Sunday, October 31, 2010

HAPPY HALLOWEEN from Junta Juleil

As you all know, Halloween never really stops on this site, and there'll be plenty of new horror film reviews in the weeks to come, including a PHANTASM retrospective, a few William Castles, and, naturally, some Ironside-related content. In the meantime– enjoy a few of my favorite Halloween articles from the archives– Happy Halloween!


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Film Review: SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999, Tim Burton)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 105 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson (THE CRYING GAME, THE HOURS), Michael Gambon (THE LIFE AQUATIC, THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, AND HER LOVER), Christopher Walken (MCBAIN), Casper Van Dien (STARSHIP TROOPERS), Richard Griffiths (WITHNAIL & I, THE HISTORY BOYS), Ian McDiarmid (RETURN OF THE JEDI, DRAGONSLAYER), Michael Gough (TROG, Alfred in Burton's BATMAN), Christopher Lee, Lisa Marie (ED WOOD, MARS ATTACKS!), and Martin Landau (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, ED WOOD). Music by Danny Elfman. Executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola and Larry J. Franco! Based on the short story by Washington Irving. Written by Kevin Yagher (makeup designer on NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETs 2-4, Chucky creator for CHILD'S PLAY, and TALES FROM THE CRYPT collaborator) and Andrew Kevin Walker (SE7EN, BRAINSCAN).
Tag-line: "Heads Will Roll."
Best one-liner: "YAHHH!" (said by Christopher Walken).

With ten years of hindsight steering the way, I believe I now possess the proper distance to proclaim that SLEEPY HOLLOW was Tim Burton's last great film. At the time, it felt like something of a letdown- coupled with MARS ATTACKS! and his burgeoning, reckless use of CGI, it seemed as if the man was on a downward spiral. But in (PLANET OF THE APES & CHOCOLATE FACTORY) retrospect, the CGI comes across as nearly prudent; the morbid sense of humor, quite clever; and the thrills and chills strike the perfect notes of an R-rated, 90's retread of THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD.

Johnny Depp haplessly prances about this film: exuding inherent worthlessness, babbling reassurances to no one in particular, and fainting at the drop of a hat.

At times it feels like a more wimpish MURDER, SHE WROTE episode- albeit one with buckets of gore- and indeed, one of Johnny's inspirations for the role was none other than Angela Lansbury. The other was Basil Rathbone, and he constructs a hero that is the ANTI-Sherlock Holmes, one who'll pour chemicals on the ground and yabber scientific nonsense to himself, not to- *voila* -solve the crime, but to buy himself a little time as he contemplates his awkward exit strategy. Some have complained that Burton, writer (and makeup legend) Kevin Yagher, and script doctor Tom Stoppard stray too far from the original Irving story, but instead we have a work that does its damndest to integrate every bit of macabre Americana mythology from The Headless Horseman to iron-fisted (or is that Iron Maiden'd?) Puritans to witches and witchcraft, and I, for one, think it works. Hell, the windmill from FRANKENSTEIN even makes an appearance!

The atmosphere is exquisite, too-

Elfman's dark and rumbling score; the misty, overcast New England forest trails; flickering silhouettes cast by a ramshackle oil lamps...
And it's great to see bit parts from legends like Christoper Lee, Martin Landau (who gets his chance to run through the cornfield á la NORTH BY NORTHWEST), a dunderheaded Jeffrey Jones,

a fossilized Michael Gough, and Christopher Walken (a convincing force of sheer, Hessian malevolence, straight from the pit- his sharpened teeth and unruly hair nearly steal the show!).

On the women's side, we have a venomous she-devil played by Miranda Richardson, a waifish Christina Ricci as the love interest,

and an ethereal Lisa Marie as a motherly force (and consider the theory that Burton's decline perfectly coincides with the deterioration oft his relationship with Lisa Marie!- compare to Godard/Karina, George & Marcia Lucas, et al.). Anyway, you sort of get the idea that Burton pitched the entire project as an excuse to put ladies in cleavage-intensifying corsets, but I guess that's okay, too.

