PICTURE OF THE DAY: BORIS KARLOFF In THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)

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Boris Karloff as John Gray, the body snatcher, in, no surprise,  THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)

The film is THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), the character is John Gray, and the actor, of course, is Boris Karloff.

THE BODY SNATCHER is one of my favorite Boris Karloff movies.

Karloff plays John Gray, the man who robs graves for Dr. Wolfe “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell).  This story is loosely based on the true story of Dr. Knox and grave robbers Burke and Hare.

Karloff’s John Gray is basically Burke and Hare put together.  It’s one of Karloff’s scariest roles, and it’s certainly one of his best roles in a non-Universal horror movie.  He’s got some great lines in this one.

The screenplay by Philip MacDonald is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s an atmospheric thriller, well-directed by Robert Wise.

This one also features Bela Lugosi in a small role.

But it’s Karloff who dominates this movie, who’s as frightening here as John Gray as he ever was. The photo above captures perfectly Karloff’s interpretation of Gray’s persona. Fearlessly robbing graves, he’s only too happy to collect his money, and happier still to torment his employer, the proper Dr. MacFarlane, reminding the good doctor that he’s every bit as guilty as those robbing the graves.

If you haven’t seen Karloff in THE BODY SNATCHER, you’re missing quite a treat.

Just look at that smile.  Makes you want to visit a cemetery late at night, doesn’t it?

So, if you get the sudden urge in the middle of the night to take a nature walk through a graveyard or to venture across the countryside in search of dead bodies, you can thank Boris Karloff in THE BODY SNATCHER, featured in today’s Picture of the Day.

Thanks for reading!

—-Michael

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MEGAN LEAVEY (2017) – Emotional War Tale, But Mostly For Dog Lovers

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I love dogs.

Like other dog owners, I’ve learned over the years that dogs not only provide companionship but contribute an awful lot to the households they live in.  I can’t imagine going through life without the dogs I’ve welcomed into my home.

And that was the main reason I wanted to see MEGAN LEAVEY (2017), a new war drama based on the true story of an American soldier and her bomb sniffing dog on duty on the dangerous desert roads of Iraq.

The other reason I wanted to see this one was Kate Mara.  I like Mara a lot, and I’ve enjoyed most of her movies, although it seems she is still waiting for that breakout role.  And while I don’t believe MEGAN LEAVEY is that movie, it still makes for a worthwhile trip to the theater.

It’s 2001, and Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) lives in New York City with her mom Jackie (Edie Falco) and her step dad Jim (Will Patton).  It is not a good situation, as her mom is about as sensitive to her needs as an acid bath, and when Megan is fired from her job, she hits rock bottom, reeling from both unemployment and the recent death of her best friend.  With nowhere else to go, Megan decides to join the Marines.  At the very least, it will get her away from her family.

Things do not go smoothly at first for Megan in the Marines either, but eventually she finds her niche, and it’s with the Marine’s K9 unit where she bonds with the unit’s most aggressive dog, a German Shepherd named Rex.  He’s so aggressive he’s difficult to train, and Megan is given the chance to train him since she’s the low person on the totem pole. She is able to break through to Rex and reach him in a way no one else had been able to do, and soon they are on missions together where Rex is the most sought after dog because of his superior bomb sniffing abilities.  All is well until Rex misses a bomb, it goes off, and— things change drastically after that.

MEGAN LEAVEY is an emotional movie, especially for dog lovers who understand the bonds formed between people and dogs.  At one point late in the film, Megan says that Rex taught her how to love again.  It’s a statement that on the surface might seem overdramatic, but for people who own dogs, it rings true.  Dogs do possess that ability.

And the dog who plays Rex in this movie nearly steals the show.  His expressions and intuitive eyes should earn him a Best Doggie Actor Nomination.

Kate Mara is excellent as Megan Leavey, which comes as no surprise.  She’s always good. As Megan Leavey, she really brings to light how messed up Megan’s life is at home, and so the audience is easily rooting for her to pull it all together somehow.

And I totally bought her relationship with Rex.  Not sure if I’d call this Mara’s best performance to date, but it’s up there.

Edie Falco also stands out as Megan’s incredibly annoying mother, Jackie. Likewise, Geraldine James makes her Dr. Turbeville just as irritating.  Turbeville is the veterinarian who takes issue with Rex’s aggressiveness and almost forms a personal hatred towards the dog, so much so that she tries to block Megan’s efforts to adopt him later.

