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Welcome to the Crypt!

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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From the Desk of the Unimonster...

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30 May, 2009

Too Much Horror?

Recently, my 15-going-on-25 year-old niece was visiting the Crypt, and asked to borrow my “… scariest movie.” My reply to her was that she wasn’t going to see my scariest movie, and she finally settled on WHITE NOISE, an inoffensive little ghost story from 2005. She asked me, though, what film I would name as my scariest movie, and I must admit the question gave me some pause. With over 2,200 genre films in my collection, and that number growing all the time, picking out the scariest is a challenge.

But as I thought about it, I realized that few, if any, of these movies actually have the power to “scare” me in the traditional sense. As the old saw goes, familiarity breeds… well, if not contempt, then at least a feeling of comfort. The monsters and I, even latter day creations such as Michael, Freddy, and Jason, are old friends; old friends that inspire no fear in the Unimonster.
There are films with the power to both frighten and disgust me, though—movies that are lumped in under the term “Horror”, but in truth bear a much closer relation to the exploitation films of the 1950’s, designed to appeal to the most lurid, prurient interests in the viewer. I’ve watched three such movies in recent weeks, and in each case was left wondering why anyone would watch such films for entertainment.

NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM STRANGERS—(1960): Though ostensibly a cautionary tale about child molestation, this unusual Hammer production becomes an indictment against those who would take such crimes lightly. It is a well-written, thoughtful film; however its subject matter keeps it from being an enjoyable one.

The movie is set in a small lumber town in Newfoundland, Canada. The patriarch of the leading family, the Olderberry’s, (played convincingly by Felix Aylmer…) has the disturbing habit of inviting the young girls in the area into his home, then asking them to strip naked and dance in exchange for candy. Due to his social standing, and the power his son holds, the community is reluctant to take action, despite the insistence of the parents of one of the girls so abused. When the authorities are forced to act, and the old man is placed on trial, his defense attorney shreds the young child’s testimony, and her emotional state, mercilessly. In order to spare the child further humiliation, the prosecutor withdraws the charges against the old man. The girl’s father resigns his position as principal of the local High School, and the family prepares to leave town.

As the girl goes to say good-bye to her best friend, they encounter the old man. They flee into the woods, as he pursues them. The end result shocks and rebukes the small community, as well as those viewers who might place themselves in the shoes of the conflicted villagers.
As I stated earlier, NEVER TAKE CANDY… is not a pleasant film to watch, especially the courtroom scene. The defense attorney seems to be the perfect embodiment of every negative stereotype imaginable regarding his profession, as the young girl withers under his incessant browbeating. The lawyer appears to relish his attacks upon the child’s innocence, accusing her of welcoming, even enticing, the old man’s attentions. I couldn’t help putting myself in the place of the girl’s father, as I felt a strong urge to beat the old man’s attorney about the head and neck with the witness chair.

NEVER TAKE CANDY… is an engaging movie, it is an involving movie, but it is also a hard movie. The fact that it isn’t graphic in it’s depiction of the horrors experienced by the girls is scant comfort; the viewer’s mind fills in the voids, and takes us into the shadows with them. Usually when a film accomplishes this, I rush to sing its praises… but not when the subject matter is so completely repellent.

LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT—(1972): Wes Craven’s debut film, this story of the rape and murder of a young girl and the revenge her parents extract from her attackers is a surprisingly complex and well constructed film, based loosely on Ingmar Bergman’s far superior THE VIRGIN SPRING. Though Bergman’s film is far more literate, and has a more positive ending, the parallels are undeniable.

Two young country girls, Mari and Phyllis, head into town for a night of fun, during which they have a chance encounter with a member of the notorious Stillo gang. He lures them back to the gang’s hideout on the pretense of selling them some drugs, where they quickly become the captives of the gang’s leader, Krug Stillo. (David Hess, in a memorable performance…) The criminals soon head out into the woods, taking the girls with them. Their car breaks down, and they decide it’s a good spot to finish off their hostages and dump the bodies. After the girls are tortured, raped and murdered, the killers seek shelter at the home of the Collingwoods, the only house in the area. What the Stillo gang doesn’t know, to their detriment, is that it’s the home of one of the young girls they just viciously slaughtered. When the parents of the murdered girl discover what has happened, and who was responsible, they go on a rampage of violence, one that makes the murder of the two girls pale in comparison.

Craven, who today is one of the most influential filmmakers in Horror, working with Sean Cunningham, who eight years later would create the most successful Horror franchise ever with the first FRIDAY THE 13TH, had a stated goal of wanting to produce a film that would jar audiences, shaking them from a metaphorical stupor they felt had been produced by sterile, bland Horror Films. That they accomplished this goal there is no doubt. They also created a damn good movie, one that is arguably the CITIZEN KANE of Grindhouse Cinema.
But that “… damn good movie …” is also a violent, brutal, in-your-face tale of rape, torture, murder, and vengeance. The assault upon Mari and Phyllis is presented in graphically realistic detail, and consumes much of the first half of the film. The second half, dealing with the parent’s discovery of their daughter’s murder and the revenge they wreak upon the gang is no less harrowing to watch, and includes possibly the most gut-wrenching scene ever filmed—at least for male viewers.

The film’s famous tagline is, “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie.’” If only it were that simple. The truth is that Craven is a gifted filmmaker, and he set out to create a film that would engender a specific emotional response from his audience. The wonder of it isn’t that he succeeded; it’s that the film remains as effective as when first released, nearly forty years ago.

