IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

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After the success of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), Universal decided that two monsters in one movie wasn’t enough, and so they added a third, Count Dracula, for their next monster movie romp, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is most notable for the return of Boris Karloff to the Universal FRANKENSTEIN series after a two film hiatus. Of course, Karloff previously had played the Frankenstein Monster.  Here, he plays the evil Dr. Niemann.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is the story of Dr. Niemann, a protegé of Dr. Frankenstein. When the movie opens, Niemann is in prison, but he soon escapes along with his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish.) When they happen upon the skeleton of Count Dracula (John Carradine) Niemann resurrects the vampire by pulling the stake from his heart. He then promises Dracula protection if in return the Count will kill the official responsible for putting Niemann in prison.

Later, as Niemann and Daniel search for Dr. Frankenstein’s records, they discover the frozen bodies of Larry Talbot/aka the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), and at this point the film becomes a sequel to FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Like every good mad scientist, Niemann revives these monsters as well.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN flies by at a brisk 71 minutes. It really is too short to make much of an impact. Had this one been fleshed out a bit more, it would have been more effective.  It’s really not that strong a movie, as it plays like a shallow sequel, with the monsters resurrected only to be quickly done in once again. That being said, it does retain the Universal monster magic, and so while I recognize that this really isn’t that high quality a film, it’s a guilty pleasure that I enjoy each time I watch it.

It also does have some special moments, as well as a strong cast. It’s just that the whole thing seems terribly rushed.

It also doesn’t help that the Dracula storyline begins and ends before the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster show up. Even the next film in the series, HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) doesn’t really take full advantage of its three monsters. One has to wait until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), the comedic finale to the series, before one can enjoy a full and satisfying meeting of the monsters.

Finishing off Dracula so early was not a strength of Edward T. Lowe Jr.’s screenplay. Nor is the dialogue, some of which is laughable, and this one is not a comedy.

Director Erle C. Kenton fares better with the Dracula sequence. In spite of killing off Dracula so quickly, the chase scene just before the vampire’s demise is arguably the best chase scene in the entire Universal monster series.  It’s pretty impressive, as it features Dracula driving a horse-driven coach, pursued by police on horseback, and in front of them both, Niemann racing his carnival coaches, while Daniel runs atop the cars to get to the rear coach to toss Dracula’s coffin.  It’s a wildly exciting sequence.

Writer Lowe fares better with the Wolf Man story. In fact, other than the original THE WOLF MAN (1941) this brief appearance by Larry Talbot is one of the series’ best, because it involves his relationship with a gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), who falls in love with Larry and vows to end his pain by shooting him with a silver bullet.  Their classic confrontation is the most emotional of the series for Talbot other than his fateful encounter with his father Sir John (Claude Rains) at the end of the original WOLF MAN. It’s really neat stuff, but sadly, there’s just so little of it.  Chaney’s scenes here are all too brief.

But saddest of all is the treatment of the Frankenstein Monster, here played for the first time by Glenn Strange.  By this point, the Monster is treated only as a “patient” who lies still on a table until the final reel when he gets up only to be quickly done in by the frightened torch wielding villagers. It’s a far cry from Karloff’s original performances.

Alas, the Monster wouldn’t fare any better in HOUSE OF DRACULA. Again, it would take the comedic encounters with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in order for the Monster to return to top form. In fact, in that film, the Monster even talks again! There’s a reason ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is a classic. It’s hilarious, and for its three monsters, it’s their best screen time in years.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is also blessed with a very strong cast.

Boris Karloff, while not as memorable as he was as the Frankenstein Monster, is very good as Dr. Neimann. His performance is a nice precursor to Peter Cushing’s darker take as Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Films to follow a decade later.

Lon Chaney Jr. knocks it out of the park yet again as both Larry Talbot and the Wolf Man. For years, Chaney has lived in the shadow of the two other Universal stars, Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but as the years have gone by, his performances have grown in stature.  For some, he’s the best actor to have appeared in the Universal monster movies.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is also one of the few times that Chaney and Karloff appeared in a movie together.

I’ve never been a fan of John Carradine’s take on Dracula, in both this movie and HOUSE OF DRACULA the following year.  He certainly makes for a distinguished Count, but he lacks the necessary evil and sensuality needed for the role. Bela Lugosi was originally slated to play Dracula again, which would have been his first time since the 1931 original, but he was unable to appear in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN due to a schedule conflict. Fans would have to wait until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) before they could see Lugosi play Dracula again, and that would be the second and last time he played Dracula in the movies.

The supporting cast in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is exceptional.

J. Carrol Naish, one of my favorite character actors, is excellent as Daniel, the hunchback. His storyline where he is jealous of Talbot because he also loves Ilonka is one of the better parts of the film. As is Elena Verdugo’s performance as Ilonka. Verdugo makes Ilonka sexy and sympathetic.

The film also features George Zucco in a small role as Professor Bruno Lampini, and Lionel Atwill as yet another police inspector. Sig Ruman is memorable as Burgomaster Hussman. My favorite moment with Ruman is when he wakes up and says to Dracula, “As I was saying—-. I don’t know what I was saying. I fell asleep!”

