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Enter the Crypt as John "The Unimonster" Stevenson and his merry band of ghouls rants and raves about the current state of Horror, as well as reviews Movies, Books, DVD's and more, both old and new.

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24 May, 2008

When Science Attacks—The Sci-Fi Horror of the 1950’s

Every decade has its defining horror themes. In the early days of the genre, it was the German expressionists who dominated the imagery of horror, with films by directors such as Wiene, Murnau, and Lang setting the tone, and providing influences that would last well into the ‘40’s.

The ‘60’s were defined at the very beginning, by an oedipal peeping-tom in an out of the way motel, and a murder in a shower unlike anything Hollywood had put to film before. The movie was, of course, PSYCHO, and Hitchcock’s masterpiece began a movement towards a new realism in horror. This was marked by a willingness to explore heretofore taboo subjects in Horror Films, with graphic depictions of blood, gore, nudity, sex, and of course, violence, driving these explorations. The decade that began with PSYCHO ended with films such as ROSEMARY’S BABY, TARGETS, and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and along the way, horror grew up.

And what, you may ask, defined Horror during the decade of the 1950’s? Simple… Science defined horror during the ‘50’s. Science was the threat, and science was the savior.

Perhaps this was a natural reaction, considering that we were barely five years removed from World War II when the 1950’s began, a war that was the first in which science and technology played an overwhelming role in securing victory. From Radar, to Jet engines, to the Atomic bombs that ended the war, never had there been such technological growth in so short a span of time. The war that began with Polish Lancers making cavalry charges gave way to ballistic missiles falling on London.

These memories were still fresh in the minds of movie going audiences as the decade began, and though science had undoubtedly contributed to the Allied victory, the other side, in the form of Stalin’s Soviet Union, had much the same technology. In 1949, the Soviets detonated their first Atomic weapon, and the Cold War began in earnest. This provided filmmakers with the pervasive subtext of the decade, Us versus Them.

Whether the threat was an invading alien, a mutated insect, or an evil scientist, the threat struck at the American way of life, embodied in a variety of forms. The location might be in an arctic research station, the New Mexico desert, or a Coney Island amusement park, but it was Americana under attack, and the indomitable American spirit was always equal to the challenge.

The first great movie of the decade was the Howard Hawk / Christian Nyby film THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. The prototype of the Alien Invasion genre, THE THING… is a claustrophobic film, with nearly all the action contained within the station itself. This aids in building the feeling of the Threat from outside, so common to the films of the ‘50’s.

In addition, the pacing is very rapid, grabbing hold of the viewer and dragging him along to the fantastic conclusion, which sees the invader destroyed by good, old-fashioned American courage and ingenuity. This combination of factors pulls the viewer into the film, heightening the sense of “Us vs. Them”.

Another film that even more dramatically illustrated that theme was 1956’s INVASION OF THE BODY-SNATCHERS, directed by Don Siegel. Produced at the height of the McCarthy hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee, it reflected perfectly the fears and suspicions of the time. Here, the horror was more subtle, but far more pronounced. The enemy wasn’t simply an invader from another world; it was us, and all we had to do to lose the fight was to fall asleep. The thought of falling asleep as an individual, thinking, feeling human being, and awakening as something else, a robotic, emotionless member of a collective, was anathema to the American spirit, and was directly analogous to life under Communism.

But most films of the period weren’t quite that direct, nor was the Communist “Red Menace” the only threat facing movie-going Americans. Another great Alien Invasion film found the entire world involved in a war against our nearest neighbor, Mars. The movie was, of course, George Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS, one of the first of the big-budget Special Effects blockbusters.

Based on H. G. Wells’ novel but without the political angst that tinged the book, this same story caused a nationwide panic in October 1938, as Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater staged a dramatic radio play, set in Grover’s Mills, New Jersey. Despite repeated disclaimers that this was a fictional account, thousands of listeners were convinced that Martians were invading New Jersey… as if they’d want it. The movie, released in 1953, was equally effective, if not as panic-inducing, as the radio program of fifteen years previously. The vision of Martian war machines hovering over the battlefield, impervious even to the biggest stick in the scientist’s arsenal, the atomic bomb, is one of the best images of the decade.

In addition, The “Bomb”, the device that won the war against Japan, and maintained the delicate balance of peace between East and West, was itself a threat. If not directly, when dropped from Soviet bombers, then certainly in its by-product—Radiation.

Radiation was responsible for a host of terrors visited upon fictional populaces in the 1950’s. From giant ants, to shrinking men, to fire-breathing prehistoric beasts, radiation ran rampant, churning out mutants by the score.

The first, and the best, (though not my personal favorite…) of the Giant Bug sub-genre of movies was the superb 1954 film THEM! The story of giant ants loose, first in New Mexico, then in Los Angeles, was connected directly to the earliest Atomic tests in Alamogordo. Nor were ants the only insects affected by radiation. TARANTULA was the result of a radioactive growth serum, and the giant grasshoppers in BEGINNING OF THE END owed their physiques to irradiated vegetables.

Higher orders of life weren’t safe from being horribly mutated, either… including man himself. Being caught in a nuclear blast caused Col. Glen Manning to grow into the Amazing Colossal Man, and another radioactive cloud shrinks Scott Carey down to the size of a microbe. Prehistoric creatures of all types found themselves reanimated, including the King of the Monsters himself, Godzilla.

Originally released in Japan in 1954 as GOJIRA, Godzilla was by far the greatest of the Monsters created in the 1950’s, and is still one of the most recognized. In it’s original form, it’s much more of an indictment of nuclear weapons and the destruction they bring; not totally unexpected from the only nation to suffer nuclear attack, but unlikely to play well to 1950’s U.S. audiences. The original’s a tremendously powerful and effective film, but even watered down for release here as GODZILLA—KING OF THE MONSTERS, it retains enough of that power to have remained a fan favorite for fifty years.

And let’s not forget the ‘classic’ monsters, the vampires, werewolves, and the like, who weren’t immune to the predations of the mad scientist, either. While the first two-thirds of the decade were essentially devoid of the traditional monsters so popular in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, by 1956 Hollywood was once more interested in them, albeit with a science-based twist. In films such as THE WEREWOLF, HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER, BLOOD OF DRACULA, and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, supernatural origins were cast aside in favor of scientific manipulation. Whether by a serum made from wolf hormones, chemically altered theatrical make-up, or microscopic organisms from a coelacanth’s bite, science was responsible for visiting these horrors on an unsuspecting populace.

Then there is the most iconic of American Monster-movies of the decade, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. In a direct confrontation between science and nature, Man invades the peaceful sheltered habitat of the Gill-Man, irrevocably changing his existence in the effort to capture him for scientific study. The Gill-Man, Universal’s most sympathetic monster, was also the most victimized creature of the ‘50’s. Scientists hunted him in the first CREATURE film; caught him and transported him to a foreign land in the second; and surgically altered his very physiology in the final installment of the series. Where’s the ASPCA when you need them?

However, as the decade of the ‘50’s neared its close, traditional horror, ‘Classic’ horror, began to reassert itself in the genre. Thanks to a small, low-budget studio in Great Britain, which had been noted primarily for its crime pictures, great franchises such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy were resurrected to tremendous success. That studio was, of course, Hammer Films, and starting with 1957’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, they single-handedly made Classic Horror popular again.

The rise of Hammer didn’t end Science’s role as the primary Protagonist / Antagonist of genre films, but it did mark the beginning of the shift to that “new realism” of which I spoke earlier. As standards eased and filmmakers explored expanded boundaries, films such as NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, PSYCHO, and CAPE FEAR became the driving force of the genre.

These literate, innovative, genuinely frightening films spawned hordes of imitators, most of which relied on increasing amounts of blood, gore, and nudity to make up for the lack of quality writing, directing or acting. By the midpoint of the ‘60’s, the heyday of the Mad Scientist had come to an end, and with it the horror cinema’s age of innocence.

Though I love all eras of the Horror Film, especially the Golden age of the ‘30’s through the mid-‘40’s, the years between 1950 and 1960 are perhaps the most fun. Yes, the movies are cheesy, the plots are simplistic, and the dialogue is straight from Leave It to Beaver; at least, in most cases.

But they also remind me of a time when it was ok to root for the good guy, and, more importantly, root against the bad; a time when things were simpler, even if only on the surface. They remind me of a time when “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” was something the public believed in, and something that Hollywood espoused… even if their collective fingers were crossed behind them.

