Friday, June 24, 2011

The Vampire's Ghost

NetFlix 2.6/5
IMDB 6/10
My Rating: 6/10

Casablanca meets Dracula by way of Mayberry RFD.  A tiny African port town becomes increasingly unsettled due to vampire attacks.  Could the world-weary owner of the local bar be responsible?  

Like The Catman of Paris, this was another Republic Pictures horror flick of the 1940's that attempted to grab some of the box office of the Universal creature features.  Republic at the time seemed to be like Amicus to Hammer, that smaller studio that had less to work with, yet kept nipping at the heels of the more popular kid on campus.  Vampire's Ghost, like Catman of Paris, is largely forgotten today and didn't achieve the notoriety of any of Universal's vampire movies, yet it's surprisingly entertaining and even trendsetting...  But we'll get to that in a moment.

This is a very tidy little picture, running a brief 55 minutes yet packing in a lot of story.  The main characters are our hero, Lump Brickwood, his wife-to-be, Damsel O'Helpless, the obviously evil bartender/vampire Fallon, and Fearsome Priest.  Toss in a bunch of stereotype black natives played by US southern-accented black actors and you've got a movie.  Our tiny African port town is slowly coming unhinged.  Native drums pound ceaselessly, conveying all sorts of messages of doom that some of the cast occasionally translate for us (Some of these messages are strikingly specific, like, "Vampire sighted entering forbidden temple via left entrance, latitude and longitude coordinates to follow").  It seems there are scattered attacks around the area which involve neck wounds, victims drained of blood, and superstitious natives going batshit.  Our heroes laugh most of this off, except for Fearsome Priest, because main man Lump is in town to marry his sweetie and after all, so far the only victims are natives and who cares about them?

Alas, things go tits up when a white person is finally attacked and panic sets in.  Obviously, no one suspects any of the main cast because, again, they're all white and therefore above suspicion, despite the fact that town bar owner Fallon has superhuman strength, can't be injured with guns, and doesn't reflect in mirrors.  And speaking of our vampire, let's smack head-on into the movie's biggest problem...

Fallon is a great character.  He's cool, suave, methodical, extremely evil yet oddly sympathetic, and he looks like Barney Fife.  The actor John Abbott does all he can to make his vampire believable but his goofy eyes and Bloom County-like head shape and very Don Knotts-ian appearance knock a hole in the fear factor.  Every time he goes all Sinister Fangpants you're torn between tension and snortles.  And still...  It works.  For me, at least.  Your mileage may vary, but I found his whole unlikeliness as a master vampire to be enjoyable.  He doesn't play it for comedy, certainly - When he tells someone he's going to kill them and make their bride his immortal love slave, he does it with cold malice.  It's like Barney Fife suddenly yanking Otis into an alley and calmly pulling out a 9mm and putting 3 slugs in his drunken forehead.

Also, he's a massive foreshadow of vampires to come.  In 1945, cinematic vampires came in one form - Fucking scary.  Whether they were suave bloodsuckers like Dracula or crazy mutants like Max Schreck, they were not sympathetic.  Yet Fallon is.  In fact, he's a virtual walking progenitor of the white suit-clad, laconic and languid vampires of Anne Rice.  He's matter of fact about his condition, and conveys a great deal of sadness - He's over 400 years old, lonely, doomed to wander the earth eating the locals and sowing tragedy, and you're very tempted to feel sorry for him.  There are no capes or fangs in sight - Instead, this is just a bored and sad vampire who's tried to settle in an obscure port town and can't escape his nature, which is to make McSnacks of all that is juicy.  And he racks up a heck of a body count, too - There are random villagers, a fistfight with a ship captain who later becomes vampalicious, a dancer hottie, and (sort of) our hero Lump.