The lovely Anne Gwynn plays Rita Hussman. Gwynn is the grandmother of actor Chris Pine.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN almost featured yet another Universal monster, as there were plans to include Kharis the Mummy in the film, but these plans were scrapped due to budget constraints.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is certainly not regarded as one of Universal’s monster classics, as it has sequel written all over it and pales in quality compared to films like FRANKENSTEIN (1931), DRACULA (1931), and THE WOLF MAN. Even FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN is a far better film.

All that being said, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN remains a guilty pleasure that I never grow tired of watching. This holiday season, when you’re out and about visiting friends and relatives, make a point to stop by the HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

I hear they have a monstrously good time.

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THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE (2018) – Possessed Corpse Tale Better Than Expected

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The possessed corpse of Hannah Grace just doesn’t want to stay put in THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE (2018)

THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE (2018) opens with yet another ridiculous exorcism scene. You know the ones I’m talking about.  Priests are praying, a young girl contorts her body while a deep demonic voice from within her spews trash talk, a father cries, and special effects are flying faster than you can say George Lucas meets Walt Disney.

THE EXORCIST, it ain’t.

But at the end of the scene, when the demon boasts that the girl will be his forever, her father decides that  no, that’s not going to happen, and he suffocates his daughter to death.  And I thought, okay, this is different.

And so in one moment the film goes from being yet another demonic possession rehash to a somewhat different take on the tired trope.  What’s different is that in this movie Hannah Grace is a possessed corpse.

THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE actually tells two stories, the one about Hannah Grace, which makes up the horror elements here, and the better story, about main character Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell) a former Boston police officer who panicked and froze in the line of duty and as a result allowed her partner to be shot and killed. It’s a tragedy she hasn’t recovered from yet. She has since left the police force and as the movie opens has decided to take a quiet position working the overnight shift at the city morgue.

Quiet.

Sorry, Megan.  Hannah Grace has other ideas.

What those ideas include are sneaking out of the morgue drawer to murder people in order to heal her body and come back to life, I guess to allow the demon to continue his evil handiwork.  Not sure why the demon just doesn’t enter someone else’s body, but maybe he just likes Hannah Grace. The horror story here doesn’t really make much sense, but nonetheless, it was somewhat entertaining in a mindless sort of way.

As I said, Megan’s storyline is much better.  Since her partner’s death, she has been struggling with depression and substance abuse, and so when she tries to tell her friends and co-workers that something very wrong is happening inside the morgue, and a body seems to be regenerating, they tell her that these things she thinks she’s seeing are simply the result of her trauma.  No one believes her until, of course, it’s too late.

While THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE is not a great horror movie— it’s not even a very good one— I did enjoy it much more than I thought I would, and that’s because of Megan’s story. In effect, while not being a great horror movie, it isn’t a half bad drama.

Shay Mitchell is excellent as Megan. She captures the character’s angst, and better yet, when the going gets tough, she gives it right back.  Megan is no helpless victim here. She is more than up to the task of gathering her wits and taking on the demon inside Hannah Grace. It’s a story arc that works, and Mitchell is more than up to the task of carrying this movie on her shoulders.

The rest of the cast acquits itself well and helps to keep this one much better than it should be.  Nick Thune stands out as quirky ambulance driver Randy who’s one of the first people to believe Megan.  Grey Damon holds his own as fellow cop and Megan’s former boyfriend Andrew who tries his best not to be a jerk but isn’t alway successful, and through it all continues to care for Megan.  Likewise, Stana Katic does a nice job as Megan’s friend Lisa. And Kirby Johnson gets the thankless role of Hannah Grace, spending the majority of the movie as a corpse.

The screenplay by Brian Sieve, except for the opening exorcism scene, spares us bad dialogue and cliché characters.  The characters are fleshed out rather well here, especially Megan, and the dialogue is authentic and realistic.  The story is also interesting throughout.

One of the characters points out that strangely in spite of killing lots of people, Hannah has not killed Megan, and he asks why? Which is a good question, and is one I don’t think the movie properly answers.  Is the demon saving her for its next host? Dunno.  Or is it somehow Hannah who’s keeping her alive knowing that Megan has the gumption to destroy her body once and for all? Again, the movie doesn’t say, which is another reason why, at the end of the day, it’s not a great horror movie.

But it is a surprisingly decent screenplay, and it’s well-directed.

Director Diederik Van Rooijen spares us any long boring scenes of characters walking along empty corridors in search of trouble, and he does a nice job avoiding other clichés as well.  Some of the horror elements aren’t bad.  Hannah Grace likes to scurry along dark corridors low to the ground like a giant arachnid, and these scenes are somewhat creepy and caused some audience members to cry out in discomfort.

The other thing I liked about it is other than its first scene it stays away from other demonic possession tropes, and this is a good thing. I went in asking, do we really need another demonic possession movie? And the answer is, no, we don’t.

Yet THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE is watchable because it presents the possession story from a different angle, a possessed corpse, and it works. Up to a point.

What doesn’t work is the film isn’t really all that scary, and in spite of its R rating, it doesn’t really go for the throat in the horror department.  Hannah Grace spends most of the film as a naked corpse, but rather than look horrifying she looks cartoonish and fake, and that’s because she’s mostly seen as a nude CGI creation. She looks more like Gollum than a teenage girl.

THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE could have been a lot worse, but it stays clear of the worst clichés of the demonic possession movies, and it offers both an interesting tale of a possessed corpse hungry for victims, and a very captivating story of a young woman struggling to overcome a traumatic event from her past who finds herself battling a demon in the dark confines of a city morgue.

Sure, it could have been scarier, more hard-hitting, and more raw, but at the end of the day, THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE is a halfway decent thriller that had it only gone for the throat a bit more often would have been a notable horror movie as well.

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OVERLORD (2018) – World War II Actioner/Horror Movie Generally Entertaining

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Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell in OVERLORD (2018).

A horror movie set during World War II, hours before the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Sound like a pretty good combination to me!

And OVERLORD (2018) is just that: an action/horror hybrid that isn’t half bad.

In the battle of Normandy, code name Overlord, it’s the mission of a select group of allied soldiers to land behind enemy lines and destroy a Nazi radio tower to give the allied planes protection as they provide cover for the invading ground forces. The battle zone is insanely chaotic, and the plane carrying these soldiers is shot out of the sky, with only a few soldiers successfully making it out of the plane via parachute. Fewer still survive once they hit the ground in Nazi territory.

Only a handful of soldiers remain. OVERLORD is their story. Ranking officer Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) leads this group to the radio tower which is located on top of a church. Among these soldiers is Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), a black soldier who’s been called out for not being much of a soldier, mostly likely because of the color of his skin.

On the ground, they meet a young French woman Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), and since Boyce is the only soldier there who speaks French, suddenly he’s a bit more valuable. Chloe provides shelter for the soldiers at her aunt’s farmhouse, which she shares with her sick aunt and kid brother. While Ford and company prepare for their mission, they have to lay low from the marauding Nazis, led by a particularly nasty officer named Wafner (Pilou Asbaek).

While at the farmhouse, the soldiers hear rumors of strange scientific experiments being conducted by the Nazis underneath the church, experiments that are killing many of the townspeople.  While fleeing Nazi soldiers, Boyce accidentally finds his way inside the bizarre underground lab, and what he sees there horrifies him.

He reports back to Ford, who tells Boyce and his fellow soldiers that the stuff happening inside the lab is not part of their mission, but when events bring the horrors from the lab onto their doorstep, they suddenly find themselves with no choice but to confront the monstrosities head on.

The best part of OVERLORD is its combination of World War II adventure and horror tale is a good one and for the most part works. The World War II story is exciting on its own, which is a good thing because the horror elements don’t really come into play until the movie’s third act.

And that’s one thing I didn’t like about OVERLORD. It takes too long to get to its best part, the stuff with the Nazi experiments. As such, it really isn’t much of a horror movie. In fact, even when it’s revealed just what those experiments are, and things get a bit gruesome, the subject matter really isn’t all that horrific. OVERLORD plays more like a violent action science fiction adventure than a horror movie.

That being said, I had a lot of fun watching OVERLORD. I just wished its genre elements had been darker.

I fully enjoyed the cast.  Jovan Adepo is excellent as Boyce, the character audiences will relate to the most.  He’s both the voice of reason and caution, and his decisions throughout the film are spot on and in tune with what audiences expect from a movie hero. One problem here, however, is with historical accuracy.  While the notion of having a black character here as the lead is a good one and one I really enjoyed, the U.S. military was still racially segregated during World War II. Oops!

Wyatt Russell is also very good as Ford. Now, Russell is the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and there are times when his mannerisms and dialogue delivery really resemble his father, which is a good thing. Russell makes for a likeable action hero.

Likewise, Mathilde Ollivier is also thoroughly enjoyable as Chloe, the fiery French woman who assists the allied soldiers. She’s smart, tough, and terribly sexy.

And Pilou Asbaek makes for a sufficiently nasty villain as Nazi officer Wafner. Asbaek has starred on GAME OF THRONES (2016-17) and in the movies GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) and THE GREAT WALL (2016), among others, but this is my favorite role I’ve seen him play so far. He was fun to hate.

OVERLORD was produced by J.J. Abrams, and early rumors were that this film was going to be part of the CLOVERFIELD universe. It’s not, although at times it certainly felt like it. The only thing missing was any reference to the word “cloverfield.”

OVERLORD was directed by Julius Avery with mixed results.  The World War II stuff is exciting and nicely paced, though nothing audiences haven’t seen before. The horror elements which finally show up in the film’s third act, are violent and energetic, but hardly scary.  This one is rated R for language and bloody violence and science fiction style mutilations, and it plays like OPERATION: FINALE (2018) meets A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016).

The best scenes are the World War II fight scenes. While the blood and gore increase towards the film’s finale, the suspense doesn’t.  I will say the special make-up effects were very good.

Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith wrote the adequate screenplay.  It’s filled with serviceable dialogue and situations, but nothing that pushes the envelope all that much. In all honesty, I expected to be more horrified by the film’s revelations, but that wasn’t the case. The horrors revealed here do not rise above the comic book level.

