Watched a lot of movies this weekend as part of my effort to jumpstart my Halloween mood. There might have been even more on this list had I not become distracted by the Sims game I picked up for my Wii.
I finished up The Invisible Man, and was generally pleased with the adaptation. I enjoyed the various gambits employed by the English police to thwart the transparent Dr. Griffin: cargo nets, spray paint and massive numbers of bobbies. And I appreciated that the filmmakers resisted the temptation to allow their star, Claude Rains, from any “visible” screen time prior to his character’s death. It would’ve been easy to give him a pre-experiment flashback or two, but it was more effective to keep him out of sight until the end.
Next up was another Claude Rains film, this time 1960′s The Lost World. This is the remake of Arthur Conan Doyle’s story of dinosaurs on a South American plateau, and when I was growing up, it was a staple of WGN-TV’s “Family Classics” movie slot.
It may be hard for modern audiences to imagine, but in the days before computer special effects, there were pretty much three ways of putting dinos on screen: 1) stop-motion animation, 2) men in rubber suits, and 3) real-life lizards with some fins glued on. The Lost World, produced by notorious penny-pincher Irwin Allen, went for the latter approach. And during his time as TV’s most prolific producer of sci-fi series, he made sure that every one of them had an episode in which the heroes were menaced by stock footage reptiles from The Lost World. Even as a kid I was distressed when the alleged paleontological expert Professor Challenger identified a rubber-horned lizard as a “brontosaurus,” but I have to admit that the photographic enlargement tricks are well executed.
On the other hand, the film does feature the worst “day-for-night” shooting I’ve seen outside an Ed Wood film. It was very difficult to stay focused on the dialogue when the characters kept talking about it being the middle of the night with a bright, blue sky behind them.
The Lost World also includes Jill St. John in a role which makes clear that she was not hired for her acting prowess. She’s supposed to be an experienced adventuress, but that’s somewhat weakened by her bright, pink pants and the purse-sized dog she brings along on the expedition.
All of that said, it was still a fun, colorful flick, and I can see why I watched it all those times, even though I knew damned well a lizard was not a brontosaur.
Following that was the first of several British horror flicks, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. It stars Vincent Price as a waxen-faced organist hell-bent on revenge against the medical team whom he blames for the death of his wife.
Make no mistake, this is one weird-ass picture. It doesn’t quite reach the level of pop-art spoofed in the Austin Powers comedies, but the production design is outlandish and Phibes and his beautiful assistant frequently take time between murders for a dance sequence. With its many eccentric deaths and the quasi-romantic relationship between its main characters, it reminded me a great deal of the old Avengers TV show; with good reason, as the director also helmed several episodes of that series.
Phibes subjects his victims to punishments patterned after the Biblical curses visited upon Egypt. The final one is meant to evoke the death of the firstborn, and has the chief surgeon operating on his own son to extract the key to the manacles holding the boy beneath a tube of acid…and all this three decades before the Saw movies.
Phibes is a strange part for Price, as his character was mutilated in a car accident and can only speak (via voice-over) through a tube in his neck that plugs into an old-timey gramophone. That he still manages to retain much of his charm despite being unable to change his facial expression is a testament to Price’s talent.
Next came Tales from the Crypt; not the ’80s HBO show, but the 1972 British flick. Exactly why the Brits were the first to adapt the infamous American horror comics is beyond me, but this is the first of two such anthology films.
This flick scared the crap out of me back in the day, not because I actually saw it. I just hated the poster (left), which I recall being on Chicagoland billboards for months. I did see the last few minutes of it at a drive-in, even though I was there for the next film of a triple-feature, and the image of a man creeping down a corridor lined with razor blades stuck with me. (Ouch!)
It holds up surprisingly well to this day, once you get past the idea that the Crypt Keeper is played by Sir Ralph Richardson, and in no way resembles a wise-cracking, puppet corpse. Instead, he’s the mysterious, humorless host of a group of folks who wander off the path during an underground tour. (It’s not much of a spoiler to let you in the cliched twist ending: THEY’RE ALREADY DEAD!)
What ensues is a who’s who of British actors in five gruesome tales, including Joan Collins as a murderess stalked by a maniacal Santa on Christmas Eve, and Peter Cushing (in a heartbreaking performance) as a sad, old rubbish-collector hounded to suicide by his rich neighbor. (It’s okay, he comes back as a zombie next Valentine’s Day and rips out his tormentor’s heart.)
There’s also an effective “Monkey’s Paw” variant which takes that story’s grisly conclusion one further, and a nasty revenge tale about the inhabitants of a home for the blind and the justice they mete out on ex-military officer turned administrator who starves them while living in luxury himself. (Remember that hallway of razor blades?)
Saturday I watched the “stills restoration” of London After Midnight, the iconic Lon Chaney, Sr. vampire film that no one has seen since the last known copy was destroyed in a fire some 40 years ago. The image of Chaney with his beaver hat and mouth full of teeth is well-known even if relatively few know what it’s from.
Using the original script and a limited number of promotional stills, the restorer did his best to piece together an approximation of the original, but it’s really hard to tell how close it comes to capturing its impact. It doesn’t help that the plot–about a police inspector disguising himself as a vampire to break an unsolved murder case–doesn’t make much sense to begin with, and even less expressed solely in title cards and still images.
Sunday saw me finally watching something from this century, the animated flick Monster House. I enjoyed this quite a bit; it had a solid sense of humor and evoked the spirit of Halloween.
It plays a little bit like the underappreciated gem Fright Night, about a young man who spies on the vampire living in the house next door. The big difference here is that the monster is the house next door: a ramshackle beast that literally eats unwary passersby.
Neither the animation nor the characters are quite up to Pixar standards, but there are some legitimate (if mild) scares and an intriguing, if odd, backstory for the possessed house.
Monster House definitely subscribes to the Anton Chekov school of writing. You can clearly see the gun on the wall in the first act, so there aren’t many surprises in the conclusion. That said, it’s still very entertaining.
Then it was back to the Brits with Gorgo, one of the better Godzilla wannabes of the ’60s. Sailors capture a dinosaurian sea monster and–having never seen King Kong–exhibit it in the heart of London. Actually, it wouldn’t have been a problem if not for the fact that Gorgo is only a baby, and mama is pissed…
The effects are better than average as mama Gorgo goes on a destructive tour of London’s most familiar landmarks, including Tower Bridge, Big Ben and Piccadilly Circus. I’m sure that if the filmmakers could’ve had it make sense, they would’ve had her trample Stonehenge and the Globe Theatre while they were at it.
And finally, I wrapped up a long weekend of movies with The Vault of Horror, the other EC Comics-inspired British horror film. It’s not nearly as good as Tales from the Crypt, though it is the reason for my fear of paper cutters. (In the final segment, Tom Baker–a year before Doctor Who–uses voodoo to cause a paper cutter to shear off the hands of an unscrupulous art dealer.)
One moment I really enjoyed was when Glynis Johns, playing the wife of Terry-Thomas’ obsessive neat-freak, is finally pushed too far. She suddenly shrieks in frustration and drives a claw hammer into Thomas’ skull. Fun times.
The unfortunate thing about the most recent DVD release of The Vault of Horror (part of a two-disc set alongside Crypt) is that it’s an edited-down PG version of an originally R-rated film which clumsily removes several graphic images in a way that greatly reduces the impact of several of the stories. (The worst example occurs during the infamous “vampire restaurant” sequence, in which the shot of a victim hanging upside down with a beer tap shoved into his neck is replaced by a still image in which the tap has been crudely masked out.)
Whew! That was a lot of movies. Still, I hope to get one or two more in by the end of Halloween!