IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)

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isle of the dead posterI love the Val Lewton-produced horror movies from the 1940s.

Lewton produced a bunch of low-budget horror pics that impressed with style and atmosphere and have become some of the classics of the genre, films like CAT PEOPLE (1942) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). He also produced three movies starring Boris Karloff, films that are among the best in Karloff’s career, THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), BEDLAM (1946), and the subject of today’s column, ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945).

Sadly, Val Lewton’s life and career were cut short when he died of a heart attack on March 14, 1951, at the age of 46.

ISLE OF THE DEAD features one of my favorite Boris Karloff roles. Karloff plays General Nikolas Pherides, a general in the Greek army who goes by the nickname “The Watchdog.” He’s cold, ruthless, and nothing gets by him.

The story takes place on a Greek island in 1912, during the Balkan War. There’s a lull in the fighting, and General Pherides takes American reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) to the Isle of the Dead to pay respects to the General’s deceased wife, who is interred there. They discover that the grave has been disturbed, and when they hear a woman singing in the distance, they follow the voice to investigate and come upon a house full of people, a guest house run by a retired archeologist named Dr. Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.).

Albrecht invites the General and Oliver to join them. When the General questions them about the desecrated grave, Albrecht explains that years ago the islanders plundered many of the graves in search of valuable Greek artifacts. But Albrecht’s superstitious housekeeper offers a different explanation. She tells the General that it’s the work of the vorvolaka, evil spirits, and that one of the guests, the young and pretty Thea (Ellen Drew) is in fact a vorvolaka. The housekeeper tells the General that people there will die because of Thea.

The General scoffs at this suggestion, but when the guests do indeed start dying, and the housekeeper continually accuses Thea, the General changes his tune. He enters his “Watchdog” mode and declares that he will get to the bottom of what’s going on and protect everyone there. When a doctor (Ernest Deutsch) explains that it is the plague and that they must be quarantined, the General makes it his mission to prevent anyone from trying to leave the island. As more people die and the housekeeper’s accusations against Thea continue, the General finds himself swayed to the point where he himself believes that the true culprit here isn’t the plague but the vorvolaka.

ISLE OF THE DEAD is blessed with the same strengths of all the Val Lewton movies, an intelligent script and an almost palpable eerie atmosphere.

The screenplay by Ardel Wray, who also wrote the screenplay to two other Val Lewton movies, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE— one of my favorite horror movies of all time— and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), does a masterful job mixing the supernatural with reality.

The character the audience probably most relates to is reporter Oliver Davis, and he never suspects the vorvolaka. In fact, on the contrary, he vows to protect Thea from the General’s ever-increasing irrationality.

The story becomes a fascinating treatise on one man’s descension into despair. The General goes from competent pragmatic leader to a man motivated by fear.

Karloff is great in the role. As I said, it’s among his best performances. Famous for making the Frankenstein Monster a sympathetic character, he does the same here for the cutthroat General Pherides. At times, Karloff channels the cold dark ruthlessness of the General, but he also imbues the character with a fierce need to protect those around him.

Jason Robards Sr. is also memorable as their host on the island, Dr. Albrecht, as is Ernst Deutsch as Dr. Drossos, the doctor called to the island to deal with the plague. Deutsch was also notable in a supporting role as Baron Kurtz in Carol Reed’s classic THE THIRD MAN (1949) starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. Deutsch also starred in the silent German classic THE GOLEM (1920).

Also in the cast is Alan Napier, as one of the guests. Napier of course would go on to play Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, in the Adam West BATMAN TV series (1966-68). And Napier starred in several other genre films as well over his career, movies like THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959).

And Helene Thimig makes for a creepy housekeeper, Madame Kyra, who keeps peppering the General’s thoughts with her cries of “vorvolaka!”

Director Mark Robson, who also directed BEDLAM, does a nice job with the spooky atmosphere, giving such authenticity to the warm winds blowing over the island you can almost feel the breeze on your skin.