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE ~aka~ DAY OF THE WOMAN—(1978): Every bit as violent and misogynistic as LAST HOUSE… but lacking that film’s solid writing, direction, and performances, Meir Zarchi’s ‘masterpiece’ is a stomach-turning, audience-abusing, 90-minute exposé of the worst parts of Grindhouse and Exploitation Cinema. Where LAST HOUSE… could at least boast of quality behind the camera, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is the purest form of Shlock Filmmaking, lacking any subtlety, or any plot other than what was absolutely necessary to drive the action.

The film stars Camille Keaton, (the granddaughter of silent film star Buster Keaton) as a writer from Manhattan who takes a country home for the summer to work on her novel. Four local toughs become interested in the beautiful young woman and take her captive, raping her repeatedly. She somehow manages to gain the upper hand, and murders the men in an orgy of righteous vengeance—in an imaginative variety of ways.

This film is nothing but that hoary old Exploitation Film staple, the “Roughie”, redressed for the ‘70’s; the age of feminism. But that redress is only superficial; the film is little different at it’s core than Dave Friedman’s 1965 film THE DEFILERS, or the early efforts of Mike and Roberta Findlay. One step above (or below, depending on one’s point of view…) hardcore Porn, Roughies were the logical result of the explosion of “Nudie Cuties” in the late ‘50’s—early ‘60’s. As hard as it may be to believe, audiences could get bored with nudity, and Friedman, who had been in the production/distribution end of Exploitation Films since the ‘40’s, recognized this fact early on, and decided to give the audience something new, something with an edge… and the Roughie was born.

My reaction to the Roughies in general and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE in particular, is that these films are distasteful in the extreme. While in general the Exploitations could claim that they were just harmless, good-natured fun, focusing on and playing up the vices that all of us are heir to, some movies pushed well beyond the boundaries of bad taste. Movies such as the Findlays’ …FLESH trilogy, or Gualtiero Jacopetti’s MONDO CANE, or Zarchi’s I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, do nothing to entertain the viewer or to provoke thought about the subject matter… they simply leave the viewer with a vague sense of uncleanliness.

Those are three films that leapt to mind when my niece posed that question to me; there are others, but those will suffice as examples of the type of movies she’ll never see, at least not from me. Horror Films, to my mind, build legitimate scares with suspense, with atmosphere, and with a sense of unreality. The original HALLOWEEN is a prime example.

In John Carpenter’s 1978 original, Michael Myers was an enigma, a soulless, evil slayer. There was nothing human remaining in him; you’re made to wonder if there ever had been. Carpenter expertly creates a wholesome, welcoming, familiar point of reference for the viewer, and then drops this evil creature into the midst of it. The result is the best of the Slasher genre, and one of the best Horror Films of the last 35 years.

Rob Zombie’s 2007 version, however, strips away the enigma that is Michael, instead walking us through, step-by-step, the creation of a serial killer. There’s no mystery, no intrigue—never do we see Michael as anything other than what he is… a twisted, depraved human being, victimized for most of his childhood, until he one day decided to be the abuser, rather than the abused. The result is undoubtedly horrifying—but it isn’t Horror. At least, it is not my definition of Horror. And that can be said for most of the so-called “Horror Films” produced today… films such as SAW, HOSTEL, THE STRANGERS… horrifying, yes. Horror—no.

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Year of Release—Film: 2008

Year of Release—DVD: 2009

DVD Label: Genius Products, llc

Fanboys, Geeks, Nerds… those are some of the nicer terms used to describe those so devoted to some facet of pop culture that their devotion borders—and sometimes ventures boldly into—obsession. The object of that single-minded pursuit is unimportant, be it Dungeons and Dragons, Anime, or, as demonstrated in the new Trigger Street Productions/Weinstein Company film FANBOYS, the universe of STAR WARS. What is important is that for those so afflicted, nothing is more important… not even a battle with terminal cancer.

It’s Halloween, 1998, and four twenty-something buddies, Eric, Hutch, Windows, and Linus, are six years out of high school, and for three of them, time has essentially stood still. Hutch still lives in his mother’s garage; he and Windows operate a small comic-book shop; they still hang out with Linus, dressing up as stormtroopers, playing video games, and generally just drifting through life. Eric, who works for his father’s chain of used car dealerships, is the only one who seems to have progressed towards adulthood since high school, and he has grown distant from his former friends, though whether this is the reason for, or a consequence of, his relative maturity is debatable.

When Eric is informed that his best friend Linus is dying of cancer, and won’t live long enough to see the premiere of the new STAR WARS film, the quartet resurrects a childhood plan to pull off the impossible mission: Sneak into George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in order to steal a print of Episode 1, THE PHANTOM MENACE, so that Linus can see it before his death. Along the way, between encounters with terribly misrepresented Trekkers, a pimp, William Shatner, Jay and Silent Bob, and an enraged Harry Knowles, the four discover that friendship, whatever foundation it may be built upon, really can beat the odds.

Directed by Kyle Newman, from a script by Ernest Cline and Adam F. Goldberg, FANBOYS is, as described by Newman himself, a “… love letter to STAR WARS.” The director, an admitted STAR WARS Fanboy like the characters in his film, perfectly captures what it means to be that devoted to a subject such as STAR WARS. The easy out, one which most directors would take, would be to present the characters as most people would perceive them—immature nerds, desperately in need of a life. Newman, however, allows us to discover who the characters are as people, to see them as true-to-life individuals, rather than as fanboys “geeking out” over a Sci-Fi movie. Speaking as someone who makes a regular habit of “geeking out”, this respect from a filmmaker is both rare and welcome.

The special features on the disc are nice, and as always, are appreciated. None stands out as exceptionally interesting, but taken as a whole they do add quite a bit to the package. I doubt that anyone buys a DVD for the special features; still, they are an attractive bonus.

