Saturday, October 30, 2010

Horror in Shades of Gray

With Halloween almost here, here's an index of horror movie reviews here at Shades of Gray (so far... there are many more reviews to come in 2011).

From "Blood on Black Satin"by Gulacy and Moench

Studies in Terror
A Bucket of Blood
Attack of the Giant Leeches
The Amazing Mr. X
Arsenic and Old Lace
The Best of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff
Black Sunday (with Barbara Steele)
Bride of the Gorilla
Dementia 13
The Devil-Doll
The Devil's Hand
The Ghost Breakers

The Giant Gila Monster
The Ghoul (with Boris Karloff)
Horror Hotel (with Christopher Lee)
House on Haunted Hill (with Vincent Price)
I Bury the Living
The Industructable Man (with Lon Chaney, Jr)
The Invisible Ghost (with Bela Lugosi)
Isle of the Dead (with Boris Karloff)
Three Tales of "The Lodger" (with Jack Palance)
Mark of the Vampire (with Bela Lugosi)

Nightmare Castle (with Barbara Steele)
Night of the Blood Beast
The Old Dark House (with Boris Karloff)
The Screaming Skull
Scream of Fear (with Christopher Lee)
The Seventh Victim
Sound of Horror
Strangers on a Train
Universal Pictures kinda-sorta adapts Poe (with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff)
The Vampire
Voodoo Island
The Walking Dead (with Boris Karloff)
The Wasp Woman
X the Unknown

Vampires and Other Walking Dead
Bela Lugosi as Dracula (with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr.)
Dead Men Walk
I Walked With a Zombie
King of the Zombies
The Last Man on Earth (with Vincent Price)
The Return of Dracula
Return of the Vampires (with Bela Lugosi)
Revolt of the Zombies
Zombies of Mora Tau

Frankenstein and Other Mad Doctors
The Ape (with Boris Karloff)
The Ape Man (with Bela Lugosi)
Atom Age Vampire
Before I Hang (with Boris Karloff)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Captive Wild Woman
The Corpse Vanishes (with Bela Lugosi)
Dr. X Double Feature (with Fay Wray and Humphrey Bogart)
Frankenstein 1970 (with Boris Karloff)
Mad Love (with Peter Lorre)
The Mad Monster
The Man Who Changed His Mind (with Boris Karloff)
The Monster Maker
Three Tales of Frankenstein's Monster (with Boris Karloff)
The Vampire Bat (with Fay Wray)
Voodoo Man (with Bela Lugosi)

Wolfmen and Other Hairy Beasts
The Abominable Snowman
The Werewolf
Werewolf of London

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rushing toward 'Nine Days of the Ninja'!

This Rumiko Takahashi drawing of fierce Ninja Chicks rushing through the autumn landscape captures the urgency of Ninja everywhere over Nine Days of the Ninja! 

The Nine Days of the Ninja Blogathon will take place November 1 - 9 across many of my blogs. I hope some of you out there will participate with posts of your own. Click here for more information.

Join us for the deadliest of Blogathons!

Monster Week with Chris Samnee

Artist Chris Samnee (who drew the above illo of Catwoman about to be in big trouble) celebrated Halloween by posting portraits of Universal's classic horror monsters at his blog. Click here to check out all the horror!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mohammed Monday: Big Mo and Halloween

With his love of terror, gore, dismemberments, and beheadings, can there be any doubt that the Prophet Mohammed (may peas be upon him) would have LOVED Halloween?

And given that his modern-day followers love to dress up in all sorts of costumes, can there be any doubt that the Blessed Messenger of Allah would have celebrated October 31 with a costume of his own?

Friday, October 22, 2010

'Luana: Jungle Girl' by Frazetta and Manning

In 1968, the promoters of an Italian jungle flick with a cute little Asian actress as a female Tarzan-type character took the unusual step of creating a daily newspaper strip drawn by artist Russ Manning to promote the film. At the time, Manning was the lead artist on the Tarzan daily and Sunday newspaper strips, and to this day, few comic book artists are as closely associated with the character of Tarzan than Manning. This approach undoubtedly created additional interest in the film from fans of Tarzan. In addition to Manning, famed artist Frank Frazetta--who had painted numerous iconic covers for paperback editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels--was hired to produce additional promotional art. (One of Frazetta's pieces can be seen at the top of this post.)