Rapper Common does a nice job as the head officer of the K9 unit, Gunny Martin.  He’s tough on Megan, but he also sees promise in her and gives her the break she needs when she is given Rex to train.

Ramon Rodriguez is likable as fellow soldier Matt Morales who becomes Megan’s closest friend in the military, and the two flirt off and on in an on again off again relationship.

Bradley Whitford, who we just saw earlier this year in the horror movie GET OUT (2017) and who’s most famous for his role as Josh Lyman on the TV show WEST WING (1999-2006), plays Megan’s dad Bob.  She doesn’t live with her dad, but she should.  He’s always there for her with solid advice, and he provides a shoulder to cry on.

Will Patton, from the TV show FALLING SKIES (2011-2015), and who’s been in a ton of movies [my favorite being his role as Coach Bill Yoast in REMEMBER THE TITANS (2000)] plays Megan’s step dad Jim, a loser of a man who means well but is such a weak individual he just allows Megan’s mom Jackie to run the show.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite directed MEGAN LEAVEY and does a nice job with it.  The entire film looks good, and the scenes taking place in Iraq possess the necessary edge and suspense.

Is it as powerful as other war movies in recent years, films like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)?  No.  The script simply isn’t as strong, and the story doesn’t resonate as well.

The screenplay by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, and Tim Lovested is more interested in Megan Leavey and her personal plight, and how Rex helps her through it, than in a broader portrait of the war in Iraq, and that’s perfectly fine.  The film, after all, is entitled MEGAN LEAVEY.  As such, it’s more a tale of humanity lost and found again than about the plight of dogs and soldiers in the war in Iraq.

It’s also a much more effective movie for folks who love dogs.  If you’re not into dogs, the story might not move you as much, and that’s because if you remove the dog element from the story, what’s left is standard and ordinary.

I liked MEGAN LEAVEY.  To use a baseball analogy, since Megan Leavey is a huge Yankees fan in the film, the movie is not a home run, but it is a solid double, good enough to make its point and tell a satisfying story in the process.

I give this one two and half  doggie biscuits.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

47 METERS DOWN (2017) Doesn’t Ratchet Suspense Up

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In general, I like movies about sharks.

Obviously, there’s the classic, JAWS (1975), the best movie about a killer shark ever, but there have been a few other enjoyable shark movies as well, although admittedly not very many.  I thought last year’s THE SHALLOWS (2016) was rather fun, and even the subpar sequel JAWS 2 (1978) had its moments.

But most of the movies about killer sharks have been pretty bad.  Today’s movie 47 METERS DOWN (2017) joins that list.

Sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are vacationing in Mexico, enjoying the beaches and basically getting away from it all.  Specifically, they’re there because, as Lisa tells her sister, her boyfriend has broken up with her, claiming that he got bored with their relationship, and she thinks taking this trip will show him that she’s not so boring after all.  Really?  I think Lisa would be better served if she dropped her loser of a boyfriend and found someone else rather than trying to impress a guy who dumped her for being boring.

Anyway, the film wastes valuable minutes early on setting up this back story which is a waste of time since the audience knows exactly what this movie is about and isn’t sitting there at this point thinking, Gee, I wonder what’s going to happen next?  We know exactly what’s going to happen next.  The film easily could have opened with the sisters on the boat getting ready to dive into the water inside the shark cage. Instead, we have to sit through a dull opening back story before the sisters finally meet a couple of fun loving young men who convince them to take the shark cage tour under water.

The boat belongs to Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine), and although the sisters still have reservations about taking the cage underwater, the two guys go first and they come back up without incident.  I found this plot point strange.  They’re there on a date.  Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Lisa and Kate to go underwater with their respective dates rather than with each other?

Anyway, Lisa and Kate do go underwater, the sights including a large shark, are fabulous, and for a brief moment they are happy they made the trip, but then the line breaks and the cage falls to the ocean floor, which is 47 meters down and well out of range for their radios, and so they are not able to communicate with Captain  Taylor.  To do so, Kate has to leave the cage and swim up into the shark infested waters to reach Taylor by radio.

And the waters are full of sharks, and so the rest of the movie is about the sisters trying to survive long enough to be rescued.

This sounds like a very exciting movie, but strangely it is not.  The whole thing is all rather flat.

