Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:The Burka Compromise

With more and more European nations and American communities resisting the spread of the Muslim burka (and similar garb) for a host of reasons, I have looked to the wisdom of the past to find a middle-ground.

No hair or face is visible to arouse evil, lustful thoughts in men or to make the woman seem "immodest," yet its revealing enough that terrorists with a love of cross-dressing can't pass themselves off as a hapless woman just going about the business of Serving Man.

It may not completely address the concerns raised by thoughtful commentators here and here, but it's something.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

'Very Bad Things' is either very clever or very dumb

Very Bad Thngs (1998)
Starring: Christian Slater, Jon Favreau, Cameron Diaz, Jeremy Piven, and Daniel Stern
Director: Peter Berg
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When a prostitute is accidentally killed at a bachelor party, self-help course fanatic (and closet psychopath) Boyd (Slater) convinces the five friends in attendance to cover up her death. As the wedding day approaches, one of the five (Stern) starts cracking under the guilt of what they did, and things go from bad to very bad. With the wedding threatened, Kyle (Favreau) soon learns that the only person in his life more deadly and crazy than Boyd is Laura, his bride to be (Diaz).

"Very Bad Things" is a black comedy that's either very clever or very dumb. As the end credits started to roll, I found myself asking, "Okay... what exactly was the point of that?"

Either the filmmakers wanted to tell a story where the moral was "karma's a bitch" because almost everyone who finds themselves dead, maimed, or otherwise hosed have somehow previously wronged someone or been immoral; or maybe the story's lesson was about what happens to otherwise civilized people when they decide to treat murder casually. Whatever the point of the story, I'm not sure I got it.

Nonetheless, the film had a snappy, funny script--assuming one can laugh at multiple murders and the total breakdown of human decency-- with plenty of interesting and well-acted characters (with the exception of Jeremy Piven... I'd describe his performance more as annoying than funny or believable). The best moments in the film went to Cameron Diaz, though, as she transformed from a high-strung bride-to-be, to a shrew, and beyond... until she too gets her just desserts in the film's final moments.

I enjoyed "Very Bad Things", and uttered evil chuckles as the chaotic events of this dark movie unfolded, but the mild confusion I felt when it ended makes me wonder if I "got it," and this costs the film a point on my rating scale.

Anyone out there care to tell me what I missed? I really wanted to like this movie a lot more than I ultimately did.

'Unhinged' is nearly unwatchable

Unhinged (1982)
Starring: Laurel Munson and Sarah Ansley
Director: Don Gronquist
Rating: One of Ten Stars

Three girlfriends are heading to a rock concert (to be followed by some camping) during a servere rainstorm. They run off the road, sure they're dead... but then they wake up in a creepy old mansion, filled with creepy old characters. And just what is hiding in the toolshed?!

"Unhinged" is a horror movie that gets just about eveything wrong.

*The movie STARTS with the shower-scene even before there's anyone to menace the nubile young thing (oh... and it's a badly acted AND badly staged shower-scene. Yes, "Unhinged" is one of those movies that proves it's possible to do a bad shower scene.

* The story (what little there is of it) only works, because the characters spend too much time doing things that no rational (or able to wipe themselves after taking a dump) person would do. If the characters took one or two simple, obvious actions, the whole movie would cease to be. Likewise, the ending only happens because the lead character's only guiding light is how to make the badly plotted story work. She is as close to the Platonic Ideal of Stupid Character Syndrome as we will ever see in this imperfect world.

*Of the two girls playing the leads, only one shows a glimmer of acting ability in her final scene. However, it's far too little and far too late to save the picture.

*There are multiple occassions where there seems to be a build-up to something dire or scary or startling is about to happen, but then there's no pay-off. Heed my words, young would-be filmmaker: Repeated "oooh, let's trick 'em by making things seem all spooky and then not do anything" isn't laying a foundation for the real scares... it's just makes the audience annoyed and irritated.

I stuck with this entirely too-slow-film until the end, because I kept thinking that it would get better. Then, it started getting worse... with it getting progressively more unbelievable and just plain dumb. I do grant director/co-writer Gronquist kudos for giving the the movie an ending so stupid that it took me completely by surprise, thus giving the film a tiny bit of merit. Even better, the ending had been set up earlier in the film, so as far as that goes, Gronquist showed himself to have a little bit more storytelling ability than most directors and screenwriters working in horror movies today where they idea of a "twist-ending" mostly seems to be "random shit that has nothing to do with anything previously presented in the film."

The DVD version of "Unhinged" that I watched had a 'comedy commentary track' as one of the audio options by a group of writers and film reviewers who've dubbed themselves 'The Distractors'. It was almost as badly done as the film they were commenting on, because the actual soundtrack was completely inaudible (one of the group even at one point says that they can't even hear the sound of the film and they are uncertain what is being discussed). It's a shame, because I had hopes when I saw that Shannon Wheeler (the creator of "Too Much Coffee Man") was one of the viewers. There were enough off-color comments about breasts, discussion of why the girls on their way to a concert and some camping would have nightgowns and three or four changes of not-very-outdoorsey clothes to make the commentary amusing, but it could have been better. The highpoint om the commentary hi-jinx was the attempt to look up those involved in making "Unhinged" in the phone book and calling them for their take on the film.

Another bonus feature on the DVD I viewed was a television interview with the director and one of the actresses featured in the film that was recorded back in 1982 to promote the film's release. If I'd watched the interview first, I probably would have known to bother with "Unhinged" itself. I've never seen someone so inept at selling his movie as Gronquist was--it was as if he knew he'd made a piece of trash and didn't really want to talk about it. The actress did a better, though.

There's really nothing to recommend watching "Unhinged", unless you want to see a compact collection of what NOT do to whether you're a screenwriter, an actor, or a director.

(Trivia: This film was banned in Great Britain as one of the "Video Nasties" until 2005. One wonders what caused the British censors to develop such hatred for movie watchers that they would cause them to be exposed to this film.)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Kate Jackson provides chills in
'Satan's School for Girls'

Satan's School for Girls (1973)
Starring: Pamela Franklin, Kate Jackson, Jamie Smith-Jackson, Lloyd Bochner, Cheryl Ladd, Jo Van Fleet, and Roy Thinnes
Director: David Lowell Rich
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

While searching for the truth about her sister's suicide, Elizabeth (Franklin) enrolls as a student at the all-girl boarding school she attended. The faculty and girls all seem friendly enough--especially insta-best-friend-on-campus Roberta (Jackson)--but with a title like "Satan's School for Girls", you gotta know there's witchcraft, evil rites, and guest lectures by the Horned One himself going on.

"Satan's School for Girls" is a better-than-average made-for-TV movie from the mid-1970s. Although uneven in its pacing (partly due to the constricting nature of broadcast TV and the habitual, barely veiled recapping of what's happened to catch up those who tuned in late), there is a nice aura of unease that hangs over the whole film, and it even manages to envoke a real sense of dread at several points. (The best of these is when Elizabeth heads into the main building's cavernous basement in search of clues.)

This could possibly have been a 7-Star film if not for the fact that it starts to fall apart in the third act. Up to that point, the filmmakers play a nice game of "maybe it is, maybe it isn't"... as in, maybe Satan WON'T be making an appearance in this film, despite the title. But then there's a really lame murder scene (where the victim could easily have simply reached up and grabbed at the girls who were poking at him with sticks, and thus made his escape), lots of over-the-top melodramatic acting, and an ending that is flat and unsatisfactory, because it's exactly what we expect it to be all along.