You don’t need to be a STAR WARS fanboy to enjoy this movie; the traits of geekdom, whatever the inspiration, are universal. I myself, a lifelong Trekker, loved this movie despite its rather harsh treatment of my people. The reality of Linus’ cancer is present throughout the narrative, though not oppressively so. It never overshadows the reason for the trip, which is the quest to achieve the impossible; to get their “… Death Star …” in the words of Linus. Whether they reach this goal or not is the story, one that I can’t recommend highly enough.

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23 May, 2009

Dracula Reborn: HORROR OF DRACULA and the Rise of Hammer

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.

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, a cross is 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.

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Year of Release—Film: 2003

Year of Release—DVD: 2004

DVD Label: New Line Cinema

Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, was a seminal film for the Horror genre; a transformational film that altered the way Horror movies were both created, and perceived. Shot on a shoestring budget, using an unknown cast, in stark settings that were terrifyingly realistic, Hooper’s masterpiece quickly became a modern hallmark of the genre, and Leatherface, the keeper of the eponymous instrument of mayhem brought to vivid life by Gunnar Hansen, an instant Horror icon.

So it was with a (by now) familiar sense of trepidation that I received word about eight years ago of a planned remake of this movie. Remakes, in my opinion, fall into two broad categories: Re-inventions, which start with the same basic plot but develop it in ways not done with the original; and true remakes, where the same script (same dialogue, staging, pacing, etc.) is used—the film is simply reshot. Though I can cite good and bad examples of both styles, my feeling is that the re-invented film is usually of higher quality; nothing insults my love of classic Horror quite as much as some young, no-name, arrogant director thinking he or she can improve on someone’s masterpiece by re-filming it in exactly the same way. Fortunately, this film falls in the first category.

Though I was unfamiliar with Nispel prior to this project, he does a credible job here in revisiting such an iconic subject. Remaking a film this well known is a task not without its share of dangers, but he smoothly avoids most of the obvious pitfalls and traps that are built-in to such a situation. The pacing of the film, while not as frenetic as Hooper’s original, never bogs down, and flows easily from a normal drive in the country into a descent into a hellish nightmare. He keeps firm control over the largely unknown cast, and makes superb use of the locale and scenery, evoking the isolation and desolation of the original. The camera work is excellent, and, technically speaking, it’s one of the smoothest films of the year.

The story, though basically the same as the 1974 original, suffers slightly in its unfamiliarity with the dictum Less is More. Part of the quality of Hooper’s original vision is its stark minimalism. It captured you, carried you along in much the same manner that it did the characters themselves. There were no answers offered, mainly because you were too breathless to ask the questions. It just… Happened. You went from a pleasant trip to the country to visit a cemetery, (funny how those have a way of going bad) to, with the simple act of picking up a hitchhiker, a detour into Hell itself. This updated script seek to answer some of the unasked questions, and, in so doing, loses some of the ability to inspire terror that the original possessed. It isn’t an equitable trade.

The cast, though young and relatively unknown, handles the material competently, though without any great effort or inspiration. Only R. Lee Ermey, as the Sheriff, rises above the average with his trademark brand of obscenely irreverent, humor-laden invective. His scenes, (most of the dialogue for which he ad-libbed) are the high points of the film, bringing just enough black comedy to the movie to keep it from being overwhelmingly bleak and disturbing. Though the rest of the cast are able to keep pace with the material, no one of them stands out as superior than the rest. Jessica Biel, though undeniably attractive, lacks the raw sexual appeal of an Eliza Dushku or Tara Reid; she’s more suited to the girl-next-door type of roles, which works very well in this film. It certainly helps that she has a certain “’70’s look” about her, which fits very well with the period in question. Her acting skills struck me as somewhat weak, and she never quite came across as believable, but overall Biel comported herself as well as the rest.

The only other member of the cast that does deserve mention is Andrew Bryniarski, who had the unenviable task of stepping into Gunnar Hansen’s formidable boots as Leatherface. Though given a new name (Thomas Hewitt) and a thoroughly unnecessary explanation of his fondness for his gruesome masks, he’s still pretty much the same chainsaw-swinging maniac that we first met in 1974. My only complaint lies not with Bryniarski’s performance; though I’m rationalizing that it’s really a different character, to keep from having to draw a direct comparison to Hansen’s. My only real complaint regarding the Leatherface character is that now, in the age of Dr. Phil and Oprah, we’re supposed to understand his motivations, to look to the frightened child inside. BULLCRAP. I don’t care one bit about what put the gas in the chainsaw; I just want to hear it fire up.

Though the Special Effects are well done, they are a minor part of what makes this film work so well, and that’s as it should be. With a minimum of high-tech CGI Effects, the old standards of latex, food dye, and Karo syrup are more than capable of providing the requisite gore. The best effects sequence in the film is the hitchhiker’s suicide, and it was one of the two scenes that needed editing to keep the film from drawing a NC-17 rating. Though there’s little here that will amaze the modern Horror fan, the effects are well-conceived, well-planned, and, for the most part, well-executed. Some of the body part prosthetics are a little too obvious, just a little too fake, but that’s a minor annoyance. Overall, though, the Effects do what they should, without becoming the focus of the film.

Though I seldom care what extras are included in a DVD release, it would be impossible not to mention the wealth of special features packed into the Platinum Edition of this DVD. From the three-dimensional metallic wall plaque, to the Ed Gein documentary, to the deleted scenes that are contained in their own documentary-style Featurette, everything about this two-disc set is top-drawer, high quality, meant-to-please-the-fans perfection. On the higher side of the cost scale, especially for a single movie, it nonetheless is worth every dime. It truly was the DVD Presentation of 2004.

