Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top 30 film discoveries for 2014

My weirdly eclectic tastes are on full display in this year's top 30 film discoveries. The fact that seven different decades are represented with westerns, noir, horror and science fiction films making strong showings shouldn't surprise. Nor should the fact that directors like Sam Fuller, Fritz Lang, Anthony Mann, Robert Wise and William Witney are favored. What is unusual is that four of my top five first time watches are silent films. Clearly, I should visit this genre much more often.

30. Missile to the Moon (1958)


I'm a sucker for 50's sci-fi especially when it involves traveling to a planet inhabited by love-starved ladies. This movie is awesomely ridiculous in its premise concerning a research scientist who forces two juvenile delinquent-type prison escapees to help him pilot a homemade rocket ship to the moon. Of course, it turns out the moon is populated by rock monsters, big spiders, and most importantly, beauty contest winners. Like all great cheesy sci-fi, its earnestness in the face of the ludicrous story and terrible production values (highlighted by wrinkled matte backdrops) make it that much more enjoyable.
29. Colorado Sundown (1952)

One of four William Witney movies on the list, I discovered this Rex Allen singing cowboy picture when looking for early Slim Pickens movies. Slim puts on a real tour-de-force comedy performance but I was equally pleased by Allen's singing skills and the overall enjoyable, feel-good quality of the piece. Also a pleasant surprise is the level of villainy displayed by the black hats who are uncharacteristically led by a female baddie. Like most, I use to shun singing cowboy movies as corny and old fashioned, but after watching Colorado Sundown, I tracked down the other 18 Rex Allen films and began digging deeper into Witney's filmography.

28. Shoot (1976)

The adult male's love affair with guns and all things paramilitary is explored in this smart, unsettling war allegory. Cliff Robertson is solid as the leader of a group of weekend warriors who happen across another, similar group while on an outing resulting in a violent confrontation. Briskly paced, tense and unpredictable, featuring some odd characters like Kate Reid's bizarre, not-so-grieving widow, the film is an engaging indictment of America's paranoid, war-mongering culture.

27. South Pacific Trail (1952) 

More Witney wonderfulness with singing cowboy Rex Allen, Slim Pickens and "King of the Badmen", Roy Barcroft. However, it's Nester Paiva and Estelita Rodriguez who steal the show as a father and daughter at odds over her shady fiancee. Paiva's lonely ranchero boss character, who would rather be riding the range with the boys, really elicits sympathy and brings some uncharacteristic pathos to the subgenre. Estelita Rodriguez, a triple threat singer, dancer and actress, has an ample amount of charm and captivates whenever she appears.

26. Cat Burglar (1961)

Another William Witney joint, this one being a noir-ish crime drama starring Jack Hogan, who would go on to carry a BAR and complain incessantly on the Combat! television series. Despite a very low budget and a brief 65-minute run-time, Witney still manages some nice directorial flourishes and adds some style to what may have otherwise been an unremarkable B-movie. The supporting cast was also a plus with character actors like Billie Bird, Gene Roth, Bruno VeSota and short-lived genre queen, June Kenney appearing.
25. Midnight Intruder (1938)

Delightfully odd comedy owing to the presence of Louis Hayward (And Then There Were None, The Man in the Iron Mask and House by the River) who is genetically incapable of not being disarming and classy. The mistaken identity premise is strong and Hayward is so likable, it's easy to overlook all the crimes he's committing. The ending is smile-inducing and surprisingly heartwarming despite tying up all loose ends in a very credibility-stretching fashion.

24. Stranger at My Door (1956)

The great Skip Homeier is a bad-ass outlaw on the run who takes refuge with a minister (Macdonald Carey) and his young wife (Patricia Medina) in yet another quality William Witney western. The somewhat melodramatic film could have easily turned campy as Carey attempts to save Homeier's soul and Homeier puts the moves on Medina but Witney manages to steer clear of this. The film features a fantastic action sequence with a rampaging horse unlike anything I've ever scene where even the family dog attempts to subdue the wild colt by hanging from its bridal with its teeth. The ending is patented 50's feelgood, but as with most of Witney's work, his action is solid, the tension is well sustained and the pacing fast. The man just didn't make dull films.

