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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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—

 

 

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

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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 (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—

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)

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“This nut thinks he’s a vampire!”

So says reporter Carl Kolchak to his editor Tony Vincenzo, as he tries to convince him to publish his story.

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) is not only one of the best horror movies from the 1970s, it’s also one of the best horror movies period.

Even more impressive, it was a made-for-TV movie, which isn’t surprising for the early 1970s, as that part of the decade was a great time for made-for-TV horror movies. Films like THE NORLISS TAPES (1973), GARGOYLES (1972), and TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975) were all made-for-TV shockers.

The best of the lot was THE NIGHT STALKER.

THE NIGHT STALKER starred Darren McGavin in the role that most of us consider to be his signature role, the inexorable reporter Carl Kolchak.

This movie earned such high ratings when it premiered on television on January 11, 1972 that in a largely unprecedented move, it was released theatrically after it played on TV because the film was that popular. Amazing.

And it really is a superior horror movie, which is no surprise since it was produced by Dan Curtis, the man behind the Dark Shadows phenomenon. It’s also an incredibly lean production, as it clocks in at just 74 minutes. There isn’t an ounce of fat on this baby.

THE NIGHT STALKER boasts a fantastic script, and you would expect no less since it was written by Richard Matheson, based on an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. The legendary Matheson wrote a ton of movies and so it would be difficult to call THE NIGHT STALKER his best screenplay, but I will say that for me, it’s probably my favorite Matheson screenplay.

In 1972 Las Vegas, young women are being murdered, their bodies drained of blood. The authorities want this information kept out of the news to avoid a panic, but reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) sees this story as his ticket back to the big time, as he’s been fired from one major newspaper after another, due to his in-your-face abrasive style.

Kolchak’s efforts come much to the chagrin of his hard-nosed irritable editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) who has a love/hate relationship with his reporter.  Kolchak describes his boss in a voice-over, “Rumor has it that the day Anthony Albert Vincenzo was born, his father left town. The story may be apocryphal, but I believe it. The only point I wonder about is why his mother didn’t leave too.”

Vincenzo recognizes that Kolchak is a top-notch reporter but grows increasingly frustrated that he can’t control him. Their verbal exchanges are some of the liveliest parts of the movie.

The vampire, Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater) possesses superhuman strength and performs such feats as hurling doctors through windows, tossing police officers about like twigs and outrunning police cars. He’s a type of vampire seldom seen in the movies, and to 1972 audiences he made for a violent shocking killer.  He’s quite scary.

The film does a nice job building to the inevitable climax where Kolchak finally tracks down Skorzeny.

Carl Kolchak was a perfect role for Darren McGavin and it’s no surprise he’s most known for the part. What I’ve always liked about Kolchak in THE NIGHT STALKER is unlike other heroes in vampire movies, Kolchak knew absolutely nothing about vampires.  For him, it was just a story, and at first, he didn’t even think it was a real vampire until he saw with his own eyes the vampire in action. He then researches the supernatural, and before you know it, he’s the one who’s telling the police about crosses and wooden stakes through the heart.

The vampire scenes in THE NIGHT STALKER are second to none.  Barry Atwater makes for a chilling vampire, hissing and dashing in and out of the shadows a la Christopher Lee, and like Lee in some of his Dracula portrayals, Atwater has no dialogue. In fact, Atwater’s performance as Skorzeny is even more visceral and violent than Lee’s Dracula. The success of THE NIGHT STALKER also influenced Hammer Films to make their next Dracula movie, DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) as a modern-day vampire tale set in 1970s London rather than the usual 1890s period piece. THE NIGHT STALKER is the superior film, by far.

The film enjoys a fine supporting cast, led by Carol Lynley as Kolchak’s girlfriend Gail Foster. There’s Claude Akins as the aptly named Sheriff Butcher, who also butchers the English language. During one press conference, he yells at Kolchak saying the reporter is there by the “mutual suffrage of us all,” to which Kolchak quickly corrects him, “it’s sufferance, sheriff.””

The cast also features Kent Smith as D.A. Paine, Ralph Meeker as Kolchak’s friend and FBI contact Bernie Jenks, and Elisha Cook, Jr. as another of Kolchak’s sources, Mickey Crawford.

The best supporting performance though belongs to Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo. Oakland would reprise the role in both the sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973) and the subsequent NIGHT STALKER TV series.

Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, THE NIGHT STALKER is a quick efficient thriller with enough chills and thrills for a movie twice its length. The early scenes chronicling the violent attacks on women in Las Vegas are scary and unsettling, and thanks to Richard Matheson’s superior script, the story moves forward with nearly every scene as the suspense continues to grow..

Moxey worked mostly in television, and he directed other genre TV movies as well.  He also directed the little seen Christopher Lee horror movie CIRCUS OF FEAR (1966), also known as PSYCHO-CIRCUS, a West German/UK co-production, and Moxey directed the English language version.

