House of Frankenstein (1944)

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Sticklers for truth in advertising could make an excellent case for renaming this tepid Universal horror entry House of Niemann, but by the waning days of World War II the lack of a sure-fire marquee name wouldn’t have put many butts in the seats.

Boris Karloff, the most iconic star in the Frankenstein cosmos, plays Dr. Niemann, an admirer of the original mad scientist who first charged-up the monster that bears his name.

Like his mentor, Niemann has a hunchback assistant (J. Carroll Naish) and enough ambition to raise the dead. After a fortunate spate of bad weather, he and his spine-damaged flunky escape from prison and waste no time in carjacking a couple of wagons owned by Lampini (George Zucco), an itinerant sideshow impresario.

The sideshow’s star attraction? Dracula’s skeleton, which seems to have a doorstop stuffed into its sternum. Once revived, John Carradine does his best, but lacks the physical presence to truly terrify. He also insists on wearing a ludicrous top hat, as if he was just stopping in for a nip of O negative before dashing off to a Gilbert & Sullivan opera.

The titular creature (Glenn Strange, taking over Bela Lugosi, who just didn’t cut it in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman) doesn’t even make an appearance till 45 minutes into the movie, and for the most part remains either frozen in ice or strapped to a table.

The hunchback falls in love with a gypsy dancer (Elena Verduga), who in turn has hot pants for part-time lycanthrope, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr), thawed out while Niemann is searching the ruins of Frankenstein’s castle for the doctor’s Cliffs Notes on creation.

The three key monsters never interact, which is a rather disappointing turn of events, especially since we have to sit through several soggy scenes of Talbot and the hunchback whining about who’s life sucks worse.

This movie, as directed by horror veteran Erle C. Kenton (Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Island of Lost Souls), is patchy and episodic with only perfunctory thrills. Hell, the wolf man’s lone kill takes place of offscreen, while Dracula’s attack on the burgermeister is performed as a shadow play! Weak tea, indeed.

In the long-awaited finale, villagers arrive at the laboratory with torches and chase the monster and Niemann into a quicksand bog. Karloff’s panicked face sinking into the swamp is the last thing we see before the end credits, which is only fitting since he’s the biggest star on the block—and the chief reason to sit through a rather pedestrian film. House of Frankenstein is no classic, but definitely rates a low-expectations look.

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Exists (2014)

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A found-footage entry from director Eduardo Sanchez, the guy who first cashed in on the genre with The Blair Witch Project. I thoroughly understand the financial motivation for using GoPro cameras as the primary source of footage; it’s a helluva lot cheaper than film. And let’s face it, handheld and body mounted cameras give the action a heightened sense of urgency, particularly during the inevitable flight through the forest sequence.

Unfortunately, it’s also distracting and all but challenges the viewer to account for every shot. Sorry, but there are instances in Exists when it becomes nearly impossible to convince yourself that Brian the stoner (Chris Osborn) somehow has access to more cameras than NBC. There. I said it.

The plot is pure boilerplate, as five young adults (one of whom is Dora Madison Burge from Friday Night Lights and Chicago Fire) decide to party at Brian and Matt’s (Samuel Davis) family hunting cabin in the untamed wilds of Texas. That would be the same cabin that their uncle used to live in, until something frightened him away. So yes, by all means, let’s go see if we can figure out exactly what that might be.

The answer is Bigfoot/Sasquatch, who’s enjoying a bit of a resurgence as a movie monster, apparently fully recovered from family friendly piffle like Harry and the Hendersons, that reduced him to kiddy comic relief. In Exists, he’s a vengeful critter, looking to put a hurt on the punks that ran over Little Squatch.

Sanchez opts for a more traditional (and confrontational) approach than is used by Bobcat Goldthwaite in his meditative Willow Creek, another recent Bigfoot-gone-bad film. That means there’s an actual body count here, and that we are treated to several good looks at the beast, whose makeup is well above average.

