LEADING LADIES: ZITA JOHANN

0
mummy 1932 karloff - johann

Boris Karloff and Zita Johann in THE MUMMY (1932).

 

Zita Johann only had eight screen credits, but one of them is well-known to horror fans.

When she starred opposite Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY (1932) she delivered one of the great performances in a Universal monster movie. Her portrayal of Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnated Princess Anckesen-Amon, was mystical, mysterious, tragic, and very sexy.

And in terms of classic horror, that’s all she wrote. It was one and done for Johann, which is too bad, because she was really good in THE MUMMY.

Here’s a partial look at Johann’s film career:

THE STRUGGLE (1931) – Florrie – Johann’s film debut is in this drama about alcoholism, the final feature directed by D.W. Griffith.

TIGER SHARK (1932) – Quita Silva- Romance directed by Howard Hawks, also starring Edward G. Robinson and featuring J. Carroll Naish.

THE MUMMY (1932)- Helen Grosvenor – one of Universal’s best monster movies. Slow-paced but eerie to its core, this Karl Freund directed thriller features a remarkable performance by Boris Karloff as the living mummy Im Ho Tep, who, once resurrected, seeks out the mummified body of his former love, the Princess Anckesen-Amon.

THE MUMMY is really a tragic love story. Im Ho Tep’s life is shattered when his forbidden love, the Princess Anckesen-Amon, dies at a young age. When he tries to resurrect her using the Scroll of Thoth, he’s found out and sentenced to death. He meets a horrifying end as he’s buried alive.

Centuries later, in 1921, his mummified body is discovered and accidentally resurrected. He resurfaces in 1932 and helps archeologists unearth the tomb of the mummified Princess Anckesen-Amon, in the hopes of once more bringing her back to life.

While attempting to do so, he discovers Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who’s the splitting image of Anckesen-Amon. Convinced that Helen is Anckesen-Amon reincarnated, Im Ho Tep seeks to kill her and bring her back to life so they can live together for all eternity.

THE MUMMY also features the phenomenal make-up work of Jack Pierce, and fine supporting performances by Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, but it’s Boris Karloff and Zita Johann who drive THE MUMMY.

Johann’s wide eyes and dark features give her a sensual, mysterious presence. She makes for a strong, independent female character, and she’s convincing as the reincarnated princess.

In THE MUMMY, Johann delivers one of my favorite performances by an actress in the Universal monster movies.

RAIDERS OF THE LIVING DEAD (1986) – Librarian – Zita Johann’s final screen credit in this 1980s zombie flick.

Zita Johann was born on July 14, 1904 in Austria-Hungary. Before acting in the movies, she performed on Broadway starting in 1924.

In THE MUMMY, she and director Karl Freund did not get along. According to Johann, Freund went out of his way to make her life miserable on set. That being said, Johann did develop the reputation for being a difficult actress to work with. Evidently, she turned down lots of scripts, which may explain why she made so few movies.

I wish Johann had made more movies. Her performance as Helen Grosvenor has always been a treat for me and one of the best parts of THE MUMMY. Watching Johan portray Grosvenor, you’ll easily see why Karloff’s Im Ho Tep was in love with her.

Johann passed away on September 20, 1993 in Nyack, New York at the age of 89 from pneumonia.

Zita Johann – July 14, 1904 – September 20, 1993.

I hope you enjoyed this LEADING LADIES column and will join me again next time when we look at another leading lady from horror cinema.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Advertisements

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)

0

werewolf_of_london

Forever overshadowed by Universal’s next werewolf movie, THE WOLF MAN (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the ill-fated Larry Talbot, WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) starring Henry Hull in the lead role nonetheless remains Universal’s first werewolf movie.

And there’s a reason it exists in the shadow of THE WOLF MAN. It’s simply not as good, but that being said, there are still things to like about WEREWOLF OF LONDON.

Dr. Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked and bitten by a werewolf while on an expedition in Tibet. He returns home to his wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson), where all is not well. He’s so busy in his laboratory he barely can find the time to spend with his socialite wife, and to further complicate matters, her childhood friend and first love Paul Ames (Lester Matthews) shows up, suddenly competing for Lisa’s affection.

Meanwhile, the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland) arrives with the news that he was the werewolf who had attacked Glendon in Tibet. He further informs Glendon that once bitten by a werewolf, that person also becomes a werewolf. Even worse, werewolves often seek out those they love to kill. Jeesh, talk about being a killjoy! 

Yogami explains that the only known antidote to werewolfism is the rare Tibetan flower which Glendon brought back from Tibet and is now growing in his laboratory. It doesn’t bloom all that often, and so its flowers are a rare commodity. Yogami wants those flowers. Of course, once Glendon transforms into a werewolf, he wants the flowers too, and so the battle is on.

