Tag Archives: suspense

“…But Would You Change Places With the Tiger?” THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME


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(4.5/5)

Pros: Leslie Banks is scary; film and script are extremely taut


Cons: A few downright goofy moments: the shark attack – “It got me!”

The first screen adaptation of Richard Connell’s 1924 short story of the same name (which served as the inspiration for almost innumerable works over the years including the very obscure 1959 Bloodlust as well as the infamous Japanese film Battle Royale and the recent Hunger Games novels and movies), 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game deals with a group of shipwreck victims trapped on a remote jungle island with a deranged big-game hunter named Count Zaroff. Zaroff has become increasingly bored with hunting “normal” animals of the jungle and has found a way to “up the ante” in his hunting – by pursuing human prey. Manipulation of local shipping routes (i.e. sending nearby ships careening into the rocks surrounding his isolated retreat) has provided Zaroff with a constant supply of victims to participate in his “hunts,” though he may be in over his head since the newest castaway named Bob Rainsford is a professional hunter himself. After discovering Zaroff’s hidden “trophy room” that’s filled with mounted human heads, Rainsford and a female shipwreck victim named Eve find themselves in the cross hairs of Zaroff’s high-powered rifle as they attempt to survive the Count’s pursuit – will Rainsford himself wind up as a hunter’s trophy?

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Fay Wray and Joel McCrea as Eve and Rainsford, up against a madman.

Produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack one year before the duo struck gold with the classic, original screen version of King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game incorporates many of the same elements. Many scenes here take place in a rather elaborate jungle set – perhaps the same one used in the Kong film since it has similar landmarks including a log bridge, steep dropoffs, and thick vegetation. The outdoor set also includes a fog-shrouded, eerie swamp replete with alligators and lots of mud and a raging waterfall: I’d have to give the art department credit for making all these locations seem genuinely convincing. Perhaps the more impressive set in the film however is the marvelous interior of the Zaroff mansion, which includes a grandiose vestibule that’s adorned with a particularly interesting mural on the wall showing a centaur running off with a fetching young woman. Also noteworthy is the intricate knocker on the mansion’s door which, when it’s first seen in the opening shot, gives an audience some idea of what to expect in the film.

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Check out that painting in the background – just one of many magnificent contributions from the art department.


James Ashmore Creelman wrote the script and has done a magnificent job of retaining the ghastly and sinister nature of the original Connell short story while fleshing it out a bit for the screen. Additionally, co-directors Schoedsack and Irving Pichel ensure that this film clips along at a furious pace (it runs just 63 minutes) and has minimal downtime. The basic story is established most efficiently and from there, it becomes a true thrill ride of a picture even if it’s entirely predictable and has a few blatantly goofy moments (the whole opening shipwreck sequence is amusingly awful). The film really starts to build momentum around the time when Rainsford and Eve set off into the jungle and maintains a sense of tension right up until the finale. A few genuinely creepy moments pop up from time to time as well, including one in which the two protagonists stumble into Zaroff’s “trophy room” for the first time. I also liked that the various Cossack servants that Zaroff employs in his estate seem positively diabolical – the types of servants one would find lurking around in any number of Universal’s classic fright films.

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“Smile Ivan!” One of the menacing Cossack servants around Zaroff’s estate.

In front of the camera, The Most Dangerous Game features two of the players who would appear alongside King Kong the following year: Fay Wray as the plucky Eve gets a chance to build up her lung capacity in a few extended screaming sessions prior to screeching throughout the whole of the Kong film, and squeaky-voice Robert Armstrong (who plays Carl Denham in Kong) stars as Eve’s brother Martin. Armstrong actually is quite funny to watch in this film: the prototypical drunken buffoon who makes an ass of himself before Zaroff, tired of his shenanigans, invites him into the trophy room…Meanwhile, Joel McCrea as Rainsford is the typical, upstanding adventure film leading man and hero, initiating an obligatory, but mostly unspoken romance with Eve. These cast members generally get the job done in relating their parts, but aren’t anything truly special to watch.

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This scene could have been lifted right out of Cooper and Schoedsack’s later King Kong.

By far the most interesting performance in the film is turned in by British actor Leslie Banks as Zaroff. Banks positively embodies evil in the film, barking orders in Russian to his servants, glaring maniacally at his “guests” (and intended victims), and is frequently lit from underneath in a way that makes him resemble the devil himself. Gotta love the scenes where, when contemplating his nefarious plot, Zaroff starts stroking a prominent scar on his face that was acquired “while hunting buffalo,” a brilliantly unnerving character detail that only makes him seem more devious – especially when paired with Banks’ unhinged line delivery and gleefully malicious dialogue. Though I’m not sure I could make a firm argument that this film is an obvious horror picture, Banks’ Zaroff is about as scary a horror movie villain as would have existed in 1932.

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Because that’s not creepy at all.


Max Steiner’s ominous and menacing music establishes a macabre mood early on, and becomes most suspenseful later on in the picture, while Henry W. Girrard’s wonderful black and white photography features some really nice set-ups and individual shots. I especially marveled at the concluding sequence filmed out a window in the Zaroff estate and one in which the camera rushes through the jungle as if representing the view of the victims being hunted. All in all, I could scarcely come up with a more effective or more assured screen adaptation of Connell’s original story: 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game is quite simply concise and captivating, an expertly crafted piece that probably would have been rather alarming and disturbing at the time in which it was made. The story has lost some “oomph” over the years (mostly due to the fact that this concept has been used time and again in a string of high-profile projects), but despite the fact that modern audiences might not be impressed by this film (“it’s in black and white!”), I’d have to call it a near masterpiece – the definitive screen version of a classic tale.

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Available in a number of different DVD versions, including a colorized edition as well as a Criterion Collection disc. The film can also be viewed in its entirety .



4/10 : Scenes of severed heads floating in jars, but this film is more distressing for what is implied than for what is shown.


1/10 : Disturbing subject matter, but no profanity


1/10 : Since this was a Pre-Code film, Fay Wray is allowed to run through the jungle in just a nightie – fairly risque for the time, but nothing compared to what would be seen today.



6/10 : A classic short story adapted precisely for the screen; this would likely appeal to those who enjoy the old-time horror classics.


Zaroff gets the best lines, describing his “game” as “outdoor chess – his brains against mine,” and then declaring his superiority to his victims: “Surely you don’t think anyone who has hunted leopards will follow you into that ambush? Oh very well: if you choose to be the leopard, I shall hunt you like the leopard…”

Watch this Classic!

“Listen – You’re Just a Little Far Out…” BLOODLUST!

BLOODLUST!

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(2.5/5)

Pros: Graphic violence in 1959? SHOCKING!

Cons: Lack of suspense; timeline of narrative seems screwy; “those meddling kids…”

A cheapie adaptation of Richard Connell’s short story The Most Dangerous Game in which a sort of big-game hunter sets his sights on human prey, 1959’s Bloodlust! (unreleased until 1961) chronicles the efforts of a group of (meddling) kids to escape from a remote island ruled over by a pompous millionaire with a “private trophy room” full of preserved human victims. Apparently, this hunter named Balleau has enlisted the services of a local boat captain to provide him with humans to hunt down with his trusty crossbow, though the unannounced appearance of two pairs of young lovebirds (Johnny and Betty, Pete and Jeanne) throws his normal routine into chaos. When the kids inevitably discover the secret taxidermy room where various stiff-jointed assistants prepare rubbery-looking human bodies for display, it sets into motion a string of events that eventually finds Johnny and Pete themselves in Balleau’s cross hairs. Can these kids find a way off the island, or will they wind up as permanent mementos of Balleau’s past conquests?


Straight outta Scooby-Doo, it’s the pesky young adult characters.  ‘Let’s have a clam bake,’ they said.  ‘It’ll be fun,’ they said….



Clocking in at just 68 minutes in length, Bloodlust! benefits from the fact that writer/director Ralph Brooke’s script doesn’t waste much time in setting up its basic story.  This film barrels along towards an ending that has an element of (cheesy) surprise to it, though I can’t altogether say that the script is all that consistent.  I could almost be led to believe that this film originally was around 90 minutes long, with more capable development in terms of its narrative, but was unceremoniously hacked down to a little over an hour to fit in with theater scheduling as the second half of a double bill. The sense of a timeline in the film just seems off: as it stands in its final version, there are quite a few transitions that I would call “jumpy,” moving forward without much of an explanation or sense of purpose. Finally, the events in this film building up to the climax aren’t all that suspenseful, which is partly due to a jagged editing scheme and partly the fault of a music score by Michael Terr that is rather lifeless. Right when this film should be hooking an audience with a sense of tension, it feels lazy and dull. All these issues may simply be due to the fact that this was the first feature both written and directed by Brooke, who was known more as a bit player in movies from the mid 1940’s onward, but in the end, I’d have to say that this film is certainly watchable and more accomplished than some B-grade pictures of its day.


