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The Revenant Review

Horror Film History, Analysis, and Reviews

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Movie Review – Killers from Space (1954)

Movie Review – Killers from Space (1954)

Billy Wilder was a much loved American filmmaker, writing and directing numerous classics, including Sunset Blvd. (1950), Some Like It Hot (1959), and one of my personal favorites of the romance genre, The Apartment (1960). His brother, W. Lee Wilder… not so much. Which brings us to 1954’s Killers from Space, produced by Lee Wilder’s independent film company, Planet Filmplays, for distribution by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Peter “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” Graves, Killers from Space is a sci-fi/horror most memorable for its goofy looking aliens, whose sole make-up effect consisted of buggy eyes which looked to be made from Ping-Pong balls. In many ways this is a prototypical 1950s drive-in film replete with atomic fears, giant insects and reptiles, naïve scientific notions, and obvious miniature models. Unfortunately, no doubt due to its minuscule budget, the aliens have a penchant for talking… and talking… and talking some more to fill up the run time. Still, it’s got a decent ending.

Killers from Space is a bad movie that’s still a good time if you’re in the right mood and of the right persuasion. Had it been better produced, I suspect it would have gone down on those essential lists of indispensable 1950s sci-fi classics.

Grade: D

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Horror’s “Worst” Films – Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

This review is part of the Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test? series.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

Poor Stirling Silliphant, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter. We thought we had left him behind after his vicarious relationship to 1964’s The Creeping Terror, but the trickster Deities of Terrible Movies were not done with him. While in a Texas coffee shop he happened to bump into local fertilizer salesman and amateur thespian Harold P. Warren, with whom he was friendly. Warren declared to Silliphant that anyone could make a horror movie and went so far as to bet him that in fact he could do so, and he immediately began sketching his ideas on the coffee shop’s napkins. His story, taking some obvious cues from Dracula, involves a family who becomes lost while on vacation and end up at a remote home which houses a nefarious cult. The film was tentatively titled The Lodge of Sins, however, during post-production Warren changed it. The first clue for viewers that what they are about to see is incompetent is the movie’s final title, Manos: The Hands of Fate, which translates with ludicrous redundancy to Hands: The Hands of Fate.

Warren set about gathering his cast from the local theater, including John Reynolds as Torgo and Tom Neyman as The Master, and young women from a local modeling agency to play The Master’s wives. Also prominent is the beautiful Diane Mahree as Margaret. Warren, not surprisingly, cast himself as the film’s hero, Hal. Not having enough money to pay his cast, he instead promised them a share in the profits. Warren’s hand-wound camera could only record 32 seconds at a time and sounds were added, incompetently, during post-production, by only a very few people.

The resulting film is one of the most tedious cinematic experiences of my life. Never have 70 minutes felt so long. Manos abounds with slothful driving sequences (which Warren had intended to use for credits, but never did), frustratingly poor editing (with the clapper visible at one point), and the camera lingering uncomfortably long on actors, who sometimes appear just as frustrated. The plot is largely incoherent, especially as Hal bullies his way into a clearly dangerous situation, and as I write this shortly after seeing the film I’ve already forgotten most of it. The pacing is dull and the experience soporific. I felt that had I been dying while watching it the result would be similar to the effect which mesmerism had on the title character of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), with me also in a permanent hypnotic state upon the edge of oblivion, unable to leave consciousness, but instead of talking with surrounding physicians I would be forever watching Torgo’s maddeningly twitching face.

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John Reynolds as Torgo

I’d take the fate of the Lament Configuration over this any day. The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) was a disjointed snooze, but at least it was brightly lit enough to see what was (or wasn’t) happening. Add to this a superfluous scene of two teens making out (one of the models broke her leg so Warren reused her here) and being hassled by the cops, and other shots that are confounding in their unnecessity, and the experience becomes ever more trying. At the least the mind-boggling cat fight between the wives is sort of entertaining.

