Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Score Sample: The Grudge and The Grudge 2

This time of year I listen to a lot of horror film soundtracks. Horror film scores run a full range of styles from atonal sound design to full blown orchestral beauty and bombast. Of course the overriding feeling of these scores is to create some kind of darkness. One of the best film composers for darkness is Christopher Young. In fact, I featured his wonderful work on Drag Me to Hell back in October of 2013. That score is all about the big horror sound. One of my favorite scores that goes smaller and creepier is his work on the American remake of the Japanese film The Grudge. This score features a wonderful snakelike main theme, simple sounding but it works its way under your skin as the album progresses. The majority of the score stays quiet, disturbing, with a few moments of calm beauty and several moments of atonal horror. He also scored the sequel, with a larger ensemble and some Japanese musical instruments to add color. The result is a one two punch of wonderful and disturbing horror music. So enjoy the End Titles to The Grudge and Seme from The Grudge 2. Hopefully they won't give you nightmares.


End Titles from The Grudge


Seme from The Grudge 2

Friday, October 17, 2014

Cure (1997)

Introduction:
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a Japanese director I’ve had on my radar for a long time now. I’ve seen a couple of his movies and they were very intriguing. In many ways he reminds me of David Lynch. He has a very strong visual style, knows how to use sound to add and develop atmosphere, he doesn’t rely on plot, but rather on themes and visuals to carry the viewer along. His films take their time building toward a climax. I enjoyed the two films I’d seen previously, but I felt I was missing something. So I decided to go back to the film where Kurosawa really made a name for himself.

Summary:
There appears to be a serial killer on the loose. Several people have been found murdered with a large X carved into their body, severing both major blood vessels in the neck. Sometimes this was the cause of death; sometimes this was done after the fact. But the most puzzling element to the case is the simple fact that no clear connection can be found among this wide variety of victims. Detective Takabe (Koji Yakusho) is finding it incredibly frustrating. At home things aren’t any better for him. His wife Fumie (Anna Nakagawa) is suffering from a mental illness that causes her to forget where she is and react to him in confusing and contradictory ways.

A break in the case comes when a strange young man (Masato Hagiwara) is found near the scene of one of the murders. He has no memory of his name, his life or even what question someone asked seconds ago. Instead of answering questions, he constantly questions others with the simple phrase, “Who are you?” The more detective Takabe interacts with this young man the more convinced he becomes that the young man is somehow causing these murders to occur. Takabe’s physiologist friend Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) warns him not to get in too deep. But Takabe is convinced he may have found a Cure to the illness that plagues this city, but it may turn out that the medicine is more bitter than he expects.

Good Points:
  • Kurosawa sets a mood of impending dread that builds over the film
  • Koji Yakusho does an amazing job in his role
  • Filled with layered symbolism and themes

Bad Points:
  • The narrative is fuzzy at best
  • Images, sound, atmosphere and theme take over the film
  • I’m still not sure if there is a solution to this puzzle film

Overall:
This is an intriguing film, showing off some masterful skills with camera work, sound effects, editing and mood. Even with the obtuse plot, Yakusho delivers in his role as the frustrated detective who may be losing his mind (or maybe not). Make no mistake, the answers do not come easily in this film, but there is a method to the madness. If this sounds intriguing to you, definitely check it out. I found it a wonderful exercise in building and executing dread.

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

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Candyman (1992)

Introduction:
For a while there, we were getting quite a few Clive Barker horror films. His gory and often highly sexual stories seemed like a good fit for 80s and 90s horror cinema. He also tended to delve deep into the dark side of human nature, and it wasn’t always pretty when you saw something dark peering back at you. Of course not all adaptations of his work were successful and that may have lead to his stuff not being translated to film too often these days. Did this flick capture the spirit of Barker’s dark and disturbing world?