Despite its flaws, I think this film is enjoyable for those who like suspense and horror movies that are driven more by atmosphere than sex and gore. Fans of Kate Jackson (like yours truly) will also enjoy it, because she gives a fine performance.

Saturday Scream Queen: Megan Fox

Megan Fox's first major role as a recurring part in the American sit-com "Hope & Faith," which ran from 2003 to 2006. From there, she went onto starring in the back-to-back toy-based, sci-fi action blockbusters "Transformers" and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." (She reportedly did lots of screaming in those two films, although I've not seen either.)

Fox has lately turned to the horror genre, with starring roles in 2009's "Jennifer's Body" and the 2010 horror-western "Jonah Hex." She will reportedly not be returning to the "Transformers" series, so time will tell if she appears in future horror films. (Her next film is "Passion Play," a comedy, but on a most distant horizon is the comic book adaptation "Fathom," which could be an excursion into sci-fi horror, depending on what elements the filmmakers choose to emphasize on the screen.

Friday, June 25, 2010

United States threatened by Chinese brainwashing plot!

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, James Gregory, Janet Leigh, Laurence Harvey and Henry Silva
Director: John Frankenheimer
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A Korean War vet (Sinatra) fights off brainwashing and becomes the only man who can stop a far-reaching plot by the Chinese to place their handpicked agent in the highest elected office of the United States--the Presidency.

"The Manchurian Candidate" is one of those movies that truly is a classic. Not only is it spectacular film--with a suspenseful script, great camera work and even greater acting by everyone who appears on screen. Although over two hours in lenght, the film doesn't contain a dull moment, and you will absolutely grow to hate Angela Lansbury's evil, power-at-any-cost bitch of a political femme fatale.

While some of the details may date this movie, the characters and storyline remain as fresh and relevant-seeming today as they were in 1962. While I find the entire film engrossing, with one tiny exception, I find it particularly interesting that while I felt sympathy for Alexander Sebastian in "Notorious" (review here), I have nothing but contempt and disgust for Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) in this film. Both characters are men who are dominated by evil mothers with similar goals in mind. Perhaps the difference is that there seems to be a spark of decency in Sebastian, while Iselin is nothing but a perverted puppet of his twisted mother. Maybe it's the way we see Sebastian's heart break when he discovers that he has been betrayed by the woman he loves, and we have no similar moment to make Iselin less gross.

Speaking women and love, the romantic element of this film is the one part of it that I simply couldn't buy. As much as I thought both Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh were great in their parts (as good as any in their careers, not to mention unique), the Insta-Romance that sprang up between them when they met on the train just didn't ring true to me. I kept expected her to be revealed as a spy of some sort--that the romantic attraction was part of the brainwashing, or that she was perhaps an American agent of some sort. Neither came to pass in the film. I suppose this is another similarity I see between this film and Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious"... the film's hero and heroine have a forced romance Just Because.

With the exception of the romance misstep, "The Manchurian Candidate" is a fabulous political thriller that I think fans of the genre definitely need to see. (I wonder what prompted Frank Sinatra to pull the movie from distribution in 1970 when he acquired the rights. It's a spectacular movie.)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Vincent Price is 'The Last Man on Earth'

The Last Man on Earth (aka "The Night Creatures", "Wind of Death", and "Night People") (1964)
Starring: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli and Giacomo Rossi-Stuart
Director: Sidney Salkow (or Ubaldo Ragona, depending on the source)
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Dr. Robert Morgan (Price) spends three lonely years battling undead monsters after a mysterious plague that kills most people while causing others to rise as vampires sweeps the world. He starts to uncover signs that someone else is battling the vampires, and soon afterwards he meets Ruth (Bettoia), a fellow survivor. But is Ruth what she seems, or are the vampires getting smarter and is she part of an elaborate trap?

"The Last Man on Earth" is a fantastic horror film. It is creepy up to the very last moment, and it creates its sense of horror, dread, and even sorrow without resorting to gory violence or even obscenity.

Price is excellent in a rare part as someone who is a thoroughly sympathetic character who does everything in the film with the very best of intentions. The supporting cast are okay, but they are really just there for Price to play off.

This is a movie that's well worth the time it'll take you to see it... and it's a movie that all those oh-so-clever filmmakers out there who are churning out horror and suspense films with lame (and even movie-destroying) twist endings need to see. "The Last Man on Earth" offers a twist and then a twist on that twist, and both make the movie a stronger story.

Here are the REAL fractured fairy tales

Deadtime Stories (aka "Freaky Fairy Tales") (1986)
Starring: Scott Valentine, Nicole Picard, Cathryn DePrume, Matt Mitler, Kathy Fleig, and Mike Mesmer
Director: Jeffrey S. Delman
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A babysitting uncle (Mesmer) who wants nothing more than to watch porn on cable in peace, tells three twisted fairy tales to his young charge in hopes of getting him to shut up and go to sleep.

Generally speaking, you can't go wrong with an anthology film, if you like the horror genre. Anyone tale may not be to your liking, but they're all usually short enough that they don't ruin the whole movie for you. This is one of the reasons I enjoy the anthology film, and I seek out as many of them as I can.

In the case of "Deadtime Stories", we have three bizarre spins on traditional fairy tales that are placed within a framing sequence featuring an less than enthusiastic babysitter and his demanding charge. The camera-work, lighting, and soundtrack are all pretty decent, as is the acting, but the script is severely wanting throughout the film, with both the jokes and scares being far inferior to what I suspect the writers thought them to be.

The film leads off with a straight forward fairytale yarn, featuring two hideous witches who have purchased a slave boy (Valentine) to help them bring the third member of their coven back to life. Unfortunately for them, he falls in love with the beautiful maiden (Fleig) they had intended to be their prime sacrifce. The most straight-forward tale within a "fantasy" setting, it is also the funniest at time, probably because it's not trying so hard to be funny.

The second tale, a modern-day spin on "Little Red Riding Hood" sees Rachel (Picard), an oversexed teenaged girl, and her grandmother get stalked by a very upset "wolf" (Mitler) after a mix-up at the neighborhood pharmacy. While this story is funny early on--Uncle Mike's frustration at missing the bikini special on TV is shining through--the humor quickly fades. While this is also three of the stories that attempts to present the most straightforward horror aspects, it never quite manages to ratchet up the tension or the fear... mostly because of all the time spent with Rachel and her boyfriend having a rendezvous in a maintainance shack by the public tennis courts. "Uncle Mike" was just a tad too obsessed with horny teenagers, and thus, as the kid he's telling the story rightfully said, it became boring.

The third tale, a modern-day and quite bizarre spin on "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" has Goldie Lox (DePrume), a teenaged sexual psychopath with amazing telekinetic powers team up with the Bear Family, a clan of homicidal criminals. The neverending stream of puns and sideways fairytale allusions, plus the slapstick nature of the action,clearly demonstrates that this was supposed to be an allout comedic romp with horror overtones. However, just like the second story fell short of its mark, so does this one. There are some chuckles in the piece, and the Goldie Lox character and her house full of boyfriends presents the film's most chilling moments, but overall the tale feels like it has "first draft" written all over it.

I think that if the script for "Deadtimes Stories" had been taken through a draft or two more, we might have had a film to rival great anthology films like "The House That Dripped Blood" (click here for review), but as it is, we've got a halfbaked piece of work that barely rises to acceptable levels of filmmaking. It's a shame, because this one had real potential.