So, technically, in this movie, there are actually two werewolves of London.

The story told in WEREWOLF OF LONDON isn’t half bad. The screenplay by John Colton does a nice job establishing the werewolf legend and creating two adversarial characters in Glendon and Yogami. Even better, however, the screenplay knocks it out of the park when showing the marital stress between Glendon and Lisa. Henry Hull and Valerie Hobson are also both up to the task of playing a husband and wife whose marriage is falling apart. Their scenes together are so good they’re often painful to sit through.

Valerie Hobson also starred that same year as Elizabeth in James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN sequel THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). I thought she over-acted somewhat in BRIDE, and her performance in WEREWOLF OF LONDON is much more realistic.

Writer John Colton also penned the screenplay to the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi classic THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936).

Speaking of Karloff and Lugosi, evidently, early in the creative process, the two horror superstars were originally approached to star in WEREWOLF OF LONDON, with Karloff playing Dr. Glendon and Lugosi playing Dr. Yogami. Had this casting happened, it’s very likely Universal would have had another classic on its hands. Can you imagine a werewolf movie where both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi played werewolves? I’m sure the film would have been a hit.

The fact that it wasn’t a hit really isn’t the fault of either Henry Hull or Warner Oland. Hull is quite good as Dr. Glendon, and Oland of Charlie Chan fame is excellent as Dr. Yogami. His scenes are my favorite in the entire movie. Sadly, Oland died a couple of years later, in 1938 at the age of 58 from bronchial pneumonia.

One of the reasons most cited for the failure of WEREWOLF OF LONDON is the tepid werewolf make-up by Jack Pierce, the famous make-up artist not known for weak make-up jobs. After all, Pierce created the make-up for Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster and later for Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man.

Rumors persisted over the years that Henry Hull refused to wear heavy make-up for the role, but evidently this is not true. Supposedly, it was the producers of the film who urged Pierce to go lightly with the werewolf effects out of fear that the film censors would object. I find this story puzzling, since Universal had already pushed the envelope with DRACULA (1931), FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and THE MUMMY (1932).

Either way, the werewolf make-up used here in WEREWOLF OF LONDON pales in comparison to Pierce’s work on THE WOLF MAN (1941) six years later. That being said, it’s not awful, and Hull’s werewolf is rather creepy looking, and director Stuart Walker manages to create some eerie scenes in this one. The werewolf’s howl in this film is also quite frightening.

What’s not scary is just before Hull’s werewolf decides to prowl about London, he stops long enough to put on his hat and coat! And here’s  the true difference between WEREWOLF OF LONDON and THE WOLF MAN. It’s all about Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance. He plays the Wolf Man as a wild animal, a creature that will rip a person’s throat out with its teeth. Hull’s werewolf attacks his victim’s like a man. And of course Chaney gave the Wolf Man the perfect alter ego with the very emotional and tragic Larry Talbot. Hull’s Dr. Glendon does not emote much emotion or sympathy at all.

WEREWOLF OF LONDON manages some fine moments of humor, like the scenes with the two old ladies Glendon rents a room from, who are constantly fighting with each other.

WEREWOLF OF LONDON is not my favorite Universal werewolf movie. I’d argue that all of the Lon Chaney Jr. werewolf movies are better than this one.

However, it’s not a bad movie, and as a standalone werewolf picture, it has its moments. For me, the best part is Warner Oland’s performance as Dr. Yogami. Interesting about Warner Oland. He was famous for playing Charlie Chan and a host of other Asian parts, like Dr. Yogami here in WEREWOLF OF LONDON, and yet supposedly he had no known Asian ancestry. I guess he was just a pretty good actor!

He certainly is here in WEREWOLF OF LONDON, as he outshines lead actor Henry Hull. Of course, had Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi starred in this film as originally intended, that would have been something.

Seen any werewolves of London lately?

You have? Where?

“I saw a werewolf drinkin’ a piña colada at Trader Vic’s. His hair was perfect.”

—-“Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon.

 

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

THE HORROR JAR: THE UNIVERSAL MUMMY SERIES

1
imhotep

Boris Karloff as Im Ho Tep/The Mummy in THE MUMMY (1932).

 

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at odds and ends pertaining to horror movies.

Up today it’s the Universal MUMMY series. Never as popular as Universal’s other monsters- Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man— the Mummy nonetheless appeared in five Universal horror movies and one comedy starring Abbott and Costello. As such, the Universal Mummy movies are significant. In fact, one of the Mummy movies, the first one, THE MUMMY (1932) ranks as one of the best Universal monster films ever made.

