Welcome, children of the night! This Blog is for fans of vintage horror films as well as those who are just beginning to discover the joy of these classic movies. I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

1950's Sci-Fi has its merits and its faults.  It's merits include its exuberance for space travel as well as a fascination with what the future holds for humanity.  The faults include all those little things one does not do while traveling in a rocket: smoke a cigarette, fire a pistol, play chess, serve coffee from a carafe, etc.  It! contains an abundance of both.

The story begins when a rescue ship lands on Mars to pick up the sole survivor of the first manned expedition to the planet.  They suspect he murdered the rest of his crew...or did he?

For the most part, director Edward L. Cahn [Invisible Invaders, Zombies of Mora Tau] does a great job with an O.K. script.  He gets solid performances from all of his actors and the ship design is pretty good for 1950's Sci-Fi.  Cahn also has a great eye for composing a scene and, thankfully, chose not to show the full space alien until about half way through the movie.  I've definitely seen a lot worse creatures  [Curse of the Swamp Creature, anyone?] but the "terror from beyond space" is simply a guy in a suit. Nothing less and certainly nothing more.

Cinematographer Kenneth Peach [The Cisco Kid, Lassie] is also to be commended.  The film looks really good and stands with the best of the time period.  The soundtrack is also classic 1950's Sci-Fi adventure and serves the movie well.

So, if you're a fan of films from the 1950's, definitely give this one a try.  Its naivety about space travel is endearing and often funny.  Its acting is strong enough to keep things interesting.

RATING: Good.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Kill Baby, Kill (1966)

Italian horror is an acquired taste.  But once it's acquired, it's a meal you'll crave again and again.  Kill Baby, Kill is a supernatural feast served up by one of the masters of the sub-genre, director Mario Bava. The action takes place in an 18th Century European village where the ghost of a little girl is wreaking havoc among the locals.  

Kill Baby is cinematic eye candy with a palate of soft blues and reds that is illuminated to perfection.  Throw in some cob webs, fog and a touch of weird music and you have the perfect stage for things that go bump in the night [and occasionally kill people].

While the cast is unknown to Americans, they bring their best Italian melodrama to the table and I mean that as a compliment.  Several of the characters are delightfully demented in facial expressions and mannerisms.  The ghost girl is particularly marvelous. I would love to see her go head to head with Samara from the Ring.  I think she would kick her little wet behind!  

My only regret is that I saw the film dubbed in English.  I would love to see it in its original Italian with English subtitles.  Often overdubs rob the viewer of the original raw  emotion of the actor's native tongue.  This is replaced with voices that, at times, seem silly or inaccurate.

Overall, this one's a winner.  Bava give us a delicious feast of the supernatural in a way that is uniquely Italian.  Bravissimo!

RATING: Excellent.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Straight-Jacket (1964)

In 1962 horror movie magic was made when screen legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis joined forces for the classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.  Director William Castle was so impressed with this film that he hired Robert Bloch, the writer of Psycho, to develop a script to use with one of the two stars.  Then he hounded Joan Crawford until he convinced her to do the picture.  He also caved in to her numerous demands which included script approval and casting approval.  The results, however, were definitely worth the effort.

Straight-Jacket is a tour-de-force performance from Crawford who, along with Bette Davis, does crazy like no other actresses of their generation,  Crawford basically dominates ever scene she's in.  You simply can't take your eyes off her as she covers a staggering arrange of emotions.

The basic storyline is as follows: Lucy Harbin (Crawford] goes cray-cray when she finds her husband and another woman in her bed.  She chops both of their heads off and ends up in an insane asylum for 20 years.  Our film takes place after she is released from the looney bin are reunites with her daughter Carol who witnessed the murders while she was a child.  That's all you need to know.  The rest simply needs to be enjoyed without any pre-conceived notions of what's coming next.

Diane Baker [Marnie, The Silence of the Lambs] is wonderful as the daughter and holds her ground very well against Crawford.  She was actually the second actress cast for the part.  However, Crawford walked off set when she felt the first actress wasn't up to par.  Baker stepped in where angels fear to tread and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

While this film isn't quite as good as Homicidal, it is wonderfully directed by William Castle and has no gimmicks whatsoever.  Let's face it, who needs gimmicks when you have Joan Crawford!  The cast also includes veteran actor George Kennedy as the creepy farm hand as well as Lee Major's film debut as Frank Harbin [uncredited].