You’d think that a tale about two women trapped in a shark cage underwater surrounded by sharks would make for one relentless thriller, but that’s not what happens here.  Instead, there’s some rather uninspiring direction by Johannes Roberts. And there just isn’t much suspense here.

The film also struggles with realism.  While I’ve seen worse CGI effect, the sharks don’t look all that real.  I never believed that these women were being hunted by real sharks.

I also never felt the fear that these women should have felt.  They might have been stuck in an elevator for all I knew, rather than in a shark cage.  Their emotions were never that intense.

Part of this is the script by director Roberts and Ernest Riera.  The dialogue is hardly memorable, and the sisters get stuck saying things like “I don’t want to die!’  and “Help us!”  There’s definitely a lot of whining going on.  I wanted to see them react and fight to survive.

The two leads, Mandy Moore as Lisa and Claire Holt as Kate are adequate, but when they go underwater and they’re wearing their oxygen masks, which is for the majority of the movie, their personalities become like their faces, hidden by water and their masks.  I thought they grew increasingly dull as the film went along.

And Matthew Modine, seen last summer as the questionable scientist Dr. Martin Brenner in the hit Netflix TV show STRANGER THINGS (2016) is wasted as Captain Taylor.  We hardly see him in the movie at all.  For most of the movie we just hear his voice over the radio, saying things like “Don’t leave the cage,” “We’re coming to save you,” “Stay in the cage,” “Do you have any threes?  Go fish.”  Okay, that last quote isn’t real, but it could have been.  That’s the kind of emotion Modine displays as Captain Taylor.

I was really surprised at how dull this film was.

Maybe Lisa’s boyfriend had the right idea after all.

—END—

IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) – Quiet Horror Movie Frighteningly Real

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IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) is everything that the rebooted THE MUMMY (2017) is not.

It’s simple in its execution, it’s believable, it’s frightening, and its depiction of horror on the big screen is as pure as it gets.  The only thing the two films have in common is they opened on the same weekend.

IT COMES AT NIGHT takes place during a time when some unknown disease has crippled the world, thrusting people into heavy-duty survival mode.  We meet a family of three, the father Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) just as they’re dealing with Travis’ grandfather Bud (David Pendleton), who has succumbed to the disease.  They perform a mercy killing and then burn the body.

The family lives inside a house which they keep locked and boarded up, and they don’t venture outside without gas masks.  With all contact with the outside world shut down, they can only guess as to what is going on.  All they know is that infections happen and people die.

Things are relatively calm for them until one night a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home.  When they learn that he has a wife and young son, they debate whether or not they should invite them inside.  On the one hand, they know it’s best not to trust anyone, but on the other hand there is safety in numbers, especially since the surrounding woods are seen as threatening, as no one knows what is really happening, other than people will do anything to survive.

They decide to invite Will and his family into their home, and the two families work together, until the inevitable matter of trust or lack thereof begins to rear its head and mess with their minds.

IT COMES AT NIGHT is an example of movie making at its finest.  Writer/director Trey Edward Shults has taken a simple straightforward story— it’s basically THE WALKING DEAD without the zombies, and in fact, shares the intensity of the show’s best episodes— and made it compelling and frightening, all without gimmicks or special effects.

The best part about this movie is Shults’ directorial style.  The bulk of the action takes place inside the boarded up home, and as such makes for a very claustrophobic experience.  The audience definitely shares the feelings of isolation with the characters.

The film is quiet and unassuming.  There are no major special effects or extreme scenes of violence and carnage, yet the suspense is high throughout.  A walk into the surrounding woods at night is a sweat-inducing experience.  The camera stays in close with characters, who we get to know and care for.

And that’s because Shults’ screenplay is a good one.  He creates three-dimensional characters who we care about, and so as the movie goes along and lines are drawn between the families, you don’t want to see either family harmed.  It makes for some wince-inducing storytelling.

It also creates a threat— an unknown disease— that works as a major menace in the movie even though we know absolutely nothing about it, other than it kills.  It puts the audience in the same place as the characters, and it works wonderfully.

Joel Edgerton, an actor I like a lot, is very good here as the head of the household, Paul. He trusts no one and armed with a shotgun will kill without hesitation to protect his family, but he also is extremely sensitive and caring towards his son Travis.  He goes out of his way to explain to Travis why he does certain things and why these difficult decisions have to be made.  Travis comes off as a dedicated family man who must do whatever it takes to protect his family.