However, I’ve yet to fully explain the worst aspect of Manos. John Reynolds’s Torgo is one of the most infuriating performances I have ever watched, with his erratic mannerisms and his awkward waddling with cartoonish swollen thighs (he’s supposed to be a satyr, but that never comes across in the film). Reynolds is like a man on drugs – in fact, he is a man on drugs. He was high on LSD while filming, and it shows. The aggravating, stuttering voice-over work doesn’t help matters. As I watched Torgo I couldn’t help but be reminded of a porn VHS tape from the early 80s I somehow once got a hold of when I was young. There was a scene in which the performers were clearly out of their minds with drugs, saying their lines over each other with no rhyme or reason. One of the women forgot all about the set up dialogue and began immediately fellating the delivery guy while he was still trying to remember and deliver his lines in pathetically slurred speech, swaying drunkenly in the doorway. It took him five minutes to realize the sex had already begun. At that pubescent age my libido was on a hair trigger, but even then I could only look on uncomfortably until I finally shook myself from my stupor and hit the fast-forward button. Watching Reynolds struggle through his lines produced a very similar effect.

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Reynolds was ultimately a tragic figure who didn’t live to see the film’s premiere. As Bob Guidry, the Director of Cinematography, once explained: “He killed himself about six months after the movie was finished. John was a troubled kid; he didn’t really get along with his dad, who was an Air Force colonel, and he got into experimenting with LSD. It’s a shame, because he was really a talented young actor.”

Because at rare moments the universe is a just place, the local premiere of Manos: The Hands of Fate was not met with glowing reviews and the film fell largely into obscurity until Mystery Science Theater 3000 resurrected it for their show in 1993. If one is as morbidly curious as I was to see this film, I strongly suggest you do so with the help of the MST3K team, because even if with their remarks this film is still an absolute endurance test.

Movie Review – Cheap Thrills (2013)

Movie Review – Cheap Thrills (2013)

As I watched 2013’s Cheap Thrills, from E. L. Katz in his directorial debut, I kept hearing the voice of Walter Sobchak: “You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me. There are ways, Dude. You don’t wanna know about it, believe me… Hell, I can get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon… with nail polish.” Both The Big Lebowski (1998) and Katz’s film can lead one to ask the same question: How much is a toe worth? Or, for that matter, any appendage? Or one’s health, self-respect, and reputation? What’s the price tag on your body and dignity?

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Cheap Thrills tells the story of two financially strapped old friends who meet a wealthy couple ready to dole out cash to whoever is willing to subject themselves to increasingly dangerous, morally questionable behavior. I was skeptical at first as to how well Katz would be able to keep the premise/gimmick going, but he succeeds in creating a darkly humorous, tension-filled experience based on a smart script by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo. The cast, which includes Pat Healy, Sara Paxton, Ethan Embry, and David Koechner, are all superb in their roles, embodying well-rounded characters who act as realistic as can be expected throughout the film, as greed for money or power pushes their ethical limits to their frontiers.

Each dare grows organically and each monetary amount, while not paltry, is hardly enough to solve the men’s financial problems, at least in the long term. The rich couple is bored – their wealth has given them all their desires, and now they’re desensitized. Their enjoyment comes from exploiting the underclass and turning it against itself. Certainly, a metaphor could be read into this regarding American capitalism and the insurmountable chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots, and the way the former side manipulates and misuses the latter. The blue-collar men compete to demean themselves, and they find victory in their meager spoils. The question becomes, ultimately, can one be said to have truly succeeded when one’s integrity and moral character has been compromised?

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In the end, Cheap Thrills is oddly poignant. That every character acts of their own volition makes the proceedings more striking and, sadly, somehow more believable.

Grade: B

Cheap Thrills is available on streaming and Blu-ray.