At least the tone remains serious, and  never deviates into campiness, and I liked this. No surprise here, really, since Ray wrote the screenplay for the Tom Hanks film CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013), while Smith wrote the screenplay to THE REVENANT (2015) the film in which Leonardo DiCaprio won the Academy Award for Best Actor, two very serious movies.

OVERLORD, incidentally, refers to the Normandy invasion code name, and not the popular Japanese novel series and anime.

I liked OVERLORD well enough, even though it didn’t fully deliver with its horror elements. The World War II scenes provide plenty of adventure and excitement, while the whispers of bizarre Nazi experiments generate interest throughout. It all leads to a bloody conclusion that is more action-oriented than frightening.

The end result is a movie that generally entertains even as it falls short in the horror department.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: TERRIFIER (2017)

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TERRIFIER (2017) is the type of horror movie I usually do not like.

At all.

It’s also the type, in general, that tends to give horror a bad name and keeps a large audience away from horror movies. Why do I want to pay money to see victims brutally murdered? Gore for gore’s sake. No story. No point other than to kill off victims.

TERRIFIER is this type of movie— up to a point. It’s violent and sick, until it morphs into something more, something I found myself ultimately liking. A lot.

TERRIFIER starts off as the story of two friends, Tara (Jenna Kanell) and Dawn (Catherine Corcoran) out on the town for a night of drinks and fun. As they drunkenly return to their car, they notice someone watching them from down the street, a man dressed as a clown. When he follows them into a restaurant, Tara is understandably freaked out, but Dawn thinks it’s funny and actually flirts with and takes a selfie with the clown (David Howard Thornton).

Tara wants to leave immediately, but Dawn says no, that they should stay. You should have listened to Tara.

It turns out that Art the Clown is a homicidal maniac who goes about killing anyone and everyone in his path in the most brutal sadistic ways. And yes, he is definitely interested in adding Dawn and Tara to his victims’ list.

So, why is this movie better than just an exercise in mindless blood and gore?

For starters, before the killings begin, the acting by the principal players is pretty darn good. I really enjoyed both Jenna Kanell as Tara and Catherine Corcoran as Dawn. Kanell was good enough to be the strong heroine in a new series of horror films, and I was certainly interested in following her story and wanting her not only to survive but to kick Art the Clown’s butt.

But the filmmakers had other ideas.

Speaking of Art the Clown, he is one creepy clown. As played by David Howard Thornton, he is downright nightmarish. Thornton does a fantastic job at making Art the Clown completely unpredictable. At times, he stares at his victims with menacing homicidal eyes, and others he’s in his full clown routine, acting jolly and silly, and at other times he’s sad. He can unleash any of these personalities at any time, and once he attacks, he becomes a brutal insane killer.

Bottom line, he is terribly frightening, which is exactly what you want in a horror movie.

So, when this movie began, I thought, regardless of how it plays out, I like this clown.

Midway through, for me, TERRIFIER hit rock bottom. Suddenly Art the Clown becomes a killing machine, and deaths occur without rhyme or reason.  Gore for gore’s sake. And yet, there was that creepy clown, still standing, still terrorizing.

And that for me was when the movie changed, when the realization hit me that this wasn’t the story of any of the victims at all. Instead, this was Art the Clown’s story. In this movie, nobody was safe, no matter how much the audience might like them, no matter how heroic their intentions, no matter when they first appeared in the movie.  None of this mattered. They were going to have to deal with the clown, and most likely, they were not going to come out on top.

I thought this was a bold decision by writer/director Damien Leone, to really go all in with Art the Clown and say nobody is safe, and because Art the Clown was such a captivating and menacing character, this decision worked here.  The clown, as vicious as he was, carried this movie.

He got under my skin, and as a horror fan, I’m glad he did.  And when I realized that Damien Leone was not going to make any safe decisions with this one, that here was a time where evil was going to win out, I thought, this film is really working as an exercise in visceral terror.

And so while it may have seemed for a bit to be simply a gore for gore’s sake kinda film, it really isn’t. It really creates a cinematic monster in Art the Clown, this unstoppable insane killer.

This is not the first movie for Art the Clown. He first appeared in ALL HALLOW’S EVE (2013), another horror movie by writer/director Damien Leon, although the character was played by a different actor. I have not seen ALL HALLOW’S EVE, but after watching TERRIFIER, I intend to.

I enjoyed Leon’s work here, both as a director and a writer. TERRIFIER is chock full of suspenseful scenes, mostly due to the presence of Art the Clown, and the murder scenes are sufficiently bloody and grotesque. On the other hand, the dialogue and story are nothing outstanding.

Leone also wrote and directed a horror movie called FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE MUMMY (2017), inspired by the Universal Monster movies of yesteryear. I have not seen this one either, but it’s now on my list.

Back to TERRIFIER, the crowning achievement here really is the creation of Art the Clown.

I would definitely see more movies about this character in the hope that somewhere down the line someone would be able to stop him, because it would take a very special and very powerful hero to take down such a murderer, and that’s a story I’d like to see.

I don’t usually rave about ultra violent horror movies, but I thought TERRIFIER, in spite of its frequent bloody violence, fared better than most because it offered one of the creepiest clowns in the movies I’ve ever seen, and that includes Pennywise.

