Friday, October 21, 2016

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)


So October doesn’t just mean horror and bloody death. Sometimes you just want to have some fun with some Golden Age humor, macabre storylines and a heaping helping of insanity. Sounds like Halloween right?


Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) just wants to start off on his honeymoon with his lovely new wife Elaine (Priscilla Lane). All he has to do is stop by his Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha’s (Jean Adair) house to tell them the good news. He just happens to look in the window seat and sees a dead old man stuffed in there!

Has his uncle Teddy (John Alexander) finally gone off the deep end? Or is it the work of Mortimer’s wicked brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) who just happens to look a lot like Boris Karloff? Or maybe Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) knows what happened. In any case Mortimer better figure out this mystery quickly, because there are cops snooping around and they may get the idea that the combo of Arsenic and Old Lace is not as innocent as it seems.

Good Points:
  • Some very funny and quotable dialogue.
  • Does a good job balancing the macabre with humor
  • Moves along at a pretty good pace

Bad Points:
  • As good as Massey is, you really wish Karloff had been available
  • Some of the humor may not hold up for modern viewers
  • Grant spends quite a bit of time mugging for the camera


All around, this movie is a fun time. The character are all entertaining, even if Grant is pulling faces a lot of the time. But things really get exciting when Massey and Lorre enter and almost steal the show. Everyone is having a great time and there is a lot of energy to the whole film. It’s perfect viewing for a lazy Sunday in October, or for any fans of classic comedies with a dark twist.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

One Missed Call (2003)


After Ringu exploded across the Japan, it started a whole slew of ghostly girl/techno-fear films. Of course these were all the rage for a while and eventually made it over to North America where Hollywood decided to adapt most of them with mixed results. Near the end of the craze in Japan director Takashi Miike was given the reigns of this film. While he is best known for disturbing movies like Audition and Gozu, he was ready for something a little more conventional. But would Miike be able to add his own unique twist to this style of horror film?


It all starts with a simple phone call. Yoko (Anna Nagata) doesn’t recognize the ringtone so she doesn’t answer the call. When she listens to the message, it displays a date and time that have yet to occur, and the voicemail is her voice screaming in terror. Sure enough, when that date and time arrive Yoko is brutally killed by a train. Her friend Yumi (Kou Shibasaki) is disturbed by this odd demise, and starts to investigate.

But things get more dangerous as people on Yoko’s contact list receive the same strange ringtone and hear their own demise. Her friend Natsumi (Kazue Fukiishi) turns to a television program for help, but they quickly descend into a horrifying ratings generated frenzy, as they countdown to her death. It becomes apparent that some kind of spirit is stalking people using the phone, but is there anyway to stop the fiendish creature? What does the suspicious undertaker have to do with this? Why are round red candies found near all the bodies or in their mouth? But how long will it take for Yumi to look at her phone and see the message: One Missed Call?

Good Points:
  • Some bizarre and outrageous set pieces (especially the television show sequence)
  • Does a good job building the dread and horror as the body count rises
  • Good mix of gore and creepy suspense

Bad Points:
  • Very familiar if you’ve seen Ringu or The Grudge
  • Looking for Miike’s more surreal or over the top antics, you won’t find too much here.
  • The wheels come off a bit near the end, as thrills take over for sense.


Miike takes the familiar tropes from the ghostly girl/techno-fear genre and plays within that sandbox. That means a lot of the visual elements and story construction will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Ringu or Ju-on. I did like how Miike added some social commentary with the television show and poor Natsumi. The movie is worth seeing for that plot line. I also liked his final twist on the story, and the identity of the ghostly killer. But the way the movie gets to the final act is overly convoluted and stretches the plot a few too many times. That said, the movie has some great atmosphere, creepy moments, horrific deaths and a disturbing finale. It isn’t a masterwork of horror, but it is very entertaining, and man that ringtone is just plain creepy!

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  3

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Friday, October 14, 2016

Movie Musings: Exorcising my Right to Avoid Possession

With a cat named Hobbes, this is extra scary.
It is probably pretty apparent to most readers of this blog that I like horror films. Over the years I've seen most subgenres of Horror and enjoyed most of them. I like a good ghost story. Slasher films can be a lot of fun. Throw a good monster movie into the mix and I'm a happy camper. Mind bending physiological horror are some of my favorite films. And if you can manage some Lovecraftian cosmic horror, well then you've got a big fan. It doesn't matter if the horror is generated by the natural or the supernatural - I'll give the movie a solid chance and enjoy some part of it.