Tectonic Tuesday: Samantha Mumba

Proving that Prophets still walk among us, the Imam of imams Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi shared this divinely inspired reality with us mere mortals: "Many women who do not dress modestly [...] spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes."

And here's more proof that he's right.

Tenth Case Study: Samantha Mumba

Born in Dublin to an Irish mother and a father who immigrated to Ireland from Zambia, Samantha Mumba enjoyed tremendous success during the years of 2000-2002 as one of world's most popular female pop singers. With an album that went Platinum and several very popular videos where she danced and sang and otherwise put herself on display, she was certainly the cause of the Gujarat earthquake in January of 2001.

As her music career began to falter, Mumba turned to acting. She appeared in a number of Irish indie films, as well as 2002's big-budget sci-fi flick "The Time Machine."

In 2002, Mumba was voted one of the 100 Sexiest Women in the World by the readers of FHM, and the adultery that spread in society led directly to earthquakes in Iran, off the coast of the Peru, and in the United States in June of that year.

With her show business career in the doldrums during the latter half of the decade just gone by, and her activities mostly limited to reality shows on British and Irish television, Mumba's threat to the world has been minimal. However, she will be appearing in as many as three movies slated for release this year or next, including the supernatural action thriller "Cross" and the ghost movie "Loftus Hall". Only time will tell what happens then... but those who believe in the divinely inspired wisdom of Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi are fairly certain they know what the results will be. And they're buying earthquake insurance!

Monday, June 21, 2010

'The Heroic Trio' is one of the very best superhero films

The Heroic Trio (1992)
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, Damien Lau, James Pak, and Yee Kwan Yan
Director: Johnny To
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A shadowy evil is abducting babies throughout The City, and three superpowered women--Wonder Woman (Mui), Thief Catcher (Cheung), and Invisible Woman (Yeoh) must settle their differences if anyone will have a chance to stop the monstrous schemes of the Evil Master (Yan). Only the Heroic Trio will be able to save true innocents from being slaughtered.

Now THIS is what a superhero movie should be. Until the "Iron Man" movies came along, this was by far my favorite superhero movie. The sequel ("The Executioners") was a bit of a downer, but this is great entertainment from beginning to end.

"The Heroic Trio" features humor, suspense, drama, and true tragedy. While the characters aren't neccesarily complicated, they are all well developed, and viewers will be moved when the secrets of the lead characters come to light. Plus, the villian of our piece certainly lives up to his name... there are some very upsetting moments involving the kidnapped babies.

The fight scenes are brief, but well-staged. The superheroes and their powers are well presented and well thought-out (even if I'm rather amused by the fact that "Invisible Woman" wears a bright red outfit... when not invisbiel, she's the most visible character in a film where everything else is in muted colors), and the casting is universally perfect. Cheung in particular is great as the comical Thief Catcher, while Yeoh demonstrates her range as an actress with the tragic hero Invisible Woman.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Lugosi's 'Yellow Peril Trilogy'

Three of Bela Lugosi's worst movies have him playing an Oriental Villain in films inspired by what was in the 1930s a thriving pulp fiction genre, the Yellow Peril tales.

While these films are not an actual trilogy, it is interesting that three of his worst would be drawn from the same now-mostly disused well.

For more reviews of (better) Bela Lugosi films, visit The Bela Lugosi Collection.

The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Wallace Ford, Arline Judge and Lotus Long
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

"The Mysterious Mr. Wong" is a B-movie double-threat that manages to both be a bad Yellow Menace and a bad newspaper reporter comedy.

Bela Lugosi stars as Wong, a cheap, underachieving Fu Manchu imitation whose minions are murdering their way through Chinatown's underworld to acquire the ancient Twelve Coins of Confucius. A slacker, racist newspaper reporter dismisses the police's theory that it's a Tong War unfolding, but is otherwise indifferent to the situation until his editor forces him to follow up on the story. He bumbles his way through some of the lamest detective work (with his incompetence exceeded only by that of the police), narrowly avoids several harebrained assasination attempts by Wong's minions, and eventually makes his way to the film's lame climax through the miracle of Plot Dictates.

While "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" is watchable, it is only just. It is better than some later Yellow Menace films (such as the awful "The Castle of Fu Manchu" starring Christopher Lee) but not by much. And if you have even so much as a tiny bit of sensitivity to racism and bad stereotypes, prepare to be at the very least mildly outraged. The worst racism is comes from the mouth of the film's "hero," so be prepared to not like him much. (It's pretty bad, even by the standards of the day in which this film was made.)

The Shadow of Chinatown (1936)
Starring: Herman Brix, Joan Barclay, Luana Walters, Maurice Lui, and Bela Lugosi
Director: Robert F. Hill
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

A pair of self-loathing "Eurasians" (Walters and Lugosi) team up to use their business saavy and scientific know-how to enrich themselves and take their revenge on both the White and Oriental peoples. But they haven't counted on interference from a San Francisco society page reporter wanting to graduate to investigative reporting (Barclay), her Chinese culture-loving private detective friend (Brix), nor the assortment of superfluous secondary characters and bumbling henchmen.

"The Shadow of Chinatown" that I watched is the feature-film version, which is a condensing of a 15-part serial. That explains for some of the disjointedness of the story, but it doesn't account for the atrociously wooden acting on the part of the actors--except Luana Walters, the only performer who gives a decent accounting of herself--the erratic and contradictory abilities and powers of Lugosi's character, and the lame, anti-climax of the movie's end.

This 70-minute version was so dull I almost didn't make it to end. It starts out strong enough with Walters and Lugosi's minions fanning out through Chinatown and terrorizing business patrons while disguised as Chinese gangsters, and providing Barclay's character an opportunity to get captured by the villains and then escape... but then it starts to sink into a mess of bad acting and even worse plotting. Walters remains a bright spot throughout, but she's really the only thing worth watching here.

Black Dragons (aka "The Yellow Menace") (1942)
Starring: Bela Lugosi and Joan Barclay
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

As America gears up to fight the Japanese during WWII, a group of wealthy Fifth Columnists finalize their plans to sabotage the war effort from the top down. However, they share a secret far deeper and more sinister than just being traitors--and that secret is why the mysterious Mr. Cologne (Lugosi) is murdering them, one by one. Is Cologne an American patriot, or is he a threat more sinister than even the enemy agents?

There isn't much in this 1942 spy movie that recommends it to the modern viewer. "Black Dragons" is terribly dated due to its WWII message of "loose lips sink ships" and while it shows some glimmers of perhaps having risen to the level of an interesting thriller, the rushed, exposition-heavy wrap-up during the film's final ten minutes dispels what little supense had been built up, and the fact that the mysterious powers displayed by Lugosi's character (who, literally, vanishes into thin air several times) remain unexplained, confine this film to the massive scrapheap of Z-grade pictures.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Is that the smallest continent on Earth?

Lost Continent (1951)
Starring: Cesar Romero, Chick Chandler, John Hoyt, Sid Melton, Whit Bissel and Hugh Beaumont
Director: Sam Newfield
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When an experimental missile goes out of control and crashes on an uncharted island, Air Force Major Joe Nolan (Romero) leads an expedition to recover the guidance system and figure out what went wrong. But when the same mysterious rays that caused the missile to go of course also brings down the expedition's plane, Nolan and his team must travel through miles of wilderness, scale a mountain... and find themselves confronted with dinosaurs and other life that has died out millions of years ago elsewhere on the planet. But what is more deadly--the pre-historic creatures, or the man Nolan suspects of being an enemy agent (Hoyt) and of trying to pick off expedition members one by one.