To read the "Luana" strips, click on each one for a larger version. The story isn't all that--with the last three strips being a summary of the movie--but Russ Manning's art is as gorgeous as always.

You can read my review of the "Luana" movie at Movies You (Should Die Before You) See, but you've already seen the worthwhile version with the Manning strips. For some exposure of another jungle-dwelling babe, click here for a little "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle".

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Extra Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Marcos and the Monsters

Pablo Marcos is one of the many underrated and under-appreciated artists who made the Marvel Comics horror magazines of the 1970s worth reading. Here are samples of his artwork, in which he draws every major Marvel horror character save Ghost Rider and the Werewolf.

The final two illos relate to Marcos' horror masterpiece "Tales of the Zombie," a strip that was primarily written by Steve Gerber. Click here to read my review of it (and I can't encourage you enough to follow the Amazon link and buy your own copy if you're a fan of well-done horror comics).

As always, click on the illos to see larger versions. Check out more artwork by Pablo Marcos at his website.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
The Catty Paulette Goddard

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

'The Ghostbreakers' features a great cast,
great cinematography, and a weak script

The Ghostbreakers (1940)
Starring: Bob Hope, Willy Best, Paulette Goddard, Paul Lukas, and Anthony Quinn
Director: George Marshall
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A risk-taking radio reporter (Hope) and his butler Alex (Best) set out to protect an heiress (Goddard) when it seems a sinister Cuban businessman (Lukas) is going to try to scare her out of her ancestral home with a fake haunting.

"The Ghostbreakers" is a fast-paced, messily plotted horror comedy that has Bob Hope playing an oddly contradictory character--one who constantly talks about how scared and cowardly he is, but who invariably chooses the most direct and dangerous path toward problem solving at every opportunity. He is ably supported by Willie Best, who plays his man-servant and is slightly more prone to fear than his boss but who also seems to be a little smarter; and by Paulette Goddard, the chipper and stubborn heiress who refuses to be intimidated and who doesn't understand the meaning of the word "no." This trio of performers play fabulously off each other, each displaying fine perfect timing and switching back and forth between the roles of "straight man" when the jokes are flying.

The comedic performances of the stars is both enhanced and contrasted by stylish and moody cinematography and great sets that puts a number of straight horror movies from the 1940s to shame (including some of Universal's later Mummy pictures and all the "House of..." monster mashes). A number of sequences would be perfectly at home in a horror film, such as when the characters arrive on the island housing the haunted castle, and the one where Paulette Goddard is stalked by a zombie.

Unfortunately, the excellent cast and crew are laboring in the service of a badly done script. While each joke and comedic set-piece are funny by themselves, the plot that links them together is so badly constructed that it can't even be described as flimsy. Several of the red herrings obscuring who the true bad guy is are left to just flop around on the floor without any tie-in whatsoever to anything else that's going, and no explanation is offered as to how the weird caretaker of the castle and her zombie son fit into things. Presumably, they are in league with the villain, but that's never made clear, nor is there any sort hint provided to whether the son truly is a zombie or not. Worse, the zombie is the object of one of films pure moments of slapstick when within this space of a few minutes it manages to put on (or be placed in) a suit of armor and ambush Hope and Best with a morning star. Did the zombie disguise himself? Did his mother? Did the villain? It's just one of many disconnects in the film that cause its second half and conclusion to be less-than-satisfying.

Speaking of zombies and disconnects, this is one of those films I've heard is supposed to be racist through and through, because Willie Best plays a character that is a spooked black servant who is the butt of a number of jokes from Bob Hope. However, if one actually watches the movie, one sees that Best's character actually gives as good as he gets--lobbing more than just a few zingers Hope's way--and is no more or less cowardly or scared than any other character in the film. Yes, he's a clear-cut comedic figure in the film, where Hope swings between comedic and heroic, but he stands watch over the lady in distress even while knowing a killer is on the prowl, and he joins with Hope in a physical fight against the zombie. I had the same reaction to this film as I had to "King of the Zombies", another film featuring a supposedly horribly racist portrayal of a black character, but in actually watching the film, the black servant turns out to be the brightest character in the film. (Admittedly, the Mantan Moreland-portrayed character in that film is the stereotypical "scared negro servant" who happens to be working for a racist moron.)

