Here is my list for 2011. Pair one of these with a modern classic like Trick R' Treat and you'll have a frightfully enjoyable Halloween. They are in no particular order.
Bride of Frankenstein 
Night of the Living Dead 
The Wolf Man 
The Exorcist 
The Evil Dead 
A Nightmare on Elm Street 
The Birds 
THe Rocky Horror Picture Show 
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
This 1932 classic is a darling of the critics. Therefore I had high expectations when I sat down to view this film. Some of those expectations were met, some were not. Vampyre is an early "talkie" that feels more like a silent film because of its long periods of silence with no dialogue and the continual use of intertitles. The good news is that Director Carl Dryer and cinematographer Rudolph Mate' are experts at their craft. Vampyr has a dreamy, other-worldly feel that also employs advanced filming techniques that were seldom seen during that time period. Instead of lots of still shots, the camera slowly sweeps across and scene and back with expert skill. Shadow play, reverse film segments and superimposition also add a great deal to the look and feel of the film.
The bad news is that Vampyr is simply not scary at all. For me, one needs more than expert filmmaking to hit it out of the ball park. The vampires in both Nosferatu (1922) and Tod Browning's masterpiece Dracula (1931) are great examples from early horror films of how to do it right. Both of these vamps are creepy and leave a lasting impression long after the film is over. The vamps in Vampyr are simply human beings lurking on screen and in the shadows. If the intertitles didn't inform you that they were vampires, you would have no earthly idea this was the case.
So, I'm going to disagree a bit with the critics. Vampyr is a well made film but it lacks the horror elements that would have made it a truly great film. Stick with Nosferatu or Dracula instead.
RATING: Very Good.
For more info check out the episode's entry in IMDB.
Monday, October 24, 2011
Hip jazz, girls in shimmering mini skirts, a botched robbery and murder. That just about sums up Psycho a Go-Go which is often unintentionally funny at times and quite entertaining. This little thriller is hardly the pinnacle of 1960's cinema but it is decently made and well paced. The plot is far form original and there are absolutely no surprises. It begins with a diamond theft where the alarm goes off, the security come to the rescue and two of the three robbers escape. The last one is first shot by the security guard and then finished off by one of his accomplices. Furthermore, the bag this particular thief was carrying ends up in someone else's hands. You know where it goes from there.
My favorite funny moment is when a precocious little girl who lives in a very white suburb opens her birthday present from her Dad. She squeals with delight when she unwraps an African-American Christy Minstrels doll that begins to croon "Suwannee River" in an Alvin and the Chipmunks voice. Priceless.
This one could have been a lot better if it upped the camp factor. Alas, Psycho a Go-go takes itself far too seriously and suffers as a result. It's a thriller that's not too thrilling.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
An old mansion on a dark, stormy night. A creepy housekeeper. The reading of the will twenty years after the death of millionaire Cyrus West. Assorted relatives who would kill for their share of the inheritance. A maniac on the loose from the insane asylum nearby. Who could ask for anything more? The Cat and the Canary may be the film that started it all. In fact, James Whales credits it as his inspiration for The Old Dark House (1932).
The Cat and the Canary is excellent filmmaking. If you've never watched many silent films before, this is a wonderful place to start. Cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton and director Paul Leni give us a visual feast using lots of camera tricks that were innovative for their time. Layered images, shadow play, rapidly changing perspectives and creative use of text between scenes makes this one a feast for the eyes. I especially appreciate the "villain cam" toward the beginning of the film. It gives the viewer the perspective of seeing through their eyes as they sneak around the house. It is a trick that would later be used to great effect in classics such as Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).
The acting is great as well with a nice mixture of dramatic and comedic moments. I'm certain that audiences loved this one when it was shown in movie theaters. It has such broad appeal and is so well done. Why haven't I heard of it before now? It is just as good as classic silent horror films such as Phantom of the Opera and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
Silent films are definitely an acquired taste. However, I really enjoy seeing where it all began. It makes me appreciate how far we've come and how much these early films still influence the movies we make today. You can download The Cat and the Canary off of Archive.org but I recommend renting the film through Netflix. It deserves to be seen on a much bigger screen than your lap top. Don't miss it.
