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28 February, 2009
But one actor managed to capture the culture and feel of the time in which he worked better than anyone else. That actor is Robert Quarry, and the movie was 1970’s COUNT YORGA—VAMPIRE. Written and directed by Bob Kelljan, YORGA… was a vampire movie for the Mod generation, and the eponymous Count was the perfect representation of that breed of monster for the Swinging ‘70’s.
There would be other efforts to modernize the vampire mythos, to bring the ultimate gothic genre into the era of the Beatles and Bell-Bottoms; most would fail miserably. Hammer Films, two years after YORGA…, would drag Christopher Lee’s Dracula into the 20th Century in DRACULA A.D. 1972. To say that it was a lackluster outing for Lee’s iconic Count would be extremely kind; the movie was a dog. Everything that had made Hammer’s productions unique and noteworthy was gone, and left little more than an average AIP B-Picture’s worth of entertainment. Not even the return of Peter Cushing to his greatest role, that of Van Helsing, could rescue this floater.
And in 1974, David Niven, in one of his most unusual roles, played an elderly Count Dracula looking for virgin’s blood to rejuvenate his dead wife. So where does he go to find it? Where else… London’s swinging hippie counter-culture, that’s where! Though OLD DRACULA is moronic, Niven is an acceptable Count, and no one takes themselves too seriously. The result is pleasant enough, an entertaining diversion if not a particularly memorable film.
But when it comes to vampires for the Sgt. Pepper crowd, Quarry’s Count Yorga stands head and shoulders above the rest. Quarry imbued his Count with youthful vitality and charisma, and created a thoroughly modern vampire, without the dust and cobwebs of centuries past clogging the scene. Hippies and Flower-Children could relate to Yorga in a way they couldn’t with other movie bloodsuckers of the period. He could dress like them, and talk like them. He was in many ways one of them, though much closer to their parents in age.
Born November 3rd, 1925, Bob had worked regularly in Hollywood since 1951, though he made his film debut in Hitchcock’s 1943 classic SHADOW OF A DOUBT. (Unfortunately, all of Bob’s scenes wound up being cut…) He was a steady character actor in television throughout the 1950’s, and earned his first motion-picture screen credit in the 1956 film-noir classic A KISS BEFORE DYING, as Dwight Powell. For most of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s Bob divided his time between Film, TV, and Theater, appearing in many notable productions. But it was 1970’s COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE that catapulted Bob to Horror stardom.
He would follow that performance a year later with a sequel, THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, opposite Mariette Hartley. It did well, though not quite as entertaining as the first, and Bob Quarry had officially begun his ‘Genre’ period.
He would star in four more horror films by the end of 1974: DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN; DEATHMASTER; SUGAR HILL; and MADHOUSE. Each was an excellent example of ‘70’s Horror; entertaining, exploitive, campy… all the things that Horror fans treasure about that era in film. The sequel to THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is even crazier and campier than the first, and his role as Vincent Price’s nemesis, Darius Biederbock, is one of his best. Likewise, his performance as Morgan, the gangster who incurs the wrath of the Voo-Doo priestess Sugar Hill in the movie of the same name, is very good. The role of Oliver Quayle, in MADHOUSE, was a minor one though Quarry did well with it. However, it was as Khorda, the leader of a hippie vampire cult, that he cemented his status as the “Grooviest Vampire Ever.”
Bob slowed down considerably in the early ‘80’s due to injuries suffered in a serious auto accident, but he was back before the cameras again by the end of the decade. His output might not have been as prolific, but he worked steadily through the end of the ‘90’s. It was recently announced that he would be appearing in Mark Redfield’s A TELL-TALE HEART, along with Ingrid Pitt, Debbie Rochon and Kevin Shinnick. Unfortunately, that film was not to be. Bob Quarry passed away after a long illness on Friday, February 20th, 2009. Robert Quarry was blessed with many people who cared for him, from close friends to fans he’s never met. Tim Sullivan, the director of 2001 MANIACS, along with actor Kevin Shinnick, Forry Ackerman’s personal assistant Joe Moe, and others, reached out to help an old Vampire in his time of need.
Far too many of the great Horror icons of our youth have left us already; we need to take care of the ones who are left, and keep them with us as long as possible. Christopher Lee, Kevin McCarthy, Bob Burns… these are the people who inspired my love of Horror, and continue to feed it today. And Robert Quarry certainly belonged in that group. He may no longer be with us, but he’s still responsible for some of the Unimonster’s favorite Monster moments. And he’s still the Grooviest Vampire in Horror Films.
However, there are many areas in which I must profess total or near-total ignorance, and Art is one of them. It’s not that I’m not interested, it’s simply that I know nothing about it. And, as in most areas of my life, my tastes in art tend to be very conservative. Generally speaking, the more a piece of artwork looks like what it’s supposed to represent, the better. Whether it’s the Pin-up girls of Alberto Vargas, the Civil War paintings of Don Troiani, the Americana of Norman Rockwell, or the Famous Monsters covers of Basil Gogos, I like what I like, and what I like doesn’t include some Cubist nightmare of a woman with three eyes and four breasts… all on the same side of her body. Heretofore, I’ve quite comfortably avoided discussing art here, well aware that my readers don’t come to the Crypt looking for my opinions on that subject.
Recently however, a friend mentioned an artist she had encountered at a convention in Chicago, one that impressed her tremendously. While our tastes don’t always sync up, when it comes to Classic Horror, whether movie or art, we usually see eye-to-eye. She arranged a telephone introduction between this artist, a young man named Chris Kuchta and myself.
After this telephone conversation, Chris e-mailed me some examples of his work. I was struck by the unique style he brought to our beloved Monsters. Rendered in varying shades of reddish-brown on white, it’s as though he created the images in blood on bone, which has since dried to an overall sepia tint. The effect is stunning; stunning, and wholly appropriate to the theme.
Chris, a self-described Monster-fan, first fell in love with the creatures of the night when, as a six-year-old, he watched an episode of the “Son of Svengoolie” show. The feature that night was FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN, and as so often happened before and since, a Monster-Kid was born.
In Chris’ own words, he then “…grew at a geometric rate, suckled on a pure diet of horror, art, comics and BBQ chicken.” He received his formal art education at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, and now heads his own school of art instruction, the Kuchta Academy. When not occupied teaching, he is a freelance illustrator and comic artist.
Horror is, in many ways, an excellent genre in which to work for artists. With so much of the fantastic to it, there are numerous examples of Horror imagery that cannot be adequately expressed except through paint on canvas, or ink on artist’s board. As a writer, I’ve always felt that the written word was man’s best medium of expression; but the old dictum “a picture’s worth a thousand words” still rings true today. I can describe the snarl of rage on the Bride’s face as she is introduced to her prospective mate, but Chris’ illustration so perfectly captures the moment that words are not necessary. His impression of Dracula in the darkened corridor, menacingly evil, shrouded by shadows, conveys in one image the power, and the horror, of Lugosi’s characterization.
As I alluded to before, I’m no art critic; Hell, I don’t even consider myself a movie critic. In my mind, a critic is someone who’s paid to convince the movie-going public that the movies they love are garbage, and the movies that can’t earn back the cost of their catering are the greatest images ever captured on film. I simply tell you what I like, and why; or what I don’t like, and why. I also feel obligated, since I have this soapbox (such that it is…), to highlight people or projects that advance a love of, and appreciation for, Classic Horror. Chris Kuchta’s artwork does just that, in blood-tinged spades, and I’m happy to offer him what support I can. So should you.
If you edit or publish a Monster Magazine, then by all means consider using his work to illustrate it. If you have a special piece in mind, he’ll happily discuss a possible commission… just contact him. Or if you just like the pictures that I’ve used to illustrate this article and would like to see much more of his work, then go to his web-site, follow the link to his Monster Art, and buy a print or two, for a very reasonable price.
Because when we find something we like in this world of Horror fandom, we need to get behind it. And I for one like the artwork of Chris Kuchta.
For more information regarding Chris’ work, or to discuss a commissioned piece, please go to: http://www.kuchta-academy.com, or e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Year of Release—Film: 2006
Year of Release—DVD: 2007
DVD Label: Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment
Everyone who’s into film dreams about getting a bunch of buddies together and making a movie of their own. Adam Green and his friends actually did that, in a process that began with two guys going to New Orleans and surreptitiously shooting footage for a trailer while on a swamp tour; it ended with a kick-ass old-fashioned Unstoppable Slasher movie that involves some of the biggest names in Horror.
Set in New Orleans, the story revolves around two buddies in town for Mardi Gras, Ben and Marcus. (Played very well by Joel David Moore and Deon Richmond) They separate from their friends to go investigate a haunted swamp tour, and wind up as part of a group consisting of an older married couple; a “producer” shooting a girls-gone-wild type video and his models, who conveniently flash their considerable assets at every opportunity; a mysterious local girl; a Chinese tour operator; and our two heroes.
The tour boat winds up sinking in a part of the bayou that’s closed off, supposedly due to the presence of an undead boogeyman by the name of Victor Crowley. Crowley, the deformed son of a bayou fisherman, burned to death years before as a result of a Halloween prank. Now, he haunts the bayou, killing anyone who lingers near the burned-out shell of his home.
The story is adequate for the purpose, and borrows freely from such Horror standards as the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies and the HALLOWEEN films. Still, it’s done well, and the viewer doesn’t come away with the feeling that it’s just a rip-off of better movies. First-time director Adam Green demonstrates a thorough understanding of the genre, as well as a grasp on how to mix the comedic and horrific elements of the plot into a (mostly) seamless whole.
The film is helped along in large part to the casting of a couple of genre veterans in small roles, and one, Kane Hodder, in a major role as Crowley. The experience and fan appeal that Robert Englund, Tony Todd, and Hodder bring to the production overcomes the admittedly miniscule star power of the lead cast.
If writing these reviews has taught me anything, it’s which distributors know how to package a movie for DVD release, and which don’t. Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment definitely belongs in the former category. I’ve yet to see a poorly-done DVD from them, and their discs are usually so well-done that I can’t help commenting on that fact. HATCHET is no different, and even the most jaded videophiles should be pleased with the quality of this release.
THE SPECIAL FEATURES
This disc has a full range of Special Features, including commentary tracks, interviews, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and the original trailer that gave the film it’s start. The best of these features is ANATOMY OF A KILL, an in-depth examination of just how one of the movie’s signature “kills” was conceived and carried out, without the use of CGI… and without a visible cut in the film! The scene in question is one of the best in the film, and knowing how it was done only makes the viewer marvel more at the ingenuity of the filmmakers.
Another feature worth watching is the genesis of the film, from Green’s childhood nightmares to finished movie. The story of how a small group of friends came together with a dream of making a good, old-fashioned Horror Film, and succeeded, is inspiring to those of us who share similar dreams.
Though it got scant attention from the mainstream press, the Horror community really sat up and took notice of HATCHET, conferring several important awards upon it. I can only agree with that recognition, as it’s easily one of the best movies of the year; certainly the best shot independently, for less than $15 million or so.