"Lost Continent" is a film with very little to recommend it. It's got a slow-moving story that's made even more slow-moving by what seems like a never-ending sequence of the characters climbing a mountain; I used to think the driving scenes that are popular padding in crappy movies were boring, but scenes of guys pretending to be scaling a mountain on an obvious set are even worse.

Those climbing scenes are doubly-boring when the attempts at generating suspense come from extreme illogic in character behavior and actions. For example, one character is injured early in the expedition, but do the supposedly experienced leader Major Nolan leave him behind in the care of the buxom and friendly young native lass played by a cameo-ing Acquanetta near the end of her brief acting career? Nope, they drag him along on a difficult climb for no reason whatsoever other than to have his injury give rise to him slipping and falling... and ultimately to give grounds to suspect the Russian defector as a double-agent trying to sabotage the mission. It's what "The Eiger Sanction" (review here) might have been like if it had been made by morons.

Then there's the stop-motion animation that gives life to the dinosaurs that menace our heroes. Even allowing for the facts that this is a movie from 1951 and that it was more stock footage like the exterior scenes of the air force base the missile was launched from. However, after taking a quick look at the silent movie version of "The Lose World," where I assumed the dinosaurs had been picked up from, I concluded that the animation was original... just so bad that it made one think it had to state from the early decades of filmmaking. Further, these dinosaurs don't appear until about 3/4th of the way into the film, despite the fact they were a main selling point of the picture.

At every turn, this is a movie that lets the viewer down. Heck, even the promo still I used to illustrate this article has nothing to do with anything that happens in the movie. Acquanetta is never menaced by any flying creatures, as she never sets foot outside the village set.

The Rating of Three I'm giving this film is so low that it borders on a Two. I'm only being as generous as I am, because the actors are actually pretty decent given what they're working with. Plus, Cesar Romero is particularly good as the American officer who knows to be suspicious of a possible enemy agent, but who is intelligent enough not to jump to judgement until he is 100 percent certain that he is right. I always appreciate a movie that features portrayals of military officers as I have known them, not the frothing-at-the-mouth paranoid psychopaths that are so often presented in Hollywood flicks. (Of course, another reason for the portrayal of Major Nolan may be a statement on the part of the filmmakers about the Red Scare that was running through American pop culture and politics at the time this movie was made. While there were reasons to be wary, there were more reasons to be certain before accusing, could be what the movie was trying to say.)

Those few good elements can't make up for the fact that this is a movie that at every turn delivers less than it should. Heck, even the name promises more than the movie delivers. Instead of a lost continent, it presents a mountain valley on an uncharted island.

Saturday Scream Queen: Acquanetta

Acquanetta's breif film career was at its high point in the mid-1940s when she appeared as the tragic and monstrous creation of mad science in a pair of Universal Pictures' lesser horror films, "Captive Wild Woman" and "Jungle Woman", and a savage high priestess in "Tarzan and the Leopard Women". Her exotic beauty can be enjoyed in half-a-dozen or so other pictures, but her acting career went nowhere and she abandoned it in the early 1950s after marrying an Arizona-based car dealer.

Although the Universal Pictures' marketing department nicknamed her "The Venezuelan Volcano," there is no trace of Venezuela in her blood nor in her family tree. Her real name was Mildred Davenport, she was born in Ozone, Wyoming, in 1923, and was of Arapaho decent.

After quitting the movies, Acquanetta appeared in television ads for her husband's cardealerships, created and marketed Native American-style jewelry, and was active in a number of Arizona art and Native American charity fund-raising efforts. She passed away in 2004.

For reviews of a couple of movies featuring Acquanetta, click here to visit the Shades of Gray blog.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Well... that hombre LOOKS like Jonah Hex

But whut's he doin' in a movie witha script even those "Brisco County Jr." fellers woulda reejected?

Jonah Hex (2010)
Starring: Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Michael Fassbinder and Megan Fox
Director: Jimmy Hayward
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When an ex-Confederate general (Malkovich) builds a super weapon with which to destroy Washington, D.C., the United States government calls upon scar-faced and ultra-violent bounty hunter Jonah Hex (Brolin) to track him and stop him.

The long-awaited "Johan Hex movie (by me, at least, a big fan of the Johan Hex comics from the 1970s and 1980s... and somewhat less so of the horror-tinged incarnation of the 1990s and the often hollow "return-to-basic" version of the late 2000s) was released today. Sadly, this is yet another example of a Hollywood movie where a bunch of semi-literate filmmakers thought their comic book source material wasn't comic-booky enough. As a result, they have made a Johan Hex movie that has the superficial veneer of the best of Johan Hex, but under the surface it's insipid garbage.

Jonah Hex was at his greatest when he was featured in stories flavored like spaghetti westerns... only with even more violence and grimness. He was at his best when he was down-to-earth tales where he might have a reputation of being some sort of supernatural being... but in truth is just a man who is very, VERY good at killing people. He was a man of honor who had been saddled with a reputation of betraying his best friend and his entire regiment during the Civil War.

That Jonah Hex is not in this movie. Hell, the Jonah Hex from the Tim Truman-illustrated western horror comics from the 1990s ("Riders of Worms and Such" is the one series I can think of at the moment) isn't even in this movie. The writers took away everything that was cool about Hex and replaced it with comic book hash. Bad comic book hash.

I understand and appreciate the need to streamline Johan Hex's back story for the purpose of the movie. I can even understand and appreciate the need to turn Quentin Turnbull from a small in-the-big-picture-but-looming-large-in-the-life-of-Hex "The South Will Rise Again"-type maniac.

But why did they feel the need to give Jonah Hex the ability to talk to dead people? Why did they feel the need to equip him with an arsenal of silly weapons, such as double-horseback mounted Gatlin guns and dynamite-flinging crossbows? And why did they decide that it wasn't good enough to have Turnbull as a monster threatening to destroy Hex on the way in pursuit of reviving the Confederacy--you know, keeping it more personal like the comic book did--but instead gave him a dimwitted "steampunk" super weapon with which to destroy Washington, D.C.?

People like to talk down about comic books, especially older ones. Because back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were no "graphic novels" and there were no "mature comics." However, the Jonah Hex stories reprinted in this book are far more intelligent and entertaining that I suspect either of the writers and producers and director involved in the "Jonah Hex" film would be able to produce in their wildest dreams. Why? Because they are apparently too arrogant and ignorant to recognize when a "comic book" is not "comic-booky" and that its good qualities go beyond the superficiality of drawings and should actually be read if it is to be adapted to another medium.

"Jonah Hex" is a movie that proves that Hollywood IS populated by illiterate people. The only possible way it could have turned out the way it did is if no one involved actually bothered to READ the Johan Hex comics but instead just looked at pictures and had their assistant's assistant skim a DC/Warner Bros licensing bible and summarize it for them. They've got the scarred bounty hunter, they've got the gun play, and they've got the occasional explosion... but they missed everything else that makes Jonah Hex what it is. And they filled that void with the worst kind of comic-booky crap.