Straight-Jacket is definitely a bit campy and over-the-top but that's what makes it so fun to watch.  What more do I need to say?  WATCH THIS FILM!

RATING: Excellent.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Homicidal (1961)

There's nothing better than a good thriller and director William Castle channels his inner Alfred Hitchcock for this suspenseful tale of dark family secrets and brutal murders.  From the first scene where a mysterious and beautiful blonde woman checks in at a local motel, the intrigue never stops. Castle wisely keeps handing out tidbits of info along the way that keep the film interesting and suspenseful.  Homicidal also includes a mind-blowing conclusion that took me completely by surprise.  Fantastic!  

Kudos to Robb White [House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts] for an intelligent script that is well thought out with great dialogue and suspenseful moments.  Castle took this wonderful script and ran with it full force.  I think it's one of his finest films and proves he was more than a just a gimmicky filmmaker.  I've always been a big fan of his work and this one cements my admiration for him all the more.

Homicidal also includes some great acting.  Joan Marshall is fantastic as blonde bombshell Emily.  She has a long list of TV credits to her name and totally nails this character.  It's overly-dramatic in all the right places and a bit "going off the rails on a crazy train" when it needs to be.  The other women in the cast are really strong as well.  Eugenie Leontovich is fun to watch as the wheel-chair bound, mute Helga Swenson, the matriarch of the family.  She has a slightly creepy look with big expressive eyes that serve her well in this role.  The rest of the cast also deliver veyr good performances as well.

The icing on the cake is Hugo Friedhofer's score [Casablance, Midred Pierce]  which heightens the tension of every scene.  Furthermore, Burnett Guffey's cinematography [From here to Eternity, All the King's Men] is great with many scenes illuminated to perfection to maximize the tension.

Have fun with this one.  It's not quite Psycho but they are next door neighbors in terms of quality of storytelling and visual impact.  Enjoy!

RATING: Excellent.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Maybe I was having a bad day but I simply wasn't wowed by Shadow of a Doubt which has been hailed by every critic as a classic.  It was also Hitchcock's favorite film that he directed.  Therefore I know I'm standing on shaky ground by saying that while this film was well made, it was just O.K.

Here's why...most of the female leads employ an acting style that was prevalent in the 1940's but totally drives me nuts: rapid, over-annunciated speech with more emotion in it than is necessary.  This film would have been so much better if the ladies just spoke like normal human beings.  I couldn't get beyond this flaw to enjoy the film.  Thankfully, it toned down a bit toward the end of the film but it was too little, to late.  The little girl was particularly "precocious" and I don't mean that as a compliment.  I was hoping she would be dispatched early in the film so I didn't have to hear her obnoxious voice anymore.

Secondly, Shadow of a Doubt is always referred to as an intense and suspenseful thriller.  Did I miss something?  Give me The Wolf Man (1941) or Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941) over Shadow of a Doubt.  I found the first half of the film to be a bit of a yawner.  It was only when the killer began to show his true colors that things got interesting.

Speaking of killers, the bright spot of Shadow of a Doubt was definitely Joseph Cotton [Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, The Abominable Dr Phibes] whose films I admire.  I'm amazed he wasn't a huge star because he's such a great actor.  He imbues his character Uncle Charlie with charm and refinement and then subtly lets the character's dark side show.  This was a great role for Cotton and he totally hits it out of the ballpark.

So, I have to give this a Good and stand as the only person I've come across who was underwhelmed by this film.  Give me Psycho or The Birds over Shadow of a Doubt any day!

RATING: Good.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Targets (1968)

Boris Karloff is a horror movie legend.  Targets was one of the last films he made and is a testimony to an actor who never lost his spark.  Director Peter Bogdanovich, who also wrote the screenplay, said that Karloff did this film with a brace on each leg and had difficulty walking.  Karloff also had emphysema and had trouble breathing.  Yet, in spite of this, he was a total pro on set and was a joy to work with.

Targets is one smart screenplay that asks the question of how an aging gothic horror star is still relevant in our modern world.  Karloff is in on the joke and at one point in the film exclaims "I'm an antique, out of date...an anachronism...look around you: the world belongs to the young.  Make way for them.  Let them have it."

Karloff's struggle is wrapped around another story of a man who goes on a shooting rampage in the same town.  This story was inspired by Charles Whitman who was an engineering student who killed 14 people and wounded 32 others in a shooting spree located in and around the tower of the University of Texas in 1966.  This narrative could have been written today and is as fresh as the evening news.

