Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Death By Lizard-Women, Blood Thirsty Teens and Psychic Insects From Mars

It's been another memorable week in October as the horror hits keep coming (but not without a disappointment too). On the slate was a horror/sci-fi classic, an under-seen vamp flick from the king of zombie movies, a hallucinatory PTSD thriller, a giallo and the haunted house film to end all haunted house films. Also, there was a little bit of vampiric lesbianism. Just a little bit.

Dracula's Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936)
I've been slacking on my classic universal monsters this year, and this one came highly recommended so I decided to give it a whirl. It attempts to pickup right where Dracula leaves off, which makes plenty of sense although it comes off a bit hokey when they treat the Count's body as an important prop without ever showing it. A stronger film would have shed these heavy ties to the original and gotten going that much quicker (especially considering it's barely over an hour as it is). But once Dracula's daughter takes over, the pace picks up and we get a few memorably creepy set pieces, the strongest being when she seduces a young model in her studio. It could have used a bit more substance, but I liked it, and it was a welcome break from the more obvious scares of the post-60s horror films I've otherwise been binging on.

Martin (George Romero, 1977)
Another vampire flick, and a very cool one if I do say so myself. This has (understandably) slipped under the radar thanks to Romero's famous zombie films, but it's just as good and at times, I thought, even better. Martin is a teenage (not really, not even close) who is in fact a vampire, despite the lack of fangs, distaste for garlic and daylight allergies. He goes to live with his uncle (actually cousin), who for the sake of this I will call Hungarian Colonel Sanders, but their arrangement isn't ideal because Martin wants to be free to drink all the pretty girl's blood and Hungarian Colonel Sanders wants to drive a stake through his heart. Which is to say, this was a blast. Best of all was the ridiculously intense break-in scene halfway through, where Martin stealth maneuvers through a house and brings down a shrieking girl and her meathead boyfriend. Yet another great vampire film from this October's batch.

Jacob's Ladder (Adrien Lynne, 1990)
Adrien Lynne is a schlock director trapped in a Hollywood budget and it turns out that makes for some truly abysmal movies. This is especially true of Fatal Attraction (there are few films I hate more than Fatal Attraction) and it remains true for Jacob's Ladder. Let's not blame the acting. Tim Robbins, who I like far more than my opinions of his movies would show, does what he can here, but the script is just a series of cheap shocks and plot twists piled onto a story that is simple, but frankly, dumb. There's not a worse twist than "It was all a dream" (although M. Night will no doubt find one sooner or later) and so its especially migraine inducing when this happens multiple times here. Which of course overrides basically everything else that happens, not that it will stop me complaining about it. It takes my least favorite horror film convention - no one believes the main character who must try to convince the world what happened - and draws it out ad nauseum. It also loses any scary edge the hallucinations might have had because the film feels too polished. For all I know, this would have been palatable on a lower budget, but not here. This is Hollywood at its worst. Also, once you know how they came up with the title, it becomes amazingly lame.

Quatermass and the Pitt (Roy Ward Baker, 1967)
Another terrific Hammer horror film from the late Roy Ward Baker. The budget is low, but the direction is seamless and the acting never veers into camp. An ancient (otherworldly) evil is unearthed in the London subway and scientists and military men clash over the proper handling of the bizarre spacecraft they discover. It's got Julian Glover as the villain, which is always a good sign, and Andrew Keir brings the perfect measures of wonder and outrage to the titular Professor Quatermass. Some of the props are what you'd expect from low-budget horror (the insect creatures especially) but others, like the horrifying devil projection in the sky, are very well done and sent a good number of shivers down my spine. I also loved the abrupt ending. The shot held over the closing credits is restrained, but such a perfect cap to the film.

Lizard In a Woman's Skin (Lucio Fulci, 1971)
Perhaps the best giallo I've come across (ok, except for Deep Red), which I would consider high praise even if others would not. There's no lizard here, just a serial killer and a whole lot of hallucinatory drugs. The later lead to some extraordinary dream sequences that we're among the highlights of the film, although so was the lengthy chase through the bizarre mega-church or wherever she found herself in before stupidly stranding herself on the roof. Lucky for her, guardian angels carry sniper rifles and she escapes with a minor stabbing. My, that was a cryptic rambling, but it's kind of a cryptic, rambling film, and I kinda loved it.

The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
It comes so so close to being a total masterpiece that I'm just going to get the bad out of the way upfront and then start singing praises. Robert Wise is far from a great director and he clearly doesn't trust his audiences enough, which is why he saddles Julie Harris's otherwise pitch-perfect Eleanor with obnoxious internal voice-over at every turn, spelling out the thoughts she already (as Claire Bloom plainly puts it) wears on her sleeve. It's a blunder that I was quite miffed about as I was watching, but have since settled down over, because honestly, there's so much good going on here (which Wise deserves heaps of credit for) that I honestly can't stay mad.

The Haunting is the haunted house film if there ever was one. It doesn't need to kill characters to build momentum nor do ghosts or monsters ever need to pop out of the shadows. There's nothing, essentially, to see - and that's absolutely terrifying. Acting from the four principles is strong, and each builds an interesting relationship with the others, although Russ Tamblyn never really connects as much as he could have. But the show belongs to Harris and Wise's ghosts behind the scene. In Eleanor's most intense moments, the camera closes in, quick and throbbing so that you don't dare blink, and her feeling that the house is closing in around her becomes mutual. Doorknobs turn, noises sound off and the walls seem to breath fast and heavy. It's a very disorienting film and despite spending nearly the entire film trapped within the house, we never quite get out bearings. And I love gothic mansions, haunted or not, so imagine my sheer marvel at this one. Yeah, my quibbles seem more and more insignificant when I think back.

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