IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963)

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Since Christopher Lee was not interested in playing Dracula again after Hammer Films’ megahit HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), (it would take him a few more years to change his mind) Hammer made a sequel without him, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), in which Peter Cushing reprised his role as Doctor Van Helsing.

And after the success of THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, Hammer decided to follow it up with another vampire movie, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963), this one without either Lee or Cushing, and without their A-List director, Terence Fisher.  It was directed by Don Sharp.

All this being said, while not as highly regarded as some of Hammer’s best vampire movies, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE is nonetheless a well-made, well-acted, and extremely atmospheric vampire movie.  If not for a poorly conceived and executed conclusion, it would have been even better.

KISS OF THE VAMPIRE opens with a chilling pre-credit sequence which is quintessential Hammer.  As the village priest leads a burial ceremony, complete with grieving townspeople, a man Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), arrives upon the scene.  Taking a shovel, he drives it into the loose soil of the girl’s grave, causing a fountain of bright red blood to gush from underneath the ground.  Cue James Bernard’s rousing music score.  It’s a perfect beginning to another atmospheric Hammer vampire film.

A young couple Gerald (Edward de Souza) and Marianne Harcourt (Jennifer Daniel) on their honeymoon arrive in a small European village, stranded there temporarily when their car runs out of petrol.  They are invited to the castle overlooking the village, and there they meet their host, Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman) who introduces the couple to his family, which consists of his son and daughter, and he promises to get them some petrol so they can continue their journey.

In the meantime, Dr. Ravna invites Gerald and Marianne to a party at the castle.  It seems like the perfect idea, until Gerald and Marianne realize that their hosts— and in fact all the guests— are vampires!  We’ll take that petrol now, thank you very much!

When Marianne is abducted by this undead family, Gerald turns to the knowledgable Professor Zimmer for help in saving Marianne and destroying the vampires.

KISS OF THE VAMPIRE has a lot of things going for it.  First off, it looks fabulous.  In terms of atmosphere and capturing that whole vampire feel, it’s up there with THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).  Director Don Sharp deserves a lot of credit for the way this one looks.

And while its story is nothing new— young couple runs afoul of a vampire in a remote European village— there are parts of it that are refreshing.  For instance, instead of one vampire, we have a family of vampires, and eventually an entire congregation of vampires.

The Ravna family is charming, hospitable, and friendly.  They don’t seem like vampires at all.  It’s easy to see how Gerald and Marianne let their guard down so easily.  And unlike the traditional black and red garb that Dracula wears, Ravna and his vampires wear white robes.

Producer Anthony Hinds wrote the screenplay under his pen name “John Elder.”  Hinds wrote a lot of Hammer Films, including some of their best, films like THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961), THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964), and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968), to name just a few.  It’s an intriguing screenplay.

There are things, however, that don’t work all that well.

For starters, Noel Willman is no Christopher Lee.  His vampire Dr. Ravna is a little too non-vampiric. He comes off as polite and gentlemanly, with just a touch of vulgarity.  He’s hardly sensual, and the scenes where he commands his vampire women to do his bidding are difficult to believe.  The best part of his performance is it’s easy to believe when village officials refute accusations that he’s a vampire since he’s the area’s most upstanding citizen.  Willman pulls off this side of Ravna’s personality with ease.  The problem is he doesn’t do much with the other side, the darker side.  He’s not much of a vampire.

Barry Warren and Jacquie Wallis are both rather wooden as Ravna’s adult vampire children, Carl and Sabena.  The best vampire performance in the movie belongs to Isobel Black as Tania, one of the village girls held captive by the Ravnas, who is turned into a vampire.  Black’s Tania is sensuous, mesmerizing, and eager to drink blood.

Edward de Souza makes for an amiable hero as Gerald Harcourt, although he does tend to overract a bit at times, something he didn’t do in his earlier Hammer Film appearance, in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962).

Jennifer Daniel is less effective as heroine Marianne Harcourt.  She’s rather blah.

And as the main hero, the eccentric Professor Zimmer, Clifford Evans does an adequate job, although just as Noel Willman is no Christopher Lee, Evans is no Peter Cushing either, and Zimmer is no Van Helsing.  KISS OF THE VAMPIRE definitely misses a strong presence like Cushing or Lee.  But Evans is a very good actor, and in the scenes where Zimmer is not drunk, Evans makes him an effective vampire hunter.

While director Don Sharp makes KISS OF THE VAMPIRE a very atmospheric vampire movie, he doesn’t handle the horror scenes as well.  The scene where Harcourt and Professor Zimmer rescue Marianne from Ravna’s clutches lacks punch, and there really aren’t any memorable shock scenes in this one, other than the pre-credit sequence.

Then there’s the ending.

