Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Gog (1954)

NetFlix 2.8/5
IMDB 5.3/10
My Rating: 6/10 *Qualified

At a secret US underground military/space/research base, a series of bizarre deaths occur which may have been caused by the supercomputer that runs the installation.   Or a pair of killer robots.

Gog is a forgotten gem, if you love 50's sci fi.  Heaven help me, I can't imagine getting most modern people to sit through this, but while I acknowledge that it's a fairly tedious film, I also really enjoyed it and especially loved its retro-future look at "Tomorrow's world" as envisioned by the folks of 1954.   It's a great mix of the prescient (Everything is controlled by the central computer, from nuclear reactor to door locks), the "We're still not there yet" (Robotic lab assistants), and the outright wacky (Building orbital space station heat beams...err, wait, I think that was tried already...). 

Gog gets a cracking start when some scientists performing one of those typical "Let's freeze this monkey and then re-animate it" experiments all end up dead in mysterious ways, if you can call being locked in the freezing chamber mysterious.  A square-jawed, non-nonsense hero-type is packed off from Washington to the underground base to set things in order, punch bad guys and woo the women.  Although in this case, our heroine Joanna is...Well, slightly more terrifying than sexy:

Fortunately she's a proper 50's woman, and ends up delicately fainting in lace by the film's end.  The first half of the movie will either fascinate or drill through your skull with boredom, depending on your level of interest in what the 50's thought the future would be like.  It's a 30+ minute crawl through the base, introducing our hero to the various scientists and eggheads and potential baddies that work there.

Probably my favorite bit here is where we are introduced to the concept of the near-future orbital space station, which will run on solar power capable of directing a giant solar heat beam from space down to incinerate any godless communist city we want, thus finally making "the world safe for the USA".  I have no doubt that the engineering wonks who worked on the Death Star were equally enthused about the positive uses of their discoveries.

The main chunk of the film is a Whodunnit.  The base is being sabotaged in ways small and large, and those who look into events too closely have a tendency to meet extra-sticky ends.  I think I am safe in non-spoilering this for any modern viewer when I remark on how the characters repeatedly puzzle over how someone could be killed by radiation in a sealed room, or how someone else could be electrocuted with no one else in the lab, while we're simultaneously told that the entire installation is completely controlled by NOVAC, a computer that runs everything from the AC to the sound system to the pair of killer robots.  Oh yeah, and speaking of them...

These guys, Gog and Magog, are great in that 50's robot way, which means that they wobble like plywood, they're pretty useless at everything, and yet despite this they are somehow unstoppable ninja monsters that are probably behind your chair RIGHT NOW.  Gog and Magog are controlled by NOVAC and are completely above suspicion because NOVAC is good and he's only a computer, anyway... A charming bit of 50's computer trust that will induce twitches in anyone who's spent days trying to install a printer driver.  So the movie crawls along at its slow pace and we're treated to a medley of random murders and artificial gravity experiments until things inevitably go tits-up and Buck Squarejaw has his big chance to defeat evil by punching it in the face with an all-American baseball bat.

While I may be making light of it (And frankly, it's hard not to get some chuckles out of people randomly walking into a room beside the guy in the radiation suit, or someone being told they got a bad case of radiation and need to go lie down for a couple of days), I still enjoyed it a lot.  It's not in the class of 50's masterpieces like Forbidden Planet, but it's an enjoyable romp with a prototypical SkyNet+Terminators, and I give the filmmakers big credit for how original this was...  I mean, Trekkies go all "iPAD, iPHONE!" over Star Trek's tech, but in 1954 Gog gave us an entire base with centralized computer control, computer hacking, wireless access, wireless robot control, and women in jumpsuits.  This was the future, baby.    It's probably a solid 5 as a movie, but for me it was more of a 7, so I'm splitting the difference.  Your mileage may vary. 