23. Moonfleet (1955)

A mix of Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens, Fritz Lang's Moonfleet is an enjoyable, visually pleasing adventure about an orphaned boy sent to live with his ne'er-do-well uncle played by Stewart Granger. I've never met a CinemaScope film I didn't love and despite being shot in Eastman Color, it looks lush. The supporting cast features some of my favorite character actors including George Sanders, Joan Greenwood, Viveca Lindfors Alan Napier, Jack Elam and Skelton Knaggs.

22. Captain Clegg (1962)

A non-horror Hammer film that's another visually striking adventure with some great, unforgettable imagery involving a scarecrow and some horse-riding skeletons. The scene the above poster is inspired by is certainly the money shot of the film, but it is dispensed with at the outset and the real highlight, being Peter Cushing's performance, comes to the fore. A young, dashing Oliver Reed is also on hand as is his buxom love interest played by Yvonne Romain, but it's Cushing's character that propels the story and his charismatic performance that makes the movie as well along with strong supporting cast.

21. The Raven (1935) 

Bela Lugosi's hand wringing evilness is the draw of this Universal horror picture as he menaces Irene Ware's body and messes with Boris Karloff's mind. The storytelling is fairly straightforward and its not as cool in atmosphere as Ulmer's, The Black Cat, but Lugosi gives one hell of a performance.

20. Aventurera (1950)

A Mexican "rumberas" or cabaret melodrama with some wildly over-the-top moments, it stars the absolutely captivating Ninon Sevilla who acts, sings and dances up a storm. The film can certainly be enjoyed for its turned-up-to-11 campiness, but its surprisingly well-crafted look is a testament to the golden age of Mexican cinema. Sevilla will convert even hardcore haters of musicals into fans.

19. Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

A Byron Haskin sci-fi film that is anything but the cheese-fest I was expecting. Instead, it's an earnest, gripping survival tale with some great Technicolor landscapes shot by The Searchers cinematographer, Winton C. Hoch.

18. The Haunting of Julia (1977)

Based on the Peter Straub novel, Julia, the film is a subtle, slow burn, ghost story with an excellent performance by Mia Farrow. It has the emotional character depth and strong back story of Roeg's Don't Look Now and the creepy believability of The Changeling. The effective third act pays off the gradual building sense of unease quite well with an ambiguous denouement that somehow manages not to cheat the viewer out of both an emotional and rational satisfying conclusion.


17. Return from the Ashes (1965)
Return from the Ashes is a well photographed black and white thriller about a concentration camp survivor who returns home to her husband but finds things have changed. Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell are excellent as the leads and the story is mostly unpredictable. Fans of the director, J. Lee Thompson, may remember him as the filmmaker of various trashy Charles Bronson flicks like Death Wish 4 or of the last two Planet of the Apes sequels. However, his early career was pretty darn classy with films like Ice Cold in Alex, The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear. Return from the Ashes definitely deserves to be mentioned along side these films as one of Thompson's best.

16. I Don't Want to Be A Man (1918) 
Comedies where women try to pass themselves off as men often fail to convince as the gender-bending actresses quite often appear and behave nothing like a male but supposedly fool other characters in the story (looking at you, Just One of the Guys). In Ernst Lubitsch's, I Don't Want to be a Man, lead Ossie Oswalda is able to transform from a spunky, rebellious, attractive female to a soft looking, charming, boyish male with only the aid of a top hat, tails and a short-haired wig. Instead of acting overly masculine and aggressive, Oswalda actually tones down a bit when impersonating a male but still manages to hang on to her amazingly charismatic presence and she physically sells the character quite well.

