From Classic Horror

[The Twisted Parallels of Cinema] Edition #1

A new column examines the influences of horror movies & what has influenced them via side-by-side film frame comparisons.

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The Omen: Religion, Creepy Kids, and Gregory Peck

The Omen. 1976. Directed by Richard Donner. Screenplay by David Seltzer.
Starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Harvey Stephens, Patrick Troughton, Martin Benson, Robert Rietty, and Tommy Duggan.
Twentieth Century Fox/Mace Neufeld Productions.
Rated R. 111 minutes.
Horror/Mystery

★★★★★
theomen When it comes to supernatural horror I tend to be at a crossroads most of the time. There are good and bad films in any sub-genre of any major genre, that’s simply a no-brainer. My problem is that anything with ghosts, spirits, demons (et cetera) can some times get lost in itself. It’s hard to tell where the line begins and ends with this sort of stuff. For me, anyways. That being said, there are plenty of supernatural horrors I think are great. I just feel I may have a bias against them, who knows.
None of that matters where The Omen is concerned. Ever since the first time I remember seeing the movie, on television late at night when I was but a young lad, it always stuck in my mind. Several of the scenes have never left me (think: Damien does not feel good about going to church). Then the older I get – writing this the day after my 30th birthday – the more frequently I come back to it, the trilogy in general. It’s solid horror filmmaking, classic really. From the fine acting of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick to the masterfully suspenseful screenplay by David Seltzer. Every last portion of The Omen is a horrific treat. There’s a true existential dread in this movie, wrapped up in religion and the belief in God/Satan. Richard Donner has made a couple excellent films, this certainly one of them, and here he proves his weight in tension with one of the best supernatural horror movies ever made.
OriginalDamienMeetsBaylockAfter Katherine Thorn (Lee Remick) loses a son during birth, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) accepts another boy born at the same time whose mother perished. Arranged by a priest at the hospital, Katherine is none the wiser.
However, a few years down the road once the boy – Damien (Harvey Stephens) – begins to grow up, strange events start to happen. After Robert is appointed U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, a young woman employed at their new home kills herself in front of Damien and guests at his birthday. More and more everything gets worse. Damien becomes ill and angry when approaching a church, animals at the zoo go mad and start to attack when he comes near. Alone with the secret of where Damien came from, he soon begins to wonder if his wife is in danger. Even worse he questions who – or what – exactly Damien is, and if there is any way to stop what comes next.
Is Damien the Antichrist? Unfortunately for the Thorns this realization may have come far too late.
omen1Rarely are there scenes as creepy as some in The Omen. The first majorly unsettling moment comes after a young housekeeper locks eyes with a hulking Rottweiler, after which she proceeds to commit suicide by hanging herself from a window in the house – all during Damien’s birthday party, a ton of kids looking on.
Look at me Damien – it’s all for you!
Everybody is horrified, and rightfully so. There’s a moment of absolute silence directly afterwards, then finally people start to scatter. Even creepier is how little Damien and the aforementioned Rottweiler then see one another, as the kid waves strangely to the dog. You know, so quickly there’s something absolutely weird happening.
But it’s the more subtle, down played scenes – such as the first meeting between Robert Thorn (Peck) and Roman Catholic priest Father Brennan (Troughton) – where some truly unnerving horror is at play. This scene in particular, the way Brennan blurts out “His mother was a jackal” right as the security guards enter, likely only the audience actually hearing him… I find it all very spooky. The screenplay peppers in more subtle pieces with the outright scary moments to make it an even feel. Best of all, Donner works incredibly well with the suspense and tension of the story in order to make almost every single scene drip with fear. There are rarely any moments of rest between all the tense sections, which sets us up for a tragic existential horror movie.
The big horror moments are intense. From the early suicide of the young woman hanging herself, to the priest being impaled with a falling rod off the church, to Katherine’s nail biting fall. This film could’ve easily gone with all very low key stuff, focusing wholly on the mysterious aspects of the screenplay. Instead, Donner opts to give us lots of that style, as well as piling on enough creepy horror for any fan of the genre.
OriginalDeadBrennanPossibly my favourite part of The Omen is all its fine acting. Can you really ask for a better actor than Gregory Peck to put in a mid-1970s horror film? I love the fact he’s in this because there is a sort of class which comes along with him. He plays the role of Robert Thorn well, a calm and cool sort of fellow who ends up in the most gut wrenching type of situation with the Antichrist for a child. Watching him slowly push on through the mad journey of discovery that is his search for Damien’s true identity, it is a sigh, a real experience.
Furthermore, there’s also Lee Remick, Billie Whitelaw and David Warner. They’re each pretty damn great respectively. Remick has a tough role to play because it’s hard, even knowing Damien is at least slightly evil, to make us care about a mother who hates her child; she does it greatly and I think her chemistry with Peck is good, as well. Warner doesn’t have a lot to do, but pulls his weight with a minor performance. Whitelaw, though, she is one creepy customer! I thought her performance was also bang on. Even from the initial moments we see her character onscreen, the unsettling fog surrounding her is always there. So then as the scenes pass she becomes more terrifying. Without her the role might have came out hollow, instead she instills lots of fear every time she shows up.
OriginalRobertStabDamienThe Omen is easily a 5 star horror film. There is a lot of human drama within such a supernatural story, yet still all its horror is so much of the strength this film has in lasting power. With acting talents such as Gregory Peck and Lee Remick at the helm, there’s no way such a creepy and utterly terrifying story could go wrong. You’ll find a good few moments of terror (think: decapitation with plate glass), plus a ton of quality filmmaking and performances.
This is perfect for any time of year, but no doubt it’s a juggernaut in the Halloween season horror movie marathon list of choices.

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GREMLINS are a Great Christmas Gift

Whatever you do: DON'T FEED THEM AFTER MIDNIGHT! Always listen to Chinese vendors.

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BLACK CHRISTMAS ’74: Have a Horrific Holiday!

One of the greatest slashers of all time, and the most deliciously bloody Christmas movie you'll find.

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Fulci’s Zombie: Because a Zombie Had to Fight a Shark Someday

A classic zombie flick if there ever were one! All hail Fulci!