There are lots of creepy elements to keep the audience unsettled, including one of the characters who suffers from a condition where she collapses into a catatonic state that mimics death. Rightly so, she has an intense fear of being buried alive. That sort of thing couldn’t possibly happen on this island, right? RIGHT???

Sorry. All bets are off.

I really enjoyed Robson’s work here, so he can be forgiven for directing one of the all time worst disaster movies, EARTHQUAKE (1974) starring Charlton Heston and George Kennedy.

ISLE OF THE DEAD is a classic example of quiet horror. It possesses a winning combination of smart writing, atmospheric direction, and solid acting. Detractors of Val Lewton’s movies complain that they are more drama than horror, as the supernatural elements are reduced to pretty much nil, but this has never bothered me because regardless of whether or not the supernatural is alive and well in these films, they still tell stories of horror.

What happens on the island in ISLE OF THE DEAD is frightening, and as such, it makes for a compelling horror story.

It’s also fun to watch Boris Karloff play a role in which he’s not a monster, or a mad scientist. The three Val Lewton films that Karloff starred in gave him the opportunity to play roles unlike the ones he was playing for other directors. I think some of Boris Karloff’s best acting appears in these movies.

September means the end of summer. Vacations are done, the kids are back in school, and the focus for most is on work rather than play. Likewise, September is the perfect month for some serious horror viewing.

So check out ISLE OF THE DEAD, a classic horror drama shot in spooky black and white that tells a subtle yet nonetheless frightening story of a group of people quarantined on an island, fighting both the plague and the horrors of superstition, and featuring one of Boris Karloff’s best performances, as General Pherides, “the Watchdog,” a man hellbent on protecting those around him, unless of course, he suspects they’re a vorvolaka. In that case, he’s every bit as lethal as the plague.

It’s a deadly mix, and for the folks on this island, it really is the ISLE OF THE DEAD.

—-END—

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)

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I absolutely love TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016).

So much so that after watching it for the first time a couple of years ago on Netflix, I decided to watch it again last month. The result? I enjoyed it even more!

TRAIN TO BUSAN is a South Korean horror movie about the zombie apocalypse. Now, obviously, there have been many stories about said apocalypse in recent years, from the exceptional THE WALKING DEAD TV show to films like WORLD WAR Z (2013) and ZOMBIELAND (2009). What makes TRAIN TO BUSAN stand out from all the rest?

For me it’s the same for any quality movie: it’s the writing, stupid!

TRAIN TO BUSAN has a superior script that both tells a compelling story and creates memorable characters. The result is one heck of an emotional roller coaster ride, and that’s the part that I enjoyed the most upon a second viewing. I had forgotten just how emotional this movie got. Bring out the tissues! You’re going to need them.

Yup. You’re gonna need a bigger box of tissues.

And TRAIN TO BUSAN is that good. It’s on par with the best episodes of THE WALKING DEAD, and in terms of movies, you have to go back to George Romero to find a better zombie movie. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) might be better, but that one’s a comedy.

TRAIN TO BUSAN is pure horror.

In TRAIN TO BUSAN, Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) just can’t seem to spend enough time with his daughter Soo-an (Su-an Kim), as his job simply keeps him too busy. But when he decides to accompany his daughter on a train ride to take her to see her mother who he’s now separated from, he hopes to at least have this time with her.

Unfortunately for Seok-woo, he picked a bad day to go for a train ride with his daughter, as it just so happens to be the same day that the zombie apocalypse breaks out. And suddenly, quick moving flesh eating zombies are overrunning the land and getting on the train. A small group of survivors band together to fight off the zombies, all the while hoping the train makes it to Busan, where rumor has it that the military has successfully created a safe haven there.

TRAIN TO BUSAN is the story of these survivors, who besides Seok-woo and Soo-an, also includes a pregnant woman Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung) and her husband Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma), and two high school students, Jin-hee (Sohee) and Yong-guk (Woo-sik Choi) to name a few.

