Tarantula! (1955)

APRIL 26, 2019


I frequently daydream about being born in the late '30s or early '40s, so that I'd be the right age to go see the 1950s monster movies (not to mention the revivals of the earlier Universal stuff!) when they were new... and not yet outdone by the stuff I DID grow up with, i.e. the '80s monster movies, some of which were superior versions of those films (i.e. The Thing, The Blob, etc). Because while still enjoyable to a degree, it's hard to really get excited about something like Tarantula! when I'm seeing it for the first time in 2019, 60+ years after it was made. Without the nostalgic factor to give it a boost, I can just take it for what it is: a rather slow paced giant spider movie with not enough destruction to make up for its long buildup.

Ironically, I never expect these older films to be fast paced, but the movie gave me a reason to be optimistic as it kicked off with a deformed man, clearly the result of something gone awry (i.e. the same experiment that would produce our giant spider), staggering around and dropping dead in the first few minutes. "Great!", I thought, figuring that meant our titular "hero" would be along shortly since we were joining a story in progress. But alas that wasn't really the case; another deformed scientist frees the (big but not GIANT) spider about 15 minutes later, and then it takes another 30-35 minutes for it to actually start attacking anything. And it's not even a full-on mayhem fest from that point even though there's less than 30 minutes left - there's quite a bit of yakety yak in between the spider scenes all the way until the bitter end, and we see more people running from the thing on the Blu-ray cover than actually see it in the movie.

Luckily the spider scenes are still fun, and it seems they went for a quality over quantity approach. Sure, the rear projection stuff doesn't always look amazing (especially on Blu-ray) and there's a funny mistake in the mattework that results in the spider's legs disappearing in one shot, but it holds up better than a lot of other FX shots of the era (and even some beyond it). It doesn't hurt that they used an actual spider instead of a scale puppet or something, so even though we are denied much up close and personal interaction with the characters there's still some genuine spectacle to enjoy, especially in the wider shots when the spider is menacing a hillside or something. Since I, like any sane human, have a natural tendency to want to stomp on or run away from a spider when it's in the vicinity, having a real one, as opposed to a fake looking puppet, really helps it play as intended even if the compositing isn't always great.

And director/co-writer Jack Arnold gets some mileage out of the slow transformation of poor Leo G. Carroll (not over a barrel, as I discovered), who is injected with the same serum that made the giant tarantula. But he doesn't become a giant Leo G. - he just turns into the same mutant thing that the guy at the beginning did, and his final form (courtesy of Bud Westmore, aka the guy who stole Millicent Patrick's credit for Creature From The Black Lagoon) is legit kind of unsettling, with a drooped eye and other facial disfigurements (the first victim's symptoms are chalked up to Acromegaly). Since we never saw the other guy normally, it's hard to tell the progression, but Leo starts the movie looking like, well, the guy from the Hitchcock movies and what not, and ends up looking like the Phantom of the Opera mixed with the Elephant Man.

As for the heroes, eh. John Agar is his usual amiable but forgettable self, and while I liked Mara Corday as "Steve" (Stephanie), she doesn't get all that much to do. Her and Agar don't fall in love, so there's something, but you could also remove them from the movie with almost minimal effect. In fact you could do it with *zero* effect when it comes to the climax - they just stand and watch as jet fighters (one piloted by an uncredited Clint Eastwood!) take on the monster. They're not even that close to the battle, so the risk of getting caught in the crossfire is nil - they might as well have just gone home early. My favorite character was probably the sheriff, because he was played by Creature's Nestor Paiva, a guy I always love to watch. He'd reteam with Agar on Revenge of the Creature (his Lucas was the only one who came back from the original) and Mole People, and it's easy to see why Universal kept pairing them up: the two have good chemistry here, starting off kind of antagonistic toward each other but becoming bros by the end.