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William Friedkin Gets to the Pulse of Fear with The Exorcist

 

The Exorcist. 1973. Dir. William Friedkin. Written by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel.
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, and Linda Blair.
Warner Brothers
Rated 18A. 132 minutes.
Horror

★★★★★ (Movie)
★★★★★ (Blu ray release)

By now, everyone has either seen The Exorcist or knows all about it.  Simply put, it is the story of a young girl who is possessed by some type of demon; her non-believer mother eventually gives in and realises what she needs is not modern medicine, not psychology, but a Catholic exorcism. This is the plot of the film. From there, the wild bits begin.1380897081_1What I’d like to talk about instead of the plot itself are the effects because on the Blu ray release from Warner Brothers there are tons of amazing special features. The best, and my most favourite, is one called “Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist.” This basically features tons of shots from behind-the-scenes, filmed originally without sound  – explained to be because they wanted the extra filming to be inconspicuous to Friedkin who might’ve gotten annoyed had they been dragging more crew around the set than was needed – and over top we get interviews with everyone from Friedkin to Blatty to Blair, to people working on the crew. It’s amazing.
One of the moments I absolutely just died for was when they show two things. First, is a moment where Reagan (Blair) attacks a man.  Friedkin wanted a shot following the man all the way down as he fell to the floor, shot tight looking right at his face, as if from Reagan’s POV. This is brilliance right here. Friedkin clearly has an innovative spirit. We watch as they show the contraption they’d built to do just that one shot— it’s the best thing ever. Second, they show a bunch of shots detailing the house set for the film. I should’ve known, from how some of the camerawork goes, the house was a set, open at the top and such, but just to see them doing actual shots going up the stairs with the rig they’d built to get the camera operators up and down in smooth ways. Beautiful, really, to see all the effort that went into making this film so god damn great.Exorcist11Another aspect worthy of note in regards to The Exorcist is the lighting. At one point on the “Raising Hell” documentary, they talk about the use of wires in the bedroom— for pulling people, as well as objects, around the room in certain shots. It looks perfect on film, but to hear Owen Roizman (D.P.) talk about how he had the wires painted in broken formations of black and white so it would make the wire less visible on camera, it’s an absolute treat! These tiny tricks of the trade are really cool to hear from the mouths of those involved in the production.
Later, we get to watch as Roizman talks about all the wire work, including how they dragged all the furniture around in Reagan’s room during those frenetic scenes. Wild. I knew it had to be practical the way they’d accomplished such shots, to actually see it and watch the process is something special. Roizman has a very nostalgic memory of the production, and a lot of his comments, especially concerning a young Linda Blair and her performance/attitude on set, which seems to be remarkable for such a young actress at the time, are great to hear. These features really help give The Exorcist even more appreciation amongst its fans, and genre fans in general.Exorcist8One of my favourite things about DVD and Blu ray is the fact we get commentary on a film while watching it. Probably one of the best things to come along with the advent of these new technologies. William Friedkin’s commentary on The Exorcist is fascinating and pretty damn informative. Even in the first few moments, Friedkin puts to bed any notions people have about the opening scenes not belonging in the film. He explains why it is there, what it means, and I love it, I understood anyways, though it helps to actually have a director of a film say “this is the reason,” and having it match up with what you thought. Just delightful to hear Friedkin talk about his experience filming the opening of the film in Iraq, how he was there without the protection of the U.S government, and telling us about how he enjoyed the Iraqi people and their hospitality. Hearing the director talk over beautifully framed and perfect looking images on a high quality picture of the film is sublime.
The story works on its own, but Friedkin really hammers it home. The acting from both Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn is on point. Burstyn’s one of the greatest actresses ever to grace the screen. Here, she really excels, as a mother who doesn’t believe in religion or any of that stuff yet soon comes to understand the devil has taken hold of her daughter, seeking out the help of priests. Not many could pull of such a horror role. Burstyn’s so wonderfully natural here.
Blair did a fabulous job as a young girl. Incredible to think she was able to do such a role and give the performance she did. On the Blu ray documentary, she talks about how Friedkin would often shelter her from the reality of what she’d be doing onscreen by joking with her. Friedkin himself talks about it, and it seems they really had a cool relationship, a lot like an uncle and niece sort of thing where he coaxed her into some of the scenes by tickling and teasing. You can tell Friedkin works well with actors and actresses just by how Blair, at such a young age then, was able to work with him and give it her all in a tough role. Combined with the effects and the pure intensity of Blatty’s writing, the performances lift The Exorcist above a lot of trashy horror that was coming out in the 1970s and makes it an absolute masterpiece of filmmaking.1380821626_1The Blu ray release is far beyond the state of perfect. So many special features are available here, you’ll take days and days to get through it. “Raising Hell” is absolutely the best of them all, but there is more than just that. You get a real in-depth look behind the making of The Exorcist. I couldn’t believe how much bang for my buck I got when purchasing this, especially seeing as how HMV recently had it there for less than $10 (the ultimate steal of a lifetime if there ever was one!). It is really worth it if you enjoy the film. You get some great inside looks at the make-up effects Dick Smith pulled off; a master of the trade. Those alone are worth the price of the Blu ray, just to see him work at the craft.
Anyone who has yet to see this, go buy a copy now. If you’re a horror fan especially, don’t sleep on this. When I first saw The Exorcist I was about 15 years old. It didn’t really affect me at the time. However, I still enjoyed it a lot. Years later, I revisited the film, and I couldn’t get over it. For days, the story lingered on me like cigarette smoke. I couldn’t shake it. Burstyn and Von Sydow really pulled me in and rocked my world. The performances and the effects, it all got to me. It’s now one of my most treasured Blu rays, as well as one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. Once again, this is a film that has no hype – the hype is very real, in fact.
And if you don’t get a chill running up your spinal fluid into your brain when you hear the repeated line from early in the film, “Father – could ya help an old altar boy?” then you know what? Check your pulse. Because the rest of us are absolutely terrified.

