Monday, January 31, 2011

'Devil Bat's Daughter': An ode to forgetfulness

Devil Bat's Daughter (1946)
Starring: Rosemary La Planche, Michael Hale, Nolan Leary, Monica Mars, Molly Lamont, and John James
Director: Frank Wisbar
Rating: Four of Five Stars

Nina (La Planche) driven to a mental breakdown when she learns her dead father was not only a murderer but may have also been a vampire, is placed in the care of manipulative psychiatrist Dr. Morris (Hale). When his wife (Lamont) is murdered, everyone--including Nina herself--believes she did it in a fit of madness... everyone except handsome Ted Masters, the dead woman's son who has fallen in love with Nina. He sets out to prove Nina's innocence and that his step-father is the killer.

Taken on its own, "Devil Bat's Daughter" is an okay little horror flick that suffers from stiff acting, clunky dialogue, and strange story continuity lapses (such as a continuing back-and-forth about whether the "Devil Bat" of the title--a local mad scientist who either came to a bad end at the fangs of his own monstrous creations but only after they killed half a dozen others, or who was put on trial for murder and presumably executed). The majority of the story elements are familiar elements of horror movies and thrillers of this vintage--a woman shocked into amnesia, a corrupt psychiatrist who may or may not be abusing his patients, and a bland hero whose only defining quality is that he is in love-at-first-sight with the imperiled heroine--there are a number of other factors that make this an unusual film and worth checking out.

The primary of these is the sympathetic portrayal of the "other woman" with whom the slimy psychiatrist is two-timing the wife he obviously only married for money. Rather than being a coldhearted and scheming bitch who is every bit the villain that he is, she is another victim of his manipulations, and she ultimately comes across as remorseful. Almost as important is the titular character, who, although little more than a conduit for melodrama, is also the pivot-point for enough plot substance that there are genuine questions in the minds of viewers that she might indeed be an unhinged, murdering somnambulist. This is all too rare in pictures of this production level and period, where plot misdirection and obfuscation usually feel halfhearted and are often painfully transparent. Screenwriter Griffin Jay and director Frank Wisbar truly rose above the standard for this kind of movie in this case.

Unfortunately, the film is less successful as a sequel to the original "Devil Bat" picture. While I admittedly might be a bit more of a stickler for continuity than many movie viewers, I still think anyone who saw "The Devil Bat" would wonder how/why the small town that was home to Paul Carruthers moved from the American Midwest to the East Coast, or why everyone from the town gossipers to the courts seem to have forgotten that Carruthers confessed to committing several premeditated murders using a trained bat before being killed by said bat in front of witnesses, or how Carruthers somehow transformed in everyone's mind from a well-respected local chemist and pillar of the community who secretly dabbling in bizarre experiments with growth acceleration through electrical glandular manipulation to a researcher who relocated to the town to work in peace and quiet on his mad science projects. The only details about Carruthers and his "devil bat" that remains consistent from the original film to this one is that he was the final victim of his own monster.

Why the creators of "Devil Bat's Daughter" chose to virtually ignore the story of the original film in favor of making Paul Carruthers the center of vampire legends and recasting him as a misunderstood genius instead of a raving madman is a mystery to me. Perhaps they were trying to convey that the entire town was shocked into a state of amnesia and dissasociation like Nina was over the revelations surrounding Paul Carruthers: Everyone in the small town of Heathville forgot who they were, where their town was located, and everything that really happened, and they filled in the blanks with details that seemed more logical to them than what had actually happened.

The film would have been much stronger if they'd remained consistent with the original, as Nina's madness and apparent homicidal mania could have been inherited from her crazy father; the writers could even have kept their goofy "ah-yup, dem townies shurly do believe that ole Doc Carruthers wuz a vampire, yup dey sure do" stuff as the trigger for her mental breakdown. Instead, they created a film that is undermined every time it invokes the original movie with distortions and revisions of that films most basic plot points and background elements.

And that's a shame, because their sloppy and arbitrary story telling manages to ruin what might otherwise have been a decent little thriller.

For more on the films from Poverty Row production company PRC, check out Matthew Coniam's great series of posts at Carfax Abby.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Joey Wang

Born in 1967, Taiwanese actress and photo model Joey Wang (sometimes credited as Joey Wong) made her film debut at 14 in the mystically-tinged drama "It Will Be Cold By the Lakeside This Year" and proceeded to work steadily in horror, fantasy, and action films through the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s, making more than 65 films. She retired from acting in 1998 after getting married and moving to Canada. (Wang has appeared in a couple of films since, but she shuns publicity and avoids the public eye.)

Wang's stature and willowy beauty made her the idea actress to play ghosts in Chinese period films, and her most famous films are indeed the "Chinese Ghost Story" series.

'City Hunter' is a quirky Chan vehicle

City Hunter (1992)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Chingmy Yua, Joey Wang, Kumiko Goto, and Richard Norton
Director: Jing Wong
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

"City Hunter" was adapted from a Japanese comic book and animated series of the same name... and it shows! The actors do the kind of double-takes, gestures, and poses that one expects to see in a "manga" or "anime." This adds greatly to the hilarity of the film.

The story revolves around private eye Ryu Saeba (Jackie Chan) who is hired to track down a run-away heiress (Yua). He ends up on a luxury liner, trapped between his jealous secretary/partner (Wang), the attractive heiress, a sexy gun-toting female agent (Goto), and a group of terrorists bent on capturing the ship and holding the passengers for ransom. And all Ryu wants is a bite to eat, because he made the mistake of skipping breakfast!