The conclusion where Professor Zimmer uses a black mass ritual to destroy the vampires was originally conceived for THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).  The vampire in that movie, Baron Meinster, was supposed to have been torn apart by a horde of vampire bats, unleashed by a ritual performed by Dr. Van Helsing, but Peter Cushing balked at this idea, claiming that Van Helsing wouldn’t resort to the dark arts to defeat a vampire, a decision I believe he was spot-on with.

So writer Hinds went with that idea for his ending to KISS OF THE VAMPIRE.  While it’s an intriguing idea, mostly because having bats attack and destroy your vampires is pretty unique when it comes to vampire movie endings, I’m still not sure I understand it. Professor Zimmer says his ritual will in effect turn the forces of darkness on each other, but I’ve never understood why this happens.  What is it that Zimmer does that makes the vampire bats attack the vampires?  Are they confused?  Vengeful that the vampires allowed Zimmer to perform this ritual?  It’s never clearly explained in the movie.

The sequence is ultimately done in by inferior special effects.  The incoming swarm of vampire bats descending upon the Ravna castle is filmed with cheap animation, looking like the bats in SCOOBY DOO cartoons.

The bats inside the castle look just as fake and don’t look any better than the bats used in the old Universal Dracula movies.  In fact, in color, they actually look a bit worse.

As such, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE has never been one of my favorite Hammer movies.  It’s not bad, but it lacks the sensuality and horror usually associated with the best of the Hammer vampire flicks.

Then again, if the vampiric Tania were to show up at your bedroom window in the dead of night, I doubt you’d be able to turn her away.  In fact, I’d wager to guess you’d be powerless to prevent her from giving you the KISS OF THE VAMPIRE.

Wild garlic, anyone?

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972)

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For a monster born more than 50 years ago, Godzilla may be more relevant now than ever before.

The movies just keep on coming.  The latest Godzilla movie arrived last year with SHIN GODZILLA (2016) to a limited release here in the U.S., and it received some pretty good reviews.  And there is another film in the works, GODZILLA:  KING OF MONSTERS, due out in 2019, from the same folks who made the Bryan Cranston GODZILLA (2014).  All told, there have been 31 Godzilla movies to date, and it doesn’t look like they’re stopping any time soon.

But today’s movie comes from that time when Godzilla was a silly monster superhero, constantly saving the world from the evil and bad monsters.  Silly stuff for sure, but also the type of Godzilla movie that a lot of us grew up with.

Today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT it’s one of my favorite Godzilla movies from the 1970s, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972).

This one sat on the shelf for a few years before being released in the U.S. in 1978 with the title GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND.  It was supposed to be a return to the traditional Godzilla format, after the offbeat message-driven GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971),  a film I did not enjoy as a kid, but it’s one that has definitely grown on me over the years.

In GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, aliens from outer space are once again trying to take over the Earth, and they employ space monsters Gigan and King Ghidorah to help them.  To defend the Earth, humankind turns to their giant monster friends Godzilla and Anguirus for help.

And defend the Earth they do, in one of the series’ better and longer climactic monster bashes.  And there you have it.  That’s pretty much GODZILLA VS. GIGAN in a nutshell.  What did you expect?  Shakespeare?

I find GODZILLA VS. GIGAN particularly enjoyable for two reasons.  The biggest reason is the aforementioned climactic battle.  It’s one of the best in the series.  That being said, in terms of monsters, this one gets off to a slow start, and it seemingly takes forever for Godzilla and Anguirus to show up, but once they do, nearly the final third of the movie is one long and rather exciting giant monster bout.

The other fun thing about GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is its human characters.  While the space villains are your typical bad guy types, the heroes in this one seem to have stepped out of a Scooby Doo cartoon.  They’re young and they’re hip.  Groovy, man!  We have a young cartoonist who draws monsters, a young woman looking for her kidnapped brother, and her male friend, a classic hippie who can’t seem to stop eating corn on the cob.  I guess Scooby snacks weren’t available. These three provide lots of light-hearted fun during the people parts of this monster flick.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is also the film famous for being the movie where Godzilla actually talks!  Yep, words come out of Godzilla’s mouth as he talks to his buddy Anguirus. It’s a ridiculously silly scene, and Godzilla and Anguirus sound like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo.  It’s awful.

The good news is, we live in the age of DVDs and Blu-ray, and these discs often include the original Japanese versions as well.  So, you can watch the original Japanese version in which Godzilla and Anguirus do not talk.  Oh, they communicate, but through sounds rather than words, and it’s very obvious that they are communicating.  Unfortunately, the American distributors didn’t think their Godzilla audiences were intelligent enough to figure this out, and so they added the ridiculous English language dubbing.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN was directed by Jun Fukuda, no stranger to the Godzilla franchise, as he directed five movies in the series. In addition to GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966), SON OF GODZILLA (1967), GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974) were all helmed by Fukuda.