But the biggest reason, of course, to see THE NIGHT STALKER is Darren McGavin’s performance as reporter Carl Kolchak. Kolchak is a man who isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers or get into the faces of the authorities in order to tell the truth.  That’s part of the attraction of the character.  That he’s fighting through the lies of the establishment.  As he says in another voice-over, “Sherman Duffy of the New York Herald once said, ‘A newspaperman is the loneliest guy on earth. Socially he ranks somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually he stands with Galileo, because he knows the world is round.'”

McGavin would play Kolchak again in the sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER and in the NIGHT STALKER TV series (1974-75), which sadly lasted only one season.

He also gets the last lines in the movie, as he speaks into his tape recorder and concludes, “So think about it and try to tell yourself wherever you may be in the quiet of your home, in the safety of your bed, try to tell yourself, it couldn’t happen here.”

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

A QUIET PLACE (2018) – Smart Horror Movie Riveting and Scary

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Talk about quiet horror!

Shh! No yelling! This is A QUIET PLACE.

A QUIET PLACE is a new horror movie by director John Krasinski, known mostly for his recurring role as Jim Halpert on the comedic TV show THE OFFICE (2005-2013) starring Steve Carell. Krasinski both directs and stars here, along with his real-life wife Emily Blunt.

A QUIET PLACE is a simple thriller that nonetheless works well.  Its tagline, “If they hear you, they hunt you,” sums up the film perfectly.

It’s yet another horror movie about an apocalypse, as this time it’s strange violent creatures that roam the countryside preying on human beings. They’re unstoppable and they’re hungry.  They’re also blind. To make up for their lack of sight, they possess incredible hearing, and thus that’s how they hunt. It’s exactly as the film’s tagline says, if they hear you they hunt you.  So, to survive, you have to be awfully quiet.

It’s kind of a silly premise, when you think about it, that these creatures would have made it this far without being stopped, but that being said, there’s nothing silly about the rest of A QUIET PLACE. It’s a solid thriller throughout.

A QUIET PLACE basically follows one family trying to survive among these creatures. They live in silence in their farmhouse.  There’s the father Lee (John Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), teen daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) who happens to be deaf, and younger son Marcus (Noah Jupe). They live in mortal fear of the creatures, having lost their youngest son to one of them in the film’s pre-credit sequence.

They’re also quite resourceful, devising a system to communicate with lights and creating an undergound sound proof room. But with three of these creatures living in the vicinity of their farm, they need to be.  And, oh yeah.  Evelyn is pregnant and is about to give birth. So much for a quiet place!

A QUIET PLACE possessed the same tone as another recent apocalyptic horror movie, IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), a movie I liked a lot. The big difference between the two is the threat was never defined in IT COMES AT NIGHT while here in A QUIET PLACE the threat is made known at the outset.

The creatures here reminded me of things found in the CLOVERFIELD universe. In fact, for a time, Paramount considered making this movie a part of the CLOVERFIELD franchise, which would have made perfect sense. The chilling scenes in the cornfields were also reminiscent of similar scenes in M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS (2002).  That being said, A QUIET PLACE isn’t derivative of these films. It stands on its own.

A QUIET PLACE starts off— well, quiet, and after a jarring pre-credit scene moves slowly for a bit before really picking up steam during its second act.  There are some really suspenseful scenes in this one. The centerpiece and the most intense scene by far is the entire birthing sequence when Emily Blunt’s Evelyn is trying to give birth while there’s a creature pursuing her.  Scary stuff!  And I loved every minute of it!

As I said, early on, things are really quiet, as the characters need to be silent, and with a minimum of dialogue, very little happening on the soundtrack, it made for a very different kind of viewing for a while. All the folks in the audience munching on popcorn seemed to stop and the theater got really silent.  Some of the younger audience members, teenagers, couldn’t contain themselves and felt the urge to shout out comments every once in a while, but once things heated up in the second half, they fell frighteningly silent.

I really enjoyed A QUIET PLACE.  The acting was superb.  John Krasinski is solid as Lee Abbott, the caring dad who will stop at nothing to protect his family.

I thought Emily Blunt gave the best performance in the film as mom Evelyn Abbott. Like the rest of the family, she’s haunted by the death of their youngest son.

Millicent Simmonds, deaf in real life, is excellent as Regan, the daughter who has issues with her father, since she believes he blames her for her little brother’s death. And Noah Jupe, who we saw in last year’s WONDER (2017) as Auggie’s friend Jack Will, makes for a very frightened Marcus Abbott.

A QUIET PLACE has a smart screenplay by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski. Its story is frightening throughout, and its characters likable and believable. It’s not perfect. I thought it was slow-going at first, and its resolution, the steps taken by the Abbotts to combat the creatures, made me scratch my head in disbelief that no one else had thought of this before.

John Krasinski does a terrific job directing as well. The early scenes, though slow-paced, take full advantage of sound, or lack thereof.  With a nearly silent soundtrack during its first half, all sounds are magnified and used to full effect.  And once the film takes off during its second half, the suspense is pretty much nonstop and a heck of a lot of fun.