Bogdanavich seamlessly weds these two stories into a smart thriller that also includes footage from the Karloff classic The Terror (1963).  It works brilliantly and proves, once again, that if a film has a great script, it doesn't need a big budget to make it work.

Roger Corman produced Targets, along with Bogdanavich.  The whole project began because Karloff owed Corman two days of contract work.  Corman told Bogdanovich he could make any film he wanted two, with two conditions: he had to use 20 minutes of stock footage from The Terror, and he had to hire Karloff for another 20 minutes of screen time which could be shot in two days.  Karloff liked the script so much that he worked a total of five days on the movie, foregoing any pay for the extra work.

The rest, they say, is history.  Targets is a delightful film that is as relevant today as when it was filmed back in 1968.  That's quite an accomplishment for a horror film, or any film for that matter.

RATING: Excellent.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

Slumber Party Massacre (SPM) is considered to be a cult classic by some.  I'm not one of them.  Here's why…First of all, the balance between horror and humor is off.  Writer Rita Mae Brown [Rubyfruit Jungle] wrote the script intending SPM to be a parody of teen slasher flicks.  Unfortunately, when she submitted the screenplay to producers, they filmed it as a serious horror flick.  BIG MISTAKE!  While some of the humor is still intact, it misses tons of opportunities to be funny.  Since SPM cannot possibly compare to teen horror classics such as Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), a more humorous approach to the subject would have worked much better.

Secondly, Michael Villella is awful as the driller killer Russ Thorn.  I know he tried to be menacing but I found his performance to be annoying at best.  Give me Freddy, Jason or Pinhead over this guy any day.  Again, if he was allowed to take a more humorous approach to this role, he might have been able to sell it better.  He's about as frightening as a new puppy on Christmas day.

Thirdly, most of the actors are adequate to bad.  Sometimes these kinds of performances can fall into the "so bad, it's good" category but not in this case.  Again, if they had been allowed to play their roles in a comedic way, they would have been more successful.  Instead, they look weak because they lack the ability to convey sheer terror.  [There is no Jamie Lee Curtis in this bunch.]

Fourthly, gratuitous nudity can NEVER make up for a bad acting.  There are more breasts in this film than at a Perdue chicken factory and more butts than at Hormel.  Don't insult my intelligence.  Give me a better film instead.

To its credit, SPM does show some moments of brilliance where the humor pokes through and scores a home run.  But. alas, these moments are few and far between.  SPM also has actress Robin Stille who plays the "new girl in school" Valerie.  Her performance in SPM is very good.  She stands heads and severed torsos above all the other actresses in the film.

God save us from the plethora of cheap, mediocre teen slasher flicks that were so prevalent in the 1980's.  This is one of them no matter what the critics on IMDB say.

RATING: Fair.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Baron Blood (1972)

Who knew that Italian Horror could be so dull.  With a title like Baron Blood and famed director Mario Bava at the helm, one would expect an old-fashioned gore fest.  While there are a few scenes of blood splatter, I left the film with the impression that there was way too much talking.  I wanted the good Baron to burst on the screen and kill everyone so I could listen to the silence.  Seriously!

This does not mean that Baron Blood is a poorly made film.  On the contrary, Bava is an excellent director.  The problem is that there isn't enough action for my taste.  Furthermore the film's female lead, played by Elke Sommer, is overly dramatic to the point of annoyance.  If I were Baron Blood she would have been first on my list to dispatch.  

The bright spot is Joseph Cotton [Lady Frankenstein, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte] who plays Alfred Becker/The Baron.  While he's not exactly a household name, I've enjoyed every movie I've seen him in and he does a good job here as well.

What can I say, I like my Italian horror a tad bit crazy [Where is Barbara Steele when you need her?] with lots of blood flowing.  If you're a Bava fan then you will probably enjoy this film.  Otherwise, stick with some of his other movies as an introduction to his career.

RATING: Fair.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

Adapting Kurt Vonnegut Jr's popular and complex book for the silver screen is no easy task.  Thankfully Stephen Geller is up to the task and brings the audience on a wild, trippy ride that left me on the edge of my seat for the duration of the film.  Much of the success of Slaughterhouse-Five is also due to the considerable talents of director George Roy Hill [The Sting, Butch Cassidy an the Sundance Kid] and cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek [Hair, Awakenings, Amadeus] who give us a visually and dramatically compelling film about the life of Billy Pilgrim.  Pilgrim's life is not like the rest of us as he lives all the stages of his life simultaneously, jumping back and forth through time. I won't reveal the rest of the story because it's best for the audience to form its own impression of what is going on in the film.