This is another movie that you'd never get a modern tween to sit through.  Even at just 55 minutes, it's mostly walking around and talking, interspersed with the occasional bar fight and spear through the chest.  It follows the basic monster movie model - Evil Thing sets sights on Damsel, sidelines Lump, and all action careens toward the climax of protecting Damsel's virtue from the bad guy.  In this case, Fallon brain-smacks Lump with his Glare of Hollowed-Eyed Vampiric-ness +5 and leaves Lump in a fever for half the movie while vampire smooches on his lady love and Fearsome Priest slowly realizes that he's going to have to do some Fearsome Soul-Saving and Priestly Ass-Kicking.  This leads us to a cracking climax and one of the film's best visuals, as the shadow of Fearsome's cross falls across the temptingly-bared neck of Damsel just before Fallon can chow down:

And keep telling yourself, "No, he doesn't look like Barney Fife."  All in all, this is a good flick.  While it doesn't have the memorable monster makeup of Catman of Paris, I thought it was actually a better movie - Certainly more cohesive in story.  It was never gonna be a contenda', but it's a serviceably good vampire story from the golden era of monster flicks and it sets itself apart from the pack by its unusually modern and unassuming villain.  Fallon is not the count in the castle or the thing in the crypt; he's the guy down the street.  The really goofy looking guy down the street.

Worth seeing!

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Outcasts, the BBC Miniseries

IMDB 6.3
My Rating: 4/10

The adventures of the first human colony on a distant planet as they attempt to rebuild civilization on an alien world amid interpersonal struggles and political infighting.

This is about to start broadcasting on BBC America, so I thought it was worth a short mention for those who might be interested by the premise.  BBC seems to be pushing it a bit as "BSG without the space ships", all the way to the casting of former "Apollo" Jamie Bamber for the opening episode.  Unfortunately, what could and should have been some riveting sci-fi about a subject not tackled in a very long time, becomes yet another dull character drama, at least in my opinion.  I have not yet watched the entire first season - Take that as you will, because it is both a condemnation of myself for writing a review of a show that I haven't fully finished watching yet, and also a rather damning commentary on the show itself, that it just hasn't engaged me enough to keep me hungry for the next episode (I'm right up on Game of Thrones, though!)

I was just reading an interview article about this series in Sci Fi Now magazine, and head writer Ben Richards perfectly summed up the problems of the series when he stated, "I don't come from a sci-fi background, so it was a huge challenge and almost a bit of a surprise to me to realize that I was doing a science fiction project".  Richards ".. never experimented with genre" and goes on to say, "The problem I encountered was writing things that I thought were devastatingly original , and the story editor going, 'Yeah, they kind of did that in Blade Runner'".  While I applaud their editorial decision not to have CGI aliens crawling around everywhere, the unfortunate result of all this apologizing for the "SF" label (The overall impression I got from the production team was that they wanted to make an SF series to be different, yet were almost embarrassed to be doing SF and kept focusing on the character relationships) is that it's a science fiction series that doesn't have any of the appeal of good science fiction.

There are virtually no intriguing "What If?"s. Our group is trying to run a small outpost settlement on an alien world, but no episode I've seen so far even touches on anything genuinely alien.  There's Earth-air, Earth-water, Earth day/night cycles, Earth plant life...  Indeed, the only SF-ish part of the concept is the fact that our group has previously genetically created some artificial humans better adapted to this new world, and then tried to kill them.  The bulk of each episode so far has been focused on inter-character politics - "Will she sleep with that guy?", "Will this guy's faction gain more power?", "Why is this guy so weird?", and so forth.  The original concept was the story of British pioneers in Australia, of all things, and it shows, with the SF aspect being more tacked-on than central, as one would expect it to be in a saga about adapting to an alien world.