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Year of Release—Film: 1957

Year of Release—DVD: 2003

DVD Label: Warner Home Video


While not as successful as its Warner Bros. stablemate THEM, or Universal’s TARANTULA, THE BLACK SCORPION is nevertheless a fine example of one of my favorite Sub-genres of Horror/Sci-Fi, the Giant Bug movie. Though the cast, featuring Richard Denning and Mara Corday, is definitely the B-list of the B-Movie crowd, and Edward Ludwig’s direction shows a surprising lack thereof, I’ve always found this movie to be an entertaining, enjoyable B-Monster romp from the golden age of such pictures.

The Creature effects are particularly good, featuring some of Willis O’Brien’s last work. O’Brien, or Obie to his friends, was the genius who brought an ape named Kong to life twenty-five years previously, and some of his unused creations for that film (including a few that had been intended for the famous ‘Spider Pit’ sequence…) found their way into this movie. While the budget for the film was too anemic to realize fully the filmmakers’ initial concept of hundreds of giant scorpions assaulting the Mexican capital, necessitating the plot device of one mega-scorpion killing off the rest, the end result is no less satisfying.

The acting is on par with most B-Pic’s of the era; competent, workmanlike, but not spectacular. Richard Denning leads the cast as the requisite scientific type, the hero who’s expected to solve the mysteries, fight the monsters, and romance the ladies, all in 90 minutes or less… Julius F. Kelp or Prof. Frink need not apply. It never fails to amaze this Unimonster that, whatever a scientist’s field of expertise, they instantly become experts in any needed field when confronted by a giant monster of some sort. Mara Corday is as stunning as ever, as a Mexican ranch-owner whose hacienda is overrun by the gigantic arachnids. The supporting cast does their part to make the film flow to it’s somewhat lackluster conclusion, a conclusion driven more by lack of funding than lack of imagination.

While THE BLACK SCORPION isn’t the timeless classic that THEM is, or as flat-out enjoyable as my personal favorite Giant Bug, THE DEADLY MANTIS, it’s still a great little example of 1950’s-style Drive-In movie fare, and as such belongs in every serious genre fan’s collection.


Warner Home Video is one of the best distributors out there, and the pride they take in their product is self-evident. While many distributors would ship a fifty-year-old movie out without so much as a correct aspect ratio, WHV always puts extra effort into making their DVD releases the best they can possibly be. The print, while not perfect, is far better than my VHS, and the addition of subtitles is always appreciated by my old ears… they don’t have to work so hard!


One thing that WHV excels in, especially on their older releases, is the quality of the special features that they include; and for a movie that celebrated it’s Golden anniversary last year, and a second-rate B-movie at that, WHV doesn’t skimp on the extras here. Though the number of features is small, the content is huge.

All three of the features focus on the special effects wizardry of Willis O’Brien, rather than the standard behind-the-scenes or making-of featurettes, and as a result are far more interesting. O’Brien stands as one of the true pioneers of film-making, and it’s always fascinating to learn more such figures.

Perhaps the best featurette is the look at two unfinished projects that were in development at the time of Obie’s death: THE MONSTER OF LAS VEGAS, and THE BEETLE-MEN. Both are very preliminary works; still, they serve to convey the concept of the finished products very well. That is thanks entirely to Willis’ artistry, and I can honestly say that it’s a shame these projects progressed no further.


I’ve never hid the fact that I’m crazy for the Giant Bug genre, especially the classics of the 1950’s. TARANTULA, THEM, BEGINNING OF THE END… these were the movies I grew up watching on Saturday afternoons, and they’re still the movies I turn to when I feel nostalgic for the carefree days of youth. THE BLACK SCORPION might not be the best of the lot, but it’s far from the worst, and presented as it is here, it’s hard to refuse. And when DeepDiscount has it for $5.99… why try to resist it? Just give in, and join me in a trip back to childhood.

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17 May, 2008

Dracula Reborn: HORROR OF DRACULA and the Rise of Hammer*

The mid 1940’s to mid 1950’s was a period of decline for Classic Horror. Monsters were no longer tuxedo-clad vampires or shambling, cloth-wrapped mummies. Monsters were now gigantic insects, radioactive mutants, and alien invaders. What vampires and werewolves were to be found were products of science tampering with nature, not the ancient undead or supernatural curses.

Two prime examples of this are a pair of films released in 1957: THE VAMPIRE, and I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF.

THE VAMPIRE, directed by Paul Landres, was a nondescript programmer from Gramercy Pictures, distributed by United Artists; not a terrible film, but hardly memorable. A doctor, while on a quest to improve his mind, tries an extract of vampire bat blood, with predictable results.

Gene Fowler Jr.’s I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF on the other hand, became something of a cult-classic, primarily because of the screen debut of a youthful Michael Landon rather than the film’s inherent quality. Landon plays Tony Rivers, a juvenile delinquent placed under the care of a psychologist (Whit Bissell).

The psychologist performs some unauthorized experiments on the young man, using hypnosis to regress him to a point in man’s development where he is a savage, feral beast. Here too, the results are entirely predictable and, for the junior wolf-man, unfortunate.

Such was the state of our classic creatures of horror through most of the decade of the 1950’s. But the pendulum was beginning to swing back towards the classics, and two unrelated events provided the impetus for that change of fortune. The first was the release, in June of 1957, of Hammer Films THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, launching the British studio to the forefront of the horror genre. Introducing Hammer’s Dynamic Duo of Horror, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, along with the studio’s star director, Terence Fisher, this film sparked a resurgence of interest in the classics, as well as changed the look of Horror Films.

Hammer Film Productions had been around, in its then-current form, since shortly after the end of World War II. A child of Col. James Carreras, Hammer was very much a small family business in the mid-1950’s, known primarily for crime, adventure, and war pictures. Ensconced at Bray Studios, Down Place, in Berkshire, a small, tightly-knit group of artists and craftsmen would create some of the greatest Horror Films ever produced, working on budgets that were fractions of what was typical in a Hollywood production.

They accomplished these miracles, at least in the beginning, through the efforts of a few very talented people, the people who created the “Hammer Look”… people such as Michael Carreras, the son of James, Tony Nelson-Keyes, Tony Hinds, and Jimmy Sangster. Jack Asher’s superb photography brought the Hammer horrors to life, painted in brilliant colors across a canvas laid before the viewer by Bernard Robinson’s perfect production and art designs.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was the film that established the pattern for the “Hammer Look”… bold, vibrant colors, lush period sets and costumes, and, at least at this point in time, quality acting, writing, and directing. Peter Cushing, as the mad genius Dr. Victor Frankenstein, carries the film, creating a character at once evil yet complex, someone the viewer is unable to see completely as a villain. Lee’s Monster, by comparison, is simply cruel and brutish, lacking any of the pathos and humanity of Karloff’s creation.

Philip Leakey’s make-up, constrained as it was by threat of legal action from Universal if it too closely resembled Jack Pierce’s trademarked conception, was generic and unimpressive, doing nothing to convey the monster’s origins the way Pierce’s did for Karloff. Karloff looked like a patchwork, a being stitched together from rotting cadavers into a less than perfect whole; Lee, on the other hand, looked like nothing more than the common zombie that would populate Horror Films beginning little more than a decade later. It was not an effective look.

While the film was much closer in plot to Shelley’s original tale, it was all gloss and glitter; beautiful to look at, but lacking the heart and soul of James Whale’s landmark film, and wholly inferior to it. This movie, like Hammer Films itself, was a gorgeous façade, with very little of substance supporting it.

The second major development in the restoration of classic horror occurred in the fall of 1957, when Universal, through an arrangement with Screen Gems, released their Shock Theater package to Television stations around the country. Composed of some of their greatest Horror Films, including FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE WOLF-MAN, and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, this led to an explosion of Hosted Horror programs on Friday and Saturday nights. Though Horror Hosts had existed prior to the Shock Theater release, it was the flood of high-quality movies and the success of hosts such as Zacherley in New York and Vampira in Los Angeles that spurred stations from Atlanta to Minneapolis to develop their own late-night Horror shows.

These trends continued into 1958, and on the 22nd of May of that year, at the Gaumont Theater in London, Hammer’s second blockbuster premiered. HORROR OF DRACULA, once again directed by Fisher and starring Cushing and Lee, took the basic blueprint laid down by the previous film and set it in concrete, defining for the next twelve years the look and texture of classic horror. Not until DRACULA A.D. 1972 was there anything more than a qualitative change in Hammer’s Dracula franchise, and decidedly not for the better.