Of course, it does have flaws… every movie does. But given the limitations the filmmakers were working under, these flaws aren’t any real obstacles to enjoying the film. They’re the same problems you’d encounter with virtually any Low-Budget movie, and true fans of B-Grade Horror Films won’t be bothered by them.
Still, I wouldn’t pay full price for it, not that there are many movies that I would go full boat on. Fortunately, I found my copy in the $9.44 Bargain Rack at Wal-Mart. I have no qualms about going a ten-spot on an impulse DVD purchase, and believe me, I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t think you will be, either.
22 February, 2009
The story is good; not great, not original, but it serves well enough. Schmitt’s direction, though capable, is far from inspired. Though I won’t give away the plot, suffice it to say that the movie could’ve been much more suspenseful and frightening had it tried to be less a copy of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and explored the potential in the premise of this film.
The cast is one of the best parts of the film, with a better than average gathering of Hollywood’s current crop of the Gen-X crowd. Eliza Dushku is definitely one of the hottest actresses working today, and she gives this one what little star power it possesses. Though the rest of the ensemble is primarily unknown, they do their jobs adequately, leading one to believe that we’ll be seeing bigger and better from them. As with TCM, this is a very small cast, with the male and female leads on-screen for most of the movie, and they do a good job carrying the film, especially Dushku. Some of the situations that they find themselves in are certainly very contrived, you can at times sense the cast wanting to wince at the dialogue, and towards the end the film confuses itself with an action movie, but these are, on the whole, minor complaints, and don’t really detract from your enjoyment of the film.
What does detract from that enjoyment, though, is the thoroughly unsatisfying design of the “Mountain Men” creatures. The Make-Up effects design looks hokey and amateurish, more suited to a Troma movie than a serious Horror film. I wished that they had either made them full-fledged monsters, or just normal-looking psychopaths. The post-nuclear mutant look just didn’t work for this reviewer.
The DVD is well done, though thin on extras. The only thing I paid attention to were the deleted scenes; occasionally, you find something that makes you think, “Why wasn’t THIS in the finished film?” No such luck here. The scenes that were cut would’ve contributed nothing to the finished product, and deserved to wind up on the floor. The best part of the DVD extras were the working shot of one of the death scenes… it was interesting to see the staging of the shot minus all the make-up and sound effects.
To sum it up, this is a very good B-Movie; fun, exciting, fast-paced, with a decent plot. It has problems, like all B-Pictures, but nothing that should ruin it for the average viewer. Dushku is a visual treat, which, combined with some talent and career choices that are keeping her in the genre, should make her a bona fide contender for the current holder of the Scream Queen crown. As long as your expectations aren’t unreasonably high for this, you should enjoy it. I say this is a definite rental, with an option to buy.
THE MAKING OF BEGOTTEN
By Scott Essman
Elias Merhige, born in 1964, grew up in Brooklyn, and went to school in Tenafly, New Jersey before attending film school at State University of New York at Purchase where he received a bachelor's degree in 1987. This exclusive interview concerns the making of his controversial non-dialogue feature film, BEGOTTEN, a combination of surreal horror, religion, and the origins of mankind. The interview was conducted for DIRECTED BY Magazine at the time of the release of SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE, Merhige’s first feature after popularizing BEGOTTEN.
SCOTT: What was the earliest genesis of "Begotten"?
E.M.: With "Begotten", I was working with a lot of actors and artists at the time, and I had a small theatre company in New York. And we were doing a lot of experimental theatre. And it was the sort of thing where I had envisioned "Begotten"--I mean, a lot of my influences at the time were Antony Narto's theories on theatre and art. You know, I mean like the theatre and its double; theatre as play: all of these very luminal essays about aesthetics and what theatre needed to be in the 20th century. And one of the things that was really important, I thought, was that I had never really seen any of Barto's ideas or any of these very powerful ideas on aesthetics that Nietzsche had about plays and early Greek drama, and I hadn't seen any of it on film. I mean really to its fullest extent. And so it was the kind of thing where at the time--I wrote the script when I was 20. And I originally thought of it as a dance theatre with live music piece that we would do at Lincoln Center. I was making it up as I was going along. But then I found out what it would cost to get the theatre space, what it would cost.... And it would actually cost me, at the time, a quarter of a million dollars to produce the show. And so I thought, "It's weird. There’s got to be a better way to do this." Then the challenge became, really, creating the world. Because "Begotten" really is a world more than anything. It's a world. And so that got me into shifting my whole focus into making a film.
SCOTT: Now how long of a period, from when you wrote the script to when you said, "Okay. I want to do this as a film."?
E.M.: About six months.
SCOTT: And you were in your early 20s at the time?
E.M.: Yeah. And I finished the film when I was.... It took me three and a half years to make the film. That was not because of money. It was because--I built the optical printer that I did all the special effects on. I did all of the cinematography, all of the special effects, everything. And it was really a very powerful experience. It changed the lives of every single person involved with the film. It was really one of these transformative, ritualistic experiences, where the experience itself became what it was about, and the film was just ancillary to the experience. And--sort of like the experience was the flame--and the work itself, the film, sort of became like the vapor, the light coming off the flame. But that was a very powerful experience. But one of the challenges with that film was that it got me into the whole investigative process of "All right, if you want to create something that you haven't seen before, how do you do it?" And so I would just talk to everybody. I would call people up. I would call my new cinematographers and sit down with them for hours and talk to them. I would go to--I went to every laboratory in New York City, sat down with their timers, with their developers, and asked them how they--what is it about developing film, and if you develop it higher than the normal mean or lower than the normal mean in terms of the temperature of the developer bath, what does it do to the film? And they would do these experiments for me, and I would actually look at this stuff. You know, people are really helpful. And then I got ahold of a 16mm Aeroflex camera that was borrowed to me, and I started doing every experiment in the world, sort of developing my own film. I started doing just every conceivable thing from in a darkroom on rewinds running the unshot negative through sandpaper, you know, to scratch the negative before I shot on it. And I still wasn't getting the results that I thought I really needed. And then one day, in the conversation, somebody told me about the kind of control that you have with an optical printer. And when it came time to try and make a deal to get an optical printer, it turned out that it would have cost me millions of dollars to have an optical printer for the amount of time that I needed it. And to buy an optical printer would cost me, at the time, since that was what they used to do special effects at the time--there was no CGI -- the cost of an optical printer at the time was more than--you know, between a quarter and a half million dollars.
SCOTT: This is late 80s or so?
E.M.: Yeah. Late 80s. Mid- to late 80s. So I built one. And I went around getting parts from different camera places, different special effects houses, and they would each say, "Hey, we're not using this old..." I mean, I had an old 1936 Mitchell camera, like number 13. It was just this horse. This workhorse. And then I had a friend of mine that was an electronics engineer out at Brown. And I drove him crazy. I don't think he talked to me for years after helping me with the electronics on it. And then I used an Italian projection gate from the 1940s.
SCOTT: How did you get these parts? Were they paid for, or did you get them--did people loan...?
E.M.: They were things that no one was using, and they just had it. It was like just part of their inventory. And they said, "No one on earth is ever going to use this. You can have this." And I would give them like a laundry list of things that I needed, and they would say, "Well, we don't have exactly that, but we have this." And then what I would do is say, "Okay, if I modify this, if I machine it in a slightly different way--can I do that?" And they would say, "Yeah. Sure." When I needed money, I just went to these guys and said, "I'll do some special effects for you. If you guys ever get overloaded with work, I'll do it for you for like half of what any of your other cameramen would do it for." And that was still a lot of money. That's how I paid for the sound mix for "Begotten", doing all that stuff.
SCOTT: For various different people? Small little jobs?
E.M.: Various different people. Yeah. There was like Disney jobs--there were just various different things they farmed out to me. There was this one rotoscope job that was like six seconds of this old man looking up at a spire and there was blue screen in the back, and they wanted mountains in the background. They wanted the sun to go down, the stars to come up and the moon to rise over one of the mountains. So a friend of mine, Michelle, rotoscoped the whole thing. Airbrushed the stars in, animated the whole thing, and it looked fantastic. It was actually cool doing it. I forgot that it was for a movie or anything--it was just like my own little six-second world.
SCOTT: You optically printed it off the film yourself?
E.M.: Yeah. Everything was done on film. Everything was done very physical. There were no CGI or no computer elements. "Begotten" was shot in 16mm.
SCOTT: So the optical printer could be used for either?
E.M.: Yup. All you got to do is just take a different camera--you know, I had a 16 camera mount. I used to take that off, put a 35 on. Which in hindsight, I mean, that's what I should have done. I could have just blown up the film myself instead of.... But that's something I plan on doing. I do plan on blowing up "Begotten" to 35. Not that it needs to be blown up--I just feel like doing it. Then I did the sound. And the amazing thing, and the parallel between that film and "Shadow of the Vampire" is that there was a very Zen-like incredible experience in directing "Begotten". Because I am looking through the camera, operating the camera, speaking to the actors; and I'm seeing an idea that's coming out of my imagination becoming flesh and blood in the characters and friends that I'm working with. Then that's being reflected back into the camera and recorded onto the film. And it's like this process where it's moving out of my brain into flesh and blood and back into the lens onto film. It was just an extraordinary thing to be able to speak, and--well--"Begotten" is a silent, obviously.
SCOTT: Non-dialogue. Was there ever a point in which you thought, "It's my first film. I'm already directing it. I've already written it." Was it an artistic choice to say, "I should also operate the camera. I should also star in all the stuff myself." Did you ever feel like you wanted another point of view?
E.M.: No. It felt very natural. There was a great deal of innocence to making "Begotten". It just felt like--well, I was so curious about all the different things that needed to [be done].... And it was such a homemade, handmade, handcrafted piece of work that it just made sense that [I crew everything myself].... Because I'm sort of neurotic anyway, when it comes to doing things. I have to just know that something is done, and when it's done, that it's done properly.
SCOTT: Where was "Begotten" photographed?
E.M.: There were three or four different locations, but the main one was a construction site right on the border of New York State and New Jersey, just at the northern part of New Jersey. And they were constructing this corporate park. They were making this huge corporate park. And it--and they just had devastated the landscape. So I had talked to the engineer, the main engineer that was engineering all the groundwork there, and told them what I was doing. And they actually--they thought I was crazy at first, but when I explained to them how I was doing it and what I was doing.... I don't know. It was the sort of thing where, I guess, they felt sorry for me, you know, and they just decided, "Yeah, you can shoot that movie here." And then, on top of it, as time went on, I told them, "You know, the composition is almost perfect." And I would have them look through the lens, you know? And I'd say, "If it just had a mountain right there, you know? If it just had a mountain of rock just right over there to the right, it would be perfect." And they would make one for me. They would bring in bulldozers and heavy dump trucks and they would just make a mountain. It was remarkable.
SCOTT: You didn't have to pay for the location at all?
SCOTT: How long were you there? How many days in the quarry?