Four stars.

-Sean Gill

Side note: Watch for 'Large Marge' from PEE WEE making a (completely theoretical) cameo appearance!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Film Review: MONSTER DOG (1984, Claudio Fragasso)

Stars: 3 of 5.
Running Time: 81 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Alice Cooper.
Tag-line: " Twenty years later, the nightmare begins again and now it's Lou's turn to pay..."
Best exchange:"Listen, werewolves DO exist." –"Oh, bullshit, Vince! The year 2000 is just around the corner. I am a recognized expert in electronic videos and you are the hottest rock n' roll star - in the world! You're making records, videos, movies - on high-tech electronic equipment of fantastic sophistication. You can get on a plane tonight and be in Australia tomorrow. And you're scared of werewolves."

"You look like a couple of queers to me! Queers make...MY STOMACH TURN!" What we have here is a rather curious specimen. An ‘American’ werewolf flick (starring Alice Cooper as a rock star named "Vincent”) made by Italians- to be precise, Claudio Fragasso, the same Italian who was the brains behind such made-up sequels as TROLL 2, EVIL DEAD 5: LA CASA, TERMINATOR II: SHOCKING DARK, and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 3: NIGHT KILLER.

Here, using the sobriquet "Clyde Anderson," Fragasso skulks around like a thief in the night, peddling his plagiaristic Italo-trash to the unsuspecting. Right off the bat, let me say this: MONSTER DOG is no TROLL 2. It certainly has elements of TROLL 2, like creepy villagers' laughably ominous warnings, overuse of the line "I can hardly believe the nightmare is over," a lot of talk about pissing (“You was more full of water than the Hoover Dam!”), and the mention of “hospitality” a few times (!).

"You was more full of water than the Hoover Dam!"

There's plenty of driving scenes to pad the run-time.

The vanity plate. (Alice's real name is Vincent Furnier.)

The eponymous MONSTER DOG. Rick Baker, eat your heart out.

wears stodgy sweaters and dubbed by somebody who sounds kind of like Kermit the Frog. Later, when it briefly turns into a Spaghetti Western, Alice is wearing eye-makeup, a ruffled shirt, and toting a shotgun in time for a Castellari-esque shootout.


The eponymous "Monster Dog" is papier-mache and lots of imagination, fog machines work serious overtime, heavily-sedated killer canines look less like hell-hounds and more like sad-sacks, and the shittiest 80's A/V equipment you've ever seen is referred to as "hi-def electronic equipment of incredible sophistication." The high point is probably the Alice music video "Identity Crisis-es" (which features Alice as James Bond:

Billy the Kid:

Sherlock Holmes:

and Jack the Ripper:

and ties into his masterful 1983 Multiple Personality Disorder concept album, DADA) which serves as the film’s opening and closing scenes. Except at the end, it's been re-edited to act as a kind of greatest hits of “memorable” scenes from the movie. Since this is theoretically better than watching the entire movie, I have posted it below:

Let me add this up: TROLL 2 + Alice Cooper, divided by dubbed Alice and a damned sluggish 81 minutes = 3 stars.

-Sean Gill

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Film Review: TRAPPED ASHES (2006, Various)

Stars: 2 of 5.
Running Time: 105 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Segments directed by Joe Dante (GREMLINS, MATINEE, EXPLORERS), Ken Russell (THE MUSIC LOVERS, THE DEVILS, ALTERED STATES), Sean S. Cunningham (FRIDAY THE 13TH, DEEPSTAR SIX, A STRANGER IS WATCHING), Monte Hellman (THE SHOOTING, TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT III), and John Gaeta (visual effects supervisor on the MATRIX trilogy). With John Saxon (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, TENEBRE), Henry Gibson (MAGNOLIA, THE BURBS, NASHVILLE), Dick Miller (BUCKET OF BLOOD, TRUCK TURNER, GREMLINS), and a bunch of youngsters who don't bear mentioning.
Tag-line: "Five tales of terror."
Best one-liner: "Alright, let's just tell some scary stories and see what happens."