I don't know... Perhaps it's me, and I'm in the minority for preferring to see stories about our characters experiencing bouts of madness from a slightly different air composition, or unexpected behavioral problems from an altered day/night cycle, or startling encounters with the fauna of an extra-solar world.  I can say that if you're more into the politics of such things - more interested, say, in whether the ultra religious people will seize power and shape the new society, or whether it will be founded on liberal values (And given that this is BBC, we pretty much know already which side will be the good guys in this little turf war) - then you might enjoy it more than I did.  It is well acted, and Hermione Norris is always fun to behold.  The stories are logical and relatable.  There is nothing bad about it, per se, it's just that I ultimately question the purpose of making this a SF series when so much of the tale is bending itself into contortions trying NOT to be a SF story.  And lastly, it's just dull...  Not one character really stands out so far, there's no one to be sympathetic with, and there's no one in this brave young world whose fate I'm really invested in.  I want a colonization show that I want to follow every week, because I want them to succeed, because successfully transplanting ourselves onto another world would be the most amazing and breathtaking accomplishment the human race could aspire to.  I want something that will wind me up and hold me tightly involved in the sheer grandness of that undertaking, and the terrifying fragility of it and the skin-tingling magnificence of genuinely being the first human colony on another world.

Outcasts needs more jazz.

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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Messiah of Evil

NetFlix (Not Available)
IMDB 6.2/10
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Special Edition DVD

A young woman travels to a small seaside town, Point Dune, to find her father.  There, she encounters his deserted and strangely haunting house and a trio of people investigating unusual activities in the area.  The increasingly bizarre behavior of the townspeople builds to a horrifying state of chaos.

I have a special passion for the surreal, arthouse horror films of the 70's.  I think this started when I first saw Phantasm on the Late, Late Show.  The sense that it was a movie that could literally go anywhere, do anything, and wasn't going to play by the expected rules of a scary movie... I loved it, and moreso, I loved the beautiful cinematography of so many of the scenes and the way they were visually assembled.  Later I discovered the lush colorscapes of Dario Argento and I was hooked.  Messiah of Evil is another of these little gems, a beautifully assembled microbudget indie horror treasure that's been mostly forgotten with time.

I have to stress a few points - This is a love-it-or-hate-it movie, for one.  People generally give it ratings of either 8-10 or 1-2, with little in the middle.  A lot of viewers will fire it up and see the dime store opening murder scene, hear the Dark Shadows-esque narration, and roll their eyes and go watch Rob Zombie's Halloween.  This is fine, and they are cheeseheads.  The rest of us have a treat in store.  It's a movie all about slow building dread.  There are shocking bits, true (In fact, it has some of the most shocking scary scenes in horror films, IMO), but overall the mood is somber and mounting doom...  It plays very much like a Lovecraft story rendered to film, providing something unsettling at every turn.  Also, amusingly, I can recommend it to any fans of Dean Koontz's abortive "Moonlight Bay" series, never finished, which had a similar atmosphere of creeping dread in a seaside town full of people "becoming".

Our heroine returns to Point Dune to find her father, who's gone missing.  What she finds instead is his empty house, a home totally painted with shadow-scapes of silhouetted people.  Townsfolk are reluctant to talk and often downright bizarre, and eventually she falls in with a trio of characters led by a sort of young RPG adventurer - A fellow who seems to have come here because there's dire goings-on to poke into, and this is how he has fun.  The warnings get worse, the signs grow more ominous, and the town begins to disintegrate around them as people slip into somnambulistic zombie-like madness, all in preparation for the return of a terrifying "Man in Black" from the ocean depths.

When I first saw this, my reaction was very much, "What the hell?" and I thought it was entertaining but middling.  A second viewing sucked me into the mood more, and I've found it gets better with repeat watching.  It is not so much a story as it is a series of surreal events loosely strung together which play like a half-remembered nightmare.  Dream logic abounds.  Why do the people gather on the beaches each night to stare into the sky?  Because.  Why are the locals in the supermarket at midnight eating raw meat from the butcher's counter?  Because.  I have to say, it can creep you the hell out.  It isn't full of moments that will make you jump off the couch, but rather sequences that will make you terribly uneasy - It's impossible, for instance, to ever imagine being comfortable in the artist's painted home.