15. Targets (1968)
Peter Bogdanovich took a hodgepodge of seemingly disparate elements handed to him by Roger Corman and made an engrossing, prescient film about a mad sniper and an aging horror icon. I expected Boris Karloff to have just a throwaway type cameo, but he plays a fully realized, and at times, surprisingly humorous and endearing character that I was actively behind at the end. The sniper scenes are very tense and unsettling and are smoothly broken up by the lighter Karloff moments.

14. Cash on Demand (1962)

Another film that proves Hammer can operate well outside of the horror genre. People who aren't already fans of Peter Cushing will become instant converts after watching this riveting heist film. Cushing perfectly plays a slightly tyrannical, uptight, patrician bank manager who's character slowly and believably gets humanized over the course of the story. It's an amazing transition executed by the brilliant script and Cushing's magnificent performance.

13. Tension (1949)

Richard Basehart stars as a meek pharmacist married to a way-out-of-his-league femme fatale played by the amazing Audrey Totter. Totter is so good as the cuckolding vixen, viewers will want to choke her out on Basehart's behalf long before he begins planning her murder. Barry Sullivan and radio great, William Conrad, have some great chemistry as the investigating flatfoots and sell their partnership well in some subtle but humorous moments.

12. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

I've seen all but one of Hayao Myasaki's featuring length films, and this stands as the most well-written, coherent and thematically sound of them all. Had he the animation experience, skills and artistry he would later display in films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, doubtless this would be considered his best. Nevertheless, it's still a beautifully rendered piece with a strong female lead role and an engaging adventure
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11. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Brilliantly written, character driven science fiction out of the UK. It's cautionary global climate change tale is just as relevant today but it's the whip-smart, realistic characters with their everyday problems that really engages and anchors the picture. Edward Judd, Janet Munro and Leo McKern are excellent in the lead roles and deal the fast, snappy dialogue like nobody's business.

10. The Tunnel (1935)

The extreme financial, technical, physical and psychological difficulties of taking on a monumental project are explored in another intelligently written science fiction story out of the UK. I was really impressed at how serious the filmmakers took the subject matter and how in depth the story was. Richard Dix, who was so memorable in Val Lewton's, Ghost Ship, does another amazing job with a character who is obsessed in a far different but much more admirable manner. The special effects and sets are quite skillfully executed as well and add a nice steampunk flavor to the film.

9. The Naked Kiss (1964)

Sam Fuller brings his gritty, cigar-chomping directorial style while Constance Towers brings her wig and high heels to this pulpy melodramatic delight. If the opening scene doesn't rope you in, nothing will. The jaw-dropping twist, set up so well by Fuller, is one for the ages and I never saw it coming.

8. The Set-Up (1949)

Lean, real-time sports-noir superbly directed by Robert Wise that ranks among the best boxing films. Robert Ryan is great in the lead as an aging boxer who won't get out of the game even though no one believes in him.

7. Raw Deal (1948)
 
Very atmospheric, fast-paced Anthony Mann crime noir that utilizes a theremin during Claire Trevor's narration to surprisingly good effect. Raymond Burr nearly steals the movie as the short-fused boss antagonist and Ireland was strong as his henchman but I really loved Trevor's character who was so much more sympathetic than the average gun moll.

6. Gates to Paradise (1968)
A very nicely structured script with twisty stories told in flashback by various young, medieval characters making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Lionel Stander is surprisingly believable as a monk and former crusader who joins the children and soon discovers they have ulterior motives for making the trip. The filmmaking was solid by Academy Award winning director Andrzej Wadja but it's the strong plot and thematic elements from Jerzy Andrzejewski (Ashes and Diamonds) that makes the movie work well.

5. Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)
Fritz Lang's 4 1/2 hour origin story of the Dr. Mabuse character who was one of the first super villains in cinema. Rudolf Klein-Rogge owns the screen as the mind-controlling, megalomaniac master-of-disguise.The film may test patience due to its length and silent format but it really needs to be seen to fully appreciate the subsequent Mabuse films.