But there is one horror genre that just doesn't work for me, no matter how many different films I try. If you've got a demon or devil possessing your main character for the bulk of the movie, odds are I'm going to find the whole thing pretty uninteresting.

Anyone else remember this one?
I thought that maybe I was just watching the wrong possession movies. I think the first time I saw a possessed character on the screen it was in parody form. So yeah, I saw Repossessed before I saw The Exorcist. After that most of the possession movies I saw were like the idiotic House of Exorcism. Most were too over the top and cheesy to be scary.

But I started to suspect that maybe the movies weren't the issue. It was my mental malfunction. The real clue arrived with the film The Conjuring from 2013. People went bananas for that movie and called it one of the best horror films of the decade. I was excited and went in with high hopes. I found the movie well acted and put together, but not very scary. I figured I was overhyped. So I gave it another spin about a year later and... um yeah, still not very scary. In fact it was getting kind of funny.

Maybe it was just that movie. I'd go back to what most folks consider the best of the best when it comes to possession films: The Exorcist. This was a movie that put the fear of God into everyone in the 70s. Folks were getting possessed just watching the movie. And I constantly see it near the top of any horror fan's top 10 list. I'd seen the movie before, back in the 1990s. But the experience wasn't very good. First of all it was on VHS and font loaded with a half hour documentary on the movie. This documentary pretty much spoiled the entire plot, all the best scenes and director William Friedkin came across like a conceited, smug, jerk. Yeah didn't start off on the right foot at all.

But enough time had passed that I felt I could give The Exorcist another chance. I watched it in 2016 with high hopes. My final verdict is - it is a well made and well acted film. It has some very interesting thematic angles to it. But it didn't scare me at all. I found it to be pretty darn slow and kind of funny.

"Did you just compare me to Satan?"
Of course I think this movie suffers from the same issue that North by Northwest suffers from. So many movies have borrowed elements from the original films that they now feel overly familiar and lack any suspense or drama - because we've seen all the beats before.

But I think there was a deeper challenge going on for all these possession movies. I have a real issue with the entire concept of demonic possession. I end up asking all these questions during the film and it distracts me from getting pulled into the situation.

Let's get this out of the way. I'm not a religious person. I know quite a bit about the Catholic faith and Christian religion as a whole (had to take a couple of courses about the religion on college and most of my family are of the Christian faith). I find interest in it from an mythological point of view, but I'm in no way a believer in the dogma. But even with that in place, I don't think that is my main issue.

"I have faith in you guys. You'll possess someone
worthy next time, right? Get it... faith! Ha!"
I end up wondering what The Devil or his minions are thinking when they take possession of a little girl, or a lunatic already locked in an asylum, or a little impoverished boy living in a third world country. If you are an evil force and you can take over human bodies, why aim so low on the power chain? Why not go for someone with authority or wealth or power. Then you can do some serious damage to human civilization and really mess with God's creations. The Devil would rather take over the meekest of folks so he can get in a battle with a priest (who is usually questioning his faith in all these movies) and get spanked. How embarrassing. I think Satan and his demons need to work on their core competencies and overall strategy.

But I kid the lord of the underworld.

Now I've heard from some people that the corruption of innocent souls is what makes The Devil and his minions most happy. Ok, fine. So he gets off on the possession of people who are pure but not able to do much in the grand scheme of things. But couldn't Satan hurt more innocents by possessing someone with power? I mean, it just doesn't make any sense to me.

So the whole movie I'm pondering the idiocy of Satan and his minions and not being scared at all.

"Yeah I just out performed the
devil. Not bad, eh?"
That is not to say that the concept doesn't have some kind of horrific potential. The key horror of possession is the loss of control and the loss of self. This is a horrifying concept, and one I've seen executed with skill in many films and television series. Something like Cronenberg's The Fly is based on the body rebelling against the mind. Or you get Kilgrave in Jessica Jones, who has the ability to force you to do his will. It is very much possession, but what makes it frightening to me is that Kilgrave has a clear agenda and desire. All in his path become his toys. His acts aren't pointless and easily thwarted.