Shin’ichi Sekizawa wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Takeshi Kimura. Kimura wrote the screenplays to some of my favorite Toho movies, including RODAN (1956), THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), and KING KONG ESCAPES (1967).

Are there better Godzilla movies?  Certainly!  But in terms of fun Godzilla movies, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN ranks near the top.

Of course, the big question for Godzilla fans is, how does Godzilla fare in this one?  Well, truth be told, it’s not one of the big guy’s better performances.  The costume looks rather silly here, and it does take Godzilla forever to finally show up and take on Gigan and King Ghidorah.  There really isn’t a good balance here of Godzilla scenes.  It’s pretty much all or nothing, with the “all” coming in the film’s final  30 minutes or so.  But the climactic battle is worth the wait.

Plus, Godzilla’s goofy appearance kinda fits in with the rest of the movie, a 1970s romp.  You almost expect to see Cheech and Chong show up.  It would actually make a nice companion piece with Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972).

Want a cure for the winter blues?  Watch GODZILLA VS. GIGAN and see Godzilla and Anguirus take on Gigan and King Ghidorah in an all-out monster bash.  It’s a sure-fire way to smash out the cold weather doldrums.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE CHANGELING (1980)

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I first saw THE CHANGELING way back when I was in high school.  It was a late night showing on HBO, and I gotta tell you, it creeped me out.  At the time, other than THE EXORCIST (1973), no other horror movie had gotten under my skin like this one.

So, I was very excited the other day to finally see THE CHANGELING again  on DVD, since I hadn’t seen it in years.  And while I have to admit that it didn’t scare me like it did back in the early 80s when I first saw it, it remains a first-rate horror movie.

It’s the type of horror movie that I love:  an A-list cast, talented director, and a sense of seriousness that lifts it above standard horror fare.  In short, it’s a high quality movie.

THE CHANGELING opens with a tragedy:  composer John Russell (George C. Scott) watches helplessly as his wife and daughter are killed in a freak car accident.  In an effort to rebuild his life, Russell moves across the country, from New York City to the suburbs of Seattle.  He moves into a mansion, a quiet home where he hopes to be able to work on his music in solitude.

He soon begins hearing strange noises at night, noises that lead him to discover a secret room, and inside this room he finds a tiny wheelchair and other items belonging to a child.  Russell soon realizes that there is a ghost in his house, a ghost of a child, and this ghost isn’t trying to frighten him away but on the contrary is trying to communicate with him.  Russell wonders if perhaps the reason this spirit is seeking him might be connected to the fact that he lost his daughter at a young age.

Russell begins to investigate the history of the house, and what he learns leads him to the wealthy U.S. Senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas)  who once lived in Russell’s house as a child.  Russell finds himself caught in the middle of a conflict, with supernatural forces on one side, and the power of a U.S. Senator on the other.

THE CHANGELING is a well-made, creepy and haunting horror movie that certainly belongs in the conversation when discussing the best haunted house/ghost story movies ever made.

Director Peter Medak does a wonderful job here.  The scenes in the house are creepy and atmospheric, and he makes full use of some truly memorable images.  A simple child’s wheelchair has never been so eerie.  Likewise, he uses the child’s voice to full effect and there are some shocking scenes as well, like one involving a bath tub.  The film also looks great.  It looks like something Hammer would have done had they still been in business in 1980 and had moved on to contemporary tales.

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The creepy wheelchair in THE CHANGELING (1980).

Peter Medak has a ton of credits, most of them TV credits, including episodes of SPACE 1999 (1976-77), HOUSE (2004), BREAKING BAD (2009), and HANNIBAL (2013-14), among many, many others.

THE CHANGELING boasts an A-List cast, led by the great George C. Scott, who does a bang-up job here as a man still in grief over the loss of his wife and daughter.  He makes John Russell believable as he channels his grief into helping the child ghost.  You understand why Russell becomes so committed to the ghost’s plight, as he sees it as his job as a parent— especially a parent whose daughter was taken from him at a young age—  to help this child who when alive had no one to help him.

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George C. Scott as composer John Russell in THE CHANGELING.

And while George C. Scott is remembered as a star actor who worked on such powerful films as PATTON (1970), he was actually no stranger to genre films as he made several in his career, including the science fiction thriller THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN (1973), Stephen King’s FIRESTARTER (1984), the TV movie THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1986), and the third EXORCIST movie, THE EXORCIST III (1990).

Likewise, veteran actor Melvyn Douglas adds class to the proceedings as Senator Carmichael.  THE CHANGELING was the first of back to back ghost story movies which Douglas made just before his death in 1981, as he also starred in Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY (1981), his final screen credit.

