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.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

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Just when you think the vampire genre has finally been laid to rest, ingloriously felled by a wooden stake autographed by the cast of Twilight, along comes a stunner like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, giving us a vibrant new milieu to consider. With seemingly minimal resources (tiny cast, spare dialogue), writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour has bestowed a dazzling gift on jaded horror fans. What we have here, is a striking black-and-white horror Western, featuring a skateboarding vampire girl (Sheila Vand), instead of a laconic gunslinger, stalking a desert town like an avenging angel.

Welcome to Bad City, Iran. It’s a lawless patch of sand with a high murder rate surrounded by oil pumps and miles of godforsaken badlands. Arash (Arash Marandi), is a dutiful James Dean-ish gardener with a junkie dad (Marshall Manesh), who owes money to local crime boss Saeed (Dominic Rains), a reptilian goon dabbling in drugs, prostitution, and loansharking. Saeed is indeed a bad man, but almost comic opera in his appropriation of American gangster swag, like the cheap neck tattoo that reads simply, “Sex.”

One night, after shaking down a hooker (Mozhan Marno), Saeed encounters a pale, mysteriously cloaked woman (Vand, looking like a punky Heathers-era Winona Ryder), whom he invites to his swinging pad for cocaine and bad techno music. Saeed gets more than he bargained for.

Later, Arash, dressed like Dracula, meets the very same girl, while he’s blitzed out of his gourd on Molly, and soon falls in love. But is love enough when your new lady friend has a serious drinking problem?

Employing closeups of white faces surrounded by darkness, Amirpour has a ball with light and shadow, fashioning one ingenious frame after another, as if Carl Dreyer (or possibly Jim Jarmusch) were directing a budget film noir. I was hooked from the opening scene of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—and it just kept getting better. Get this one in your queue ASAP.

Mr. Hush (2011)

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Nope, no sugarcoating around here. Your life will not be enhanced in any way, shape or form by watching Mr. Hush. It’s a terminally amateurish effort from writer/director David Lee Madison about a dude named Holland Price (Brad Loree, a poor man’s, I don’t know, Eric Roberts?), an unfortunate soul who opens the door to the wrong trick-or-treater. Here’s a life hack for you buddy: Don’t let a man into your house who is dressed as a priest and calling himself “Father Flanagan” (Edward X. Young) on Halloween night unless you’ve been looking forward to seeing your wife’s throat cut and your daughter abducted.

Bad luck, right? We leap 10 years into the future and Price is a dish dog at a greasy spoon with a tiny little crush on Debbie (Connie Giordano) the new waitress. She’s a widow with a teenage daughter, he’s a widower with a perpetual case of the blues, so they tentatively embark on a relationship. Oh hark! Is that a knock at the door? Before Price can say “boo” to a goose, the very same maniac reappears, looking not a day older, to carve up his new special lady. What are the odds?

Mr. Hush would be utterly unwatchable without the meaty contributions of Edward X. Young, as a charmingly hammy community theater villain who seems to be enjoying the hell out of himself, even firing off a perfectly terrible joke after he’s impaled by the shards of a Louisville Slugger. And yep, that’s Evil Ed from Fright Night, Stephen Geoffreys, as the killer’s psychotic little helper who dresses like a homeless backup dancer from Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video. Sadly, it’s not enough to compensate for the leaden pace, goofy-ass script and fatal cheapness of the production.

Twixt (2011)

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Distinguished filmmaker (and winemaker) Francis Ford Coppola returns to his horror roots! As we all know, one of his first films was the 1963 gothic thriller Dementia 13 for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures. And like his earlier film, Twixt is an eerie, dreamlike story with revolving color/black and white scenery, with a narrative that shifts gears between reality, dream world, and the mind of a desperate writer trying to get in touch with his long-lost muse.

Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), described by one fan as “a bargain-basement Stephen King,” is out on an aimless book tour for his latest hack-job horror novel. He rolls into Swann Valley, a sleepy little California community, and is immediately pounced upon by wannabe writer and town sheriff Bobby LaGrange (Bruce Dern), who wants to collaborate on a new book. “The whole town is haunted!” he tells the writer with glee. Baltimore is an alcoholic, a neglectful husband, and a grieving father who’s clearly at the end of his rope, so he agrees to let the loony lawman show him the town. And soon a new story is born, featuring a corpse with a stake through its heart, the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe, a dangerously pale girl with braces, a haunted hotel, and a clock tower that’s inhabited by “the devil himself.”