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dead of Night (1977)

NetFlix 2.8/5
IMDB 65./10
My Rating: 6/10

A Made-for-TV movie from 1977 that is composed of three stories - A young man restores a vintage car which takes him back in time, a wealthy couple are being terrorized by an apparent vampire, and a grieving mother uses black magic to resurrect her dead son.

The 1970's were a golden era for made-for-TV horror, with all sorts of wild flicks running that would never be touched by the major networks today.  Night Stalker, Norliss Tapes, Trilogy of Terror, Don't be Afraid of the Dark...  It seems so strange now to think that these were being produced by networks like ABC as Friday night movies.  The only horror movie-producing network I can think of today is Syfy, and their output is pretty dire compared to the writing and mood of these older features.

Dead of Night was a pleasant discovery for me.  I'd never seen it before!  Granted, after watching it, it was apparent why it hasn't lodged in a generational memory quite as vividly as Karen Black fighting the Zuni doll, as it's a fairly middling movie.  Still, it's worth seeing just to enjoy the pairing of TV horror veteran Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, Night Stalker) and horror writer/screenwriter Richard Matheson (I am Legend, Hell House).  It's possible the reason I missed it the first time is just that it isn't really horror, at least except for the final story.

It opens with an enjoyable Ray Bradbury-esque tale about a young man restoring a 20's roadster, which promptly takes him back into 1926.  It's a romantic fantasy story, nostalgic and warm, and not at all spooky, which makes me question why it was included in this package.  It was better than the second story, though, which sees Patrick MacNee wasted as a village aristocrat trying to protect his wife from the nightly visitations of a vampire.  While it has the trappings of a gothic scare story, it's really a bit more Twilight Zone, with a twist ending that is fun but doesn't exactly zing.

The real prize of the package is story #3, titled "Bobby", about a grieving mother who uses magic to bring back her drowned son.  To very ill effect.  You'd think she'd have read "The Monkey's Paw" in school, but alas...  And the meat of this story is what takes place after the dead son returns.  To quote from the Book of Wallace, "He's gone wrong, Gromit!"  The prolonged stalk-and-hide struggle between mother and son takes place all in one dark house, and the tension is really well developed and palpable.  Overall, the Bobby story is just plain spooky - An unnerving combination of "Monkey's Paw", Halloween, and The Shining.

Special mention must go to the Netflix DVD, which is loaded with special features, soundtrack music, and an entire 52 minute pilot for another Dan Curtis horror series from 1969.  Given how some studios have begun stripping out all the special features from their Netflix discs, it's nice to get some extra goodies with this one.  (And no, Big Studios, removing the Making Of feature on your latest summer movie DVD for Netflix is not going to spur me to go out and buy the DVD instead.  If it's a movie I want to own, I will buy it anyway, whether the special features are on the renatl disc or not.  Stripping out extras just makes me hate YOU, Big Studio, it does not manipulate my purchasing decisions.)

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I Sell the Dead

NetFlix 3/5
IMDB 6/10
My Rating: 8/10  
A professional grave robber sits in his cell awaiting execution, and tells the story of his life to a visiting priest, including many encounters with the undead and worse.

This is the perfect movie to follow up the Trick R Treat review because they have so much in common in terms of style, wit, and charm.  I can't say I've been much impressed with the horror movies of the 2000's so far - Despite a much-ballyhooed "return of real horror" after a cavalcade of 90's PG-13 crap, mostly the output seems to be dreadful remakes and/or films scrambling like mad to be "grindhouse" - As dark, gritty, scratchy, and bloody as the directors can manage.  I enjoy some of this but am also amused at how modern "grindhouse" manages to utterly miss the point of the 70's drive-in flicks they emulate, by packing them with multi-million dollar budgets and name stars...  Really, Planet Terror, how many true Z grade horror flicks do you expect to see Bruce Willis in?  (And I point this out despite having quite enjoyed Planet Terror anyway)

So, while the last ten years have given me a few genuinely scary films that I loved ([REC] really stands out), for the most part it has been a succession of tepid remakes by MTV video directors  who mistake quick cuts for mood. Virtually absent from the scene have been the sort of classic-style "fun" gothic horror films that I grew up with, which are apparently not cool any more.  This is part of why I love both Trick R Treat and I sell the Dead so much - Both movies are celluloid flashbacks to the best of Corman, AIP, Hammer, and the like...  Devilish films that aren't really scary but offer up a lot of mischievous glee, with characters of genuine appeal.  I Sell the Dead is really the closest you'll come to a classic Vincent Price movie today - I've often described it as, "The best Vincent Price movie that Vincent Price wasn't in."