And in both those supposedly racist films, the racist stereotypes are mild when compared to black characters in modern films, such as the over-sexed, loudmouth cop that Chris Tucker portrayed in the "Rush Hour" series, or just about any film you care to mention that has featured a rapper or former rapper trying his hand at acting. It seems to me that some commentators should actually try watching this movies instead at coming at them with preconceived notions.

Despite its flaws, "The Ghostbreakers" is an entertaining comedy in the "creepy old house" vein that lovers of that sub-genre would do well to check out. Bob Hope fans will likewise find the film interesting, as the character he portrays is a little different from what emerged later once his comedic film persona was firmly established. All in all, it's a movie that should bring extra fun to the Halloween season.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mohammed Monday: Nightflight to Jerusalem

Today's act of soul-shattering blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed (may peat be upon him) originally appeared at The Whited Sepulchre.

The drawing portrays Mohammed on his trip to Jerusalem, riding a flying horse with the face of an man. Yes... today's torrid act of base blasphemy depicts a bit of magical weirdness that you believe to be absolute truth if you are to be a good Muslim. Yet, somehow, when drawn and posted to a blog, it becomes BLASPHEMY!

If you want to know what motivates "Mohammed Mondays," click here. I intend to keep this going at least through the end of the year, because the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing (to paraphrase a good man). Submissions are welcomed.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Karloff is 'The Man Who Changed His Mind'

The Man Who Changed His Mind (aka "Body Switch", "Doctor Maniac", and "The Man Who Lived Again") (1936)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, John Loder, Donald Calthorp, and Frank Cellier
Director: Robert Stevenson
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Dr. Laurence (Karloff) devises a method to switch the intangible elements that makes up a being's mind from one body to another, but snaps when he is mocked by the scientific establishment and a rich newspaper publisher (Cellier) pulls his patronage for the doctor's research. He decides to use his method for his own gain, up to and including switching bodies with the son of his former patron (Loder) so he can marry the beautiful and intelligent Dr. Clare Wyatt (Lee).

"The Man Who Changed His Mind" is perhaps one of the most intense horror films from the 1930s that I've come across. From the first time Boris Karloff's chain-smoking mad scientist crosses paths with Anna Lee's brilliant and independent-minded surgeon, you know things are going to end badly for more than one of the film's characters. But even with that knowledge, you're not going to guess how badly and for whom until the story is all but done unfolding. Even after nearly 75 years, this is a horror film that countless modern-day filmmakers need to study and emulate' their films would be far better for it.

The film is driven by a tight, expertly paced script that presents just the right mixture of horror and humor to make both aspects as effective as possible, especially given that most of the humor is of a pitch-black variety. The cast is also excellent and everyone is perfect for their parts and talented enough to bring depth to even the thinnest of characters. Dr. Laurence's assistant Clayton could easily have been just an obnoxious and unpleasant jerk, but Donald Calthorp brings enough humanity to the role that the viewer had a little empathy for him. The same is true even of John Loder's character who belongs to that most loathsome of 1930s comic relief characters--the wise-cracking, corner-cutting reporter; the superior script and dialogue makes even that character type bearable, and the viewer will actually fear for him when he becomes a target of Laurence instead of cheering the villain onward to success just to shut him up.

But the film's coolest--and most chillingly unexpected-- scenes is the one where Dr. Wyatt takes on the mantle of "mad scientist". The lighting, editing, and superior acting talent of Anna Lee all add up to the character going to a dark place that few heroic characters go even in the nihilistic modern horror movies.

There is a hard coldness on her face and in her eyes that would have made even the mad Dr. Laurence shiver in fear, as she works switches and buttons on the mind-switching contraption. It's a performance that puts to shame even the one that I until now considered Lee's best--her turn as another strong-willed woman in Bedlam (review here, at the Boris Karloff Collection). It truly is one of the greatest moments in horror films, and I don't understand why more critics who fancy themselves experts in Great Cinema don't include it on their lists of "Top Fifty Horror Moments." Heck, it might even belong in the Top Ten!