I’ve seen Edgerton in a bunch of movies, and I’ve pretty much enjoyed him in all of them, from his role as Tom Buchanan in THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), to his fine work opposite Johnny Depp in BLACK MASS (2015), to his battling aliens in the rebooted THE THING (2011).  Edgerton’s work here is as good as ever.

Carmen Ejogo, who played Coretta Scott King in SELMA (2014) and who also just starred in ALIEN: COVENANT (2017), plays Paul’s wife and Travis’ mom, Sarah.  She’s sufficiently serious and thoughtful.  No one in this film is a loose cannon or an idiot.  As such, you care about them all.

Christopher Abbott does a nice job as Will, the man who breaks into their home and then claims he was just looking for supplies for his wife and little son.  Abbott makes Will a fine three-dimensional character.  There’s something less than trustworthy about him, yet he does have that family, and the suspicion about him could certainly stem from his own agenda, that he has his own family to take care of.  Again, it puts the audience in the same seat with Paul- do you trust Will, or not?

Also excellent is Riley Keough as Will’s young wife Kim.  Like the rest of the cast, she creates a three-dimensional character.  Kim is also involved in a sub-plot where teen Travis develops a crush on her, and the two share some very interesting scenes.  Keough, by the way, is the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, making her the granddaughter of Elvis Presley and Priscilla Presley.

And Kelvin Harrison Jr. really stands out as Travis.  For most of the film, Travis is a quiet introspective young man who is very sensitive.  We see the horror of what’s going on in their world through his eyes.  It makes some of the film’s more disturbing scenes all the more powerful as we experience them along with Travis.

Travis is also prone to having vivid dreams, several of which make for some frightening moments in the movie.  The dreams are symbolic of the dreams of youth, although in this case, they are all dark and nightmarish, showing us firsthand that this is now the world that young Travis has been left with.

It’s also worth noting that the family here is of mixed race.  Paul is white and Sarah is black.  While refreshing, it’s also the type of thing that needs to happen more and more in the movies, and when it does, it’s important to celebrate it.

While I loved IT COMES AT NIGHT, it does have some flaws, and I can see how some people might be disappointed by it.  For one thing, the threat here is never explained, and while I didn’t have a huge problem with this, had the film taken that next step and immersed us into a specific threat, it might have been a stronger movie.

I saw it with an audience full of teenagers, and when it ended, they were vocally disappointed. Someone said, “It comes at night?  Nothing came!”  I wanted to lean over and say in my best Donald Pleasence voice, “Death came at night.”  Because, really, at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.  The specific threat isn’t important.  If the characters aren’t careful, they’re going to die.

IT COMES AT NIGHT shares a similar tone and feel with the quiet zombie movie MAGGIE (2015), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I liked IT COMES AT NIGHT much better because it packs a bigger punch with its horror elements and with the suspense.

If you like your horror pure and simple, without convoluted stories or  overblown special effects or gratuitous blood and gore, if you simply like to be scared, and to watch a story about characters you care about thrown into a situation which puts them in extreme danger, then IT COMES AT NIGHT is the movie for you.

It’s the type of horror movie that’s good for the genre, a horror film, like the recent GET OUT (2017), that makes horror fans proud.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE SKELETON KEY (2005)

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The following IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on THE SKELETON KEY is a reprint from 2011.  John Hurt, who passed away in January, appears in the film in a supporting role.

—Michael 6/8/2017

 

I first reviewed THE SKELETON KEY (2005) when it was released theatrically in 2005.  I liked it then, and I was curious to see how the film would hold up several years later.

THE SKELETON KEY is a Hoodoo tale set in New Orleans.  Hoodoo is different from Voodoo, as Hoodoo is African American magic while Voodoo comes from Haiti, but in movie terms, they’re pretty much the same thing:  black magic, evil spells, and witchcraft.

Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) accepts a position to care for stroke victim Ben Devereaux (John Hurt) in his southern home.  Devereaux  is paralyzed and has lost the ability to speak, and he’s become too much for his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) to care for on her own, and so their lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) hires Caroline.

Violet gives Caroline a skeleton key that supposedly opens every door in the house, but Caroline discovers that the key doesn’t open the door to the attic room.   Violet informs Caroline that the room is off limits, and she tells Caroline the tale of how over a hundred years ago the room belonged to two servants who practiced Hoodoo.  When they were caught teaching their black magic to the children of the house, they were murdered, but supposedly, their spirits remain in the house.