Besides the trailer the only bonus feature on the Blu-ray is a commentary hosted by Tom Weaver, who also notes that the film pales compared to the likes of Them! and others of the era, though still has its charms. It's an odd track; he is by himself but frequently introduces separately recorded folks to offer their own insight, including someone who explains the history of the film's (mostly recycled) score for ten straight minutes before Weaver returns. It's a good way to get around the dryness that usually accompanies solo tracks, and it has a good mix of "guest stars" (Joe Dante even pops up at one point), and Weaver himself offers up some good info, such as a rundown of Arnold's various lies about the script (which he ultimately took sole credit for in later years, despite the two other credited writer's proven contributions) and how the scientists ended up looking like morons after a scene explaining their motives was deleted.

Without a 3D gimmick or franchise appeal, I'm not sure how this one can really find its place for modern fans. It's very much a product of its time, for better or worse, but there are better options for those who haven't ever seen one of the giant monster flicks of the era. Obviously if you're already a fan then it's an easy recommend - the transfer is terrific and the commentary track has plenty of good information for those who are curious about such things - but if my kid asked to see an ideal entry from this decade, I'd go with Them! or even The Deadly Mantis if I wanted him to have more fun with the experience and not walk away with the dreaded "it's old so it's boring" takeaway. Plus, in my house, Kingdom of the Spiders is the spider horror movie of choice, so it can't win there either. It's fine, just not one of the best of its time and made somewhat irrelevant over the six decades since.

What say you?


FTP: Full Moon High (1981)

APRIL 17, 2019


Like any good horror fan, I was sad to hear the news that Larry Cohen had passed away a few weeks back. Not because we would be denied more films, as he seemed to have retired from filmmaking anyway (his sole directorial effort in the past 20+ years was his Masters of Horror episode, thirteen years ago), but because he was such a fun storyteller for Q&As and commentary tracks, and it's sad knowing he won't be able to contribute one again. Luckily he was still in good spirits and health when he sat down (with King Cohen director Steve Mitchell) to talk about Full Moon High, and it's one of his better tracks - his memory is vague on a few things (naturally; I mean, it's been 35+ years) but he's got plenty of fun anecdotes and "from the trenches" tales of indie filmmaking, making the track just as entertaining as the film.

Or perhaps more so? It's not a BAD movie, but for a comedy it's oddly low on big laughs until the last twenty minutes, when Alan Arkin shows up as the world's worst psychiatrist. Until then, it's got a sort of breezy charm that keeps it watchable, but overall it lives up to the standards set by the other early 80s glut of spoofy horror movies (Class Reunion, Student Bodies, Saturday the 14th, etc), i.e. you're better off rewatching Young Frankenstein than tracking them down. Unless, of course, you're a particular fan of their individual filmmakers or stars and are seeing them out of curiosity - indeed, the only reason I bothered with this was because I hadn't seen it yet and wanted to listen to Cohen tell some stories to celebrate his life (and also because it's been in the pile for well over a year now so it made a good candidate for this column).

The weirdest thing about the movie is that it's a PG-rated sex comedy. Adam Arkin plays a high school football star who is bitten when traveling with his horndog father (Ed McMahon!) and becomes a wolf with a penchant for biting victims on their butt. He also becomes a conquest of sorts for a few of the local women, including Happy Days' Roz Kelly, so we are treated to more sex scenes than I've ever seen in a PG movie (hell, it technically has more sex than Basic Instinct). Add in the coach (who seems to have designs on his players as opposed to the cheerleaders) and some other supporting characters' own inhibitions, and you have a super horny movie that is also hamstrung by its rating, which makes it feel neutered, never getting as outrageous as it often feels like it should be.

One thing that does work is the time jump; as an immortal, Arkin's character leaves town and does his thing elsewhere for 20 year or so before coming back, posing as his own son and re-enrolling at school. Some of his friends (including Kelly and the coach, played by Kenneth mars) are still around and aged up, and his school has gone to total shit over the years, so Cohen does a pretty good job at establishing the two time periods despite his usual low budget and some iffy actors. One of my favorite gags was during this passage of time montage, which was partially explained by replacing the photo of the current President: Eisenhower to Kennedy, Kennedy to Johnson, etc. After just swapping the photos for a bit, Cohen tosses in some gags: Nixon's photo is angrily shattered first before being replaced, and Ford's is placed but not actually hung, letting it instantly drop to the floor - heh.