Movie Review – Midnight Faces (1926)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Midnight Faces (1926)

1926’s Midnight Faces is another entry into the “old dark house” subgenre, and is heavily influenced by The Bat, which had a tremendously successful run on Broadway beginning in 1920 and a film version which came out also in 1926. By comparison, Midnight Faces is a rather cheap imitation. Though the film is classified as a horror-thriller, comedy could easily be added to its descriptors.

The plot involves a young man, played by Francis X. Bushman, Jr., who inherits a mansion from his uncle which is nestled in a dismal Florida swamp. Though the house is supposed to be empty we see an intruder enter, and soon after the servants arrive it becomes apparent that threats are hiding within the dark recesses and behind secret passageways.

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The movie has not aged well. The writing is rudimentary and mostly implausible nonsense and is overly reliant on stereotypes and genre tropes. As comic relief the film provides the character of Trohelius Snapp, played by Martin Turner, the loyal manservant to the protagonist. Turner was a talented physical comic who is nonetheless trapped in the racist stereotype of the black buffoon, spooked by every creak and bump and unable to exert self-control over his fear. He is not alone in the paper-thin tropes, as we have a Fu Manchu-looking Asian and a black cape-wearing prowler to add to the warmed-over stew. The director, Bennett Cohen, borrows heavily if not entirely successfully from Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu with its use of disembodied shadows grasping and reaching along walls and fixtures.

In the end, Midnight Faces is sometimes fun, most times flawed, and ultimately forgettable.

Grade: D

Midnight Faces is available on DVD.

Movie Review – Alice (1988)

Movie Review – Alice (1988)

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) has long been touted as the ideal children’s tale, but even as a kid I felt that there was something sinister about it. Perhaps Wonderland seemed like a fun and magical place to visit to other kids, but the maliciously grinning Cheshire Cat, oyster gobbling Walrus, decapitating queen, and rules which seemed to change at a whim were the brick and mortar of nightmare worlds to me. When I read the book as an adult, I still couldn’t see the story as anything but maddeningly nefarious.

In 1988 the surrealist Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer made his own interpretation of the tale, and the macabre puppets and disturbing imagery are for my money, despite its relative obscurity, the closest adaptation in spirit of Carroll’s whimsical story. It begins with the lines, in Alice’s voiceover, “Alice thought to herself… Alice thought to herself, ‘Now you will see a film… made for children… perhaps…’ But, I nearly forgot… you must… close your eyes… otherwise… you won’t see anything.”

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In a 2011 interview with Electric Sheep Magazine, Švankmajer said of his adaptation of Carroll’s book, which he called “one of the most important and amazing books produced by this civilization,” that

“So far all adaptations of Alice (including the latest by Tim Burton) present it as a fairy tale, but Carroll wrote it as a dream. And between a dream and a fairy tale there is a fundamental difference. While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted forefinger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realisation of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realised dream.”

As I began watching the film with my wife, I commented aloud that this was supposedly considered somewhat of a horror film. My wife looked with wide eyes and nodded, telling me – her desensitized husband – that yes, this movie was absolutely horrifying. Švankmajer’s Wonderland is populated with animated skeletal and taxidermic animals. The White Rabbit frees himself from a display case by removing the nails from his paws and feeds on sawdust to keep his stuffed carcass inflated. The stop-motion animation which brings these creatures to life is some of the finest I’ve seen.

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Alice’s (Kristýna Kohoutová) world is almost entirely indoors, surrounded by an impressive array of antiques. We see only two outdoor scenes, one of which is a fantasy and the other of which is barren of vegetation, and Wonderland is arranged with the understanding and interpretation of a young girl who lives her life almost completely within a single home, and a single room without windows at that. The animals we see are essentially dead, and we can presume that Alice has had very little experience with live ones. Except for the skeletons, everything in Wonderland is artificial. Of his approach to these aspects of the film, Švankmajer says,

“Animation is, so far, the only way of breathing life into inanimate things. Children’s games work with the same magic. This kind of magic is the point where childhood and animation intersect with each other… I like things that have passed through human hands. Things that have been touched. Such things are charged with emotions that are capable of revealing themselves under certain, extremely sensitive circumstances. I collect such objects, surround myself with them and in the end I cast such ‘fetishes’ in my films. That’s also the reason why I don’t like computer animation. Virtual reality doesn’t have a tactile dimension. Objects and figures created on a computer have no past.”