This time however there would be a clear choice between good and evil, as Cushing was cast as Dr. Van Helsing, the bloody Count’s nemesis. Though he ably demonstrated that he could play evil convincingly in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, it’s as the heroic Van Helsing that he found his greatest role.

Where, in 1931’s DRACULA, Edward Van Sloan had essayed an elderly, superstitious professor (for all his scientific training, Van Sloan’s character was little more than a village wise woman…), Cushing portrayed Van Helsing as a young, strong, active combatant against evil, seeking scientific explanations for the vampire’s existence, and scientific means to destroy him. Universal’s Van Helsing was a teacher; Hammer’s was a warrior, and a worthy foe for the Prince of Darkness.

And what a Prince of Darkness he faced.

For more than a quarter of a century previously, Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the eponymous Count from Bram Stoker’s novel had been the model that moviemakers followed, and moviegoers wanted. The image of Dracula as an urbane, sophisticated gentleman, clad in black-tie formality, had become ingrained into the consciousness of Horror fans through multiple iterations of the Count and his clones.

Whether portrayed by Lugosi himself, Lon Chaney Jr., or John Carradine, the American image of the Vampire was that of Bela, in tie and tails, top hat and cape. His Dracula had a slow, languid quality, almost hypnotic to watch. It took no stretch of the imagination to picture a beautiful young woman falling victim to his spell. Dracula, as created by Lugosi, was first and foremost a seducer, a debaucher. He was, at heart, a lecherous old man.

Christopher Lee’s reinvention of the Count cast aside this “Undead Man-about-Town…” image of Dracula. While the wardrobe was little changed, the vampire inside underwent a radical transformation.

Lee’s Dracula exuded youth, power, strength, vitality. Lugosi was polished, refined; Lee was a barely concealed savage, like a wolf masquerading as a dog. Lee’s Dracula was no seducer of women; he was a rapist, in spirit if not in fact; taking his women by force, not by guile. However, in a typically post-Victorian British Male Freudian manner, his victims were all too willing accomplices to their own debasement, eager to offer up their throats for his hungry kisses.

Dracula, as rendered by Christopher Lee, was an animalistic creature of the night, savage, brutal… and just like the studio that spawned him, new and exciting.

That phrase also serves well to describe the film itself. Though no more faithful to the source material than Browning’s 1931 film had been, this script, by Jimmy Sangster, possesses an energy totally lacking in the original. Where John L. Balderston’s script for the ’31 version had been stiff and stagey, betraying its origins, Sangster, with some alterations by Fisher, crafted a script that fairly flew from plot-point to plot-point, dispensing with everything that failed to advance the story.

Gone was the slow moving, talky introductory scene of the Browning film. Here we meet Jonathan Harker (not the extraneous character of Renfield…) already arrived at Castle Dracula. In a brief voice-over, taken from the pages of his diary, we are told all we need to know: Harker, played ably by John Van Eyssen, is a friend and colleague of a Dr. Van Helsing, and is there to find and kill Count Dracula, and end his “…reign of terror.”

Harker is found out, however, and infected by a vampire’s bite. Racing against time before he too becomes one of the undead, he finds the daytime resting place of Dracula and his consort. In typical Horror movie style, he makes a monumental blunder and, as the sun is setting, decides to stake the female vampire first. This he does successfully, only to find the sun has set and Dracula has awakened.

The scene shifts to a small village Gasthaus, decked out with wreaths of garlic, where we first meet Dr. Van Helsing. He’s in search of his friend Harker, and the inn was his last reported address. The innkeeper is less than forthcoming with Van Helsing, but Inga, the serving girl, gives him Harker’s diary, found at the crossroads near the Castle.

The book leads him to the castle, now abandoned by Dracula. As he nears the castle, Van Helsing is nearly run down by a fast moving hearse, bearing a white casket inside it. Entering the castle, Van Helsing finds the body of his now undead friend, and releases his soul from its torment.

He then travels to the home of Arthur and Mina Holmwood (Michael Gough and Melissa Stribling) to inform them, and Miss Lucy Holmwood, Arthur’s sister and the fiancée of Harker, of his death. He provides no details, but simply tells them that Harker had died ten days before. Holmwood treats him coldly, and, as soon as his news is delivered, asks him to leave. The Holmwoods decide to keep the information from Lucy, whose health is fragile. However, she is already aware of her fiancé’s death, and seems strangely unaffected by this knowledge. As her brother bends to kiss her goodnight, he fails to notice the two puncture wounds in her neck, over her jugular vein.

Once she is alone, she removes a silver crucifix from her neck and opens a door leading out onto the grounds. As she lies back on the bed, anticipation on her face, Dracula appears in the doorway, and shadows and darkness engulf the young woman.

The next morning, the Holmwoods are shocked and dismayed by the deterioration in Lucy’s condition, as is Dr. Seward, the attending physician. He suggests a second opinion, and Mina decides to seek help from Van Helsing. He immediately recognizes the symptoms for what they are, and issues strict orders for the household to follow: All doors and windows in Lucy’s room are to remain tightly closed and locked between sunset and sunrise; and her room is to be filled with boughs of garlic flowers. Any deviation from these instructions, he adds ominously, would result in her death.

Lucy, however, convinces a maid to remove the flowers and open the doors, allowing her bloodthirsty lover into her bedroom. The next morning, she is found dead, drained of blood.

Holmwood is devastated by his sister’s death, and asks Van Helsing to leave them to their grief. The doctor apologizes, but informs them of the true nature of Harker’s, and now Lucy’s, deaths. He leaves Harker’s diary with Holmwood, with the admonition that if he could not believe Van Helsing, then certainly he could trust his late friend’s own words.

The diary doesn’t fully convince Holmwood, but when the little daughter of the maid is nearly attacked by someone she recognizes as “Aunt Lucy”, he goes to the family mausoleum, and finds her coffin empty. He waits for her return, and is shocked to see her walking towards him, leading the young girl by the hand. He calls to her, and she releases the girl. She approaches her brother, reaching out her arms to embrace him, mouth opening to reveal the elongated canines of the vampire.

Suddenly, there is a cross thrust into view… Van Helsing has arrived just in time to save Holmwood from his sister’s bloodlust. He presses the cross against the flesh of her forehead, burning the image of the icon into her skin. She breaks away, rushing back into the mausoleum, and back to her coffin. They follow her in, and Holmwood is shocked to see the evil that is manifested in Lucy’s face; her formerly beautiful, innocent features now twisted into a vulpine grimace. He asks Van Helsing what can be done to release her from this vile curse. The answer is simple, though horrifying: They must drive a wooden stake into her heart, finally ending her existence, and releasing her spirit.

But, before they take that step, they should consider one thing: Lucy can be used to lead them to her master. They can follow her straight to Dracula’s lair. Holmwood, however, balks at this. He wants his sister freed from her curse now, before she can defile others as she has been defiled, spreading Dracula’s corruption like a virus. Van Helsing regrets his decision, but cannot in good conscience deny the grieving man. With a sigh of resignation, he drives the stake into Lucy’s chest.

With the deed done, he leads Holmwood over to his sister’s coffin. Once again, innocence and peace have returned to her visage… Lucy Holmwood is finally at rest.

The pair returns to Holmwood’s home, and begin to lay plans for an assault on Dracula himself. Holmwood still is in disbelief, despite the evidence of his own experiences. He questions Van Helsing on the legendary aspects of vampires, their ability to transform themselves, for instance. A common fallacy, he is told. Vampires have no such power. Van Helsing has devoted his life to the study of these creatures, and even his knowledge barely scratches the surface.

The first priority they have is to locate his resting place. Dracula must reside in his native soil by day, and Van Helsing believes he has a clue. The hearse that nearly ran him down that day at the castle must have been carrying Dracula in his box of earth, and to get to Karlstadt, it had to pass through the border crossing. There they might find records of the crossing, and a destination for Dracula’s coffin.

However, the border official is less than cooperative with the duo, even after Van Helsing presents his medical credentials. Holmwood, however, has better credentials… cash. A bribe reveals that the coffin was consigned to an undertaker in Karlstadt, and gives them the address of the establishment.

At that moment, Mina is receiving a message from a street urchin, informing her that Mr. Arthur Holmwood wishes her to meet him after sundown at 49 Freidrichstrasse… the same address that now holds Dracula’s coffin. She goes, oblivious to the danger, and as she enters the storeroom of the undertaker’s shop, the camera shifts to a single white casket… as the lid slowly slides open.