What follows is an intense thrill ride that provides nonstop chills and suspenseful action sequences, as well as tugging at your heartstrings, in a big, big way.

The cast in TRAIN TO BUSAN is phenomenal.

Yoo Gong is naturally heroic as main character and daddy Seok-woo. At first, he’s not the most sympathetic character, as it’s clear that in the past he has placed his career above his daughter, but when the zombies attack, it’s also clear that Seok-woo will do whatever it takes to protect his young daughter. Gong makes for a dashing young hero.

Some of Gong’s best scenes are with his co-star Dong-seok Ma who plays Sang-hwa, the husband who similarly will do whatever it takes to protect his pregnant wife. Dong-seok Ma delivers the most fun performance in the film, as Sang-hwa is both a humorous guy and a kick-ass fighter who becomes the go-to guy when the need arises to fend off the walking dead. Initially, Seok-woo and Sang-hwa do not see eye to eye, but as things grow more bleak they put aside their differences and work together.

Yu-mi Jung is equally as good as Seong-kyeong, the pregnant wife who eventually befriends Seok-woo’s daughter Soo-an. Jung makes Seong-kyeong one of the film’s strongest characters, as she has to go above and beyond what one would expect a pregnant woman to have to do.

Likewise, Sohee is memorable as teen Jin-hee.

But best of all is Su-an Kim as Seok-woo’s young daughter Soo-an. She gives the most emotional performance in the entire movie. She has some of the best scenes in the film, and she is more than up to the task of nailing these powerhouse scenes, and for such a young performer, that’s saying a lot.

And I challenge you to find a more emotional ending to a horror movie. Talk about gut-wrenching, the final sequence will have you shaking.

Director Sang-ho Yeon has made one of the best zombie films ever. In addition to the first-rate performances and superb story, there are some truly outstanding action sequences here, well-crafted by Yeon. From hordes of zombies charging up escalators to the characters having to battle their way through zombie infested train cars, the film’s action sequences are second to none.

The special effects are also top-notch. The zombies look scary and are plenty deadly, and these undead folks are of the speedy variety. No slow-moving walkers here. These babies run like the wind!

But the best part of TRAIN TO BUSAN is that the film gets the emotions right. You truly feel for these characters, and the situations they find themselves in play out as tremendously realistic. TRAIN TO BUSAN is a much more emotionally satisfying movie than say WORLD WAR Z which as entertaining as it was fell flat emotionally.

A lot of the credit for the emotion goes to the screenplay by Joo-Suk Park and director Sang-ho Yeon. The script creates riveting situations, likable characters, and realistic dialogue, and it’s all executed to perfection by the actors and by director Yeon.

TRAIN TO BUSAN was the first South Korean zombie apocalypse horror movie, and it’s not going to be the last, as a sequel is already in the works.

You really need to watch TRAIN TO BUSAN. It’s one of the best zombie apocalypse movies ever made, and it’s certainly the most satisfying zombie horror movie of the last twenty years.

What are you waiting for? Get your ticket already! Of course, once on board, you may want to text your loved ones, as there’s no guarantee you’ll actually make it to Busan. The zombies on the train are plenty hungry, and they have the humans insanely outnumbered, but heck, it’s a helluva thrill ride, one that you definitely don’t want to miss!

Will that be one ticket or two?

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: TARANTULA (1955)

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Don’t you just love furry little critters like— tarantulas?  No?  Find them a bit scary and repulsive, do you?  Well, then you’ll just cringe at the colossal star of Universal’s TARANTULA (1955), a spider so big it can step on a house!

TARANTULA is one of the best giant monster movies from the 1950s.  It’s certainly the finest one produced by Universal Studios.

Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) is called to the coroner’s office in the small town of Desert Rock, Arizona, by his friend Sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva) to investigate the death of a man found in the desert.  The victim resembles a man they know, Eric Jacobs, but his facial features are swollen and contorted.  Hastings believes Jacobs’ symptoms resemble the disease acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland, but this doesn’t make sense to Hastings since the disease takes years to develop and Jacobs wasn’t showing any symptoms just days before.