If you typically pick up Jackie Chan movies for the amazing stunts, this might not be the film for you; there really isn't much of that kind of action until the climactic scenes. It might also not be the film for you if you like your action free of random comedy and out-of-left field musical production numbers. However, if you have an appreciation for slap-stick and absurd screwball comedies, I recommend this flick highly!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

'Bite Me!' is done in by a bad script

Bite Me! (2004)
Starring: Misty Mundae, Michael R. Thomas, Sylvianne Chebance, Julian Wells, Caitlin Ross, Rob Monkiewicz, Erika Smith, and John Paul Fedele
Director: Brett Piper
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A failing strip club is invaded by monstrous spiders whose venom either bring out repressed sides of a victim's personality or turns them into hideous mutants.

"Bite Me" is a goofy film that spoofs the monster movies from the 1950s and the softcore porn films of the 2000s that many of the featured actresses have been in. It's not a bad little movie, but it could have been much better.

The problem is not with the actors. They're all pretty good, with Caitlin Ross (playing a doped-up stripper who manages to save the day while basically sleepwalking through the mayhem of monster spiders and crazy gunmen), Michael R. Thomas (as the brash club owner), and Misty Mundae (as a mild-mannered stripper who becomes Rambette after being bit by one of the spiders) being especially funny in their parts.

The technical aspect of this low-budget production is also very good, with decent camera work and lighting, nifty stop-motion animated monsters, and well-executed green-screen and CGI elements. The film actually looks better in many respects than movies with budgets that were probably ten times what it cost to make "Bite Me!"

What drags this movie down from, based on the concepts, the acting, and the technical execution, could have been at least a 7 rating to a very low 5 is the script.

The script is unfocused, flabby, and at times redundant. While there are some very funny bits in the beginning of the film but they are surrounded by material that sets up a subplot that never really pays off. The same is true with subplot about organized crime elements who are trying to take over the stripclub. An interesting character in the club's bartender is not given the development she should get, and the same is true to the club's owner. If the script had been taken through another couple of drafts, I'm certain writer/director Brett Piper would have noticed these flaws, saved the government conspiracy stuff for another movie and focused more on the stripclub and its denizens. That's where the heart of the movie is, and it's a shame that the time isn't there to develop it properly.

Still, "Bite Me!" is a fun little movie. It's worth seeing it you like cheesy monster films or if you're a fan of Misty Mundae or any of the other actresses appearing in it; they actually get to act in it, and they're good! (They mostly keep their clothes on, though, so if you're looking for the usual lesbian nookie, this is not the film for you.)

'Crime Broker' fails to close to deal

Crime Broker (aka "Corrupt Justice") (1993)
Starring: Jacqueline Bisset, Masaya Kato, John Bach, Ralph Cotterill, Justin Lewis, and Gary Day
Director: Ian Barry
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A bored legal genius who plans precision heists as a hobby (Bisset) is forced into taking part in violent crimes and murder by a psychopathic criminologist who uncovers her secret (Kato).

"Crime Broker" is an Australian made-for-TV movie that feels like a tawdry grocery store paperback thriller. It should appeal to those who like Jackie Collins novels (or whoever her more modern counterparts might be), but the rest of us might be a little bored with the predictable twists of the film and flat characters that never move beyond the state of stereotypes or cyphers.

I sat through the film primarily because I was hoping it was going to give me a fun finale with the crime-planning judge somehow turning the tables on the man who forced her into getting her hands dirty--her genius-level intellect was referred to over and over in the film, so it seemed like a perfect pay-off and a great fate for the vile, arrogant character played by Masaya Kato--but such was not to be. Although the "final job" the judge is forced to plan--one that involves robbing her own husband--is the perfect set-up for just the sort of finale this film desperately needed--the finale consists of a secondary character stepping in to more-or-less save the day... and ensuring that an already mediocre film slides into bad.

Jacqueline Bisset was pushing 50 when this movie was made, but she was still full of every bit of sex appeal as she exhibited in the 1970s. It's too bad the rest of the package wasn't as attractive and charged as she was.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Examples of Modesty

Here are some pictures of Peter O'Donnell's legendary international woman of mystery, Modesty Blaise (including a publicity shot of Monica Vitti as Modesty in the 1966 film).

Monday, January 24, 2011

Great Mike Oldfield songs with trippy videos

Here are a pair of classic tunes from the great Mike Oldfield with vocals by Anita Hegerland.

Mike Oldfield and Anita Hegerland

Sunday, January 23, 2011

'Bad Blonde' is an okay crime drama

Bad Blonde (aka "The Flanagan Boy") (1953)
Starring: Tony Wright, Barbara Payton, Frederick Valk, Sid James, and John Slater
Director: Reginald Le Borg
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A boxing promoter's trophy wife (Payton) seduces and manipulates a young prize fighter (Wright) into murdering her husband.

"Bad Blonde" is a crime drama mixed with a sports movie and a dash of film noir. Despite the American title, the film's main focus is actually the up-and-coming boxing star Johnny Flanagan, to whom the original British title referred, and how he is undone and ultimately destroyed by the sociopathic Lorna Vecchi.

It's a tragic story, because we watch Lorna destroy two decent men--and ruin the lives of two others--as the film unfolds. Boxing promoter Giuseppe Vecchi (played by Frederick Valch) is a kindhearted man who works very hard to treat everyone he interacts with fairly and to make all his friends happy, so as Lorna keeps pushing Johnny to murder him with her lies and sexual wiles, we keep hoping that he will come to his senses and tell his manager about what is really going on between him and Lorna. The fact that Johnny is also a good person makes us root even harder for him, especially when Lorna preys on Johnny's naivete by claiming to be threatening suicide and claiming to be pregnant to push him over the edge.