Psycho: Alfred Hitchcock & the Birth of the Slasher

Psycho. 1960. Dir.  Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Joseph Stefano; based on the novel by Robert Bloch.
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and John McIntire. Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
Rated PG. 109 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★★ (Film)
★★★★★ (Blu ray release)

For my review of the sequel, Psycho II, click here.
For my review of the third installment in the franchise, Psycho III, click here.

For those who don’t know, Psycho tells the tale of Marion Crane who decides to take off on a whim with $40,000 trusted to her by her boss. While tired on the road, Maron stops off at the Bates Motel to get a room for the night. There, she meets a young man named Norman Bates; he lives up on the hill in the big house next to the motel. Norman seems fine, albeit a bit quirky, so Marion even has a low key supper with him at the motel.
However, Norman isn’t quite fine. See, Norman lives with his mother, just the two of them, and their relationship is, well – a bit odd to say the least. Once Marion goes missing, her sister, lover, and the police start sniffing around, and Norman starts to see a little more traffic at the Bates Motel – much to his dismay.

4714189672_84517b7ab2_o1-450x876This was my first introduction to Alfred Hitchcock. It’s funny – the movie is rated PG, directed by one of the most famous (arguably the most famous) filmmakers of all-time, contains definitely the most famous murder scene ever filmed if not the most famous scene period, and it’s classified as a horror.
In fact, a lot of people would say Psycho is the most influential horror film of all time, giving rise to the modern slasher in some respects (you can’t totally give this film all the credit because other films like Peeping Tom, and much later John Carpenter’s Halloween, really were a large part of that as well).

I just find it amazing how Hitchcock was able to put such a disturbing story on film, including the infamous shower scene (though the scene itself really isn’t graphic especially in terms of modern audiences and how desensitized we all are from not only film but the barrage of insane videos we now see on everything from CNN to YouTube), and yet still keep the rating PG. Of course, the ratings system has changed a little between now and then. It’s still rather amazing.
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The story of Psycho itself is incredible. I continually find it exciting even though I’ve seen it dozens of times, I know how things will play out, and yet viewing after viewing it holds up. I still feel a rush of panic for Norman (even though I clearly shouldn’t – a testament to both Bloch’s novel and Hitchcock’s filmmaking) as he tries to clean up Marion Crane’s room after Mother has had her fun. Just the way Perkins rushes around and frantically tries to cover things up. Just thinking about the time it was written, the time it was set, I love to imagine what it must’ve been like for serial killers pre-media frenzy surrounding people like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Green River Killer, et cetera. Poor Norman was ahead of his time. He didn’t know how these things were supposed to go. Watching him try to navigate the rough terrain of being a killer while still obviously being a fragile boy, almost a man-child, is really good stuff. It’s a disturbing tale, but Norman really does elicit both fear in us, as well as some form of pity; even on the most base of levels. And just the way in which Marion and Norman end up meeting, a real chance moment in time, is brilliant. The first time I saw the film, I was really surprised at how their two storylines converged, and suddenly it all became about Norman. Wonderful storytelling. No wonder Hitchcock was drawn to Bloch’s novel. Stefano really took the novel and turned into something his own, which Hitchcock in turn worked very well with; their picture of Norman Bates, as opposed to Bloch’s, turned the character into a much more sympathetic type person, and this really worked for the film’s plot quite well.

The entire film is one of those truly beautiful collaborative efforts. Everything here comes together to make a perfect movie. The cinematography, the sound, the script – I love it. Hitchcock weaved an intricate film here out of what could’ve been a simple effort from another lesser filmmaker.
For instance, on the Blu ray release from Universal there is a feature which looks at the infamous shower scene how it is presented in the finished film, and also a look at the scene without its music. Right there, it is so perfectly evident Psycho could not have been what it was if it hadn’t used all of its elements together to create the fear, shock, and tension. While the shower scene is still very disturbing without the score over top, there’s something extra that comes along with the score. In the quiet, you can hear Janet Leigh breathing, you hear the water falling from the shower head, all of it. With the score, you watch everything happen while the orchestral score behind the scene pounds out, creepy and loud, reinforcing all the stabs, the gasps, everything. Works so god damn well it’s fiendish.
4021As a film, Psycho is a perfect, flawless work of art. It isn’t hype. This is not a film you hear about all the time, being raved about and drooled over, just because it’s by Alfred Hitchcock, or just because it is considered classic. This is a magnificent piece of work, all around. There is no hype – what you see is what you get. Hitchcock was a master, no doubt. This film, while influential and all that, is just a cracking good piece of movie history. Full stop.

RitNpY2Wdlazf4z3G90TBbd7o1_500
One of the most famous dissolve shots in the history of film

The Blu ray release from Universal Studios Home Entertainment is one of the better titles sitting on my shelf. It is packed to the brim with extras. Though I don’t care for the Truffaut interview (I think his films are wonderful but his opinions are often divisive in a negative way and, in my humble opinion, sort of bullshit at least when it comes to the original novel Psycho by Bloch), the rest of the features here are just so sweet.
There are the typical Making Of featurettes, however, the major one here goes through everything from the story, how it was adapted and found, et cetera, to pre-production, production, and post – the whole nine yards; it’s a 90-minutes documentary that is totally worth the time to watch. There’s a nice feature about the sound of the film, including how they restored everything for the Blu ray. My favourite, though, is the Shower Scene breakdown I mentioned before – you get to see the scene back-to-back in its finished form with the scene having the score taken out, as well as great little storyboards by Saul Bass. These are absolutely brilliant pieces of extras to include. Fascinating stuff. The commentary is done by Stephen Rebello, author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho’.
All in all, this release deserves every single bit of 5 out of 5 stars. There’s no way it deserves any less; it needs more. There are enough features here to keep you long busy after purchasing Psycho. On top of that, the transfer is pristine, and you’ll marvel at how beautiful it looks in glorious black and white.

I recommend every fan of this movie, every Hitchcock fan, go get this Blu ray now, sit down, and love every last single solitary, picturesque moment of it. There is nothing like this film, even today, even when so many other great films are made. Psycho itself is a classic, and always will be. It deserves to be remembered until the end of human existence – it’s one of those films.

Read my review for the second sequel to the original, the underrated Psycho III.