"The Man Who Changed His Mind" is one of the many under-appreciated films from the early days of the horror genre. It is superior to a number of the more famous movies--including the ones from Universal that everyone has seen--and I encourage anyone who hasn't seen it to give it a try.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Universal's forgotten wolf man

Werewolf of London (aka "Unholy Hour") (1935)
Starring: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, and Valerie Hobson
Director: Stuart Walker
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

While in an isolated Tibetan valley searching for a rare flower that only blooms under moonlight, botanist Wilfred Glendon (Hull) is attacked and wounded by strange creature that is half-man, half-beast. Upon his return to London, with his valuable prize in his possesion, he discovers that he now himself transforms into a man-beast by moonlight. The only antidote for his conditition is found within the flower of the rare plant he brought back with them, but when another werewolf (Oland) steals them, will Glendon end up spreading lycanthropy throughout London, perhaps even killing his beloved wife (Hobson) in the process?

"Werewolf of London" was Universal Studios first attempt at making a werewolf movie, following on the heels of their vampire, Frankenstein Monster, and mummy. It is a solid, entertaining werewolf film that may leave some modern viewers scratching their heads. A weird Tibetan flower supresses lycanthropy? Werewolves remain in control of their mental faculties, but are dominated by a psychopathic need for bloodletting and killing? Werewolves may be strong and fast, but they can be killed as easily as anyone else... no silver bullets or special blessings needed?

What many modern viewers may not realize is that much of what we now consider "fact" about werewolves was invented with "The Wolf Man"--like immunity to any weapon but silver bit--so the absense of these in "Werewolf of London" is to be expected.

Although not terribly successful when first released, and long overshadowed by the run-away hit that was "The Wolf Man", "Werewolf of London" is in some ways superior to "The Wolf Man".

The plot in "Werewolf of Londing" is more solid by far, and the film has a firm grip on its view on werewolves and lycanthropy where "The Wolf Man" seemed to lose track of itself from one scene to the next and kept vacilating in its approach and explanations for lycanthropy. "Werewolf of London" also sports far cooler transformation scenes, despite the fact the werewolf make-up is somewhat minimalist when compared to Shaggy Larry six years down the road. The climax of "Werewolf of London" is also more suspenseful and emotionally impactful than that of "The Wolf Man", in part because this film has a villain seperate from the main werewolf--Warner Oland plays quite the despicable character in this film. (This is also one of the most rare of early horror films: The comic relief characters are actually funny, and they don't detract from the flow of the movie at all!)

On the downside, with the exception of the transformation scenes, "Werewolf of London" is pretty drab when it comes to cinematography. Compared to "The Wolf Man" (or earlier Universal horror efforts even), the sets and lighing are also somewhat dull and uninspired, with Glendon's "artificial moonlight machine" being particularly dissapointing. The biggest strike against this film when compared to "The Wolf Man" is the fact that the main character, Glendon, comes across as an unsympathetic jerk, where, Larry Talbot is basially a nice guy. A few minutes showing him as he was before becoming infected with lycanthropy would have helped a great deal in making us care a little more about him, and thus involve us more strongly in the film.

Although not perfect, "Werewolf of London" is a movie that remains entertaining 75 years after its release. It'll be time well-spent for any big-time fan of werewolf movies.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mohammed Monday :
Who Is the Next Molly Norris?

If you want to know why I'm posting oh-so-offensive cartoons of the Great and Powerful Prophet Mohammed (may pizza be upon him), I refer you to Aaron Goldstein. Writing last month on The American Spectator's website, he wondered, "Who Is the Next Molly Norris?"

Click on the link. You'll find the "why" there.

And here's this week's cartoon. It was originally spotted at Always On Watch. It demonstrates how delusional the Mohammedan idolators are, even more than their own insane behavior does.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Karloff Triple Feature: Frankenstein's Monster

Boris Karloff started the decade of the 1930s playing Frankenstein's Monster, and he ended the decade the same way.

Frankenstein (1931)
Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, Dwight Frye and John Boles
Director: James Whale
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Henry Frankenstein (Clive), a true madman with dreams of "knowing what God felt like" when he created life, successfully animates a monster made from parts taken from several corpses. Unfortunately, abuse heaped on his creation by an idiot assistant (Frye) and Frankenstein's own missteps causes the creature (Karloff) to go bezerk and flee into the countryside. Soon, Frankenstein's Monster comes back to haunt him and those he cares about.

"Frankenstein" is one of the great monster movies that started the horror genre, so I feel a bit awkward about not liking it more than I do. I feel like I should be giving it a rating of 8 or 9, but all I feel it deserves is a low 7.