That and a few other inspired gags are spread out between what for me was just a lot of mild smiling. If this was a straight up horror comedy, that might not be such a big deal - as long as the horror element was working, the dud jokes wouldn't hurt all that much. But this is a full on comedy with a werewolf in it, much closer to Teen Wolf than American Werewolf in London, so the jokes need to land more often than they do, even when taking into account that some of the humor is no longer in vogue. I suspect it has a number of fans who saw it for the first time in the early 80s, but seeing it for the first time now, sans nostalgia? It doesn't quite hit the mark. Still, Cohen ropes in some of his regulars, and Alan Arkin's performance is right in line with the stuff Michael Moriarty was doing in his best collaborations with the filmmaker, so it still at least satisfies on that level. Cohen's made worse movies, certainly, so as a tribute viewing I guess it turned out OK. But I'll miss him more than I'll miss this disc when I trade it in, for sure.

What say you?


FTP: The Witches (1966)

APRIL 10, 2019


Maybe from now on I'll stay away from anything Hammer made in 1966. I like Plague of the Zombies OK but it's partially my nostalgia driving that one (first one I saw), but The Reptile was possibly my least favorite and now The Witches gets pretty close to that territory as well. On paper it sounds fine (incidentally, it's adapted from a book), telling a Wicker Man-ish story of a lady taking a job as a schoolteacher in a town where everyone is "off", but the movie never has a pulse until its final ten minutes, and that stuff isn't scary or thrilling - it's just ridiculous, which is an improvement over "plodding", sure, but certainly isn't what anyone would probably want when they sat down for a Hammer movie about witches.

Things are amiss almost instantly. The film begins in Africa, where our protagonist Gwen (Joan Fontaine) is desperately trying to escape from some approaching witch doctors, due to events we're not fully privy to. The masked doctors crash through the door and approach her, seemingly to kill her, and then the movie fades to credits, only to come back in England where she's meeting about the schoolteacher job - she's apparently just a bit rattled by her experience that seemed to suggest she was about to be murdered. I actually spent a chunk of the runtime thinking maybe she was dead and this was some kind of Jacob's Ladder kind of deal, but as the movie dragged along I realized that would be too exciting a conclusion for this particular story.

Oddly enough, the most fun I got out of the disc was the historian commentary by Ted Newsom (the package says he'd be joined by Constantine Nasr, but while Mr. Nasr is mentioned a few times he's not there). I tend to find most of these a bit too dry for my liking when they're solo, but Newsom doesn't seem to think too highly of the movie either, so instead of rattling off filmographies and mildly amusing anecdotes from the production he's actually just kind of complaining about it half the time. He rightfully lambasts the inexplicable decision to include an amnesia detour at around the film's 50 minute mark (tellingly for how dull the movie is, Newsom says it happens 90 minutes in - clearly it just felt that way, since the movie is only 90 minutes long entirely), notes how "dowdy" everyone looks every few minutes, and laughs at some of its rare attempts at suspense. He also doesn't seem to be reading from notes the whole time, another thing that made it more lively than some others.

I should note that this is a recent "pile" acquisition; it only came to disc like three weeks ago. The problem with this new experiment is that more stuff keeps coming in, so I'm trying to balance it between newer arrivals and ones that have literally gotten dust on them because they've been there so long. I hope you guys don't mind the shorter reviews, but honestly for movies like this I don't think I could find enough to say to make it standard length, so I'd probably end up saying nothing and this site would be a ghost town that much longer. It took me five attempts to watch it because I kept dozing off; it was only the allure of the Hammer brand that kept me going because I was sure it'd get better. And technically it did (the climax is truly goofy), but too little too late. Oh well.