E.M.: Would you believe it was just like 20 days. It was all weekends. My agreement was that I would shoot when they weren't working. And their agreement was to have all their equipment out so I could shoot. [20 days in the quarry for the last third of the film… earlier in the film was at a lake. The middle section was in a house.] A friend of mine was going to hook me up with some Indian friends of his down in Santa Fe or Albuquerque. And they were going to take me on this like fun ritual thing that they were doing in the mountains. Anyway, I never hooked up with them, for some reason--miscommunications. So I ended up going into the mountains myself anyway, and shooting some of those sunrises. I spent a couple of days just shooting time-lapse sunrises and sunsets. That's where you get that big flat expansive [view]. And with that film, you know, that was the idea that I didn't want you to be able to tell the difference between the moon and the sun. And whether it was day or night. It's just this idea: we have opposites just colliding and coming together. And then when I finished the film, it took me two years to get it out there. I mean, I would show it to distributors and people out there, and they would say, "Listen, if you can show this for free in some high school basement in the Bronx, you're lucky." And I know people that were really brutal, and I hated them. And I just had this sort of "Well, what do they know?" kind of attitude. And then the film went to the San Francisco International Film Festival. And it was there that Peter Scarlet and Tom Luddy showed the film to Susan Sontag, who then called me up. And I projected the film in her living room for like 21 of her closest friends, and it was remarkable. Because she brought it to the Berlin Film Festival, and said just wonderful things about the film, that.... She used the word "masterpiece". I hate to use that word, but she really loved the film and thought it was just a profoundly original piece of work. And then Werner Herzog had seen the film at just about the same time. And he, also, was very supportive. He was very supportive of the film.
SCOTT: Did Sontag get the film to Nicolas Cage somehow? How did Nicolas end up seeing it?
E.M.: Crispin Glover had given Nick a copy of "Begotten" as either a birthday present or just as a gift. And Nick, just out of his own volition, saw the film and said, "You know, I'm moved by this piece of work." And then when he opened a production company, Saturn Films, he gave the videotape of "Begotten" to his partner at the time, Jeff Levant. And said, "We need to find this guy, 'cause I'd like to work with him." And that's the way it evolved from there. And then we met, and a 45-minute meeting turned into a three-hour meeting, and we realized that we all liked each other very much as people. And three days later, they sent me the script to "Shadow of the Vampire". And when I first read that script--you know all that stylistic stuff, with going from color to black-and-white and black-and-white to color? That was stuff that I saw from the first reading of the script. I knew exactly how to do it. And that's what I loved so much about the script is that it was this great balance between technical innovation and great story-telling. And for me, I knew that I could make something really terrific out of this.
SCOTT: How long did you spend in post on "Begotten"?
E.M.: That was what took all the time.
SCOTT: That was three years?
E.M.: Yes. It took me eight months to build the optical printer.
SCOTT: That's with film in the can?
E.M.: Yes. That just drove me up the wall. 'Cause if it's just a hair off, it's off. That's all. It doesn't work. And it just looks stupid. And it's wrong. Everything has to be very exact.
SCOTT: How long on the sound mix? ...the whole movie--about 88 minutes of sound effects.
E.M.: Got to tell you--that soundtrack--that was something that Evan Album--he's a guy that a friend of mine at the time, (he was the assistant director on "Begotten", Tim McCann), had a friend of his who was painting people's houses--not doing frescoes, just painting the houses. And I met this guy, and I was talking to him and I was just having regular conversation with him 'cause we were both waiting for Tim. And it was, "Well, what do you do besides painting houses?" And "I compose music." I go "Really?" "Yeah." I go, "On what? What instrument's your instrument of choice?" He says, "On the bass guitar." I said, "Really? You compose music for the bass guitar. I've never heard music composed just for the bass guitar." I said, "I'd like to listen to it." So he gave me a tape. And there was nothing in this tape, in this recording that sounded remotely like a bass guitar. This guy was functioning on a totally, completely different plane of existence. And it was at that moment that I thought, "This guy is the kind of person....," 'Cause when you talk to composers, they're all like, "Hey! This is the happy--this is my happy stuff. Oh, this is my scary stuff. Oh!" And with this guy, it was not like that at all. And that soundtrack took a year to do, because--this is going to sound a bit odd, but--we recorded the sound of feet walking on gravel in the winter, feet walking on gravel in the spring, feet walking on gravel in the summer, and feet walking on gravel in the autumn. And used all of them at different points in the film and orchestrated all of that in this careful kind of like mosaic within the film. That's how obsessively detailed that film was. I spent every frame--I mean, I was looking through the camera every single frame.... Just remember, there's 24 frames in a second. And 24 frames in a second, it would take me about 10 hours of time to get about a minute's worth of screen time, of film. When you think about that ratio of labor, it's very intense.
SCOTT: At first, did you let many people see it?
E.M.: And in the beginning, when I finished it, I was very protective of it. 'Cause there were people that hated the film and just didn't care whether it got out there or didn't get out there. So I was very protective of it. And there was never a moment that I didn't totally believe in the film. I always believed in the film. And it's that sort of thing where, when Susan Sontag saw it, it was a major epiphany and pinnacle in my own consciousness. Because it was like, "Okay. Now somebody who I've always revered and respected believes in my work. And believes that it's great." And I knew it was great, but when you have it mirrored off of someone who is great, like Susan Sontag, it enables you to suffer all the crap that you have to go through to get a film off the ground, get something out of development hell and into reality.
SCOTT: You were able to get it out there somehow?
E.M.: The film was distributed on VHS. So people could buy it from Virgin Megastore. It wasn't just myself that had to give them a copy of the tape. Rocket Video had the film. Jerry's Video over in Hillhurst that has the film as well. The thing, for me, in making a film, is I that have to just be 300% in love with what it is that I'm doing. I'm not going to spend two or three years of my life on something that I'm half-hearted about, you know?
SCOTT: My take on “Begotten” is pretty clearly that this divine being, in the beginning, is almost sacrificing himself for the birth of the next generation, which becomes Mother Earth.... Actually, in the film, Mother Earth comes from behind him. And...
E.M.: She's sort of born from him in a very theatrical way.
SCOTT: Yeah. Born out of him, and he's dead. And then ejaculates him....
E.M.: Yeah. Inseminates herself.
SCOTT: And then from that comes....
E.M.: Comes this new world order.
SCOTT: Who's, hey, got a tough life. Almost an oppressive kind of way....
E.M.: Well, it's interesting, 'cause you have this, like, the patriarchal world, sacrificing itself, giving birth to this matriarchal world, that then gives birth to this new kind of, like, child, who's a balance between the masculine and the feminine, the earth and the sky, and then is ultimately sort of sacrificed....
SCOTT: But then begets greenery and the earth as we know it. Which was a neat effect. I'm sure you did that on your optical printer.
E.M.: Yeah. I did a lot of that with time lapse, too. In a terrarium, I had little things growing.
SCOTT: A small terrarium?
E.M.: No, a large terrarium. And--but it's the kind of thing where--with "Begotten", I always felt that, having been a big Nietzsche fan at the time, this idea of circularity of time, the idea of the eternal return, the idea that everything is a circle or a sphere.... And certainly Einstein's theory of relativity, you know, that if you go in two opposite directions, you're eventually going to meet again. 'Cause the world through Einsteinian physics is spherical--the universe is spherical. So, it's the idea that--imagine that we had a culture, like 4,000 years ago or 10,000 years ago, that had the technology with cinema, to make movies. And that you're looking into a sort of archaeological discovery of this world, that is now extinct, and was sort of a pre--predecessor to the world that we live in today.
SCOTT: When the earth was really new.
E.M.: Yeah, exactly.
SCOTT: And I took the band of quote, kind of "lepers" or whoever, just to be sort of the outcast, the marginalized and the decrepit of the earth, who don't know what they're doing. Almost--I'm not specifically a religious person--but I almost read it as a Christian metaphor of sorts, where Jesus was born to a world that didn't appreciate him, and he died for the sins of all the others. In that this new being died for their sins, even though they didn't know what they were doing. Here they have this naked thing, who's been born of Mother Earth and God, and they....
E.M.: And they don't even realize it.
SCOTT: And they don't realize it and they beat him and kill him. And he begets the rest.
E.M.: I think that's very beautiful what you just said. And I don't think that's off the mark. But the thing is, you go not just to the mythology of Jesus, but also to Isis and Osiris, and you go back to Attus and Adonis, and it goes way back to be the pre-Christian ideas and, then certainly with the idea of creation as it exists in the Hebraic sense, in the Old Testament. It's just these themes of sacrifice and resurrection are in every culture and every age. And they're important themes. And I love art that is charged with both pathos and mythos. And you see it in Arnold Bachland's paintings. You see it in a lot of expressionist and symbolist paintings. And you certainly see it in the romantic paintings, and in the Romantic poets like Byron and Shelley. And in Goethe, the German poet. All these voices from the past definitely have influenced me to a very profound degree. And I feel like--that being inspired by these minds and by these works of art from hundreds of years ago, I imbue it into my own blood and invigorate it with a new life and put it out into a new--in a new way, through film and--through the films that I'm making.
SCOTT: Also the elements in both of your films--regarding themes of sacrifice and all that--there's also sort of a haunting feeling throughout both of the films. I think that what's happening in "Begotten" isn't entirely pleasant. It's interesting. It's always sort of fascinating, but it's also upsetting.
E.M.: No. Absolutely.
SCOTT: Much in the way that any martyr, who has to suffer for others' sins or whatever--it's not the most pleasant thing ever. And same with "Shadow of the Vampire", too. It's always super-interesting, and a reflection on things you said about current filmmaking. But it's also kind of haunting. These people are disappearing, and is Schreck really killing them? And then you start to think, "He really is a vampire. Or at least he thinks he is. And that's enough."
E.M.: I can't tell you how much I appreciate you seeing "Begotten", and having an appreciation of that film. 'Cause I love that film, really. I never thought about, "Oh, I'm going to go to Hollywood with "Begotten" and I'm going to be a big movie director." It was the kind of thing where I made "Begotten" just purely like a fever. It was like a fever that hit me, and then, when the film was done, the fever broke, and it passed. It was somewhat of an obsession and a great, profound love, making that film. And I learn something new from that film every time that I see it. I don't feel like its maker. I feel like it's got its own life force, and every time I see the film, I'm learning something new from it.
Special DVD copies of BEGOTTEN are now being made available as a not-for-profit item by DIRECTED BY Magazine for a short time only.
To order a BEGOTTEN DVD, send $12 postpaid via PayPal to: email@example.com
You may also send a check/money order to: Scott Essman, P.O. Box 1722, Glendora, CA 91740.
For the purposes of my columns, my personal definition of classic begins with, at a minimum, any film that is not less than twenty-five years old. Classic is a word that conveys permanence, endurance… a product that has stood the test of time. James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN is as powerful and impactful now as it was when it first premiered in November of 1931. More than seventy-seven intervening years have demonstrated that film’s relevance, fully justifying the use of the word classic to describe it. Indeed, classic is too mild a word for such a film. Clearly, a film’s ability to weather the passage of time must be demonstrated before it too can be described as ‘classic.’