That is not to say that the film doesn't have some great moments. Boris Karloff gives a great performance as the creature who is clearly yearning for the sort of comforts every human being wants, but receives nothing but abuse. It's truly the only film portrayal of the Monster that made me feel sorry for it. The sets are also spectacular, the lighting and camerawork fantastic, and all the actors give excellent performances (but Karloff truly excels).

Where the film doesn't work for me is on the level of script and character interaction. I find it impossible to believe that Frankenstein's fiance Elizabeth (Clark) would want to go with a walk in the park with Frankenstein after the raw, total madness she witnessed when he brought his creature to life,and I find it even harder to believe that their mutual friend Victor (Boles) wouldn't be doing everything in his power to keep her from the marriage. I understand that horror movies Back In The Day tended to move rather swiftly along as far as characters go, but the lack of reaction to Henry's insanity really ruined the entire picture for me.

I think this movie is a must-see for anyone who considers themselves a film-buff or a fan of the horror genre, as it (along with "Dracula" and "White Zombie") set many of the ground-rules for horror films that persist to this day. However, as gorgeous a film as it to look at, as great as all the actors are, it suffers from some major story issues that may get in the way of your enjoyment.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester
Director: James Whale
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

As monster-maker Henry Frankenstein (Clive) is recovering from the near-fatal injuries he received at the hands of his monstrous creation, he is approached by the sinister Dr. Pretorius (Thesiger). Pretorius is a mad scientist, who, like Frankenstein, is obsessed with creating life. He has allied with Frankestein's creation (Karloff) in order to force Frankenstein to create a mate for it, so that Pretorius may learn Frankenstein's techniques. Frankenstein must create this other creature, or his own wife (Hobson) will be killed.

"Bride of Frankenstein" is presented as a direct sequel to the 1932 film "Frankenstein", but is somewhat divorced from that movie. First off, it's set up like a fictional story being told by Mary Shelley (Lanchester). Second, the film has a higher comedy element than the original. Third, a number of characters are somewhat different than they were in the first film, with Frankenstein being less of a complete lunatic, who actually wants to give up the whole monster-making gig until Pretorius and Frakenstein's Monster force him to make a mate for the original creation; and Frankenstein's Monster, who has grown in intellect while wandering injured in the wilderness.

What remains the same, however, is the tragic quality of the Frankenstein's monster. While the monster commits acts of genuine evil--where in "Frankenstein", he was mostly acting out of ignorance or self-defense--these are balanced by the presentation of the monster as a deeply lonely, unhappy creature who has no place in, purpose in, or connection with God's creation. The fundementally tragic nature of Frankenstein's creation, and the fact that the most evil players in the story are Frankenstein and Pretorius, has never been driven home in any other Frankestein film than in the final ten minutes of "Bride of Frankenstein." That final reel is one of the greatest horror sequences to ever appear on screen.

"Bride of Frankenstein" is also remarkable for the amazing sets and camera work. The fantastic use of lighting and quick cuts, and the twisted angles in the buildings serve to underscore both the horror and some of the scenes of absurd humor in the film.

Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Edgar Norton and Boris Karloff
Director: Rowland Lee
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathbone) returns with this family to his ancenstral home in the hopes of rehabilitating his father's name. His high hopes soon turn to bitter ashes as the villagers refuse to give him a chance--except for the police captain (Atwill) who has more cause to hate the Frankenstein name than any of the others--and he is soon drawn into a sinister scheme launched by psychopathic former assistant of his father (Lugosi) to restore the Frankenstein Monster (Karloff) to life.

"Son of Frankenstein" is one of the true classics among horror films. As good as "Frankenstein' and almost as good as "Bride of Frankenstein", it features a top-notch cast, great camera-work, fantastic sets, and a story that's actually better constructed than any other of the Universal Frankenstein movies.

Particularly noteworthy among thge actors are Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone. Lugosi is gives one of the best performacnes of his career, and as I watched, I once again found myself lamenting that he didn't do more comedic roles than he did. He manages to portray the crippled Ygor as funny, pitiable, and frighteing, showing greater range in this role than just about any other he played. The funny bits show a fabulous degree of comedic timing that Lugosi only had the opportunity to show on few other occassions. Rathbone is also excellent, as the high-minded dreamer who is driven to the edge of madness by frustration, fear, and guilt. (He may be a bit too hammy at times, but he's generally very good.)