The plot is simple.  Dominic Monaghan stars as a graverobber sentenced to death for his crimes.  The night before his beheading, he is visited by a priest and tells his bizarre life story of strangeness... Of his start in the business of exhuming bodies all the way through his first encounter with a vampire and his entrance into the specialized (and much better paying) trade of digging up "special" corpses - Zombies, ghouls, and worse - for sale to shadowy occult buyers.

The description makes it sound a lot darker than it is.  The whole thing is told with a wink and a nod, and a lot of humor stirred in.  It's not the stupid and jarring humor of a Scary Movie, however, instead weaving more smoothly into the fabric of this Victorian horror tale.  Our hero Arthur and his partner Willie Grimes face ferocious vampires and savage undead with a mixture of cowardice and desperation, and bring back memories of the Abbott & Costello meet-ups with Dracula and the like. 

I also have to give serious props to the film's visual style:

It's the creative mixture of Hammer fog machines, saturated colors, and comicbook-like scene blends and intermissions that gives the whole thing the feel of a really great horror comic... Something you'd have picked up on the news stand in 1976 with a title like "Journey into Mystery" or "Weird Tales"  It's just a blast of fun.  We kept wanting to pause and screencap different scenes for how cool they looked, and I can't think of many horror films that have ever inspired this reaction for me.  The entire production feels like a labor of love from someone who grew up a fan of comedy/horror mixes like the Vincent Price films Comedy of Terrors and The Raven.  That sort of wink-wink character is infused all through this, and I can't imagine any child of the midnight monster show era not enjoying it.

So what are the bad points?  It's a bit short - Like Trick R Treat, I enjoyed it enough to want to see more.  IMDB posters complain that it, "wasn't scary", which it really wasn't meant to be.  Indeed, most of the complaints I read about the movie pretty obviously came from people who really had no clue of how to appreciate the charms of this beastie - They seemed to want a blood & guts horror flick or a Scary Movie comedy, and pretty obviously missed the point.  This is to Peter Cushing's Hammer films as Galaxy Quest was to Star Trek - An amusing love letter, not a mockery.

I have to add in one extra kudo for the Jeff Grace soundtrack, which is a pure joy.  Soundtracks seem to be going more into the "ambient, not noticeable until it shrieks" motif these days, and this is the first horror movie soundtrack I've been moved to go out and buy in probably 15 years.  It's the most fun horror movie soundtrack since Re-Animator.  For a taste, listen to the theme that plays through this trailer:

So...  What else can I say?  It's also got Ron Perlman and Angus Scrimm in it, and if the thought of Angus Scrimm as a mad Victorian doctor (Alas, only in a bit part) isn't enough to make you run out and buy/rent this, you're likely not the sort who would appreciate it anyway.  For the rest of us, here's a toast to I Sell the Dead and Trick R Treat, the two best October season movies of the past decade!

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Trick R Treat

NetFlix 3.3/5
IMDB 6.9/10
My Rating: 8/10

One wonderful Halloween night, multiple storylines intersect as various characters meet horror by disregarding or disrespecting the spirit of Halloween.