As we watch another clutch of adolescent interlopers hide and flee, there are sufficient scenes that generate an actual fright response, so I’m giving Exists a modest recommendation that should not be mistaken for overwhelming enthusiasm.

Afterthought: Does Bigfoot eat people? I think he probably should. It’s scarier that way. Who’s gonna run away from a furry herbivore?

The Houses October Built (2014)

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Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I’m the kind of meatball what thinks that life (aka, all the loud shit going on during the waking hours) is an endless learning opportunity. Simply by not having our heads snagged in our own b-holes, we can hopefully evolve into something that isn’t eaten by bobcats or swindled by kids selling magazine subscriptions. If you’re a reasonably intelligent ordinary citizen, you should be able to keep up with your personal narrative to the extent that you can see when your own shitty decision-making is making things unbearable. That is my belief.

Why is this such a struggle for the cast of horror movies and The Houses October Built specifically? Because it’s written that way. It’s our cross to bear so that we can see the trap springing merrily shut.

Armed with digital cameras, four dudes and a woman named Brandy hit the open road in a recreational vehicle looking to document America’s scariest Halloween haunts. They head south, following hideously costumed hillbillies from one trauma-inducing spook house to the next, until they end up in New Orleans. Strange and disturbing occurrences are routine along the way, including confrontations with hostile carny folk and vehicular infiltration by creeping intruders. Anyone with the common sense of a deer smelling a fire in the wind would have hightailed it to the nearest blue state, but the four dudes and Brandy push onward. Sad, really. I wonder who found the footage?

The cast is also billed as the crew. Not quite sure what’s up with that, but I would like to congratulate director Bobby Roe, because The Houses October Built is one scary-ass movie. Way more effective than The Blair Witch Project. Witches aren’t scary. People are scary. Especially in those parts of the world where it gets dark super fast and the scarecrows come to life.

Animal (2014)

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No, it’s not the Rob Schneider movie. That would be too depraved even for me.

Welcome to another episode of We’re A Bunch of Dipshits Who Went Camping. Two couples and their gay friend go for a hike, get lost in the woods, and are pursued through the pines by some kind of super-powerful apex predator. The creature itself is the best part of Animal, and frankly, it deserves a better movie than this tedious time waster.

The beast is close to human size, really fast, agile, and powerful. It appears to be equal parts rodent, reptile, and canine, and must have been fasting recently, because this thing is first in line at the human flesh buffet, barely slowing down to nosh on one victim before another lands in his lap. Put him on a plate son, you’ll enjoy him more.

Predictably, things bog down when the campers discover a fairly majestic log cabin to hide in, one that already has a trio of trapped hikers, including former Kevin Smith co-star Joey Lauren Adams. That’s when these idiots turn on each other and reveal long-simmering secrets that have no bearing on the action whatsoever, but do fill a tidy bit of time.

Animal is not awful, but when you introduce a badass creature that piques the curiosity, we want to know a little backstory, like, what the hell is it and where’d it come from? This information is not forthcoming, but while we’re twiddling our thumbs in the cabin, we do find out that the studly Jeff (Parker Young), who has long since had his head removed, may have once had a hookup with Sean (Paul Iacano), much to the chagrin of Mandy (Elizabeth Gillies), the hot Final Girl.

Come on, people! Priorities!

Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

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OK, this bad boy rocks. If you haven’t seen anything worth inviting into your Netflix queue lately, Frankenstein’s Army is a brilliant remedy; a disturbing Weird War tale with steampunk accoutrements fitted into a “found-footage” frame, brandishing an aesthetic that’s shockingly bold and nightmarishly distinctive.

In the waning days of World War II, Russian troops are streaming into Germany, wreaking havoc along the way. One such unit is accompanied by Captain Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), a cameraman making a documentary about these “heroic” soldiers. While holed up in a bombed-out village, the group discovers a church converted into a mad scientist’s lab and are soon set upon by the most outré pack of Nazi zombie-robot-monsters I’ve ever seen. Frankenstein’s Army is a Czech/US/Netherlands co-production filmed in the Czech Republic, which perhaps goes a long way toward explaining its unique appeal.