The next morning, Van Helsing and Holmwood have returned, though only temporarily. They have yet to visit the undertaker, hopefully to find Dracula helpless in his coffin. As they head out, they encounter Mina, returning from a night with the object of their hunt. She explains that she had taken an early morning stroll in the garden. There is an odd look of contentment, even satisfaction, on her face, and it’s perhaps a poor reflection on her husband that he does not recognize it for what it is, instead inquiring as to her health. She reassures him, and the pair leaves on their mission. At the undertaker’s, the situation is worse than they had expected. Not only is Dracula not there, but his coffin has been relocated. They’ve lost their only clue to his whereabouts.

Back at the Holmwood house, they quietly discuss their options over maps of the area. Holmwood remembers a small, neglected graveyard in the vicinity; with no other logical place to start, they decide to begin their hunt there. He turns to say good-bye to his wife, and asks her to wear, as a personal favor to him, a small silver cross. She resists, but he places it in her hand. Instantly she screams, and falls unconscious to the floor. As Van Helsing rushes to her aid, he opens her clenched fist, to reveal the shape of the cross, burned into the palm.

Holmwood is angry with himself for not following Van Helsing’s suggestion to use Lucy to lead them to Dracula, but Van Helsing tells him not to worry; there is still time to save Mina, and she can serve the same purpose he had in mind for Lucy. They will keep watch over the house later that night, and catch Dracula when he attempts to reach her.

That night, the two men patrol the grounds, keeping a watchful eye on the house. Mina watches them from her window, then turns to open her bedroom door. Below, in the foyer of the house, stands Dracula. With desire on her face, she watches him approach her. He closes the door as he enters her bedroom, and as she falls back onto the bed, he throws himself on her.

As dawn breaks, the men end their vigil. Van Helsing decides to stay there and rest, and Holmwood heads up to bed. A sudden cry brings the doctor running to find a scene of horror: Mina, apparently lifeless, rivulets of dried blood tracing paths down her pale throat.

Van Helsing hastily gives the woman a transfusion, using her husband as a donor. This saves her life, though she remains under Dracula’s control. He sends Holmwood down to rest, with an admonition to drink some wine to fortify his strength, then turns his attention to caring for his patient.

Later, he joins Holmwood in the parlor. The shaken man has taken his advice, finishing off a bottle of wine. He asks the maid to bring up another bottle from the cellar, but she demurs, saying that Mrs. Holmwood had forbidden her to go into the cellar. That sends a jolt through Van Helsing, who rushes down to the cellar. There he finds Dracula’s coffin, empty. At that moment, the cellar door opens, and just for a moment hunter and hunted stand face-to-face. Dracula runs out, pulling the door shut behind him. After Van Helsing insures that Dracula will not return to his coffin by placing a silver cross on the bed of earth, he and Holmwood give chase, and a scream leads them upstairs. Gerda, the maid, has been attacked by Dracula, though not harmed. But Dracula has taken Mina with him as he fled the house.

There is only one place he can go for shelter before the sun rises, and that is back home to his castle. They find a dead coachman; Dracula has killed the man and stolen his vehicle, and is racing to get home before dawn. They must catch up to him before he can hide himself in the basements and catacombs of his home, or they might be searching for him for years.

And for Mina.

Dracula arrives at the castle with mere moments to spare, and he must first open a grave for Mina. Rapidly he digs a shallow trench, drops her in, and begins shoveling earth in over her unconscious form. She awakens with a scream just as Van Helsing and her husband pull up in their carriage.

Holmwood leaps to his wife’s aid, as Van Helsing pursues Dracula into the castle. Cornered, Dracula fights with Van Helsing, gaining the upper hand, and slowly drawing near the doctor’s exposed throat. Van Helsing breaks the vampire’s grip, however, and notices a thin shaft of sunlight stabbing through closed curtains. He rips the curtains down, flooding the hall with light. With a pair of crossed candlesticks he forces Dracula into the sunlight, where he crumbles into dust. The threat is over, Mina is freed, and Dracula is finally dead.

This was perhaps Hammer’s best production, with the possible exception of the following year’s THE MUMMY. All the important elements were in place… Sangster’s script, Asher’s photography, the performances of Cushing and Lee, all tied together by Fisher’s competent, workmanlike direction. Together, these artisans equaled more than the sum of their individual talents, and for the brief period of time that they were all together at Bray, they produced some of the best Horror Films the genre has ever seen.

The story of the rise of Hammer Films is very much the story of a few gifted individuals in precisely the right place at precisely the right time. It wasn’t due to the inherent strengths of Hammer; there were none, as events unfolding less than two decades later would pointedly demonstrate.

When this group began to dissolve within five years, Hammer Films would take a hit, in terms of quality, from which it would never recover. The Hammer look would soon degenerate into an assembly-line, mass-produced commodity, churned out as rapidly as possible, sold lock, stock, and residual rights to the highest bidder.

Hammer, for most of its existence, lived in a perpetual cycle of brief periods of plenty broken by long stretches of lean; living from paycheck to paycheck, always trying to catch onto the latest trend. For the most part, they succeeded, at least until the fragile house of cards that was the company’s financial structure came crashing down around the head of Michael Carreras.

But in 1958, that was still twenty years away. In 1958, they weren’t trying to follow the trends, they were creating them.

In 1958, Hammer Films released HORROR OF DRACULA… and the renaissance of classic horror began.

* Primary reference for this article was the excellent book from Denis Meikle, The History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

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DVD Review: FIDO

Title: FIDO

Year of Release—Film: 2006

Year of Release—DVD: 2007

DVD Label: Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment


In the past 40 years since George Romero changed the world of Horror Films with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, we’ve been treated to virtually every reanimated corpse—end of the world scenario possible, including the ZomCom (Zombie Comedy…). The best of these, 2004’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD, worked on multiple levels, combining truly first-class zombie action and gore with both a romantic comedy and a stoner buddy-pic. Now, Canadian director Andrew Currie brings us what might be the first Zombie coming-of-age tale, in FIDO.

Set in a bizarre world where life is locked in the 1950’s, Timmy Robinson is an average kid… picked on some, generally ignored by his parents, not too dissimilar from how many of us grew up. Until the day his mother purchases a domesticated zombie as a household servant.

That right, folks… thanks to the geniuses at ZomCon, you too can own your very own zombie slave. They don’t need to sleep, they don’t need to eat, and with their patented Domestication Collars in place, they’re as docile as kittens. At least, as long as the collars are activated, that is.
When the Robinson’s new zombie accidentally slips his electronic leash and eats the neighbor, it sets off a chain reaction that endangers the entire community of Willard; traumatizes Timmy’s death-obsessed father, who has a phobia of zombies; and leads his mother to question the meaning of her life.

Currie does a fairly convincing job selling the world as it is following the Zombie Wars, though the idea that the survivors of such a war would tolerate zombies in such close proximity is a little hard to accept. Still it works more often than not, thanks in large part to the excellent cast, led by Billy Connolly as Fido, the Robinson’s zombie. Carrie-Ann Moss, as Timmy’s mother, and Dylan Baker, as his father, are very well-cast, and do a splendid job with the material provided, which is at times very weak. In addition, Henry Czerny, as Mr. Bottoms, the Head of Security at ZomCon, turns in an excellent performance, with perhaps the best line in the film. (“I’d take Dee-Dee’s head off in a second if I had to.”)

While the premise is interesting, and what action there is is well done, far too much of the film is given over to long expository scenes where the family comes to terms with the realization that Fido’s not just some nameless monster; that there’s still a trace of his humanity left, and in one way or another, that humanity touches every member of the household.

While there are some humorous moments in the film, it’s hard for me to describe it as a Comedy; in fact, it really doesn’t lend itself to an easy categorization. Perhaps The Adventures of Lassie, as seen by Salvador Dali, would be the best way to describe it. Currie even spoofs this at one point, as Fido is sent running home to fetch help when Timmy is in trouble.

On the whole, while it is an entertaining movie, it’s not a particularly satisfying one. The ending is especially weak, with a contrived, cutesy tone that utterly fails the believability test.


Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment has yet to turn out a bad DVD release, and this one is no exception. A beautiful anamorphic widescreen print, crystal clear sound, subtitles… Lion’s Gate always gives you the most bang for your buck.