Caroline begins to believe that Violet isn’t “all there,” and when the mute Ben tries on several occasions to communicate to Caroline, asking for help, apparently fearful of his wife, Caroline concludes that her patient’s life is in danger.  She even confides her fears to Ben’s lawyer Luke Marshall, who tells her he can’t believe such a thing, that it doesn’t make sense to him.

Caroline decides that it’s up to her to save Ben from his deranged wife, but as she attempts to rescue him, she discovers there’s more going on inside that attic room then she at first believed.  It all leads to a twist ending that is actually better than most.

THE SKELETON KEY is a mildly entertaining story of witchcraft, black magic, and ghosts.  The best part about the film is the strong performances by the leads and a well-written plot that doesn’t fall apart in the end.

Kate Hudson is very enjoyable as Caroline.  She’s a likeable heroine, a sincere character who you worry about once her life is in danger.

The best performance in the movie though belongs to Gena Rowlands as Violet Devereaux.  She’s extremely believable as the southern woman set in her ways, fearing the ghosts who still live in her house, respecting the Hoodoo magic conjured up by those in the know, and who does not trust the young Caroline in her home.  It’s a terrific performance.

Peter Sarsgaard isn’t bad as the lawyer Luke Marshall, and as much as I like John Hurt as an actor, he’s largely wasted here as stroke victim Ben Devereaux.  He doesn’t speak, and he barely moves.  And no aliens explode from his chest.

THE SKELETON KEY is also a very atmospheric movie.  The scenes in and around the mansion give it a strong sense of place.  You can almost taste the jambalaya and smell the humidity in the air.  Director Iain Softley did a nice job capturing a spooky feel in this movie.

THE SKELETON KEY is definitely “quiet” horror.  Ehren Kruger wrote the screenplay, and he keeps things tame and mysterious, as opposed to shocking and in-your-face.  The movie does have a pretty decent twist ending, as those things go.  Most twist endings I see coming a mile away.  Not so, here.  Plus, a lot of twist endings seem tacked on, added just to make things different.  This twist works because it fits in perfectly with the story.

One thing THE SKELETON KEY is not is scary.  It’s not going to give you nightmares, but this doesn’t mean it’s not a successful horror movie.  It is.

It reminds me of some of the old Val Lewton horror movies, which were also subtle in the way they depicted horror, films like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943).  THE SKELETON KEY isn’t as good as these old Lewton classics, but it is similar in mood and tone.

THE SKELETON KEY is not a classic of the genre, but it does tell a good story, and it’s teeming with Hoodoo atmosphere.  It also gets better as it goes along and finishes strongly.

As the weather begins to heat up, and the humidity begins to rise, and you’re reaching for that tall glass of sweet iced tea, you might want to pick up THE SKELETON KEY.  It’s the perfect complement to a sultry evening.

—END—

 

 

 

ALIEN: COVENANT (2017) – Straightforward Thrill Ride

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As a sequel to PROMETHEUS (2012), ALIEN: COVENANT (2017) works rather well.  But as part of the ALIEN universe, not so much.

ALIEN: COVENANT takes place ten years after the events of PROMETHEUS.  In an opening that is all too reminiscent of the recent— and inferior— science fiction movie PASSENGERS (2016), the spaceship Covenant is on its way to colonize a new planet, filled to the brim with sleeping human beings and embryos traveling to their new home.  But catastrophe strikes, the ship is damaged, and the crew awakes to save the day.

But the captain is killed, leaving the second in command Oram (Billy Crudup) to secure the ship and have it ready to continue the voyage.  But before he can do so, the crew receives a garbled message which they recognize as human, and when they trace the source to a habitable planet that is much closer than their original destination, they decide to investigate.

Of course, awaiting them there are both mystery and danger, courtesy of the events of the previous film in the series, PROMETHEUS.  Director Ridley Scott, the director of the original ALIEN (1979) has planned a prequel trilogy to his original science fiction shocker.  ALIEN: COVENANT is the second film in this trilogy, and so we are crawling closer to the events of ALIEN, and the Alien creatures themselves are evolving towards those familiar monsters we know so well.