If you haven’t seen TERRIFIER, check it out. Be prepared to be creeped out and even grossed out, but I think you’ll agree that the presence of Art the Clown lifts this one to a level of satisfaction it has no business reaching otherwise.

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LEADING LADIES: JAMIE LEE CURTIS

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Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in HALLOWEEN (1978)

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at the careers of leading ladies in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today it’s Jamie Lee Curtis.

Curtis of course burst onto the horror movie scene with her signature role of terrorized babysitter Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s groundbreaking classic, HALLOWEEN (1978). And with some perfect symmetry, Curtis’ most recent role is once again Laurie Strode in the latest entry in the HALLOWEEN universe, once more titled, curiously enough, HALLOWEEN (2018). Curtis’ career has come full circle. Of course, she still has a whole lot more acting to do.

In HALLOWEEN (1978), Curtis was so memorable as Laurie Strode not because she screamed a lot.  She did not scream her way to fame a la Fay Wray fifty-five years earlier in KING KONG (1933). No, Curtis’ performance was noteworthy because she created in Laurie a vulnerable yet resilient character who faced doubts about dating and boys but was more than up to the task of protecting the children she babysat from masked killer Michael Myers.

The original HALLOWEEN is famous because of John Carpenter’s outstanding direction, along with his now iconic music score. I was 14 when HALLOWEEN came out, and I still remember all the hype and excitement surrounding it.  Sold out showings, and long lines of people waiting to see it, often spilling outside the theater into the parking lot. I also remember Siskel and Ebert’s initial review of the movie, a review in which they both praised Carpenter’s phenomenal direction. I don’t remember how at 14 my friends and I were able to buy tickets to this R rated feature, but somehow we did, as we saw this one at the theater.

I remember the theater erupting in screams during the movie. I also remember Jamie Lee Curtis.  When the movie was done, and I had returned home, I couldn’t get Carpenter’s music out of my head, and I recalled all the scares, and the image of Michael Myers with his now iconic mask, and this actress named Jamie Lee Curtis.  There was something about her that really resonated with me.  The best way I can describe it is I felt as if Laurie Strode was someone I knew in real life. As I’ve watched and re-watched HALLOWEEN over the years, I’ve attributed this feeling I had back in 1978 to a very authentic performance by Curtis.  I felt like I knew her because she acted like a real person.

Here’s a partial look at Curtis’ career, as we examine some of her 74 screen credits:

HALLOWEEN (1978) – Laurie Strode – Curtis’ signature film role was also her film debut.  She had appeared in numerous TV shows before this, including COLUMBO (1977) and CHARLIE’S ANGELS (1978) but this was the first time she appeared on the big screen. And she has never looked back.  Quite the film debut. In addition to the top-notch direction and music score by John Carpenter, and the presence of Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis is easily one of the best parts of HALLOWEEN (1978).

THE FOG (1980) – Elizabeth Solley – Curtis stars in John Carpenter’s next horror movie following HALLOWEEN. At the time, Carpenter was a victim of his own success. THE FOG was not well-received by critics in 1980. Siskel and Ebert expressed their disappointment, citing that the film lacked a definitive threat, a la Michael Meyers. However, the movie’s reputation has strengthened over the decades. It’s now considered one of Carpenter’s best films. Not only that, but it’s high on a lot of people’s lists for best horror movies period.  I definitely like this one a lot.  I still prefer HALLOWEEN though. Curtis, for her part, is fine here, but her role is not the lead, and she makes much less of an impact than she did in HALLOWEEN.

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Jamie Lee Curtis in THE FOG (1980)

PROM NIGHT (1980) – Kim – John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN gave birth to the slasher movie, and suddenly everyone and their grandmother was making horror movies with masked knife-wielding killers terrorizing teenagers. This one’s not directed by Carpenter, but does star Jamie Lee Curtis. It did well on its initial release and has established a reputation as a decent slasher flick, but this one never did anything for me.  For me, not even the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis could save this HALLOWEEN rip-off.

TERROR TRAIN (1980) – Alana – another crazed killer attacking teenagers, this time on a train.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) – Narrator/Computer Voice (uncredited) – An uncredited Curtis provides the voice of the narrator and computer in this exciting futuristic crime thriller by John Carpenter, notable also for Kurt Russell’s memorable performance as Snake Plissken.

HALLOWEEN II (1981) – Laurie Strode – Inferior sequel to HALLOWEEN. Rick Rosenthal takes over the directing duties from John Carpenter, and his vision here is far less impressive.  Curtis is okay, but sadly, spends most of the movie confined to a hospital bed and in and out of a medicated stupor.  While this really is not a good movie, it is actually better than most of the later HALLOWEEN films, some of which are really, really bad.

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With Donald Pleasence in HALLOWEEN II (1981)

HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1983) – Curfew Announcer/Telephone Operator (uncredited) – A disaster upon its initial release, this was part of John Carpenter’s vision to create a HALLOWEEN series featuring different horror stories each year and not necessarily be about Michael Myers, but film audiences wanted Myers and didn’t really accept this movie. That being said, this one has enjoyed a growing reputation over the decades, and there are some (not me) who consider this to be the best of all the HALLOWEEN movies.