For a low-budget indie film that is probably known to less than ten percent of Horror fandom, Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment has given this one the royal treatment, loading it full of special features. Most however, aren’t quite worth the effort.

There’s the obligatory making-of segment; interesting, but hardly necessary. This isn’t a film with a lot of “How’d they do that?” moments. There’s also an enjoyable montage of Connolly’s transformation into the zombie Fido, though once again, it adds very little to the package overall.
For this Unimonster, the special features didn’t alter my opinion of the DVD in either direction. It’s better to have them there than to not, I suppose… there’s just nothing that grabs the viewer’s attention and adds value to the purchase.


I always applaud filmmakers pushing Horror in new directions, testing the boundaries of the genre. However, as with all such endeavors, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. With FIDO, it does work more often than not… barely. The premise, even in terms of Horror Films, is wildly implausible; the humor, what there is of it, is forced; and the lack of action, suspense, and horror kill it in the end.

I have seen comments on some of the boards that this movie was funnier than SHAUN OF THE DEAD. All I can say in reply is that I must have seen a different movie. Contrary to what other reviewers, and the producers themselves, might try to tell you, this isn’t a comedy. My problem with it is, I’m not quite sure what it is. And I doubt the filmmakers really know either. It’s not a bad movie; in fact, it’s occasionally very good. But for me to recommend a buy, ‘occasionally very good…’ just isn’t good enough.

But if weird, quirky, offbeat films are your cup of tea, then I would suggest you do what I did, and go the BlockBuster Bargain Bin route. When I’m paying a grand total of $21.40 (including tax…) for four recently released DVD’s, a movie has to be incredibly bad for me to feel like I’m being ripped off. Don’t get me wrong, it has happened… can we all say SNAKES ON A PLANE? Still, it’s a lot easier to shrug off $5.35 than $20.For most, though, I recommend renting it. It’s just unusual enough that a lot of viewers will be turned off by it. Find out if you’re in that group before you lay out any more of your hard-earned cash than necessary.

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10 May, 2008

A Fond Look Back at the Man who Brought Dinosaurs to Life

When I was young, two of the most popular things with boys my age were astronauts and dinosaurs. Astronauts I understood; growing up a hundred miles from Cape Canaveral, fascinated by space and everything connected to it, a confirmed Star Trek fan by the age of three, astronauts were the stuff of my imagination, and my childhood heroes. Dinosaurs were fun, but I never got into them the way I did astronauts until I was older. Two movies were instrumental in firing my interest in dinosaurs, and, though they couldn’t be more different, they shared a common bond that insured their superiority: A man named Ray Harryhausen.

The first dinosaur movie that I was captured by was a twenty-year old classic by the time it hit the Summer “Kiddie-Show” circuit where I first saw it. THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, released in 1953, was Harryhausen’s first major solo effort in Stop-Motion Animation. A protégé of Willis O’Brien, the man who breathed life into King Kong, Harryhausen would go on to exceed even his mentor’s genius, with films such as EARTH vs. THE FLYING SAUCERS, THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.

But THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS was where it began, and for Horror fans it was easy to see that the young effects artist was bound for greatness. I’ve reviewed this movie below here, so I’ll not go into detail about the film itself. Suffice it to say that, to a nine or ten-year old boy, already used to a steady diet of Japanese Kaijû, the idea of a real (well, real enough…) dinosaur rampaging through city streets was tailor-made to satisfy. Previously, the few dino-movies I had seen were all set in prehistoric times, with tribes of cave-men doing battle with photographically enlarged lizards masquerading as Dinosaurs. Even in my youthful innocence, I could recognize crap when it was before my eyes.

But BEAST… was different, as different in its way as my beloved Kaijû were. And for the first time, I was convinced that dinosaurs could be… frightening.

The second movie was one that I had seen as a young child, but that took on a different quality when I saw it as a teen-ager. That movie was ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., and that “…different quality…” was a twenty-six year old Raquel Welch, in a tight-fitting bearskin bikini.

Though a few of the creatures that rumbled through that prehistoric world were the result of bad-looking trick photography, most were all Ray’s… from the giant sea turtle to the Pterodactyls that battled over Raquel's luscious form. Harryhausen was at this point at the height of his success, with the on-going SINBAD series of films and the critical acclaim that he received for JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. His talent was also at its peak, and the effects work in this film is nearly as beautiful as its star.

ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. still stands as Hammer Films’ highest-grossing movie, no doubt due in large part to Ms. Welch’s large parts. But I can’t help but believe that Ray’s excellent animation played some role in the film’s appeal.

Ray Harryhausen will soon celebrate his 88th birthday. He’s been retired for more than 25 years now, since his final film, CLASH OF THE TITANS, was panned by critics and largely ignored by audiences, too jaded to appreciate the artistry of his work. He’s now, much like Forry Ackerman and Bob Burns, an elder statesman of the genre, a reminder of past glories and yes, past heartaches. But like his friends, he is still with us, and we have the opportunity to say thank you for all he’s done for the genre, and all he’s meant to us. Thank you for the Martians and the Minotaur, for the ferocious Kraken and the battling skeletons, Cerberus and Medusa.
But most of all thank you for a “Beast” of a Rhedosaurus, that showed a nine-year old boy that dinosaurs could be frightening as well as fun, and for me, that was always the key to entertainment.

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Year of Release—Film: 1953

Year of Release—DVD: 2003

DVD Label: Warner Home Video


Ray Harryhausen is, to a generation of monster fans, the greatest Special Effects Animator of all. The protégé of Willis O’Brien, the genius who brought King Kong to life, Harryhausen had gotten his first feature job in 1949, as an assistant to O’Brien on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. But this film was his big break, and he made the most of it.

The plot is simple, and works well, though the script falls apart somewhat in the details. A Rhedosaurus, entombed in arctic ice, is awakened by a nuclear test. Soon he is making his way to warmer climes, following the eastern coast of North America. Of course, this brings him into conflict with the U.S. Army and Navy, and better than average use is made of military surplus stock footage.

The Rhedosaurus’ attack on the lighthouse is a spectacular example of animation, and the climactic battle at Coney Island is one of the best monster scenes of the ‘50’s. It’s easy to understand why audiences were truly amazed at this Pre-GOJIRA rampage.

Though Harryhausen’s effects are not quite as polished in this film as they would be in later pictures, his talent shines through the occasional technical glitches, and it’s easy to overlook the few problems the movie has. While it’s not the best Giant Beast movie out there, it is a great one, and it’s often forgotten that Harryhausen did it a year before Toho released their King of all monsters onto an unsuspecting Tokyo.


One of the best distributors out there is Warner Home Video, and it seems that they put their best efforts into the older Genre releases. THEM, THE BLACK SCORPION, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS… all received treatments that are usually reserved for brand new blockbuster releases, or at least high-dollar collector’s editions. For this disc, they used as absolutely beautiful print of the film, cleaned it up nicely, subtitled it (always important to a slightly deaf Unimonster…) and packaged it nicely… even if in one of their annoying Snap cases.


WHV also loaded this disc down with special features, ones that will be of great interest to Harryhausen’s dedicated cadre of fans. The meat of the Special Feature section is contained in two documentaries, both featuring Harryhausen himself.

The first, THE RHEDOSAURUS AND THE ROLLER-COASTER: THE MAKING OF THE BEAST, is Harryhausen simply describing what went into the making of the film, primarily of course from his perspective. It’s a fascinating look at the process of creating a 1950’s B-Movie, from someone who was instrumental in the genre. While there is none of the behind-the-scene footage you’d see in a documentary of this type done today, his words aptly illustrate the goings-on.

The second, and far more heartwarming, of the documentaries is AN UNFATHOMABLE FRIENDSHIP: RAY HARRYHAUSEN AND RAY BRADBURY. This is just an open conversation between two life-long friends, who were lucky enough to do something they loved for a living. Taped in front of a gathering of fans and friends at the Warner Bros. lot, they discuss not only the film that gave them both their first real break, but the friendship that had begun years before that, and continues to this day.

The only other Special Feature is a Theatrical Trailer gallery, but it’s interesting, consisting of trailers for four of Harryhausen’s films, including BEAST… Though I’m sure it’s main purpose is to sell other Harryhausen films in WHV’s DVD catalog, it’s nonetheless entertaining.