When Jacobs’ employer, the eminent Professor Gerald Deemer, (Leo G. Carroll), arrives, he insists that Jacobs was indeed suffering from acromegaly, and he refuses to allow an autopsy on the body.  This doesn’t sit well with Dr. Hastings, who finds the diagnosis wrong, and Deemer’s behavior baffling.

Yep, Deemer is the town’s resident mad scientist, and he lives just outside Desert Rock in a huge mansion, complete with a laboratory full of oversized animals in cages, including a tarantula the size of a dog.  When yet another malformed insane human attacks Professor Deemer, the laboratory is set on fire and destroyed, but not before the tarantula escapes from the house.  This hideous human also injects an unconscious Deemer with some unknown drug, before collapsing and dying himself.

Later, when a new assistant arrives in town to work for Professor Deemer, the beautiful Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday), Matt Hastings accompanies her to Deemer’s place, where he learns all about the professor’s research.  Professor Deemer is attempting to stamp out world hunger by using atomic energy to create a “super” food nutrient, which he has injected into various animals, and as a result they have grown in size.  Hmm.  Supersized fried chicken!  Yummy!

Deemer tells Steve and Matt that his lab was destroyed in an accidental fire, and he believes all his caged animals were killed.  He doesn’t realize that his tarantula is free in the desert growing bigger by the minute.  When next seen, the spider is gigantic, the size of a house, and it’s hungry, eating everything in its path, including horses, farms animals, and people.

Eventually, the giant tarantula sets its hairy sights on Desert Rock, and suddenly the town has to scramble to defend itself against the humongous marauding arachnid.

TARANTULA is one of my favorite giant monster movies.  First off, the screenplay by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley presents a story that is more creative than most.  There’s more going on in TARANTULA than just the basic “giant bug on the loose” storyline.  There’s all the mystery surrounding Professor Deemer’s research, and the strange misshapen men lumbering in and around his property, which adds some genuine intrigue to the story.  Screenwriter Berkeley also penned the screenplay for two other Universal monster classics, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957).

Director Jack Arnold, who directed several genre movies, including CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), is at the top of his game with TARANTULA.  He creates some memorable scenes.  One of my favorites occurs at night at a farm, when suddenly a group of horses begins to grow very nervous.  In the distance we see a darkened hill, and very slowly, onto that hill from the other side, creeps the massive tarantula.  It’s one hair-raising scene!

Another effective scene has Steve walking back and forth in her bedroom, not noticing the enormous tarantula through her window as it makes its way towards the house.  She doesn’t notice until the beast is on top of the house, literally!

And the tarantula looks terrific, as it’s menacing and scary.  I’m sure the special effects team was helped by the black and white photography, because with shades of light and dark, the tarantula fits into its scenes naturally and realistically.  The special effects team did a phenomenal job in this one.

The make-up on the acromegaly victims was done by Bud Westmore, and it reminds me a lot of the work he did on ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953) and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958), as his monstrous creations in both these movies resemble the folks in the desert in TARANTULA.

There’s also an effective music score by Herman Stein.

The cast is decent enough.  Though I’m not a huge fan of John Agar, his performance in TARANTULA is one of his best. He makes his Dr. Matt Hastings a very likeable fellow, and rarely has he seemed more natural in front of the camera.  I just want to know what he keeps inside his briefcase.  It must be valuable, because young dashing Dr. Hastings doesn’t go anywhere without it, even grabbing it before he runs out the door!

Playing Sheriff Andrews is character actor Nestor Paiva, who appeared in a ton of movies and TV shows over the years.  I’ll always remember him as Lucas, the captain of the Rita in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955).