Because her victims are so likable, it is very satisfying to watch Lorna get her just rewards at the end of the movie. It would be even more satisfying if it made a little more sense than it does, or if one didn't have the feeling that she might easily be able to lie her way out of full punishment, but there are few characters in films that viewers want to see dragged off in chains than Lorna Vecchi.

The ending might also have been more satisfying if Barbara Payton had been a slightly better actress. She excels at putting sexiness--or, more accurately, horniness--on the screen, and she's quite good at delivering lines that are supposed to come across as haughty or bitchy, but when required to act angry or scared, her performance falls flat.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast is strong enough to carry the movie, with the supporting actors providing enough emotion and the tension to bring life and strength to the flawed ending. Likewise, the character of Giuseppe Vecchi could easily have come across as an annoying buffoon if he had been portrayed by a lesser actor than Valk. Much credit also goes to director Reginald Le Borg for keeping the film moving at a fast pace and further negating the lack of range in Payton's performance.

"Bad Blonde" is one of a dozen or so film-noirish crime drama's that Hammer Films co-produced with American B-movie mogul Robert L. Lippert. It's worth checking out if you want to see a neglected side of the greatest British B-movie studio. It's not the best film that came out of the partnership, but it's still very entertaining.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Rosalba Neri

Italian beauty Rosalba Neri (who is often credited under the stage name of Sara Bey) began her acting career at the age of 15. She appeared in at least 99 movies over a thirty year span, from 1956 to her retirement from acting in 1985. (Sources vary on the exact number of movies she appeared in.)

Neri appeared in films of just about every genre, often as a sexually charged villainess, the majority were soft-core erotica, thrillers, or horror flicks. Among her most famous films are "Lady Frankenstein", "The Lion of Thebes", and Mario Bava's "Hercules in the Haunted World.

'Lady Frankenstein' mixes monster-making with sexual perversion

Lady Frankenstein (aka "Daughter of Frankenstein") (1972)
Starring: Sara Bey, Joseph Cotton, Paul Muller, Mickey Hargitay, and Paul Whiteman
Directors: Mel Welles and Aureliano Luppi
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Tania Frankenstein (Bey) proves psychopathy is an inherited trait when she continues and perfects her dead father's work in reanimation and monster-making... by creating her perfect mate and sex-toy, using the body of a hunky handyman, and the brain of her father's former assistant (Muller).

"Lady Frankenstein" is a fast-paced--once it gets started... it opens rather slow--decidedly sleazy twist on the typical Frankenstein film. Monsters are created, monsters run amok, and torch-wielding villagers burn the castle down, but the twist here is that Frankenstein (played with class above this movie's station by Joseph Cotton) dies at the end of the first act, leaving his twisted daughter in charge of the murder and mayhem. Boy, does she rise to the challenge.

This film is most remarkable for the most disturbing sex scene I've seen so far on film with Tania Frankenstein having an orgasm as her lover is being murdered under her. Twisted stuff, but in perfect keeping with the overall tone of the film. It is also remarkable for having just about the lamest-looking monster of any featured in a Frankenstein film. (Yes, even lamer than the non-monster in "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter"... what we have here looks like the Toxic Avenger's retarded country cousin.)

Decently acted, and featuring better music, camera work, and sets than many films of this kind, "Lady Frankenstein" might be worth a look if my comments above haven't warned you off.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

'Blood Money' is well done, but run-of-the-mill

Blood Money (aka "The Arrangement" (1999)
Starring: Michael Ironside, Currie Graham, Lori Petty, Richard Riehle, Bill Dow, Paul Coeur, and George Buza
Director: Michael Ironside
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Two police detectives (Graham and Ironside) must protect a stripper (Petty) who is the only living witness in a brutal murder from killers brazen enough to murder a police officer within a Federal courthouse. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure working with the assassins is betraying them from within the police department.

"Blood Money" collects nearly every police drama cliche you care to mention between its opening and closing credits, so if you're a fan of hardbitten renegade cops pining for their dead wives, obnoxious Federal agents feuding with the local police, flamboyant gangsters, and police captains who go around shouting at anyone and everything, then this movie is for you. You'll even get all your favorite bits presented straight, with no twists or mockery. The only cliche not present is the young and idealistic cop who is at odds with his partner and/or has his idealism shattered by the events of the story; while Currie Graham does play a younger parter to Michael Ironside's grizzled veteran, he is not a rookie but is an experienced detective who is a fine and sensible match for the man he's working with.

The performances in the film are in keeping with the straight forward material, with the actors portraying figures more than characters. Ironside, Graham, and Reihle are all fine in their roles as cop cliches, while Lori Petty is decent as the typical "feisty stripper who shares a secret past with one of the cops" character. (That said, I'm not sure she was the best choice for the part; I like Petty as an actress, but she doesn't play scared or hysterical very well, and this part called on her to do both. And she didn't quite rise to the occassion.)

All in all, this is an entertaining, if unspectacular, film, not unlike the late-night cable cop dramas from the 1980s and 1990s. That's really all you need to know to decide if it's worth your time or not.

Trivia: This film was Michael Ironside's directorial debut. It is also the only film he's directed so far.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Picture Perfect: Princesses of Mars, Part Two

This is the second installment in a series of posts featuring images of beautiful Martian maidens, such as John Carter's beloved Dejah Thoris, from a range of talented artists.