I can't conceive of sleeping in a house so filled with pale, staring figures on every wall.  In many ways, the Point Dune house is far more disturbing than the Overlook managed to be.  But that's the movie in a nutshell - Imagery.  You can discuss and debate the underlying plot afterwards, but what sticks with you are the visuals:

The visuals and the vignettes, at least - Characters meet their various fates in enclosed scenes that are miniature horror films unto themselves.  One girl finds peril at a late night grocery store, another foolishly goes to kill time at a cinema showing Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and we're treated to a standout scene as undead (?) and mindwashed townsfolk gradually fill the seats around her until she realizes just how odd her fellow patrons are.  One review called the film, "A perfect microcosmic nightmare world" and I fully agree - It takes you to a disturbing place where nothing that you know makes sense, and the dead must be burned, not buried...

So!  Watch if you dare.  But remember, "They're coming here. They're waiting at the edge of the city. They're peering around buildings at night, and they're waiting."

A word about versions - This film has been available in the public domain for many years now.  One can find it on a variety of cheap, multi-movie DVD packs, or download it from any movie site.  However, the public domain print is a cropped VHS-quality piece that thoroughly loses much of the power of the imagery due to the poor resolution and lack of widescreen.  Code Red has recently produced a remastered, high quality print of this for DVD and that's the version I have linked to in the Amazon link at the top of this article.  There are other versions of the movie floating around on Amazon for much less (They're selling the public domain copy smacked to DVD for $8, compared to the $22 price of the Code Red remaster).  Beware!  This is definitely a case where it's worth the extra cash for the better copy.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Session 9

NetFlix 3.1/5
IMDB 6.8/10
My Rating: 7/10

Desperate for cash, asbestos remover Gordon (Peter Mullan) claims he can clean up an abandoned psychiatric hospital in a week. But by the time Gordon discovers the truth about the asylum's gruesome past, the place may cast its curse on his entire crew. The former site of untold human misery, the decaying mental ward now works its dark magic on each member of Gordon's team.

I had never heard of this before, but it came out back in 2001. It was recommended on the IMDB discussion board for Triangle as a vaguely similar, mind-bending horror film. It was a good recommendation - This was excellent. We were glued to the screen.

The story is simple. A small company of asbestos removers, in an effort to keep from going out of business, score a vastly underbid contract to do environmental clean-up of a destitute asylum in way too short an amount of time. The pressure is already on from the start, because you know there's no way they can accomplish this in one week, and they'll be bankrupt otherwise. Then, as the week progresses, tensions build as each member of the team has their own understanding of reality questioned as they work in the oppressive asylum.  The discovery of some old patient session tapes further complicates matter when we're introduced to a very unusual girl once kept as a patient, and thence to a horrifying imaginary (?) entity called Simon.

The building itself is a big star here, as menacing a presence as Hill House, and that's saying something. This was no movie set - It was a real mental health hospital, shut down in the 80's and now torn down completely. The pics below give an inkling of the size and personality of the place in the movie:

Imagine the Overlook Hotel after 15 years of sitting empty and being vandalized, water-damaged, etc, and you're there. We get a nice tour of the place during the opening, from the hydro-therapy baths to the "dangerously disturbed" wing.

What's really good about the movie is that it is NOT a jump-scare horror film. At all. It is murderously ominous in building up tension and despair and a sense of brooding fear, to the point that in the very few instances where something actually weird happens, they're creepy as hell. (It is, unfortunately, also the kind of movie that will have teens cell phoning all the way through and complaining about how "Nothing's happeniiiiiiiing". Only watch this with people who can appreciate slow tension.) For atmosphere, I put it right up there alongside one of my favorites, The Thing, and as the week progresses and the team falls apart, it recalls MacReady's powerful line, "Nobody... nobody trusts anybody now, and we're all very tired."

This is not a movie where a madman in a mask is stalking people. The characters all have their own faults and it plays out a lot like "The Haunting", with the environment zeroing in on the weakest links and prying them for all they're worth.