I’m not sure if the film exactly has a firm grasp on the taxidermy process, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Set design in the film is fairly well done, detailing both a limited number of interior locations (including the shadowy trophy room itself which is hidden in a cave) and the tropical jungle that surrounds Balleau’s estate. Generally, I thought the moody black and white photography of Richard E. Cunha was also pretty decent; no one is going to mistake this for a big-budget production, but it would nearly compare in terms of its look at feel to the surprisingly good genre pictures of the ‘40s made by the likes of Edgar G. Ulmer. Though the skeletons slung around the “Tree of Death” that exists in the middle of the jungle and assorted body parts in the taxidermy studio look very rubbery, Bloodlust! includes a few scenes of startlingly graphic violence which would have indeed been shocking in 1959. Arrows pierce human flesh, a face is dissolved with acid, and there’s even a sequence where a man is more or less crucified on a rack, replete with blood flow from his nailed-on hands. This level of gore wasn’t all that common during this period in cinema history, and even though it wouldn’t do much for today’s viewers used to the excesses of modern horror, I’d have to say that some theatergoers at the time would have probably been disgusted.

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“Oh, you didn’t recognize me as the villain of this piece?”

The cast for Bloodlust! presents a mixed bag through and through: Wilton Graff (mainly known for smaller roles in bigger movies of the 1940s onward) capably plays Balleau as a man shattered by the second World War who takes up hunting human victims to satisfy his murderous desires. This character has both a very human side to him, and a cold, absolutely sinister one, and I thought Graff did a nice job of playing the role with an air of grandiloquence. The actors playing the young people on the other hand are by and large annoying. Robert Reed (“Mike Brady” on The Brady Bunch) plays Johnny, the character most clearly identified as the hero – though it’s difficult to accept him as such since he frequently seems like a bit of a jerk due to his tendency to pass all the dangerous tasks off on his friend Pete (played as a sort of lovable dork by Eugene Persson). Pete winds up being the more courageous character, and one can almost forgive Jeanne, the girlfriend character played by Joan Lora, for fawning over him (“Oh Pete…you’re wonderful!” UGH!).


DUN DUN! Balleau and his learning-disabled henchmen.

Unfortunately, a viewer quickly gets tired of listening to Jeanne screech and complain about any situation she finds herself in (“Can I say it just one more time: I’m scared!” – GROAN!). Her character seems like a ditz, and I really wished at a certain point that she would fall into one of the quicksand pits sprinkled around the island and disappear from the narrative. Johnny’s girlfriend Betty (played by June Kenney) is a bit more tolerable, mainly because she seems resourceful and level-headed, not just the obligatory female thrown in to prove that Johnny isn’t gay. Smaller roles in the film are occupied by Walter Brooke (as a drunken inhabitant of the island), Lilyan Chauvin (Balleau’s vaguely foreign wife, who’s involved in an illicit relationship with Brooke’s character), and Troy Patterson (as the pleasure boat captain leading voyagers to their doom on Balleau’s island), but Bill Coontz nearly (maybe?) steals the show as the “insane man in the woods” who shows up late in the going to foam at the mouth and scream nonsensically for what seems like an eternity. Lots of screaming during certain parts of this movie: be prepared to adjust your volume!


Coontz ARGGH! as the ARGGH! insane man in the ARGGH! woods ARGGH!

It’s somewhat odd that Bloodlust! would be marketed rather obviously as a horror picture. In spite of the sometimes graphic onscreen carnage, I’d probably be more inclined to call it an adventure film or maybe even a (generally ineffective) suspense thriller, and though it doesn’t hold a candle to the classic 1932 film adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game (released under that very title), it’s actually not that bad. Don’t get me wrong: the film has substantial problems, some of which are caused by its minimal budget – a scene where “judo expert” Betty is replaced onscreen by an obvious male stuntman had me cracking up, and the film also has an abundance of highly amusing, unintentionally (?) funny dialogue (“How do you get your kicks on a place like this?” “Kicks? Oh, I have my…diversions…“). Bloodlust! wouldn’t wind up on anyone’s list of the greatest films ever made, but surely it’s better than its reputation as pure trash cinema. If you catch this on TV (or have the desire to watch it for free online), it’s a worthwhile time-waster.


This public domain film has been released in a number of DVD packages (I might recommend one of the multi-film packs like Mill Creek’s 12-movie Cult Terror Cinema collection), and can be watched online for free .


4/10 : Brief glimpses of what in 1959 would have been rather graphic gore – and even some flowing blood!



0/10 : No profanity, but the subject matter may be a bit distressing for some.


1/10 : Fleeting reference to the fact that Balleau may have some rather despicable plans for the young ladies…


5/10 : Low-rent adaptation of a classic story; as such, it really ain’t all that bad.


“It amuses me now that I found it distasteful at first. And as time went by I adjusted my new activity. For what had been an unpleasant duty became a pleasure then it developed into a passion and then into a lust. A lust for blood! A lust that has grown with the years! And one that I spend my entire life trying to satisfy.”

Trailer:

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“Enough of Your Spook Talk…” HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL

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(4/5)

Pros: Vincent Price; wickedly funny dialogue; a few creepy moments

Cons: Doesn’t hold up well against modern horror; supporting cast is iffy

Made in an era when horror films didn’t have to be full of blood and guts to be effective or even “scary,” producer/director William Castle’s 1959 House on Haunted Hill is one of those films that has unfortunately lost its power to shock over the years in the wake of increasingly more graphic and intense horror movies (hell, most of the elements of this film have been repeated time and again by dozens of films – including a rather ill-advised, R-rated remake that turned up in 1999). Even if today’s horror fan (especially those who don’t have any interest in or knowledge of the history of cinema) is likely to find this film to be “lame” however, it has to be one of the most honest-to-goodness enjoyable horror films of the 1950s. What we have here is the basic haunted house story with some new twists: a millionaire named Frederick Loren has invited a group of strangers to a party taking place in a house reported to be stalked by the ghosts of at least six murder victims whose deaths took place within its walls. If the strangers survive the night, they get $10,000 (a large sum of money in 1959), but quickly the gang begins to suspect that safety in this house might not be a guarantee. The strangers find themselves having to deal with a murder – and become gripped with paranoia after coming to the realization that one of them might be responsible for it. Then there’s also the distinct possibility that the rumors about ghosts prowling the property aren’t rumors at all…

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What’s scarier: the ominous house in the background, or the DISEMBODIED HEAD OF A SNARKY-LOOKING VINCENT PRICE??!?

Filmed in exquisite black and white by Carl E. Guthrie, House on Haunted Hill seems remarkably similar to numerous other “haunted house” movies – particularly the films based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House: Robert Wise’s 1963 The Haunting and 1973’s British-made The Haunting of Hell House). While Wise’s 1963 film adaptation of Jackson’s novel is more psychologically-based and subtle, director William Castle (perhaps one of the least subtle film makers ever to work in Hollywood) turns House on Haunted Hill into a roller coaster ride of obvious spooky and creepy moments. During the course of the film, we have bodies being dissolved in an acid vat (dig the scene where a rat is tossed in the mixture and pops back up as a skeleton), ghostly figures gliding across shadowy sets, a woman hanged from the rafters of the estate who later turns up as an apparition seen in a window, and more. This film (like many other Castle productions) had its own gimmick when originally released to theaters – at one key moment, a skeleton would emerge from a secret compartment next to the screen and fly over the audience (one shudders to think what this so-called “Emergo” gimmick could have done in conjunction with the infamous “girl coming out of a well” scene in The Ring….). Despite his reputation as being more a showman than a technician though, Castle’s handling of the film is very efficient. The introduction of the characters, for instance, is very concise since Castle does in three minutes what might take hours elsewhere.

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Main cast assembled prior to their hair-raising night in the estate.

If anything, I could probably say that Castle’s film falls on the more predictable side of the scale since it follows most every horror movie cliché imaginable (right down to the soundtrack which is loaded with shrieking female vocals and warbling theremin cues). Still, the film remains an absolute blast to watch since neither writer Robb White nor Castle himself allow the picture to stall for even a second – and at just 75 minutes in length, this flick is lean and mean. White’s script is full of wonderfully witty dialogue, and I’d have to declare this to be one of the most genuinely (and – here’s the key – purposely) funny horror films of its era. Vincent Price (an actor known for his ability and indeed tendency to walk a fine line between being dead serious and absolutely campy in his performances) has a field day playing Frederick in this film, particularly in the scenes where his “playboy with a dark side” character interacts with his shrewish wife Annabelle (played by Carol Ohmart). I also appreciated the twists and turns in the story that occur late in the going – though I have to say that in 2014, most viewers probably could see most of these “surprises” coming well in advance.