Psycho III: Norman, Still Crazy After All These Years

Psycho III.  1986. Dir. Anthony Perkins. Screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue; based on characters by Robert Bloch.
Starring Anthony Perkins, Diana Scarwid, Jeff Fahey, Roberta Maxwell, Hugh Gillin, and Lee Garlington. Universal Pictures.
Rated 18+. 93 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★

If you haven’t yet – read my Blu ray review for Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1960 classic Psycho.

With Anthony Perkins directing a Psycho sequel and also serving as Norman Bates, I can’t imagine anything better. A highly underrated entry into this franchise. This absolutely does not get enough credit. To no surprise from me – I loved the first sequel to the original, and a lot of people despise it, so I guess Norman just isn’t appreciated anymore.
How sad…
Psycho III 1986 movie pic2When Norman inevitably kills his new motel clerk Duane (a young Jeff Fahey), we finally see truly for the first time how Norma’s scarred son has been compelled to kill by his dominant mother. He yells at her that he has the same terrible blood in his veins, and it makes him do what he does. Perkins uses Woody Woodpecker on the television interestingly, as Norman cries to his mother to stop laughing at him (which of course is Woody’s iconic laugh), and it’s so very evident more than ever before how his world is a mixture of reality with a heavy dose of surreal experiences; we’ve already known this, but for the first time it’s almost spelled out in front of us, as he can’t even tell the difference between his mother’s laugh (one he no doubt knows all too well), and a cartoon bird on the television.

There are so many little pieces like that which make Psycho III better than its low ratings and generally negative reviews lead on.
Psycho7
Norman finally meets someone to love in a disheartened girl who has left her convent where she was poised to become a nun by the name of Maureen; unfortunately for Norma at first, she reminds him of Marion Crane.
There are two really interesting bits Perkins throws in involving Maureen. The first is when Norman sees her in the diner, and she leans down towards the floor behind the stool she sits on, but he can only picture Marion laying dead in the shower after he and mother killed her. Soon he snaps back to reality, and leaves the diner quickly. Maureen later ends up at the motel, and tries to kill herself by slitting her wrists in the bathtub. Norman is poised to kill her, all dressed up like mother again, but he finds her with her wrists open in the water, and Maureen does not see Mrs. Bates: she sees the Virgin Mary holding a silver crucifix where the knife should be.

One of the best moments come when Norman accidentally nudges Maureen over the stairs in his house, and she slips down over them only to fall against a statue with a sharp object protruding out of it. The statue is of Cupid, and Perkins zooms in on the arrow after it has killed Maureen, which drips blood; Cupid has literally shot her, and in a way it has also pierced Norman by taking away the only woman he ever loved. Here, Cupid shows us how everything in Norman’s world is backwards; especially love.
Psycho2My only complaint about the film is at the very end when Norman sits in a police car being taken away, and he hauls out a little treat he was hiding to caress, as he gives a look very reminiscent to his final scene in the original Psycho. I find it a little hard to believe the police wouldn’t have found this on him (I won’t tell you what it is), but then again, it’s a horror movie, and a certain amount of belief has to be suspended at times to properly enjoy one. Overall, it didn’t ruin anything for me.

4 out of 5 stars for a great entry into the Psycho franchise. People say that Anthony Perkins tried to imitate Hitchcock in this film, but I frankly cannot see it. There’s a huge difference in visual style, and a very glaring difference in storytelling.
Norman is a little more slasher in this film, but why shouldn’t he be? At the end of Psycho II, we are introduced to someone who could be Norman’s real mother right before he kills her, so naturally the man is going to be even worse off than ever before with shocking information like that. Of course, the story is a long, winding road, and that isn’t every side, but isn’t a family history like Norman’s bound to drive ANYONE a little mad?
Psycho III 1986 movie pic014After all, we all go a little mad sometimes…

Wes Craven & Ronald Reagan: Socioeconomic Horror in The People Under the Stairs

The People Under the Stairs. 1991. Directed & Written by Wes Craven.
Starring Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J Langer, and Ving Rhames. Universal Pictures. Rated R. 102 minutes.
Comedy/Horror/Mystery.

★★★★ (Film)
★1/2 (Blu ray release)

I really have a thing for Wes Craven. Do you think he knows?
He’s written and directed some incredibly disturbing, unsettling, and wild horror films. Let’s count the great ones, shall we? The Last House on the LeftThe Hills Have EyesSwamp ThingA Nightmare on Elm StreetThe Hills Have Eyes Part II (maybe I’ll draw some ire by planting that one in here, but I love it, and think it’s unfairly maligned by a lot of critics and horror fans), The Serpent and the Rainbow (directing credit only), Wes Craven’s New NightmareScream (directing again only).
This is not to mention the bunch of other fun horror films he’s had a had in producing, such as FeastWishmaster, and the fantastic remake of his own The Hills Have Eyes. I mean, for A Nightmare on Elm Street alone Craven gets a spot on the top horror masters of all time. Brilliance. But there are a few of his films (such as the aforementioned sequel to his The Hills Have Eyes) which don’t get the credit they deserve.

Cue: The People Under the Stairs.

peopleunderthestairsAt first the film could appear to be a crime thriller about some robbers, but (aside from having Craven’s name on it) you can quickly tell it isn’t going to be the same old story. The film starts off with “Fool” Williams living in a ghetto in L.A. His family is soon to be evicted. Luckily, or realistically unfortunately, for Fool, he knows Leroy who is a lifetime criminal. They quickly decide to rob The Robesons, who lovingly call themselves Mommy & Daddy (played fabulously by former onscreen husband & wife in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Wendy Robie and Everett McGill), who live in a big, old house with only their daughter Alice. Once they get inside the house, hoping to find all the supposed riches the Robesons have hidden away, they discover, to their horrible surprise, it isn’t any treasure Mommy & Daddy have been hiding; the secrets in the house are far worse.