So, let’s get to it. Here’s a look at the Universal MUMMY movies:

 

1. THE MUMMY (1932)

mummy 1932 karloff - johann

Im Ho Tep (Boris Karloff) reveals his secret to Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) in THE MUMMY (1932).

 

73 minutes; Directed by Karl Freund; Screenplay by John L. Balderston, based on a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam, and a story by Richard Schayer; Imhotep/Mummy: Boris Karloff

As I said, THE MUMMY, Universal’s first Mummy movie, is one of the finest Universal monster movies ever made. There are a couple of reasons for this. The number one reason, really, is director Karl Freund.

Freund, a well-respected cinematographer, was in charge of the cinematography in DRACULA (1931). His work here as the director of THE MUMMY, with its innovative camerawork and masterful use of light and shadows, is superior to the directorial efforts of both Tod Browning on DRACULA (1931) and James Whale on FRANKENSTEIN (1931). The only stumbling block by Freund is the ending, as the film’s conclusion is choppy and inferior to the rest of the movie.

The other reason is Boris Karloff’s performance as Im Ho Tep, the Mummy. Unlike subsequent Mummy movies, in which the monster remained in bandages, here, Im Ho Tep sheds his bandages and becomes a threat quite unlike later Mummy interpretations. Karloff of course is famous for his portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster, and rightly so, but his performance here as Im Ho Tep is one of his best.

The story in THE MUMMY is quite similar to the story told in DRACULA, which is no surprise since it was written by John L.Balderston, who had written one of the DRACULA plays on which the 1931 movie was based. In fact, it’s THE MUMMY with its story of reincarnated love which later versions of DRACULA borrowed heavily from, films like Dan Curtis’ DRACULA (1974) starring Jack Palance, and Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992), both of which featured love stories between Dracula and Mina, a love story that did not appear in Stoker’s novel or the 1931 Bela Lugosi film. But it does appear here in THE MUMMY (1932).

And unlike DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY was not based on a literary work but was instead inspired by the events surrounding the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1925.

THE MUMMY also features superior make-up by Jack Pierce, the man also responsible for the make-up on Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster and on Lon Chaney Jr.s’ Wolf Man. The Im Ho Tep make-up is creepy and chilling.

THE MUMMY contains frightening scenes, like when the Mummy is first resurrected by the young man reading from the Scroll of Thoth. The soundtrack is silent as the Mummy’s hand slowly enters the frame and grabs the scroll from the desk.

THE MUMMY also has a nice cast. In addition to Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan is on hand as the Van Helsing-like Doctor Muller, David Manners plays dashing Frank Whemple, and the very sexy Zita Johann plays Helen Grosvenor, Im Ho Tep’s reincarnated love.

One of Universal’s best horror movies, THE MUMMY is not to be missed.

 

2. THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940)

mummy's hand

Kharis (Tom Tyler) attacks hero Steve Banning (Dick Foran) in THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940).

 

67 minutes; Directed by Christy Cabanne; Screenplay by Griffin Jay; Kharis/The Mummy: Tom Tyler

Universal’s second MUMMY movie was not a direct sequel to THE MUMMY (1932). Instead, it told a brand new story with a brand new Mummy. It also took on a completely different tone. Rather than being eerie and frightening, THE MUMMY’S HAND is light and comical, with the emphasis on adventure rather than horror. The Brendan Frasier MUMMY movies from the late 1990s-early 2000s borrowed heavily from the style of THE MUMMY’S HAND.

THE MUMMY’S HAND follows two adventurous American archeologists in Egypt, Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford) as they seek the tomb of the Princess Ananka. They are joined by a magician Solvani (Cecil Kelloway) and his daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) who agree to fund the expedition. They run afoul of the evil high priest Andoheb (George Zucco) who unleashes the deadly Mummy Kharis (Tom Tyler) on them in order to prevent them from stealing from the tomb of the princess.

Kharis the Mummy is the first of what would become the classic interpretation of the Mummy in the movies: the slow-moving mute monster wrapped in bandages, a far cry from Karloff’s superior interpretation in THE MUMMY, but it’s the one that caught on. People simply love monsters, and Kharis is more a movie monster than Im Ho Tep. Kharis is also mute since in this story when he was buried alive, his tongue was cut. Ouch!

Jack Pierce again did the Mummy make-up, and it’s not bad,  I prefer the Im Ho Tep make-up much better.

Tom Tyler is average at best as the Mummy. Any stunt man could have done the same. He doesn’t really bring much to the performance, and for me, Kharis the Mummy is a weak link in this film.

The highlight of THE MUMMY’S HAND is the comical banter between Dick Foran and Wallace Ford. They’re amusing and highly entertaining.