And while Douglas enjoyed a long and varied film career spanning five decades, he began and ended his career with horror films, as he also starred in THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) with Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, and Gloria Stuart, and in THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) with Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Dwight Frye.

Scott’s real life wife and frequent co-star Trish Van Devere appears as real estate agent Claire Norman who helps John with his investigation.  She’s very good in the role.  THE CHANGELING was the eighth time Van Devere and George C. Scott starred in a movie together. Trish Van Devere is still with us, as at present, she is 75.

And in another SPACE 1999 connection, Barry Morse appears briefly as a psychologist.  Morse is probably most famous for his role as Lieutenant Philip Gerard on the TV show THE FUGITIVE (1963-1967) but genre fans remember him fondly as Professor Victor Bergman on the science fiction show SPACE 1999 (1975-76).  Morse also appeared in the Amicus anthology horror movie ASYLUM (1972) starring Peter Cushing.

William Gray and Diana Maddox wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Russell Hunter.  Gray also wrote the screenplay for the original PROM NIGHT (1980) starring Jamie Lee Curtis. The screenplay here for THE CHANGELING is far superior to the silly slasher story of PROM NIGHT.

THE CHANGELING will creep you out in the same way that the modern day PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies do but with the added bonus of also delivering a solid story, something the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies have never done.  And that’s what sets THE CHANGELING apart from a lot of other horror movies.  It does something that most horror films do not do, and that is it generates scares and creates a sense of eeriness without skimping on its story.  In fact, the story just might be the strongest part of this film.

THE CHANGELING is one of the best movies of its type.  And while I didn’t find it quite as scary as I did way back in the early 80s, it still holds up very well today. In fact, if you’ve never seen it and you’re watching it for the first time, you might not want to watch it alone.  Just sayin’.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE GORGON (1964)

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Hammer Films’ THE GORGON (1964) reunited stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee with director Terence Fisher for the first time in five years, as they hadn’t made a movie together since THE MUMMY (1959).

Yup, in the late 1950s, these three had taken the world by storm with their megahits for Hammer:   THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), and THE MUMMY (1959).  But in the years afterwards, Cushing and Lee largely avoided horror films, although Cushing made a couple, and while Fisher continued to direct quality horror movies for Hammer like THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) neither of these films performed well at the box office.

So, when Hammer finally reunited its A Team, there were high expectations.  The result, THE GORGON, is a movie that comes oh so close to being another Hammer classic, and while it’s a very good horror movie, it falls just short of being a great one.

It’s funny, but the best and worst parts about THE GORGON are the same thing:  the gorgon!  The best part about THE GORGON is its subject matter, which for Hammer, a studio whose bread and butter had been its remakes of the old Universal horror movies, was a nice change.  Gone were Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy, and in their place was a new monster, taken from mythology, the gorgon, who turns her victims to stone, and with this new monster the movie also told an original story.

But the worst part of THE GORGON is also the gorgon, and that’s because the special effects here are abysmal.  We don’t actually see the face of the gorgon until the end of the movie, but once we do, it’s laughable.  Supposedly, a woman with snakes on her head was too much for make-up artist Roy Ashton to pull off successfully, which is a real shame since the rest of the movie plays like a superior thriller, and then it comes to a crashing halt when you see the actual effect.  As Christopher Lee has been quoted as saying, “The only thing wrong with THE GORGON is the gorgon!”

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It’s also kinda hard to believe, since Hammer’s monster make-up had always been excellent— Lee as the Creature in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and Oliver Reed as the werewolf in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, for example.  You just don’t expect the monster to look so bad in a Hammer Film, especially in one where everything else about it is so very good.

THE GORGON takes place in the early 20th century in a small European village known as Vandorf, where a series of murders has occurred where the victims have all turned to stone.  Professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), whose son was one of the most recent victims, arrives in Vandorf to investigate his son’s death, which has been reported as a suicide, a claim Heitz refutes.  Heitz’ investigation uncovers reports that a gorgon, Megera, had settled in the village years ago and legend has it that it still prowls the countryside at night turning its victims to stone.

Heitz visits an old acquaintance, Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing), a brain specialist who practices medicine in Vandorf, seeking his support, but Namaroff dismisses Heitz’ claims as pure fantasy. When Heitz himself falls victim to the gorgon, his second son Paul (Richard Pasco) arrives to seek answers about both his father’s and brother’s deaths, and he too is met with resistance from the town’s authorities and from Dr. Namaroff.  He does befriend Namaroff’s beautiful young assistant Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley), and she promises to help him learn the truth.