Lionel Atwill is also deserving of a fair amount of praise. I think he is better here in his role as Krogh than in any other film I've seen him in. In some ways, "Son of Frankenstein" is as much Krogh's tale as that of Wolf von Frankenstein so pivotal is his character to the tale, and so impactful is Krogh's eventual confrontation with the monster that tore his arm off as a chld. Atwill also manages to portray a very intelligent and sensitive character--perhaps the most intelligent character in the entire movie.

One actor that I almost feel sorry for in this film is Boris Karloff. The monster has very little to do... except lay comatose and go on mindless rampages. ANYONE could have been in the clown-shoes and square-head makeup for this film, because none of the depth shown in the creature in the previous two movies is present here. (While the whole talk about "cosmic rays" and the true source of the creature's lifeforce is very interesting, the monster isn't a character in this film... he's just a beast.)

If you would like to add these films to your own collection, they are avaiable on DVD for reasonable prices at The best value is the "Frankenstein Legacy Collection", which includes the three films discussed above, two others, and lots of bonus features. Click on the cover images below for details.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Weird Al: Too Hot to Hoot!

Here's another music video shot in black-and-white: A Weird Al song written entirely in palindromes.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Peter Falk first starred with 'The Bloody Brood'

The Bloody Brood (1959)
Starring: Peter Falk, Jack Betts, Barbara Lord, Robert Christie, and Ron Hartmann
Director: Julian Roffmann
Steve's Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A small-time hood and drug dealer (Falk) becomes enamoured with the beatnik lifestyle and with nihilism. He concocts the murder of a messenger boy, as a sort of performance art piece to show how meaningless life and death are. However, he didn't count on the boy's brother (Betts) who is willing to go to any length to find the killer.

"The Bloody Brood" is a lowkey crime drama set against the backdrop of beatnik clubs and parties. It's a rare film in that it doesn't paint the counter-culture as inherently corrupt and evil, but instead shows outsiders coming in and ruining it, such as Falk's gangster character Niko, and his spineless partner-in-murder, Francis (Hartmann). Instead, the film shows the true beatniks to be into harmless "kicks", and as young people who feel alienated from society, such as Ellie Brook (Lord).

The star of this film is, in every way, Peter Falk. He plays his character with a sense of quiet menace that commands the attention of the viewers. It's easy to see how Niko manages to become the center of the beatnik group--it's not just his money, his access to party-pads, or his ability to spin pop-culture nihilistic philosophical discussions out of the tiniest of logic threads... it's his charisma. And Falk shows a charisma in this role as I've never seen him display in any other role. (And it's not that he is the only good actor in the film--everyone in the cast maes a good account of themselves.)

The film is also well photographed, taking full advantage of the black-and-white medium, as well as the beatnik settings. I found it interesting how the only soundtrack present was whatever music might be playing at a club or a party, but that this music still underscored the drama tremendously.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

'Zombies Calling' is top-notch zombie comedy

Zombies Calling (Published by SLG Publishing, 2007)
Story and Art: Faith Erin Hicks
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a Canadian university is overrun by zombies, it's up to geeky horror film lover Joss to save herself and her roomates, armed only with the Rules of Survival gleaned a lifetime of watching zombie movies and a spork.

For about two decades, SLG Publishing (formerly Slave Labor Graphics) and its imprint Amaze Ink has been one of the American comic book industry's best-kept secrets. They have quietly been publishing high-quality, quirky comics and graphic novels that really deserve far more recognition and readership than they've ever gotten.

One such book is Faith Erin Hicks' hilarious "Zombies Calling", a breezy graphic novel that moves effortlessly between drama, humor and horror. It's a well-crafted book that entetains and amuses from the first page to the last. Writer/artist Hicks presents a cast of characters that are likeable and funny and that she gets us to care about. Like a good zombie movie, we want them to escape the brain-hungry hoards because we like them... and when Rule Two comes into play ("One person makes the ultimate sacrifice so the rest can live"), the book as as suspenseful as any zombie movie you've seen.

In fact, this book will remind you so strongly of "Zombieland" that you may think Hicks was copying that movie. The truth is, Hicks' book predates "Zombieland", and it's either proof that Great Minds Think Alike, or the writers of "Zombieland" are familiar with the well-kept secret that is SLG Publishing, and intimately familiar with "Zombies Calling".