Other than THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY’S HAND is the only other of the Universal Mummy series that received critical praise. I like THE MUMMY’S HAND well enough, but I actually prefer the next film in the series better, and that’s because Lon Chaney Jr. joined the series as Kharis, and would play the Mummy in the next three films.

 

3. THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942)

Mummys-Tomb-kharis

Lon Chaney Jr. takes over the role of Kharis, the Mummy, in THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942).

 

61 minutes; Directed by Harold Young; Screenplay by Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney, Jr.

THE MUMMY’S TOMB is a direct sequel to THE MUMMY’S HAND. In fact, the first ten minutes of the film recap the events from THE MUMMY’S HAND. The story takes place thirty years later, and Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) is retired in Massachusetts, enjoying time spent with his adult son John (John Hubbard) and his son’s fiance Isobel (Elyse Knox).

All is well until the nefarious Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) arrives in town with Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) to finish the job of punishing those who raided Princess Ananka’s tomb.

The story here is pretty standard, as are the production values. The Mummy series at this point had definitely entered the world of the 1940s movie serials. Everything about this movie and the next two are quick and cheap. Yet—.

Yet— I really like THE MUMMY’S TOMB, and other than THE MUMMY (1932), it’s my favorite of the Universal Mummy movies. The number one reason is Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Kharis. Say what you want about Chaney, as the years go by, his reputation as an actor continues to grow. Back in the day, he received well-deserved praise for his portrayal of Larry Talbot aka The Wolf Man, but that was about it. His other portrayals in horror movies were often dismissed. Not so anymore.

He brings some character to Kharis and imbues life into the monster. He’s been criticized for being too heavy to portray an Egyptian mummy, but you know what? His considerable bulk— not fat, mind you, but solid bulk— is quite frightening! And that’s my favorite part about THE MUMMY’S TOMB: Kharis, in spite of the fact that he might lose a foot race to Michael Myers— it would be close!—is damned scary! Sure, you might outrun him, but if he gets you in a corner, it’s over! Jack Pierce’s make-up here on Kharis is also my favorite of the entire series.

Speaking of best of the series, THE MUMMY’S TOMB has, not only the best ending in the entire Universal series, but I’d argue it has the best ending of any Mummy movie period! Sure, its torch-wielding villagers which chase Kharis borrows heavily from FRANKENSTEIN (1931)— in fact, some of the same footage was used— but once the action reaches the house, and the subsequent chase inside the house, that stuff is all tremendously exciting and well-done.

On the other hand, since this story takes place thirty years after the events of THE MUMMY’S HAND, it should be set in 1970, but in the timeless world of Universal classic horror, the action is still occurring in the 1940s. I won’t say anything if you won’t.

 

4. THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944)

mummys-ghost-kharis-mummy-lon-chaney-jr

Kharis (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is back at it again in THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944).

 

61 minutes;  Directed by Reginald Le Borg; Screenplay by Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher, and Brenda Weisberg; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney Jr.

THE MUMMY’S GHOST is my least favorite film in the series, other than the Abbott and Costello film. A direct sequel to THE MUMMY’S TOMB, Yousef Bey (John Carradine) arrives in Massachusetts to reclaim the bodies of Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Princess Ananka. When Kharis turns out to be still alive, and the Princess reincarnated in the body of a college student Amina (Ramsay Ames), Bey feels as if he’s hit the lottery. He decides to make Amina his bride, which doesn’t sit well with Kharis, since after all Amina/Ananka was his girlfriend back in the day!

The reason I’m not crazy about THE MUMMY’S GHOST is that it doesn’t really offer anything new. It’s just kind of there, going through the motions. Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Kharis isn’t as effective here as it was in THE MUMMY’S TOMB, nor is Jack Pierce’s make-up. The use of a Mummy mask on Chaney rather than make-up is much more prominent here.

Even the presence of John Carradine, Robert Lowery who would go on to play Batman a few years later in the serial BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949), and KING KONG’s Frank Reicher doesn’t help. I like the return to the reincarnated lover plot point, but even that doesn’t really lift this one, as that plot element was handled much better and with more conviction in THE MUMMY.

 

5. THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944)

Mummys-Curse

Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) on the prowl in the swamps of Louisiana in THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944).

 

60 minutes; Directed by Leslie Goodwins; Screenplay by Bernard Schubert; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney Jr.

Inexplicably, Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Princess Ananka are now located in Louisiana, having somehow moved there from Massachusetts! The story here in THE MUMMY’S CURSE is pretty much nonexistent. It’s pretty much just an excuse to feature Kharis the Mummy stalking the swamps of Lousiana.