Paul receives more help when his professor from college, Professor Karl Meister (Christopher Lee) arrives in Vandorf to lend his support.  Together, they attempt to solve the mystery of the gorgon.

THE GORGON is a beautifully shot atmospheric horror movie, another gem by director Terence Fisher.  Its strength is its creepy atmosphere, especially the scenes inside the haunted castle overlooking the village of Vandorf, and its scenes of suspense, both expertly handled by Terence Fisher.  One of the more suspenseful scenes has Paul and Meister breaking into Dr. Namaroff’s home looking for evidence, and having to hide when Namaroff arrives.

The only thing lacking in this one is scenes of frightening horror.  Terence Fisher’s best horror films all have scenes like this— the Creature’s first appearance in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the staking of Lucy in HORROR OF DRACULA— but his lesser films tend to lack this visceral punch.  THE GORGON, as atmospheric and haunting as it is, lacks jolt and could really have used an infusion of terror.

For me, the best part of THE GORGON has always been the reuniting of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Their presence definitely lifts this movie.  With Dr. Namaroff, Cushing pretty much plays a variation of Baron Frankenstein.  He actually makes Namaroff even colder than Frankenstein, as in general, Cushing always instilled some saving charm for the Baron to keep him from being an outright villain, except for that one time in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969).  Here, Namaroff has no charm.  He’s actually quite the unlikable character.

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Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in THE GORGON (1964).

Christopher Lee is cast against type, as he plays the energetic and very charming Professor Meister.  Under a gray wig and beard, he looks like Albert Einstein’s cousin.  It’s a fun role for Lee, and it’s definitely fun seeing him play the hero, going against not only the gorgon but Cushing’s villainous Namaroff.

The only drawback is Cushing and Lee don’t have a lot of scenes together in this one.  Had they been in this one together more, it would have been an even better movie.

Barabara Shelley, always a class act, is very good as Namaroff’s assistant Carla, the woman who means well in spite of her sinister secret.  Yikes!  Michael Goodliffe is also solid as Professor Jules Heitz.  He provides a strong presence early on, so much so that his early death comes as a surprise.  You have the feeling that he’s going to be in this story for the long haul, but then the gorgon had other ideas.

The rest of the cast is rather wooden and unforgettable, although Patrick Troughton shows up as Police Inspector Kanoff.

And again, by far, the appearance of the gorgon at the end of the movie is the weakest part of THE GORGON.  The rest of the film is seeped in seriousness, and then you see the monster and it looks like an amateur student special effect.  Both Terence Fisher and Hammer stumbled in a similar way several years earlier with their Sherlock Holmes movie THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959). HOUND is a fabulous superior movie, one of Hammer’s best, and yet in the film’s climax the “hound from hell” is incredibly fake looking and a major disappointment.  However, it’s not as damaging as the effects in THE GORGON, because HOUND was a Sherlock Holmes movie, and the hound, phony looking or not, was not the focus of that movie, which was dominated by Peter Cushing’s masterful performance as Sherlock Holmes.  The gorgon in THE GORGON was a major character and as such, its lackluster appearance really takes this one down several notches.

But back to the plus side, my favorite Hammer composer James Bernard provided another exceptional music score for this one.

As a fan of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and all things Hammer, I really like THE GORGON.  However, it’s not on the same level as Hammer’s initial hits nor is it one of the best horror movies of the decade.  But it is an atmospheric original horror tale directed by a master of the genre, Terence Fisher, and it stars Cushing and Lee.  You could do a lot worse than THE GORGON.

Just don’t expect to turn to stone when at long last in the film’s conclusion you finally behold the creature’s face.  If you’re reduced to anything, it’ll be tears from the laughter at seeing so goofy a visage.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: IT FOLLOWS (2014)

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All the rage this year for horror fans has been the Netflix TV show STRANGER THINGS (2016), and with good reason:  it’s a phenomenal show.  Among the many things it gets right is its near-perfect homage to the horror films of the 1980s, especially the films of John Carpenter.

But for me, before STRANGER THINGS, a film that also captured the spirit of John Carpenter’s early works was the stylish horror flick IT FOLLOWS (2014).  While not a clear homage to the 1980s— in fact, it’s unclear when this film takes place, and this timelessness seems to have been done on purpose— the film definitely has that 1980s horror vibe.

In fact, there are several specific shots that bring to mind John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).  The neighborhood where the main characters live looks similar to Laurie Strode’s neighborhood in HALLOWEEN, and there’a scene where main character Jay sits in a classroom listening to her teacher drone on before looking out the window and seeing a threat.  There’s a similar scene in HALLOWEEN.  In that movie, Laurie looks out the window and sees Michael Myers’ car.  In IT FOLLOWS, Jay looks out the window and sees the old woman walking towards her.