I'm not going to beat around the bush: TRAPPED ASHES is not a great investment of your time. Part poor man's Roger Corman and part poor man's TALES FROM THE CRYPT, but polished and overproduced to the extent that it's devoid of any charm, TRAPPED ASHES is your typical latter-day horror omnibus disappointment. One of the primary warning signs is the script's incessant use of that distinguished rejoinder, "Whatever!" Yes, it's one of those. Those post-Kevin Williamson horror scripts that are a little too self-aware, pop-culturey, and self-approvingly contrived for their own good. The acting (aside from a few well-known character actors who acquit themselves admirably) is sterile, hackneyed, and often accompanied by cringeworthy accentuations like "You're a... FREAK!"

The frame story is directed by Joe Dante, and while it's nice to see Dick Miller's obligatory cameo,

things get bogged down rather quickly by an unlikable young cast thrust into the rather forced scenario of "strangers trapped in a room and forced to tell scary stories." The frame segment would be a complete bust if not for a deliciously nutty performance by Dante-alum Henry Gibson as as the tour guide/master of ceremonies.

Speaking in garishly hushed tones, his eyes flitting to and fro, his eyebrows curling with incredulity– Gibson's having a ball. And why shouldn't he? What has he got to lose.

He is milking this for all it's worth.

It's not quite enough to save the movie, but certainly enough for me to award the film an extra star or so.

Also, John Saxon is wandering around:

This is a good thing. But give him something to do other than eyebrow indicate.

Most of the segments are not really worthy of discussion- a few of the directors imbue their pieces with visual flair, but the scripts are not even worthy to be the dregs of Showtime's Masters of Horror. First-timer John Gaeta's tale of a sibling-parasite is unremarkable; Sean S. Cunningham's tentacle-porn and necrophilia-infused tale of J-Horror is about as klassy as you'd expect from a man who's always enjoyed hopping on a nice n' sleazy bandwagon; and Monte Hellman- one of the great maverick directors of the 60's and 70's- makes a valiant effort (but one which is ultimately in vain) on a by-the-numbers ménage a trois/femme fatale story called "Stanley's Girlfriend." It's the sort of thing you want to like, for Hellman's sake, so you're admiring the production design and the sepia lighting and pretending maybe you're watching NAKED LUNCH or something, but you can really only pretend it's holding your attention for so long. Loosely and seemingly arbitrarily, a young cypher of Stanley Kubrick is used as a character: vague references are made to PATHS OF GLORY and THE KILLING, exciting lovers of film trivia, but it begins to feel in poor taste by the time we get to his 1999 death and we're using it for a payoff involving vampires.

Saxon surfs the web.

But don't despair: there is one (mostly) solid segment. Now, maybe it seems better than it actually is in the midst of these bush-league terrors, or maybe it's because I'm a die hard Ken Russell fan, but "The Girl with the Golden Breasts" is the best of the bunch, and the only one to which I would award a begrudging 'thumbs up.' This tale of an aging (nearly 30!) actress who is surgically implanted with undead, vampiric breast tissue is no great shakes on paper, but Russell infuses it with his notorious attention to flamboyant visual detail and his bizarre, disturbing sense of humor.

At one point, CGI rears its ugly head or nipple or whatever, and the results are pretty mortifying, but if you're actually on board at this point, it probably won't detract from your overall enjoyment. It's especially vexing to me though, because Russell achieved a very similar effect in GOTHIC with a macabre puppet.

Anyway, it also helps that the lead of this segment, Rachel Veltri (apparently of FOR LOVE OR MONEY reality TV fame- yikes!) is generally more tolerable than her comrades. I think this is because she kind of reminded me of Mimi Rogers.

But before you know i–

Ken Russell himself as as the bewigged, besmocked, and lipstick-smeared "Dr. Lucy!"

Ending things on a note of utter lunacy, Ken Russell (here, 79) removes his smock and gives new meaning to the crass utterance "Show us your tits!" Whew.