Summary:
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is working on master’s thesis involving urban legends. One of the most interesting stories she encounters tells of a sadistic killer named Candyman (Tony Todd). He has a hook instead of a hand, and appears if you say his name five times while facing a mirror. Helen investigates the stories of Candyman in some of the more dangerous and run down areas of Chicago. She discovers that people are truly afraid of this mysterious figure. Helen’s clinical approach keeps her from being drawn in, even making fun of the whole thing and saying Candyman’s name five times in a mirror.

Helen starts to hear a voice in her head, and see a huge man always watching and waiting. One minute she is facing him, the next she’s laying in a pool of blood that isn’t hers and being accused of abducting a baby. Has the research into Candyman caused Helen to snap, or has something more sinister occurred. Is it possible that a story can be believed so strongly that it becomes reality? Look in a mirror, say Candyman five times and find out.

Good Points:
  • An amazing performance by Virginia Madsen
  • Tony Todd is one of the most imposing and fearsome specters of the 1990s
  • Balances psychological horror with gory kills

Bad Points:
  • A slow burn, takes nearly 45 minutes before Candyman truly appears
  • Philip Glass’ score may pull some viewers out of the film
  • May be a bit too disturbing for those looking for a fun horror flick

Overall:
In my mind this is one of the best adaptations of Clive Barker’s storytelling brought to screen. Madsen’s fine performance allows us to connect to her, so when things start to go wrong we are drawn into the horror. The movie does not hold back in building tension and dread. The finale is disturbing but fitting in its own way. Well worth checking out and certainly one of the best horror films of the 1990s.

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


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The House on Sorority Row (1983)

Introduction:
Back in the 1980s the sorority slasher films were a dime a dozen. You could count on a new one every other week. I swear we could have had three shelves at the video store dedicated to this sub-genre. Ok, I’m exaggerating a little bit. But still you’ve got to do something interesting to stand out from this crowded field. Does this 1983 flick have what it takes to be memorable?

Summary:
As we all know sorority girls just want to have fun. But that is really hard when your dorm mother is the stubborn and inflexible Mrs. Slater (Louis Kelso Hunt). She is such a pain in the butt that Vicki (Eileen Davidson) decides to play a nasty prank on her. After she threatens to the old woman with a gun, things take a turn for the worse. Mrs. Slater ends up dead, and the girls panic. The wrap up the body and toss it in the filthy pool and go ahead with their party… because this is college and PARTY!

Well since this is a slasher flick we know all the good times can’t last. Soon enough a mysterious killer is hunting down and bumping off all the girls involved in Slater’s murder. Even more horrible is that it appears that Mrs. Slater may have risen from the pool for revenge. Can sweet and wholesome Katherine (Kate McNeil) stop the killer and figure out the secrets of The House on Sorority Row before it is too late?

Good Points:
  • Some creative and gory kills
  • An interesting twist on the revenge angle
  • Looking for 80s nostalgia overload – this is the movie for you

Bad Points:
  • The 80s nostalgia overload may kill some unprepared viewers
  • The twist has been used before and since
  • Has a few moments of “how the hell did that just happen?”

Overall:
This was an entertaining slice of slasher movie fun. It’s got all the goods: gory kills, jump scares and cute girls running around. The 80s cheese factor is high, but that adds to the charm. While I did see the twist coming, it was kinda neat and certainly put a different spin on things. The score was also surprisingly good with some really solid orchestral cues by Richard Band. If you’re in the mood for a vintage slasher on a Friday night, this will work great.

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


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Brood (1979)

Introduction:
I haven’t seen any of David Cronenberg’s films from the 1970s. In fact I haven’t seen too many of his films in general. So I was pretty stoked to see that Criterion was putting a couple of his better regarded films on Hulu Plus. I didn’t know much about this film, other than it had something to do with creepy kids. That seemed to be a staple of 70s horror, maybe thanks to The Omen. All I knew is that it was probably going to include some disturbing fleshy moments.