But that’s the reason THE MUMMY’S CURSE is superior to the previous installment, THE MUMMY’S GHOST. Lon Chaney Jr. returns to frightening form, and watching Kharis terrorize the bayous of Louisiana is pretty chilling. THE MUMMY’S CURSE is chock full of atmosphere and eerieness, in spite of not having much of a story. As such, I always seem to enjoy watching this one.

 

6. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955)

abbott-and-costello-meet-the-mummy-lou-costello-bud-abbot-promotional-pictures-klaris-the-mummy

Bud and Lou want their Mummy in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955).

 

79 minutes; Directed by Charles Lamont; Screenplay by John Grant; Klaris/The Mummy: Eddie Parker.

After the success of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), one of the best horror comedies ever made, the comedy duo of But Abbott and Lou Costello met some other monsters as well, in such movies as ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN (1951), ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953), and they would meet their final monster in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955).

While Abbott and Costello are almost always good for a decent laugh here and there, this vehicle ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY is probably my least favorite of their films where they meet a Universal monster. The gags are okay, but not great. The Mummy, named Klaris here rather than Kharis, is pretty pathetic-looking. And for some reason even though Bud Abbott and Lou Costello play characters named Pete and Freddie, in the movie they simply call each other Bud and Lou. This may have been done to be funny, but it comes off as if they weren’t taking this film very seriously.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY has no connection to any of the previous Universal Mummy movies. It’s not a bad movie, but neither is it all that great.

Well, there you have it. A look at the Universal MUMMY movies. I hope you will join me again next time for another HORROR JAR column where we will look at odds and ends from other horror movies.

Until then, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA (2019) – Tepid Horror Movie Not Scary

1

curse of la llorona

As a horror movie fan, I see most of the horror movies which make their way to my local theater, even those which I expect to be pretty bad. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised. Other times, I’m not.

In the case of THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA (2019), I was not.

THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA tells the story of a demon that steals children away from their families. Social worker Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) suspects a woman is abusing her children and has them removed from her custody against the mother’s wishes who tries to tell Anna that she’s locking them inside a closet to protect them. Yeah, right. Of course, in this case, it’s true.

When the children do end up dead, the mother tells Anna they were killed by La Llorona, and then she tells Anna that she prayed to La Llorona so it will take Anna’s children away as payback. Ouch! So, I guess you’re a bit bitter, eh?

Anyway, that’s exactly what happens. La Llorona sets her sights on Anna’s two children, and when Anna seeks the help of a local priest Father Perez (Tony Amendola), he sends her to a specialist in these things, a former priest who battles the supernatural by using unconventional methods. Anna agrees, and she meets with Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), and he agrees to protect her children and do battle with La Llorona.

I like the idea of a demon that preys on children. It’s pretty scary. But THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA does little with this idea to keep it scary.

First off, the actual demon, La Llorona, doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot other than zoom into people’s faces and scream loudly at them.  It shows up for some typical jump scares, and does enjoy a few fine creepy moments, like a scene where it sneaks up behind Anna’s daughter in the bath tub and tries to drown her, but these moments are few and far between.

The film isn’t scary. In fact, the audience laughed more than screamed, and it certainly didn’t seem like nervous laughter.

The story is pretty standard and not fleshed out. Very little about La Llorona is explained. Anna’s husband, a cop, is deceased, but we learn nothing about how he died, nor does his death have anything to do with this story, which seems like a missed opportunity. Anna accepts both Father Perez’s advice and Rafael’s help without batting an eye. We learn nothing about Rafael’s past or background to explain why he’s an expert in this sort of thing.

The whole story is rather superficial with details simply glossed over. It’s a mediocre screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis.

Director Michael Chaves gives us nary a scare.

The story takes place in 1973, seemingly for no other reason than to fit into the timeline of THE CONJURING/ANNABELLE universe, in which this film takes place. Barely. There’s one very brief reference to the doll Annabelle by Father Perez. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really look like it’s taking place in 1973. Sure, there are old style TVs, landline phones, and 1970s era cars, but the clothes and hairstyles look like 2019.

The one thing  THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA has going for it is the acting. Linda Cardellini is very good in the lead role as Anna. I like Cardellini a lot, as she has been excellent in such films as GREEN BOOK (2018) and THE FOUNDER (2016), as well as on the TV shows BLOODLINE (2015-2017) and MAD MEN (2013-2015), to name just some of her credits, and way back in the day of course she was on ER (2003-2009).

Raymond Cruz, who played drug dealer Tuco Salamanca on both BETTER CALL SAUL (2015-2016) and BREAKING BAD (2008-2009)— in fact someone in the audience called out, “Hey, it’s Tuco!”— is strangely cast as supernatural mystic Rafael Olvera. I’m tempted to say he was miscast. For much of the film he seems like he’s on downers, as if he’s going to doze off at any moment. But somehow by the time the film ends, he pulls it off. It’s an unconventional take on this type of character. The result is a performance that is weird at first but ends up as being rather refreshing.

THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA is a rather weak horror movie. Bereft of scares, it tells a story with no meat on its bones and features a demon whose bark is worse than its bite. It likes to scream a lot, but that’s about it.

For a horror movie about a demon that preys on children not to be frightening, that speaks volumes, and is really all you need to know about THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GREEN ROOM (2015)

1

green-room-dvd-cover

When this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, GREEN BOOK (2018) was first released, I remember thinking, gee, that title is awfully close to GREEN ROOMI wouldn’t want to be that person who mistakenly chose to watch GREEN ROOM when they meant to watch GREEN BOOK. They’re two very different movies. The person making that mistake would be in for quite a shock.

GREEN ROOM is a violent, visceral thriller that got under my skin and provided me with 95 minutes of horrifically intense entertainment.

GREEN ROOM is the story of a punk rock band whose members agree to accept a gig at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar. Their performance doesn’t go all that well— no, they’re not attacked because they played bad music, but they do run afoul of murder when they walk into the green room and find two people standing over the body of a dead woman, a knife jammed into her head. Before they can react, they are locked in the room and held hostage by bouncers at the bar.

The bar’s owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart) arrives with a plan to make the crime go away, a plan that includes pinning the murder on the visiting band. This doesn’t sit well with the band, who decide to fight back, which is no easy task since they’re surrounded by people with weapons and vicious dogs who enjoy ripping people’s throats out.

What follows is a brutal and  suspenseful tale of the band’s fight for survival against a horde of murderous neo-Nazis led by the level-headed Mr. Darcy.

I really enjoyed GREEN ROOM. I was hooked within the film’s first few minutes. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier immediately captures the personality and mood of the punk rock band, known as The Ain’t Rights. The opening plays like a rock documentary, and once the band gets to the skinhead bar, things become sketchy first and then downright deadly.

And once that happens, once they discover the body of the murdered girl and get trapped inside the green room, all bets are off. What follows is an intense thrill ride that will give you sweaty palms for the remainder of the film.

GREEN ROOM features the late Anton Yelchin in the lead role as Pat, the band member who takes the lead in their fight for survival. In real life, Yelchin tragically died in a bizarre accident in which his Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled down his steep driveway and pinned him against a wall, killing him, on June 19, 2016. Yelchin was a tremendous talent and had already enjoyed enormous success in his young career, playing Chekov in the rebooted STAR TREK movies starring Chris Pine,  and he played Charley Brewster in the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) and Kyle Reese in TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009).

Yelchin is excellent here as Pat. At first, he’s not the character you expect to become the leader, especially since early on he almost dies, but his resilient spirit grows as the story goes along.

Imogen Poots is also memorable as Amber, the young woman who’s found standing over the dead girl with the knife in her head. I like Poots a lot. Interestingly enough, she also starred in the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT as Amy.

Also in the cast is Joe Cole, who plays John Shelby on the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS (2013-17). I also enjoyed Macon Blair as Gabe, one of the bouncers who actually develops a conscious as the plot unfolds.

But for my money the best performance in GREEN ROOM belong to Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself, Patrick Stewart as club owner Darcy. Stewart, of course, played the Enterprise captain on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (1987-1994) and in the four NEXT GENERATION STAR TREK movies. And, he’s set to reprise the role of Captain Picard in an upcoming Star Trek TV series which is as of yet untitled. Not to mention his portrayal of Professor Charles Xavier in the X-MEN movies, a role he played most recently in LOGAN (2017) with Hugh Jackman.

As Darcy in GREEN ROOM, Stewart is calm and cool, the complete opposite of everyone else in the movie. As such, Stewart makes Darcy a chilling adversary, someone who doesn’t think twice about the deadly decisions he makes. He’s cold, calculating, and ultimately a bad ass.

For me, watching Stewart was the best part of GREEN ROOM.

There are also some truly frightening scenes in this one, from hands being grotesquely mutilated to deathly choke holds, to murder with box cutters, to man-eating dogs. Gulp!

This is one movie you don’t want to watch on a full stomach. Yet, it is much more than just a gore fest. In fact, it’s not very gory at all. Most of the violence occurs in quick fashion in swiftly edited scenes, which only adds to the frenetic pace of the film.

Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier also creates sympathetic characters who you care about and want to see survive, feelings that are heightened by the fact that the chances of their survival are so slim.

GREEN ROOM is a first-rate thriller and horror movie. No, it’s not the one that won Best Picture—that’s GREEN BOOK— but it is the one that will leave you green with revulsion.