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Švankmajer also gives Alice an appropriate mean streak, dispelling notions of sweet, innocent little girls. There can also be read in this a slight political metaphor, especially in the trial scene. The director had, of course, recollections of the Slánský trial from 1952, which was an orchestrated show-trial designed to quell a discordant faction of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Taking cues from and buckling to pressure from the Soviet Union, Rudolf Slánský, the party’s General Secretary, was put on trial with others who were chosen to serve as warnings to their respective groups of what might happen for their potential disobedience. This political farce is reflected, albeit only slightly, in Alice’s trial before the king and queen. Of this, Švankmajer says,

“An absurd court hearing with Alice (‘off with her head,’ shouted the Queen) obviously recalls the political trials of the 50s. Of course Alice, compared with the accused from that time, doesn’t respect the official script. It was just a minor analogy, I didn’t shoot the film because of that. But each imaginative work has got within itself, from its very essence, a subversive charge, because it knocks down the notion of lived-through reality as the only one possible.”

Alice is an entirely unique film which has the capacity to awe and unnerve. It’s certainly not designed or recommended for mainstream audiences, but for those looking for a macabre interpretation on a beloved children’s classic that can surprise and unsettle a viewer, if not exactly frighten them, Alice is most highly recommended. Children’s viewing, this is not.

Grade: B

Alice is available on DVD.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – Monster A-Go Go (1965)

This review is part of the Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test? series.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – Monster A-Go Go (1965)

In 1963 exploitation director Herschell Gordon Lewis released Blood Feast, considered the first “splatter” film, a shocking milestone in horror. Two years later he needed a second film for his double-bill release with Moonshine Mountain, and he acquired a half-completed Bill Rebane film called Terror at Halfday which Rebane had abandoned in 1961 due to depleted finances. Lewis finished the film, recasting different actors to continue character roles and slapping it together as quickly as possible. One actor which he re-hired from the Rebane portion had changed his appearance so dramatically that he was recast as the brother of the original character. Lewis put minimal effort into completing the film, and it shows. Boy, does it show.

Firstly, the title is an absolute misnomer. The term “a Go-Go” refers to unrestrained, erotic dancing, particularly to popular music, and while there’s a gratuitous dance scene, there is nothing unrestrained about this film. Monster A-Go Go (1965) is the nadir of such suggested dynamism. Instead we get an incoherent plot about a returning astronaut who is either replaced by or transformed into a tall skulking monster (Henry Hite).

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Rebane’s story was muddy at best, but Lewis’s additions only served to confuse rather than clarify matters. The film mainly consists of static shots of people talking… and talking… and talking. We hear about the monster being captured and escaping, but never see it. The same is true for anything else that might be of interest. When we are shown the monster, the screen is often too dark to make out what’s happening. Likewise, sometimes the audio is so poorly rendered the listener must strain to hear what’s being said (and then they’ll wonder why they even bothered). In one scene sure to induce eye rolls, instead of an actual phone ringing we hear an actor voicing a quick “bbbrrrr” imitation before pretending to answer it.

Supposedly the guys at Mystery Science Theater 3000, who featured this film in 1993, considered this to officially be the worst film they ever did on the show. If you must see this film, I strongly suggest you do so with their company, as even with their colorful commentary Monster A-Go Go is a torturous test of endurance.