True, twenty-five is an arbitrary point, but there must be some cut-line established, and twenty-five years just seems a natural boundary to me. Of course, it’s a boundary that moves from year to year, as time passes. This now means my definition of classic now encompasses such films as CHILDREN OF THE CORN, GHOSTBUSTERS, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and THE TERMINATOR—the movies of 1984. And twenty-five years from now the movies hitting screens today will, according to my standards, be accorded that same status.
When I think of movies such as PUSH, the remake of FRIDAY THE 13th, or THE UNINVITED, believe me when I say that ‘classic’ is the last word I would choose to describe them. And even with a strict interpretation of my “twenty-five year” rule, there should be some accommodation made for quality, shouldn’t there?
Well, if we are speaking strictly, then no… no accommodation allowed. After all, a fifty-year old movie is a classic, whether we are discussing Hammer’s version of THE MUMMY or the far more forgettable GIANT GILA MONSTER. Shouldn’t the same respect or lack thereof be accorded to today’s films when their time arrives?
But the truth of the matter is we can’t be objective about such terms, or the films that we use them to illustrate. When I want to watch a classic Horror Film, I want one of Universal’s Kharis pictures, or a 1950’s Giant Bug movie, or a ‘70’s Euro-Horror. Quite frankly, C.H.U.D. or SLEEPAWAY CAMP simply doesn’t spring to mind; though both now fit a “strict interpretation” of my definition. Obviously, there is a need to qualify, as well as quantify, the word classic.
For that qualification, however, each viewer must look to their own taste. For example, I doubt I’ll ever feel comfortable describing John Badham’s 1979 version of DRACULA as a classic; there are far too many far better versions of that story in my collection, and Frank Langella’s Count is one of my least favorite portrayals of the character. Still, I know people who love the film; for them, it is the very definition of classic. I’m not wrong in my opinion, just as they aren’t in theirs. The qualification is too subjective for a simple “Pass/Fail” test. Both parts are required to decide which films have earned the title classic.
Which begs the question… which modern films will future fans decide are the classics of their era? When I’m writing my 2034 in Review column, which of today’s movies will I be fondly reminiscing about, as I viciously disparage SAW XXX? There are a few that stand out; not many, but there are a few.
One of the obvious choices of the past five years or so would be the superb SHAUN OF THE DEAD. It is that rare class of movie that gets better each time I watch it, which is often. I can’t imagine that will change in the future. The same can be said for DOG SOLDIERS, one of the best werewolf movies ever, and the best blending of a War film with Horror that I’ve ever seen. SLITHER is a fun, freaky, gross-out good time, one that I think will have some staying power. Jon Gulager’s FEAST might not get much respect now, but neither did Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT thirty years ago. Obviously, I don’t mean to compare Gulager to Craven, but the films do bear certain similarities, and FEAST is certainly a memorable movie. SWEENEY TODD has the benefit of a great director and a great cast, never a drawback for a film searching for cinema immortality. And movies such as the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN or HARRY POTTER series must certainly be considered future ‘classics.’
There’s no doubt that even today’s films will have their supporters, as well as detractors, in the future. Someday, in the fullness of time, we may find ourselves sitting in our home entertainment holosphere, grandchildren next to us as a three-dimensional Captain Jack Sparrow bobs and weaves his way across our floor. We may, on that far-off day, look down at the young faces smiling up at us and say, “You know, I remember when I saw that movie at the theater.”
18 February, 2009
07 February, 2009
The genre world has undergone many transitions itself this past year. It was, as far as Fantasy films were concerned, the year of the Super-hero. From HANCOCK, to IRON MAN, to the critically-acclaimed block-buster THE DARK KNIGHT, costumed crime-fighters ruled the box-office, with the top three such films accounting for more than a Billion dollars of revenue alone. Science-Fiction was well represented too, with films such as CLOVERFIELD, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, and STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS on Box-Office Mojo’s (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/) List of the top—100 Grossing films of 2008.
Unfortunately however, Horror Films were particularly under-represented in the top—20, even the top—50. The abysmally dull TWILIGHT was the only “Horror Film” (and I use that term very loosely…) to crack the top—20, though the lackluster sequel THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR managed to place 21st. TWILIGHT earned an astonishing $183 Million, good enough for 7th place, no doubt all extracted from swooning “tweens” or their doting parents.
Of course, there were traditional Horror Films released last year. The rapidly declining SAW franchise sallied forth with it’s fifth (and hopefully last…) installment in October, and still managed a respectable 53rd place, with nearly $57 Million in the bank. M. Night Shyamalan proved, finally, that he wasn’t just a one-trick pony with the somber environmental-revenge tale THE HAPPENING. Nowhere near the quality of THE SIXTH SENSE, it nonetheless exceeded my expectations for this director, who has built a career failing to outdo his block-buster debut.
Some things, it’s almost refreshing to see, have resisted the year’s overwhelming mantra of “Change”, most notably Hollywood producers. In other words, the reign of the Remake continues unabated, as Hollywood continues to pump out needless, imagination-free, poorly-executed rip-offs of great movies, good movies, and with last year’s remake of the 1980 Slasher film PROM NIGHT, even crappy movies. The original, notable only for a post-HALLOWEEN appearance by Jamie Leigh Curtis, was a true waste of celluloid. Why anyone should choose to remake it is beyond my understanding.
2008 was also the year we bid farewell to some of the most notable figures in the Genre. In January Malia Nurmi, TV’s Vampira, the first horror-host, passed away, as did Roy Scheider, Chief Brody in JAWS. Ben Chapman, who played the “Out-of-Water” Gill-Man in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON died in February, and Arthur C. Clarke, the famed Science-Fiction author, followed in March. The heartbreaker though was the death of Forry Ackerman in December, days after his 92nd birthday. Some of the joy left Horror Fandom with him.
Also in January, Heath Ledger, the young star of THE PATRIOT and A KNIGHT’S TALE, died of a drug overdose, shortly after completing filming on THE DARK KNIGHT, the sequel to Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS. The death of Ledger, who played the Joker in the Batman epic, fueled a media-driven perfect storm of hype that raged around the film until it’s premiere nearly seven months to the day after Ledger’s death. The result was a spectacular success for the film; one I must admit was wholly deserved.
2008 had, as all years do, it’s ups and downs, high and lows, joys and sorrows. It’s easy to think that they balance out, but in truth they never really do. There are years when the good outweighs the bad, and vice versa. This was a year when the bad unfortunately held sway over the good.
But now it’s 2009, and here I sit, classic movie in the player and single-malt scotch in hand. But before I get too deep into year, movie, or drink, let’s examine some of the good, and bad, that has gone before.
1.) Surprise of the Year:
a. THE INCREDIBLE HULK
b. THE EYE
c. The Success of THE DARK KNIGHT
d. The Crypt’s Nomination for a Rondo Award
e. Svengoolie Losing to Penny Dreadful for Horror-Host of the Year Rondo
It takes a lot to surprise the old Unimonster these days… and at my age, surprises are rarely good things. But when a very good friend e-mailed me last January to inform me that the new Rondo ballots were out, and that the Unimonster’s Crypt had received a nomination in the category Best Website or Blog, I could not have been more pleasantly shocked had a flying monkey dropped a bag of cash on my head. Never had I anticipated such recognition; certainly not after a mere few months of operation. It may be considered a cliché to say it’s an honor just being nominated… believe me, though, when I say it is an honor, a magnificent one, and one I will never forget.
Equally shocking to me, especially after its Ang Lee-directed predecessor, was THE INCREDIBLE HULK. I had no intention of seeing this movie; I was never a fan of the Hulk (I was a DC Comics man, myself…) and based on the first film, felt no desire to subject myself to another wasted two hours. Then an advance copy of the DVD was sent to me to review.
Unable to find a valid excuse to avoid it any longer, I popped it in the player and sat back to endure what I was sure would be a deplorable sequel to an incredibly bad film. Then the surprise happened.
About a third of the way through, I began to realize I was enjoying this movie… and not just a little. It was everything the first had not been: Intelligently written; well-directed; well-acted; and most of all, interesting. I actually cared about what was happening in the film, and about the characters. I wanted to see how it resolved itself. The movie involved me, and more importantly it entertained me… two things the first failed to do entirely.
Another movie that surprised me last year was David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Americanized remake of the Pang Brothers’ Hong Kong Horror import, JIAN GUI. THE EYE, starring Jessica Alba and Alessandro Nivola, came nowhere near JIAN GUI’s simple, stylish originality and beautiful execution, instead using a massive special effects budget to replace those qualities. Still, enough of the original was left intact to make this a good, if not great, ghost film. Frankly, I was expecting much less from it, and am pleased to say it exceeded those expectations.
One movie that did not surprise me, at least in terms of it’s quality, was THE DARK KNIGHT. Christopher Nolan’s second outing as the designated Batman director promised to outdo his first, and I was eagerly anticipating it as soon as it was announced. However, the storm of hype that accompanied the death of Heath Ledger, who had just completed his work as the Joker on the film, meant that everyone was now anticipating the release of this film. This equated to enormous interest in the movie, interest that carried over as people began spreading the news that it truly was a great movie, not just a morbid opportunity to view a dead celebrity’s final performance.
But what surprised me the most happened when the winners of the Rondo Awards were announced. The one category I was watching the closest, (except perhaps for the one I was nominated in…) was the Horror-Host of the Year, and, as I repeatedly mentioned in this column, I was actively supporting Chicago’s Svengoolie, aka Rich Koz. Rich’s work over the nearly thirty years since he first assumed the mantle of the great Jerry G. Bishop, continuing as first the Son of Svengoolie, then becoming Svengoolie, is simply too important to ignore; I felt certain that the Rondo voters would see fit to grant him the recognition he so well deserved.
Don’t misunderstand me; I like Penny Dreadful—a lot. I’ve reviewed her program twice, and heartily recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to see it. Any other year, I would have happily cheered her win. But for the first Horror-Host Rondo, I couldn’t help thinking that Svengoolie deserved it just a little more.
2.) Disappointment of the Year:
a. THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR
b. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
d. The continued failure of the Effort to secure a Star on the Hollywood Walk-of-Fame for Jack Pierce
I was one of the few monster fans, it seems, who didn’t rush to theaters to see CLOVERFIELD when it debuted last January. I didn’t even buy the DVD when it first hit the street. It wasn’t that I was uninterested, or put off by the stories of people getting ill from the shaky camera-work. It’s just that I had one overwhelming image in my mind: That of an evil film editor somehow merging the 1998 Roland Emmerich GODZILLA, bad as it was, with one of the crappiest concepts ever to float down the sewer, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.
Finally though, the DVD found it’s way into the 4 for $20 bargain bin at my neighborhood Blockbuster, and I could resist it no longer. I hoped that the movie would manage to better my expectations; alas, it could not.