This review would be appearing in Movies to Die Before Seeing if not for the excellent performance of Josh Brolin. Despite the trash he has to work with, he gives an excellent portrayal of Jonah Hex, and I can only dream about what he would have done if the writers had left the character with some of his true personality. The film's production crew also earns some credit for the dingy frontier towns that Hex visits during the early parts of the movie, the parts that actually bear a passing resemblance to the source material.

The only truly good performance is from Josh Brolin, but I can't really be too disgusted with John Malkovich and Michael Fassbinder, because they are probably just doing what they were told: That they were in a comic boom movie, so they had to ham it up like larger-than-life comic book villains.

I will, however, blame Megan Fox for sucking. If she was this lifeless in the "Transformers" movies, how can she possibly have a career beyond taking her clothes off in magazines and someday hoping to be a third-tier Bond Girl (if they ever bring those back)? The woman simply cannot act, and she brought nothing to this movie except a little bit of bare skin.

Don't waste your time and money on this movie, even if you might feel tempted just to go watch it for the explosions. You will regret it, even if it's only 70 minutes long. (Although the running-time did make me wonder what Charles Band would have been able to do with the sort of money this movie was made for. Whatever it might have been, it would have been better than this... which is at a level of below-average Band in everything but special effects.

Oh, and just in case my reference to "Brisco County Jr" at the top of the review made this film sound interesting, I apologize. That late lamented television series was a comic-booky and outrageous western with sci-fi and horror overtones that was GOOD. This film is very bad.

Spend your time and cash on the Showcase Presents: Jonah Hex book, or maybe on the "Brisco County Jr." DVD set.

But, whatever you do, don't see "Jonah Hex" until you can get the DVD as a cheap rental. Or, even better, not at all.

'Star Odyssey' is an insane trip

Star Odyssey (1978)
Starring: Gianni Garko, Yanti Somer, Malisa Yongo, and Chris Avram
Director: Alfonso Brescia
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

After an evil alien purchases Earth at an auction held by representatives of a far-flung, interstellar civilization, he heads for his new acquisition in his indestructable flying saucer, intent on capturing those rarest of sentient beings--homo sapiens--and selling them into slavery so he can get a return on his investment. Only a group of heroic misfits (genius scientists, psychics, and/or hot-looking chicks, in tight clothes all) can save the Earth from total enslavement.

I am sure that this is the movie that broke me. With "Star Odyssey", the residue of crap that's been building up in my brain over the past 15 years of watching and reviewing crappy movies finally reached critical mass and drove me completely over the edge. I'm not even certain if I'm actually typing this right now. For all I know, I'm standing naked on the corner of Rainer and Sunset, and a member of Renton PD's finest is about to come up to me and say, "You--naked, bearded, and disturbingly hairy fat man--are under arrest!"

If I'm not hallucinating, then why does the poster used to illustrate this article have both English and German writing on it? Why?!

Initially, there didn't seem to be anything amiss. I was watching the film with growing annoyance. It was clearly made on a budget of $1.95, and it was most likely a send-up of 1930s style sci-fi films with some fairly heavy-handed message bits about the evils of slavery and colonialism. It's an old and trite message in sci-fi, and it was being delivered particularly badly.

Then, suddenly, I was watching a scene that I MUST have seen at the beginning of the movie--it was the scene that established our bad guy and the fact that he was purchasing Earth so he could enslave the planet, sell everyone as slaves, and plunder the natural resources. Even more heavy-handed than the other delivery of the message--coming some 50 years late... but why was this scene nearly an hour into the film?

Then, suddenly, I was watching a flashback to an earlier scene in the film, the one where we're introduced to the dashing psychic con-man/adventurer Dirk Laramie (Garko) and his partner/girlfriend and his ex-girlfriend (Somer and Longo... I really don't know which chick played whom. The current bedmate is blonde, while the former one is a brunette; Somer was blond in the two other movies that used the same sets, costumes and minatures that appeared in this film, but was she the blond... can I be sure of anything?). But it's not a flashback... it's the establishing scene for a sequence from earlier in the film, and here they actually show us that Dirk and his ladyfriend are fleecing gamblers in a casino, not a cafeteria or a singles bar. But, this is coming completely unmotivated, right after our alien bad guy sets out for Earth... even if he arrived on Earth in the film's first scenes and are already scooping up slaves.

THEN, we cut to a scene of a pair of military officers discussing the fact that slaves are being carried off--which means we're not back to where the movie had been before these strange, unexplained and totally unnecessary flashback scenes occurred. And I have absolutely no ability to figure out what is happening where or when, even if i attempt to diagram it.

So... either someone REALLY scrambled the reels when this film was transferred to videotape--and what was actually the films first ten minutes ended up at the 2/3rd mark instead--and no one actually watched it when it was transferred to DVD and included in the "Nightmare Worlds" DVD boxed set.

Or I've lost my mind, and I'm not typing at all. I never watched the movie I think I watched. Could I really standing in downtown Mecca singing, "O Holy Night" at the top of my lungs.

I THINK this is the third of a string of low-budget Italian pictures using the same sets and actors--the other two being "War of the Planets" and "War of the Robots". However, I can't be sure that I didn't hallucinate the whole thing. Can someone please help me establish my grip on reality again?! Did someone REALLY use these costumes in two different moves?!

'Daughters of the Dragon' is disappointing

Daughters of the Dragon: Deadly Hands Special (Marvel Comics, 2006)
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artists: Marshall Rogers and Bob McLeod
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

As a kid, I loved "Iron Fist" and I found the references to adventures had by supporting characters Misty Knight and Colleen Wing to be particularly intriguing. The bionic cop and the girl samurai had a detective agency called Nightwing Restorations, and they had adventures in a magazine that I only ever saw in the footnotes that Marvel littered across the pages of their comics.

Recently, I rediscovered both "Iron Fist" and Nightwing Restorations when Marvel released the massive anthology "Essential Iron Fist." And, to my delight, I discovered a somewhat slimmer reprint volume--a collection of those referenced adventures of the "Daughters of the Dragon" in Hong Kong!

Well, I waited almost 30 years to be underwhelmed. The art by a still-developing Marshall Rogers is not bad, but it's not all that good either, and the Claremont stories are dull and uninteresting. Worse, they're something of a retread from the storyline in Iron Fist where Colleen is brainwashed. When he did it with the Colleen Wing character the first time, it was part of an excellent storyline that transformed both her and the character of Danny Rand in positive ways story-wise, but the similar abuse heaped on the character in "Daughters of the Dragon" is just bad and pointless.

(What was it with Claremont and mentally raping strong female characters? He ruined Ms. Marvel, Psylocke, and probably several others over the years by doing this.)

I wanted to like these tales, because I think both Misty and Colleen are incredibly cool characters... but these tales just aren't all that good. They're better than the modern appearances of the characters (in a 2006 mini-series last I was aware), but still disappointing.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hercules conquers hearts in Atlantis

Hercules and the Captive Women (aka "Hercules Conquers Atlantis" and "Hercules and the Haunted Women") (1963)
Starring: Reg Park, Fay Spain, Luciano Marin, Laura Atlan, Salvatore Furnani, and Ettore Mani
Director: Vittorio Cottafavi
Steve's Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After the King of Thebes (Mani) receives a warning from the gods that a mystic doom is about to visited upon the city states of Greece, he travels to the distant land of Atlantis with his old friend Hercules (Park) and Hercules' son (Marin). Here, they discover the decadent and evil Queen Antenea (Spain) has created an army of supermen with which to conquer the world. She is motivated both for her own glory, but also for that of Uranus. Will our heroes stop her in time, or will Uranus be all in the end?