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Most things in the film are fairly predictable, but there are still a few zingers…

Though Price’s performance is a delight to watch, the remaining cast is iffy at best. Richard Long plays test pilot Lance Schroeder who starts up a sort of relationship with the mousy and skittish Nora Manning (played by Carolyn Craig). These two characters are the ones the narrative focuses the most time on, but neither actor really brings much to the table: Long is somewhat pompous and stuffy, while Craig does a lot of screaming and generally acts hysterical. Meanwhile, a shady doctor named Trent (played by Alan Marshal) lurks around in the periphery with raving drunk Watson Pritchard (a manic role for Elisha Cook, Jr), and journalist Ruth Bridgers (a literally forgettable Julie Mitchum, who all but disappears from the film at a certain point). Cook seems to be having fun making doomy prophecies about what’s going to happen to the various strangers during the course of the night, but Marshal’s acting seemed particularly sketchy to me. Eventually, the Trent character becomes pivotal in the unfolding action, but I was never quite able to buy into and believe Marshal’s performance, which took away from the film down the stretch. It’s a good thing the dialogue keeps things lively because most of these supporting actors seem like placeholders and nothing more.

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KNOCK KNOCK…

Even if this film isn’t so much downright scary as occasionally spooky, I think most viewers would get a kick out of it. There is immense amusement to be derived from this script and film, and it has some impressive sequences from a technical standpoint as well. Every scene in which a “ghost” appears – and perhaps most notably the scene in which lightning bolts create a stroboscopic effect as a ghost appears to begin curling a thick rope around a woman’s foot – is a highlight moment, and the sets detailing the interiors of the expansive – and ominous – titular estate are very well-done. The film’s big finale, cheesy and corny though it may be, is effectively rendered onscreen and like it or not, quite memorable, predating such things as the aforementioned Ringu/The Ring. Like many old time horror films, this one can’t and won’t stand up against the likes of Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, or the latest zombie gut-muncher – it’s more than half a century old as this point. Nevertheless, the original House on Haunted Hill is nothing less than hugely entertaining and a perfect way to spend and hour and a quarter. Certainly worth checking out.


This film is available in a seemingly endless number of packages, ranging from multiple film sets, to a colorized version. It can also be watched for free online .


3/10 : A few scary and violent moments, but nothing too intense.


1/10 : Some discussion of adult themes and brief, minor strong language.


0/10 : The shapely Carolyn Craig is easy on the eyes, but the only thing we get here is a few scenes of women trolling about in nighties.


8/10 : Thoroughly enjoyable late ’50s camp horror. One of Price’s most outright enjoyable films.


“At last you’ve got it all, everything I had… even my life. But you’re not going to live to enjoy it!”

Trailer:

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Shark Week 2014 Night One: SHARK OF DARKNESS // AIR JAWS – FIN OF FURY

SHARK OF DARKNESS: WRATH OF SUBMARINE and AIR JAWS: FIN OF FURY

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(3.5/5)

Pros: A solid documentary and an enjoyable piece of entertainment

Cons: Some people just won’t appreciate the fake documentary format

One of the channel’s most anticipated annual programming blocks, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week now appears to have adopted the “mockumentary” as one of its hallmark events. The 2014 edition of this week of shows dealing with the ultimate undersea predators kicked off on August 10 with three hours of all-new specials, culminating in the two hour Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine. Having seen quite a few of the fake documentaries that have featured both on Discovery Channel and Animal Planet in recent years, I’d probably call Shark of Darkness one of the more phony-looking ones of the bunch – it’s full of improbable situations, lousy acting, unconvincing action sequences, and lots of iffy historical perspective. It appears that Discovery is no longer even attempting to convince people these shows are authentic, which is perhaps unsurprising after the furor surrounding last year’s Megalodon “documentary.” Though many viewers would quickly dismiss Shark of Darkness as “b.s.” or drone on and on about how they’re “disappointed” that Discovery Channel would air something like this, these people probably should just chill out. It’s well-produced and certainly decent enough for what it is.

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If you really think this looks like a real newspaper heading, you need to get out more.

Prior to the hokey but enjoyable Shark of Darkness, Discovery did choose to air an hour-long legitimate documentary called Air Jaws: Fin of Fury. This program followed a camera crew around both South Africa and New Zealand in search of an approximately 18-foot-long great white nicknamed “Colossus.” This animal had been photographed several years ago performing attacks on a rubber seal decoy in which the shark launched itself out of the water in spectacular fashion, then had all but vanished from view. Circa 2013, photographer Jeff Kurr embarks on a journey to try and find the creature again.

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Images taken of great whites performing aerial attacks in False Bay, South Africa are positively stunning.

Fin of Fury features quite a bit of discussion about white shark habits and habitation, exploring the notion that perhaps South Africa’s large colony of great whites migrates to New Zealand at certain times of the year. Per usual, this program features some stunning underwater images of sharks in action: it would be a treat for anyone interested in sharks, particularly the imposing great white. It’s pretty unbelievable to see the sheer number of sharks inhabiting the locations in which this show was filmed: at any given point, there are many (large!) whites surrounding the researchers. Additionally, this program featured a few new innovations for photographing large sharks in their natural habitat. One was a movable cage called the WASP (Water Armor Shark Protection) that allows a cameraman to crawl along the sea floor in a protective suit of steel. This device certainly demonstrated its integrity during Fin of Fury – several sharks appeared quite interested in the contraption and a few even attempted to attack it.

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By far the more eye-opening sequence in Fin of Fury however was one in which a shark researcher named Dickie Chivell employs a female shark decoy in an attempt to lure large white sharks in. This decoy is one of the flimsiest things imaginable, made of interlocking wooden slats, and it appears to do its job remarkably well since numerous sharks come in to investigate and snap at the thing. Probably one of the most insane stunts ever seen during Shark Week occurs when Dickie decides to ride on and pilot the decoy while several large and inquisitive sharks swirl around. Considering how sketchy an idea this seems indicates that Chivell is either more courageous or more downright stupid (perhaps a combination of both) than most of his colleagues in the field of shark research, but this sequence (along with the genuinely educational value of the program) certainly made Fin of Fury something to see.

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Chivell’s got some pretty serious balls to be attempting something like this – that shark decoy is FLIMSY!

Shark of Darkness, on the other hand, would likely either entertain or annoy any individual viewer. It’s worth pointing out that right off the bat this program declares that “events have been dramatized,” and it seems no accident that that statement is rather ambiguous. I’d go so far as to declare that this entire program is made up, but that’s more or less a moot point with regard to a program that quite obviously is entertainment and nothing else.

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This program deals with the search for a 35-foot long great white nicknamed “The Submarine” which has been spotted intermittently in South African waters since the early 1970s – speculation about the existence of this creature was part of the inspiration for 2013’s Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. This time around, Discovery Channel concocts a story about a whale watching ship that sinks in shark-infested waters, with the presence of the huge “Submarine” hampering the rescue effort. Combining interviews with survivors of the accident, “scientists” and shark eyewitnesses with “authentic footage” and an assured narration, Shark of Darkness is, like most of the other Discovery Channel fake documentaries, fairly clever in its set-up and construction. The fact that this program isn’t as factual as it claims to be however will likely make or break the show for viewers: those looking strictly for educational value will scoff at this thing, but those who just accept it as the entertainment piece is so clearly is will be entertained.

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As with previous pseudocumentaries, there are several elements that give this one away as being fictional. For one, the “found footage” format used in the program simply doesn’t work after a while: it’s impossible to believe that this many cameras (which just so happen to capture all the major events in the story) were available during the rescue effort which supposedly happened rather hastily and spontaneously. Additionally, though the CGI effects seen throughout this program are capably done (images of a huge shark are added into several scenes, and we even see the beast taking a few human victims), they’re simply not all that convincing – if this footage did exist, don’t you think news agencies would have been all over it? Finally, the script during this program gets all the more ridiculous and incredible as it goes along. I was willing to suspend my disbelief for a certain period of time (and even accept the overly convenient video coverage), but when the “Submarine” takes on almost supernatural powers and scientists endlessly harp on about how intelligent the creature is, the credibility of the program quickly vanished.

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CGI shark in 3…2…1…

Although the acting during Shark of Darkness frequently comes across as forced and exaggerated (the whole thing seems very scripted, and one woman’s tearful recollection of the boating accident almost borders on being humorous), the program does effectively crank up the suspense at various times. The “Submarine” is effectively hidden from view much of the time, giving the creature a sort of shadowy, intimidating presence that looms over everything else happening in the film. The imperfect “amateur video” images seen in the film also do their part to make the ongoing story quite tense – especially when one rescuer has to venture into the shark-infested waters in an effort to save three people still (inexplicably) trapped on the sunken vessel. Though this whole notion of people surviving on a submerged ship for quite a lengthy period of time seems completely unlikely (a pretty serious flaw in the script in my opinion), it certainly makes for a potentially frightening conclusion to the story.