4. Dementia (1955)
Heavily influenced by German expressionism and certainly influential on subsequent filmmakers, Dementia is a cool, fever dream concerning a young woman's late night sojourn through the bowels of an anonymous city. Although very obvious in both its storytelling and psychological contrivances, it nevertheless has a hypnotic quality that sustains it throughout and was far ahead of its time with the Lynch-like, off-kilter characters, settings and moments.

3. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
The visual flair Fritz Lang demonstrated in M and Metropolis is on full display in this follow up to his silent film, The Gambler. Whereas Rudolf Klein-Rogge's performance was the main attraction in that film, Lang completely dominates this one with his exceptional style. The story has elements of crime, adventure, even horror and is a lot of fun in addition to being an artistic masterpiece.

2. The Doll (1919) 
Ernst Lubitsh again teams up with Ossie Oswalda in an utterly charming, silent, romantic comedy about a young woman who poses as a life size doll and winds up falling for her would be owner - a young heir who's attempting to escape marriage. The supporting characters like the monks, the young apprentice and the doll maker are almost as enjoyable and wittily crafted as Oswalda's and make the film a thoroughly enjoyable, knowing romp from start to finish.

1. The General (1926)
A silent, civil war-set, chase comedy starring Buster Keaton as an engineer trying to get both his train and his girl back. The pacing of the movie never flags, quite rare for a silent film, due to the effective blend of action and comedy. The set pieces on the train are jaw dropping with Keaton making the most difficult stunts look easy and humorous. The best comedic moments, however, occur between Keaton and co-star Marion Mack who plays his hapless, slightly dim girlfriend, Annabelle Lee and had me laughing out loud consistently. Not only is The General my best first time watch of the year, it has jumped to the top of my favorite films.







Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Two Shadowy Burglars


Above are two noir-ish movies about burglars made within four years of one another that are nevertheless characterized by some striking differences that make each well worth watching. One was made by a very experienced, well-known B-movie director in the latter half of his long career and is among his best work. The other was a first time effort of a fledgling director and it may have been his finest hour. Both star character actors with familiar faces who perform well in the lead roles. Both have much more style than they should given budget constraints. And both make me long for the days of cool black and white films.

Paul Wendkos will likely be remembered by most as the director of the very popular 1959 movie, Gidget, with Sandra Dee along with its subsequent sequels, Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963). Growing up in the 60's and 70's, I remember his name from the multitude of cool television shows he directed like The Untouchables, The FBI, I Spy and The Invaders as well as some of the more memorable made-for-TV movies like Terror on the Beach, The Legend of Lizzie Borden and The Death of Richie. Oddly his theatrical film work post-Gidget primarily consisted of war movies and westerns. For example, in 1969, he shot the first of two very good Euro-western hybrids in Spain, Guns of the Magnificent Seven (the third sequel to The Magnificent Seven). Easily the grittiest and most action-packed of the follow-ups in the series, the Italian-style westerns' dusty, brutal influence on Wendkos can clearly be seen. Likewise with his underrated 1971 Mexican revolutionary western starring George Peppard, Cannon for Cordoba, the Euro-western influence is very evident.
As Wendkos's theatrical movie directing slowly began to peter out in the mid-seventies, his continued success in made-for-TV movies insured his permanent residence in that medium. In 1976, he would direct his last motion picture, the utterly forgettable crime comedy, Special Delivery with Bo Svenson and Cybil Shepherd, and one year later he would helm the critically acclaimed drug awareness drama The Death of Richie with Ben Gazzara and Eileen Brennan thus sealing his TV career fate. Ironically, twenty years prior, Wendkos had made the best theatrical film of his career in his directorial debut.