I enjoyed ALIEN: COVENANT well enough, mostly because it was a well-paced thriller that kept me interested throughout, at least until the end, as at that point it had become rather predictable.  But I liked it better than PROMETHEUS, which attempted to be high brow science fiction but didn’t quite achieve its goal.  I liked the ideas which PROMETHEUS put forth, but not the way they were executed.

ALIEN: COVENANT is a far less ambitious movie than PROMETHEUS, but it works because it doesn’t try to be something it’s not.  It seems satisfied to be a straightforward science fiction thriller.

Still, director Ridley Scott and his team of writers, John Logan and Dante Harper, continue to flirt with the deeper theme of the origins of life.  As android David (Michael Fassbender) says to his human creator at the beginning of the movie, “If you created me, who created you?”  That’s the million dollar question being put forth in both PROMETHEUS and ALIEN: COVENANT.  It’s a thought-provoking question, but a part of me has to laugh when I think that somewhere down the line the vicious alien creatures from these movies are going to be somehow tied into the origins of humanity.

This is Harper’s first screenplay, but John Logan has a list of very impressive writing credits, having worked on the screenplays to such films as GLADIATOR (2000), STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002), and SKYFALL (2012).

But again, ALIEN: COVENANT works best as a thriller, and director Ridley Scott does a nice job at the helm and creates some decent suspenseful scenes.  The sequence where two crew members first become infected, and then are raced back to the ship for medical attention where it proves far too late to save them is one of the more riveting sequences in the film.  And what would an ALIEN movie be without an alien bursting from someone’s chest?  Yup, there’s one of those scenes here as well.

Michael Fassbender plays the dual lead role of “brother” androids,  David, who we met in PROMETHEUS and as we find out in this movie was the only survivor, and Walter, a member of the crew of the Covenant.  Fassbender is very good, as always.

Billy Crudup plays the ineffective Oram, a man forced into the captain’s seat obviously before he was ready.  Katherine Waterston plays the Sigourney Weaver-type role, Daniels, the woman who pretty much becomes the leader of the group.  Danny McBride plays Tennessee, and I guess the ALIEN films like southern geographical character names, since Tom Skerritt’s character’s name in ALIEN was Dallas.  Here we have Tennessee.

None of the other characters are really developed all that well, and no one else in the cast really stood out.   They were all pretty much cardboard characters.

But I didn’t mind that all that much here, since I enjoyed the mystery and the thrills.  The alien scenes here are quite good, although they pale in comparison to the original and its sequel, ALIENS (1986).  I was intrigued for a while, as I was happy to go along for the ride with these folks as they searched for answers about the planet they had landed on and were hoping to call home.  Likewise, I enjoyed the alien scenes.

But about two-thirds of the way in things began to grow predictable and I pretty much knew exactly where this film was going.  I hoped that I would be wrong, and that I would be surprised instead, but that wasn’t the case.    In terms of plot, especially if you’ve seen other ALIEN movies, you can figure out the ending long before it occurs.

Even so, ALIEN: COVENANT was an enjoyable thrill ride for me, and in spite of not absolutely loving this one, I am definitely looking forward to the next installment of this reborn ALIEN franchise.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)

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Here’s my latest SPOOKLIGHT column, now up in the HWA February Newsletter, on the 1956 science fiction classic, FORBIDDEN PLANET, featuring Robby the Robot and a pre-comedic Leslie Nielsen.

Enjoy!

Michael Arruda

 

  IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

Being cooped up this winter has put me in the mood to take a trip– to the FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956).

Yep, today we’re entering the world of science fiction, a genre which most of the time goes hand in hand with horror.

FORBIDDEN PLANET is one of the more celebrated science fiction films from the 1950s, and it’s certainly one of the more colorful, filled with elaborate sets and eye-popping special effects, the latter of which were nominated for an Academy Award in 1956 but ultimately lost out to Charlton Heston and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956). 

FORBIDDEN PLANET is also famous for featuring Robby the Robot in his first film role. 

It’s the 21st century, and a spaceship under the command of Commander J. J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) arrives at the planet Altair on a mission to check on a previous expedition which had landed there years before.  Once on the planet, Adams and his crew are met by Robby the Robot who greets the space travelers and takes them to his owner, a scientist, Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon). 

Morbius explains to them that he is the last surviving member of the expedition which had originally landed on the planet, with the exception of Robby the Robot, which he built, and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis).  Morbius also explains that the members of his crew were all murdered by a ferocious creature, which strangely, later disappeared. Hmm, sounds suspicious to me!