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Generally speaking, Shark of Darkness does a fine job of faking the documentary format, once again demonstrating that Pilgrim Studios (a sort of Discovery Channel R&D department who have produced most of these pseudodocumentaries) have mastered the format. By 2014, it’s been well-established that these sorts of programs are staples of both Animal Planet and Discovery Channel’s programming lineup, making the instantaneous chatter about how this program “isn’t real” more or less irrelevant – after all, is this program any less fake than the swarms of reality TV shows that pop up on Discovery Channel? If anything, I’d have to say that Shark of Darkness, like the other fake documentaries that came before it, deserves commendation for getting people’s attention – shows like this are designed to promote discussion and garner interest, thus I’d have to call the program a massive success.

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Is “Submarine” really out there somewhere?

I’d be the first to declare things like this to be sketchy in terms of their motivations: I’d much rather see legit documentaries on Discovery Channel, but let’s get real: in an era where hype conquers all, it’s not at all surprising that shows like this have taken over even on the “educational channels.” The stream of live Twitter responses featured during the program shows where Discovery Channel’s priorities lie: they try to make these programs into an “event” rather than just another television show. Would a straight-faced documentary have gotten that kind of attention? Surely Shark of Darkness has its problems, but it’s perfect for what it is: viewers willing to roll with the punches are likely to enjoy it.

Amateur video used in Shark of Darkness:

“Just Think…what a TRIP!” ’70s Cult Classic THE BABY

THE BABY

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(3.5/5)

Pros: Certainly unique and very offbeat

Cons: Kinda dull at times

A genuine oddity from the early 1970s that plays in a somewhat similar manner to director Jack Hill’s 1964 Spider-Baby, 1973’s The Baby follows the story of a young, seemingly idealistic social worker named Ann Gentry who’s given the unenviable assignment of handling the case involving the Wadsworth family. Though this family seems average enough – made up of a single mother and her three children (two daughters, one son) who live in a rather large but somewhat decrepit mansion – the Wadsworths are in actuality far from normal. Their son you see, a twenty-one year old fully grown man, has been diagnosed as being mentally retarded and has lived his entire live as one would expect a nine-month old child to. He sleeps in a crib, tootles around in diapers, and is more or less taken care of and sheltered by his overprotective (and quite possibly looney) sisters and mother. Ann’s main goal throughout the story is to rescue the boy (called, simply, “Baby”) from his family, who she views as having caused his condition through the use of negative reinforcement. As might be expected, her efforts to improve Baby’s life are met with resistance from Mrs. Wadsworth and her two daughters – surly but ditzy blonde Alma and more devious Germaine.


What are social worker Ann’s real intentions in helping Baby?

Directed by Ted Post (who had an up and down career in television and feature films) and written by Abe Polsky, The Baby plays as a sort of deranged drama dealing with a “pretty strange family.” The atmosphere of the piece most often positions the Wadsworth’s as being the villains of the piece, while Ann seems to be the upstanding “white knight” trying to save Baby from his hideous surroundings. This film certainly presents a view at a different time period when the mentally handicapped were seen by most as having extremely limited (if any) potential to have a place of their own in society. The early 1970s as captured in the film clearly wasn’t the era of occupational training or the Special Olympics as it were, but Ann seems to think that with some specialized care, Baby could more or less integrate into society – which definitely was a noble idea at the time. Throughout the film though, a viewer gets the sense that Ann (who we’re told is married, yet her husband never is nowhere to be found) has some issues of her own – she’s living in a rather lavish mansion with her creepy mother-in-law, constantly undertaking a rather extensive construction project in the backyard. Could it be that she has her own, more diabolical motives for helping Baby?

Over the years, this film has picked up quite a reputation as a definitive cult effort, and in some regards it does deserve that recognition. Right from the opening moments which make it clear that Baby’s voice/squeals/crying have been dubbed over using the sounds of actual young children and definitely aren’t coming from the mouth of actor David Mooney, this film is extremely loopy. The diaper-clad character is seen crawling around the sets, twittering instinctively as if his nervous system hasn’t fully developed. He also frequently breaks out into a full-on temper tantrum of sorts for one reason or another and (in one particularly bonkers moment) attempts to suckle at the breast of his babysitter, much to the dismay of his mother. Furthermore, when you’ve got scenes where Alma and Germaine “punish” Baby by using an electric cattle prod – or one when a nude Germaine sneaks into Baby’s crib late at night to do who knows what – it’s clear that this film operates well off the beaten path. I’ve also got to hand it to the film for throwing in a hilarious ‘70s dance party scene in which a scumbag, self-proclaimed “skin freak” (who is easily the shadiest character in a film that’s overflowing with them) attempts to put the moves on any woman in sight. Just watch out for the freaky Alma, who has her own ideas of what constitutes a “good time…”


A showdown straight out of a western between Ann and the Wadsworth’s…

All this said, I found this film to be rather tame considering its reputation – much of the picture is formulaic and predictable as it focuses on Ann’s efforts to win over the Wadsworth family. Still, there’s always the question of whether Ann can really be trusted at all: in an “off the deep end” screwy flick like this, her clean-cut image seems a little too convenient. By the end of the film (which is more suspense/horror oriented), an audience would be left wondering who – if anyone – we’re supposed to be rooting for here. Ultimately, the way the narrative toys around with and juggles character motivations results in some moments of confusion, though I think this is a benefit to the picture considering its offbeat nature.

Though this film very much looks like the low budget effort is really is (special effects are almost non-existent and pretty awful when they do show up; sets are occasionally quite barren), the cast of actors make the film amusing and fun. Anjanette Comer plays social worker Ann who has a wide-eyed fascination with the Wadsworth Baby – the question is why she is so enamored with him. The raspy-voiced Ruth Roman plays Mrs. Wadsworth and is given several moments in which she very nearly becomes a film noir styled “dangerous female” – check out the tight pants/open blouse outfit she wears during some of her furious “…you bitch!…” monologues. Marianna Hill (occasionally sporting one of the most eye-popping “big” hairdos I’ve seen in a while) and the plucky Susanne Zenor play the Wadsworth daughters, both of whom have some noticeable eccentricities. Undoubtedly, the “villain” characters in this film (given some howlingly good/bad dialogue by writer Polsky) are the most intriguing and captivating, though David Mooney does about steal the show as Baby. Probably the performance I liked the most was long-time character actor Michael Pataki in a limited role as Dennis, the quintessential lounge lizard trolling Baby’s dance freakout birthday party. Pataki is sleazy to the extreme and enjoyable to watch as layers on the ham and cheese.

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Uh-oh! Someone needs their diaper changed…

Ted Post’s direction in the picture does its job but isn’t anything to write home about from a director known for more action-oriented pictures (such as the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Hang ‘em High). I rather liked Gerald Fried’s music score, which often uses droning and moaning low-pitched string arrangements to add gloomy mood to the picture, but Michael D. Margulies’ ho-hum cinematography perfectly demonstrates why he has frequently found work in television movies rather than feature films. Overall, The Baby (which, at best, might be called a minor psychological thriller) fairly often seems lackadaisical and kinda dull, which is rather unfortunate given that it doesn’t even hit the 90 minute mark in length. It’s probably one that fans of cult movies -particularly those from the 1970s – would want to check out simply since it is so damn strange and wacky, but I’d really only give it a moderate recommendation. There are better films out there.


2011 DVD release from Severin Films looks and sounds decent, with a pair of short interviews with director Ted Post and Baby himself, David Mooney. The widescreen format of the disc is somewhat problematic however given that this film was originally shot full-frame (Image’s earlier DVD release preserves this original aspect ratio and may actually be preferable to the more recent release).


4/10 : A few relatively brief moments of violence and gore, but some pretty substantial weirdness going on in this film. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t given a PG-13 (as opposed to the original PG rating) if it was released today.


3/10 : Mrs. Wadsworth has the tendency to call most everyone around her a “witch” with a “B” (in that glorious “I smoke three packs a day” voice of hers), but that’s about the extent of the profanity here.


3/10 : Some implied sexual encounters and innuendo, but only brief onscreen “make out” sessions and no nudity. Susanne Zenor looks great however as she threatens to bust out of her tight top.


9/10 : One weird little movie that would almost be a must for cult film fans – even if the flick isn’t that great by any standard.


Nothing can overpower a monster’s love: “Nothing’s that important…when it comes to Baby I do all the thinkin’

Trailer: (WARNING – possibly NSFW due to weirdness!)