Download a copy of the film from Archive.org
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
If you were a kid in the 1960's and 1970's there is no way you escaped the genius of Rankin-Bass Productions. What would Christmas be without Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or The Year Without a Santa Claus? This is classic stop motion animation at its finest and I still enjoy watching these films many, many years later.
Mad Monster Party? is a complete gem. The lead character, Dr. von Frankenstein is voiced by none other than Boris Karloff. The good doctor has decided that it's time to retire as head of the Wordlwide Organization of Monsters. He decides to share the news with his monster colleagues by throwing a big party. The guest list includes every iconic horror monster from the Universal Studio archive including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein [voiced delightfully by Phyllis Diller], The Invisible Man, The Creature, The Mummy, and the Wolf Man among others. It's a celebration of all things horror with dazzling old school animation, musical numbers and a sharp wit through and through.
Yes, this one is definitely for the kiddies. But the young at heart will also admire its joyful spirit and artistic sensibility. Mad Monster Party? is a good example of the amazing and innovate work Rankin-Bass were capable of producing. Don't miss this one.
RATING: VERY GOOD.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
As I sat down to watch She-Wolf, I was expecting the female version of Lon Chaney Jr's iconic Wolf Man with wonderful make up by Jack Pierce. I was also lured by leading lady June Lockhart who played the mom on Lost In Space. I loved her as a kid and figured this film was going to be a total home run...but it wasn't. It was just O.K.
The strong points are 1) Lockhart's acting. It's not as tortured as Chaney but she gives a nice performance nonetheless. 2) Beautiful sets. Somehow this film feels like it borrowed these sets from another movie but they are really nice. 3) Good cinematography and directing. It is a well made film.
The weak point are 1) Jack Pierce is listed as the make up artist but his talents are totally wasted. We never see the face of the She-Wolf anywhere in the film. In some films less is more, but She-Wolf desperately needs an on-screen monster. 2) False advertising. This film is billed as the next big thing from Universal Horror. However, what the audience actually gets looks a lot more like a Val Lewton thriller than a Creature Feature. 3) The script is predictable every step of the way. You know exactly where this film is headed and it does nothing to expand the mythos of the werewolf.
She-Wolf of London is a decent film. I just can't get too excited about it. We've seen it all before and it was done better.
Thursday, October 13, 2011
50's B-Movie horror is the stuff I was raised on as a kid watching Chiller Theater in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. Attack of the Puppet People is the kind of film that would often be aired on this broadcast. It's quite predictable, a tad creepy and sometimes unintentionally funny. The story takes place in a doll factory with "creepy" inventor Mr. Franz running the show. His voice channels a bit of Boris Karloff and you know from the start he's up to no good. John Hoyt fits the bill nicely as the good doctor who has just hired a new office assistant, Sally, played by fashionista June Kennedy, who I swear jumps out of bed every morning with a perfectly intact hairdoo, flawless wardrobe and pearls around her graceful neck. She's the quintessential 1950's "working girl."
The funny comes in when the doctor shows her some of his doll collection which includes dolls "from all walks of life." He then proceeds to show her three dolls: a bride, a house wife and a nurse. Ah, the 50's!
Director Bert I Gordon works a great deal with stories involving either giants or miniatures. Attack of the Puppet People is a good example of a number of 50's films involving these visual tricks of scale including my all-time favorite Them! (1954). He does a great job with this in an era before green/blue screens and CGI became standard fare. The film looks good and is convincing enough to work.
Granted, Attack of the Puppet People pulls no surprises but it is a solid effort nonetheless. If you like this kind of old-fashioned horror, you will definitely enjoy the film.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
You either get it or you don't. Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is a camp classic filled with snappy one liners from the Princess of Darkness, tons of sight gags, and enough boob jokes to keep a room full of sixth grade boys thoroughly entertained. Top it off with an 80's soundtrack and fashion sense and you get a total home run as far as I'm concerned.
