrilling

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David Tennant in BAD SAMARITAN (2018).

BAD SAMARITAN (2018) is one of those movies where the idea behind its plot is better than the actual movie.

Supposedly influenced by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the movie barely resembles the work of the master director.

In BAD SAMARITAN, two buddies, Sean Falco (Robert Sheehan) and Derek Sandoval (Carlito Olivero) struggling to make it in the world— Sean’s a photographer who wants to create art— have taken to robbing people’s homes. They park cars for an upscale Italian restaurant, and when they spot someone they feel has stuff worth stealing at their home, one of them drives the car back to the customer’s house and robs it while the other keeps an eye on the victim dining inside the restaurant.

When a rather rude and obviously very rich man Cale Erendreich (David Tennant) shows up at the restaurant, Sean and Derek agree he’s the perfect candidate for them to rob. Sean breaks into the man’s home and all is going well until he discovers a woman, Katie (Kerry Condon) chained in his bedroom like an animal. Sean tries to rescue her, but when Cale abruptly leaves the restaurant, Sean has to race back to get the man’s car back in time, but he promises to return to rescue the woman.

Knowing that he had broken into the man’s house, and fearing arrest, Sean makes an anonymous call to the police, but when they arrive at Cale’s house, Cale is there with another woman, and everything seems so normal the police do not even go inside. Sean vows to do whatever it takes to rescue the woman, but that’s easier said than done, because it doesn’t take Cale long to figure out what Sean is up to, and he in turn decides to stop Sean by making his life a living hell.

As I said, the idea behind the plot is a good one. I liked the notion of a thief breaking into the home of a serial killer and discovering the chained body of his next victim. But that’s about all I liked, really, because unfortunately, there’s nothing in this film to lift it above the level of a straightforward and very predictable by-the-numbers thriller.

Obviously, the biggest draw here is that David Tennant plays the villain, Cale. Now, Tennant is a very talented actor, but this isn’t the kind of movie you buy a ticket to hoping to see a tremendous performance by your favorite actor. Besides, you’ve already seen Tennant play this type of role if you watched Season 1 of the Netflix Marvel TV show JESSICA JONES (2015-18), where Tennant played the villain Kilgrave. His performance here is nearly identical, and about the only difference is Cale doesn’t have Kilgrave’s mind-controlling abilities.

The script by Brandon Boyce doesn’t help matters. Cale is a straightforward villain with very little depth. We know hardly anything about him, and while Tennant tries to make the character a three-dimensional one, the truth is he just doesn’t have enough material to work with. At the end of the day, in terms of villainous characters, Cale is rather boring.

One part of the screenplay I did like was the angle that both Sean and Derek not only feared getting arrested, but they also were afraid of getting deported, since neither one of them were born in the U.S. This was a timely plot point. Unfortunately, it’s mentioned all too briefly and not really developed.

I also liked the performances by Robert Sheehan as Sean and Carlito Olivero as his buddy Derek. Both actors are very good, and Sheehan makes Sean sympathetic in spite of the poor decisions he makes in his life, like robbing people’s homes. Derek tries to convince Sean just to forget about the woman, but Sean refuses, making it almost his mission to find her and rescue her. Sheehan is in most of the movie and is easily watchable.

Olivero is in the film much less than Sheehan, but he also makes an impression, and his character Derek, although he initially tries to dissuade Sean from finding the woman, does not shy away from helping his friend in the quest to locate the victim.

But the rest of the characters are all way underdeveloped and don’t leave much of a mark, including Jacqueline Byers as Sean’s girlfriend Riley. They’re in the first scene of the movie together, and they generate such wonderful chemistry I thought much of the movie would involve them, but Riley simply fades into the background, as do all the other characters, like Sean’s mother and step-father, the police, and the FBI agents.

The movie spends a lot of time on the relationship between Cale and his victim, Katie, played by Kerry Condon, but these scenes shed very little insight into either character.  We learn little about Katie, other than she’s a victim, and the strangest thing about this movie is how little sympathy it builds for Katie.

BAD SAMARITAN also does a poor job wrapping things up for its characters. It introduces a lot of characters but doesn’t show what happens to most of them.

Director Dean Devlin’s thriller is devoid of any originality and plays like most other thrillers you’ve already seen. There are a couple of very good performances here, but none of them are strong enough to carry the movie or make it better than what it is.

There are also plenty of missed opportunities. Sean is a photographer, for instance, but his photography skills hardly play a factor in the plot. I also expected more from the relationship between Kale and Katie. Strangely, she never seems all that scared. She should have been terrified.

And for a thriller, it’s not very thrilling. I don’t think I jumped once, nor was I on the edge of my seat. The suspense was minimal.

I would imagine this one’s not doing all that well at the box office. There were just three of us in the theater.

BAD SAMARITAN is not a bad movie. It’s just not a very good one.

—END—