Click on the artist's name under each illustration to see more of that artist's work at their official website (if they have one.)

By Gil Kane
By William Stout
By Josh Howard
By Andy Kuhn

Saturday Scream Queen: Ellie Cornell

Born in 1963, Ellie Cornell's first big horror movies roles came in"Halloween 4" and Halloween 5" (in 1988 and 1989, respectively) where she played a teenager unfortunate enough to be standing between maniac killer Michael Myers and his intended victim. She took a 13 year break from acting soon afterwards to raise her young children, but returned to the screen in 2003 in "House of Dead", one of Uwe Boll's notorious video game adaptations (and one of his best, actually) and has been appearing in movies and television shows steadily ever since.

Since resuming her career, Cornell has appeared in nine horror films, including "Prank", a segment in an as-of-yet unreleased anthology film directed by her former "Holloween" co-star Danielle Harris, and the sequel to "House of the Dead" (cleverly titled "House of the Dead 2".

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Best of Halloween, Part Two

This is the second and final post presenting reviews of the best Halloween films... and the only Michael Myers slashers that are worth your time.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Ellie Cornell, Danielle Harris, and Michael Pataki
Director: Dwight H. Little
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Ten years after Michael Myers brought real terror and bloodshed to Halloween night in the small town of Haddonfield, he escapes while being transferred between two asylums. He returns to his old stalking grounds, but finds that his sister, Laurie is now out of his reach. However, his young niece Jamie (Harris) is not so lucky. Soon, the bodies start to pile up, and Jamie and her teenaged protector (Cornell) may not survive the night, even though Dr. Loomis (Pleasance) is once again stalk Michael as he stalks them.

With “Halloween 4,” Myers joins the ranks (whether he is elevated or if he falls depends on your point of view) of all the other indestructible psycho-killers, since he was burned to a crisp on camera at the end of “Halloween II.” However, Dr. Loomis, is also back (and he didn’t fare much better than Myers in that fire), so he is probably the only slasher-flick hero who is as indestructible as killer himself!

Unfortunately, this film is another step down from the heights where it all began. Like “Halloween II” was an inferior film when compared to the original, so is “Halloween 4” weaker than both its predecessors. The greatest flaw is the setting of Haddonfield. Where Carpenter and his crew managed to infuse the town itself with a sense of dreadful anticipation, the director of this film just conveys that it is like any other little town. Because of this, the movie doesn’t seem quite as suspenseful as those that came before. Yes, there are plenty of shocks, and Myers is now conducting himself as we have come to expect from a man in his like of work (like Jason, and Freddy, and dozens and dozens of other cinema maniacs that appeared in the decade since Myer first cocked his head at Laurie Strode), but the same level of tension is never quite reached.

Acting-wise, however, the performances are as good as they were in the first pair of movies. Curtis isn’t in the film—her character reportedly died in a car accident shortly after she gave birth to a daughter—but instead we have Danielle Harris, a very talented child actress playing Jamie, Myers new target. Cornell also puts on a good show as the stubborn teenaged girl trying to keep herself and Jamie alive as Myers is killing people all around them. At first blush, Pleasance’s performance seems to be a bit much, but if one considers that Dr. Loomis has shot Myers in the chest six times, in the face twice, and burned him alive, and still the human monster fails to die, then it would make sense that the character has gone completely nuts. In that light, his performance is perfect.

Like “Halloween II”, this installment suffers from script problems. In this case, the script isn’t ponderous, but instead is burdened with some useless and annoying subplots (such as one involving brave rednecks hopping in their truck to go kick Michael-ass). I suppose the filmmakers sensed the other problem with the film’s storyline—that Myers was starting to no longer be scary. We saw all his tricks in the first two films, and all we had now was the same as before, except he was so monstrous that he would go after a very young child.

This problem with Michael Myers is what let to some truly stupid missteps in the three movies that followed. Someone, somewhere, decided to take Dr. Loomis at his word. Soon, the series was burdened with bizarre Satanic cultists. It's almost a shame that "Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers" marks the point at which the series tips over the edge of the abyss and plummets into the Bottomless Depths of Truly Crappy, because it has what I've always thought to be the most striking poster/home-video cover image of the entire series--Michael holding his trademarked butcher knife with the blade fading into an image of a young girl in a harlequin costume. Harris and Cornell are also both back with excellent performances. It’s a shame the overall movie isn’t have been better. (That's the illo at the tip of this post, by the way.)

The final word on “Halloween 4” is that it’s worth seeing if you like your slasher-flicks with some good acting. But you should avoid everything that follows it... with the exception of "Halloween: H20"

Halloween: H20 (1998)
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Josh Hartnett, Adam Arkin, Michelle Williams, and LL Cool J
Director: Steve Miner
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Keri Tate (Curtis) has spent the past twenty years trying to put a single night horror behind her. Her successful career as an educator has helped, as has the love of her now-teenaged son (Hartnett) and the fact that she faked her death and changed her name when she became pregnant with him. But now, the past is coming back with a vengeance... Keri will no longer be able to deny that she is Laurie Strode. Michael Myers is back, and he still wants her.

"Halloween: H20" is the only entry in the series since "The Return of Michael Myers" that is worth your time. In fact, it's one of the best slasher movies to emerge from the late 1990s when the genre enjoyed a bit of a revival, because it doesn't engage in self-mockery and remains true to the tone and mood of the original "Halloween" films while presenting a slasher story with a slightly different structure than what we're used to.

Arkin), and likable innocents who are soon to run into the human killing machine that is Michael Myers.