The Burglar (1957), opens in such an unorthodox manner with Movietone-like newsreel footage from around the world, I momentarily thought I was watching the wrong film. But it's just a smart prologue to introduce the target of the burglary, a wealthy, phony spiritualist who appears in the last, human interest segment of the newsreel. As the scene cuts to the theater where the footage is being played, the titular character, Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea) is introduced watching the screen intently. It's a clever, efficient set-up that plunges the viewer right in just before the opening credits. It not only reveals the two major principles in the heist, but shows the victim as an unsympathetic con-woman and puts the viewer quickly in Duryea's corner before anything is even known about his character.


The first act of the film involves the introduction of the crew, the planning and execution of the heist and the complications that ensue. David Goodis, who wrote the screenplay based on his novel, wisely front-loaded the suspenseful and engaging aspects of the story and saved the character development for the post-burglary second act. In it, the complex relationship between Duryea's character, Nat, and his ward/accomplice Gladden (Jayne Mansfield) is explored. Though Nat has ambivalent feelings towards Gladden due to a pledge made to her father to take care of her, she is also a member of the crew. Duryea's character is stuck in the paradoxical position of trying to safeguard Gladden, but having a job and life that is detrimental to her. To complicate matters further, halfway through the story, Gladden professes her love for Nat, something that comes as no surprise to him, but is not reciprocated, at least not in the same way.


Though the middle act grinds out some necessary character development and introduces an additional female character that slows things up, the last act really brings it with Nat and Gladden's push-pull relationship reaching its apogee, the police closing in on the gang, and an unknown party, who has been stalking the crew, finally entering the picture. There's a lot of nice symbolism including the ending where Duryea and Mansfield's characters literally wind up in a carnival funhouse version of hell.


Duryea gives maybe his best, late career performance as the conflicted, world-weary, professional burglar. I recently re-watched him in the Audie Murphy western, Ride Clear of Diablo, where he plays an audacious, loose cannon gunfighter who could not have been more different from Nat, yet in both films Duryea's screen presence and skill are undeniable. The surprise though comes in Mansfield who was a better actress than the Monroe-wannabe stereotype with which she got tagged. It's a shame she didn't get more roles like this and The Wayward Bus where she plays serious, wiser-than-her-years characters who have some depth to them. Oddly, it was Mansfield's rise to stardom as the ditzy bombshell that shook this film loose for distribution as it had been languishing on the shelf for a couple of years. The two other members of the burglary crew are solid as well with comic actor Mickey Shaughnessy playing the sweaty fat bastard, Dohmer, who has eyes for Mansfield and German actor Peter Capell from Sorcerer and Paths of Glory as the intelligent but nervous, Baylock.


While the acting and writing are good, it's Wendkos' direction, editing and symbolically effective locations that really make the film a standout. In one scene, the emotionally trapped Duryea is shot through a jail bar-like bed headboard. In another, Mansfield's sexual isolation is exemplified by a distant overhead shot of her alone in the bedroom. Near the end, Duryea takes refuge in a remote shack across an empty marsh from Atlantic City where Mansfield's character resides. Again and again Wendkos effectively uses shots to convey the emotional state of his characters.


The shortcomings of the film mostly fall within the sluggish second act where Nat's allegiance to Gladden and his vow to her father are explained one too many times. The Martha Vickers character of Della seemed awkward and shoehorned into the plot for just one purpose towards the end. Also, the effort to keep the identity of the stalker a secret gets a little much towards the end and an earlier reveal could have had more impact than dragging it out.
Overall, considering the modest $90,000 budget, Wendkos made an imaginatively shot and engrossing late-cycle crime noir. Despite being his first film in a 40+ year career, it is likely his most artistically sound.