Leo G. Carroll, another veteran of movies and television, is also very good as Professor Deemer.  Carroll appeared in many Alfred Hitchcock movies, including NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and SPELLBOUND (1945), and he played Alexander Waverly on the 1960s secret agent show THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968).

And for added fun, Clint Eastwood appears unbilled in one of his first roles as an air force pilot leading the attack on the tarantula, arriving just in time to save the folks of Desert Rock from the deadly arachnid.

Do you feel lucky, tarantula?”

—END—

(Originally published in The Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association in July 2012).

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: FREDDY VS. JASON (2003)

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In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a fan of Jason. Nor am I a fan of Freddy.

So, if you absolutely love the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series and/or the FRIDAY THE 13TH series, you’re probably not going to enjoy this review. I know, there’s a generation of fans who swear by these movies, who believe that the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies are the best thing since sliced bodies. Er, bread.

I’m not of that generation.

See, back in the day, when the slasher film was just getting started, I saw John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978) and loved it, so much so, that even though each successive film in the series was inferior, I enjoyed most of them and they pretty much were all guilty pleasures. So, when it comes to loving films that really aren’t that good, I get it.

Anyway, I also saw the original FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) and immediately thought it was a pretty inferior rip-off of HALLOWEEN, but being a horror fan, I wasn’t ready to quit on the series. However, after suffering through a couple of more FRIDAY films, I said enough is enough.

Now, I enjoyed the original  A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) very much, and for a while watched and enjoyed the sequels, and I found Freddy Krueger to be a pretty cool character. However, over the years with subsequent viewing, I’ve found that the NIGHTMARE films really haven’t aged all that well.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s In The Spooklight column, FREDDY VS. JASON, that epic battle of titans, a bout to rival FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943), KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), and Ali vs. Frazier.

Well, not really.

How about ALIEN VS. PREDATOR (2004) or BATMAN V SUPERMAN (2016)?

Getting warmer.

Needless to say, I didn’t rush out to the theater in 2003 to see FREDDY VS. JASON. And in subsequent years I never had any interest in seeing it.

Until now.

I thought, heck, you’re a horror fan, let’s give these guys a chance.

So, I did.

Did the years of waiting erase my disdain for the FRIDAY THE 13TH series? Was all forgotten when after finishing this one, I found it refreshing and fun?

Nope.

Not even close.

The plot here, if you want to call it that, centers around Freddy (Robert Englund) realizing that in order to restore his power and escape from Hell, where he’s been imprisoned since the last NIGHTMARE movie, he needs dead bodies, and so he resurrects Jason Voorhees (Ken Kirzinger) to kill unsuspecting teenagers for him. For the life of me, I don’t understand why Freddy can’t do this on his own. I mean, he’s Freddy Krueger, for crying out loud!

The bulk of the film involves Jason killing teenagers, in between ridiculously boring conversations between these teenagers as they discuss their fear of Freddy Krueger, who attempts unsuccessfully to enter the world of dreams to murder teens himself. Since his return is a big fail, he retreats, once more allowing Jason to have all the fun. Eventually, Freddy makes it back just in time to realize that there’s not enough room for two leading supernatural maniacs in the same movie, and so they decide to battle each other.

Yawn.

Yeah, I know, there’s more specifics here, and other characters with names in the film, but the problem I have with this movie and others in both series, especially FRIDAY THE 13th, is they make little sense and worse, they’re not in the least realistic. In short, without any of the action seeming believable, it becomes an excuse to kill teens in creative and supposedly humorous ways. Which just bores the hell out of me. No pun intended.

I know there are some folks who like this sort of thing.

I’m not one of them.

All I can say is I’m grateful horror movies have taken another direction in recent years, with compelling believable scripts and talented directors at the helm. People like to bash horror movies, but really, since the mid 2000s, there have been a lot— a lot!— of quality horror movies released both to theaters and to streaming services.

But FREDDY VS. JASON is not one of them.

Was there anything at all that I liked about this film?

Yeah. I liked it when it ended.