To sum it up, though it really doesn’t compare to the original, it doesn’t really have to. It is a different movie; not very different, but just enough. And while it does have problems, they are few, and minor. My recommendation is simple: See it. If you’re a fan of the original, see it. If you’re not a fan of the original, see it. If you’ve never seen the original, see it. Though it’s not the Movie of the Year, it’s well worth the rental price; if you’re talking about the Platinum DVD, then spend the money, it’s a definite buy!

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10 May, 2009



Year of Release—Film: 2007

Year of Release—DVD: 2008

DVD Label: Warner Home Video

When I first heard that Tim Burton was in production on SWEENEY TODD, I thought that he was remaking the 1936 British production that starred Tod Slaughter. An odd choice, perhaps, but then Burton’s made a career out of odd choices. The casting of Johnny Depp as the demon barber only heightened my interest, as I’ve become much more appreciative of his abilities as an actor in the last few years. Still, I must admit that it wasn’t very high on my radar for the year or so that it in production.

Then I caught the first trailer released for the film, the one featuring Depp performing Epiphany, and thought, “What the Hell? Is this a musical?” SWEENEY TODD, a musical? I thought that whatever weird circuitry lay in Burton’s mind, something had finally overloaded a breaker. Who produces a singing, dancing musical about a throat-slashing barber, and his mistress who bakes his victims into pies?

As you may have guessed by now, it would be a gross understatement to say that I’m not a big fan of musical theater. In fact, prior to viewing this DVD, I had no idea that it was based on a long-established Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim, a man that I’m familiar with solely by virtue of his mention in the film SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.

Thus it was that Burton’s project, and my interest in it, promptly retreated to a back corner of my mind. Other movies came and went, and frankly, I wasn’t going to waste time keeping track of a musical I’d probably never see. I had more important things to follow.

Not too long ago, however, I received the DVD from a friend as a gift. I had heard enough positive reports of this movie from others to pique my interests, and decided to give it a try.
I must say that, whatever I was expecting… this wasn’t it. From the first scene, as Todd sings No Place like London, one gets the distinct impression that, while this is indeed a musical, it’s a Tim Burton musical, which means it will be unlike anything you’ve seen before. By the time Todd has his run in with rival barber Pirelli, (a splendid performance from Sacha Baron Cohen…) I was hooked.

The story is told in a way that transforms this from a music hall entertainment, which were the originations of the Sweeney Todd legends, into an operatic tragedy akin to Wagner or Verdi. The music, by Sondheim, is terrific, and the darkness of Burton’s imagination suits it perfectly. I can’t say how well Burton captured the original stage production, but he flawlessly compliments the music. While it’s not my usual type of musical fare, I must admit several of the songs stayed with me for some time, most notably the duet Depp sings with Alan Rickman, portraying Todd’s nemesis Judge Turpin. Their Pretty Women is a beautiful song, performed competently by two non-singers. Depp also shines on My Friends, and co-star Helena Bonham Carter is pushed to the limit with By the Sea, by all accounts a difficult piece even for trained vocalists.

The cast is superb, particularly the leads. Depp continues to impress me as he continues to demonstrate that his “pretty-boy”, 21 JUMP STREET days are well behind him. His ability to totally become his character, to dedicate himself fully to a role is nothing short of obsessive, and he portrays Todd’s obsession, his thirst for revenge, perfectly. Bonham Carter is also excellent as Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s paramour and partner in crime; she disposes of his victims by baking them into meat pies to feed her hungry clientele. Rickman, as Judge Turpin, is especially well-cast; he has an ability to project an evil presence that is unmatched in today’s cinema, and is very reminiscent of Vincent Price at his best.

The supporting cast is good, especially the aforementioned Cohen and Timothy Spall as the Beadle. Spall, best known as Peter Pettigrew from the HARRY POTTER films, is superbly slimy as the henchman of Turpin, whether fulfilling his role as a flattering sycophant or in his official capacity as the Judge’s enforcer. Jayne Wisener, as Todd’s daughter Johanna, and Jamie Campbell Bower, as Anthony, the young acquaintance of Todd who falls in love with her, are good… not spectacular, but they turn in a competent job.

Visually, the film is pure Burton at his best. More than any current director, Burton brings a definite style and look to his films, a presentation that’s as unique and identifiable as a Salvador Dali painting… and just as surreal. It doesn’t appeal to everyone, but to those who are fans of Burton’s work, it’s familiar and welcome.

My DVD is the two-disc Collector’s Edition, and it comes loaded with special features. There are interviews with Sondheim, Burton, Depp, Bonham Carter… virtually all the important members of the production are included. There are features on the music, and on the history of the legend of Sweeney Todd, which I found especially fascinating. If you want the movie on DVD, then this is the DVD to own.

Ordinarily for something this unusual I would suggest renting before you buy, but I feel safe in giving this one a full Buy recommendation. This film will one day be considered a classic, and I think that anyone who gives it half a chance, as I did, will love it.

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Five Questions I’d Like to Ask

I’m always trying to improve my skills as a writer, and as with any ability, the more you exercise it the stronger it becomes. One of the exercises I frequently employ is to read interviews of notable personalities and try to correct any deficiencies in the interviewer’s questions or style. I envision the questions I would’ve asked, given that same opportunity.
While many of the questions that I would pose might someday, in some form, be asked in future interviews, there are some people for whom I’ve long had unanswered questions; people who, sadly, have long since stopped granting interviews. Five of these individuals are some of the greatest Horror Icons ever, and if I could ask just one question of each of them, these would be the questions…

BORIS KARLOFF—To what degree was your performance and characterization as Byron Orlok in the 1968 film TARGETS autobiographical, and how much of his thoughts and feelings regarding his career mirror your own?