What say you?


The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)

APRIL 9, 2019


My attempt to go through the entire Hammer Dracula series in the old days of the site (can you believe it's been six years since I "quit"? That's as long as I ran it in the first place!) was not successful - I am only just now catching The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, and I *still* haven't seen Scars of Dracula. But I chalk this up to seeing them all out of order (not as much by choice as by availability); it makes it hard to remember which ones I was missing, and in at least one instance I obtained one I thought I had missed only to discover not only had I seen it, I already reviewed it! I vow though, come hell or high water - I will see Scars this year! Or at least in less than six years from now.

Anyway I knew this one was kind of the black sheep of the series due to having someone else play Dracula besides Christopher Lee, and also for making it a hybrid between vampire movie and kung fu flick, as the latter was very much in vogue at the time. So I was surprised to discover it was actually quite a bit of fun; the plot is nonsense, yes, but it's never dull for a second - if there's ever more than maybe five minutes of plot stuff, a fight will break out and last an equal (or longer) amount of time. And it's good fighting too - although uncredited, Cheh Chang brought his considerable experience (The Flying Dagger, The One-Armed Swordsman) to make sure the fight scenes were authentic, with Hammer stalwart Roy Ward Baker's team giving them the lighting/editing polish the kung fu flicks often lacked, so it's like a best of both worlds kind of scenario more often than not.

Of course, in the usual martial arts films there would be a bunch of normal humans fighting, whereas here we have undead vampires on one side of the battles, making it look more than just a little goofy at times. As is always the case, you'll see bad guys waiting their turn to get their ass kicked by the hero because they never think to rush him as a group, but it's far more ridiculous a sight when he's got a skeleton face and (as vampires tended to do in these things) is jumping up and down while he waits. But the choreography and stunt work doesn't seem to be much affected by their costumes, making all of the battles exciting (if somewhat repetitive) and in turn giving the entire film a pulse most Hammer films only really reach in their final reel.

As for the Hammer part of the equation... well I can see how the die-hard purists would be disappointed. Even if it was Lee in the role I can't imagine too many folks would be satisfied with his use here - he's only in the film's opening and closing scenes, seemingly thrown in just to tie it into the series as opposed to anything particularly necessary to the story. And it's hard to even think of it as a sequel anyway - not only does the timeline throw off what passes for continuity in these things (in a prologue set before any of the other films, Dracula takes the form of a Chinese man and isn't reborn in his usual form until the end - in a scene that takes place after most of the other entries), but Peter Cushing is playing a different Van Helsing than he played in the others. In AD 1972 it made sense that he'd be playing his own descendant, but that doesn't seem to be the case here - he's just a generic "Van Helsing" (no first name) that does the same things but doesn't appear to have any connection to the one we knew from the previous films. Unless it's like a Halloween (2018) thing where they were ignoring some of his entries? If so it's not made clear.

Anyway, like Dracula Van Helsing's role in the proceedings isn't particularly necessary - he's a professor who tells his class that vampires are real, and are terrorizing a village somewhere, but only one of them believes his story. And for good reason: he's the grandson of a man who killed one of the vampires (leaving six), and is planning to head there and kill the rest (excellent timing for the syllabus on Van Helsing's part!), inviting the professor to come along. They're joined by Van Helsing's son (an obligatory handsome young man, interchangeable with the ones who appeared in other Hammer films of the era), a rich lady (read: Hammer Glamour) who funds the trip, and lots of redshirts who help make the fights more epic. Why Helsing is needed is unclear; it's only in the final few minutes that he does much beyond watch the fights, maybe waving a torch around every now and then.

But on the other hand, it actually does offer plenty of legit horror stuff - the scene where the undead vampires rise from their graves is actually pretty effective, and it's got some surprising (at times even gratuitous) bloodspray if that's your bag. And there's even a surprising death or two in the climax, so I found myself continually surprised that while the kung fu aspect was clearly the focus, Baker and his team weren't dropping the ball when it came to the genre elements. As with AD 1972, they clearly realized audiences wouldn't be much interested in another "Dracula rises and seduces a lady in his castle" kind of movie, so the change of scenery (and in this case, faster pace) gives it an adrenaline shot most franchises would die to have in their 9th installment.