Also like the original "Halloween", this film does not rely on body count and gory, creative butchering of characters. Instead, it relies on the fact that the audience actually cares about what happens to the characters in the film. With its well-written script, solid cast--Curtis in particular is fabulous as a broken Laurie Strode who suddenly finds the strength to fight not only for herself but for the life of her son--and a highly underrated director at the helm, the audience is drawn into the action and terror as it builds and unfolds.

(I feel Miner is underrated, because this and other horror films he's done shows that he understands that there needs to be a pay-off to any build-up of suspense, and that the key to making a horror movie truly scary is that the characters in the film need to be human and sympathetic. Both of these facts seem to be lost on many modern horror film directors who believe that one fake scare after another and flat characters surrounded by CGI monsters is all that's needed.)

"Halloween: H20" was a great way to celebrate twenty years of Michael Myers striking fear into the hearts of audiences around the world--it almost managed to reach the great heights achieved by Carpenter and Company in the original film. It remains the last worthwhile entry in the series.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Best of Halloween, Part One

When John Carpenter crystalized the tropes of the slasher genre in the first two "Halloween" movies, the horror genre was changed forever, for better or worse. This is the first of two posts that take a look at the better of the "Halloween" series.

Halloween (1978)
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance
Director: John Carpenter
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Michael Myer, who has been confined to a mental institution since committing several brutal murders as a young child, escapes and returns to his hometown to kill his last remaining relative, his sister. While his psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Pleasance) tries to get the local sheriff to clear the streets of Halloween trick-or-treaters to protect them from a killer who the doctor believes to literally be possessed by evil spirits, Michael is cutting his way through the population of Haddonfield, getting ever closer to his actual goal, his sister, Laurie (Curtis).

"Halloween" was the first of this type of movie--an unspeakably violent, hands-on killer butchers his way through hapless victims until one girl faces him alone--and it still remains the best. The gore may be mild compared to the countless slasher flicks that follow, but the tension and terror flowing from the screen remains unmatched.

All actors featured in “Halloween” turn in great performances, with Curtis’ portrayal of the terror-stricken, yet scrappy, Laurie being particularly impressive. Horror movie veteran Pleasance also turns in a great performance as the stressed-beyond-stressed-out, gun-toting mental health professional bent on stopping a man who is “pure evil” before he murders again. Even the actor playing the masked, silent Michael Myer is wonderful—he has an animal-like way of cocking his head that is very creepy.

Other strong aspects that really make “Halloween” stand out is the camera-work, lighting, and set-dressing. All of these combine to turn typical small-town America into a creepy and threatening environment that is as much a character in the film as the principle actors. Much of the tension that is built in the early parts of the film grows from the curiously unsettling aura throughout the town of Haddonfield.

Finally, the soundtrack score of "Halloween" needs to be singled out for praise. Performed completely on synthesizers by director Carpenter, it stands as not only one of the creepiest horror movie scores but also as one of the best works of electronica ever composed. Plus, no other horror movie has a theme as memorable as "Halloween." (Only "The Exorcist" comes close, and the theme from it wasn't originally composed for the movie.)

Halloween II (1981)
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

'Halloween II" is a direct sequel to the original movie, picking up pretty much exactly where it left off. After narrowly escaping death at the knife-wielding hands of her insane brother, Laurie is taken to the local hospital while an apparently dead Michael Myers is taken to the morgue in its basement. It quickly becomes apparent that someone was a bit hasty in declaring Myers dead—a natural mistake since Dr. Loomis had shot him six times in the chest--and soon he is stalking through the darkened hospital and sending everyone on the graveyard shift to the graveyard. Maybe Laurie won’t live to see the sun come up on November 1st after all.

The film takes place almost entirely within the Haddonfield hospital. Director Rick Rosenthal. Rosenthal successfully uses the empty, darkened hallways to evoke suspense and horror, and to eventually emphasize the isolation of Laurie as she for the second time in one night is the object of her brother’s murderous intentions.

On the acting front, we’ve got Curtis and Pleasance reprising their roles from the original “Halloween”, and they are just as good as they were before. Curtis once again strikes a perfect balance between strength and terror, and Pleasance once again excels as a man obsessed with putting an end to what he views as evil given form on Earth.

The only weakness that prevents this film from being as good as the original “Halloween” is, curiously, the script. Although Carpenter and Hill wrote both, the story for “Halloween II” never really seems to build up quite the same momentum as the original movie. The middle is actually downright dull at times.

“Halloween II” is still worth watching, but a tighter script would have made it so much better.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

'Batman/Spirit' is a team-up for the ages

Batman/Spirit (DC Comics, 2006)
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When police commisioners from all across America converge on Hawaii for their annual convention, the mysterious criminal mastermind known only as Octopus organizes a "convention" of his own. He the most dangerous criminals from around the world and both Gotham City and Central City to Hawaii so they can kill all the top law dogs of the United States with one single bomb. Good thing Batman and the Spirit happen by to save the day!

"Batman/Spirit" was a comic book that was inevitible once DC Comics acquired the publishing rights for the late Will Eisner's signature series, "The Spirit". It was also a great bit of foreshadowing of the great things that Darwyn Cooke (whose work I had previously praised in the masterful graphic novel "Catwoman: Selina's Big Score") would do in the early issues of DC Comics' new monthly The Spirit comic from the late 2000s.

"Batman/Spirit" is a fun little story in the mold of traditional superhero team-ups: The heroes are brought together when villains from their respective "rogues galleries" team up for a grand masterplan. There's some misunderstanding that leads to the heroes fighting each other at first, but that is soon cleared up, and they get on with the business of busting the bad guys.