Michael Sacks is wonderful as Pilgrim and it left me wondering why he didn't go on to become a huge star.  Apparently he left Hollywood an went on to become an executive director for Morgan Stanley which shows the kind of brain power he possessed.  The rest of the cast is definitely second fiddle to Sacks but there were a few memorable performances.

The strongest scenes are those when Pilgrim was a soldier during WW II.  Not only is Sacks fantastic in these scenes but fellow soldiers Edgar Derby [Eugene Roche] and Paul Lazzaro [Ron Leibman] from a powerful trio together.  Roche [Webster, Magnum PI] is a wonderful character actor who gives the film its compassion.  Leibman [Norma Rae] brings a spirit of vengeance and terror to the lives of everyone in the film.  These three are a delight to watch as they flesh out their characters.

As a final note the scenes shot during WW II are the best in the movie.  They are done so lovingly well, especially the bombing of Dresden.  If all filmmaking were this good, we would be most fortunate indeed.  Slaughterhouse-Five is not technically a horror film, but it could be classified as a Sci-Fi thriller that is brutally honest about the human condition.  It should be seen by everyone who loved cinema.

RATING: Excellent.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Saturday the 14th (1981)

Saturday the 14th is a horror comedy that contains very little of either.  The monsters who are supposed to destroy the world are about as menacing as a basket of kittens.  Furthermore, I was always aware they were guys in costumes which is not a good thing.  The head vampire was especially bad with white faced make up, no fangs and a Wal-Mart cape.  Argh!

As far as comedy goes, I managed a chuckle a time or two but that was about it.  The problem is that Saturday the 14th takes itself way too seriously when it should have been trying to camp it up a bit.  Horror and humor can work very well together.  We've seen it in films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Young Frankenstein, Gremlins and Shaun of the Dead.  It takes a smart script to balance these elements.  Saturday the 14th just doesn't have one.

What this leads to is decent actors who have little or no material to work with.  Richard Benjamin [Love at First Bite, Witches' Brew] and Paula Prentiss [The Stepford Wives, The Parallax View ] play the parents at the center of this drama who move into an cousin's house they inherited.  Prentis gets the most laughs as a newly sired vampire.  Benjamin is along for the ride which is not his fault but the fault of the script.  Same goes for the vampire couple who are their neighbors.  Jeffrey Tambor [Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army] is totally wasted and so is his vamp bride.

Because of the title of this film, it leads one to believe it is a spoof of the Friday the 13th franchise.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  There is absolutely nothing about Saturday the 14th that resembles the machete wielding Jason.  Skip this one altogether.  You're not missing a blessed thing!

RATING: Bad.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971)

Edgar Allan Poe was the Stephen King of his day.  Thanks to his wicked and twisted imagination, generations of filmmakers have had the pleasure of bringing his stories to life.  This is not the first time Murders in the Rue Morgue has been brought to the Silver Screen.  The earliest version was 1932 with Bela Lugosi in the lead. [See my review elsewhere on the site.] It's excellent and well worth your time.

For this incarnation of Rue Morgue, director Gordon Hessler [Scream and Scream Again, Cry of the Banshee] put his "Hammer Horror look-alike" spin on the classic tale.  The costumes and sets are gorgeous.  However, the rest is fairly predictable and, if I might say, a bit dull.  While Rue Morgue was filmed exclusively in Spain, it is made to look like 19th century France.  The story takes place in a Paris Opera house that is staging the play Murders in the Rue Morgue.  There is a phantom killer  [Yes, this version borrows heavily from Phantom of the Opera as well as Poe] who is obsessed with a certain actress on stage.  THe rest unfolds predictably with few surprises.

I had high hopes for this movie. After all it has James Robards [The Day After, Something Wicked This Way Comes] as the leader of the theater troupe and Herbert Lom [Phantom of the Opera, Spartacus] as the phantom, Rene Marot.  Both are fine in their roles but deliver nothing special.  Christine Kaufmann is the actress who completes the love triangle.  However, most of her work in tis film is dreadful.  I would have dispatched with her long before Marot has the opportunity to try.

As a final note, although there are a number of grisly murders in this film, the way they are done is anything but grisly.  This is pretty tame G rated stuff.  It's an OK movie but nothing that warrants a great deal of attention.  Stick to the 1932 version!

RATING: Good.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.