OK, I'm just going to say right off that this is one of my favorite movies, and it may well be my favorite Halloween movie - A feat that would mean upsetting past favorite, Halloween, the top of the heap for the last thirty years.  Trick R Treat is a special treat, though, and it's as much a time machine as it is a film, because it will grab the viewer and take him or her right back to being ten years old and watching classic "fun" horror films on late night TV, preferably after the parents have gone to bed.  I loved doing this as a child in the 70's, and I was helped by my inherent night-owl DNA, because my morning-loving parents would conk out at 10pm and go off to bed, and I could stay up alone in the night to watch whatever new wonder was playing on the late night horror show.  This is the ambiance of Trick R Treat, and the joy of it.  It's a movie that makes you feel like a kid again.

Now, when I say "horror", I should specify - I'm not talking about horror films like modern ones, all gore and splatter and torture, nor the intentionally campy stuff like Scream clones...  I'm talking about fun horror, the sort of movies that Vincent Price would be in, mugging away and rigging skeletons on wires to terrify the unwary.  The sort of movies that could give you a chill up the spine and make you grin at the same time.  It's a style that TrT embraces wholeheartedly and home-runs out of the park.  You won't be wincing from the limb hacking or cringing from the intensity of a shaky-cam zombie attack, but you will be grinning like an idiot and delighting to see what comes next.  The only way to make the experience better would be to see it on midnight movie television with a horror host.  And be ten years old again.

The basic story goes like this:  On Halloween night, a small town is hosting a fabulous downtown costume contest party.  Over the course of the evening, multiple storylines occur - A young couple learn about respecting traditions, a rude kid discovers the error of smashing pumpkins, cruel childhood pranks go very awry, a vampiric serial killer stalks the streets, Red Riding Hood meets the wolf in a most unusual way, and finally a mean old Scrooge learns to accept the true spirit of the season.

I am not normally a big fan of multiple-story movies.  I enjoy the older ones to a point, but the need to cram in several different tales always made them feel rushed and a little cluttered to me, and the "weaving together" elements were often overly predictable.  TrT overcomes these limitations in various ways.  Instead of the usual "Story-Interlude-Story-Interlude-Story" format, the different events happen in parallel time to each other, and are presented in skewed order.  Earlier tales show snippets of the fates of other characters in their backgrounds, characters cross paths in the streets, and events intersect in creative ways, often through the mysterious presence of Sam, the cutest little Halloween monster ever put on film.

In a nutshell, Sam is adorable.  He has little interaction with the story until the end, but exists simply as a presence, a small child-sized creature wandering the night and going door to door with his squeaking sack, appreciating those who honor the holiday and punishing those who don't.  Think of him as Halloween's Santa Claus.  That kills people.  I know Jack Skellington has the role of Halloween spokesperson all sewn up in the minds of pop culture, but I prefer Sam, an altogether more mysterious and dangerous spirit of the season. 

So, is the movie perfect?  Not quite, but close.  It's a little bit short, but it is to its credit that I wanted to spend more time immersed in that world with those characters.  The biggest flaw, in my opinion (and this is a bit of a spoiler, though not plot-related) is that there is a point in the film where Sam's mask comes off.  It was a rare stumble, I think, because no matter what sort of face was behind the mask, it was going to be a disappointment after the childishly creepy, blank, button-eyed stare of the burlap sack.  Still, it's a small bobble in an otherwise ideal movie, and it doesn't stop it from jumping into the top handful of my favorite horror films.  People on IMDB complain that it "wasn't scary" or had too few "Boo" moments or too little gore.  They're missing the point - It's not that kind of movie.  It's the kind of movie that makes you grin like a maniac when you realize what awful thing is about to happen to the loud bullies, or cackle as the cranky old guy learns that it's best to try and greet the world a little more politely on this night of nights. 

This is, in a nutshell, THE Halloween film.  I've seen a lot of Halloween horror movies over the years, and most simply take place on the night and use it as a backdrop.  TrT is about the night - Its spirit, history, and danger.  Enjoy it, love it, buy the DVD, and watch it with some kids as a repeating event for Halloweens to come...  Or better yet, give the kids the DVD and let them stay up late to watch it by themselves, alone.  They'll thank you for it later.