On the whole, despite Ken's bravado, I cannot recommend this. Russell and Joe Dante devotees may wish to check it out (but be prepared to do a fair amount of fast-forwarding), and Monte Hellman devotees should just rewatch TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and call it day.

Two stars.

-Sean Gill

Monday, October 25, 2010

Film Review: DRACULA (1931, Tod Browning)

Stars: 4.9 of 5.
Running Time: 75 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Béla Lugosi, Dwight Frye (FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN), Helen Chandler (DAYBREAK, THE SKY HAWK), Edward van Sloane (THE MUMMY, FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER), Herbert Bunston (THE MOONSTONE, THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD), David Manners (THE BLACK CAT, THE MUMMY). Cinematography by Karl Freund (KEY LARGO, METROPOLIS, THE GOLEM, THE LAST LAUGH, I LOVE LUCY; director of THE MUMMY- allegedly uncredited co-director of DRACULA). Directed by Tod Browning (FREAKS, THE UNKNOWN). Makeup by Jack P. Pierce (FRANKENSTEIN, THE WOLF MAN, THE MUMMY, WHITE ZOMBIE, THE MONKEY TALKS). Based on the novel by Bram Stoker (THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM).
Tag-line: "The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!"
Best one-liner: "For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you're a wise man, Van Helsing."

DRACULA is far from a perfect film: it's more derivative of the theatrical adaptation than the Stoker novel, it suffered persistent budgetary setbacks, the production was plagued by disorganization, and the director (Tod Browning)- despondent over losing his friend and intended Dracula, Lon Chaney- became disinterested and irritable, allegedly handing off the reins to DP Karl Freund on occasion. Despite it all, however, DRACULA is a monster classic, full of fleeting, mystical moments and ethereal majesties. Exceedingly atmospheric and possessing one of the most iconic leading performances in film history, DRACULA is a Halloween fixture and a classic of early sound cinema. Mandatory viewing not only for horror fans, but for cineastes in general, what could I possibly write to add to the critical discourse? Perhaps I'll just write about a few of my favorite moments- those sublime cobwebs of perfection which waft in and out of the nightmarish fantasia...

#1. The Fauna of Castle Dracula.

Some of you may think I'm ragging on the film by bringing this up, but I'm not–there's something so bizarre– almost alien– about the eclectic selection of critters which inhabit Castle Dracula. There're armadillos (Tod Browning spent time in Texas) wandering amongst the dilapidated furniture,

'possums skittering to and fro, and fake bats twirling on strings outside the Palladian windows.
A striped termite (?) wriggles out of its tiny coffin.

As Renfield parts the world's largest spiderweb,

we see its arachnid creator clambering up the wall.

Er, make that dragged upward by a stagehand. But it doesn't matter- in the midst of the awe-inspiring set (more on that in a bit), this strange bit of artificiality only adds to the unsettling grandeur of Castle Dracula.

#2. The sets– more specifically, the sets of Castle Dracula and Carfax Abbey.

The sheer scope is breathtaking. If the production hadn't been underfunded, I can only imagine what constructed Hollywood wizardry could be dazzling us– as it stands, only the beginning and end of the film possess these towering, Cyclopean sets; for the most part, the rest is all drawing rooms and boudoirs. But it doesn't matter- even just one of these two sets could carry the movie.

#3. The Philip Glass score, composed in 1999. Purists prefer the Tchaikovsky and the silence (with a touch of Wagner during the concert scene), but I wish there could be a happy medium– I can't imagine DRACULA without "Swan Lake" playing over the main title, but I absolutely adore the rest of Philip Glass' score. It's swirling and mesmerizing, shadowy and indistinct. It billows and surges relentlessly from the darkest depths of the human soul. It's DRACULA. It often creates the illusion of a silent film (despite all the dialogue) and complements the Browning and Freund imagery perfectly. Now I find that there are moments in the film which I can't imagine without the Glass score.

#4. The first appearance of Count Dracula.