Picking Up the Pieces After the Rapture: HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS

THE LEFTOVERS on HBO

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(3.5/5)

Pros: Acting; sense of mystery

Cons: Perhaps not as initially POW! as other HBO shows

It’s strange to think that a premium cable channel once known primarily for its lineup of feature films is now regarded more for its captivating television series, but Home Box Office (or HBO) circa 2014 is much more interesting for its original programming than for any of the theatrical productions it airs. As several of its long-running series wind down (2014 will be the final season of both True Blood and Boardwalk Empire), HBO has unveiled a couple of new programs loaded with potential, including the highly-acclaimed and positively enthralling True Detective, a “Southern Gothic” which ran through its eight episode first season in early 2014, and The Leftovers, a mysterious drama that premiered in late June.

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The Guilty Remnant in action: what role will this strange cult-like group play in the ongoing plot?

Dealing with a small community in New York State attempting to deal with the aftermath of a Rapture-type event (and having clear parallels to a post-9/11 reality), The Leftovers, like most of the HBO programs, chronicles the lives of a variety of interconnected characters. The pilot episode of the program starts off with a brief but rather impressive depiction of the “rapture” itself, a moment occurring three years prior to the main body of the series, in which two percent of the world’s population instantly vanished into the unknown. This disappearance of apparently random people has prompted much speculation in the years since the event about what exactly did happen: as one barkeep points out during the pilot, while he can understand why the Pope would “depart” the earth during this event, he can’t quite wrap his head around why “Gary f—king Busey” would be chosen.

In small Mapleton, New York, police chief Kevin Garvey is one of the people left to try and make sense of this “brave new world” of sorts. Garvey’s wife, Laurie, has left him and joined a very shadowy doomsday cult-like group called the Guilty Remnant (whose members refuse to speak and mainly smoke cigarettes all day as part of their belief system), while his daughter Jill is having problems coping with her day-to-day life. Garvey’s son Tom is equally estranged from his father and has hooked up with an oracle figure named “Holy Wayne” who proclaims to have some sort of healing ability which he’s been marketing to government personnel. Another relatively major character is a woman named Meg (played by Liv Tyler) who’s about to be married, but is having second thoughts – especially after it becomes apparent that she is being stalked by members of the Guilty Remnant.

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This pilot boasts a few surreal, mesmerizing flashback sequences.

The pilot episode (taking place around the three-year anniversary of the mass disappearances) introduces the main storylines involving all of these characters and a few peripheral ones, and focuses perhaps most notably on the efforts of the slightly abrasive mayor of Mapleton in organizing a so-called “Heroes Day” to remember those lost in the departure event. This doesn’t sit well with Garvey, who anticipates that the members of The Guilty Remnant will show up causing problems with the townsfolk – in general the whole “Heroes Day” concept is met with skepticism by many of the characters. Meanwhile, Garvey is also dealing with bizarre encounters with a sort of “mystery man” who first makes an appearance in the series by (apparently) randomly shooting a stray dog, while Tom and Jill respectively have to conquer their own inner demons, most of which revolve around the fact that their mother (for all intents and purposes) abandoned them.

Like many television series these days, The Leftovers is perhaps best in its ability to slowly unravel its various enigmas. In the opening episode, we ever so gradually learn the relationships between the various characters – and its only the end of the episode that finally reveals that Laurie, who we’ve been seeing throughout the episode, is actually Kevin’s estranged wife. This pilot also gives us just enough information about both “Holy Wayne” and the Guilty Remnant sect that I imagine most viewers would be intrigued, but a viewer would have to stick around and watch additional episodes to really begin to understand most of what’s going on in the evolving plotline. It might go without saying since HBO original shows usually do a wonderful job of “hooking” a viewer, but the Leftovers pilot episode ends with a very perplexing conclusion that’s indicative of the fact that there’s more going on with both Garvey and the “mystery man” than we might have thought.


Judging from images like this, I would expect the series to get plenty intense at some point…

Per usual in HBO original series, acting in The Leftovers is pretty outstanding, with Justin Theroux (who, appropriately, appeared in a couple David Lynch movies including Mulholland Drive) starring as the disillusioned and frustrated Kevin Garvey. Amy Brenneman (known for her appearances on NYPD Blue in the 1990s) is pretty captivating as Garvey’s quite possibly disturbed wife Laurie. The actors certainly do a fine job of relating their characters’s anguish, and Chris Zylka (as son Tom) and Margaret Qualley (as daughter Jill) turn in their own solid support work. If I could be critical of one thing in the writing of Damon Lindelof (responsible for the TV show Lost, a fact which may give a viewer some idea of what to expect here) and Tom Perrotta (on whose novel the series is based), it’s that the whole dysfunctional family angle of the story is far too predictable and almost par-for-the-course in television series of this nature. Of course the daughter is going to get into trouble with drugs and sex while the son ignores his father’s phone calls to his own detriment – nonetheless, I was intrigued by the quiet near-mysticism that seems to surround both Kevin and Laurie. There are some interesting pseudo-religious ideas in this series for sure.

Direction in the pilot episode was handled by Peter Berg, who’s had an up-and-down career as a feature director (on the plus side, 2004’s Friday Night Lights; not-so-hot was 2008’s Hancock or 2012’s Battleship – groan!). Berg’s handling of this material seems a bit more assured, with several really cool, jarring flashback sequences that literally grip a viewer. Berg also does a nice job of adding poignancy to certain scenes – the “Heroes Day” parade sequence, for instance, is handled very well, right down to the almost obnoxiously cheesy speech presentations that are the culmination of the day’s ceremony. The atmosphere of this opening episode is quite mysterious, the whole program imbued with a slight sense of dread and foreboding – this seems quite appropriate considering the subject matter. Max Richter’s music score (a combination of recognizable popular songs and elegant piano-based themes) fits the mood very well. I especially liked that during a few of the more violent scenes, Richter uses soft, gentle melodies to contrast the chaos – a very effective technique that actually (contrary to what one might think) makes the violence all the more shocking.

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A statue dedicated to “victims” of the mysterious rapture event at the series’ center – what really happened here?

I should say at this point that The Leftovers has some rather extreme sexual content (though no nudity to speak of) in the pilot as well as some eye-popping violence and rather colorful language. It probably wouldn’t be appropriate for overly sensitive or younger viewers, but it’s perhaps not as potentially objectionable as some of HBO’s other programs (at least at this early juncture).

At the end of the day, The Leftovers pilot episode did exactly what I would have expected. Ambiguous since it reveals just enough information to whet a viewer’s appetite (a fact which will undoubtedly frustrate many viewers looking for ANSWERS – NOW!!), it definitely got me interested in the storyline, and I’m rather looking forward to seeing what happens in later episodes. This program is perhaps a bit more gritty and less stylized than other HBO shows like True Blood, but it certainly has a story that would lure in viewers. This pilot didn’t provide the crack in the gut that the opening episode of True Detective did, but given HBO’s previous track record for outstanding original programming, I’d be shocked if The Leftovers didn’t pan out to be above average in the long run. Ultimately, we’ll have to see how everything works out, but I’m calling this show worthwhile based on this first episode.

“…Another Name for Mars is…DEATH!” IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE

IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE

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See the , , or release at Amazon!

(3/5)

Pros: Simply fun to watch

Cons: Not a “good” movie in the traditional sense

Though it’s perhaps one of the better known of the super-cheesy, low-budget science fiction films of the 1950s, 1958’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space (recognized as being the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien) is fun, yet pretty run-of-the-mill when held up against the dozens of similar films from the golden age of sci-fi. Taking place in the then-future world of 1973, the film follows the story of the second Mars expedition, in which a crew of astronauts attempt to rescue the sole surviving member of the first Mars expedition. This survivor, Colonel Edward Carruthers, has been accused of murdering the rest of his crew after their spacecraft was marooned on the red planet, and is being transported back to Earth to face a court-martial. As it turns out though, Carruthers’ story about an unknown Martian life form being responsible for the death of his fellow crewmen is actually true. This is bad news for the crew of the second Mars mission – especially when the beast manages to find a way onto their rocket before the journey back Earth.

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Rut Row!

Running just 70 minutes in length, one might expect that It! would be a model of efficiency – and would be mostly correct in assuming this. I say “mostly” because this film (directed by Edward L.Cahn from a script by Jerome Bixby) is quite talky in its opening quarter hour or so. All this exposition certainly gets the main points of the story across, but scenes in which a group of government officials and reporters are provided with a crash course history of the Mars expeditions seem like unnecessary filler, padding out the run time a bit. Once it’s clear that Carruthers was telling the truth about a powerful humanoid with a tendency to suck the oxygen and liquid right out of its human victims, It! (like the later Alien that follows a similar storyline) becomes a more taut thriller. As the beast prowls around through the spacecraft’s ventilation system and storage hold, killing crew members one-by-one, the surviving astronauts barricade themselves in the control module, trying to come up with some -any- way to slay the creature.