While most serious students of Horror will of course say that Karloff’s first two performances as Frankenstein’s Monster, in 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN and 1935’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, are his finest work, I’ve always been especially impressed with one of his last roles, that of Byron Orlok in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 thriller TARGETS. Shot for Roger Corman on a shoestring budget, this is one of the finest psychological thrillers ever produced, and is even better as a character study of an aging Horror star, and his disillusionment as he looks back on his career.

Running parallel to this plotline is the story of a disturbed young man, played by Tim O’Kelly, who is planning to murder his family and go out in a blaze of glory. He assembles an armory for this purpose, and we are witness to both his preparations and his deepening madness. The two plots weave and dart about, drawing together to intersect at a personal appearance of Orlok’s at a Drive-In theater.

One of the facets of this movie that has always appealed to me is the sense that this is Karloff as he truly was, rather than as the stereotyped, packaged, processed Horror Icon he had become. The reason that I love this movie so much is the same reason I love John Wayne’s final film, 1976’s THE SHOOTIST: in no other roles do we see these men, each so much larger than life, as human and as vulnerable as in these films. Each is, in his own way, bidding farewell, both to an adoring public as well as to an image of themselves that had been carefully grown and nurtured over the long decades of their careers. Both men were, and are, immensely significant to me.

Wayne, second only to my father, represented the ideal of American manhood to me, the virtues and the vices that, when combined in harmony, symbolized what it meant to be a man to generations of young boys. And Karloff was the symbol of all that a young Unimonster loved about Horror… from the sound of massive boots without, as Colin Clive and Edward Van Sloan conversed darkly in hushed tones; to the vaguest sense of motion, as the eyes of Im-Ho-Tep slowly fluttered open. It was Karloff’s face that graced the covers of Famous Monsters, at least, the memorable ones; and it was his face that was the face of Horror for nearly twenty years. I’ve often wondered, as I watch him in the role which transformed him from unknown to icon, if some portion of him resented the path his life took, or the road down which the monster led him.

BELA LUGOSI—You once stated that Dracula was always there, always a part of you. To what degree would you say that the role of Count Dracula has been a blessing, and to what degree a curse?

While never possessed of the raw talent of frequent collaborator (and more frequent rival…) Boris Karloff, it would be wrong to judge Bela Lugosi’s talent by the roles he chose to accept. When gifted with decent writing and direction, he could more than hold his own with his more talented castmates, and when he shined, as in the role of Vitus Werdegast in Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 classic THE BLACK CAT, none were better.

But Lugosi’s career had one defining moment, a moment which forever linked him with one character to the point that their names became synonymous… Tod Browning’s 1931 film DRACULA.

Where Karloff’s name soon came to symbolize Horror in general, Lugosi was much more closely tied to his iconic creation, despite having only played the character of Dracula twice. While his performances as both Werdegast and as Ygor, the friend of Frankenstein’s Monster from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, are superior to that of Dracula, it is the latter role that came to dominate his career… and his life.

It is no secret that Lugosi battled many demons late in his life, most notably, and eventually publicly, an addiction to morphine. Doubtless these struggles had much to do with his selection of roles throughout the 1950’s, from films such as THE BLACK SLEEP to the Ed Wood movies with which he ended his career. Lugosi seemed to accept every role offered, and played every one exactly the same… at least, by this point in his career. It’s as though every director had the same instruction: “Just like you played Dracula, only not so understated…” Karloff too was in some abysmal productions—THE TERROR and THE SNAKE PEOPLE are two that come to mind—yet he never lost the ability to bring his unique talent to every character he played, often transcending the quality of the script he was dealt. Lugosi, in the few films he made following his final major studio production, Universal’s 1948 classic ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, never rose above the level of the writing and direction… which for the last decade of his life, was almost uniformly bad.

Both icons have their adherents, and a strong case can be made on either side of the argument “Which was more important to Horror.” Nevertheless, not even Lugosi’s most ardent fans can deny that, despite a career filled with memorable performances, Bela could never escape the shadow of Dracula.

LON CHANEY, Jr.—It is no secret that, despite your efforts to distance yourself from your famous father, your career led you into Horror Films, much as it did him. The studios even insisted on billing you as “Lon Chaney, Jr.” despite the fact that your given name is Creighton. Do you regret the path your career took, one that so oddly paralleled your father’s?

Born Creighton Chaney in 1906, the young boy who would grow up to become one of the greatest Horror stars ever, spent most of his formative years apart from his famous father, silent-movie icon Lon Chaney. That, as well as the senior Chaney’s abandonment of Creighton’s mother, did not foster a close relationship between father and son.

When Creighton decided to try acting, he deliberately avoided a connection with his father’s name, partly to demonstrate he could succeed on his own; partly due to his wish not to become typecast as a “Horror actor.” In fact his breakthrough role was as Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s 1939 version of John Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN, for which he won critical acclaim.

But the studio system of the 1940’s was too strong, and so was the public fascination with horror. Not only did Universal want to play up his famous father, they wanted another Lon Chaney… Creighton be damned. With 1940’s ONE MILLION, B.C., Lon Chaney, Jr. officially came to be. The next year was to be the seminal one in Creighton’s life, as Lon became the Monster-Man at Universal. That year, the definitive Universal Horror Film of the 40’s was released, THE WOLF-MAN, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot, the son of a Welsh lord cursed to an unholy existence by the bite of a werewolf.