It doesn’t ring true to Commander Adams either, and during the course of their stay, his crew is soon attacked by the invisible creature which makes a triumphant return.  Adams presses Morbius for more information, and the scientist reveals to Adams his discovery of the remnants of an alien race known as the Krell.  By using their machinery, Morbius was able to increase his intellect, which is how he built Robby, and also why he remains there on the planet, to learn as much about the universe as possible using the Krell’s abandoned technology.

This is all well and good, but Adams is most interested in protecting his crew from the unstoppable monster that seems intent on visiting their camp each night and killing as many of them as possible.  How does one stop an invisible creature?  That’s what Adams has to figure out, or else he and his crew will never be able to leave the FORBIDDEN PLANET.

Even though it’s loosely based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” FORBIDDEN PLANET has always been for me a visual feast that’s somewhat lacking in the story department.  Cyril Hume wrote the screenplay, and while the story itself is adequate, it’s nothing to get excited about.  Plus, I find Commander Adams and his crew terribly dull, and Dr. Morbius a thorough bore.  Anne Francis as Altaira is very easy on the eyes, and Robby the Robot is probably the most interesting character in the entire film.

It plays like an episode of the original STAR TREK, only less fun since Commander Adams and his friends are nowhere near as entertaining as Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy.  Like STAR TREK, the film is cerebral and thought-provoking, but unlike STAR TREK, it fails to instill much emotion. 

That being said, FORBIDDEN PLANET clearly influenced 1960s science fiction TV shows like STAR TREK and LOST IN SPACE.  The visuals used to depict the deceleration booths on the spaceship are reminiscent of the visuals used for the transporter beams on STAR TREK.  And the conversations between Robby the Robot and the human characters foreshadow the banter between Dr. Smith and the Robinson Robot on LOST IN SPACE

The influence of FORBIDDEN PLANET goes beyond 1960s science fiction.  When Morbius takes Commander Adams and his men on the tour of the underground Krell world, the visuals— some of the more impressive in the film— bring to mind the interior of the Death Star in STAR WARS (1977).  I almost expected to see Obi Wan Kenobi lurking around the corridors.

 Sure, the special effects in FORBIDDEN PLANET are dated by today’s standards, but there’s still something incredibly fun and awe-inspiring about Altair, the underground Krell world, and Robby the Robot. 

As much as I liked Leslie Nielsen in his later years when he enjoyed his “rebirth” as a comic actor in AIRPLANE (1980), THE NAKED GUN movies, and all the other spoofs he appeared in, his leading man shtick here is pretty wooden.  He’s hardly an inspiring commander. 

 Walter Pidgeon is also sleep-inducing as Morbius.  He’s your standard misguided mad scientist that we’ve seen in countless other movies, the genius with good intentions who just can’t seem to see inside himself and realize that his good intentions have gone awry.

 Anne Francis fares the best as Altaira.  She’s sexy, and her lively yet innocent personality is all the more refreshing because she’s surrounded by a bunch of one-dimensional space explorers.  Also in the cast as crew member Chief Quinn, is Richard Anderson who would go on to play Oscar Goldman in THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and BIONIC WOMAN TV shows.

 FORBIDDEN PLANET was directed by Fred M. Wilcox, most famous for his first hit, LASSIE COME HOME (1943).  FORBIDDEN PLANET was his only genre film.

 Robby the Robot was designed by Robert Kinoshita, and in addition to appearing in FORBIDDEN PLANET, Robby also appeared in the B-Movie THE INVISIBLE BOY (1957).  Robby went on to become one of the most recognizable robots in the history of the movies.  He also appeared in the LOST IN SPACE Season 1 Episode “War of the Robots” where he took on the Robinson Robot in one of that show’s more memorable episodes.

 There’s also a unique electronic music score by Louis Barron and Bebe Barron which is innovative and futuristic sounding, even if it does get to be annoying after a while.

 FORBIDDEN PLANET could certainly have benefitted from a stronger story, more interesting characters, and some human charm.  But you can’t go wrong with the imaginative special effects or the real star of this one, Robby the Robot.

 If you’re in the mood to visit a strange new world, check out FORBIDDEN PLANET, but be forewarned that a hungry invisible monster with an appetite for humans happens to call the place home. 

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