The fact that It! inspired a genuine classic of the sci-fi genre doesn’t necessarily mean that this film in and of itself is really anything altogether fantastic. Cahn’s picture is hampered by a low-budget and somewhat uncreative script development: the film offers up nothing that a viewer familiar with the sci-fi genre wouldn’t have seen before. If anything, It! plays very much like Howard Hawks’ influential The Thing set on a spaceship – both films deal with a hulking creature with vampiric tendencies lurking around an enclosed location and a small cast of characters who have to deal with the beast. Special effects in It! are of the not-so-special variety – images of the rocket ship gliding across a mockup of a star field are pretty lousy and the obvious, rubber suit costume used to depict the titular creature is almost laughably bad (check out the “tongue” of the beast seen through its open mouth – that’s actually the protruding chin of famous stuntman/actor Ray “Crash” Corrigan, who plays the creature).


This image honestly has more creepy potential than the film as a whole.

Aside from the fact that it’s just amusing that this film inexplicably takes place in the year 1973, the entire piece is hilariously off-base in its scientific basis and sense of logic. Is it really a good idea to utilize explosives, gas grenades or even a bazooka inside the confined space of a rocket? And, as if that wasn’t dangerous enough, why in the world would Carruthers and company decide to open the nuclear reactor powering the ship in an attempt to irradiate the creature – and, in turn, the entire flight crew. At no point are any of the ramifications of any of these actions discussed – if you believe the logic of this film, none of these iffy decisions would have any impact on the safety of the crew members or the integrity of the spacecraft itself. I should also put it on record that the sound of a theremin on this film’s soundtrack doesn’t make one of the most pathetic space walks in cinema history any more convincing.

Compared with these ridiculous gaps in plausibility, the fact that writer Bixby throws in the obligatory but improbable romance between a female medical officer (played by Shirley Patterson) and Carruthers (Marshall Thompson, playing the almost pompous hero of the story) seems a minor flaw, but generally speaking, the characters in the film are poorly developed and lazily introduced. Literally, there’s a “roll call” scene in which each actor states his name on camera – it’s impossible to honestly care about any of these indistinguishable people, thereby alleviating some of the tension in the story. Universally too old and too unfit for the rigors of space travel, this group of characters are simply placeholders in the script, arguing about what they should do and mostly coming across as potential monster bait. Increasingly, what happens to any of them seems almost irrelevant – hell, the script doesn’t even focus on the characters at the end of the film, instead it provides a convenient wrap-up for the story told from the perspective of a(n even more nameless) government official.

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“Pull yourself together Harold…I mean, we only set off gas grenades, wired up explosives, fired a bazooka inside the command module and opened up the nuclear reactor…”

Even if the film is hokey to the extreme and follows a group of characters I didn’t care about, there are some positive elements to the picture. Though I never thought Cahn and his production team quite established a claustrophobic atmosphere that really would have heightened the tension in the story (amazingly, despite the expansiveness of the spacecraft that was the setting for Alien, that film is highly claustrophobic – and unsettling), the set design throughout It! is pretty nifty, and Kenneth Peach’s black and white camerawork is serviceable and attractive. I rather liked Paul Sawtell’s frequently eerie soundtrack music, particularly the enjoyably overbearing “honky” accents used to convey tension or moments of fright. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the (overuse) of sound effects in the film: the title creature’s appearance onscreen is often accompanied by what sounds like an obese man snoring profusely. Good times!

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“WHARRGARBL”

Obviously, It! The Terror from Beyond Space is imperfect – in a film of this nature, that’s almost to be expected, and to be honest, that sense of imperfection is part of what makes this film appealing in the first place. What one really wants out of a picture like this is simply a sense of fun, and I can definitively say that It! delivers in that regard. NEWSFLASH! It! The Terror from Beyond Space is no classic (even when compared to similar, 1950’s B-movies) and won’t be confused with the best movie ever made. Despite the laundry list of potential problems however, this pleasing film would be a gas for those who appreciate older, “so bad, they’re good” genre flicks. I’d recommend it.


Available as a stand alone disc (full-frame, no extras) or as a double feature DVD (with the equally enjoyable giant slug movie The Monster that Challenged the World from 1957; both movies are black and white and full-frame format, no extras). I’d universally recommend the double feature – more bang for your buck!


3/10 : Titular beast kills a few people, turning them into human prunes. Some violent struggles and gunfire; brief glimpses of blood; nothing major.


0/10 : Clean as a whistle.


0/10 : These astronauts keep their mind on the task at hand – ignoring the two females (inexplicably) along for the ride.


7/10 : An enjoyably trashy ’50s monster mash.


“This was the planet Mars as my crew and I first saw it. Dangerous. Treacherous. Alive…with something we came to known only as … Death…

Trailer:

Fun and Games out at “Camp Blood…” The Original FRIDAY THE 13th

FRIDAY THE 13th

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See it or at Amazon

(4/5)

Pros: Music score; FX work; creepy atmosphere; shock ending(s)

Cons: Stereotypical characters; dumb, familiar script; hasn’t held up well over time

Being the film that established many of the now-cliche elements of the slasher movie (the summer camp setting, sexually-active characters getting killed first, body count formula, and notion of the twist ending to name but a few), the 1980 horror film Friday the 13th has to be regarded today not only as the quintessential ‘80s slasher film but also a bona fide classic. That this film would be regarded as such more than (gulp!) three decades after its release is a bit shocking considering it’s initial reception. In 1980, this was viewed as being one of the most reprehensible, worthless films ever made – renowned critic Leonard Maltin only updated his rating of the film from “BOMB” to “one and a half stars” due to the fact that the original Friday the 13th was better than parts 2,3,4,5,6 or 7. Honestly though, one can’t compare this (or most any horror film really) to the honest-to-goodness best movies out there: most horror films (particularly those of the slasher film variety) are made for minimal amounts of money, and their sole purpose is to create a scary, creepy, spooky, or downright shocking atmosphere. Audiences go to these films expecting to see copious amounts of graphic violence and maybe a bit of bare skin, and if one of these films provides those elements while keeping a viewer entertained and interested, I’d have to call it a success. It’s under those terms that director Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th has to be viewed, and can thus be seen as not only influential, but also surprisingly effective.


…and so the begins the legend of Jason Voorhees…

In the years following the drowning death of a young boy named Jason in 1958 due to the counselors neglecting the boy (the legend setting up the whole of the Friday the 13th film series), a remote summer camp at Crystal Lake has been subject to bad luck and a string of unfortunate circumstances, but a new owner named Steve Christy has come in to try and revitalize and reopen the property. After fixing up the facilities, he invites the group of prospective counselors to move in two weeks ahead of the camp’s opening to get the place ready to go. As it turns out though, the rumors about the “death curse” hanging over Camp Crystal Lake appear to be true since, over the course of one day and night (“Friday, June 13th, present day”), the counselors will find themselves in a life-or-death struggle with a prowler who’s killing them one by one.

Though it really is a model of efficiency, the story and script (by director Cunningham and Victor Miller) is mostly an excuse to have an ever-increasing number of people be murdered in semi-inventive ways. It’s also quite similar to the premise behind John Carpenter’s classic Halloween only set in a more remote area, but even if Carpenter could be credited with creating the look and feel of the modern slasher, Cunningham does a fine job of replicating that mood and adding a few touches of his own at the same time. Having previously raised the bar of the horror genre with his work as producer on Wes Craven’s debut film Last House on the Left, a film from 1972 that really can’t be overemphasized as a piece well ahead of its time that pointed the way that the genre would head from that point on (i.e. becoming more nasty and explicitly violent), Cunningham was a master of creating exploitation pictures that were able to be swallowed by the general public. Friday the 13th is a prime example of his talents: Cunningham not only crafted an undeniably scary and graphically violent film, but managed to sell the thing (extremely crude though it is) to a major motion picture studio. The not-entirely surprising success of Friday the 13th immediately set the slasher film craze of the 1980s into motion: within a few years, not only were cookie-cutter sequels being pumped out at an alarming rate ( I can vividly recall how Friday the 13th movies were all the schoolyard rage when I was growing up in the late ‘80s), but every studio and film maker around was trying their hand at this genre where cheaply-made pictures could become box office gold.


Say it with Crazy Ralph : “YER ALL DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMED!”

To his credit, Cunningham does a nice job of maximizing the scares in a film that quite clearly made very quickly and inexpensively. Throughout the picture, the camera often takes the viewpoint of an unknown prowler lurking just out of range of the counselors’ vision thus, it constantly seems like the main characters in the film are being watched and stalked. Barry Abrams was the cinematographer here, and he does a great job of capturing gorgeous location and scenery but also building suspense in his shot compositions. There’s a nice editing balance in this film between more quiet moments and thrilling suspense sequences, with glimpses of jarring graphic violence thrown in for good measure. I also liked how the “meat and potatoes” section of the film takes place in the rundown and somewhat decrepit campground during a nighttime thunderstorm – the locations are dark and dreary, with shadows (and also, potentially the murderer) lurking around every corner. Harry Manfredini’s famous music score (ch-ch-ch ha-ha-ha) only adds to the creepiness of the film, ratcheting tension to the extreme during key moments through its use of flatulent, low pitch string accents. His orchestral music during a chase scene through the forest, for instance, is reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s wonderfully unsettling score from Psycho.