***

Dubbed a "forgotten master" by Quentin Tarantino, William Witney began his directing career at the age of 21 for Mascot Pictures which would later merge and become Republic Pictures. Although best known for his serials and westerns - the Roy Rogers singing cowboy features in particular - it's Witney's diverse range of genre films that prove most interesting. Everything from gangster pictures (The Bonnie Parker Story, City of Shadows) to juvenile delinquent dramas (Cool and Crazy, Young and Wild) to military action (Paratroop Command) to steam-punk (Master of the World) to blaxploitation (Darktown Strutters), Witney dipped his toe into a lot of subgenres. Although modestly budgeted efforts with limited resources and locations, Witney's films are decently paced, well photographed stories with some occasionally surprising style thrown in and usually feature some superb action set pieces. I know Mr. Tarantino is sometimes prone to be a little hyperbolic now and again, but in this case he's spot-on as Witney's 1961 espionage crime thriller, The Cat Burglar, can attest.


The film gets right down to business with the titular burglar, played by Witney-regular and future Combat! co-star, Jack Hogan, breaking into an anonymous apartment. Hogan, who's character is also named Jack, is accompanied by the jazzy, base-heavy, hepcat stylings of the film's music composer, Buddy Bregman giving the opening a very cool Playboy After Dark feel. Jack gets interrupted during his burgle by the beautiful tenant, Nan Baker, played by genre stalwart June Kenney (Attack of the Puppet People, Earth vs the Spider, Teenage Doll, and Bloodlust!). Nan has just returned to the country after picking up a briefcase containing a notebook for her boyfriend in Mexico. Fortunately for Jack (and all the male viewers), Nan decides to take a shower and leaves her valuables along with the briefcase on the dresser where Jack steals it before exiting. Unbeknownst to both Jack and Nan, the notebook contains secret missile plan formulas that Nan's boyfriend, Alan (John Baer) and his thuggish, foreign agent buddies are waiting to receive. Complications ensue.
Typical of Witney's work, The Cat Burglar is another low-budget expectation breaker with a surprising amount of attention to detail. For example, his shot set-ups and composition are pretty amazing given his limited time and resources and maximize the storytelling visually. In the ground level shot below, Nan's character goes looking for a bargain basement private investigator in a seedy flophouse:


In the next scene, she has a rather uncomfortable meeting with a corpulent detective, appropriately named Muskie (played by the incredibly awesome Bruno VeSota), in his unkempt room:


Later, the tough, foreign agents lay down the law to Nan's boyfriend, Alan. This shot is framed through the thug's arm while he stands threateningly over Alan.


When the thugs initially catch up to Jack, the visuals partially play out in a mirror:


And lastly, in the climatic warehouse scene, Witney brings on the light and shadow:


The screenplay was written by legendary character actor Leo Gordon and is direct and to the point but still better than it needs to be. Gordon, who is immediately recognizable as one of the great screen tough guys, surprisingly wrote over two dozen scripts for movies and television including The Wasp Woman and Attack of the Giant Leeches. Much like the latter two films, Gordon takes some time to flesh out the lead, Jack, and throw in some colorful side characters while still keeping the story moving. Unlike Duryea's character in The Burglar, Jack is a terrible amateur thief who lives in a cheap, trash-strewn motel room he can't afford. The owner/manager of the motel, Mrs. Prattle (Billie Bird), who pretentiously insists in white trash fashion on pronouncing her name pray-tell, is constantly busting Jack's chops for the rent.


The cast is made up from some of my favorite character actors from American International Pictures and Republic Pictures including Hogan, Kenney, and Baer as well as Gene Roth, Gregg Palmer and Bruno VeSota. The experience and natural presence of these actors goes along way in filling in the characters in the limited time they have on screen. Actors like Roth and VeSota don't have to do a lot of emoting to get across what their characters are all about, it's easily inferred by their mere presence.


The film does have its share of flaws like the character of bland Nan who has to be the most gullible person on earth not to smell a rat early on. Also, the music is good until it's used for comic stings or to denote danger at which point it becomes cartoonishly overt. Some of the street locations look less than cinematic and seemed like they were grabbed just to link two scenes. However, the ending warehouse shootout makes up for all sins because if there's anything Witney excels at in particular, it's action.