I really love the trailers for The People Under the Stairs because it has such a creepy, dreadful feeling. It starts with the ominous “in every neighbourhoodthere is a house that even the adults talk about“, or something similar. Just superbly disturbing. Once you get into the film, past the bits of ham, there are some wild bits that really creeped me out. In particular, Everett McGill puts on a suit at one point that turned me away, by pure fright, from leather – long before I ever enjoyed the devilishly fun first season of American Horror Story, and the Rubber Man.
gimpsuitOne thing I love is how hard Craven attacks the Reagan era. Particularly, you can see how he is really skewed in the Mommy and Daddy naming of the two crazy people who own the house. It’s known that Ronald often called his wife Nancy Reagan “Mommy”. While Nancy called the Commander-in-chief “Ronnie”, you can still see, along with the rest of the film skewing his era of presidency, how the names Mommy and Daddy were certainly meant to really poke at the political & social commentary of The People Under the Stairs. Even at one point when Fool is looking around the house, he comes across a television set, which is clearly blaring graphic news reports of armed forces conflict (most likely they’re videos from the Gulf War which ended the same year this film was released). I mean, Daddy even stalks Fool and Leroy around the house, eventually shooting Lero, using a high-powered pistol with a red dot sight on it. The artillery Daddy is packing in that house is beyond simple home protection. I think there’s a little message about guns, or at least the military, under Reagan floating around here.

It all lines up, with the plot itself of course, to be very clear Craven doesn’t only intend this as a sometimes campy other times disturbing little horror flick. There’s more than meets the eye.
xDP7rThe acting here is generally pretty good. Rhames is decent in his small part. Really it’s McGill and Robie who shine here. They’re perfect for the role. Of course, they were also perfect on Twin Peaks, so I didn’t doubt they’d do a great job here. Everyone else fills out the cast just fine for the most part.

The People Under the Stairs is mainly all about the plot and story. I liked where it all went. It was disturbing and creepy. Plus, there are some fun and camp-ish moments that really fit well with the overall film. I really do think this movie works as a social metaphor. I’ve seen a few good theories. One in particular talked about how there was, especially around that time in the late 80’s and going into the 90’s, a big divide between those being oppressed and those who were aware of the oppression. Maybe even not so much the times, it’s something that always happens. Generally, until a situation completely boils over (such as it would in 1991 after the Gulf War ended and then Rodney was beaten a month later, one of the many, continuing brutalities committed by police against black men), there are pockets of society unaware of how serious a particular group is being oppressed, and often times eradicated. Here, we see a couple black people break into a home only to discover there are white people literally trapped in the walls. The divide between these two groups being held down are Mommy and Daddy, perfectly representative of Ronald Reagan and his administration in the White House.
I don’t know – maybe it’s nonsense. But I happen to agree with the person who was giving out the theory. Others seem to agree. I don’t mean it’s a perfectly and amazingly profound film, it’s still a weird and wild horror, but there is definitely something else behind it. Craven intended The People Under the Stairs to speak both to horror fans, as well as those looking for a bit of social commentary in their movie-going experience.
thepeopleunderthestairsparents-600x325As a film, I’d absolutely have no problem saying this is worth 4 out of 5 stars. I think Craven has taken a few missteps in his career, but this is not one of them. Some don’t particularly put this at the top of his filmography. Me, however, I believe it’s one of the better written horrors Craven has done simply because there is bit more meat to it; it isn’t all blood and guts and scares. There is a little dark comedy, some hammy acting, and disturbing moments, all wrapped into one package. I dig it.

The Blu ray is not great. Aside from the picture, there is nothing worth talking about. Literally nothing. You can put on subtitles, pause the film, or look through its chapters. Other than that? Don’t count on wiling away the hours on special features. There are none at all. Too bad. I wouldn’t have minded a bit of behind-the-scenes stuff, a featurette or two. Nothing here.
It’s still worth it to own this fun horror on Blu ray. The picture quality is fabulous. Makes a great 1990’s horror classic look pristine. If you haven’t yet experienced The People Under the Stairs do yourself a favour and watch it soon. Especially if you’re a fan of Craven; this one deserves more attention and less ridicule. I think it’s a solid horror, a little different from most. There are even some pretty gory bits just before the hour mark hits. This definitely stands out among a lot of shitty 1990’s horror.

Seconds: The Future of Identity

Seconds. 1966. Dir. John Frankenheimer. Screenplay by Lewis John Carlino; based on the novel by David Ely.
Starring Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, and John Randolph.
Cinematography by James Wong Howe. Edited by Ferris Webster.
Paramount Pictures.
Rated R. 106 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Mystery

★★★★★ (Film)
★★★★★ (Criterion Blu ray release)

John Frankenheimer has directed a few incredible films, which includes Birdman of AlcatrazThe Manchurian CandidateThe Iceman ComethBlack Sunday, Ronin, and the fabulous sequel to the amazing French Connection. Despite those fantastic offerings, I believe Seconds is his best. It is a horrific vision of the future brought forward by an excellent central performance thanks to Rock Hudson, and a tight script by Lewis John Carlino adapted from David Ely’s original novel. Frankenheimer does a bang up job directing this film with some great help.
tumblr_mks6exfBm61qzr8nao1_500Seconds tells the tale of Arthur Hamilton who has lost interest in life. He has everything, seemingly, and isn’t happy. He comes across The Company. They specialize in giving those wealthy enough to afford it a type of transplant: they effectively transform a person into someone else, transplanting them into a new life. Eventually, Hamilton wakes up after a long debacle as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). From here, things get especially strange. His adapting to the new life is strange. Eventually at a party he has too much to drink, and starts rambling about the man ‘he used to be’. Things start to spiral out of his control.
He wants out of this new life, this second chance.

secondsI think the story itself is scary enough on the surface. There are so many different sci-fi horrors I can think of straight off; so many things could go wrong. It’s like how people think of being invisible as a great thing, making you capable of so much, but they forget that the capabilities can also be horrible instead of positive. In fact, the final seven minutes of Seconds gives us one of the more unsettling endings possible for such a story. As Hudson is being brought to his reassignment, after not being able to adjust to the new life he was given, we suddenly realize all the cruel implications of such a service. I think the last few minutes of the film are some of the more creepy and terrifying moments I’ve ever seen, in any film. It doesn’t need any outright horror, no blood or violence. All this finale needed was the talents of Hudson and the incredibly bleak, and wonderful, writing of its script.

seconds_cOne of the most notable things about Seconds is the cinematography. Right from the very opening scene we become aware this is a distorted view of reality. It is in our faces. The camera shows strange angles. Shots are edited at a fast pace. It’s evident from the start this film is anything but typical. There is no wonder James Wong Howe got an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography (Black & White) because for a film made during the 1960s the camerawork is astonishing, and refreshingly original. While a lot of filmmakers were going the way of Kubrick [not saying this is a bad thing – I love Kubrick’s films, as do many – this is simply his school of film thought, in my opinion], that is to say many of them were focusing on framing scenes symmetrically and the like, Frankheimer and Howe chose a unique way to present the film. It helps the themes found in Seconds. The odd angles come at perfect times.