It wasn’t that it was a bad movie; it simply wasn’t an interesting one. Even with an inordinately short run time (less than 85 minutes…) I found myself waiting for it to creep to its inevitable climax, one which was completely telegraphed by the very design of the production. The idea of a giant monster rampaging through New York is a great one, one that I would love to see done well. Next time though… let us actually see the monster.
Last year marked the return to the screen of one of my favorite franchises, with the release of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. I anxiously awaited this new adventure, hoping that it would recapture the same energy, feel, and spirit that made the original trilogy so great.
Now, I don’t wish to give the impression that I didn’t like this movie, or that it wasn’t worth the wait. Frankly I loved it; it is, as you’ll see later, one of my nominees for Movie of the Year. But it would be equally incorrect to say that it was as good as the earlier films. The leads, Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, also reprising her role from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, are superb and right in character; most of the supporting cast, however, is not. Especially mis-cast is Shia LaBeouf as the unwitting child of Indy and Marion. The plot works well enough, though it seems a little too fantastical, even for an Indiana Jones movie.
The overall impression I was left with, though, was that, while this was an enjoyable film, and a fitting conclusion to the Indiana Jones franchise, it was a franchise that has reached the end. It might be argued that this entry in the series was unnecessary; that seeing our hero as an old man might not be the best way to remember him. All I know is that whatever it was that I hoped to find in this film was somehow lacking, and my enjoyment of it was tinged with a measure of disappointment that even Indiana Jones can grow old.
There was one movie about which I have no ambivalence. As an ardent fan of the Stephen Sommers’ Mummy franchise, I had been eagerly awaiting a third installment. That eagerness vanished as more and more information about the production came out. By the date of the movie’s release in August, any expectations I had for the film had been washed away by the absence of key personnel, both in front of and behind the camera, and a nonsensical relocation of the story to China. I wish I could say that the result, Rob Cohen’s THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR was better than I expected. Instead it failed to meet even the absurdly low bar I had set for it.
Over the past decade, one man has worked tirelessly to bring honor and recognition to someone who stands as a victim of the Hollywood Studio-system of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. Scott Essman has struggled to inform people of the debt that Modern Horror owes to this man, Jack P. Pierce.
Pierce, head of Universal’s make-up department from 1930 to 1947, created the Monsters as we know them. He was responsible for the look of Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and the Wolf-Man. When we watch a classic Universal Horror Film from the ‘30’s or ‘40’s, we are seeing Pierce’s work brought to life in the persona of those creatures which so captivate horror fans, and have for 75 years.
And Essman has been working to bring some measure of acknowledgment to Pierce’s memory, in the form of a Star on Hollywood’s Walk-of-Fame. While there are obstacles to this, the largest is financial; the $20,000 or so that this would require, in direct costs. Universal, an entity which has profited off the work of this man for decades both before and after his death, should willingly volunteer the funds to make this happen. Instead, while they’re quite willing to continue marketing the Monsters shamelessly, they’re equally content to continue to show Jack Pierce the same respect and regard their predecessors demonstrated during his lifetime... in other words, none at all.
In 1947, following a long tenure as head of the studio’s make-up department, a job given to him by Carl Laemmle on the basis of a handshake, without a contract, Universal fired Pierce as unceremoniously as taking out the trash. Pierce died in 1968, remembered by few as the man who made the Monsters.
Recently, many in the Horror community have taken up Essman’s cause, campaigning to bring this belated tribute to Pierce. In a small way, the Crypt has been part of this effort, in the form of an on-line petition that gathered thousands of signatures asking that Universal honor their long-past-due debt to Pierce.
Sadly these efforts once more fell on deaf ears at the studio. We won’t give up, but the failure to see justice done in this case is indeed my biggest disappointment.
3.) The “What the Hell was THAT?” Award:
a. FEAST II: SLOPPY SECONDS
d. THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR
e. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
Remakes are dicey things at best, because no matter how good the remake may be, it can seldom compare to the original, and there will always be those to whom said original is perfect, untouchable, perhaps nearly sacred. While I hold no such affection for the 1951 film THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, I do respect the film for the quality of Robert Wise’s direction, and the stellar performances from Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. More respect than is shown to it by the producers, director, and star of the abysmal remake of it.
The original, a classic of the Sci-Fi Genre, dealt with an alien visitor trying to convince Earthlings to adopt pacifism before it was too late. To prove his power, he stopped Earth… for one hour nothing mechanical or electrical functioned anywhere on Earth. While simplistic and preachy, it was an effective, well-scripted film, and helped establish many of the conventions that Genre films would follow for the next decade. The remake casts the ever-annoying Keanu Reeves in the Michael Rennie role, and instead of preaching pacifism, he’s the answer to the fervent prayers of radical environmentalists everywhere, as he begins destroying everything that is the product of Man, in order to once more make the Earth a pristine paradise. The script lacks both the intelligence and sensitivity of the original, trying to make up for it with huge Special Effects sequences and supposed star-power. And it worked… to a point. Anyone impressed with Keanu Reeves isn’t likely to miss the intelligent screen-writing anyway.
Sequels too are veritable minefields for filmmakers, for many of the same reasons. Rarely do sequels provide the same enjoyment that their parent films’ do; often, they aren’t even in the same area code as their predecessors. The first sequel to Stephen Sommers’ 1999 block-buster THE MUMMY, 2001’s THE MUMMY RETURNS, was that rarest of creatures, a sequel that actually bettered the first. For years, fans of the series eagerly awaited a third film; eagerness that was tempered to a large degree when news began to filter out that a second sequel was actually in the works. First came a statement from Rachel Weisz that she would not be involved in a third film; then the announcement that Sommers would not be helming the production. By the time it was announced that the movie would be set in China instead of returning to familiar Egyptian surroundings, even we die-hard fans had given up hope for the film. And, as I said before, we were proven correct.
Another sequel, one that instead lived up to the standard set by it’s predecessor, was FEAST II: SLOPPY SECONDS. I’m not quite sure if it was a Horror Film that wanted to be a Comedy, or a Comedy that aspired to Horror. I can tell you that it’s gross, disgusting, offensive, perverted… and one helluva great, fun ride. It’s definitely not for everyone; even most horror fans might find it way over-the-top. But I loved it. As much as it frightens me to say, Jon Gulager might be around for awhile.
As noted earlier, CLOVERFIELD was one of the true disappointments of the year; not because of what it was, but what it could have been. I don’t mind a few unanswered questions, but to watch an entire movie and not have a clue about what transpired therein is simply poor filmmaking. Cinema verite is fine for documentarians; for a scripted, feature-length film it’s more commonly referred to as a lack of imagination.
But the one movie that had me scratching my head the most last year was the Vampiric paean to teen angst and adolescent female hormones, TWILIGHT. I’m sure, in some brightly lit corridor of power in far-off Hollywood, a movie about teen vampires who don’t drink blood might make sense. In terms of Box-Office dollars it certainly did, earning close to $183 Million. In terms of Horror, however, it truly sucked… but not in the way it should.
4.) First Annual Induction to the Crypt of the Unimonster’s Catacomb of Distinction (Charter Members):
a. Boris Karloff
b. Bela Lugosi
c. James Whale
d. Lon Chaney
e. Edgar Allan Poe
f. Peter Cushing
g. Jack P. Pierce
h. Terence Fisher
i. Fay Wray
j. Lon Chaney, Jr.
k. Forrest J Ackerman
l. Vincent Price
m. Peter Lorre
n. Evelyn Ankers
o. H. P. Lovecraft
As part of the renovations recently undertaken (no pun intended…) on the Crypt, I discovered a long-forgotten Catacomb buried underneath my movie vault. After some thought, I decided that this would be a superb place to honor those notables of the genre who have ‘moved on’, so to speak.
These inductions are listed in no particular order, nor are these all who are deserving of this recognition. This is simply the initial class of inductees; more will join in future years, I assure you. The Catacomb of Distinction has a lot of room, and it will take more years than I have remaining to fill it up.
5.) Comeback of the Year:
a. Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
It had been 19 years since Harrison Ford had last donned the battered fedora and leather jacket of Indiana Jones, and I for one was unsure about his decision to return to the franchise. While I had no desire to see anyone else in the role, I wasn’t quite ready to see the Geritol® version of one of my favorite Cinema heroes. As it turned out, though he was no longer the same man he had been in the ‘80’s, he still had one good adventure left in him.
The movie wasn’t perfect, and the rest of the cast, with the exception of Karen Allen, pretty much missed the mark, but as far as Indiana Jones was concerned, Ford was dead on target.
6.) Comeback we’d Most Like to See:
a. Godzilla in a new Toho production
b. THE BLACK CAT, in a 75th Anniversary Legacy Edition from Universal Studios Home Entertainment
c. Original Horror Films instead of countless remakes and sequels
d. Stephen Sommers and Rachel Weisz to the MUMMY franchise
Do you remember the days when a screenwriter would sit down in front of a beat-up old Royal typewriter, with nothing more than a ream of blank paper and his or her imagination, and create a movie? Well, apparently neither does Hollywood, as original films have become as rare as registered Republicans in Chicago. Remakes rule the roost, and if they aren’t remaking one film it’s because they’re too busy filming a mindless sequel to another. Contrary to popular belief, talent is not the commodity in shortest supply in Hollywood; imagination and originality both are far scarcer.
One sequel that was amply demonstrative of this fact was THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR. Though Rob Cohen and team did try to inject a little originality into the series by relocating it to China, the injection was way off-target. Still a competent script, capable direction, and a female lead with a little personality might have rescued this film. Unfortunately, the man and woman responsible for those qualities in the first two films were absent from this one.
Stephen Sommers wrote and directed both 1999’s THE MUMMY, and 2001’s THE MUMMY’S RETURN, and did an excellent job crafting characters and storylines that were involving, intelligent, and witty; infusing them with a superb sense of humor. As director, he guided the production flawlessly, while exhibiting the ability not to take the material too seriously. Cohen lacks either the ability to do so or the sensibility to do so; either way, it’s obvious that he certainly was the wrong choice to replace Sommers.
Nearly as bad, and far more noticeable, was the decision of Rachel Weisz to opt out of the third installment of the franchise. Weisz shared with co-star Brendan Fraser an almost perfect chemistry; as well as having a charm and attractiveness that sets her apart from most actresses. These are traits that Maria Bello, the new Evelyn O’Connell, sorely lacks. She and Fraser have zero on-screen chemistry, and, with this Unimonster at least, zero likability. I’m not certain if $102 Million at the Box-Office is sufficient to guarantee yet another MUMMY film, but if the producers want it to earn more than that, it’s time for both Sommers and Weisz to return to the fold… oh yeah, and set the next one in some locale where they actually have mummies! Terra cotta warriors need not apply.