Obviously, Twixt is not on a par (or scale) of Coppola masterworks like The Godfather or Apocalypse Now. Plot points come and go, some resolved, some disappearing like lint in a stiff breeze. But it’s a consistently intriguing little flick that’s both a horror whodunit and a tale about a tapped-out artist who needs to reconnect with his talent in order to survive.

For rabid cinephiles, the movie includes appearances by the likes of David Paymer, Joanne Whalley (Kilmer’s wife), Don Novello (a.k.a. Father Guido Sarducci!) and Elle Fanning, not to mention an introduction read by Tom Waits. Ultimately, though, it’s Coppola who makes all the right moves, perhaps signaling a return to more creative endeavors than stomping on grapes.

Scary Or Die (2012)

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Any true aficionado of horror has got to have a soft spot in his/her heart for the anthology film. Emerging from such firmly entrenched precedents as old EC Comics (and adapted works based on them, e.g., Tales From the Crypt and Creep Show), radio spook shows Lights Out and Inner Sanctum, classic TV fear fodder like Boris Karloff’s Chiller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Night Gallery, Tales From the Darkside, and Twilight Zone, not to mention short fiction collections ranging from M.R. James to Stephen King, the horror anthology is an effective method of giving the consumer maximum bang for the buck in terms of mood and menace. And unlike an entree on Chopped, it is possible to enjoy or hate individual sections without the need to judge the work as a whole. Of course, you’re entitled to do that too—it’s your dime, it’s your time.

Scary Or Die‘s wraparound premise focuses on an anonymous ghoul doing some late-night web surfing, selecting different horror tales from a menu of choices. (How bloody contemporary!) The first, “The Crossing,” stars our old friend Bill Oberst Jr (who could ever forget A Haunting In Salem?), as Buck, a despicable truck-driving redneck vigilante, who hunts illegal immigrants along the border between Arizona and Mexico. In the blunt-as-a-brick denouement, Buck, his dumbbell pal, and inexplicably hot gal, who, bless her heart, doesn’t approve of killing unarmed Mexicans, meet a very sorry fate when a whole graveyard of Buck’s past victims crawl out of the ground with a vicious case of the munchies. It’s gross, crude, and predictable, but reasonably satisfying.

“Taejung’s Lament” is an elegant stylistic contrast, the story of a man (Charles Rahi Chun) who ghost-walks through his days, forever mourning his late wife, until he rescues the beautiful and mysterious Min-ah (Alexandra Choi) from an assault, and presto, he’s completely under her spell. (Note: We figure out she is a vampire way, way before he does.) Tastefully shot at night in Los Angeles, this one has a haunting, minimalist quality that visually compensates for a twistless plot.

In “Re-Membered” a hit man (Christopher Darga) gets more than he bargained for when his latest mark turns out to be a clever and very-hard-to-kill sorcerer. It’s another adequately suspenseful entry with few surprises.

The strongest episode is “Clowned,” about an amiable coke dealer named Emmett (Corbin Bleu) who suffers an unwanted clown bite at his little brother’s birthday party. The idea that clowns, like vampires and lycanthropes, can create more of their kind through a bite, is quite a good one, and soon poor Emmett begins to undergo a hideous (and hilarious) transformation. Oh yeah, and he craves human meat, especially that of his innocent hermano. This one also has an unexpectedly funny exchange of dialogue between two detectives arguing over the difference between a clown and a mime. I’m sorry, but if you can’t appreciate the universally grotesque charm of flesh-eating clowns, then what good are you?

The final segment, “Lover Come Back” is a standard tale of love and revenge, with a voodoo priestess (Shannon Bobo) rising from the grave after she’s betrayed by her faithless lover. Moral: Don’t ever fool around on your sweetie if she’s got strange and terrible powers. Seriously, I need to tell you that?

Writer-directors Bob Badway and Michael Emanuel don’t bring anything new to the table (aside from the cannibal clown mythology) in Scary or Die, but neither do they commit any egregious errors. There’s not much depth here, but your hunger pangs will be momentarily sated.