For instance, at a party when Hudson’s character has too much to drink, he starts spouting off about his former life. Unfortunately for Hudson, others who’ve undergone the same procedure as him are there, and they are watching him, keeping an eye on things, as they say. A bunch of men try to silence him. They drag him away, pin him down, and tell him what’s what. This scene could have been filmed in a very traditional fashion. Instead, we get fish-eye type views of the men, all gathering around, holding Hudson down. The camera makes it all frantic. You feel as drunk as the character, you feel as isolated and held down, both figuratively and literally. All in all, the camerawork really lends itself to the atmosphere and mood of Seconds, and the feelings it produces of being an outsider, or better an alien in someone else’s skin, in their life.
Seconds-2As a film, Seconds is absolutely a 5 star classic of a film. No doubt in my mind. There is not one thing wrong with this movie, and this is a reason why Criterion has chosen to preserve it. This film provides a masterclass in several areas of film: directing, writing, cinematography, acting. The whole masterpiece is a testament to collaborative effort. Without the work James Wong Howe did, for instance, there would be a hole left in the film. Likewise, the adaptation of Ely’s novel by Carlino is a solid work of writing. Without it the film wouldn’t have moved and flowed the way it does. Everything here is here for a reason. The whole machine works flawlessly. The story is absolutely incredible. I would rank this up there with any other psychological horror. This can also be seen as a real sci-fi horror, but it works so well as a psychological & dramatic horror I can’t help referring to it that way. Not to mention the fact Hudson is in this film; his own identity feels tied up in the role he plays, very much, and I think that adds a whole other level to Seconds.
F3.largeThe Blu ray Criterion release for Frankenheimer’s masterpiece serves the film quite well. There are a few wonderful interviews including Frankenheimer’s widow, Evans Frankenheimer, Salome Jens, and a great new interview with Alec Baldwin who knew Frankenheimer well. Of course there is also a visual essay by film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance, and in the case itself Criterion provides a booklet which features an essay on the film by David Sterritt. Most Criterion releases are amazing. This is no exception to that rule.
The release certainly gets a 5 out of 5 rating. They could not have improved on the film technically any more. The picture is absolutely incredible. Black and white can sometimes transfer over to look choppy, but the transfer here is pristine; the picture comes across beautiful, each and every image stays striking and noticeable. I cannot complain whatsoever.
Particularly I have to mention the camerawork and how evidently gorgeous it looks on this release. Frankenheimer’s wife actually discusses a few of the more brilliant moments. Howe uses really sharp focus in a few points that really blows me away. Also, she references the scene with the diamond-shaped hallway, the strange look of it all, the dreamy & nightmarish qualities within. All of these bits come out in beautiful picture. The look of the film is just a revelation here. That alone is worth the price of this Criterion title.

See this film.  Seconds is a marvelous masterpiece.  I rave about it.  There are too many moments to discuss in writing.  I could sit with a group of people and talk about this one for hours.  Maybe even days.  Not only the look of the film, the camerawork, and all of it, but the story and all its implications.  See this immediately, and get the Criterion Blu ray – you will not regret it.

The Bride of Frankenstein is a Horror Sequel Classic

The Bride of Frankenstein.  1935. Dir. James Whale. Screenplay by William Hurlbut.
Starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Gavin Gordon, Douglas Walton, and Una O’Connor. Universal Pictures.
Rated G.  75 minutes.
Comedy/Drama/Horror

★★★★ (Film)
★★★★ (Blu ray release)

For my earlier Blu ray review of James Whale’s original Frankenstein click here.

I can tell you one thing off the bat – I really could have done without Gavin Gordon’s eloquently rolling speech as Lord Byron in the opening scene. Really love how the film starts, I just cannot handle his dialogue. It nearly prompted me to fast forward, but I rarely ever do that.
Plus, if I did that I would’ve missed a beautiful shot I love: as the present day gives way to the story’s plot, starting after The Monster has apparently died and fire burns, the camera pulls away from Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley while they all talk about her story Frankenstein. This shot slays me. It is as beautiful as anything you could ever see. The camera hauls back, transitioning to the story, and while it does we see the room grow larger and larger, looming around Byron and the Shelleys. There’s a haunting quality to it.

The Bride of Frankenstein - Poster - American - 1935The Bride of Frankenstein for me is almost better than its predecessor. It has to do with the fact I didn’t particularly care for a lot of the changes the first film made to Shelley’s original novel. Where The Bride of Frankenstein is itself a new story, inspired by parts of the original novel and of course the film before, it thrilled me more because it was James Whale taking on fresh material; essentially, building on his vision of Frankenstein further.