2009 marks the 75th anniversary of my favorite Universal Horror Film; indeed, my favorite Classic Horror Film—THE BLACK CAT. Edgar Ulmer’s masterpiece was the first, and the best, of Karloff and Lugosi’s screen pairings, and a delightfully decadent ‘thumb to the nose’ aimed at the Hays Office. Not even the censors understood what it was they were letting slip through… the director skillfully used nuance and innuendo to convey volumes of unspoken content to the viewer. One iconic, and especially effective, scene involves Karloff, in pajamas and robe and carrying the eponymous black cat, going from glass case to glass case, inspecting a variety of preserved female bodies enclosed within. As he pauses before the last case, a strange look crosses his face. He then puts the cat out and closes the door. The implication is as subtle as it is perverse, and reveals everything you need to know about Karloff’s character.
Though it has received a recent DVD release, on Universal’s Bela Lugosi Collection, I would love to see the studio celebrate it’s anniversary in the manner that it has the anniversaries of it’s other Horror classics, and in a more timely fashion than it did THE MUMMY’s 75th.
But I must confess that the Comeback I’d most like to see happen is the Big G himself, Godzilla. It has been five years since Toho ended the Millennium Era with GOJIRA: FAINARU UÔZU ~aka~ GODZILLA: FINAL WARS. That movie was a fitting end to that era’s story arc, and I had no problem with Toho declaring an end of that era. But certainly, I wasn’t ready to bid farewell to the giant monsters entirely… no way I could go off the Kaijû cold turkey!
They’ve had time to let the franchise rest, and now fans are ready to hear the big guy’s distinctive roar echo once more over Tokyo Bay. If the success of CLOVERFIELD proved anything, it’s that: 1.) Audiences are still hungry for giant, city-stomping monsters, and 2.) Nobody does it like Toho. Please gentlemen, please do it again.
7.) Heartbreak of the Year:
a. The Passing of Forry Ackerman
Last December the Father of Horror Fandom, Forrest J Ackerman, died at the age of 92. If you’re a MonsterKid of the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s, then Forry was your Uncle, your mentor, your inspiration, and your friend.
Through his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, he shared his love of the genre with thousands of young boys and girls, talking to us, not at us; communicating at our level, not condescending to it—and we loved him for that. Forry’s passing leaves a void that will not be filled in Genre Fandom; he was, in many ways, the last living link to the Golden Age of Horror Films. He had seen LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, the Holy Grail of ‘Lost Films’; he knew Boris and Bela, Lon and Peter; the man even owned a cape worn by Lugosi, and the Brontosaurus from KING KONG.
What made Forry special weren’t these mere facts, it was that he shared them with us. He invited us all to share in his love of the Fantastic; in the pages of his magazine, in the stories that he would tell, and in the way he would open the doors of his home to anyone willing to listen to an old man talk about his treasures.
There will never be another Forry, nor any like him. And the world is much poorer for that.
8.) DVD Release of the Year:
a. THE MIST 2-Disc Collector’s Edition
b. RODAN / WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS Double Pack
c. PIECES 2-Disc Collector’s Edition
d. THE MUMMY: Universal Legacy Series Special Edition
e. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET 2-Disc Special Edition
One way to tell that 2007 was a decent year for Horror, was by observing the number of good DVD’s that started hitting stores in early 2008. Two of the 2007 films that received excellent treatment for the home market this past year were THE MIST and SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET.
THE MIST, based on a short story by Stephen King and directed by Frank Darabont, was one of the better movies of 2007, narrowly missing last year’s MOTY list. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, as always, did a superb job packaging this one for Home audiences, with a bonus disc full of special features, including something unique: A second, complete version of the film in black & white, as the director envisioned it. It does add measurably to the stark atmosphere of the film, and provides an interesting comparison with the theatrical version.
As to the film itself, it stands out as one of the best adaptations of King’s work since THE GREEN MILE, and Darabont’s best film, ever. The ending is difficult and disturbing, and not everyone will approve of it; and the underlying message of the film is pessimistic and, in my opinion, biased.
Personally speaking, I think it’s the only way the film could end, and not betray what has come before. Also, while I don’t agree with the message the film offers, and I feel that the film’s antagonist would have been more effective, and more believable, if she had been less of a caricature; there’s little doubt it was a tremendously well-done, frightening film.
Some of the undiscovered treasures of the genre are several Horror Films produced in England during the 1930’s featuring the aptly-named Tod Slaughter. Slaughter, who made a career out of playing villains in Victorian-style melodramas, starred in 1936’s SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, a film based on a legendary, probably apocryphal, London murderer of that name.
When I first heard that Tim Burton was helming a project entitled SWEENEY TODD, and starring Johnny Depp, I naturally assumed that he was remaking the old Slaughter film. 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.
And then I saw the first trailer for the film. Whatever I may have expected from the usually brilliant collaboration of Burton and Depp, it certainly wasn’t what I got. I was shocked to see Depp bursting into song, in the ‘Epiphany’ production number from the film. Not having the least interest in musical theater, I had no idea that there was a long-running Broadway musical based on the story of Sweeney Todd, or that this was the source of Burton’s inspiration. I promptly put my interest in the project on the back burner—two hours of a singing, dancing, throat-slashing barber just wasn’t my idea of a good time. I thought little more of it until I picked up the DVD and decided to give it a try. While I’m no more a fan of musicals than I was before, I must admit that I was amazed by both the quality of the production and by the performance of the entire cast, especially Depp, Helena Bonham Carter as his murderous paramour, and Alan Rickman as the Judge responsible for the barber’s insane rage.
The DVD itself, from Dreamworks Home Entertainment, is one of the most beautifully packaged and produced sets to hit the shelves last year, and contains a wealth of features. Taken in concert with the superb movie contained therein, and it’s easily a contender for DVD Release of the Year.
Nor were classic films ignored last year. Classic Media continues to unearth treasures from Toho’s vaults, with the release of the double feature set containing two of the best Kaijû films ever made: SORA NO DAIKAIJÛ RADON ~aka~ RADON THE MONSTER OF THE SKY; RODAN (1956), and FURANKENSHUTAIN NO KAIJÛ: SANDA TAI GAIRA ~aka~ FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTERS: SANDA vs. GAIRA; WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966). Rodan has always been my favorite Kaijû, and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is a fondly remembered pleasure from childhood, recently rediscovered. As is the norm from Classic Media, you get both the original Japanese version of both films, as well as the edited and dubbed American releases. Anyone who loves the good, old-fashioned fun of the Rompin’, Stompin’, Rubber-suited Monsters of Japan owes it to themselves to check out this company’s line of classic Toho films.
One of the films made to cash in on the Grindhouse/Slasher craze in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s was Juan Piquer Simon’s PIECES ~aka~ ONE THOUSAND CRIES HAS THE NIGHT. Reminiscent of a cheaply-done Italian Giallo, both in style as well as substance, it’s ultra-violent, ultra-sleazy, and ultra-fun; it’s always been a particular favorite of mine. Now thanks to Grindhouse Releasing, it’s out in a two-disc Collector’s set. The film has been beautifully restored, using the best available 35mm print for the transfer, and numerous bonus features have been added to the mix. One of these features is an interview with director Simon, aided by fellow Spanish filmmaker Nacho Cerda.
This is the type of movie that small distributors such as Grindhouse excel in finding and bringing to the horror-loving public. It might not be the year’s best-selling DVD, but it’s one that I’ve waited a long while to have, and it pleases me that the low-budget movies of the ‘80’s are getting a little attention from distributors.
There are many films that are important to the development of Horror as a genre, but there is only a handful that must justly be considered landmarks along the path of that development. One such landmark is Karl Freund’s 1932 classic THE MUMMY. 2007 marked the 75th anniversary of the film’s release, and I roundly castigated Universal for it’s failure to properly acknowledge and celebrate this occasion. I might have known that they were ‘delaying’ the festivities until they could serve as a product placement tie-in for the summer, 2008 release of THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR.
However, no matter… for whatever the reason, they finally did right by my favorite monster, and the delay doesn’t affect one’s ability to revel in one of Karloff’s finest performances, as well as an example of make-up artist Jack Pierce’s best creations. Both as the mummy of Im-Ho-Tep, and later as the rejuvenated, corpse-like Ardeth Bey, Pierce’s make-up serves to provide the perfect medium for Karloff’s acting to shine through.
So impressive was Pierce’s work in this film that Universal finally saw fit to include a tribute of some kind to the man responsible for creating the great Universal Monsters, with a documentary included in the DVD. JACK PIERCE: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT THE MONSTERS TO LIFE was produced by Scott Essman, the foremost expert on Pierce. Essman has devoted himself to insuring that Pierce gets the recognition he deserves for the importance of his contribution to film history, and this documentary is a major step towards that recognition. Much still remains to be done in this regard, but at least Universal is moving in the right direction.
Another area in which Universal needs to correct a long-standing deficit is the condition of the prints that they have used for the various DVD transfers over the past several years, THE MUMMY included. Though no one can expect perfection in 75-year-old film, more needs to be done than simply running the movie through a digital processor; a thorough, hands-on, physical restoration is badly needed on all the great Monster movies in Universal’s library. Obviously, Universal feels that, as long as the fans will continue to purchase the unrestored films nothing more need be done; this reviewer respectfully disagrees.
Still, this is a beautifully-done presentation of this great film, and even if late is a gratefully received tribute to this classic. It, along with it’s stablemates DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, belongs in every collection, and I’m happy to name it the DVD Release of the Year.
9.) DVD Box Set of the Year:
a. Cinema Classics Collection: Charlie Chan, Vol. 4
b. The HALLOWEEN 30th Anniversary Commemorative Set
As most of the true goodies have already been dug out of the major studio’s vaults, really good candidates for release in multi-film box sets are beginning to thin out. Most of this year’s gems have come in the form of films already available that have been redressed and repackaged, hopefully providing a much better product in the process.
Anchor Bay has long been a friend to lovers of classic Horror Films, and last year they saw fit to honor one of the greatest genre movies of the last half of the 20th Century, with the HALLOWEEN 30th Anniversary Commemorative Set. This individually-numbered, limited-edition box set includes three separate versions of the original HALLOWEEN: A restored version; an extended version; and the Blu-Ray release of the film. Also included is HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS, HALLOWEEN 5: THE REVENGE OF MICHAEL MYERS, and HALLOWEEN: 25 YEARS OF TERROR. All are packaged in a window-box display case designed to show off the real treat of the set, a full-size latex replica of Michael’s iconic mask. At a suggested retail of $90, it’s too pricey for the Crypt’s budget; and it would be nice to see a definitive box set that included all of the films, including HALLOWEEN II and HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH. Still, this is a great collection, and it’s definitely on my list of ‘Needful Things’.
But in terms of sheer desirability to the Unimonster, no set last year came close to the Charlie Chan Box Set, Volume Four, from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Featuring four classic Charlie Chan mysteries starring Sidney Toler, these are films I grew up watching, and loving, on Saturday afternoons. Long absent from the airwaves over concerns about ethnic stereotyping, Fox has been releasing these movies at a slow but steady pace over the past few years, finally answering the clamor of fans of this great series. The four films that make up this volume might not be the inscrutable inspector’s best, but they are certainly appreciated. They are: CHARLIE CHAN IN HONOLULU; CHARLIE CHAN IN RENO; CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND; and CHARLIE CHAN IN CITY IN DARKNESS.