I won’t lie to you; I’m a huge Harryhausen fan, and it would be difficult for me to be objective about this disc even if it weren’t this well done. Fortunately, that isn’t an issue… it is a superb DVD release, and I feel no guilt in saying that all “giant monster” fans, as well as anyone who considers themselves fans of Ray Harryhausen, should own this one. The list price is $19.95, damn reasonable for what you get, though I’ve seen it cheaper. I’d have paid that for the two documentaries on the disc or for the movie alone, without Special Features.

As always, it comes down to how big a fan of this genre of Horror or Science-Fiction you are, and how much you want a particular film. Speaking personally, Giant Dinosaurs, Insects and Reptiles are just about as good as it gets, and Ray Harryhausen’s creations rule that roost. The only way I can imagine it being better is to be watching it under the stars, girlfriend beside me, through the windshield of a ’54 Buick… maybe one with Nash seats.

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03 May, 2008

10 Things I just don’t Get

Everyone has certain things that they just do not comprehend; things that, for one reason or another, just goes right over their head. The Unimonster’s no different… indeed, considering how old-fashioned I am, it’s safe to say that there’s a veritable multitude of pop-culture icons and references that I don’t get, and hopefully, never will. I am, thankfully, immune to the dubious charms of Paris Hilton; would gleefully shoot myself in the foot to avoid trying out for any reality show; and should the day ever come when I stand in a line to pay four and a half dollars to order something called a “vente, non-fat, decaf, caramel mochacino…” then the day has arrived when I find the tallest building around and jump.

So were I to list all that baffles me regarding things that are popular and why, I could quite easily fill volumes. So let’s confine ourselves to our chosen genre, and focus in on ten things, in no special order, that never fail to surprise and amaze me in the world of Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy films.

1.) The PHANTASM movies: When I first saw PHANTASM at the theater, sometime in my fourteenth year, I was impressed… somewhat. An original story; cheesy, but interesting, Special Effects; and a genuinely refreshing cast made me hope for the best. Not being a Horror novice, even at that age, I could see the potential of the story, even though the producers obviously couldn’t afford to realize that potential. But I could tell they had a good idea, and wasn’t disappointed with the end result. Unfortunately, even when more money was plowed into the franchise, that potential just never seemed to be reached. None of the three sequels have managed to equal the first, though PHANTASM II (1988) came close. Sadder still, the original loses more luster on each subsequent viewing, to the point where it’s simply become a bad movie.

2.) Post-Modern Werewolves & Vampires: Can someone please tell me why it’s necessary for the undead to travel about packing more heat than a Snoop Dogg concert? The trend that began with 1987’s NEAR DARK shows no signs of petering out, not with BLADE, its two moderately successful sequels; the UNDERWORLD franchise; and a dozen other rip-offs and low-budget imitations. Now believe me, I’m all for an armed populace… but when you can transform into an eight-foot tall beast, with six-inch claws and fangs, doesn’t that kinda eliminate the need for Smith & Wesson??

3.) Horror & Politics: To say that there is a certain political slant in Hollywood is an understatement, and for me not to realize that the majority of filmmakers share a political stance that’s diametrically opposed to my own would be naïveté bordering on idiocy. Still, I would like to think that I could watch a movie about re-animated corpses without getting a political diatribe spewed at me. Now, I’m not talking about some subtle sub-text, such as Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD, and how the story evolved following 9-11. Screenwriters and directors are human; they’re going to draw on their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions when they create. It’s the blatant, obvious slap-in-the-face attacks on everyone whose opinion differs from theirs that bother me. The Showtime series Masters of Horror is a perfect case-in-point. On the face of it, this is a great idea, one whose time has come. Offer the genre’s greatest directors and writers the opportunity to produce a short film, free from the constrictions of the studio process. Most, such as Dario Argento, Takashi Miike, and John Landis have taken the opportunity to create genuinely good Horror. A few, however, have taken the chance to launch into a political screed, unconcerned about offending fans who don’t share their views. While I applaud Showtime for creating an environment where Horror can flourish, it’s off-putting, to say the least, to try to sit through a program that’s attacking your very core beliefs.

4.) “Non-Horror” Horror: Recently, it’s become fashionable for major stars, actors such as De Niro, Cruise, and Cage, to try their hands at scaring audiences out of their hard-earned dollars. Now, ordinarily, I’m in favor of anything that leads to more Horror Films being made, and far be it for me to say that A-list actors and actresses shouldn’t work in Horror. But I fail to see why, with such a massive investment involved in bringing that much star power to bear, no thought is given to actually making movies that are scary… or even good. HIDE AND SEEK; WAR OF THE WORLDS; THE WICKER MAN… Not a lot there to justify the expense, huh? What’s worse is the situation where directors become involved in remaking classic horror films in order to place some sort of personal stamp on it. From Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS to Neil LaBute’s abysmal remake of THE WICKER MAN, Hollywood seems convinced that they can improve great films by removing everything that made them great. Steven Spielberg is possibly the greatest living director, certainly the greatest American filmmaker since John Ford, but not even he could improve upon perfection. George Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS is a perfect film for its type and time; the remake, simply put, isn’t.

5.) Stephen King: First of all, let me say that King is the greatest Horror author of the past thirty years, bar none. He may be the greatest ever, though that would be a difficult point for which to argue. “IT”, “Pet Sematary”, “Salem’s Lot”, “Needful Things”… these and many other great works have sprung from the mind of this man, and the genre has been much richer for it. That I get perfectly well, and that I do not deny. But the Stephen King I don’t get is the King who gave us THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, and SLEEPWALKERS, and KINGDOM HOSPITAL. It seems as though King will allow virtually any project to carry his name, no matter how tangentially he’s connected to it; and as for his own writing, there’s no doubt that the 1999 accident that nearly claimed his life has had a profound effect on him. Can he return to his Horror roots, or does he even wish to, are questions that those of us who love his earlier work are waiting to have answered.

6.) Why Keanu Reeves is a Star: Seriously, anyone have a clue? He was absolutely horrible in Francis Ford Coppola’s DRACULA, and his performance in 2005’s CONSTANTINE was even worse… so how does he become one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood? Personally, I think it involves the blood of a chicken and some whispered phrases in Latin.

7.) Why Bruce Campbell Isn’t: Even if you aren’t a fan of the EVIL DEAD trilogy, (and truth to tell, I’m not…) then BUBBA HO-TEP should be enough to convince you that the man with the chin has some serious acting chops. His over-the-top performances as Ash in Sam Raimi’s cult classic EVIL DEAD movies are, in my opinion, the only reason that those films are regarded as highly as they are. Moreover, his spectacular turn as an elderly Elvis Presley, battling a soul-consuming mummy in a Texas nursing home, was a joy to behold and in a righteous world would have earned Campbell an Oscar nomination, at the very least.

8.) Hammer’s CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF: I know, I know… a certified, gold-plated classic, from my second-favorite studio—how can I not enjoy this movie? Simple… the film is slow and uninvolving, the story is weak, the acting is sub-par, especially compared with most of Hammer’s productions, and, while the Werewolf design is excellent, it’s on-screen for such a brief amount of time that it’s wasted. It’s not a bad movie, really… it’s simply not a very good one. Expectations for Hammer films… especially the early ones… are high. This movie just doesn’t meet them.

9.) Universal Studios: Speaking of favorite studios… It’s not that I don’t understand the studio from which I gained my nom de plume; I fully understand greed, tight-fistedness, and a reluctance to remember from whence you came. Fans of the great Universal Horrors have long since grown accustomed to being ignored, insulted, passed over, and forgotten about by the studio, only to be shaken down anew when Universal hits hard financial times and trots our favorite cash cows out for another round of “milk the fan.” The latest round of this began four years ago, with the admittedly superb Legacy collections, and has continued unabated, with the Lugosi Franchise collection, the Karloff franchise collection, the Ultimate Sci-Fi collection, and the Hammer Horror collection. Just last year, we saw the release of the DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN 75th Anniversary editions. What I don’t get is, is this a new attitude from Universal regarding our beloved monsters, whether due to the new ownership by NBC or an increased responsiveness to the fan? Or is this just another temporary fling, and is the rug soon to be pulled out from beneath the feet of loyal fans everywhere? Earlier, I mentioned the 75th Anniversary sets of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. Last year, however, they failed to give us a similar treatment for the Mummy’s 75th celebration… only to put it on the schedule for this year, in support of the third Brendan Fraser MUMMY film. I don’t know the answer to my question… but if thirty years of being a fan of Universal has taught me anything, it’s that no matter how bountiful the years of plenty are, there’s always a long stretch of lean around the corner.