If you're looking for some light Halloween reading, or perhaps a gift for a zombie lover in your life, you can't go wrong with "Zombies Calling".

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

'The Seventh Victim' has more emphasis on mood than story coherence

The Seventh Victim (1944)
Starring: Kim Hunter, Hugh Beaumont, Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, and Mary Newton
Director: Mark Robson
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Mary (Hunter) leaves school to find her older sister (Brooks), who has gone mysteriously missing after selling the family business. After a detective she hires is murdered, Mary turns to the man her sister was having an affair with (Conway) and her sister's husband (Beaumont) for help, but when it becomes apparent that her sister had become involved with a secretive cult of devil-worshipers, will there be anyone she can trust?

There is no question that "The Seventh Victim" is a highly unusual and artfully made horror film. Every scene, and nearly every frame, is full of horror, dread, and a mysterious dream-like quality. Almost every scene holds within it either a double-meaning, hidden meaning, or foreshadowing or illumination of a plot development that is so subtle that viewers may not catch it until they watch the film a second time. Like a dream, the film unfolds like a jumble of barely connected scenes and events, events that on the surface seem simple or perhaps a bit nonsensical, but each has a deeper meaning that ties them to one another and the overall theme of the movie.

And the theme of the film can best be described as "no one gets out alive." Although a simple mystery tale on the surface, the deeper thrust of the film is to present life as a journey that takes us from innocence, to corruption, and ultimately death.

Of course, I may be imposing something on the film that isn't actually there, because, like the dreams it seems to emulate, many of its elements are only half formed. The relationship between Mary and her sister remains murky to the viewer, despite Mary's insistence they are close; there are two romantic plots that are even more murky; the Satanic cult at the film's heart is a bizarre and ill-defined contradiction in that they abhor violence yet are committed to spreading death in the world; and it's never quite clear whether the Tom Conway character is a hero, villain, or something in between. That said, the fact that the first place Mary visits after leaving the all-girl's convent school she had been living at is a shady restaurant called Dante's, and the recurring themes of darkness and death throughout the movie provide more than ample support for my interpretation.

Like all of the films Val Lewton produced for RKO, "The Seventh Victim" is a remarkable and unique film. Although not as groundbreaking as "Cat People" or as intense as "The Body Snatcher", it is still fascinating to watch, especially because its vagueness of meaning and plot, and the way its various scenes don't seem to quite connect to one another, should be weaknesses yet become the very things that keep viewers engaged as chills run down their spines. It may not be the sort of film to show at a free-wheeling Halloween party, but anyone who claims to be a fan of "intelligent horror" needs to experience this movie.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

'Werewolf By Night' is one of Marvel's best

Essential Werewolf By Night, Vol 1 (Marvel Comics, 2005)
Writers: Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Mike Friedrich,
Artists: Mike Ploog, Don Perlin, Tom Sutton, Gil Kane,
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

"Essential Werewolf By Night, Vol 1" presents 500 pages from a series that ranks among Marvel's finest output during the 1970s, and that presented some of the best chillers from the House of Idea's horror wave. It also happens to be one of the best bit of pulp-style werewolf fiction ever produced, be it in movies, books, or comics.

The star of the stories is Jack Russell, a typical, upper-middle class 18-year-old who doesn't like his apparently over-judgemental step-father, but otherwise gets along with this family, namely his mother and his sister Lissa. On his 18th birthday, Jack discovers a problem bigger than his step-father... a family curse manifests itself, and Jack turns into a werewolf. From then on, for at least three nights a month, under the full moon, Jack turns into a beast-man and stalks the hills and streets of Southern California.

"Werewolf By Night" is a series that has weathered the passage of time well. While we have some references to swingin' singles and the occasional hippy finds his way into the series, most of the stories draw upon traditional sources of horror stories (like the aforementioned werewolves, ancient curses, psychics, demons, mad scientists, and even legendary creatures like the Wendigo). Two of the very interesting aspects of the stories in the book is Jack's flirtation with the movie industry--it is set in Southern California, so how could he not find a job with a movie studio?--and the shadowy Committee, which is pops up every now and then to threaten Jack's family and his furry alter-ego. The series pulls off a great mix of horror, adventure, and pulp-fiction sensibility.