Movie Review – Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Movie Review – Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Considering the decades of supremacy which the Western genre held in American cinema, and itself being a genre which frequently employs blood, brutality and violence in its storytelling, it’s rather surprising that it hasn’t wedded itself to horror more often. There are a handful of examples, such as 1999’s Ravenous, but the relatively few others have been largely forgettable. Those who read my reviews regularly know that I’m an absolute sucker for mixing horror with period piece cinema, and that I’m fond of Westerns only made my anticipation of 2015’s Bone Tomahawk even more potent.

From first time director S. Craig Zahler, the film, despite its small budget of only $1.8 million, showcases a stellar cast, with Kurt Russell being pitch-perfect as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, Patrick Wilson as Arthur O’Dwyer, Matthew Fox as John Brooder, and Richard Jenkins stealing the show as the lovable, loyal, but not all mentally there, Chicory. He delivers memorable dialogue and helps to fill the space in otherwise quieter moments. These four characters ride out in search of abducted friends and loved ones, seeking the home of semi-mythical, cannibalistic troglodytes. Zahler was already a successful Western novelist and had sold many scripts which unfortunately went unproduced. Looking at what budget was available to him, Zahler wrote the script for Bone Tomahawk to specifically meet those financial ends, and the first draft of the script is the one he subsequently filmed.

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And what a wonderful script it is, rich with witty, expressive dialogue that the actors, with Russell and Jenkins in particular, deliver with ease. The characters are well-realized and the film is very much a character study of these four men, although one also gets a sense for the town of Bright Hope from which the men leave in the beginning of the film. In this sense the movie sways more into the less plot-driven entries of the Western genre, and horror fans not accustomed or expecting this may come away feeling the film is slow. We get a sense for the characters and find ourselves rooting for them, for even the Fancy-Dan Indian-killer, Brooder, who as we unravel his past come to understand why he is the way he is. The men are united partly by a sense of duty, but also in their love for their women, whether those women are safe, deceased, or missing. In all their faces one can see the profound impact and dependency they’ve placed upon the females in their lives. Only Brooder is unattached, but his history gives reason for why he has chosen to remain so, to avoid the fear and pain his three compatriots display. As he tells Chicory, “Smart men don’t get married.”

Nevertheless, we want to see all these men succeed, or we at least want to see them go out in a “blaze of glory” like in many Westerns, but the horror elements lead us to believe that only death and pain awaits these heroes, and perhaps their deaths will be in vain. In this way the film creates tension. There is very little music, and the only music present gives very little reason to hope their journey will be successful. As a local Native American tells them in the beginning, they have no hope of overpowering these troglodytes even with their firearms – their mission is a futile one.

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Yet Sheriff Hunt realizes early on their only chance of success lies in their wits, if they can keep them, when he tells O’Dwyer, “The only advantage we have over these cave dwellers is being smarter.” Thus the film becomes a crashing of worlds as the prehistoric troglodyte culture comes up against the periphery of American civilization, though by American standards the Western frontier was hardly civilization at all. By the turn of the century Native American populations were largely subdued beneath the boot-heel of white “progress,” and so these remote cannibals become the last victims of Manifest Destiny.

Bone Tomahawk recreates its era well, in language, sentiment, and location. The cinematography serves the story and evokes the Western expanse while its story takes nods from Western genre classics, most notably John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Race relations, though focused upon, are nonetheless not softened for modern viewers, giving a further air of authenticity. When the film delves into horror, and the titular weapon does its work, it does so realistically and unflinchingly. I can only hope more filmmakers will take inspiration and infuse the macabre into other historical periods.

Grade: B+

Bone Tomahawk is available on Blu-ray.

Movie Review – The Student of Prague (1926)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Student of Prague (1926)

1926’s The Student of Prague, also known as The Man Who Cheated Life, is a remake of Hanns Heinz Ewers’ 1913 film, which starred Paul Wegener, was directed by Stellen Rye, and which had been inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839). The film is directed by Henrik Galeen, who wrote and co-directed 1915’s The Golem and co-wrote Wegener’s 1920 classic, wrote the screenplay for Nosferatu (1922) and Waxworks (1924), and wrote this screenplay as well. In 1928 he would go on to direct Alraune. In this film Galeen uses some of the tricks learned from Murnau in Nosferatu, such as Scapinelli’s disembodied shadow manipulating physical objects.