Director and story man Richard Raaphorst hits a horror home run his first time at bat. Sure, the lengths needed to preserve the found-footage premise become increasingly (and purposely, I think) absurd as a 70-year-old Soviet movie camera is able to capture pristine audio while getting tossed around like a Samsung at a frat party. But Raaphorst is a filmmaker with vision: his nimble mind invents extraordinary beings, and like Dr. Frankenstein (Karl Roden), he has the ability to bring them to life. He’s not just another fawning acolyte of Sam Raimi or Tim Burton—if anything, his work reminds me of England’s reigning madman, Ken Russell. Take it from me, Frankenstein’s Army is some very fresh hell, indeed. Highly recommended.

Stitches (2012)

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Come on, send in the clowns already! In this case, the horrific harlequin is none other than Richard “Stitches” Grindel (Ross Noble), a kid-hating misanthrope who lives in an old school bus on the outskirts of town. After a fatal encounter with a party of very naughty children, the vengeful jester rises from his clown grave to seek bloody revenge. My hat is off to Irish writer-director Conor McMahon, who has fashioned a frenetic visual funhouse of grotesquery that rivals Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive in both gorgeous gore and hysterical laughs.

Like most clowns, Stitches is down on his luck and needs to occasionally tap the lucrative birthday party circuit to keep his kinky girlfriend in hooker shoes. Sadly, the brats attending Tommy’s party are narcissistic sociopaths suffering from ADD, and instead of being treated to an inspiring afternoon of professional buffoonery, they torment the miserable merrymaker to death! Tying his clown shoes together results in a face-plant into the dishwasher where a carelessly placed carving knife awaits. Frankly, these kids deserve to die horribly in the rash of over-the-top impalings, gougings, and decapitations that follows in the wake of Stitches’ sinister resurrection ceremony conducted by his malevolent clown brethren.

If you only see one movie about a zombie clown this year, make it Stitches. You’ll be glad you did.

Night of the Demon (1957)

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Let’s dispense with the chit-chat and get down to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Whether you see it as Night of the Demon (the full-length British feature) or Curse of the Demon (the American version with 12 minutes edited out), you’re in for a sweet ride. Based on the M.R. James short story “Casting the Runes” this black-and-white creep-a-thon is required viewing in the horror canon—and if your tender sensibilities can’t fathom a scary movie without a shower scene or diced camper, then I suggest you move on.

Generic 1950s leading man Dana Andrews stars as John Holden, an American psychiatrist and skeptic, who travels to England to expose “devil cult” leader Julian Karswell (Niall McGinnis) as a fraud. The problem is, he isn’t one, and soon Holden realizes the avuncular Karswell has slipped him a piece of paper with a powerful curse on it. (I think it translates as “Hey demon, please mangle and mutilate whatever sorry sack of shit has the misfortune to be in possession of this here paper. K? Thanks!”)

Karswell coolly informs Holden that he will be taking a dirt nap in three days, prompting the spooked shrink and his comely sidekick (Peggy Cummins) to race around the English countryside in search of a solution.

Credit the skills of veteran director Jacques Tourneur for creating a true atmospheric classic. Demon, as well as previous films such as The Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and the noir masterpiece Out of the Past (Robert Mitchum’s best movie? It’s up there) demonstrate Tourneur’s finesse with unexpected camera angles and his juggling of light and shadow to create menace.

The attendant legend of Demon concerns the studio’s decision to have a demon appear at the beginning and end of the film, contrary to the wishes of Tourneur. IMHO, it would have been a fine movie without it, but I actually appreciate the effort to give viewers a nightmare they can take home with them. It’s really not a bad demon; I’ve seen much worse.

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