On the downside, the script has some dumb moments, no doubt about it. I was simply not able to suspend my disbelief any more at a certain point in the film – so you’re telling me the killer sets up a sort of real-life Mousetrap game with all the corpses just to provide obvious “jump” scares during the climax??!? Additionally, the whole “phone’s dead, power’s out, car won’t start” routine grew tiresome. Characters are ridiculously stereotypical (most of the young people come across as frisky goofballs – do you suppose that the one female not trying to get laid will wind up being the proverbial “final girl?”), and the acting isn’t all that hot. Though the cast (which includes a very young Kevin Bacon) is obviously having a great deal of fun, Betsy Palmer, who’s in the film for all of fifteen minutes or less, is the only cast member who truly stands out.

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Wait a second…who’s THIS woman??!?

The potential problem with the film I noticed most though was the fact that, given its reputation, this film seems VERY tame by modern standards. Tom Savini (make-up and FX man on the hideously gory original Dawn of the Dead) did the special effects here, but the film almost shies away from showing them and isn’t nearly as “wet” as other films Savini worked on. Though this is especially true in the theatrical R-rated version, even the originally X-rated “director’s cut” of the film (which includes more lingering shots of blood flow and spurt) doesn’t hold a candle to what would pass for an R-rating today. Additionally, although slasher films try and come up with clever ways of killing people, Friday the 13th seems rather uninspired in its murder methods. Specifically, several people are killed by bow and arrow, and most every victim here has some sort of knife or stab wound. To be fair, some of the aforementioned issues may simply be due to the fact that the slasher formula was done to death in the years following this film (and even up until today), thus, Friday the 13th doesn’t seem as original and fresh as it did playing in 1980. Viewers without some level of appreciation for the history of the horror film though may be genuinely disappointed by the relative lack of outrageous bloodshed.

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This summer camp fun time quickly comes to an end.

Even if the film doesn’t quite hold up to modern standards though, I’d have to say that Friday the 13th is a lot of fun to watch, having that appealing ‘80s vibe that (for me anyways) instantly equals a good time. This film has gotten a bad rap over the years, as if people blame this flick for the deluge of slasher films that came in its wake, but I would declare that Sean Cunningham’s film is not just the product of talented collaborators, but is also inventive and innovative – a virtual “how to” in constructing a slasher film. It obviously hit on something to not only make a killing at the box office but inspire eleven sequels (to date) and hundreds of imitators . Friday the 13th may seem like utter rubbish when compared to the likes of Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind, but it is a defining film that was extremely important in the history and development of the horror genre. A must-see for horror movie fans.


Re-released many, many times over the years on video, so there are numerous ways to see this film. The may be preferable – this set contains ALL (and I do mean all) the Friday the 13th films, with extended versions (the director’s cut of part I for instance, is included), and a batch of special features. I watched Friday the 13th as part of the DVD box set – a decent, widescreen presentation of the R-Rated theatrical print. This box set includes parts I-VIII of the series, with a nice bonus feature package of its own (including extended gore sequences cut from the theatrical versions). Not confused enough? The original Friday the 13th has several stand-alone releases on either DVD or Blu-ray with varying technical specifications and special features.


8/10 : Though this film was seen as being pretty extreme (and even X-rated) in 1980, it’s quite tame by today’s standards of excess. That said, there are some very gory scenes here, including several throats being slit, an arrowhead through the larynx, and a blood-spurting decapitation. It may be too much for some people not used to typical horror movie violence, but I’ve seen worse…


5/10 : Some profanity, but hardly the barrage one might expect. There’s also some sexual and drug content in the dialogue – as well as brief drug use.


5/10 : Young adults getting frisky on camera, with brief topless nudity seen. Quite a few females scurry around in their skivvies, and one sports a see-through top. Nevertheless, this film is, again, fairly tame by the standards of ’80s horror.


9/10 : This is arguably THE ’80s slasher classic.


“You’ll never come back alive…It’s got a death curse…”
gameover

Hokey, Goopy, Squishy and Fun: FIEND WITHOUT A FACE

FIEND WITHOUT A FACE

(3.5/5)

Pros: Exploding brains and twitchy spinal columns! Solid acting, efficient film technique.

Cons: S-L-O-W first hour or so; some lapses of logic

On the American-Canadian border, a small town that’s home to an experimental army base equipped with a nuclear power station is drawn into hysteria when a series of mysterious murders takes place. Most of the villagers believe that the military and their experiments with radiation are somehow responsible for the deaths, but an examination of the corpses yields unexpected results. It seems that the brain and entire spinal column of the victims has been sucked out of their bodies through two tiny holes in the back of the neck. Who or what could be responsible? And perhaps more importantly, what role does the only obvious suspect character, a brilliant but rather sickly scientist who’s been investigating telepathy and mind control, play in the situation?

Hindered to some extent by its meager budget, British-made 1958 sci-fi/horror hybrid Fiend Without a Face has nonetheless earned a reputation over the years as one of the more interesting efforts from the golden age of science fiction. Made at the same time when films of this genre were regularly using radioactivity as the explanation behind the appearance of giant reptiles, insects and even people, Fiend proposes the indisputably more intriguing idea that thoughts themselves can be more hazardous than any amount of nuclear fallout. Mind you that this film does, in the end, feature some pretty wicked monsters who wind up attacking a group of people barricaded inside a residence (thus predating such films as the enjoyably hokey The Killer Shrews and the hugely influential Night of the Living Dead), but much of the film operates in a manner different from the typical “monster film” as townspeople and military personnel alike try and understand what exactly is causing the unexplained deaths.

Based on a somewhat vague yet intriguing 1930 short story published in Weird Tales magazine, Herbert J. Leder’s script fleshes out the ideas of the story to feature length but also seems to operate at a fairly slow pace in the early going. Scenes following Air Force Major Jeff Cummings (played capably by American actor Marshall Thompson) as he investigates the murders, focusing his attention on a local researcher who may be more involved with the fatalities than he lets on, tend to drag on a bit. Although there are some (goofy) scenes where invisible marauders attack and kill several townspeople, nothing truly exciting happens until late in the going. Despite all of this, Leder’s script actually does a fairly good job of providing details in the unfolding detective story that keep a viewer interested, even if the picture isn’t the suspenseful thrill-ride one might have been expecting. It’s also to Leder’s credit that the obligatory romantic subplot (between Cummings and the sister of one of the dead villagers) is more or less kept on the back-burner for much of the film’s duration.

Fiend Without a Face was directed by Arthur Crabtree, an industry veteran by the time he started on this production. Crabtree clearly recognized how to get the most out of the script he was given, slowly building suspense until the film reaches a breaking point around the time of its climax. Filmed for the most part on sets in Britain, it’s a testament to the cast and crew that the semi-American setting of the story is at all believable, and Lionel Banes does a fine job of photographing the action in an efficient manner. I think the adjective “efficient” could accurately describe this film as a whole: there’s nothing especially flashy about the picture (at least until its final reel), but it was obviously made people who knew what they were doing.

In the acting department, aside from Thompson, we have the lovely dark-haired actress Kim Parker as the love interest. Parker has a mousy demeanor initially, but becomes somewhat feisty later in the film. As I mentioned, it was refreshing that the film didn’t spend a whole lot of time (over)developing the romance between the two leads. Michael Balfour and Terry Kilburn play fellow military men trying to piece together the mystery, and British actor Kynaston Reeves plays the stuffy and rather decrepit researcher whose possible connection to the killings makes him the target of the ongoing investigation. Reeves certainly exudes the “holier than thou” attitude that might be expected of a well-known scientist trying to escape public scrutiny of his work, and he also establishes the idea of his character’s poor health very well. To an extent, it’s Reeves’s assured performance which ensures that a viewer is at all able to swallow the eventual explanation of the creatures responsible for the murders. And when these creatures do in fact appear in the latter stages of the film, Fiend Without a Face really takes on a life of its own.

The “monsters” in this film (invisible up until the final reel) appear to be normal-sized brains which still have the spinal column attached to them. These creatures (visualized through the use of remarkable stop-motion animation by German effects technicians Florenz von Nordoff and Peter Lupel) slither across the ground, leap through the air, and kill by wrapping themselves around their victims’ throat. The finale of the film, involving a group of humans facing off against an onslaught of these crawling brains, is surprisingly gory for 1958 and goes out of its way to repulse a viewer. When shot with a pistol, the brains explode in a mass of oozing goop and blood, and probably the best thing about the creatures is the very “wet” and squishy sound effects that accompany their appearances onscreen. Many ‘50s sci-fi flicks dropped the ball when it came to delivering the goods with their special effects, but this film certainly offers a big payoff.