"Hercules and the Captive Women" is an Italian fantasy flick with all the cheesiness that implies, However, it also features to pretty cool sets, great costumes, and a fairly decent plot. It even features monsters and foes that won't make you giggle when Hercules and the other heroes fight them.

Hercules is actually a real character in this movie--he starts out wanting nothing more than to stay at home with his wife, Deinaria, and after he gets shanghaied by his son and the king into the mission to Atlantis, he initially refuses to help at all with amusing results. Later, as he believes his son to be dead, we see more depth in the character than I've seen in any other movie of this type.

Another aspect that makes this movie interesting is that there's less emphasis on muscle-men in skirts doing stupid strong-man acts than is typical and quite a bit of time spent of developing the civilization of Atlantis. I've always been keen on any films and stories that feature Atlantis, and this is one of the better ones I've encountered. The evil priests and spellcasters, the decadent queen so obsessed with power that she is willing to kill her own daughter (played by the very cute Laura Atlan), and the brave and virtuous heroes struggling against the tide of evil reminded me very much of my favorite Atlantis novel, "The Lost Continent."

I think fans of fantasy movies and fiction will find much to like about this film, assuming you can be patient with the goofier elements. Even if you can't, "Hercules and the Captive Women" features better battle scenes and a faster pace than most films of this kind--it is definitely one of the best "sword & sandal" films. Further, the 10-year-old boy who resides in all of us (even you women out there) will also get a kick out of the film, given it features lines like "This day is dedicated to Uranus" and "Uranus will rule the world!")

And for you true film snobs out there who might think this sounds interesting but need a conscience-soothing reason to check it out: If Roman Polanski has a favorite Hercules movie, I bet it's this one. See if you can figure out why from the content of this post.

To check out the classic novel "The Lost Continent," as well as the original writings where Atlantis was first invented, click here to visit The Fiction Archive at my website.

You might consider checking out "The Mistress of Atlantis," an undeservedly obscure movie that is not as wild as "Hercules and the Captive Women," but which is a fascinating early fantasy film nonetheless. Click here to read my review at Shades of Gray.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

'War of the Robots' is an atrocity

War of the Robots (aka "Reactor") (1978)
Starring: Antonio Sabato, Yanti Somer, Mellisa Long, Aldo Canti, Jacques Herlin, Frank Seidlitz, and James R. Stuart
Director: Alfonso Brescia
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When a scientific genius (Herlin) and his luscious assistant (Long) are abducted by strange, golden-haired aliens, an experimental reactor is left running. Only the professor knows how to shut it down, but if it isn't shut down, it's going to explode. So Captain Boyd (Sabato) and the brave crew of the starship "Trissa" are dispatched to rescue him before Sirius Station is destroyed.

"War of the Robots" is an awful space opera that lifts elements from all sorts of sources ("Star Trek" and "Star Wars" come to mind, but since "Star Wars" itself is an hodge-podge of borrowed fantasy and sci-fi elements, it's hardly fair of accusing someone else of borrowing from it) and mixes them up in a plot that doesn't know when to quit. There were moments toward the end of the movie where I thought it was finally over... only to have another "threat" emerge for our heroes to fight off. If there ever was a case of a movie overstaying its welcome, it's "War of the Robots."

And this is on top of badly choreographed fight scenes, serious sub-standard acting, and overlong, tedious space battles (I can almost hear the producer in the editing room as they unfold: "I paid 250 lire and a Happy Meal for those models--and I'm spending a lot more on animators. I want every second of model footage on the screen. ALL of it!").

Speaking of 250 lire and a Happy Meal.... Even more damaging to the entertainment value of this film--other than for those who like to make mocking commentary as a film unfolds--is the fact that little cleverness the script contains is negated by the fact that the film's ideas overreach its tiny budget. The set requirements and costuming requirements and special effects needs of this film all demanded that a great deal more money be spent than was. If a decent amount of money HAD been available, we might have been treated to a humanoid robot menace a little more awe-inspiring than these guys:

(I suspect they were going for a "Nordic Alien" sort of vibe--based on one of the more-often described types of outer-space visitors who supposedly abduct and anally probe trailer park dwellers in the American southwest--but what they end up with look more like the members of a failed rock band named Lord Fauntleroy's Fanboys.)

In fact, this film was SO low-budget that many of the same sets, costumes, and spaceship models can be spotted in two other sci-fi films featuring the same actors and production staff; together with this film, they are what I have labeled "The Recycling Trilogy." So low were the budgets that they just brought back the same actors to wear the same costumes, so they didn't even have to pay for a seamstress to refit them.

"War of the Robots" is elevated slightly by a couple of clever plot-twists--which I will refrain from revealing; by the delightful Yanti Somer walking around in a uniform that's about one size too small; and some unintentionally comic elements such as the commander of the mighty alien armada being named General Gonad, it's not a movie I can recommend with good conscience to anyone but Osama bin Laden or others I wish the greatest possible suffering upon. (In fact, Somer and her ill-fitting uniform may well be the film's high points.)

Nancy Drew reports on murder and danger

Nancy Drew - Reporter (1939)
Starring: Bonita Granville, Frank Thomas Jr., Mary Lee, Dickie Jones, Thomas Jackson and John Litel
Director: William Clemens
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

While trying to win an opportunity to have an article published in the local paper, teenaged detective Nancy Drew (Granville) decides a woman on trial for murder is innocent and sets about finding the one piece of evidence that will prove her so. Unfortunately, the real killers are looking for it, too.

"Nancy Drew - Reporter" is the sort of the film that probably appealed to 9-year-olds in 1939--and the presence a pair of trouble-making little kids making life hard for the teenaged protagonists of the story makes sure there's someone there they can relate to--but there's not much for adults to enjoy here. I'm not sure there's even alot for modern kids to enjoy.

The biggest problem is that the mystery being solved here is pretty much explained in the first few minutes, solved halfway through the movie, and ultimately resolved through dumb luck rather than detective work. The film is more concerned about presenting screwball comedic hi-jinx than a sensible detective story and it feels like there was a generic kids' comedy script sitting around that minor modifications was made to in order to make a Nancy Drew film.

You may get some chuckles out the antics here, but I think this is a film you can pass on. (It's only worth getting if you acquire it as part of the Nancy Drew four-movie set that contains all the films produced by Warner Bros. in the 1930s. I'm currently working my through the set... and I hope the next two are better than this one!)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Sarah Landon Franchise: DoA?

Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour (2007)
Starring: Rissa Williams, Brian Comrie, Dan Comrie, and Jane Harris
Director: Lisa Comrie
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Teenaged Sarah Landon (Williams), shortly after losing her best friend to a drunk driver, spends the weekend in a town she hasn't visited in ten years. While coping with her memories, she reconnects with a boy she used to play with as a child (Brian Comrie), and learns that his older brother (Dan Comrie) believes a vengeful ghost will kill him on his 21st birthday... which is coming up Monday. Sarah sets out to find the truth of what is going on in the small California town.

"Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour" is a film that's part mystery and part supernatural thriller and intended primarily at young girls who would enjoy material like "Nancy Drew" books, the "Clubbing" graphic novel by Andi Watson and Josh Howard, or whatever series featuring girls playing detective and coming up against supernatural forces (or the appearance of supernatural forces is popular these days).