In this story, The Spirit and Batman do indeed end up working together (and Robin helps out, too), but the running gag of Spirit refusing to believe Batman is real ("he's just something the Gotham City P.D. made up to scare criminals") is a highlight of the tale... and a great way to keep the two "universes" seperate despite their cross-over here. Other highlights are the seduction scenes, as a femme fatale from the Spirit (P'Gell) uses her charms on Commisioner Gordon, while Batman foe Poison Ivy turns her feminine wiles toward Commisioner Dolan, all in an effort to set up the masterplan.

Other villians who get their turn in the spotlight are the Joker and Harley Quinn (here more in their 'Batman Animated Series' personas than the comic book titles), Catwoman (who cons the Spirit into thinking she's undercover with the FBI), Killer Croc and the Cossak (who become the common ground for the Spirit and Batman when they are subjected to "extreme" interrogation techniques). Just about every major Batman and Spirit villian get a smalll apparance, and alll either get a dramatic moment of a nicely done laugh line.

The way the story resolves itself is also clever and funny. It's even one of the few times where a deus ex machina ending seems satisfying and wholly appropriate.

Fans of Will Eisner's "The Spirit" will get a kick out of this hilarious comic book, and lovers of the more lighthearted Batman of the animated series or the comics from the 1970s and 1980s will find an atmosphere that will inspire nostalgia. And every reader who likes a good superhero team-up romp will find this title a worthy of their time and money.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:NananananananaBATMAN!

Yesterday, it was 45 years ago that the "Batman" TV show debuted on ABC, with Adam West as Batman, Burt Ward as Robin. Yvonne Craig later joined the heroic line-up as Batgirl. Legendary iconic television performances as recurring villains were provided by Cesar Romero (as The Joker), Frank Gorshin (as The Riddler), Burgess Meredith (as The Penguin) and Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt (as Catwoman, at various points).

The new Batgirl (secretly Commissioner Gordon's daugther, Barbara) was created by DC Comics editor Julie Schwartz and artist Carmine Infantino at the request of the show's producer, William Dozier, for its third season. Dozier envisioned Batgirl in her own spin-off series, a plan that never came to be.

The failure of the spin-off series to materialize doesn't change the fact that version of Batgirl remains the coolest version. Within the next month or so, I'll be reviewing the book reprinting her comic book adventures from the 1960s and 1970s, but in the meantime, here are some recent portrayals of her.

For more pictures from the classic Batman television show, check out this post at Cinema Steve.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tectonic Tuesday: Yvonne Craig

Last Spring, the great and wise Imam of Imam's Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, full of Allah-given insight that no one since Mohammed Himself (may peas be upon him) has been, revealed to the world the real cause of earthquakes. Forget the lies spread about tectonic plates by the so-called scientists of the West--those tools of the evil Zionist conspiracy--but believe instead this simple, divinely inspired truth, as these are the words of Allah himself as spoken by the Imam of Imams: "Many women who do not dress modestly... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes."

This series of posts spotlights the immodest women that Imam Slammy (as he is known by his friends) warned us about, while proving beyond any doubt the truth of his claims with the historical proof that their wanton ways have caused the earth to crack and buildings to crumble.

Eighteenth Case Study: Yvonne Craig

Born in 1937, teenaged Yvonne Craig immodestly paraded her body before audiences under the guise of "ballet," but it was when she turned to acting that she became a major threat to the stability of earth. In 1959, she appeared with numerous other bikini-clad women in "Gidget." Their wontoness caused the Hebgen Lake quake in August of that year.

But it was 1967 that she became a clear and present danger to civilizations and life around the planet. During that year, and into 1968, Craig appeared as Batgirl on the television show "Batman." Although she made a half-hearted show of modesty by wearing a cowl that covered her hair and part of her face, the rest of her skin-tight purple outfit (and the way she pranced around in it) was anything but modest.

Craig is the one responsible for the 1968 earthquake in 23 states and Canada, cracked roads and toppled structures from Toronto to Missouri, and threatened to bring down the legendary St. Louis Arch. With the "Batman" television show airing around the world even now, there is truly no way to accurately measure the damage and suffering that has been visited upon the world by immodesty of Yvonne Craig.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Danielle Harris

Danielle Harris celebrated her 11th birthday while on the set of her debut film "Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers": She so enjoyed acting in this film and its sequel "Halloween 5" that she set her heart on being a horror movie actress for the rest of her life.

While she appeared in thrillers and comedies and done voices for cartoons, Harris has been successful in fulfilling her childhood dream. Her career survived the transition from child star to adult actress, and the majority of the she has d appearing in over 60 movies and television shows she has appeared in have horror films or thrillers.

Harris remains a busy actress and starting with the "Halloween" remake in 2007 (and its sequel), her projects have almost been entirely horror-oriented. She appears in four movies slated for release in 2011, including "Night of the Living Dead 3D" and the Michael Beihn-directed "The Victim".

Friday, January 7, 2011

'Season of the Witch' is a time of fantasy/horror

Season of the Witch (2011)
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Ulrich Thomsen, Robert Sheehan, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Stephen Graham
Director: Dominic Sena
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A pair of 14th century Crusader knights (Cage and Perlman) return to their homeland to find it ravaged by a terrible plague. They join a priest (Moore) and three other swordsmen (Graham, Sheehan, and Thomsen) on a dangerous mission to escort a mysterious girl (Foy) who is suspected of being the witch who has caused the plague to a remote monastery where her soul will be cleansed.