Speaking as a dedicated Chanophile, it pleases me no end that these fine films are once more available to be seen. I applaud Fox’s efforts to open their vaults to a public hungry for quality entertainment, and their recognition that, to quote an earlier column of mine, “It’s important that we remember these films, that we not allow these types of movies to become lost to us. When you cut people off from the historical records of the mistakes that they or their ancestors made, you also remove the instructive value of those mistakes. Aphorisms come into being for a reason, and one of the best is “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” If we are allowed to forget just how ugly prejudice can be, how can we remember to work against it?”
For that reason, as much as the inherent attraction of the set itself, Charlie Chan Vol. 4 is my choice as DVD Box Set of the Year.
10.) TV Series of the Year:
a. LIFE ON MARS
c. GHOST HUNTERS
Though Horror isn’t the hot television commodity it was even a few years ago, there are still vestiges to be found, especially on Cable networks hungry for programming choices. One of the most unlikely sources of Horror-themed programming has always been the History Channel. With series such as Haunted History and History’s Mysteries, and specials such as the Haunted History of Halloween, THC has long been a refuge for those seeking a little blood-curdling infotainment. This welcome tradition is continuing with the series MonsterQuest.
Each episode investigates a particular monster of legend, such as Bigfoot, Champ, or the Jersey Devil. Each is subjected to a thorough historical analysis, scientific investigation, and recreations of reported encounters. All that’s lacking is Leonard Nimoy’s narration, and it would be perfect!
For a few years now, the SciFi Channel has had one of the best genre related programs extant with Ghost Hunters. Following a group of amateur ghost hunters on their investigations might not sound very interesting, and admittedly at first, the amount of time spent focusing on the drama away from the actual haunting was a detriment, but later seasons put the focus squarely on the investigations. Also, as the group’s fame and reputation has grown, so has the scope of their investigatory interest. At first limiting themselves to local, New England sites, recently they’ve expanded their travels to the rest of the U.S. and even overseas. The result is a much more satisfying show.
Since it’s debut, NBC’s Medium has been one of the most original, entertaining programs on network TV, bar none. Blessed with a superb cast, led by Patricia Arquette, Jake Weber, and David Cubitt, each episode is a well-crafted look at the life of a woman who, quite literally, speaks with the dead… and they with her.
The charm of the show is that the problems of dealing with three young daughters are treated with equal importance as the problems of dealing with the souls of the restless. The day-to-day existence of Allison Dubois, Arquette’s character, doesn’t stop just because she’s made privy to the tortured last moments of the murder victims she seeks to help. Allison and her husband Joe (Weber) are real people, people who worry about money, worry about their kids, about work, about check-ups, and tune-ups, and the thousand little things that families do. The reality of the program balances the supernatural aspects of it perfectly, making it one of the best genre shows ever produced.
But my choice for TV Series of the Year, one of my favorite shows on network TV right now, and the best new show anywhere, is ABC’s Life on Mars. Part police drama, part time-traveling Sci-Fi, part existential nightmare, the show focuses on Sam Tyler, played by Jason O’Mara. Tyler, a NYPD detective, is struck by a hit-and-run driver on a New York City street… in 2008. He awakens 35 years before, in 1973. His clothes are changed, his car is changed, his hairstyle has changed… even his badge and department ID has changed. Only he’s the same person, with the same memories, and the knowledge that he’s out of place… virtually on another world.
A large part of the attraction of the show lies in Sam’s pursuit of the answer to the mystery of what has happened to him, and in his efforts to both fit in and find some measure of happiness in his new world. Nothing is easy for him… from finding his way around a city that is so similar and yet so different; to conducting investigations without the scientific and forensic tools that are so much a part of the modern police arsenal. Nor are his colleagues easily relatable; theirs is a different era of policing, with different standards of what constitutes acceptable behavior. He is actively encouraged to beat confessions out of suspects when he knows they’re guilty; plant evidence if that’s the only way to get a conviction; and to turn his head if a fellow cop is a little wrong on a bust. His precinct, the “1-2-5”, has no black or female detectives, and the precinct’s only policewoman has been nicknamed “No-Nuts” by the male officers.
Each case, each encounter, has the potential to add another piece to the puzzle of Sam’s existence… and which is his reality, the one wherein he’s living now, or the one in which he believes he belongs? Has he time-shifted? Is this simply a hallucination brought on by the hit-and-run? Could he be part of some alien experiment? Might he even be dead, and trapped in what is his own personal Hell? Each week, backed up by a fine ensemble cast including Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli, and Gretchen Mol, he searches for the answer—and for a way to belong.
I hope he finds both… and I hope it takes a good long while.
11.) Performance of the Year:
a. Daniel Craig as James Bond—(007), in QUANTUM OF SOLACE
b. Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, in THE DARK KNIGHT
c. Heath Ledger as the Joker, in THE DARK KNIGHT
d. Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, aka the Iron Man, in THE IRON MAN
e. Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
I don’t often find myself noticing an actor doing his job of portraying a character, and to my mind, that’s not a bad thing. Usually, if I’m taking note of how an actor is performing, that means he’s not doing it very well. The mark of a great actor, at least in my book, is that he becomes the character, as Johnny Depp with Captain Jack Sparrow. Captain Jack bears little resemblance to either Sweeney Todd or Ichabod Crane; though all are Depp, his ability to submerge himself in a role makes each a distinct, and distinctive, characterization. There were several such performances this past year, and I thought I’d take some time to recognize the ones that left a lasting impression on me.
For fans of 007, there’s usually one Bond that stands out as THE Bond. It usually is the one you remember from your first experience with Ian Fleming’s secret agent, the one you’ve known from childhood, and that’s no different for the Unimonster. I liked Moore, even if the plots were a little outlandish; thought Brosnan made perhaps the second best Bond; disliked Dalton, though I must admit he was saddled with abysmal scripts for both his efforts. Even Lazenby was enjoyable in his single outing. But for me, only one actor truly was James Bond, and his name was Connery… Sean Connery.
When Daniel Craig replaced Pierce Brosnan as film’s greatest spy, I was, to say the least, disappointed. As I stated, Brosnan was my second favorite Bond, and his four films had been some of the best in the long run of the series. Craig didn’t look like James Bond, and didn’t act like James Bond, and when I saw CASINO ROYALE for the first time, that disappointment flowered into dislike. Not only was Craig completely unlike any prior Bond, the character was completely off. This was not the suave, sophisticated master spy… Craig’s Bond was little better than a hired gun. A thug with a License to Kill.
But with QUANTUM OF SOLACE, essentially part II of CASINO ROYALE, we begin to see the growth of the character, and of Craig’s ability to portray him. We can now see that perhaps the Bond we’re used to isn’t the Bond that always was, and I can hope for far better things in the future. Craig will never supplant Connery in my opinion… but he’s coming close to edging out Moore.
Another icon of film is the world’s greatest adventuring archaeologist, Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. In this case, however, there is no confusion: Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones, as well-demonstrated by last year’s return to the role he created in 1981, and last essayed 20 years ago. He returned to the role as easily as a man returns home after a long trip, and looked just as comfortable in it. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL might have had flaws… but his performance certainly wasn’t one of them.
Robert Downey, Jr. might not be my first choice to play a super-hero… any super-hero. But the casting of him as Tony Stark, an arms dealer-turned-metal encased super-hero named Iron Man, was brilliant. Anyone could have played a super-hero whose face is a metal mask; it’s as Stark that Downey’s able to flex his acting muscles and dominate the screen.
Michael Caine has been high on my list of actors ever since the 1980’s, when he appeared in two of my favorite comedies, BLAME IT ON RIO and DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. As Alfred Pennyworth, the gentleman’s gentleman to billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, (as well as assistant to Wayne’s alter-ego Batman…) Caine brings a depth and dimension to the role that not even Michael Gough’s excellent performances in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s managed. He makes Alfred more than a mere servant; he is, for all intents and purposes, the only family that Bruce has left… his only connection to his past. He is very much a surrogate father: He loves Bruce; he guides him; and, when necessary, he chastises him. He serves as a grounding rod for Bruce Wayne, and Batman. He keeps what is at best a schizophrenic conflict between the two halves of Bruce’s personality under control and functional. And his performance was one of the most enjoyable aspects of THE DARK KNIGHT.
It is very fashionable, in the wake of his tragic death one year ago, to proclaim Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker as Oscar©-worthy, using any number of superlatives to describe it. While I will not deny it is extremely powerful, and is indeed my choice as Performance of the Year, I feel too much has been made of it. Yes, he does an excellent job of acting… but seriously, had he not died, would he be nominated for an Academy award? If his life had not ended, would critics be hailing it as the ‘performance of a lifetime…’? Have we not seen equally impressive performances go unnoticed simply because the actor survived the production? I don’t wish to take anything away from him, but in this case, as in most, Hollywood seriously needs to gain some perspective.
But my carping has far more to do with the manner in which Hollywood chooses who to honor than it does with the excellence of Ledger’s performance. Is it the best I’ve ever seen? No… I’m not even certain it’s Ledger’s best performance. But for a genre film last year, it was good enough to be the best.
12.) Genre News Event of the Year:
a. The Death of Ben Chapman (The Gill-Man)
b. The Death of Malia Nurmi (Vampira)
c. The Passing of Forry Ackerman
d. THE DARK KNIGHT
Any year is going to see the deaths of many celebrities and, when you narrow the focus to a few discrete genres of fiction, then chances are good that the top news stories are likely to involve the death of someone important to those genres. Such was the case in 2008, as we bid farewell to many of the stars of Sci-Fi and Horror.
It began on the 10th of January, when Malia Nurmi, who thrilled and chilled Southern California audiences in the mid-50’s as the first TV Horror-Host, died at the age of 85. Nurmi, whose sexy siren Vampira became a horror icon, premiered on Los Angeles TV station KABC on April 30th, 1954 with a preview special, and soon regular episodes of The Vampira Show were running on a weekly basis. Though her program was popular, it lasted only a short time, being cancelled in 1955.
Those two seasons were pivotal, and she left a lasting impression on both fans and fellow performers. It launched the tradition of Hosted Horror Movies which would explode following the release of Universal’s classic Horror Films to television stations in the “Shock Theater” package in 1957. Zacherley, Ghoulardi, the original Svengoolie… all owed their existence to Malia Nurmi. She remained an inspiration to many fans, in part giving rise to what evolved into the “Goth” culture of today, and her death marks the passing of an era.