My only complaint with the film is that it leaves a bit too much hanging in the end for my tastes, though it has amusingly inspired reams of literate threads on IMDB over exactly what happened. It isn't as tidy as Triangle - You get served a lot of clues as to what's going on, but have to assemble the pieces yourself and it doesn't really roll around to a neat ending telling you if you're right or wrong. I don't necessarily want every "i" to be dotted, but I personally could have done with a little more explanation. Smarter people may feel differently. That's the only complaint I have, though, because otherwise this is a really excellent film, filled with skin-crawling moments.

Simon:  "I live... in the weak and the wounded."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Editorial - Looking to the Future

I have this time machine here, see?  I've had it since I was a kid back in 1977, and I've played with it quite a bit over the years (Though I must deny all involvement regarding created alternate timelines, per legal counsel).  Sometimes I use it to look at the future, to see how things are going and where they will go.  The other night I was feeling a bit bored, so I had a look at a broadcast of Entertainment Tonight from 2023:

"So here we are tonight talking to the hottest new director in Hollywood, McPhat, about this summer's biggest movie, Green Lantern 5:  The PosterTrailer.  Tell us all about it, McPhat!"

"Well, Tom, we knew we'd pushed the limits pretty far with GL4: A Ton of CGI Shit, so where do you go from that?  WHERE do you go, I ask?  What I've made here is, I truly believe, the first genuinely post-modern cinematic experience.  GL5: The PosterTrailer is an epic, broadband, cross-marketable masterpiece that combines the latest in modern technology with cloud-based virtualization of the hottest intellectual property trademarks to provide the ultimate mass media, multi-pronged consumer experience."

"What's this film about, McPhat?"

"Film?  No, no, you Philistines are missing the point!  There's no FILM here.  Our test markets all tell us that audiences today are concerned with just two things, a movie's poster and its trailer.  Put out a great poster and an FX-showcase trailer and they'll eat it up and talk about it on the internet for months.  Beyond that, GL5 will be an avalanche of multimedia crossover - There's the MMORPG, multiple console games, an Angry Birds/Green Lantern mashup game for the iPad 7, the soundtrack, the Mauve-Ray 3D virtual experience...  Green Lantern fans are going to LOVE it, and the general public will too!"

"So...  There is no actual movie?"

"You HAVE to stop thinking so Twentieth Century, Tom.  Plot, characters, story - These are all passé, the modern audience is SO beyond these things now.  Who has time to watch a two hour movie?  In fact, our marketing department is even telling us we'll need to cut our trailer runtime for GL6: Send us your money again for the same goddamn thing because today's movie-watching public just can't spare that full 5 minutes - Even with an image strobe-flashing every .26 seconds, surveys tell us the consumer's mind starts to drift after 3.7 minutes.  And I am SO not about boring movies, man.  The name McPhat stands for EXCITEMENT!"

"But your movie has a 400 million dollar budget.  What does the money go for, if it's not an actual film?"

"Tom, Tom, the shareholders deserve their profits from what the movie will make, don't you agree?  You're not a communist, are you?  And also, there's the director to pay!"

"Ummm...  So can you tell us anything about the tie-in videogame?"

"Absolutely.  It will be a 3D FPS, where the player will run, fly and drive around levels trying to shoot enemies with his green power ring before they can shoot him.  I'm overseeing the whole thing.  It will be a revolution in gaming!  Also, there are cutscenes."

"And what is your next project going to be, McPhat?"

"An all-CGI remake of It's a Wonderful Life starring our full-body scans of Megan Fox as every character.  Right now, our best FX team is working on a staggering 49,300 special effects shots for the three minute trailer, including an extra $59 million dollar budget dedicated to the flying digital shark battle alone.  It will be epic."

"Thank you for your time, Mister McPhat.  This summer sure sounds exciting to me!"

And that's why I don't use my time machine to look into the future very often.