With that said, let’s end this column as well.

I know FRIDAY THE 13TH movies have their fans, and I’ve listened to some of these fans in person explain to me why these films are so good, and I respect the opinion of these folks, but for me, well, I respectfully disagree.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)

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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—

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GREEN ROOM (2015)

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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.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: STEPHANIE (2017)

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Shree Crooks as STEPHANIE (2017)

STEPHANIE (2017), a horror film about a little girl facing an unknown horrific threat all by her lonesome almost works.

Almost.

What stops this flick from ultimately succeeding is a lack of courage on the part of the filmmakers to take this story to the deepest dark places it should have gone. Instead, we have a plot tweak midway through that changes everything, and the film is worse off for it.

When STEPHANIE opens, young Stephanie (Shree Crooks) is home alone, occupying herself with her imaginary stuffed animal friends, getting into mischief as any child would do left to their own devices. She attempts among other things to cook and clean on her own, running afoul of every day threats like broken glass on the floor while walking barefoot. You’ll wince even before the supernatural elements are introduced.  Just why she’s by herself we’re not exactly sure, although there seems to have been some sort of apocalyptic incident that has wiped out at the very least the population around her.

One night, as she brushes her teeth and plays in front of the bathroom mirror, she hears a strange noise coming from the darkness. She knows what it is. Evidently, there is some sort of “monster” which enters her house at times, and to escape, she has to hide and remain silent. She hears the monster foraging throughout the house, growling and sniffing for prey, and then it leaves.

Adding to the mystery there’s also a dead body in her house, Stephanie’s brother, who seems to have succumbed to whatever malady wiped out everyone else. Stephanie it appears is immune. But then one day, Stephanie’s parents return, and while she is overjoyed to see them, she suddenly wonders why they left her alone in the first place.

And it’s at this point in the movie where the plot changes, and from here on in, things just  don’t work as well because the story enters territory we’ve all seen before and any innovative freshness the film possessed earlier disappears.

Which is too bad because the first half of STEPHANIE is really, really good, and the biggest reason why is the performance by young actress Shree Crooks as Stephanie. I hesitate to give such high praise to such a young actress, but she’s so good here she’s nearly mesmerizing. Early on, when she has the run of the house, she’s fun to watch, and later when the monster invades, you share in Stephanie’s terror. Crooks does fear really well.

So, early on the story had me hooked. I wanted to know why Stephanie was alone and just what kind of monster kept breaking into her house.  And I cared enough about young Stephanie that I was ready to watch a film about just one little girl on her own having to square off against a monstrous threat.

But ultimately this isn’t the story STEPHANIE has to tell. Her parents arrive home, and the inevitable plot twist isn’t up to snuff and only serves to steer the story into familiar territory, which is far less satisfying than what had come before it. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, STEPHANIE ends up being just a standard horror movie.

Frank Grillo and Anna Torv [recently of Netflix’ MINDHUNTER (2017-19)] play Stephanie’s parents, and while there’s nothing wrong with their performances, they unfortunately appear in the film’s inferior second half.

The screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski tells two different stories, and I enjoyed the first story much better than the second. The first half of the story with Stephanie home alone works so well I was really looking forward to seeing how she was going to deal with the monster in her house, but that confrontation never happens.

Director Akiva Goldsman sets up some suspenseful scenes early on, especially when the monster invades the house. Goldsman also deserves plenty of credit for capturing such a powerful performance from such a young performer. Shree Crooks completely carries the first half of the movie all by her lonesome.

Later, when the story pivots, the scares are much more standard, the results more predictable.

STEPHANIE did not have a theatrical release and was instead marketed straight to video on demand. I saw it on Netflix.

As it stands, it’s not a bad horror movie, but based on the way it started, it had the potential to be something very special, if only the initial story had been allowed to develop.

In spite of this, Shree Crooks delivers the performance of the movie. She’s terrific throughout, and she’s the main reason to see STEPHANIE.

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