Comparing the two burglars, I'd have to say Wendkos' film has much more depth of character and emotional substance than Witney's. And while Witney has some moments of directorial flare as noted, Wendkos does an exceptional job throughout his feature. It's a little unfair to compare the lead actors who are in very different roles but Duryea owns in his hangdog performance whereas Hogan does just a passable workmanlike job in a much less ambitiously scripted part. With regard to pacing, Witney's moves much quicker but he does hold an advantage with a run-time that's nearly 25 minutes  shorter. Lastly, Wendkos' film feels much more cinematic and noir-ish than Witney's which could have passed for a very well-shot episode of television. Ultimately, Wendkos' The Burglar is the better, meatier steak but Witney's is still a tasty burger.

Scores:
The Burglar 7.75/10
The Cat Burglar 6.50/10


Friday, October 31, 2014

Horrorthon 2014 - Vampires, ghosts, monsters and boobies

In an effort to get onto the holiday spirit, I watched 75 horror movies for the month of October, including 44 first-time watches. Below are the top 5 good, bad and fun of the new watches.

Good

5. Daughters of Darkness (1971)

For some reason, I was expecting a Jess Franco-type film with lots of sleaze and some marginal style, however, the visual eye candy alone in this Harry K├╝mel quasi-vampire story was very impressive and made me curious about the Belgian director's other work. Delphine Seyrig is great as Countess Bathory and it was a hoot seeing John Karlen from the Dark Shadows TV show as the male lead. My only problem was with stiff, angular actress Danielle Ouimet, who played Karlen's wife and Bathory's object of desire. Ouimet had little chemistry with the other leads and is outclassed in the sexiness department by everyone else. Happily, the colorful sets, costumes and general art design more than make up for any deficiencies. And, despite the strong implications, there is little overt vampire iconography in the story to distract or annoy with it's obviousness. 7.25/10

4. The Haunting of Julia (1977)
I read Peter Straub's novel when it came out but never got around to the film adaptation until now. It features very low key storytelling and may move a little slow for some, but I loved the ambiguity and mystery of it. The tension is built up gradually over the course of the movie culminating in some very creepy character reveals towards the end. Though the finale does not explicitly show anything supernatural, much like the rest of the story, it feels far from a cheat. Despite an English accent that is dodgy at best, Mia Farrow does a good job as the fragile, broken lead and has a strong supporting cast particularly in Tom Conti. 7.5/10
 
3. The Black Cat (1935)
Though the plot is a bit muddled with certain aspects never paying off, it's still an excellent showcase for Karloff and Lugosi and features an unusual, post-modern manor that adds to the atmosphere immensely. Karloff, whose character is blatantly evil, dominates the picture with glee while Lugosi plays an unusually interesting wild card whom you're not sure to root for or against. Ace, low-budget director Edgar Ulmer helmed and created one of the strangest horror films of the period. 7.5/10

2. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
An unconventional, stylish vampire film from Jim Jarmusch that's much more of a contemplative look at culture through the ages than a horror picture. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are very good as two jaded but still interested lovers who get back together in a spooky, deserted, modern-day Detroit. Like most Jarmusch films, it's long, slow, intelligent, romantic and very cool. 7.75/10
1. The Raven (1934) 
While catching up on these Lugosi features, I've noticed that the less likely Bela is to get with a girl in a film, the more awesomely evil he becomes. He absolutely owns this movie with a performance that engaged me to a far greater extent, and was much more wicked, than Dracula. The film also has one of the best Poe readings ever from Lugosi. Karloff's make-up is kind of crappy and he's a bit marginalized, but this is obviously Bela's show and he delivers.  7.75/10


Bad 

5. The Strangeness (1985) 

A monster-in-a-cave movie that's a real a chore to get through with corny characters, terrible writing, bad lighting and some very dated, ill-fitting, stop-motion animation. The storytelling was so dull and the acting so irritating, it made The Boogens look like The Descent. 4/10