IT FOLLOWS is a stylish, sexy horror movie that ranks as one of the best horror films to come out in the past ten years.

The film opens with a teenage girl fleeing from some unseen terror.  The next morning she turns up brutally murdered.

The action switches to 19 year-old Jay Height (Maika Monroe) on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a guy she is really interested in.  Gotta do a better job picking your dates, Jay.  After the two have sex, Hugh drugs Jay, and when she awakes, she is tied to a wheelchair.  Hugh explains that he’s not going to hurt her, but that he restrained her so he could tell her the truth:  he is being followed by some unknown entity, and now by having sex with Jay, he has passed on the curse to her, and if she wants to get rid of the curse, she’ll have to have sex with someone else.

Can someone say padded cell?

That’s certainly what Jay is thinking, until a naked woman shows up and starts slowly walking towards her and Hugh.  This entity only has to touch you, and you die, so as long as you outrun it, you’re safe, but it never stops pursuing you.  Ever.

Hugh quickly whisks Jay away from the woman and brings her back home, but he tells her to remember all that he told her.  Jay thinks he’s nuts and a creep, until once again, this time an elderly woman- who no one else seems to see- shows up at her school and follows her, causing Jay to up and run from the building.

Jay confides in her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and with the help of their friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), they vow to get to the bottom of this mystery and protect Jay’s life in the process.

While this may sound like just another bad teenager horror movie, IT FOLLOWS is anything but bad and recycled.  It’s exceedingly fresh and effective.

Let’s start with the entity, the “monster” that is inflicting harm on the teenagers.  This entity is unlike what we’ve seen in horror movies of late – it’s not a demon or a ghost or an alien, but then again, maybe it is.  The film never quite defines just what “it” is, and this is part of what makes this movie work so well.  It doesn’t need to define its villain.

What this force does is effective enough on its own.  It simply walks—never runs— towards its intended victim, and when it touches them, it kills them.  So, if you’re the hunted, like Jay, you have to constantly outrun this thing because it never stops, which reminded me a little bit of the premise from the first TERMINATOR movie way back when.  The fear here is its relentlessness.  Sure, it moves like a turtle, but it never stops, which means, eventually people like Jay are going to grow weary, tired, fall asleep, what have you, and that thing will catch up to them and kill them.

It also looks different to everyone who sees it, and to those it’s not hunting, it’s invisible.   This might not sound like much in the scare department, but you’ll be surprised at how creepy the image of an old woman walking listlessly towards the camera can be.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about IT FOLLOWS:  its simplicity.  Things here work on such an unpretentious level, and the movie generates scares so effortlessly just by having people walking towards their victims, it’s refreshing and for those of us who love horror it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell succeeds in making an extremely stylish and terrifying horror movie.  He also captures the feel of run down Detroit neighborhoods which adds to the mood of this one.

Mitchell’s work here clearly calls to mind horror movies from the 1970s and 1980s, especially the films of John Carpenter, and the look of this movie is helped a lot by its masterful music score by Rich Vreeland, listed in the credits by his nickname “Disasterpeace.”  The music has a major impact on this movie and is reminiscent of the electronic scores of John Carpenter.

The cast here is also excellent.  Maika Monroe is terribly sexy as Jay, and she succeeds in making her both strong and vulnerable at the same time.  Lili Sepe is just as good as Jay’s sister Kelly.

Keir Gilchrist nails his role as Paul, the slightly nerdy friend who has a thing for Jay and vows to protect her.  Likewise, Olivia Luccardi is excellent as Yara, as is Daniel Zovatto as their street smart friend Greg.

In addition to being a creepy horror movie, David Robert Mitchell’s script also works on a symbolic level.  The characters by having sex pass on the “curse” to the person they have sex with, like an STD or the AIDS virus, and like AIDS, while the entity can be controlled, it can never be eradicated.  It keeps following you forever.

There’s also a weird time element going on in the film which might be a distraction for some folks but wasn’t for me.  The film looks like it takes place in the 1970s/80s, and some of the action in this film backs this up:  the characters watch television on old TV sets which use antennas, no one uses cell phones, the teens play board games rather than video games, and the cars aren’t the newest models.  However, in several scenes, Yara is definitely reading from kindle device.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell has said he did these things because he wanted this film to be timeless, and I don’t have a problem with this.  It’s been done before.  One of the most famous horror series of all time, the Universal FRANKENSTEIN series, for example, never defined its timeline, and those films have always worked.

IT FOLLOWS is one of the more satisfying horror films I’ve seen in a long while.  To generate horror isn’t easy.  Those of us who write horror know this firsthand.  It’s certainly easier doing it with shock scenes and blood and gore, and so when someone comes along like David Robert Mitchell in this case and makes a film that is as unsettling as this one is with so few visual effects and traditional scares, that’s kinda special.