TRADING PLACES (1983) – Ophelia – This funny comedy by director John Landis stars Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. Murphy, who was insanely popular at the time due to his stint on Saturday Night Live, is the main reason to see this one, but Jamie Lee Curtis is also hilarious in her role as prostitute Ophelia. She makes the jump into a non-horror movie quite nicely.

GRANDVIEW U.S.A. (1984) – Michelle “Mike” Cody – Drama in which Curtis co-stars with C. Thomas Howell and Patrick Swayze that asks the question, can the young folks from Grandview U.S.A. pursue their dreams and shed their small town roots? Nothing special.

A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988) – Wanda Gershwitz – co-stars with John Cleese, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin in this uproarious comedy written by Cleese. Kline won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

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Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Kevin Kline in A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988)

FOREVER YOUNG (1992) – Claire Cooper – co-stars with Mel Gibson who plays a 1939 pilot awoken from a cryogenic sleep in 1992. Written by J.J. Abrams.

TRUE LIES (1994) – Helen Tasker – plays the wife of a spy, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in this entertaining action comedy by director James Cameron.

FIERCE CREATURES (1997) – Willa Weston – Reunited with her co-stars from A FISH CALLED WANDA, John Cleese, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin, this time with lesser results.

HALLOWEEN H20 – TWENTY YEARS LATER (1998) -Laurie Strode- Curtis returns to the HALLOWEEN series after a three film hiatus, and the emphasis returns to Laurie Strode, still dealing with the trauma caused by Michael Myers twenty years earlier. The masked killer of course once more sets his sights on terrorizing Laurie. Some girls have all the fun. This film was well-received when it first came out, but it hasn’t aged all that well. That being said, I still like this one a lot.

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Facing fear in HALLOWEEN H20 (1998)

HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION (2002)- Laurie Strode – Curtis returns as Laurie Strode for about two seconds before her character is abruptly killed by Michael Myers in the most undramatic and anticlimactic of ways. By far, the absolute worst of all the HALLOWEEN movies.

FREAKY FRIDAY (2003) – Tess Coleman – co-stars with Lindsay Lohan in this remake of the Disney classic.

SCREAM QUEENS (TV Series) (2015-2016) – Dean Cathy Munsch- TV horror/comedy series about a— you got it— a crazed serial killer terrorizing, among other places, a college campus.

HALLOWEEN (2018) – Laurie Strode – Curtis comes full circle, playing Laurie Strode once again, this time in a movie that ignores every other HALLOWEEN movie in the series except the original. Lots of hype and box office success, but ultimately this one was a letdown. Curtis’ scenes and storyline are the best parts, as she is once again still dealing with the trauma from Michael Myer’s original attack, now forty years earlier. Everything else in this film is pretty bad. A major disappointment.

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Taking on Michael Myers yet again in HALLOWEEN (2018)

And that wraps things up for this edition of LEADING LADIES.

Join me again next time when we check out the career of another Leading Lady.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

HALLOWEEN (2018) – Jamie Lee Curtis Returns With a Vengeance, But Rest of Horror Flick Pretty Bad

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HALLOWEEN (2018)

The Jamie Lee Curtis story arc in HALLOWEEN (2018) is so good it almost saves the rest of the movie which sadly is rather— well, there’s no other way to say it, awful.

HALLOWEEN (2018) is the latest chapter in the Michael Myers saga, and before this film was released, I found myself shaking my head at the title. This is the eleventh film in the series and the third to be called HALLOWEEN. Granted, the second film entitled HALLOWEEN (2007) was Rob Zombie’s flawed reimagining of the original, but still, to call this movie HALLOWEEN seemed rather lazy.

However, when I saw the film’s trailer, which I really enjoyed, I decided to reserve judgement on the title because what I saw in the trailer looked so good.

HALLOWEEN (2018) completely ignores events in any of the sequels and re-imaginings and exists in a universe where only events from the original HALLOWEEN (1978) have occurred.

And so it has been forty years since Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) survived the brutal attack by masked killer Michael Myers on Halloween night, a night that saw three of her high school friends murdered. She has spent her remaining years dealing with the trauma, preparing for Myers’ eventual escape from the mental hospital, as she says here in the movie, so she can kill him.

And of course, Myers does escape and does return to Haddonfield, Illinois, to kill more teenagers on Halloween night, and to go after Laurie Strode once more, who after forty years of preparation, is more than up to the task of taking on the masked madman.

The best part of HALLOWEEN is the Laurie Strode story arc, and in fact it’s the only part of this sequel that’s worth watching. Her story is first-rate, as is Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance. It’s a shame the writers couldn’t come up with equally impressive stories for both Michael Myers and any of the other new characters.

But back to Laurie Strode. She’s agorophobic and lives in a secluded fortified compound. She’s estranged from her adult daughter Karen (Judy Greer), but she has a better relationship with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), who’s now in high school and along with her friends are the new natural targets for Michael Myers. But even Allyson implores her grandmother to “get over it” and get on with her life.

But Laurie is wise not to, as Michael Myers returns to start another murder spree. The story told from Laurie’s perspective is completely believable, and her scenes where she takes on Myers are the best in the movie.

Jamie Lee Curtis is excellent here, and she pretty much alone saves this movie from being horrible.  She does this because the rest of the movie is pretty bad, and with Curtis’ effective performance and watchable storyline, things balance out.