The die was cast, and Creighton was gone forever, buried under a studio generated image of a second-generation Horror Icon. He would carry Universal on his often-furry back for the next seven years, only to be cast aside when the Golden Age of Horror ended in the mid-40’s. For the next twenty-five years, he would appear in dozens of Horror and Science-Fiction films, none of which would approach the quality of his work at Universal. While there would occasionally be dramatic roles, such as a minor part in the Oscar®—winning HIGH NOON, he would forever be remembered as a Horror Film Star, and the only actor to portray all four of Universal’s Classic Monsters—the Wolf-Man, Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Mummy Kharis. Only Lon… excuse me, only Creighton Chaney could say that.

TOD BROWNING—In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, you were Hollywood’s leading director of what are now regarded as “Horror Films.” You worked closely with Lon Chaney at the end of the silent era, creating some of his most memorable films; and with 1931’s DRACULA you began the reign of Universal Studios as the original “House that Horror Built.” All this came to a halt in 1932 with your return to M-G-M, and the release of one film: FREAKS. This was an intensely personal project for you, and despite the belated recognition the movie has earned in the decades since its brief release, you must acknowledge that this film effectively ended your career. Do you regret making the film, and with hindsight, would you have done it differently?

As 1931 ended, Charles “Tod” Browning was riding a hot streak. He had established a reputation as perhaps the premiere director of macabre films in Hollywood, and the success of DRACULA had guaranteed him the freedom to move whatever project he deemed worthy. He had returned to M-G-M, where he and star Lon Chaney had had such success, to direct the most personally involving film of his career, FREAKS.

Browning, who had spent much of his early adulthood in carnivals, circuses, and traveling shows, had a deep affinity for the people who had shared this life with him, an affinity that he repeatedly demonstrated in the themes of such films as 1927’s THE UNKNOWN. He intended FREAKS to show the plight of these sideshow performers; instead, critics and the public regarded it as exploitative in the extreme, as well as highly offensive. After a very brief release, M-G-M pulled it out of theaters and buried it deep in their vaults. There it sat for the next 50 years or so, except for poorly edited versions that made the rounds on the exploitation-film circuit.

Beginning in the 70’s however, critics and fans alike rediscovered Browning’s film, recognizing both the movie’s strengths and the sincerity of Browning’s intentions. Film historians began to rethink their opinions of this film, and as more people began discussing it, the more people wanted to see the film… the raw, unexpurgated film. As they did, the truth of Browning’s vision became apparent, as did the quality of his creation. It’s truly a shame that that realization took more than fifty years to occur.

VINCENT PRICE—You, more than any other actor, symbolized Horror in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Your filmography is replete with titles that are classics of the genre—THE FLY, HOUSE OF USHER, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES—however you, more than any other icon of horror, had a foundation as a straight dramatic actor, with films such as THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, LAURA, and of course THE TEN COMMANDMENTS to your credit. Which type of work gives you the most satisfaction, the minor part in a critically acclaimed film such as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, or the fame and recognition you gained from roles such as the murderous Dr. Phibes?

With a career that spanned parts of seven decades, Vincent Price was one of the most accomplished actors to have ever worked in genre film. His filmography reads like a best of Hollywood list, both in normal dramatic roles, and the genre roles that made him a household name.

Though he never sought to be a Horror star, Price’s ability to project such a palpable air of menacing evil quickly led him into Universal’s Horror Films of the late thirties and early forties, first in James Whale’s 1935 classic THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, then in 1939’s THE TOWER OF LONDON, then as Geoffrey Radcliffe in 1940’s THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS.

However, he successfully avoided the typecasting that marked the careers of other Universal stars such as Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney. The same year that he starred in THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, he also appeared as Clifford in THE HOUSE OF GREEN GABLES, and as Joseph Smith in BRIGHAM YOUNG. In fact, it wasn’t until his starring role in M-G-M’s HOUSE OF WAX, in 1953, that Price became known as a “Horror Star”.

This time there was no avoiding destiny, and the type was cast. Though there would be the occasional straight role in his future—most notably that of Baka, the Egyptian overseer in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1957 version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS—the roles that would bring Price the greatest recognition would be those in the world of genre films. From his performance as François Delambre in the 1958 classic THE FLY until the mid-1970’s, Price was the face of Horror to a generation of Monster fans. THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE TINGLER, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, TALES OF TERROR, THE HAUNTED PALACE, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, THEATER OF BLOOD, MADHOUSE… these are but a fraction of the films he made, films that fueled a love of Horror in thousands of young boys and girls… and continue to do so today. I wonder if the satisfaction of that was sufficient to one with dreams of Shakespeare.

So those are my five questions. Questions that cannot be answered, but that I cannot help but ask. I can imagine what the responses would be, but how much of that is based on my knowledge of the subjects, and how much is my projecting my opinions onto them, I cannot say. Perhaps someday, if Heaven is as I hope, I’ll be able to ask my questions… and have them answered.

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02 May, 2009



Year of Release—Film: 2002

Year of Release—DVD: 2003

DVD Label: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

British cinema has been one of the bright points in Horror over the past five years or so, with films such as SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 28 DAYS LATER, and DESCENT. The director of the last, Neil Marshall, came to my attention with his first feature film DOG SOLDIERS, the best Werewolf movie since John Landis’ AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.

A strange hybrid of traditional Horror Film and Combat-Action movie, DOG SOLDIERS is easily one of the most satisfying films I’ve ever seen, a movie that hits virtually every note dead-on. Shot on a miniscule budget, great acting and superb photography take the place of expensive CGI and Special Effects, elevating this far above Hollywood’s current crop of bloated budget disappointments.

The excellent cast, headlined by Kevin McKidd and Sean Pertwee, and the tight, positive direction make the most of the minimalist production design and limited budget, and the claustrophobic set design and impressively good photography serve to enhance the on-screen terror.