Definitely check out IT FOLLOWS, but if you look out your window and  see someone slowly walking towards you, someone that nobody else seems to be noticing, take my advice:  run!

—END—

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

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BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986) marked the fourth time director John Carpenter worked with actor Kurt Russell,  following  ELVIS (1979), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), and THE THING (1982).

Whereas time has been kind to both ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING—THE THING is often ranked #1 on horror fans’ “Favorite Horror Movie” lists— when they first came out, neither film was a hit.  In fact, THE THING was a box office bomb.

Kurt Russell wasn’t faring much better in 1986.  He had just come off a string of films that had performed very poorly at the box office, and the story goes that he was so worried about his box office slump that he told Carpenter to get someone else to star in BIG TROUBLE, but Carpenter told him not to worry, that he wanted him to star in the movie.

I wish I could say that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was a huge hit and rejuvenated the careers of both these artists, but that’s not what happened.  Like their previous few films, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA also tanked at the box office.

But like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA has enjoyed a resurgence.  Fans nowadays like this movie.   I saw it when it first came out, and I did not like it.  I liked it so little that I never bothered to watch it again.

Until now.

And that’s because I’ve been hearing fans say good things about the movie, and I thought it was high time I gave it a second viewing.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a strange movie.  It’s an action adventure that takes place in Chinatown, San Francisco and involves Chinese mysticism, which gives the film a supernatural element.  It’s also a comedy, meaning that the entire thing is played for laughs.

Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) go to the airport to pick up Wang’s girlfriend, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai).  While there, Jack flirts with a woman named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) which provides him with a few minutes of fun before a Chinese gang shows up and kidnaps Miao.

Jack and Wang give chase, but the gang eludes them and gets away with Miao.  Wang vows to get her back, and Jack agrees to help him.  I guess no one thought to call the police. Anyway, Gracie Law shows up at their doorstep and reveals that she’s a lawyer who knows all about the Chinese mystical underworld, and she wants to help Jack and Wang as well.  They also receive help from Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a bus driver who’s also an expert on Chinese sorcery.

They need all this help because Miao has been kidnapped by David Lo Pan (James Hong), a two thousand year-old sorcerer who’s cursed to walk the earth without his physical body.  To lift the curse, he has to marry a girl with green eyes, which is why he kidnapped Miao, because she has green eyes.  It turns out that Gracie Law also has green eyes.  Suddenly Lo Pan has more choices than he knows what to do with.  Life is good.  For a while, anyway, as soon Jack and Wang show up, and they’re all about taking down Lo Pan and his supernatural army.  Good luck with that!

As I said, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is played for laughs.  There isn’t a serious bone in this one’s body.

At first, I was really enjoying this one, and during the movie’s first half, I thought my opinion of it would change.  What wasn’t to like?  It was full of 1980s nostalgia, it had Kurt Russell, lots of colorful martial art action scenes, monsters, supernatural goings on, and a neat music score by John Carpenter.

But midway through, the movie runs out of gas, and I remembered why I didn’t really like this one back in 1986.  The martial arts action scenes start to get repetitive, and a major reason why is they’re simply not very good.

The script by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein also fizzles.  Early on, things are mysterious, and the dialogue is rapid fire funny, but later, once you know Lo Pan’s story, it’s pretty ridiculous, even it if is played for laughs.  I’ve seen more believable plots on SCOOBY DOO.  And the humor definitely loses its edge, mostly because after a while it’s simply Jack and Wang dealing with one unbelivable situation after another.

The film definitely gets goofier as it goes along, becoming flat our silly rather than focusing on the action and the adventure.  Had this one had more of an edge to it, and kept the humor in the background, it would have worked better.

Kurt Russell based Jack Burton on John Wayne, and it’s apparent right from the get-go. Russell is fun to watch here because he really does capture the Duke’s onscreen persona. Similarly, Russell based Snake Plissken in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK on Clint Eastwood, which is also clearly apparent.

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Kurt Russell as Jack Burton in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Things would change for Russell with his next movie, the hit comedy OVERBOARD (1987) in which he starred with Goldie Hawn.  And a series of hits would follow Russell over the next five years.

While Russell is entetaining in BIG TROUBLE, Dennis Dun is just OK as Wang Chi.  He lacks Russell’s charisma and larger than life qualities, which is too bad because one of the movie’s jokes is that Jack thinks he’s the hero, yet he’s constantly messing things up, and it’s Wang who’s the true hero in the movie, but at times, Dun doesn’t make this notion all that believable.

Kim Cattrall is the epitome of 1980s actresses, and she fits right in here.  She’s got the 80s hairstyle, and she plays Gracie Law with a mixture of strength and ditziness.  She could easily walk into the CHEERS bar for a drink.