10.) Sideshow Toys: Can we please stipulate that when the average price of a company’s product line exceeds the $100 mark, they have to take the word “Toy” out of their name? Seriously, there are few companies that do the monsters as well as Sideshow Toys… but who can afford them? Recently, I was browsing through their website, and was struck by the sheer cost of some of their figures, including a life-sized Robby the Robot… for a staggering $17,000! I’ve never paid that much for a car!

These are some of the things that I just can’t understand. There’s more, much more in fact. How Uwe Boll keeps getting directing jobs; why Jessica Alba won’t respond to my marriage proposals; why I’m the only person in America who doesn’t think they belong on AMERICAN IDOL. Like I said… a world of things I just don’t get.

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Year of Release—Film: 1971

Year of Release—DVD: 2006

DVD Label: Paramount Home Entertainment


Don’t let the title mislead you… this isn’t another “let’s-drive-my-wife-insane-and-get-her-riches” movie. LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is actually a literate, well-plotted Horror Film, one that, while slow-moving to the point of slothfulness, has a tremendously good pay-off… if you can stay with it.

Directed by John Hancock, and starring Zorah Lampert as the titular Jessica, the plot involves a woman (Lampert) who’s just been released from a mental institution, relocating to a rural New England village with her husband Duncan and his friend.

The whole relationship seems odd, and grows odder still when the group discovers a young woman, Emily, living in the home they’ve purchased. Both men are soon falling under Emily’s spell, as Jessica begins spiraling back down towards insanity. Though it first appears as though there’s an effort to drive Jessica insane, the real answer isn’t quite so simple.

Though the film is well-designed, the execution is sloppily done, with a confused, and at times confusing, script; poor photography, little better than the average Made-for-TV Movie of the period; and a no-name cast that is not quite able to wring the full potential from the weak script. On the positive side, though, is the hauntingly beautiful Essex, Connecticut location and the suspenseful plot.

Few settings are more appropriate for a Horror Film or novel than New England, and it is perfectly suited here. However, the photography, by Robert M. Baldwin (as Bob Baldwin), simply doesn’t do justice to it. Likewise, the premise of the film is let down by a meandering script that never quite gets its feet firmly planted.


The DVD is an average effort for Paramount, a company that seldom goes the extra mile on anything but it’s new releases. The print used is clean and complete, and presented in the original widescreen, and the movie is subtitled. The disc is what you would expect for a 35-year old film that was hardly a financial success when first released, and overall, is a decent product.


There are no special features on this disc, and it’s difficult to see how much a “Making-of…” or deleted scenes section would’ve added. This isn’t really a movie that cries out for such amenities, even if they had been available.


While this was a surprisingly enjoyable film at the end, it does require some patience to get there. The cast does the best they can with the script they were given, but you can’t help thinking that a more talented ensemble might have been able to overcome its inherent difficulties. But that shouldn’t stop you from checking this one out. While it’s not one that I would recommend for purchase, (unless you find it in a bargain bin) it certainly is worth a rental. Be patient with it, and you will be rewarded.

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19 April, 2008

My Favorite Kaijû

Though Kaijû, or the Giant Monsters of Japanese cinema, aren’t everyone’s cup of sakê, I just can’t get enough of them. Fortunately, my love of Toho Studio’s city-stomping creations is an honest one, dating back to a childhood spent watching Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah, and the rest rampaging across Japan, causing more destruction than a Phish concert. Of all the great monsters imported from Japan, however, one has always been my personal favorite, even more so than the undisputed King of Kaijû, Godzilla. That monster is Rodan, and 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of his debut.

I can’t really say what makes Rodan my favorite. Looking like a gigantic Pterodactyl, able to fly so fast that his supersonic wake can shatter skyscrapers, he just seemed so very… cool to a nine or ten-year old MonsterKid. He didn’t need to stomp cities into the ground, he just flew over, and the cities fell. No muss, no fuss, just total destruction.

I think another reason Rodan held such appeal for me is that all my friends were either Godzilla or Gamera fans, and I’ve always hated following the crowd. A natural iconoclast, I needed a favorite that was different from everyone else’s, something that stood out. Ghidorah was too evil; besides, he was always getting his ass kicked. Mothra was just too much of a girl’s kind of Kaijû. Rodan was just right.

His debut feature, SORA NO DAIKAIJÛ RADON ~aka~ RODAN, [see my review of the Sony DVD of the film below…] is one of the best of the Showa series movies, those Kaijû films made by Toho from 1954 to 1985. And Rodan was one of the most popular monsters during the Showa period, appearing in no fewer than eight Toho films, though some of his appearances were through the use of stock footage, a common cost-cutting measure employed by the studio. Often cast as an ally of Godzilla, it was easy to root him on, as he and Godzilla would deal with whatever alien-controlled Kaijû was sent to ravage the Japanese homeland this time out.

One of the best movies of this period was 1968’s KAIJÛ SÔSHINGEKI ~aka~ DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. It was also a typical mid-Showa Kaijû Eiga (literally, Monster Movie…), featuring Aliens working behind the scenes, controlling the various Monsters, using them as weapons as they sought to conquer the Earth. Invariably, Godzilla, along with either Mothra or Rodan, would revolt against the alien overlords, defeating the hostile Kaijû, and foiling the alien’s plans. This was a common theme in all three eras of Kaijû Eiga; in fact, the most recent film, and the final film in the Millennium series, GOJIRA: FAINARU UÔZU ~aka~ GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, is little more than a remake of KAIJÛ SÔSHINGEKI.

Rodan had a significant role in this, his fourth film. Though he was originally dispatched to destroy Moscow, Russia, he was freed from the alien mind control device and, along with Godzilla, Mothra, and Manda defeated first the Kilaaks, then the creature resurrected to combat the Kaijû, King Ghidorah.

Movies like DESTROY ALL MONSTERS were what summers were for when I was young. Spending the morning at the “Kiddee Show” at the local theater, me, my little brother, and our friends fueling our imaginations with decade-old Kaijû classics; then heading over to the neighborhood park in the afternoon. In the early ‘70’s, litigation had not yet replaced baseball as the national pastime, and children were still allowed to assume a modicum of risk when playing outside. The local park had an enormous ‘Jungle Gym’ type structure built in the shape of a rocket ship, one which would become our Kaijû-fighting spacecruiser after one of these Monster Matinees. Sure, it was built out of iron, resting on a massive slab of concrete, but I don’t recall one of us ever getting more than a cut or bruise playing on it. I do recall, however, hours spent talking about these monsters, arguing over which was the best, pretending that we were battling them, just being fans… just being kids.

The 1970’s weren’t kind to Rodan; though he appeared in three more Showa films (CHIKYÛ KOGEKI MEIREI: GOJIRA TAI GAIGAN ~aka~ GODZILLA vs. GIGAN, (1972); GOJIRA TAI MEGARO ~aka~ GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, (1973); and MEKAGOJIRA NO GYAKUSHU ~aka~ TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA, (1975)…) his appearances were limited to reused stock footage.

Tokyo was safe from the Kaijû for an entire decade following TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA, until the Heisei era began with GOJIRA ~aka~ GODZILLA 1985. Gone was the concept of Godzilla, as well as the other Kaijû, as Japan’s protectors; he was back, and he was bad. But it would be 1993 before Rodan made his lone Heisei appearance, in GOJIRA VS MEKAGOJIRA ~aka~ GODZILLA vs. MECHAGODZILLA II. But what the Heisei-era lacked in quantity was more than made up in quality, as he was revealed to be a “brother” of Baby Godzilla, died, was resurrected as Fire Rodan, and finally gave up his life force to save Godzilla. Heisei Kaijû films were nothing if not imaginative.

Rodan has made one more appearance thus far, in the aforementioned GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, the final film in the Millennium series which began with GOJIRA NI-SEN MIRENIAMU ~aka~ GODZILLA 2000 (1999). Though his role in GFW wasn’t as important as his fans no doubt desired, it was great to see him in action one more time, as he attacked New York City with gusto.

Now it’s the 50th anniversary of his screen debut. Have we seen the last of Rodan, Godzilla, Mothra, and the rest? Possible… but I won’t bet on it. Because if there’s one thing that we fans of Kaijû understand, it’s this:

You just can’t keep a good monster down.