There is a little bit more hamming in regards to acting. You can’t let that take away from this film. In 1935 there was still, naturally, a lot of reference to the stage. Film was not exactly an old medium. Many actors no doubt relied on their training as stage actors in plays or musicals, whatever, to guide their performances on film. The one performance which I really can’t stand (aside from the irritating portrayal of Lord Byron in the opening scene, which I can forgive as it isn’t long) is that of Una O’Connor who plays Minnie. She was apparently a favourite of Whale’s, and supposed to be comic relief from what I gather. However, this film could have, and would have, worked just as well with no overbearing comedy, which is exactly what O’Connor provides. Her shrieking and wailing does nothing for me. I hated every minute of it. I particularly hate her overreaction to meeting The Monster, just moments after he has grimly dispatched a couple people (that part is actually crazy for the time). O’Connor’s reaction to The Monster is so over the top it pains me to watch. It could’ve been a really frightening moment. Instead they go for a real gag almost. May as well have been Curly, Larry, or Moe instead of Minnie.
Aside from O’Connor, however, I really enjoy a lot of the other performances. Clive, again, is a good Frankenstein, albeit still named Henry of course. Ernest Thesiger comes as a great addition to this sequel. He plays the part of Doctor Septimus Pretorius, who is the former mentor of Henry Frankenstein. His performance is more than adequately creepy and quirky.
MBDBROF EC119Not only that but the inclusion of the character provides a particularly memorable scene for The Bride of Frankenstein when Pretorius shows his protege a bunch of miniature people he has created, homunculi, such as a king and queen, and more. For the time, especially, this one scene was incredibly innovative. Today we take those things for granted. In 1935, showing a doctor displaying a bunch of tiny people in snowglobe-like encasements, moving around and talking, et cetera, was incredible. It looks flawless. On Blu ray this scene looks really incredible, the picture is beautiful and it would be hard to imagine someone not being able to appreciate it.

One of my other favourite scenes from The Bride of Frankenstein is the meeting of The Monster and the blind hermit. The Monster wanders into his home because the man is playing the violin; he does a beautiful rendition of “Ave Maria”. This scene looks wonderful, as does most of the film, but it’s also emotional. The two meet and become friends. The blind man identifies with the grunting man-monster; neither of them are working with their full faculties. Of course it doesn’t last long. While it does, though, it is spectacular. Karloff again does a great job of subtly portraying The Monster as a misunderstood and confused character. He truly was one of the greatest actors. In the first film he did a magnificent job, here he is able to expand upon that characterization, and really makes The Monster a good tribute to what I believe were Shelley’s intentions for him in the original novel. They fit very well together. Also, this pairs well with Elsa Lanchester’s portrayal of The Monster’s eventual life partner, which is a sight to behold.
1935-bride-of-frankenstein-5
Though The Bride of Frankenstein Blu ray doesn’t have as many features as the first film’s release by Universal Pictures, there is still a great featurette (featuring the ever-knowledgeable Joe Dante) called “She’s Alive! Creating The Bride of Frankenstein“, which examines all sorts of aspects related to the film. This includes interviews with a bunch of people, such as Bill Condon and  and great narration by Dante. I really enjoyed this small documentary.  The focus honed in on James Whale in particular. Everyone discusses The Bride of Frankenstein, but touches on his other horror films, and the incredible visionary outlook he had. Also included on the Blu ray release is some nice commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen, as well as “The Bride of Frankenstein archives” which is a lot of production stills from the film set, posters, artwork, and so on.
1935-bride-of-frankensteinAs a film, I would have to give The Bride of Frankenstein a 4 out of 5 stars. I really wish some of the outright comedy didn’t find its way in here. They say Whale is known for his playfulness in that sense, and in other films I can totally jive with it, but here it feels out of place to me. Or maybe it’s only out of place for my taste, and that could be because of O’Connor’s performance. Regardless, there is a still a ham-ish quality to The Bride of Frankenstein which I don’t feel totally belongs. I know the concept is a bit out there, and perhaps due to that the slight bit of comedy in here works for some. I just don’t necessarily believe that in a horror film an out there concept needs to be treated with any sense of comedy. It’s not as if the laughs are dripping out of every scene, not even many really, but it is there, and if the whole film were played with an even more deadly serious tone it would have worked. It works as is, but that’s just my opinion on something it may have lacked.

The Blu ray release also gets a 4 out of 5 stars. I really did like the special features included, but I feel like for a Universal Pictures film, one that is so adored according to most sources, there’s a lack of extras. The featurette narrated by Joe Dante is awesome, but really – they couldn’t find anything else except a slideshow of pictures over music and a film history’s commentary? I just find it strange. The Blu ray restoration of Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein has a lot of great stuff, and this just seems like they didn’t have much. Maybe there wasn’t much, but still – I find it hard to believe. Enjoyable features included nonetheless, though not as much as I would’ve liked.
The picture itself is unbelievable. Whale’s film uses setting and atmosphere, as well as makeup and lighting, to really make its story work. There are beautiful and horrifying moments, sometimes all wrapped into one, throughout the film. The mood is set completely through how Whale makes everything so grim and gloomy. The Blu ray definition makes this classic truly worthwhile. Especially if you have never seen the film, you will be blown away at how gorgeous the picture quality looks here in this release. You’re able to capture all the shadows and the creepy lighting and the terrifying makeup in such beauty here. Really an incredible job.

Anyone who has yet to see this film, do check it out as soon as possible. It is no doubt a classic. However, don’t feel like it’s untouchable. Classics aren’t perfect just because they’re classics. No matter, The Bride of Frankenstein is a beautiful horror film worth watching, and will always remain a classic.

Frankenstein: Fun But Less Penetrating Shelley

Frankenstein. 1931. Dir.  James Whale. Screenplay by Garrett Fort & Francis Edward Faragoh.
Starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, and Boris Karloff. Universal Pictures.
Unrated. 70 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Sci-Fi

★★★★ (Film)
★★★★★ (Blu ray release)

For my review of the excellent sequel, 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, click here.