—END—

PET SEMATARY (2019) – Remake Standard Horror Vehicle

1

pet sematary 2019

For me, Pet Sematary has always been one of Stephen King’s scariest novels. When I first read it nearly thirty years ago, it really got under my skin. I also enjoyed the 1989 film adaptation of PET SEMATARY.

While I didn’t really see the need for a remake, considering the source material, I felt, well, why the heck not? So I went into the theater to see this one with fairly enthusiastic expectations.

PET SEMATARY (2019) tells a tale that remains chilling today.  Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) relocate their family— eight year-old daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence), three year-old son Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and cat Church— from Boston to rural Maine in order to slow their lives down and spend more time with each other.

Not long after they settle in, Ellie discovers a strange “pet sematary” in the woods in the back of their property, and their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) explains that it’s been there for years, a place where the local children bury their dead pets. Cemetery is spelled “sematary” because in the past the children had misspelled the sign.

In front of their home is a rural road where huge trucks roar by at speeds which seem to rival supersonic jets. These rigs also don’t tend to make any noise until they’re right on top of the property. Not very realistic. I live on a rural road. You can hear the rumble of trucks coming from a distance.

Anyway, when Church is killed on that road, to spare Ellie heartbreak, Jud shows Louis another cemetery, this one located deeper in the woods behind the pet sematary, and advises Louis to bury the cat there, without telling him why.

The next day, the cat returns, alive, but very different, aggressive, and not very agreeable. Jud then explains to Louis the secret of the second cemetery, that things buried in the soil there return. Of course, they don’t return the same.

Later, when Ellie is tragically killed by one of those monstrous rigs racing along the rural highway, Louis decides his daughter has been taken from him too quickly, and against his better judgment, buries her in the pet sematary, knowing that she will return.

Oh, the things that parents will do for their children!

As I said, Pet Sematary has always been for me one of Stephen King’s scariest novels, mostly I think because of the pain of the parents’ grief and the knowledge that what Louis is about to do will end badly for everyone involved.

One of the biggest weaknesses of this new movie version of PET SEMATARY is that somehow, in spite of the frightening source material, it’s simply not that scary. Part of this is the changes made to the story. Then there’s the dialogue which isn’t very sharp, and lastly the film simply fails to capitalize on the true horror aspects of the novel.

Let’s start with the first half of the film, before anything or anyone is buried. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer don’t really take advantage of the natural creepy elements here. When Elle first discovers the cemetery, she initially sees some local children wearing masks taking their pet there, images which should be weird and creepy, but they hardly register as such since we see them so briefly.

When Louis fails to save a dying student at the clinic, a plot point that is critical in the novel, the victim Victor Pascow returns numerous times to warn Louis against his involvement with the sematary. These scenes also barely register here. Neither do the flashback scenes with Rachel and her sister who was suffering from spinal bifida. These scenes were unnerving in the novel. They’re rushed and glossed over here in the movie.

Once Louis learns about the pet sematary, and after seeing how disastrous the return of Church proved to be, it really strained believability that— regardless of how much he missed his daughter— that he would bury her there. He’s gotta know how she will be when she returns. The film failed to convince me that a grieving father would feel this is a good idea. It’s not like there’s a chance she’d come back normal. The film makes it abundantly clear that it’s not going to happen.

The change here having Ellie killed and resurrected rather than Gage didn’t really add anything new to the story, other than giving Ellie a bit more to do when she eventually comes back.

I can’t say I was all that impressed by the screenplay by Matt Greenberg, based of course on the Stephen King novel.  I could give or take the changes made to the story, including the ending, as nothing new here did all that much for me, and the parts that stuck to the original simply weren’t told with any sort of conviction. There was something very flat about the whole production.

Jason Clarke, who’s been in a ton of movies, including an excellent performance as Ted Kennedy in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018), is an actor I like a lot. He’s very good here as Louis Creed, although again, I simply did not believe he’d think burying his daughter in the pet sematary was a good idea. Clarke also turned in notable performances in the genre films TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015) and DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES  (2014).

Amy Seimetz is okay as Rachel, but as written, the character strangely doesn’t figure as prominently in the story as one would expect.

Young Jete Laurence is very good as Ellie, and she is admittedly rather creepy when she returns from the grave.

John Lithgow is sufficiently earthy as lifelong Maine resident Jud, but one of the highlights from the 1989 film was Fred Gwynne’s performance as the character. Gwynne, who was forever typecast and remembered as Herman Munster on THE MUNSTERS (1964-66) delivered an outstanding performance in that 1989 film that was one of the best parts of the movie. Lithgow here did not make me forget about Gwynne.