4. Not of This Earth (1957)
Badly edited and poorly shot science fiction/horror from Roger Corman that has a few interesting moments from Birch but otherwise bores. I'm a big Corman fan, but he did make some unwatchable dreck in the 50's like Creature from the Haunted Sea, She Gods of Shark Reef and this one. In his defense, he did direct eight other films in the same year so maybe he was just tired. 3.75/10

3. Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965)

This Something Weird Video-feeling, campy sci-fi/horror may have wound up in the fun category had it not been for the endless padding of military stock footage and wildly out of place scooter joyride by the lead couple. Also, I smelled the distinct odor of self-awareness on numerous occasions which killed any so-bad-it's-good pleasure. There was some enjoyable cheese to be had, but too many tedious, drawn out scenes in between that were obvious filler. Also, the ending fight scene where the titular characters finally throw down looks like a mild tussle you'd see on an elementary school playground. 3.75/10

2. Odd Thomas (2013)

Adaptation of a Dean R Koontz novel (uh-oh) from the man who brought us Van Helsing, Deep Rising and The Mummy movies (double uh-oh). The writing was obvious and self-congratulatory with noxiously cute and wannabe pithy characters. The overly long, goopy and saw-it-coming ending made me actively hate it. On the plus side, Willem Dafoe shows up briefly to give the only believable performance. 2.5/10

1. Raiders of the Living Dead (1986)

All the incompetence of a Don Dohler or Arch Hall film with none of the heart, charm or fun. Cynical, amateur filmmaking at its worst from low-grade schlock writer/producer Sam Sherman. The interminably long scene of Scott Schwartz assembling his laser gizmo was the first of many warning signs that this movie was going to be an epically awful slog. 1.75/10

Fun 

5. The Devil's Partner (1961)
Black & white, low-budget, satanic horror that's very strange for the time period it was made. It concerns an affable young man. played by Ed Nelson, who shows up in a small town to claim his much-loathed, hermit uncle's estate/shack. Although it is nothing like the spectacular DVD cover above implies, and was directed by Charles Rondeau who made the craptastic, The Girl in Lover's Lane, the previous year, the film is still oddly appealing in its own weird way. Making things even more surreal is a co-starring role by Uncle Joe from Petticoat Junction (Edgar Buchanan) as the town doctor. Far from a great movie, I still enjoyed it's offbeat quality. 6/10

4. Shocking Dark (1990)
Enjoyably shameless Bruno Mattei rip-off of the Aliens and Terminator movies with world-class bad acting, a nonsensical script (courtesy of Claudio Fragasso), and an ugly industrial plant setting. A cheesy classic without a doubt. 6.25/10


3. Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (1981)
Andrea Bianchi in my opinion made the quintessential, trashy giallo with Strip Nude for Your Killer. It is far, far from the best in the genre, but delivers exactly on what most fans want in a giallo. In the same way, Bianchi brings everything you ever want to see in an Italian zombie picture and more. Shotgunned zombie heads, flesh eating, maggots, gratuitous nudity, sleaze, etc. Yes, the characters are mostly flat and forgettable (excepting that mother and son, of course), the plot is barely there, and the zombies have a very leisurely, unannounced way of showing up, but holy cow, is this some bizarre fun. 6.5/10


2. The Deadly Spawn (1983) 
A no-budget, independent film with surprisingly good monster effects. The story is simple and straightforward but still contains some rule-breaking surprises and an enjoyably dark sense of humor. 7/10

1. Humanoids from the Deep (1980)
Rape-y sea monsters, rednecks and nubile women provide an entertaining mix in this derivative slice of Corman-produced cheese. The Rob Bottin creature make-up effects are good, there's lots of jaw-dropping sleaziness including a ventriloquist menage-a-toi that is enjoyably out of left field, and the opening features the most incompetent fishing crew ever. Ann Turkel is kind of lame in the Matt Hooper role, but Vic Morrow once again plays another great bastard and Doug McClure is the lead. 7/10

Happy Halloween everyone!