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The story is of a Prague student named Balduin who signs a contract with the mysterious Scapinelli, promising him anything in Balduin’s room in exchange for 600,000 florins. To Balduin’s horror, Scapinelli chooses the young man’s reflection and commands the doppelganger to ruin the real Balduin’s reputation and good name. The movie follows the same story-line and structure as Stellen Rye’s original movie but with understandably more flair and sophistication as filmmaking had advanced considerably in the intervening years. Steve Haberman writes of Galeen’s style:

[He] incorporates a Romantic use of natural locations, cinematic subject shots and montage, studio-built landscapes of the mind, chiaroscuro lighting and camera-sensitive acting. Whereas Rye in 1913 staged scenes in a single static shot, like illustrations to a storybook, Galeen marshaled all of the arsenal of cinema to involve the audience emotionally in each moment. The result is one of the most moving and filmically complex works of the German screen. (Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Film, pg. 78)

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This film once again reunites Conrad Veidt, who plays Balduin, and Werner Krauss, who plays Scapinelli, both of whom had appeared in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Waxworks (1924). Seeing Krauss commanding Veidt’s slow-moving double draws direct parallels to their earlier Caligari and somnambulist roles, both in their spirit and in their mannerisms. Veidt, in particular, carries the central role well and, as always, hands in a master-class performance. The sets are designed by Herman Warm, who created the exquisite Expressionist sets for Caligari, and though more realistic are perfectly suited to enhance both the mundane and fantastical elements of the film.

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Unfortunately, as of this writing the only copy currently available is a poor VHS transfer from Alpha Video, and The Student of Prague is a film that deserves a good print. It’s a solid movie which effectively uses special effects to bring the haunting story to the screen.

Grade: B-

Work Cited

Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film. Midnight Marquee Press, 2003.

The Student of Prague is available on DVD.

Movie Review – Unfriended (2014)

Movie Review – Unfriended (2014)

2013’s The Den was a horror film that took a novel approach, being told entirely through web-feeds, computer and phone screens, and security cameras. 2014’s Unfriended, from director Levan Gabriadze  and writer Nelson Greaves, embraces a similar scenario, taking place entirely on a teenage girl’s laptop screen as she uses social networking to talk with friends, all of whom become the target of a vengeful spirit haunting their computers. If that last sentence made you want to entirely avoid this film, I deeply sympathize. However, if you can overcome initial skepticism and endure shitty teenagers for around 80 minutes, Unfriended does certain story aspects incredibly well, making the film ultimately worth checking out.

Though The Den was first to adopt an exclusively technological approach in its storytelling, Unfriended actually succeeds in making the process more fluid and natural. It’s a film that understands and utilizes the technology to surprisingly effective degrees, and teen viewers especially are likely to have no problem following the busy laptop screen. Filmed in one house with each of the cast members located in different rooms, the actors acted out their roles in single long takes and were encouraged to improvise. The result is believable performances and some clever story elements and scenarios.

What Unfriended does best is address the devastating, unrelenting nature of cyber-bullying while also showcasing how people will be cordial when speaking face-to-face but vindictive and malicious when communicating through a social media platform, often in the same moment. The laptop screen we follow is Blaire’s, performed convincingly by Shelley Hennig, and we learn about her character through her digital footprint and those times in which she begins to type something before thinking better of it and deleting it. It is these elements which are the strongest.

Unfriended isn’t as strong when it comes to the horror elements, and some of the scares come off as a bit too tame and unintentionally goofy, but they’re forgivable hiccups for a film that rises above its simple subject matter and treats its story with more thought and insight than is generally expected from a teen horror film.

Grade: C+

Unfriended is available on streaming and Blu-ray.

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