I won’t bore anyone by recounting the plot of Frankenstein because, not to sound snobbish or anything, if you haven’t seen it by now then that’s ridiculous. This really is one of the classic horrors of the film world. Regardless, everyone knows the story of Frankenstein because it’s one of those tales that really stood the test of time; in fact when Mary Shelley wrote the book it was ahead of its time. And if you haven’t seen it you’ve probably seen some other work which had its primary influence developed due to Shelley’s novel.
Poster - Frankenstein_01That being said the film is excellent. My personal problem with this version of Frankenstein is mainly a subjective thing. I try not to negatively judge the film adaptation of a novel of which I’m a fan. It isn’t fair. Film and novels are two entirely separate universes. While reading a novel you have no choice but to use your imagination, guided by the words of an author. However, while watching a film you’re essentially subjected to the imagination of the filmmakers. You have no choice but to shut off your imagination, for the most part (depending on what sort of film you’re watching – avant garde film, for instance, usually requires the imagination to be in full gear). Either way, I can’t help but feel as if James Whale’s adaptation of the Shelly novel missed out on some spectacular opportunities.
Clive, Colin (Frankenstein)_01Now, of course, this was made in 1931. Though at the time I’m sure it was a lot of money, the film only cost a little over $250,000 to make (it would go on to make $12-million in domestic box office and who knows how much in video sales, and continues to make). I can forgive them to a certain extent for not fully going along with the entire story. There’s also the fact portions of Shelley’s novel are written in epistolary pieces, which frame the story; letters to and from characters. These, which occur right at the beginning of Frankenstein, are set on an expedition near the North Pole. My first thought as to why the screenwriters (the credits for the writing are actually a mess, as far as I’m concerned) decided not to start the film the way in which the novel begins is because maybe they felt audiences at the time might not respond to Henry Frankenstein (another change I just didn’t like) the same way. In the novel, we meet Victor Frankenstein through the eyes of Captain Robert Walton (who is writing the letters); he is near the North Pole, in the freezing cold, disturbed, lost, all sorts of a mess. Before he recounts the story of his terror-filled life, we already know he has suffered the consequences of whatever he’s done. I just feel as if the novel’s opening works perfectly for the characters. But of course, Henry Frankenstein is quite a different sort than Victor.

The monster looks great for 1931. Not to mention Boris Karloff does an incredible job of acting as Frankenstein’s monster. The performance isn’t overdone. Some of the subtleties in Karloff’s Monster are amazing. The first time we actually see him it’s brilliance. Everything moves so slow. And of course there’s the famous scene of the Monster befriending a little girl; you almost well up with fear beforehand, wondering exactly what will happen, and the Monster goes right ahead subverting our expectations. Until things go a little bit too far. It’s a really wonderful moment.
However, all that being said, I still prefer the descriptions of the monster in Shelley’s novel to the visualization in film. You can’t simply pass that off as this being done in 1931, either. It’s not the problem. They simply toned it down. Yes, that has to do with audiences in 1931, but that didn’t totally limit them. The make-up effects didn’t have to be terribly gruesome. I just imagine Frankenstein’s monster looking less like a man in a lot of regards. Karloff looks great, and actually does appear creepy a lot of times, mostly in his facial expressions. But the Monster in the novel is far more terrifying. I know, again, this is a very subjective line of critiquing. Whale’s film did a fine job enough with the horror, but that there were a lot of other opportunities he could have mined to really horrify audiences. I can only imagine seeing this at the time – I would’ve shit myself. Still, this movie does a great job even today of being highly creepy. There are just a lot of missed chances I wish Whale had taken.
Annex - Karloff, Boris (Frankenstein)_04Aside from my problems with the translation into film, it’s still a classic, as I mentioned in the beginning. The iconic status of Frankenstein’s Monster is unparalleled. He is parodied in countless other films and television shows (I think of, more recently, a skit on Chappelle’s Show involving African-Americanized versions of Frankenstein’s monster, as well as the Mummy and the Wolf-Man). The core of the story about Frankenstein and his Monster has been used in various other novels, films, and so on; the idea of playing god, making a man, et cetera. It is something that endures on and on. It’ll continue to do so, as every Halloween you no doubt see at least one kid walking around with a Frankenstein’s Monster costume on (although everybody mistakenly calls the Monster Frankenstein when really he has no name, and is Frankenstein’s Monster… but whatever). It’s one of those tales we cannot forget. And film adaptations help these novels extend their lives further into new generations.
Annex - Karloff, Boris (Frankenstein)_NRFPT_04The Blu ray release by Universal Pictures is absolutely magnificent. The picture was digitally restored, and it’s shocking how great the film looks in such beautiful high definition. I’d seen Frankenstein countless times before. Once I watched this I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not only is the picture worth the price, but there are a bunch of really interesting special features. One such extra is a short film called Boo! which is a comedy lampooning Universal’s own horrors such as The Cat Creeps and Frankenstein, as well as their own Dracula; however, instead of using footage from their own version they used the German Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. It’s actually a riot. You can imagine this being done today, honestly. A few jokes about cosmetic surgery and congress, a couple more using quick reverse-fast forward sequences, and hilarity ensues.

Other extras include a fun little bit called Monster Tracks: basically at various points throughout the film bits of trivia will pop up on the screen. For instance, there are some fun pieces concerning the scene where Frankenstein ‘plays’ with the girl by the lake (such as how Whale wanted Karloff to throw the girl in insisting “You see it’s all part of the ritual”). Furthermore, you’ve got some little documentaries & featurettes like “Karloff: The Gentle Monster” (including interviews with everyone from several Karloff biographers to the likes of Joe Dante, Ramsey Campbell and Richard Gordon) and “The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster”. These are some awesome little bits to fill in the release. We got a lot of great insight behind the film itself, as well as its star, the Monster himself Boris Karloff.

As a film, I give Whale’s Frankenstein a 4 out of 5. It’s classic, it’s amazing, yes, but I really do feel they missed opportunities here. If they were able to adapt Shelley’s actual novel they should have used some of the best bits, which unfortunately they did not. It doesn’t ruin the film at all. Look at this as a much more subjective review than I would normally do. I only do it this way because the novel is an absolute masterpiece. Some say different, that it’s overrated. So wrong. It’s near perfect as a horror novel can be.
The Blu ray release gets a flawless 5 out of 5 star rating. How can it not? The picture alone is enough to justify buying the Blu ray. I can’t get over it. Everything looks so wonderful for a film that was done over 80 years ago now. Plus, all the features included on Universal’s restored version are a blast. You can spend hours going through this disc just to get through all the wonderful material they’ve added.
Annex - Karloff, Boris (Frankenstein)_06I highly recommend anyone who hasn’t seen this film, please, go do it. Especially if you’re a horror fan, or consider yourself a horror buff. Your viewing isn’t done until you’ve seen this. And also, if you have yet to read the novel, go get a copy. Shelley is an absolute master. A really wonderful read. And just like a film, it will grip you, and shock you at times. One of my all-time favourites.