The story begins when Late Night TV hostess Elvira gets a call that her Aunt Morgana has died and Elvira's in the will. Hoping to score enough money to jump start an act in Vegas, Elvira sets out for Falwell, Massachusetts to claim her prize. Cassandra Peterson is perfection as Elvira. She is a force to be reckoned with and fills every scene she's in with manic energy and perfect comedic timing. Her nemesis in Falwell is Chastity Pariah, played perfectly by the always delightful Edie McClurg [Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Diff'rent Strokes]. She is the perfect foil for Elvira and their chemistry together is fun to watch. The rest of the cast is solid as well with characters that are well thought out and fully developed.
Director James Signorelli [Saturday Night Live] keeps the pace moving nicely and clearly knows how to make comedy work onscreen. He also is successful in finding a good balance between horror and humor, although this film is definitely high on the humor with bits of horror thrown in for good measure, including clips from a number of cult classic horror films.
Granted, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is not Gone With the Wind, but who wants to watch Scarlette pining away for a man she cannot have when you can watch Elvira light up the screen like the burning of Atlanta. Pure 80's fun. Not to be missed.
RATING: Very Good.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Sequels are always a mixed bag. In a few rare cases they surpass the original [Bride of Frankenstein]; in many cases they pale in comparison [Lost Boys 2, anyone?]. So, how does Halloween 2 stack up to the original iconic slasher film? Quite well. Halloween 2 begins with a recap of the first film. Then the familiar theme music is cued and the story continues as our heroine Laurie Strode is rushed to the hospital and Michael Meyers gets up and starts terrorizing the neighborhood after being shot in the chest 6 times. Jamie Lee Curtis is still great as Laurie. However, the actress is three years older even though the action takes place the same night. She's now one of those Gossip Girl teens so we just have to go with it and enjoy the performance by itself without referencing the first film. Donald Pleasence is back as Dr. Loomis and is equally as good this time out. As far as I'm concerned it is his role of a lifetime and it's hard to imagine anyone else trying to fill his shoes.
Three noticeable changes that make this film slightly inferior to the original: The haunting piano riff that dominates the original film score is replaced by a synthesizer playing the same theme [Oh, the 80's]. It's definitely inferior to the original. The second change is the director from John Carpenter to Rick Rosenthal, although Carpenter did work on the screenplay for the film. I just think Carpenter is better. He captures something amazing in the original film that was never duplicated in any of the sequels. This is not to say that Rosenthal's is bad. In fact, it's really good but, let's face it, few can fill the shoes of John Carpenter. The third change is the actor behind the mask. Michael 2 is shorter and stalkier than the original and definitely moves differently than the original Michael. Watch these two films back to back and see if you notice the difference.
All in all, this is a wonderful film that stands the test of time rather well. It is a most worthy successor to the original. As an extra bonus, Halloween 2 also includes a clip from Night of the Living Dead with those iconic words "They're coming to get you, Barbara." Priceless.
Saturday, October 1, 2011
Sometimes TV gets it right. Case in point, The Night Strangler which was the follow up movie to the successful The Night Stalker which also spawned the TV series of the same name. I absolutely love Darren McGavin's portrayal of Carl Kolchak, a news reporter that is a combination of a 1940's film noir detective and 1970's modern man with a healthy side of great comedic timing. Especially delightful are his conversations with his boss Tony Vincenzo, played brilliantly by Simon Oakland. The two of them are absolutely perfect together. Throw in cameos by John Carradine, Margaret Hamilton [The Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz], Wally Cox [The Hollywood Squares] and Al Lewis [Grandpa Munster] and you have a recipe for success.
While the original film is great, The Night Strangler is even better. The screenplay by Richard Matheson [I Am Legend] is solid through and through. The scenes in Seattle's underground are spectacularly moody and atmospheric. They are lit to perfection and the long periods of silence where Kolchak wanders through them searching for the killer are tense and foreboding. The killer is also much better than the vampire in the first movie.
I guess you can tell I'm a Night Stalker fan. It thrilled me as a kid and it still thrills me today. This one is a keeper and reminds us horror fans that the early seventies weren't always awash in bell bottoms and psychedelic mushroom trips. Sometimes they gave birth to smart and scary filmmaking on the small screen as well as the big one.