A QUIET PLACE is a high quality horror movie, the kind of film like last year’s GET OUT (2017) that helps raise the bar for the horror genre.

It’s my favorite horror movie of the year so far.

—END—

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1964)

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The following IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column originally appeared in the April 2012 edition of the HWA NEWSLETTER:

 

Like Universal before them, Hammer Films made a series of Mummy movies, four to be exact, none of them direct sequels, none of them all that exciting, but all of them in vivid color and at the very least entertaining.

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1964) is the second Mummy movie Hammer made, and of the four, it’s my second favorite.  My favorite, of course, is their first Mummy movie, THE MUMMY (1959) starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Again, THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB is not a sequel to THE MUMMY but tells an entirely new story, completely separate from Hammer’s initial Mummy movie.

Egyptologists John Bray (Ronald Howard), Sir Giles Dalrymple (Jack Gwillim), and Annette Dubois (Jeanne Roland) discover the mummified remains of the Egyptian prince Ra.  Like all good Mummy movies, there’s a curse that says anyone who messes with the mummy’s tomb will die.  The difference in this story, however, is that the curse is welcomed.  That’s because the expedition has been financed by an American showman Alexander King (Fred Clark) who wants to take the mummy and all the relics discovered along with it on the road for a sort of travelling road show, the sort of thing Carl Denham would have dreamed up after his adventures with King Kong.

Unfortunately, the show doesn’t last long because someone— the audience doesn’t know who— resurrects the Mummy, and so King can’t have his show without its star.  Soon afterwards, the Mummy goes on a murder spree, methodically attempting to kill everyone involved in the discovery of his tomb.  Will the Mummy kill everyone in the movie?  Or will our heroes figure out the identity of the Mummy’s secret benefactor and stop both him and the Mummy before it’s too late?  You’ll have to watch THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB to find out.

I’ve always found THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB to be a fairly entertaining movie, as it has some neat things going for it.

First off, director Michael Carreras cranks up the violence in this one, although admittedly by today’s standards, the movie is very tame.  The movie opens with a scene in which a man’s hand is chopped off.  In another scene, the Mummy uses a heavy statuette to smash in the head of his victim.  This occurs off camera, of course, but alone on the soundtrack— without any accompanying music— is the sickening thud of the statuette crushing the man’s skull.  In yet another scene, the Mummy uses its powerful foot to obliterate his victim’s head.  Nasty!

Director Carreras usually served Hammer in another capacity, as a producer.  He produced many of their early hits, including THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).  As the director of THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, Carreras performs well.

The first time the Mummy makes his appearance, it’s an excellent scene as he steps from a thick fog onto the top of a creepy outdoor staircase ready to attack his first victim.  Later, the Mummy emerges from fog again, this time just before crashing through a window.

Another neat touch is the sound effect of the Mummy breathing.  Fourteen years later John Carpenter would use a similar effect with Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN (1978).

Carreras also penned the screenplay using the pseudonym “Henry Younger” which was an in-joke because fellow Hammer producer Anthony Hinds wrote the screenplays for a ton of Hammer movies [including THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) & DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)] under the pen name “John Elder.”

Carreras’ screenplay tells the usual Mummy tale but does include an interesting plot twist.  While it won’t knock your socks off, it’s still an intriguing twist.

The actual Mummy make-up looks fine, but the same can’t be said for the Mummy’s body.    The Mummy was played by stunt man Dickie Owen, and he surprisingly sports a noticeable pot belly.  It’s sadly laughable.

Lon Chaney Jr. was criticized when he played Kharis the Mummy for Universal for looking too solid and heavy to be an Egyptian mummy, but Chaney looks like a trim Olympic athlete compared to the Mummy in this movie!

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB has a solid cast.  Ronald Howard, the son of famed actor Leslie Howard, is capable as lead Egyptologist John Bray.  I also really liked Fred Clark as the showman Alexander King.  The best part about the entire cast, which can be said for the majority of Hammer movies, is that they are thoroughly believable in their roles.  They make you believe in all the supernatural proceedings.

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB also has a good music score by Carlo Martelli.

On the other hand, one thing that doesn’t work so well is the ending, which is abrupt and is probably the weakest part of the movie.  Compared to the Mummy scenes that come before it, the ending is not very exciting.

Overall, though, THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB is a decent Mummy movie, competently executed by all involved, and it gets much better once the Mummy finally appears.  The final twenty minutes are the best part of the movie, except for the ending, which mummy-wraps things up too quickly.

So, this spring, if you’re pining for pleasant sunshine and warmer temperatures, but the weather isn’t cooperating, take a trip to the desert sands of Egypt in search of Mummies and monsters.  And like Alexander King in the movie, don’t fear THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, but embrace it!

That’s right.  Hug your Mummy today!

—END—