The Fox DVD is good; not a great release, but certainly not bare-bones. As you would expect, the transfer is sharp and clean, allowing the brilliant photography to shine through. The audio, however, could be improved; especially considering there are no subtitles. The poor audio, combined with thick British accents, make it very difficult to understand the dialogue at times.

While not rich with extras, there are a few specials on this disc fans will enjoy. Most notable is an interview with Neil Marshall on the making of the film. He offers a great deal of behind-the-scenes nuggets of trivia, something that always pleases the Unimonster. For instance, Sean Pertwee was actually drunk while filming the scene where Cooper and Megan were treating his wounds, and when he made fun of Cooper’s first punch to knock him out, the second one actually connected… and did knock him out for real. It’s little bits like this that add dimension to the film, and add to my appreciation for it.

Since 1935, three truly great werewolf films have been made: THE WOLF-MAN—(1941); AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON—(1981); and DOG SOLDIERS. The first two have become Horror Icons; it is my belief that the third deserves such honors as well. While this is not a perfect DVD presentation, that shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of this fantastic movie. The $9.99 list price is low enough for impulse purchases, and it can easily be found for less. Don’t pass up the opportunity to add this one to your collection.

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Dueling Werewolves

Quick… without thinking, choose one of the following:

¨ Ginger or Mary-Ann?
¨ Coke or Pepsi?
¨ Rolling Stones or Beatles?

If you’re like most people, you didn’t spend much time thinking those choices over. These are some decisions that tend to be automatic, and divide us into one camp or another. Forget politics or religion… you want an argument, just try to hand a Coke-drinker a bottle of Pepsi, or vice-versa. Another of those decisions, and one that is of the most interest to horror fans, concerns two Werewolf films that were released less than six months apart, and have divided fans ever since: THE HOWLING, and AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.

The late ‘70’s- early ‘80’s were pretty good years to be a Horror fan. We were riding the crest of the HALLOWEEN / FRIDAY THE 13TH wave; the best of the Eurohorror films were beginning to show up here, albeit in truncated form; and the Special Effects geniuses, people like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, and Stan Winston were beginning to be noticed by Hollywood. They saw Make-Up as more than paint and latex; they saw breathing, stretching, growing, bursting parts of the human anatomy. They saw the potential.

The technology of movies was finally catching up to the filmmaker’s vision, and we were the lucky witnesses to that transition. And among the most important of the early films to fully explore the possibilities of Make-Up as a special effect were two Werewolf films that premiered in the Spring and Summer of 1981. The first of these was Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING.

Based on a novel by Gary Brandner, THE HOWLING was a dark, brooding, psychologically driven look at Lycanthropy, told from the perspective of a young news-anchor named Karen White who was the unwitting victim of a werewolf’s attack. The anchorwoman, played magnificently by Dee Wallace Stone, went in search of an explanation of what happened to her, and for the dreams, thoughts and desires that were beginning to haunt her. That search leads her and her husband (Christopher Stone in a mediocre performance…) to a retreat on the California coast, populated by all manner of odd inhabitants. They soon discover, though, that the retreat is more of a commune, and the inhabitants are far more than odd.

By comparison, AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON couldn’t be more different. Directed by John Landis, better known for comedy with such hits as ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS to his credit, it expertly combines humor with horror, without becoming a parody or a spoof. This is first and foremost a Horror Film, a story about two young American men attacked by a werewolf while hiking on the English moors. One dies, and the other, though bitten, survives, awakening in a London hospital weeks later. He is shocked to receive a visit from his deceased companion, informing him that he now bears the curse of the werewolf in his blood, and will become one with the next full moon.

Though there is comedy in the film, it never overpowers the horror elements, and is only sparingly combined with them, even when David (David Naughton) and his dead friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) are discussing the ins and outs (pardon the expression…) of lycanthropy while viewing a porno movie in a Piccadilly theater.

Both films are generally hailed as two of the best werewolf movies of all-time, certainly the best released between 1962’s CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and 2000’s GINGER SNAPS. Each is imaginative, fresh, and innovative in the use of Make-Up effects, and each is now considered a cult classic, 25 years after they first premiered. Something else these two films have in common is their ability to polarize werewolf fans.

Rarely have I spoken with fans of one who would admit even liking the other. Fans of THE HOWLING will point out that it’s a far more modern look at werewolves, with the werewolf colony presaging the vampire / lycanthrope subculture popularized in films such as BLADE and UNDERWORLD. Those whose choice is AMERICAN WEREWOLF… tend to dislike THE HOWLING for that very reason, and enjoy the fact that their film harkens back to the classic Universal Wolf-Man movies.

Speaking personally, I do happen to enjoy both, though AMERICAN WEREWOLF… is by far my favorite. I look at it as a tribute to Lon Chaney Jr. and the great Universal horrors of the 1940’s, and of course that strikes a deep chord with me. Though THE HOWLING is full of referential tributes of its own, they’re more the throwaway type, with the characters bearing the names of great Horror directors.

AMERICAN WEREWOLF… is just such a finely balanced movie that it’s hard not to love it. The humor is carried off to perfection by a very talented cast, and Rick Baker’s effects supply all the horror the story demands. Even though I enjoy THE HOWLING, I have to side with AMERICAN WEREWOLF… here. It’s by far the better movie. At least, in this Unimonster’s opinion.

And for the record, it’s Mary Ann, Coke, and Mick and the boys.