Monster Brawl (2011)

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It’s feather-light on substance, but writer/director Jesse T. Cook’s heart is in the right place. Monster Brawl imagines a pay-per-view event that pits eight screen creatures (Frankenstein’s Monster, the Werewolf, Zombie Man, Swamp Gut, Cyclops, Lady Vampire, the Mummy, and Witch Bitch) against each other in an other-worldly rasslin’ match—and only one shall emerge victorious. What could have been a totally brainless exercise in lowest-common denominator yucks, though not brilliant by any means, does fit the bill if you need to clean out your head with 90 minutes of reasonably clever mindless fun.

The good: Buzz Chambers (Dave Foley, from Kids in the Hall) and “Sasquatch” Sid Tucker (Art Hindle) are the commentators calling out the action, and really, their game commitment to the roles is probably the best thing about Monster Brawl. Buzz is the flask-swigging play-by-play guy, while former champ “Sasquatch” Sid is the voice of ring experience. Both actors acquit themselves with straight-faced aplomb. We should also acknowledge the efforts of resourceful actor Jason David Brown, who plays no less than three parts (Swamp Gut, Cyclops, and the gravedigger)! That’s a helluva lot of time to spend with your ass planted in the makeup chair. There are occasional splashes of gore that are entirely adequate (e.g., the zombie head squish). Lance Henriksen supplies some voice-over work.

Not so good: The monsters are at best, serviceable. Frankenstein’s Monster (Robert Maillet) is a decent interpretation, though the fact that he’s wearing a pullover from Land’s End is not to his sartorial credit. For the most part they remain in character, though Witch Bitch (Holly Letkeman) is a disappointment, because she uses wrestling maneuvers against Cyclops, instead of her own vaunted sorcery.

Bad: The presence of annoying wrestling manager Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart (who once managed Hulk Hogan!) adds nothing to the proceedings, though his two bikini-clad sidekicks are welcome eye candy in an otherwise desolate landscape.

Best dialogue exchange

BUZZ: And here comes Frankenstein!

SID: Technically, it’s Frankenstein’s Monster, if you want to be a dick about it.

Stake Land (2010)

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I noticed this title had popped up on a lot of “Best Of”  lists from two years ago so I was keen on seeing it. Saints be praised, I wasn’t disappointed. (Don’t you love it when that happens?) Lean, mean, and gritty, there’s not an ounce of fat on Stake Land; no extraneous drama, no clumsy attempts at comedy, and very little dialogue. It’s a rural, post-apocalypse road movie that’s long on action and intense situations. Admirers of The Walking Dead, The Omega Man, Road Warrior, and especially Justin Cronin’s novel The Passage will be in their happy place. The undead/post-apocalyptic genre is getting pretty crowded these days, but director and co-writer Jim Mickle manages to “stake” out a little fresh territory.

Martin (Connor Paolo) is a young survivor trying to keep his blood inside his body during the vampire infestation that’s swept the nation after the collapse of society. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?) His hard-boiled mentor Mister (Nick Damici) is a bad-ass vampire killer that drives a muscle car around the rural South, chasing bloodsuckers (and collecting their fangs) and steering clear of the crazy Christians known as the Brotherhood, who may well pose a greater threat than the undead. They stop and sleep where they can and barter with other refugees, all the while following a vague plan to head north for a safe settlement called New Eden, which may or may not exist. Martin and Mister are targeted for death by the head of the Brotherhood, Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris), a bald-headed fanatic who thinks the vampires are angels sent by God to rid the world of sinners.

The vampires in Stake Land are neither dudes in capes nor sparkly teenagers. In fact, they’re little more than zombies; grunting, snuffling ghouls on the hunt for a fresh cup of O-Positive. But they’re fast, strong, and seemingly all over the damn place. Because this is basically a road movie, things keep moving (duh!) and the action never bogs down. Martin and Mister fight, flee, make friends, lose friends, and gain enemies, and continue to chase a nebulous idea that somewhere else is probably better than here. Just like everybody, ever. It’s Martin’s determined belief that he can somehow find a normal (or at least livable) life that propels Stake Land, and keeps it from imploding in the face of hopelessness and chaos. Believe me, there’s plenty of hopelessness and chaos to go around; it’s almost as prevalent as the vampires and deranged bible-belters.