Given that I am not the target audience, the film is a little hard for me to judge. For my tastes, the film was a little slow in getting started, because of the artificiality of the stories Sarah was being told when she first arrived in town. It wasn't that a dark chapter of the town's past was being revealed to her that didn't ring true, but rather the way the people were relating it to her. It sounded like they were telling her a ghost story instead of relating something they considered to be tragic facts. Now, young girls may not mind this, but to me it gave the opening parts of the movie a stilted, artificial quality that even old and stilted mystery movies don't have.

Some things I am capable of judging are the qualities of the movie that apply to all films, no matter who the target audience might be.

In some of those areas, "Sarah Landon" is what I would expect. The story, once it gets past the tediously executed setup phase moves along at a nice pace, the camerawork is decent, the film feels well-researched (the paranoid, deathmarked brother sounds and behaves like he's been spending entirely too much listening to "Coast to Coast AM"), and there are even a couple of well-done "boo!"-type scares and a genuinely scary sequence where one of the characters is confronted by what appears to be a ghost.

However, in other ways, the film is severely lacking. The dialogue is very clunky and what few lines that sound like they might be spoken by a real person are ruined by wooden delivery. None of the performers are especially good, but for a cast of first-time screen-actors being guided by a first-time director, they aren't as terrible as some I've witnessed, except for Brian Comrie. It's not that he was particularly bad, but the role he plays really needed to be performed by an actor with more experience and greater emotional range than Brian Comrie shows in this film.

"Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour" was obviously intended as the first installment in a franchise that was to continue either in future movies, novels, comics, or all of the above. I liked what I saw here to the point where I might give another film a try, or perhaps even pick up a graphic novel if the art is decent.

However, as I mentioned when I originally reviewed this film back in 2007, I doubt there will be a follow-up. And given that it's almost three years later and Sarah Landon hasn't been seen anywhere, I think this film performed badly enough to not warrant any follow-ons.

Tectonic Tuesdays: Irish McCalla

The most holy Imam of imams Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi shared this divinely inspired reality with us mere mortals: "Many women who do not dress modestly [...] spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes."

That's powerful, inspired stuff, that is. You can read more about the grand message of Iggy (as his friends call him) and why I am devoted to making sure the world sees it by clicking here. Short version: Iggy opened my eyes to the wisdom of Allah and his Messengers... and the evil of women and their Dangerous Curves!

Here is more evidence to convince the non-believers that Iggy is a visionary, perhaps even a Prophet!

Ninth Case Study: Irish McCalla

Irish McCalla was a pin-up model who enjoyed a brief acting career during the 1950s. She moved from being a mild threat to the planet to being a serious danger when she starred as "Sheena: Queen of the Jungle" for 26 episodes on American television in 1955 and 1956. The year "Sheena: Queen of the Jungle" started airing across the United States, the place where it was filmed, California, was rocked by a major quake. Click here to see McCalla in her most earthshaking role as "Sheena: Queen of the Jungle".

McCalla retired from acting in the early 1960s to become an artist. acting career was brief and she retired from it shortly after "Sheena" ceased production to persue a career as a painter... but not before she helped cause the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck southwestern Alaska in 1958. That was the year she appeared in "She-Devils". While McCalla was, for her, relatively modest (she wore shorts and a white shirt with several top buttons undone) there were a bevy of other beauties in the picture in skimpy bikinis.

Although Irish McCalla passed away in 2002, she remains a threat to the planet. The entire "Sheena: Queen of the Jungle" series is available on DVD, for a very low price. She may still be inspiring adultery and causing earthquakes as you read these very words!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Picture Perfect Special: Sheena, Queen of the Jungle

It's 45 years ago this year that Irish McCalla (whom some call statuesque and others curvacious) donned a leopard skin bikini and starred in the syndicated television series "Sheena: Queen of the Jungle".

The creation of comic book industry pioneers Will Eisner and Jerry Eiger, Sheena was the female character to star in her own comic book, appearing in the summer of 1938 and beating Wonder Woman to market by several months. She was featured regularly in comics until the mid-1950s when her title was cancelled just before she made the jump to television. Her latest comic book incarnation is from Devil's Due Publishing.

As for the television series, McCalla stated in interviews that she wasn't hired for her acting talents but rather for her athleticism and ability to "swing from vines." (And, of course, her ability to fill a leopard skin bikini.)

'War of the Planets' isn't worth a struggle

War of the Planets
(aka "Cosmo 2000: The Planet With No Name") (1977)

Starring: John Richardson and Yanti Somer
Director: Alfonso Brescia
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Captain Alex Hamilton (Richardson) and his brave starship crew are to the space outside the solar system to find the origin of that signal. They reach an unknow planet where a giant robot enslaved a whole population of humanoids by taking their psychic energies. The robot's got his eyes on the Earth, too...

"War of the Planets" is one of three low-budget Italian sci-fi films that are filmed on the same sets, utilizing the same props and featuring many of the same actors in virtually the same costumes. Despite this, they are not sequels nor related in any way other than the pragmatic need to squeeze as much out of every lire invested by recycling. I wonder if this makes these the Greenest sci-fi films ever?

Out of the three films, this is most coherent storywise, but that isn't saying much. The the script offers some minor sci-fi chills with its alien civilization dominated by a psychic supercomputer, the fact the evil computer looks like a giant slot machine and the only character aspects that aren't flat are the breasts of the women in tight shirts ends up placing this film deep within drab and mediocre territory.

If you are the kind of movie lover who hosts Bad Movie Parties where you and your guests poke fun at the action on screen as it unfolds, I think you'll derive a great deal of fun from this movie. Otherwise, the only attractive thing about is Yanti Somer (although she isn't as attractive here, as she is in "War of the Robots" where her clothes are much tighter).

I've seen that uses the same sets and cast, and I think it may be the best. Certainly, the plot is the most coherent of the bunch, and the action the most interesting. Still, it's a movie that will serve best if watched with smart-asses who are good at poking fun at what unfolds on the screen. (Yanti Somer is quite attractive to look at again... even if the tight uniform from "War of the Robots" is preferable to the oufit here.)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

With Paula, it truly is a glandular problem

Captive Wild Woman (1943)
Starring: John Carradine, Milburn Stone, Lloyd Carrigan, Acquanetta, Evelyn Ankers, Fay Helm, and Ray Corrigan
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A mad genius (Carradine) proves the correctness of his cutting-edge theories in glandular functions by transforming a gorilla into a shapely young woman he names Paula (Acquanetta). Tragedy and death ensue.

The more one watches horror and sci-fi films from the 1940s, the more obvious it is why Universal's attempt to recapture the magical horror profits that carried them through the depression in the 1930s failed. Too many of the films from this "revival period" are no different than the sort of nonsense that was issuing forth from small studios like Monogram and PRC; instead of living up to greatness of "The Mummy" and "The Invisible Man," Universal production executives and directors instead lowered themselves to the level of those who had followed on their coattails.

When compared to the classics of the 1930s, or even "Ghost of Frankenstein" and "The Wolfman" from the 1940s--something the modern-day Universal marketeers are encouraging us to do by including this film is DVD multipack titled "Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive"--this movie falls woefully short. It's more in the league of low-budget efforts like "The Devil Bat" or "The Monster Maker," just to pick two movies about mad scientists at random. That is a serious step down from the great horror shows of the 1930s.