So, why is the rest of the film so awful?

Let’s start with the Michael Myers character. If only the writers had spent as much care crafting Myers’ story as they did Laurie’s. His story here makes little sense. One of the biggest problems is the constant need by several characters in this movie to know more about Michael, in effect teasing the audience with their questions, and then the film gives us absolutely nothing for answers.

In John Carpenter’s original classic, we knew nothing about Michael Myers other than he was, as Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis constantly reminded us, “pure evil.” Myers was somehow for whatever reason the embodiment of evil. Not knowing more about him worked here because frankly it didn’t matter.

In the sequels, we learned all sorts of laughable reasons for his existence, from he was Laurie Strode’s brother to he was controlled by an evil cult going back to the time of the Druids. None of these plot points did the series or the character any favors. In short, there has never been a decent explanation for who Michael Myers was or what he did other than he was “death on two legs.”  And in Carpenter’s original movie this worked just fine.

Actually, the best explanation may have come in Rob Zombie’s 2007 reimagining, which revealed Michael’s traumatic childhood. What that flawed film failed to do however was connect the dots from bullied child to supernatural killer.

The problem with Myers in this new HALLOWEEN is that everyone and his grandmother keeps asking “what’s Michael Myers’ secret?” “What’s it like to be Michael Myers?” “Why won’t he talk?” And for answers, the film gives us nothing. If you’re going to give the audience nothing, don’t ask the questions!

That being said, I did enjoy how Michael Myers walked in this one, as he had a little more skip in his step—even at his advanced age!— than he did in the older films, where he would have lost a race to Kharis the Mummy!

The other huge problem with HALLOWEEN is the supporting characters are all for the most part, dreadful. It’s as if the writers spent all their time writing Laurie Strode and had nothing left in the tank for anyone else.

Judy Greer, a fine actress, who I’ve enjoyed in such films as CARRIE (2013), the recent PLANET OF THE APES movies and the ANT-MAN films, is wasted here in a whiny role as Laurie’s adult daughter Karen who criticizes her mom for obsessing over Michael Myers but herself can’t stop obsessing about her own childhood or lack thereof.

Newcomer Andi Matichak is okay as Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson, but it’s not really her story, and even though at times it seems as if she’s going to become a central character, she never really does.

I like Will Patton a lot and pretty much enjoy everything he does, and his performance here as Officer Hawkins is no exception.  Patton is very good as an officer facing his own demons, as we learn that he was one of the officers at the scene of the original 1978 Michael Myers murders.

But the writers botch this character as well, as he simply is not in this story enough to make an impact.

All of the teen characters are negligible and forgettable.

But the absolute worst character is Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) who is Myers’ current doctor and who calls himself a protegé of the deceased Dr. Loomis. Sartain’s motivations make no sense at all, and the plot twist involving his character is one of the most ridiculous plot points in the entire series. It’s awful.

The only other character who fares well is young Jibrail Nantambu who plays 10 year-old Julian who’s being babysat by Allyson’s friend Vicky (Virginia Gardner). Nantambu is only in a couple of scenes, but he steals them all, and is the only other lively part of this film other than Jamie Lee Curtis.  That being said, Virginia Gardner’s best scenes are the ones she shares with Nantambu.

Director David Gordon Green and Danny McBride wrote the deeply flawed screenplay. They get Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode right, but that’s all they get right. The other characters and the rest of the story is a mess.

The same can be said for Green’s direction.  Truth be told, I did enjoy all the scenes where he pays homage to the original HALLOWEEN. For example, the scene where Allyson sits in her high school class listening to a teacher— played by P.J. Soles, who played Laurie’s friend Lynda in the original—  drone on about fate is exactly like a similar scene in the original where Laurie sits in class listening to a similar lecture. Laurie looks out the window and see Michael Myers. Here, Allyson looks out the window and sees her grandmother.

Laurie falls from a balcony the same way Myers does at the end of the original, and likewise, just as Donald Pleasence’ Dr. Loomis looks down to see that Myers has disappeared, here, Myers looks down to see that Laurie has disappeared.

These scenes work well, However, the gas station scene which is supposed to pay homage to a similar scene from HALLOWEEN 4 – THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS (1988) simply comes off as too derivative.

And what’s with Myer’s obsession with wearing a garage mechanic’s uniform? He wore similar garb in the original because he happened to kill a random man for his clothes, but in the sequels he seemingly has to find a way to wear the same kind of clothes all the time. Rather silly when you think about it.

The film tries to make a big deal about Myer’s mask. Everyone in the movie wants to know: What is it about this particular mask that sets off Michael Myers? Again, the film offer no answers.

Green also doesn’t give the film any decent pacing or true scares. It simply plays like your standard— and oftentimes bad— slasher horror film, complete with characters making bone-headed decisions.

John Carpenter’s original HALLOWEEN was ripe with suspense, including a final twenty minutes which was sweat-inducing. There’s no such suspense here.

Speaking of John Carpenter, he’s credited once more with scoring the music, and that is certainly a plus. His HALLOWEEN theme has never sounded better.