Little more than a month later, on February 21st, the self-described “Real Gill-Man”, Ben Chapman, passed away in a Honolulu Military Hospital at the age of 79. Chapman, a 6-foot, 5-inch former Marine, portrayed the Gill-Man in the above-water sequences in the 1954 Universal classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. The role made him a horror icon, but it was his affability and approachability that made him a huge draw on the convention circuit, and endeared him to his fans. For several years he has been a fixture at Horror and Sci-Fi gatherings, one of the few remaining connections to the “Silver Age” of genre films. It is sometimes difficult to remember, as we watch this great film for the umpteenth time, a clear, pristine image from shiny new disc, that it has been nearly 55 years since the Gill-Man first prowled the shores of the Black Lagoon, and stalked a lovely young woman in a luminous white bathing suit. The death of Chapman serves as a stark reminder of that fact.
As far as the world of Horror Fandom was concerned, though, no death struck harder, or hurt more than the death in December of Dr. Acula himself; the man who turned a childhood love of the Fantastic into a life-long calling; a man who had no children of his own but was Uncle to thousands; Forrest J Ackerman.
I’ve already discussed Forry’s death at length here, and repetition serves little purpose other than to refresh the sense of loss. Those who are fortunate enough to have memories of Forry in his heyday will never forget him; those who don’t will never know what they missed.
But the biggest story in Genre news this past year had to be the block-buster success of the Christopher Nolan-helmed Batman picture THE DARK KNIGHT. Earning an astounding $531 Million dollars, nearly twice as much as it’s nearest competition IRON MAN, the film dominated the Summer Box-Office just as the news of star Heath Ledger’s death dominated the news six months before. Though the film received an incredible amount of pre-release hype, this was a case of a movie that had the ‘stones’ to live up to the hype. Nolan, Bale, Ledger, and Eckhart, et al, promised a great movie, and the product that was delivered exceeded everyone’s expectations. That kept audiences flocking to the theaters, and made THE DARK KNIGHT the year’s biggest news event.
13.) What I’m Looking Forward to the Most for 2009:
a. THE WOLF-MAN remake
b. The new STAR TREK from J. J. Abrams
c. HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
d. The Fiftieth Anniversary of Hammer’s THE MUMMY, and the Thirtieth Anniversary of ALIEN
The great Universal Monsters have been enjoying a renaissance of late, ever since Sommers’ reinvention of THE MUMMY launched a flurry of interest in the classic creatures of Horror in the late ‘90’s. Since then we have been treated to new versions of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Werewolf; Universal Studios Home Entertainment has thrown open it’s vaults, releasing all our beloved monsters in multiple DVD sets; and now we await the release of the remake of THE WOLF-MAN, one of the best of the classic Universal Horror Films.
Yes, I have spent nearly this entire column raging against the remaking of movies in principle, and my feelings on the subject haven’t changed simply because they’re Universal properties. When I first heard about this remake I was disappointed and unhappy; THE WOLF-MAN simply did not need remaking, it was perfectly executed in its original form. And I still believe that. But seeing that Universal failed to ask my opinion on the subject, I must admit I’m growing anxious to see the finished project, if only to be proven right.
Another franchise dear to the Unimonster’s heart is Star Trek, and I eagerly await a new mission for the Starship Enterprise. I can’t say that I agree with the decision to revisit the old crew, (I mean, c’mon… Simon Pegg as Scotty??) and Abrams’ past work doesn’t serve to fill me with confidence, but as soon as I saw the first trailer for the film that old urge to “…boldly go where no man has gone before” began to build. I’ve yet to miss seeing a Star Trek film on its opening day, and have no intention of starting now.
Two films of note will be celebrating important Anniversaries this year, Hammer’s spectacular version of THE MUMMY, and the movie that made Outer Space scary again, ALIEN. THE MUMMY was, in this Unimonster’s opinion, the high-water mark of Hammer Films… every facet of the production was the best Hammer could put forth. Directed by Terence Fisher, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, written by Jimmy Sangster, with make-up by Roy Ashton… each was a master craftsman, and each was at his peak performance.
A mere twenty years later, not too terribly far from the Berkshire home of Hammer’s Bray Studios, a new era in Science-Fiction Horror began with the production of Ridley Scott’s ALIEN. Written by Dan O’Bannon, (who would later write and direct the superb RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD…) the story of a group of spacefarers who find themselves captive with a deadly alien life-form is one of the best Genre films of the ‘70’s, and inspired hundreds of copycats and rip-offs, as well as numerous sequels and two crossovers. Based on 1958’s IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, ALIEN is a claustrophobic, intensely compelling movie, one that leaves an indelible impression on viewers, even thirty years later.
But by a narrow margin, I must say that I’m anticipating the latest entry in the Harry Potter saga the most. While I’ve been a fan of the series since the first film, (frankly, I’ve never read any of the books…) with the last two films I’ve truly begun to appreciate the wisdom of having the storylines, as well as the characters, age with time. These are no longer the same children’s tales the first two films were; fitting, as the characters themselves are no longer children. They are now, for all intents and purposes, adults in their world, and are being forced to confront adult issues and problems… not the least of which is an evil being that wants them dead. Not exactly Winnie-the-Pooh or Where the Wild Things Are, is it?
14.) Crapfest of the Year:
b. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
c. SAW V
d. ONE MISSED CALL
e. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Any movie that is both a remake of a classic, and a vehicle for Keanu Reeves, is almost doomed from the start to find its way onto this list, and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL certainly meets the criteria. I’ve already discussed in detail just what was so wrong about this movie; in placing it in nomination for Crapfest of the Year, I have but two words to add: Keanu Reeves.
I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I generally object to the practice of remaking foreign films to cater to American audiences. Perhaps this is due to the producers’ desire to use familiar Hollywood actors to attract a larger audience; perhaps it is based on a mistaken belief that Americans won’t go to see a dubbed or subtitled movie. Japanese movies in particular have fallen victim to this practice, with remakes of RINGU; JU-ON; KAÏRO; and now, the thriller CHAKUSHIN ARI receives the Americanization treatment as ONE MISSED CALL. I’ve long been a proponent of J-Horror, finding it far more original and innovative than anything coming from Hollywood. The desire of the film industry here to simply remake these movies is a perfect illustration of that point; why bother to come up with an original concept when you can pilfer someone else’s? In this case, however, they aren’t even remaking good J-Horror, rather a below-average Japanese import. It’s as though a Japanese producer decided to remake FRIDAY THE 13th, Part VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN.
And of course there was another attempt last year to produce an artistic, high-brow Science-Fiction/Fantasy picture. Every few years we have to endure some big-name Hollywood Director and/or Star deciding that good, old-fashioned, alien invasions and space battles are just too much fun, that what the Sci-Fi genre is lacking is three hours of boredom with a depressing message attached. Last year’s effort is THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. Starring Brad Pitt, and directed by David Fincher, this story of a man who was born elderly, only to grow younger as time passes is a plodding tribute to illogic. As an elderly “child”, Button finds himself attracted to an acquaintance; chronologically of similar age, but physically normal as opposed to his aged appearance.
As you might expect, they fade in and out of each others worlds as their apparent ages move closer to each other. I’ll spare you the rest; you can see where things are heading. While this wasn’t the worst example of similar concepts I’ve seen, (actually, the Animated Star Trek episode The Counter-Clock Incident was far more interesting…) it was bad enough. Despite what the critics might think, this movie certainly earned its place on this list.
For the fifth year in a row there was a new installment of the SAW franchise in the theaters at Halloween, and for at least three of those years the franchise has been on a steep downhill slide. The first movie was an original, disturbing, innovative Horror Film. Even the second film was a logical continuation of the first. With the latest entry however, the series is little more than a mockery of its former glory. No longer are these movies original, innovative, or even, quite frankly, disturbing. They are simply tired and repetitious. Something else I sincerely hope they are is over.
But by a healthy margin, (amazing considering the level of competition this time out…) TWILIGHT is the hands-down winner of the title of Crapfest of the Year for 2008. The novel on which the film was based, by Stephanie Meyer, was a runaway best-seller among pre-teen and early teen girls, and that was enough to convince producers that it would make a great movie. Essentially a Harlequin Romance with teen vampires, this film reeked… if you were anyone other than a 13-year old girl. Vampires who don’t drink blood; look pale and anemic; travel about in the daytime; are conflicted emotionally; and pursue ‘romances’ with high school girls… seems to me we used to call such creatures high school boys. Whatever you want to call them, you can call TWILIGHT a total Crapfest.
15.) Movie of the Year:
a. THE DARK KNIGHT
b. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
c. HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY
d. THE EYE
It’s tempting to give the nod to one of the Horror Films that made the cut, as this is, at it’s core, a site devoted to Horror Films. But to be honest, the two films that qualify do so almost by default; they are simply the cream of a very meager crop. THE EYE is surprisingly good; still, it pales dramatically when compared to the Pang Brothers excellent 2002 film JIAN GUI, the Hong Kong import upon which the remake is based. Not even the ever-lovely Jessica Alba can save this movie from the omnipresent Special Effects with which the film is laden down.
QUARANTINE is, without a doubt, a real down and dirty Horror Film, in the style of THE DESCENT or DOG SOLDIERS. It does stand out as a bright spot in a year that was remarkably devoid of such movies. Unfortunately, it can hardly be described as original or groundbreaking, and in a normal year for Horror would fail to make this list.
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY does deserve consideration, for a number of reasons. The film does live up to the first in terms of visual appeal; Guillermo Del Toro’s a master of imagery, of color, light, and shadow. The script, though not as involving as the first, is still better than could be expected for a sequel. And the performances, especially that of Ron Perlman as Hellboy, are spectacular. Any other year, and this would be an odds-on favorite for Movie of the Year. In this case, however, it had the misfortune of having to compete with two true block-busters.
In May, audiences were treated to the return of one of the most iconic screen characters ever, Indiana Jones, in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. Though, as described earlier, I felt the film failed to truly live up to it’s potential, it’s still a great thrill ride and a total ‘blast from the past.’ The aging of the character was handled intelligently and naturally, accounting for the space of time since INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE had been released, and Harrison Ford stepped back into the familiar persona of Jones as easily as slipping into an old pair of shoes.
But the undisputed elephant in the cinema this year was Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT. As a life-long follower of the Darknight Detective, I had been somewhat disappointed with BATMAN BEGINS, and with Christian Bale’s portrayal of my favorite super-hero. I had to admit it was better than either Kilmer’s or Clooney’s, but still left much for this Bat-Fan to desire.
This outing, however, Bale somehow managed to find the character of Batman, supplanting Michael Keaton as the definitive Caped Crusader. Add to that the excellent performances of Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as James Gordon, Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, and of course, Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, and you have the makings of a truly great movie. Throw in an excellent script by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, and more confident direction from Christopher Nolan, and you have what is by far the Movie of the Year for 2008.
So that’s it. 2008 is over and done, and I for one shed no tears for it’s passing. It certainly lived up to it’s billing as a year of change, and not all for the better by any means. Still, life is change, and to go with the flow might not be bad advice for 2009.
So here the Unimonster sits, feet up, three fingers of Glenlivet warming my bones as I watch Boris Karloff do battle with David Manners over the alluring form of Zita Johann. Change may be a necessary thing; it may even, on occasion, be a desirable thing.
But if you ask me, there’s something to be said for timelessness.