While disappointing when considered in the light of the cinematic greatness that Universal had once brought to the world, "Captive Wild Woman" is well-acted and well-filmed, with a fast pace to carry us quickly through the story. While Carradine is no Bela Lugosi or Lionel Atwill, he does a decent enough job as the mad doctor at the heart of the story, and the exotic beauty of Acquanetta makes the movie more enjoyable as well. This is not a "classic" in any sense other than it's an old movie, but it's worth checking out if you like the fantastic pulp-fiction science of the early sci-fi and horror flicks.

Saturday Scream Queen: Soledad Miranda

The annals of genre film are full of tales of beautiful women who show up as the leading ladies in a film or two, and who then vanish almost as quickly as they seem to have appeared.

One such actress was Soledad Miranda, an obscure Spanish B-movie actress in her day who has gained a cult following with the advent of first the home video market and later the el-cheapo DVD multipacks. She had a gorgeous face, a gorgeous body, great screen presence... and she must have had an almost supernatural ability to inspire the directors she worked with, as she starred in the several of the halfway decent movies from hack filmmaker Jess Franco, "Vampyros Lesbos." (She actually appeared in over 30 films betweenthe years of 1960 and 1970, but it was appearances in Franco's films that she is known for today.

Miranda may have been destined for bigger and better things. Reportedly, her films with Franco had opened a door for her with a major German film producer, but before she could even sign the contract, she was killed in a traffic accident in August of 1970.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

There's only one Wonder Woman for me!

According to WENN, Jennifer Love Hewitt is fighting hard to play the title character in the big-screen, been-in-preproduction-a-LONG-time version of "Wonder Woman".

"I think Warner Bros is getting ready to make Wonder Woman and I really want to play Wonder Woman," Hewitt is quoted as saying. "I am obsessed with Wonder Woman."

Other names that have come up in connection with the Wonder Woman role in recent years are Sandra Bullock (who, as much as I love her, is too old for the part), Eliza Dushku (just wrong), Megan Fox (too young), and Beyonce Knowles (too talentless, and only brought up because of the dumb notion that Everything Is Better With Black; save her for the big-screen version of "Isis").

Out of the actresses who have come up, only Hewitt is fit to fill Wonder Woman's red boots. Here's hoping someone at Warner Bros is going to wise up and hire her forthe part, no matter who ends up on the director's chair.

'The Shunned House' is a messy place to visit

The Shunned House (2003)
Starring: Giuseppe Lorusso, Federica Quaglieri, Emanuele Cerman, Silvia Ferreri, Michael Segal, Cristiana Vaccaro, and Roberta Marrelli
Director: Ivan Zuccon
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Alex (Lorusso) and Rita (Quaglieri), while working on Alex's latest book, investigate an abandoned inn with a reputation for being haunted, cursed, and generally just Plain Bad News. While they wander through the decaying structure, Rita starts having disturbing visions as the past and present being to collide, and the evil in the house reawakens....

"The Shunned House" is a kinda-sorta anthology film that loosely adapts three Howard Lovecraft short stories. I say kinda-sorta, because all three stories are intermixed, unfolding in an almost random order, with bits of other hauntings that take place in the inn creeping in around the edges. The tales flow in and out of one another, with sometimes no more than a lighting change or a switch in the musical score to alert the viewer to the fact that we have switched storylines again.

The three stories that take place in three different time frames are intermixed, as Rita has visions and nightmares during her stay in the decaying rooms of the Crossroads Inn. The grisly and mysterious death of a sleepwalking mathematician whose formulas may have opened doors that should have stayed closed during the 1940s (an adaptation of "Dreams in the Witch-House"), and a writer and a young girl who spends her nights playing music to keep demons at bay during the 1920s (an adaption of "The Music of Erich Zann"), are interspersed with the modern day developments of Rita growing increasingly sick from the house's influence while Alex takes notes for his book (an adaptation of "The Shunned House"). There may also be a fourth storyline... I can't quite make sense of where the torturer, his victim, and his vengeful employer that appear at various points in the film, and I can't remember such elements in any of the three stories adapted here (although it has been several years since I've read any of them), but it's the only one that seems to feed directly into the overall developments relating to Alex and Rita.

The way the storylines of the film are presented is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, the jumbled, organic nature of their presentation gives a dream-like quality to the movie that feeds the sense of unease and horror it so expertly invokes, but, on the other hand, only one of the stories actually reaches a conclusion, and none of them fully manages to build to the fever ptich of terror that is the hallmark of a Lovecraft plot. ("The Music of Erich Zann" is the one that comes closest, and even it doesn't quite manage to capture the sense of a Lovecraft climax.)

Part of the problem with the adaptations here lies, I think, with a lack of understanding on the part of the screenwriters of what makes a Lovecraft climax work. I think that when stripping out the florid language that makes his stories such interesting reads (but which can, of course, never be brought into a movie) they failed to notice that while his stories always end with copious unanswered questions, they do end. With the exception of the storyline of the violinist playing to ward off demons from the darkness, every plotline here just sort of trails off. Unlike a Lovecraft tale, we don't get a climax in the end, but just unanswered questions.

Another weakness of the film is the actors. While they are far better than what I've seen in many movies of this type, they are still come up short. The worst of the bunch are Giuseppe Lorusso and Federica Quaglieri, not so much because they are individually all that bad, but because there is no on-screen chemistry between them whatsoever... and this is a vitally important aspect to make us care about the characters and to make a third-act revelation by Alex have any real impact on the viewers. (The two other on-screen couples are somewhat better--with Emanuele Cerman and Silvia Ferreri in the "Dreams in the Witch-House" segments being the stongest performers of the bunch.)

For all those complaints, though, this movie was a fine viewing experience, far better than I had expected.

The photography, lighting, and production design on this film are spectacular. It is plainly shot on video, but it has virtually none of the flat quality that many of films recorded on that media do, and there's nothing cheap or substandard about the technical work that is on display here; the film looks better than many horror movies that were made for twenty times the cost of "The Shunned House".

The high-quality photography and lighting is complimented by an equally impressive display of skill on the part of the sound designers and the composer of the musical score. Many scenes include subtle ambient sounds that serve to heighten the creepiness and mystery of the haunted inn. I was also impressed with the musical cues that are used to help the audience keep track of the mystical flashbacks when first start fading in and out. Very few low-budget movies are blessed with music as well-done as what we find here.

Even more, the violin music in the "Music of Erich Zann" storyline is nothing short of amazing. It's the one place where I must eat my words that Lovecraft's "florid prose" can't be presented on the screen--the music that Carlotta Zann plays late at night is supposed to be unlike anything protagonist Marco has ever heard, and we are presented with haunting, unusual music that actually makes us believe it's possible. (The audio distortions--part of the music actually being run backwards?--that get added to the music at points in the story makes it even more believable. For a sample of the violin music in question, visit the official website devoted to the film. Make sure you have the sound turned up on your computer.)

"The Shunned House" is a film that's visually striking and technically competent in every way. It manages to create and maintain a sense of dread throughout its running time, and I wish I could like more than I do. There are so many good things about it, but the weaknesses of the film loom large when it is viewed. They are severe enough that this barely rises to the level of an average movie, and I really wish I could have given it a better score in the end.

Still, this is a film that the creators of big-screen crapfests like "Boogeyman" and "The Skeleton Key" would have been well-advised to have seen and emulated when they did their films, as Ivan Zuccon did far more with far less than they did. It should also be considered a must-see by anyone out there who is considering making their own low-budget horror film. This is (in everything except the story) an example of how it should be done.