Another reason for the book's timelessness is that it is brimming with top-notch stories where the creators are at their finest. Mike Ploog does some of his best work ever during the first six tales in the book, and his art continues to be top-notch on every story he illustrates. Similarly, Tom Sutton and Gil Kane turn in excellent work on the stories they illustrate, with Sutton doing some of the very creepiest work of his illustrious career. (Only one or two of his "I, Vampire" stories a decade later would even come close to the terrifying atmosphere he brought to the "Terror Beneath the Earth" story.)

Similarly, the writers on the strip do some of their best work, with Len Wein and Gerry Conway bringing Jack and the supporting cast around him to fully realized, three-dimensional life. Even many of the villains that Jack fights are intriguing because they have depth to them. The series also manages to maintain a tight control of its direction and continuity, something that the contemporaneous book "Ghost Rider" failed to do. In fact, the only time the sense of internal consistency and believability of the series falters is during its cross-over with "Tomb of Dracula." (There are just a few too many coincidences in the story, and the background for Jack's curse doesn't seem to quite fit with what we've learned previously.) This misstep is minor, however, and it hardly detracts from the over all excellence of the work that everyone did on these comics. Heck, even the team-up between the Werewolf and Spider-Man is a great read, something which I wouldn't have thought likely!

"Essential Werewolf By Night, Vol.1" is a high watermark for comics in general. I recommend it highly for all comics fans. (Sadly, it appears to have gone out of print.)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Get Down Goblin!

Here's a black-and-white music video from the "so bad it's good [or at least amusing]" category, presented in anticipation of Halloween. Love it or hate it, you may find yourself humming song's refrain after you've watched it

For a little background on Jan Terri, not to mention more of her videos, check out this post at Andrew Green's blog Who Wants Taters?

Friday, October 1, 2010

A rarely thought-of Halloween classic

October is here, and ghosts and goblins and creepy crawlies will soon be showing up all over the place. I'll be celebrating the Month of Monsters with reviews of some of the very best Creature Features to ever grace the silver screen all this month at Terror Titans--click here to check them out--and with a special series of Halloween-themed images on Picture Perfect Wednesdays, here.

However, I'm kicking it all off with one of the best yet often-overlooked Halloween-themed pictures I'm aware of.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Starring: Cary Grant, Jane Adair, Josephine Hull, Peter Lorre, Raymond Massey, Pricilla Lane, and John Alexander
Director: Frank Capra
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

It's October 31, and on the very day celebrity theatre critic Mortimor Brewster (Grant) is to secretly marry his fiance (Lane), everything that can go wrong does go wrong. He discovers his spinster aunts (Adair and Hull) are serial killers who have been murdering lonely old men out of what they consider kindness, and that his uncle (Alexander), who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt, has been burying the bodies of in the Panama Canal he is burying in the basement. To make matters even worse, Mortimor's homicidal brother (Massey) shows up, along his unscrupulous plastic surgeon (Lorre) partner-in-crime.

"Arsenic and Old Lace" is one of the best comedies ever made. It's a dark screwball comedy that's driven by its sharp, witty dialogue and characters so loveable you forgive them for being insane serial killers.

Technically, the film is also a masterpiece of direction and staging. The multi-layered routines that take place at several points in the film are gut-busting hilarious, with the one where Grant is describing a bad play he once reviewed to Lorre, while the action of the plot he is relating unfolds behind him. It's even more spectacular the way the film hits the ground running and never stops to catch its breath until the final, snicker-worthy scene. It also doesn't let the audience catch their breath, but keeps viewers giggling and laughing as the film's pace grows more and more frenetic.

Everyone in the cast is perfect, with the interplay between Grant and the two murderous little old ladies--with Grant becoming increasingly agitated and panicky, and Adair & Hull growing increasingly confused because they see nothing wrong in what they do--being particularly hilarious. In fact, Grant's comic timing was probably never more perfect than in this film, and that even includes the one I rank as my favorite comedy starring him, "Bringing Up Baby".

Special mention also needs to go to Lorre, who mumbles his way through his part with hilarious, drunken obliviousness; and to Massey, who manages to be funny and menacing at the same time, in his Boris Karloff-spoofing role.

With its October 31 setting, its dark subject matter, its intelligent script, its perfect staging, and top-notch performances by some great actors, "Arsenic and Old Lace" is great Halloween viewing no matter what sort of movies you're into. (I don't think it makes for good party viewing/background noise, as it's a film that deserves and requires your attention, but it's a definate must-see.)