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Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986).

Victor Wong is sufficiently knowledgable as Egg Shen, but James Hong is rather ineffective as main baddie David Lo Pan.  He spends most of the time behind make-up and special effects.

The special effects are OK.  They run hot and cold, and they’re really cheesy.  I guess that’s part of the charm for some people.

So, after my second viewing, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA remains not one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. Sadly, Carpenter would follow this up with the even worse PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987).  It would be a little while before Carpenter would find his stride again, and that would be with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1995).

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA means well.  It’s got tons of energy, and everyone looks like they’re having a grand old time.  But as the action becomes flat out goofy, the story doesn’t hold up, and the script doesn’t match the film’s inanity, as the dialogue and situations are never that funny, it all becomes rather tedious long before the end credits roll.

The trouble in Little China just isn’t all that big.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE MUMMY (1932)

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Here’s my latest IN THE THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Boris Karloff classic, THE MUMMY (1932), appearing now in the August 2016 edition of the HWA NEWSLETTER, and it’s a reprint of a column which originally appeared in those pages back in August 2009.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT:  THE MUMMY (1932)

By Michael Arruda

“It comest to life!” screams its movie poster.  It’s a Universal monster classic from the 1930s, and it stars Boris Karloff, but it’s not FRANKENSTEIN (1931).  It’s THE MUMMY (1932).

THE MUMMY showcases a masterful lead performance by Boris Karloff as the undead mummy, Im-Ho-Tep, exceptional direction by DRACULA (1931) cinematographer Karl Freund, remarkable mummy make-up by Jack Pierce, and unlike FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, a music score.

The screenplay for THE MUMMY was written by John L. Balderston, no stranger to classic horror tales.  Balderston adapted the play used for the screenply for FRANKENSTEIN (1931), which of course was adapted from the Mary Shelley novel, and he also wrote one of the stage versions of DRACULA, which served as the model for the Universal Bela Lugosi movie DRACULA (1931).

THE MUMMY opens in 1921 in Egypt, where an expedition led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) has just discovered the remains of an ancient mummy, Im-Ho-Tep (Boris Karloff).  Doctor Muller (Edward Van Sloan) warns Whemple and his young assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) not to ignore the ancient curse discovered along with the mummy, but the young assistant is too eager, and as he reads from the Scroll of Thoth, behind him, the mummy awakes.

It is probably the film’s most famous scene.  As the words are read, the camera focuses on the dead mummy’s face, and ever so slowly, the eyes open, and then the arm slowly moves.  When the mummy takes the scroll, the young assistant bursts into uncontrollable mad laughter, and as we learn later, “he died laughing.”

The action switches to 1932 (which was present day when THE MUMMY was released).  Im-Ho-Tep has shed his bandages and is using the alias “Ardath Bey.”  The make-up here by Jack Pierce is superb.  Without his bandages, Karloff really does look like the walking dead.

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Jack Pierce’s haunting mummy make-up, turning Boris Karloff into the resurrected undead mummy, Im-Ho-Tep.

 

Im-Ho-Tep attempts to bring his long lost love, the princes Anck-es-en-Amon back to life.  He discovers that her soul is now in the body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who happens to be in love with Joseph Whemple’s son, Frank (David Manners).  Im-Ho-Tep wants to kill her so he can resurrect her as an undead, but Frank Whemple and Doctor Muller stand in his way.

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Helen (Zita Johann) falls under the spell of Im-Ho-Tep (Boris Karloff) in THE MUMMY (1932).

In THE MUMMY, Karloff delivers another wonderful performance.  His mummy is much more evil than the later depictions of a mute bandaged monster lumbering around the countryside strangling people.  Yet, Karloff also makes Im-Ho-Tep a somewhat sympathetic character.  We feel for the guy, and his plight to get his long lost love back.

But the best part of THE MUMMY is the cinematography and direction by Karl Freund.  Freund does a more impressive job at the helm of THE MUMMY than either of his more famous counterparts, Tod Browning directing DRACULA and James Whale directing FRANKENSTEIN.

Freund creates an unforgettable opening sequence of the mummy resurrected, a haunting and dreamlike flashback sequence (the scene where the slaves get spears thrust through their chests still makes me wince), and he imbues the scenes inside the museum with creepy shadows and mysterious lighting.

If there are any flaws, it’s the ending, which is quick and shot in a choppy clumsy manner, not at all like the rest of the movie.

So, as we make our way through the lazy hazy days of summer, grab a beverage, dig your toes into the sands of the Egyptian desert, and welcome Im-Ho-Tep into your living room.  Just don’t say the words of that ancient curse too loud.

One guy dying laughing is more than enough.

—END—