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Year of Release—Film: 1956

Year of Release—DVD: 2002

DVD Label: Sony


One of the best Showa-era Kaijû films, Rodan is my personal favorite of the horde of monsters unleashed by Japan’s Toho Studios in the 1950’s and ‘60’s; and with a competent plot, good acting, and better than usual effects, his screen debut beats all but the original GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS in terms of quality, without the preachy, heavy-handedness of the earlier film. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, one that still carries a message, to be sure, but it doesn’t try to beat you over the head with it.

Mysterious happenings at a coal mine in Kyushu have the workers on edge, and fights are breaking out between the stressed miners. The mine is being driven deeper than ever before, and one evening the departing shift realizes that two men are missing. They soon find one of the men dead, floating in a flooded-out section of tunnel. However, when they turn him over, it’s obvious that the miner didn’t drown; his body has been horribly mutilated.

Though the authorities assume that the missing man, Goro, is responsible for the death of the miner, his friend (and the fiancé of Goro’s sister Kiyo…) Shigeru refuses to believe that. He’s soon proven right as a group of monstrous beetle-like creatures known as meganulons attack the mining town. The army soon arrives to battle the giant insects, only to discover there’s a far more deadly foe rising from the bowels of the earth, in the form of a pair of massive pteranodons called Rodans.

The first Kaijû film shot in color, Ishirô Honda’s second Kaijû epic managed to avoid the heavy editing that saw forty minutes excised from GOJIRA, to be replaced with footage featuring a pre-‘Perry Mason’ Raymond Burr for the American version. Instead, there was a brief prologue attached that served to connect the appearance of the monsters to Atomic testing.

The acting in these early Kaijû films was far superior to what would become the norm in the late ‘60’s—early ‘70’s, and the movies overall were much better. This one certainly is.


Like the disc for GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, this is a bare-bones offering without even subtitles, though the film is closed-captioned. The print used for the transfer is clean and sharp enough, though it would be nice to see a thorough remastering done to the film. Not a spectacular DVD, but I guess you can chalk this one up to a case of “You get what you pay for…”, and for this, that’s not much.


As with the other discs in this Ultimate Godzilla set from Sony, there are none. Oh, they’ve put the audio menu here, that allows you to pick from Mono or Stereo tracks, as well as a promo clip for a Kaijû-themed Gamecube game. First, I don’t consider Sound to be a Special Feature, and second, neither is a commercial for something I don’t have, never will, and couldn’t use if I did. The Unimonster, ever three paces behind the cutting edge, still hasn’t upgraded from the PSOne, and is sorry he ever let go of his NES Console. (I’m really jonesing for some Super Mario Brothers…)


Though there isn’t anything on the disc other than the film to recommend it, in this case that’s enough… especially in light of it’s list price, which is around $8. If you buy the Box Set, it’s even cheaper.

As I said before, Rodan is my favorite Kaijû, beating out even the Great Grumpy One himself, albeit narrowly. I definitely have no qualms about giving his debut feature my highest recommendation. Don’t waste time… grab it now.

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12 April, 2008

Giant Monkey Love: Celebrating Kong on his 75th Birthday

April 7th, 1933 is a Red-Letter date in the history of genre films, for that is the day that the greatest of the giant monsters was born. On that day, an ape named Kong first roared across the screen, a blond beauty screamed her way into the hearts of moviegoers, and audiences everywhere were amazed. On that day, KING KONG premiered, and changed movies forever.

The creation of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack, brought to vivid life by the artistry of Willis O’Brien, and starring Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, and the incomparable Fay Wray, KING KONG stormed through the 1933 Box-Office as easily as the jungles of Skull Island. In its wake, it left a legacy that has inspired fans and filmmakers alike for three-quarters of a century. The careers of such genre notables as Ray Harryhausen and Peter Jackson were encouraged and influenced by the “Eighth Wonder of the World!”, as Carl Denham so eloquently described him to his captivated audience. Generations of MonsterKids have grown up watching Kong battle man, machine, and beast for his “beauty.”

Remade twice in the years since 1933, with varying degrees of success, KING KONG is a masterpiece of filmmaking. The story captures you, pulling you into the film as only the best can. The 1976 remake certainly didn’t do that, and while Jackson’s 2005 version came close, it just couldn’t match the original’s sense of pure, adventurous, escapism… the feeling that you were traveling, with the crew of the Venture, to some place completely undiscovered.

Most of what makes the original KING KONG so special is the depth of the characters. Each one is so well drawn, in such broad strokes, that they defy attempts to update them in the subsequent remakes. In 1976, no attempt was made to remain faithful to the original; the resulting characters are so poorly rendered as to be completely unlikable. Robert Armstrong’s Denham is replaced by a slimy, sniveling oil company executive in the person of Charles Grodin, who plays the role as if Al Gore himself wrote it. Jessica Lange plays Dwan, a beautiful blonde with the I.Q. of a butternut squash, as though it were her goal to confirm every Blonde stereotype in existence. Gone are the courageous Captain and First Mate, originally played by Frank Reicher and Bruce Cabot. Instead, we have Jeff Bridges as Jack Prescott, a hippie environmentalist/ape expert, and the role of the captain has been almost entirely eliminated. No one in this cast of cast-offs manages to approach their counterparts from the original, and the weak script and weaker direction can do nothing to overcome the poor characterization.

In contrast, the Jackson remake brought back the original characters but altered them to such a degree that they became unrecognizable. Carl Denham, the renowned adventurer and filmmaker of the original film, became a two-bit hustler and con-man in the remake, not above lying, cheating, and stealing to get his way. Jack Driscoll went from being the First Mate of the Venture, a strong heroic figure, to a whining little nebbish of a playwright, destined to be “odd man out” in a very weird romantic triangle. The First Mate, played by Evan Parke, was very much the type of character the story needed Driscoll to be, and would have made a suitably strong love interest for Ann Darrow; yet he was relegated to a minor role, and was dead before the battle in the Spider Pit had even begun. The character of the Captain, played by Thomas Kretschmann, was the only one that improved over the original, with more depth and complexity than Reicher’s weathered old salt.

Then there’s Ann Darrow.

Embodied by Fay Wray, the character of Ann is a singular achievement in the history of Horror Films. No other female character of the first fifty years of Horror was as recognizable or had a more lasting impact on the genre, and none has been more integral to the success and longevity of the movie itself. Wray so perfectly captured the innocence, the vulnerability, of ‘Beauty’ that it’s hard to watch the film and not be captivated by her… just as Denham is, just as Driscoll is, just as the crew of the Venture is, and just as Kong himself is.

In comparison Ann, as essayed by Naomi Watts, has no innocence or vulnerability, at least not until she’s on the island, and even then precious little of it is evident. In New York, she’s hit rock bottom… a beaten, careworn woman searching for something to believe in, someone who won’t disappoint her the way every one and every thing else has. She finds that someone… in the form of a 24-foot tall ape named Kong. He demands nothing of her, yet from the first repeatedly risks, and ultimately loses, his life simply in order to be with her. But where Jackson’s version deviates from the original is where his film loses some of its shine, and the true quality of the Cooper film shows through.

Where Wray’s Ann is quite naturally terrified and traumatized by her status as a giant ape’s object of infatuation, Watts’ reaction is just the opposite—she seeks him out after he’s escaped from Denham’s spectacle, showing not a trace of fear as he takes her in his massive hand. She turned her back on Denham, and Driscoll, over the capture of Kong, and she again chooses to stand with Kong, in essence turning her back on humanity. One is left to wonder if, given the choice between which of the two ‘males’ in her life would plummet to their death from the top of the Empire State Building, events would not have transpired differently.

Of course, Watts’ Ann wasn’t dealing with the same Ape that Wray’s character was. Cooper’s Kong was a monster. An innocent monster, to be sure; one that did not wish to be taken from the place where “…he was King…”—but a monster nonetheless. Jackson anthropomorphizes Kong, giving him a humanlike personality, and transforms him from a monster into a 24-foot tall pet monkey… Tarzan’s Cheetah, on the Major League Baseball diet.

But it’s not just the depth of characterization that makes the original so much better than either attempt to remake it. It’s the perfect synergy of concept, story, design, and execution that sets the work of Cooper, Shoedsack, O’Brien, and the rest apart… a synergy that’s almost impossible to duplicate. John Guillermin didn’t even try, and though Peter Jackson came close, his humanization of Kong ultimately defeats the attempt.

In the end, Guillermin film isn’t as bad as it could have been, and Jackson’s KONG is without a doubt a great movie, but neither can be what the original was, and is… the greatest monster movie ever.

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