HALLOWEEN (2018) is a mixed bag of trick or treats. I loved the Laurie Strode storyline and Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance, but the rest of the film isn’t any better than HALLOWEEN’s worst sequels.

Somewhere druids are celebrating.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BABYSITTER (2017)

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Judah Lewis and Samara Weaving in THE BABYSITTER (2017)

I had so much fun watching THE BABYSITTER (2017) I almost watched it again immediately after finishing it.  It’s that good!

The best part of THE BABYSITTER is the script by Brian Duffield. It’s hilarious. Think SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010) meets STRANGER THINGS (2016-present) with a sprinkling of 80s slasher horror.

THE BABYSITTER is the story of twelve year-old Cole Johnson (Judah Lewis) who like other middle schoolers is dealing with issues of self-confidence and bullying. But he has a super hot babysitter Bee (Samara Weaving), who is a very popular high school student. She treats him well, and they enjoy spending time together.

Cole’s friend and neighbor Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind) dares him to stay up and spy on Bee after he goes to bed, to see what she really does late at night, the implication being that she invites friends over and has wild parties. Curious, Cole does just that, and when a bunch of friends do come over, and he spies Bee making out with one of them, he smiles thinking he is going to watch a fun time, but when Bee suddenly drives two knives into another teen’s skull, Cole discovers that Bee and her friends have an entirely different agenda, and it involves a cult, a sacrifice, and the blood of a young boy— Cole’s.

THE BABYSITTER starts out fun and never lets up. As I said, the script by Brian Duffield is nonstop funny.  The dialogue is fresh and lively, full of pop culture references, and the characters of Cole and Bee are developed long before the horror elements kick in.

Add some very creative direction by McG and you have an instant winner. McG uses clever touches like superimposing words on the screen for comedic effect, first person camerawork, and during the film’s second half plenty of blood and gore. None of it is all that scary, but it is very entertaining. That being said, the initial murder scene with Bee and her first victim is rather jarring.

McG has directed a lot of movies, including the standard Kevin Costner actioner 3 DAYS TO KILL (2014) and the lowly regarded TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009), the one with Christian Bale and without Arnold, a film that in spite of its bad reputation I actually liked quite a bit. That being said, THE BABYSITTER is by far the best film I’ve seen that McG has directed.

It was filmed in 2015 and was intended to be a theatrical release until it was bought by Netflix for a 2017 release on its streaming service.  Like other Netflix originals, the colors are exceedingly bright and vibrant. There’s a clean, crisp, look to the film which goes a long way towards making it watchable.

I loved the cast.

The two leads are perfect. As Cole, Judah Lewis is a nice combination of dorky and heroic. He’s a middle schooler without self-confidence, but he’s a nice kid who’s more mature than he thinks he is. And later when it’s up to him to save the day, he’s more than up to the task.

Samara Weaving steals the show as Bee, the babysitter. Early on she’s the ultra cool and sexy babysitter who really treats Cole right and does well by him. But when she becomes the cult killer, she’s all vamp and evil, and she pulls off both sides of Bee with relative ease. She’s very convincing in the role.

Weaving was also in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) and the TV show ASH VS. EVIL DEAD (2015-16), and I’ve enjoyed her most of all here in THE BABYSISTTER.

The other reason THE BABYSITTER works so well is the chemistry between Judah Lewis and Samara Weaving. In spite of the humor, the film portrays a very real relationship between Cole and Bee. They really do like each other, and the emotions felt between the two of them later when things go south, are genuine and real. The story works as more than just a lighthearted farce because Cole loves Bee and feels betrayed by her. These feelings come out loud and clear, despite the film’s over the top style.

Lewis and Weaving are also helped by a strong supporting cast.

Robbie Amell has a field day as Max, the ultra handsome friend of Bee’s who wants nothing more to personally end Cole’s life. Hana Mae Lee and Bella Thorne round out the cult team, and both turn in strong performances.

Leslie Bibb and Ken Marino do a fine job as the cliché clueless and syrupy sweet parents, looking and acting like they walked off the set of FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986). Their performances work because it’s all played for laughs.

My second favorite performance in the film behind both Lewis and Weaving belongs to Emily Alyn Lind as Cole’s friend Melanie. She obviously has a crush on Cole, and her scenes with him are some of the best in the movie.

So, THE BABYSITTER is light and funny, but how does it hold up as a horror movie? Surprisingly well! The film doesn’t skimp on the blood and gore, and the humor never becomes dumbed down or stupid, and so it never detracts from the story, which ultimately is about a group of cult members who want to harvest the blood of a young teenager.

At least that’s the plot. The theme is much more in line with needing to stand up for oneself, which is something that Cole never does early on, but that all changes later on in the film.

But make no mistake.  This one is played for laughs, so don’t expect GET OUT (2017). That being said, the humor is so sharp and the script and direction so imaginative, you’d be hard-pressed not to totally love this movie.

I know I certainly did.  In fact, THE BABYSITTER is the most fun I’ve had watching a horror film in a long time. And while I’ve never encountered a babysitter like Bee, everything else about this story, in spite of its over the top humor, rings true.

This Halloween, as you’re heading out to a party or to a haunted house tour or to a night of just plain old trick or treating, make sure—even if you don’t have kids— you hire THE BABYSITTER.

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