"Season of Witch" is a fast-moving fantasy/horror film that mixes movie cliches--can there be a horror film set in the Middle Ages that doesn't feature some plague or another?--and refreshing approaches to standard fantasy/horror/action movie types--such as the knights played by Cage and Perlman who have grown disillusioned with earthly religious institutions but who still don't go on long, never-ending screeds about God not existing--with a degree deftness that a fairly standard story and characters have enough of an air of freshness about them that you won't regret the time or the money spent on watching this movie.

The audience for this film are big fans of D&D-style low-fantasy adventures, as the horror here is more R.E. Howard than H.P. Lovecraft, and the heroes' relationship with God and religion is more Solomon Kane than Joan of Arc. It's a straight-forward adventure populated with situations and characters that will either bring feelings of nostalgia or satisfaction to DMs and players who will feel like the scenery in their mind's eye while playing paper-based RPGs has come to life on the screen before them. This movie is what a D&D movie should be like, with its ass-kicking heroes, sinister witches, zombies, and uber-powerful demons.

Unfortunately, the film shares a bit of the haphazard plotting that is typical of even the best conceived roleplaying game adventures, be they "homebrews" or published scenarios. Much of what happens in the film seems to happen just because it's a plot necessity, especially once the characters reach their destination. I can't go into it too much without spoiling the movie, but you will find yourself wondering why the heroes even made it inside the monastery walls as the film barrels toward its CG monster-filled climax. The red herrings presented--is the girl a witch or not?; is the priest a bad guy rapist/satanist or not?--are clumsily implemented and there is never any real doubt on the part of the viewer what the truth is. And then there's the unfortunately, unintentionally comedic named location of "City of Villach."All in all, the script is fairly weak, succeeding in large part because it is constantly moving the film forward to the next creepy scene or the next fight, and because the filmmakers were smart and confident enough in their abilities to stay off the soap-box and show us the brutality and corruption that can arise from religious fanaticism instead of telling us. (Although the friend I saw the film with though less of it than I did, she being troubled by the fact that the only women in the film were demon-possessed witches who were just there to be dispatched.)

The other keys to what makes this film fun to watch is the peformances by Nicholas Cage, Ron Perlman, and Claire Foy. None are particularly deep characters, but Cage and Perlman play well off each other, and they are perfectly believable as life-long friends and honorable knights. Meanwhile, Foy can project wide-eyed innocence and demonic menace with equal force.

Fans of the films stars and of low-fantasy (or the even lower D&D-style fantasy) will enjoy "Season of the Witch". Admirers of the Tolkien and Lewis screen adaptations might want to skip it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Jennifer Love Hewitt

Even television stars are suffering in the economic down-turn.

Needed more of Jennifer Love Hewitt's breasts

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998)
Starring: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinz, and Brandi
Director: Danny Cannon
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

The survivors of a murderous rampage by a hook-wielding mass-murderer (Hewitt and Brandi) win a free Caribbean vacation. However, their trip to paradise turns into a stay in hell when the slicker-clad killer seems to return from the dead to stalk them once again.

"I Still Know What You Did Last Summer" is perhaps the worst big-budget slasher-flick ever made. From a really dumb title, to a weak set-up, through a barely coherent middle, to a lame and boring unmasking and final confrontation with the killer who has a motivation so thin that it makes the psycho in "Scream" look like a heavy-weight, there isn't a single story element in this film that works. It's not like a slasher flick is hard to do, but these folks couldn't even use the cliche building blocks of the genre properly.

The technical crew does a fine job, the actors are all pretty good (even if Brandi's "I'm a hipper than hip ghetto chick" routine is grating), and even the camera work is decent. If the film had a better script, it might have risen to an average level. The same might have been true if the film had been played partly for laughs like the aforementioned "Scream." Even Jennifer Love Hewitt, who is one of my favorite current actresses and who was interesting even in the most boring episodes of "Ghost Whisperer", seems to struggle in this morass of cliches and bad dialogue.

In the final analysis, the most watchable things in this movie are Jennifer Love Hewitt's breasts, but since we don't get to see her in as many tight tops as we did in the first film of the series--"I Know What You Did Last Summer"--even they aren't quite the reasons to watch this film they were. Everything about this movie is disappointing.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Only remarkable because of two Hammer firsts

Man Bait (aka "The Last Page") (1952)
Starring: George Brent, Diana Dors, Marguerite Chapman, Peter Reynolds, Raymond Huntley, and Meridith Edwards
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When a lazy bookstore employee (Dors) and a psychopathic career criminal (Reynolds) set out to blackmail her married manager, his refusal to submit leads to murder.

"Man-Bait" is a rambling crime drama that is probably more true to life than most films of this type--the criminal element are dumb as rocks and their "brilliant" scheme of first blackmail and then murder is so badly conceived that the movie only lasts as long as it does because of characters who either panic because they think they are going to be the ones blamed for murder, or who play detective and put themselves in major peril. If the mostly law-abiding citizens had turned the police when it had been the smart thing to do, the film would have been over in 20 minutes.

Although the film's story is incredibly forced and populated by dunderheads, the actors give it their all, as does director Terence Fisher, in what was the first film in what would be a 20+-year association with the company. Although George Brent is still pretty bland, he is more lively here than I've ever seen him before, while the scenes involving Peter Reynolds as he sets out to do violence to the beautiful Diana Dors and Marguerite Chapman are excellent and suspenseful high points for the film that are as good as anything Fisher did in later and far better films.