Alas, it was also the final installment - while another "exotic" sequel was planned that would send everyone off to India, it was never made, due to both the film's mixed reception and Hammer's own problems as a whole. So at least it went out on a high note - it may not be the best of the series, but it's an exciting and memorable entry all the same, which is more than I can say for what ended up closing off the likes of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Paranormal Activity series. And Scream Factory gives it a proper Blu-ray; in addition to the fine transfer, it's got a solid historian commentary, which is loaded with anecdotes about the film's tense shoot (the two crews didn't mix well together; Baker is actually referred to as a "racist" at one point) and some context for the period that will help explain why Dracula is palling around with martial arts gurus for the unsuspecting viewers.

It also has the incomprehensible US cut of the film (under the title The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula, which isn't even accurate), which chops at least fifteen minutes out and rearranges key scenes, while also reducing Cushing's role even further - it reminded me of certain Dimension productions of the 1990s, in fact. Even having seen the proper version the day before, I often found myself baffled as to what was going on, and can't imagine how it would play to a fresh viewer. I love when they include this sort of thing - there's no real use for it anymore, but it's fun to try to put yourselves in the shoes of a ticket buyer in 1974, who didn't have the internet or a Blu-ray commentary to explain why things were the wacky way they were. I try my best to go in blind to every movie I see, but in this era it's too easy to find out what went wrong - how long did the US audiences (those who cared anyway) have to wait until they found out who anyone was, since this cut omitted most of their full introductions? What a time to be alive!

What say you?


FTP: Midnighters (2017)

APRIL 5, 2019


In many ways, Midnighters is an ideal "pile" movie - it's a decent watch, but also the sort of film that I'd never want to watch again as its greatest strength is watching loyalties between its primary characters continually shift as it inches its way toward a conclusion that leaves very few of them standing. So I've made the pile that much smaller, but also don't need to clear any room on my permanent shelf for it! Hurrah! And also because it's a fairly simply plot that largely relies on springing those twists on you, so if I was giving it a traditionally lengthy HMAD review I'd probably end up spoiling some things, and that wouldn't be very good.

Here's as much of the story I'll give away (i.e. the first 20-30 minutes or so): a couple (Alex Essoe from Starry Eyes and Dylan McTee from this week's The Wind) who are facing some issues (financial ones, mainly) but still seem to be in love are on their way home from a New Year's Eve party when they accidentally run someone over. He appears to be dead, and as they've been drinking they don't want to call the cops just yet, so they bring the body home so they can cover up a bit before bringing him to the hospital. But it turns out he's not actually dead, and a couple of people stop over with their own motivations, so things just keep getting dicier. A (pointless, but thankfully not too crippling) flash forward opening tells us that Essoe's character will end up tied to a chair at some point - it's to the movie's credit that until it happened it could have been anyone that put her in there.

Of course that also means that everyone but her is an awful person, and she herself isn't a saint at times, so while it's not easy to guess who will end up siding with who, it's hard to care all that much either; kill the whole lot of them for all it matters. In something like Game of Thrones, everyone being an asshole isn't too much of a big deal because there's such a big tapestry playing out before you (and dragons!), but here it's just a bunch of jerks in a house arguing about what to do next - it's hard to get as invested in the proceedings. As a result, my favorite scene in the movie was probably when a pair of cops come over, because they keep catching them in their lies (they say they hit a deer with their car) and clearly know something is up but can't really do anything without a warrant or even much probable cause. So unlike most such scenes, where you're biting your nails hoping your heroes are able to outsmart the suspicious cops, I was starting to get nervous for the cops, fearing they'd finally find something they couldn't shrug off and end up being kidnapped or killed by the couple as well (it occurs too early in the film for it to lead to a conclusion).