The power of this scene perhaps lies in its simplicity. The slow tracking shot. The gnarled hand steadily emerging from the coffin. The torpid mist which lends a general haze to the entire milieu. The peculiar expression upon Dracula's face- it is not one of malevolence, but one of immutable passivity. The cycle begins anew. The blood and the night and the taking of life.

#5. Freund's pencil lighting.

Today, I feel as if the actor's unions would have a problem with the director of photography shining concentrated bursts of small, high-wattage lamps directly into an actor's open eyes, but I don't hear Béla Lugosi complaining. I think he's too connected to his character to think of anything besides the tremendous hypnotic power he wields over mere mortals.

The effect is wonderful, and it proves that you don't require special contact lenses, prosthetics, or CGI to depict a monster's indescribable gaze... all you need is an inventive lighting designer and a really intense Hungarian.

#6. Dwight Frye as Renfield.

Speaking of really intense people- for your consideration, Dwight Frye:

Sort of the 1930's Crispin Glover, Frye tackled roles with a genuine, maniac élan that likely will never be matched. He was a Broadway legend (originating "The Son" in Pirandello's SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR), he played the iconic role in FRANKENSTEIN which many people mistakenly call "Igor" (in actuality, it's "Fritz"); he appeared in THE VAMPIRE BAT and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, had bit parts in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN and THE INVISIBLE MAN, and was immortalized in song by Alice Cooper (while singing in a straitjacket, to boot!).

It's easy to see why he was later typecast as this parade of lunatics, crazies, and madmen, yet before Renfield gets 'buggy,' so to speak, he skillfully plays it straight as the dandy-solicitor who's in a little over his head.

#7. Helen Chandler's (Mina's) vampire gaze.

I'm not sure I like it as well as Sybille Schmitz's in VAMPYR, but Helen is certainly bringing something to the table– something murderous and childlike.

#8. The scene where Dracula attempts to hypnotize Van Helsing.

There's an ineffable, poetic quality to this that makes it so memorable. A simple enough scene of Dracula failing to exert his will upon Van Helsing, it humanizes both characters considerably. Initially, Van Helsing falls victim to Dracula's powerful trance- he briefly appears as a wobbly, helpless old man. Then he regains his mental footing, and reveals the sheer magnitude of his determination, earning a degree of Dracula's respect and drawing his ire. The two titans have clashed without raising their voices or exchanging blows, they've merely wielded the forces of their respective wills against one another. And it feels real– the weight of tormented centuries, the fortitude of one who fights monsters- it's all made very tangible in this scene.

#9. The scene in the opera box.

It's only a brief dialogue scene, but it's quite possibly my favorite moment in the film. Dracula meets Harker, Lucy, and Mina for the first time. Dracula explains his recent purchase of Carfax Abbey and how it reminds him of the crumbling battlements of his castle in Transylvania. The girls are waxing poetic about death and other such morbidities, and Dracula interjects...

Dracula reveals himself, his true human self, to a trio of oblivious bon vivants and ingenues. Lugosi speaks deliberately- Dracula chooses his words carefully because they carry great import. "There are far worse things awaiting man than death." He breaks eye contact with the girls, because now he's looking into himself. Harker mutters some cheap, hollow sentiment, and Dracula tunes him out... he tunes out the rest of this vapid world, a world full of those who dare to speak of death as if they've experienced it...

The Philip Glass music swells, and it's a pleasure to the point of pain.

-Sean Gill

Side note: Dracula's screams during the staking have been a matter of some controversy. Available on VHS, many were angered by their exclusion on the Universal DVD, but they're actually there if you know where to look. There are three audio tracks– #1, the edited audio (but with the original music) which does not have the screams. #2, the Philip Glass score, does have the screams, but they are very faint because the music is playing rather loudly. Track #3, the commentary by David J. Skal, is with the original, unedited audio, but he's speaking nearly the whole time. So if you really want to hear the screams, choose the audio commentary during the final scene, and he actually pauses as they happen, for your listening pleasure. Why Universal did this is anybody's guess, but at least they're on there somewhere.