In my opinion, Fiend Without a Face has been overpraised to an extent: yes, it’s a worthwhile genre film, but it’s not perfect and it does have a few problems. For one, there’s use of stock footage here that’s barely more competent than what one would expect from the typical Ed Wood production. Additionally, there are a handful of unintentionally funny scenes and clunky transitions as well as glaring lapses of logic (so – you’re telling me you want to blow up this nuclear power plant’s control room??!??). These are relatively minor problems however in a film that’s generally quite enjoyable. If you can sit tight through some of the slower portions of its story (which frankly, is easy to do – this film only runs 74 minutes in length), you’ll be rewarded with an undeniably exciting and technically-impressive finale. This film comes recommended from me; check it out if you get a chance.

I’m not entirely sure what a low-budget flick like this is doing on the Criterion Collection, but their DVD release contains a wonderful-looking widescreen print of the film, a nice collection of advertising and promotional material, a well-written illustrated essay about this film and its connection to the world of science fiction, a trailer gallery, and full-length commentary featuring executive producer Richard Gordon discussing the film and his career in independent low-budget British filmmaking.

5/10 : Oozing blood and goop. Probably would be pretty extreme had this been filmed in color.

0/10 : Squeaky clean

1/10 : Gratuitous scene of Parker walking around in a towel after a shower

7/10 : Undeniably fun ’50s sci-fi replete with gross sound effects and a few gruesome scenes

“I now know that I have created a mental vampire…a fiend that needs to drain the intellect to survive and multiply…”

Original Trailer:

“So you’re a Red…who cares?” PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET

(4.5/5)

Pros: Excellent cast; strong direction; great pace; exciting!
Cons: Ending seems a bit cheesy

While it probably isn’t my personal favorite film directed by Samuel Fuller (I rather prefer the pairing of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss from the 1963-4 period), 1953’s Pickup on South Street would have to be considered one of Fuller’s best works. This film is quintessential film noir, focusing on a trio of lowlifes involved in a Communist plot to recover secret documents and, as should be obvious from that description, is very much a product of its time (controversial for its depiction of “anti-American” characters). It’s also a wonderful example of Fuller’s no-nonsense approach to film making: running just 80 minutes in length, Pickup operates at a furious pace, never slowing down for a second. Filled with magnificent performances from a stellar cast and presenting the often grim realities of life for a group of down-and-out characters, it really is a film that anyone who appreciates old-time crime thrillers needs to check out.

The film’s opening sequence is a marvel, efficiently establishing its basic story with a minimum of dialogue. An attractive woman stands in a crowded subway car as it jets along the track, eyed closely by two unknown men who’s intentions are very obviously somewhat nefarious. Out of the mass of humanity in the back of the car, another rather sketchy figure emerges, himself gazing upon the woman. He edges close to her, pulls out a newspaper, then skillfully rummages through the woman’s purse without her knowledge, snatching her wallet, then bolting out of the train at its next stop. By the time the woman figures out that she’s been burgled, pickpocket Skip McCoy, a career thief who’s one transgression away from a lengthy prison sentence, is long gone – and the woman along with her two observers find themselves in a pickle, having to track him down with haste. You see, the wallet he snatched contains a microfilm that Communist agents are attempting to get their hands on . Can McCoy escape the clutches of the Reds, their rather unstable hired goons, and the police who are all after him now that he’s in possession of this top-secret information?

Perhaps the first thing that really impresses a viewer about this film is the remarkable cast of actors featured in the major roles. As McCoy, we have Richard Widmark, known for playing the villain in various crime films of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Widmark portrays McCoy as a streetwise guy who has no interest in anybody but himself, and he really convinces a viewer of this when, during an interrogation by a police detective whom McCoy has a history with, McCoy dismisses the notion that he’s acting in an unpatriotic manner by not turning the classified information over to police (“Are you waving the flag at me?”). McCoy has no problem roughhousing with anyone he comes into contact with, yet there’s an integrity and heart to the character as well: witness a scene where he insists that the woman who ratted him out to police gets the decent burial that she’s long worked to acquire. Jean Peters as the slightly dim-witted Candy, the woman whom he robbed, is in every way Widmark’s equal. Aside from being absolutely gorgeous, Peters handles herself quite well throughout the film, coming across as a tough woman particularly since she’s (often times, physically) abused by nearly every other character in the picture. While I’m not sure I quite buy the inevitable romance that develops between these two (which seems especially cheesy towards the end of the film), Widmark and Peters have a ton on onscreen chemistry, and one can easily believe there’s something between the two characters.

Supporting players in Pickup on South Street are also universally strong. Thelma Ritter (nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the role) plays Moe, a police informant who nonetheless commands respect from the crooks she occasionally sells out to the cops. Ritter gets some of this film’s best moments, including a genuinely moving scene in which she tearfully evaluates her somewhat sorry existence while a murderous thug sporting a pistol attempts to extract information from her. This entire, emotional scene plays out while a pleasant French-language ballad is heard playing on a Victrola: one of the most memorable sequences in the picture. I also really liked the scene where Ritter pinpoints for police the convicted pickpocket who likely stole the microfilm simply by examining the thief’s technique. Ritter’s knowing glances and demeanor expertly nail down the specifics of her character and the relationship she has to everyone else in the film. Murvyn Vye plays the world-weary, tough-guy detective who’s leading the case with a detachment that suggests he’s been down this road before with McCoy, and Richard Kiley is also quite good as the unhinged thug who’s trying to deliver the film to the commies.

Fuller’s direction throughout this film cuts to the chase: there’s no wasted time, with every sequence serving a purpose to both develop the characters and further the story. In the end, this film is very exciting to watch as it clips along at a breakneck pace, yet Fuller’s handling of the extremely tight and well-developed script (which he wrote from a story by Dwight Taylor) is quite different than what viewers used to modern film technique would expect. During the most tense moments in this film, there’s almost no use of Leigh Harline’s frequently bombastic music score: Fuller instead opts to utilize ambient-style sound that one would expect to hear in subway stations and skid row locations. As it is then, there’s a gritty authenticity to the picture and its setting that seems very much in line with the director’s previous occupation as a journalist – this despite the fact that the film was shot almost exclusively on sound stages in LA. While it’s never especially flashy, Joseph MacDonald’s quietly kinetic cinematography is nice to look at, using interesting vantage points to capture the action (check out the high angle shots used to photograph the big fight scene). I also loved the tight close-ups of the expressions on the actor’s faces which typically convey more about their characters’s mindset than any amount of dialogue could ever hope to. Key moments in the film are photographed in almost complete darkness or in the shadows, giving the piece a welcome sense of foreboding.

Frankly, it’s quite refreshing to see a picture like this which almost effortlessly cranks up the intensity throughout while building to a big finale. The well-crafted characters are fascinating to watch, given some very lively and often cheeky dialogue, and the action certainly has a rough edge to it, yet it’s never overblown. Simply put, this is just an extremely effective piece of cinema, demonstrating Fuller’s incredible ability to manipulate an audience exactly how he pleases. Honestly, the only fault I really have with the film is that the ending seemed to me to be too chipper considering the hard-edged (and at times, almost brutal) action that had come previously – though this is precisely how films of this nature in 1953 had to operate in accordance with the standards of the production code. I have a feeling that my dissatisfaction is largely due to the fact that a movie of this nature wouldn’t be made the same way today and could get away with a conclusion that strayed further in the gray. Additionally, I could also see how some viewers could get upset by the aggressiveness towards women that exists in this story: Fuller’s script definitely doesn’t play nice when it comes to its treatment of the fairer sex. Nonetheless, Pickup on South Street comes highly recommended as one of the best that the crime genre had to offer from this period. It’s a classic that’s well-deserving of your time.


A typically excellent DVD from the Criterion Collection. Nice-looking, full-frame print of the film, supplemented with a nice selection of extras. There’s an interesting ten-minute segment from a French television show in which Fuller explains the opening of the film, a 20-minute interview with the director that would be especially rewarding for film students since Fuller explains his philosophy of film extensively, an excellent written biography of the director, text recollections from Richard Widmark, as well as a filmography, promotional material, and trailer collection. Additionally, the 20-page booklet accompanying the disc has several essays (one appreciation by Martin Scorsese) and a further explanation of the film from Fuller himself. Pretty superb overall.


5/10 : Peters gets smacked around quite a bit; assorted fist fights; some gun violence. Just a hint of blood.


2/10 : Some rough language, but no profanity.


2/10 : Jean Peters is quite the looker; some romantic scenes


4/10 : A classic film noir, but not as bonkers as something like 1945’s Detour


“…it’s just one of those tough breaks, Joey…”