But for what it is, it still mostly works; like a Coen thriller without any of the humor (a deleted scene on the disc offers its only real levity - a bit where some friends stop by and can't seem to get the hint that it's not the best time). Despite the flash forward, the most torture-y violence is saved for a male character (its most despicable, at that) so it's not a "tough watch" or anything like that; some of the harsher moments occur off screen entirely. Suspense and tension are the order of the day here, with director Julius Ramsay using graphic violence sparingly/effectively, so there's another check in the "pro" column for the film. The deleted scenes are the only feature on the disc, so if you opt for streaming you're not missing much in that department. Ultimately, the only real shame is that it's not really a horror film - we can use more New Year's set ones!

What say you?


FTP: Devil's Gate (2017)

MARCH 31, 2019


I'll give Devil's Gate this much: I never in a million years could have guessed its final moments from its opening ones, in which a guy's car break down and he is promptly killed by a booby trap on the grounds of an ominous looking farm nearby. This would lead me, you, and anyone else who had ever seen a horror movie before to think they were in some kind of survival horror territory; a mix of Saw and Texas Chainsaw that would pile up the bodies and not have anything else to say or offer, but at least scratch an itch you might have if you were in need of some brainless carnage. However, the plot gets more and more complicated as it goes on, and while I can't spoil the particulars (or even list all of its sub-genres) I can say that at a certain point, the filmmakers switched gears one too many times and lost me.

The farm belongs to Pritchard (Milo Ventimiglia), who doesn't seem to be too concerned about the dead stranger on his property and also has someone/something chained up in his basement. Meanwhile, an FBI agent (Amanda Schull) arrives in this small North Dakotan town to investigate the disappearance of a woman and her son - Pritchard's family, as it turns out. Defying orders from the sheriff to leave him be, she grabs deputy Shawn Ashmore and heads out to the farm, where Pritchard attacks them and force them into cuffing him - at which point things start getting freaky. It's obvious that whatever he has locked up is more of an "I want to protect everyone from this thing" move than a "I'm a crazy man kidnapping innocent people", but that doesn't explain why his family seems to have vanished, so Schull can't fully trust him - only accept that he's not a clear cut villain.

The twists and turns that follow, mostly regarding the nature of what he has in the basement and what he wants to do with it, are hit or miss when it comes to how successful they are. I appreciate that the filmmakers wanted to spin their generic opening into something unexpected, but it's almost like they wanted to keep chasing that high and pulling the wool over our eyes again and again. The problem with that is that it gets hard to really get a firm grasp on the proceedings; it's like getting three serialized movies' worth of information and retcons all at once. One in particular, involving Pritchard's own backstory, comes so out of nowhere (and explained quite awkwardly to boot) that it not only derails most of the rest of the movie, but seemingly renders many of his earlier actions inexplicable as well (which they cover up with a "I didn't realize" kind of hand-waving excuse). It reminded me of that one season of Supernatural where Sam lost his soul in between seasons, but only after we learned that (several episodes in) did he start actually acting soulless, making us wonder why he couldn't keep up the act or why he ever bothered keeping the act in the first place.

But again, at least it was never generic. Milo was clearly embracing the villain/crazy guy kinda role, something he used to get to do often in his earlier career (Gamer!) but not so much these days since he's practically playing God on This is Us (this came out around when Season 2 was kicking off) and scoring other nice guy roles as a result of that show's success. As a fan of it (leave me alone, it's good) I was delighted in seeing him get all bug eyed and holding shotguns on people, something Jack Pearson rarely does (even in Vietnam the dude was all peaceful!). I just can't help but wonder how many middle aged houswives rented this from a Redbox after seeing him on the cover, only to discover it ended up closer to Heroes territory than his current hit. Ironically, an impulse Redbox rental is about all it's good for, and as it's been on disc for almost a year now it's probably not IN those clunky red kiosks anymore, so I'm not sure who this review will be enticing or warning. Oh well.

What say you?


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