I can’t say that I liked this new version of PET SEMATARY all that much. It’s not as good as the 1989 film, and it’s nowhere near as scary as King’s novel. It’s passable horror entertainment, but since it fails to convince its audience that its main character would indeed take the drastic steps he does to resurrect his deceased daughter, the film never really resonates or becomes more than just a standard by-the-numbers horror vehicle.

Stephen King fans deserve better.

—END—

US (2019) – Ambitious Horror Movie Never Seems Real

1

us-family

I was really looking forward to seeing US (2019).

Written and directed by Jordan Peele, the man who gave us GET OUT (2017), one of my favorite movies from that year, US boasted creepy trailers and advanced critical acclaim.

Imagine my disappointment when the end credits rolled and I found myself realizing I had just sat through— a dud.

Yep, I didn’t like US all that much. Didn’t like it at all.

The film opens creepily enough. It’s 1986, and a young girl is with her family at a beach boardwalk amusement park. The girl walks away and enters a house of mirrors on her own, where she has a bizarre and frightening experience. The film switches to present day where the girl Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is now an adult with her own family: husband Gabe (Winston Duke), teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger son Jason (Evan Alex).

They’re a normal enough family and early on they’re fun to watch. On vacation, they decide to go to the same beach boardwalk where Adelaide had her traumatic experience as a kid. How weird is that? I don’t think I’d take my kids to a place that held such haunting memories for me, but anyway, throughout the vacation Adelaide can’t help but feel that something bad is going to happen to her family. Of course she feels this!  She’s at the same place where she had her childhood trauma! Duh!

Her fears become reality when at night four mysterious figures show up outside their door, figures that look like another family.  Young Jason nails it when he says “They’re us.”  Because that’s who they are, strange zombielike doppelgängers of the four family members.

And it’s at this point in the film, where it introduces its horrific elements, where it should take off and soar, where for me, it simply all unravels, and I lost interest.

Why?

Not for reasons usually associated with a bad horror movie.

For starters, US is a very ambitious movie, in terms of theme and symbolic images. It plays like a college thesis. There’s a lot going on, but for me, its undoing is a lack of believability and ultimately a lack of emotion. It’s a rare thing for me to like a movie that doesn’t move me emotionally, and US didn’t move me one iota, mostly because the threat never seemed real to me, and so I never was full on board with the plight of these characters.

Sure, I appreciated what the film was saying, I understood why it was saying it, but I didn’t believe the way it was saying it. Basically, there are two versions of this family, and as the film later shows, two versions of a lot of families, and when the alternate Adelaide responds to the question of who is she with the answer, “We’re Americans,” you get the point of the two Americas. The alternate Americans are dressed in red, not a friendly color these days. I get the symbolism.

But the story as told in US made little sense to me. The story of these people’s origins never resonated with me as anything other than a symbolic treatise on our modern-day culture. As such, it distracted me from the proceedings and took away from the horror elements. The entire time the family was fighting for their lives I felt disconnected from them because their story played out less like the events in a movie and more like the pages of a college thesis paper.

So, there’s a lot to digest here, and for people who like to analyze movies, US is the film for them. For people who enjoy horror movies, I’d wager to guess those folks might be a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that the only good horror movie is a dumb horror movie. I love smart movies. But US tries too hard to be intellectual at the expense of being emotional.

The acting is excellent. Lupita Nyong’o excels as both Adelaide and the very chilling alternate version of her. Elizabeth Moss is equally as good as family friend Kitty and her evil doppelgänger.

Winston Duke is fun to watch as the relaxed amiable dad Gabe, although his “twin” is less effective as he lumbers around like a zombie and isn’t as frightening as some of the others. Duke and Nyong’o, who both co-starred in BLACK PANTHER (2018), make for a realistic couple, one of the few parts of this movie I found believable.

Shahadi Wright Joseph is very good as daughter Zora, as is Evan Alex as son Jason.

One of the reasons I liked GET OUT so much was it was both a scary horror movie and an incisive commentary on race. Here, Jordan Peele is working with a much broader canvas. He’s covering much more ground, but while US is a more ambitious film than GET OUT, it doesn’t work nearly as well. For starters, its story just seemed way too convoluted to be credible.

And since it wasn’t believable, I didn’t feel for the characters, and as a result ultimately didn’t care all that much for the movie.

And while there are plenty of creepy parts, I didn’t find US all that scary either.

I predict that I may like US more with subsequent viewings, because there is a lot to absorb. But my initial reaction to it was akin to reading a poem ripe with figurative language that told a story so unreal it distracted from its metaphors. In short, the ambitious US never convinced me that what it was saying was real.

—END–