Or take another example that really works, Prince of Darkness by John Carpenter. In this case you are dealing with an incarnation of The Devil, and he can possess and control people. But what makes it even more horrifying is that his controlled minions are working to free him. Stopping the possessed humans is important because if you don't, The Devil will be freed and destroy the fabric of the universe. The stakes are frightening on a cosmic scale in this movie, and makes the possession of a single child in a fancy apartment in New York seem kinda silly and pointless.

The hell of "Cure" is the very personal kind.
What about personal horror, the idea of losing your mind. Again, other movies do that with greater effect. Perfect Blue puts us in Mima's shoes as she starts to unravel over the course of the movie and that is very disturbing and unsettling. Or Lost Highway with our lead character losing his mind and possibly his identity after being accused of murdering his wife. These movies feature a personal hell that is much more upsetting to me than random demons randomly possessing someone because they are bored and want to scare a few people.

You could see these possession movies as metaphors for mental illness, and The Exorcist even shows that as a possibility. In that lens I can understand how they are supposed to be frightening. But the added weight of Christian Mythology actually weakens the concept for me. I find Prince of Darkness to be the most disturbing of the possession type of film, and really it only uses possession as a portion of its horror. The real terror in that movie comes from the cosmic fear. The more you think about the implications of what is on the other side of that mirror the scarier that movie gets.

I've come to the conclusion that traditional possession movies are just not my cup of tea. I end up finding them funny or frustrating (usually a combination of the two). I don't feel I can review them without that bias, so don't expect me to post a review of The Conjuring or The Exorcist any time soon. But maybe I'll give Repossessed another spin.

Update: I just gave The Conjuring another viewing, and in the context of watching a another movie before it, I actually appreciated it a bit more. Still didn't find it terribly scary, but I will say it is very well put together and generates some solid suspense and a couple of creepy moments. The big bonus is that it is the ghost of a witch possessing the mother, and not a demon or devil. I can imagine a human with such limited goals as possessing someone in their old house. So the movie doesn't have the same type of issue as The Exorcist or its many imitators have in that regard.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Score Sample: Hellraiser

October is here and it is time to share some of my favorite horror themed scores. That also means it is time for me to praise Christopher Young again. This talented composer has crafted amazing music for just about every genre of film and in an amazing array of styles. But for most film score fans he is the master of horror music. He does a great job of combining lyrical beauty with darkness. He can create music that can be etherial in its uncanny nature. He can craft horrible bombast that shatters your mind (and eardrums). I love his stuff.

One of the first scores that brought him to everyone's attention was his work for Hellraiser. It is a wonderfully gothic score with some great moments of beauty and horror. The end title track Another Puzzle offers a wonderful example of both sides of Young's music for this film.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

And Then This Happened... The Haunting

Don't you just hate it when you're exploring a haunted house with a group of strangers and one of them decides that being in West Side Story qualifies him as a dancer? Well, ok maybe it does qualify him, but does he need to sing too? Luckily The Haunting does qualify for a spooky good time.

What is your caption for this moment?

And then this happened...

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Monday, October 3, 2016

Anime Juke Box - Angel of Love - Perfect Blue

Time again for another hit from the anime juke box. Since we are in October that means its time for some horror music. Perfect Blue is one of the best anime films out there. The way director Satoshi Kon manipulates the world around the main character, Mima, makes it all work. Mima is part of a pop group. The song they sing at the start of the film is so cheerful and poppy it couldn't possibly be evil right? Well Kon ends up using the song a few times in the film and by the time you hear it the last time it has become down right sinister. So every time I hear this happy little tune I can't help but shudder a little.

So here is Angel of Love performed by Cham featuring Mima!

Friday, September 2, 2016

Blog Update for September

Well you can see how well I did at updating this blog for August. The planning work for the new story took a lot more time than I anticipated. But I really feel it was necessary. I'm working on a story set in an original fantasy world - and I needed to have some of the key aspects of the world worked out and written down before I could proceed. I also did a lot of extensive character work before diving in. I'm hoping this gives some additional depth to the characters allowing them to breathe a little better on the page. But this is a movie blog, not a place where I babble about my writing. For more of that kind of reading check out my old Storytelling in all its forms blog.

I do hope to get some material up here in September, but it will likely be sparse and low key. Hope you all had a great summer!