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The Unimonster’s Crypt presents Junkyardfilms.com’s Moldy Oldie Movie of the Month!: WEREWOLF IN WASHINGTON


Year of Release—Film: 1973

“That it could happen in America. That it could happen now. That it could ever happen to me. Jack Whittier is my name. Maybe you remember my by-line. I was the youngest member of the Washington press-corps…it’s fastest rising star. One of the best and brightest as we used to say…before so much blood passed under those pretty Potomac bridges…”

So intones Jack Whittier as the opening credits crawl to The Werewolf In Washington. Jack (Dean Stockwell), a young and rising star in the President’s press corps, tires of his affair with the President’s comely daughter and puts in a request for a reassignment to Budapest. Time passes and he’s called back to Washington. Driving to the airport, he almost hits a local with his car. Acting in a typically ugly American style, he swears at the man and everyone who will stand still long enough to listen. He begins to walk for help while local villagers plead with him not to walk on a night with a full moon.

But pushy Jack pushes on and soon comes across the very reason for the local’s fears…a werewolf! Killing the werewolf with his silver-headed walking stick, he turns himself over to the police. They don’t believe him and refuse to help, ordering him to leave the area immediately. However, an old woman who is ironically the werewolf’s mother explains “he needed to be killed” and gives Jack an amulet to protect him. Once back in Washington, Jack nonchalantly flushes the amulet down the White House toilet and begins charming his way back into the President’s good graces at a cocktail party. But, before long, he notices a pentagram on a woman’s hand as the full moon rises and things begin to go horribly wrong!

After that, it’s your basic werewolf movie plot…full moons rise nightly and the killings continue. However, this is when this movie goes from a been-there-seen-that yawn-fest to a political satire of the Nixon White House years mixed with low-camp humor! Clifton James, the blustery, loud and often cigar-chewing veteran actor of many movies and TV programs, plays the Attorney General and often forgets or blows his lines. Director Milton Moses Ginsberg either didn’t have the budget for a re-take or just didn’t care because no mistakes are left on the cutting room floor. The President, played by TV actor Biff McGuire, makes a convincing Nixon spouting lines like “Let me make one thing perfectly clear” all the while discussing the War and the deaths of four students at an Ohio university.

In a later scene, Whittier is visiting the White House where he accidentally runs into the President’s daughter, Marion (Jane House). She tells him she’s engaged but she still wants to be friends. As they talk, Whittier’s lower jaw begins to thrust out, showing his bottom teeth. He runs into a near-by bathroom and locks himself in. Marion rushes to the door, pounding on it frantically, asking what’s wrong. Whittier screams, “Go to your room nowooOOOoooOOOO!” Stockwell acts unusually uncomfortable in this movie… more like a nervous untrained puppy dripping flop-sweat that a fearsome werewolf. The transformation from man to werewolf is the standard stop-motion effects we’ve all come to love and expect from a werewolf movie. However, the final effect is more like a well-coifed Benji than Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf-Man…or even Michael Landon in I Was A Teenage Werewolf!

The next scene has Whittier clinging to the top of a car being driven by his boss, Angela (Jacqueline Brooks). She pulls into a closed gas station, where she is promptly killed by the werewolf. The Attorney General orders a young black couple who witnessed the crime arrested just because they are black…and obvious nod to the racial tensions of the day. Whittier confesses his crimes to Commander Salmon, who doesn’t believe him. Whittier than demands the Commander follow him into the bathroom and, as the Commander tries to explain away Whittier’s “guilt feeling”, Whittier removes his suit coat, tie and shirt to reveal…a tattooed red star over his heart! The Commander, fearing this is some sort of commie plot, flees.

For a horror movie, this has no first-hand bloodletting and few scares. One scene however was somewhat frightening. The female half of the young black couple (still under house arrest) is attacked in a phone booth while making a prank call pretending to be the werewolf. (Why is anyone’s guess. I’ve always assumed werewolves don’t make phone calls. Where would they keep their change!?!) She screams as Whittier/ the Werewolf struggles to get inside the over-turned phone booth. Whittier/ the Werewolf is finally scared away by a cop firing a gun at him. Other than that, the only thing frightening in this movie, other than the bad editing, is possibly the wallpaper in the White House Press Room.

The President and Whittier are bowling in the White House basement alley when there’s a nicely done bit of slapstick humor involving Whittier’s werewolf-transforming hand getting stuck in a bowling ball. As the President struggles to pull it off, Whittier again tries to convince the President he is a werewolf. However, like everyone else he’s encountered, the President ignores him. (Maybe he should hire a press secretary.)

Later, in the War Room, the President is trying to convince his aids that the US needs to pull out of the war ASAP but allows himself to be talked out of peace for fear of upsetting the militant radical right. Whittier, feeling another werewolf attack coming on, leaves the war room and, somehow, winds up in the White House basement boiler room. Confronted by Dr. Kiss, a midget who is apparently making a Frankenstein monster, Whittier, on all fours, licks the doctor’s face and in return, is licked back on the nose. (Shudders!)

As the full moon wanes, we see Whittier ordering a silver bullet as Dr. Kiss and the President discuss the future of the werewolf in the basement toilet. Dr. Kiss and his assistant escape through a bathroom stall. One gets the feeling that one day during shooting, a midget strolled on to the lot and the director thought “Cool! Just what this movie needs!” because there’s no other logical reason for his being in this movie!

Begging Commander Salmon to chain him up until he can fly back to Hungry to find the old gypsy woman, Marion confronts him, proclaiming her love while Whittier pleads to be killed with his silver-headed cane. “Will you please stop barking at me!” Marion says. However, the President calls and orders him released so Whittier can fly with him to a peace conference.
What happens next must be seen to be appreciated! Originally, I was going to continue to the conclusion of the movie but calmer heads prevailed and I was convinced not to give spoilers. But, may I say the ending of this movie was the best part! Especially the speech over the ending credit crawl! Despite its rough editing, bad directing and broad over-acting, this was one fun little movie! I’ll give it 2 out of four stars!


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