While this was Fisher's first film for Hammer, it was also the first of a dozen co-productions between Hammer Films and American B-movie producer Robert Lippert; before Hammer hit it big with Peter Cushing and Technicolor horror, they were creating quite a little niche for themselves with low-budget mysteries and film noir dramas. This first collaboration is one of the weaker films that would result from the union, but it's a far sight better than some of Lippert's other films, such as sci-fi misfires "Lost Continent" and "Unknown World". Also, while all the Lippert/Hammer productions are very British in nature, this is perhaps the one that is most strongly so, with the flavor of the bookstore where much of the action takes place, the characters both inside and outside the store where they work, and the setting of a London still recovering from WW2 blitzes all bringing a strong atmosphere to this picture that I've not often seen in this genre.

Still, this is a film that is really primarily of interest to the hardest of the hardcore Anglophiles or fans of film noir, as well as those with a strong interest in the works of Terence Fisher, one or more of the features performers, or the history of Hammer Films. It's not a bad movie, but it's also not as good as many of those that would follow.

Monday, January 3, 2011

'Nancy Drew' is a fun and respectful adaptation

Nancy Drew (2007)
Starring: Emma Roberts, Tate Donovan, Max Thieriot, Marshall Bell, and Laura Harring
Director: Andrew Fleming
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Kid detective and all-around genius Nancy Drew (Roberts) temporarily moves with her father (Donovan) to Los Angeles due to his work. Here, she becomes interested in decades-old mysteries swirling around the now-dead actress (Harring) who once lived in house they are renting. But someone wants the past to stay buried, and they'll bury Nancy too if they must.

"Nancy Drew" sat in my "To Watch" pile for at least two years. If I'd known how cute and funny it was, I might have watched it sooner. It's not often these days where a remake/adaptation of some classic bit of pop culture gets treated with the sort of respect that the Nancy Drew property got; filmmakers and owners of intellectual properties now seem far more interested in crapping all over older IPs in the hopes of seeming clever and making a quick buck instead of trying to carry them forward for a new generation... and even more potential riches in the future. Yes, "Nancy Drew" has many funny moments--including some satirical ones--but it never mocked the characters or the idea of Nancy as as the perfect girl that every parent would want and that every intelligent, bookish girl would want to be like. I've never read girl's adventure/mystery fiction, but the plot and activities here hewed close to the sort of material I remember from the kids' mysteries I read that I think this film was perhaps even more faithful to the source material than even the films from the 1930s were (Click here for reviews.)

A great deal of this film's success rests with a great script that, as I mentioned above, captures the essence of classic kids' mystery fiction, but also manages to bring plenty of modern vibes to it. Although Nancy is out of step with her peers--something she acknowledges, is okay with, and even takes a small degree of pride in--the film is very much set among modern teenagers and reflective of modern teenage behavior; cell phones and all that comes with them play a key part in many aspects of the film. The script also provides a cast of likable characters, every one of which you wouldn't having to spend time with (except for the bad guys).

This film also presents Nancy Drew as an ideal role model for young girls. She wants to have friends and to get along with her peers, but she is not willing to sacrifice who she is at the expense of fitting in, and she does not give in to peer pressure. She is interested in learning everything she can, and she invariably turns around and discovers a use for what she has learned. When a task is set before her, she always tries to over-achieve. It's a great movie to watch with your pre-teens and young teens... and it's a movie that all of you will be able to enjoy. The mystery at its center is complex enough that both kids and adults can be entertained by it, and the script is artfully enough crafted that the audience gets the clues as Nancy does so we try to solve the mystery before she does. Other great aspects of the script--which was co-written by director Andrew Flemming--is a touching element in Nancy's back story and psychological make-up that explains her drive to solve mysteries; and a great gag bit that plays around with Hollywood stereotypes and features one of the funniest cameos by a major star playing himself (in this case, Bruce Willis) that I've ever seen.

Fifteen year-old Emma Roberts was perfectly cast in the role. An exceptionally young actress, she has great screen presence, great comedic timing, and enough range to take Nancy from her usual, optimistic and extremely extroverted state to a more subdued emotional state when things go against her at one point in the film. The scene where Nancy talks about why she feels the need to solve mysteries, one of the few emotional moments in this fast-moving and upbeat mystery romp, could easily have fallen flat or come across as sickeningly maudlin in the hands of a lesser actress, and Roberts talent really shined through there.

Roberts also has more charm and grace in her on-screen persona than Bonita Granville exhibited when she played the character in the old black-and-white movies... although in Granville's defense, the script Roberts had behind her is better than anything Granville dealt with. (Interestingly, Nancy's boyfriend is virtually identical between the two versions, with him patiently putting up with the way she is always dragging him into some strange adventure or another, because he knows that she simply can't help herself. The look of the two actors playing the parts--Max Thieriot in this version and Frankie Thomas in the old films--even look similar.)

This is a fun movie that is literally for the entire family, especially if there are lots of girls in the house.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Victoria De Mare

The first Saturday Scream Queen of 2010 is Victoria De Mare, an actress, dancer, and singer who has been working steadily in low-budget horror and sci-fi flicks since getting her start in the early 2000s in the Roger Corman-produced horror spoof "Slaughter Studios" and the Charles Band-directed ""

Over the past decade, De Mare has appeared in over 40 movies and television episodees, with roles ranging from tiny bit parts to starring turns in "Shadows" and two different 2010 releases--"Contagion" and "Killjoy 3". Horror fans will be seeing even more of her in the years to come, as she is already featured in a dozen more projects at various stages of production.

Picture Perfect Special: The Old Year is Gone, the New Year is Here