Summary:
Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) has some serious emotional issues. Her husband Frank (Art Hindle) has her undergoing experimental therapy under the care of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). Raglan is able to work with his patients to expose their pain and anguish in physical manners, such as raised bulges and protuberances that appear instantly. While this is shocking and disturbing, Frank begins to wonder if this is actually helping any of the patients.

His doubts are validated when his daughter Candice (Cindy) returns from a visit with her mother with bruises and scratches on her. Frank tells Dr. Raglan that he wants to stop the visits, but Raglan insists that Nola is at a critical phase in her treatment and stopping the visits will only cause things to get worse. Well, things do get worse, but in a way no one expects. While Candice is staying with her grandmother a strange little “person” attacks and kills the grandmother. Frank fears for his daughter’s life. When more attacks continue he begins to wonder if Dr. Raglan is connected to the fearsome attacks by the murderous Brood.

Good Points:
  • A slow building story that gets more disturbing as it goes along
  • The finale really packs a punch
  • Acting by the three leads helps the story along

Bad Points:
  • If you don’t buy into the concept at the heart of the story, the film will not work for you
  • Some viewers may find the pint sized horrors to be silly looking
  • Some of the supporting cast goes a little over the top

Overall:
I found this film to be a nice slow build to a very disturbing climax. The concept of manifesting your strong emotions into a physical form is an interesting horror idea and Cronenberg uses it well. The main cast does a great job with Oliver Reed providing a cool intensity that makes you immediately distrust him. Beneath the horror is the idea that physical abuse and torment within a family can literally be passed down from generation to generation.

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


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Introduction:
So I finally got around to picking up some stories by Richard Matheson, and the collection included the novel “Hell House”. This was a great read with some very disturbing moments and some really interesting sequences where the characters are really put through the ringer. I’d seen the movie a long time ago, but I figured I’d revisit it and see how it compares to the novel. Usually this is a bad idea… let’s see what happens.

Summary:
Super wealthy but aging billionaire Mr. Deutsch (Roland Culver) demands to know if there is an afterlife. He wants facts and so he gathers the best of the best in paranormal expertise. There is Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill) a physicist who is convinced he knows the secret behind all types of paranormal activity and he has a machine to prove it. With him is his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) who is looking forward to some fun in a haunted house. Then there is Florance Tanner (Pamela Franklin) a mental medium who is very successful contacting spirits. Last but not least is Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall) a physical medium who barely survived the last excursion.

And what excursion is that? Why a nice trip to the most dangerous haunted house ever known: Hell House. This sprawling mansion was once owned by the infamous Emeric Belasco. This man was into debauchery, decadence and all manner of horrors. As such his house if filled with evil spirits that can’t wait to harm anyone that comes inside. The last group that risked it were either killed or driven insane – except for Benjamin. Now this new group must face disturbing haunting, horrifying revelations and even a possessed cat if they are to survive Hell House

Good Points:
  • Some fine acting by the small cast
  • Remains fairly true to Matheson’s original novel
  • Has some pretty creepy moments in it

Bad Points:
  • Some aspects of the plot and characters seem a bit too familiar
  • Seems to move in fits and starts
  • The ending doesn’t quite have the punch it should

Overall:
This movie almost works, but a bunch of little things keep it from being as memorable or scary as it should be. Hanging in the background is that Robert Wise’s film The Haunting covered similar ground and did it better. Some of the big moments don’t quite deliver. But the whole gothic atmosphere is handled well, and the cast does a very good job, especially the tormented performance by Pamela Franklin. Haunted house fans will enjoy it, but the novel worked a bit better and was able to get more extreme and disturbing in its own way.

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


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Phantom Planet (1961) - MST3K Review


Summary:
Humans just love hurling themselves into the cosmos, and now that America has  a swell moon base (because it is 1980) humans can journey even further into distant space. But when one of the rockets goes missing, a rescue mission is sent, with Captain Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks) at the controls. The journey is dangerous, as asteroids hurtle around the ship and end up causing it some serious damage. Chapman loses his copilot and finds that his rocket is out of control and hurtling toward one of the larger chunks of space rock.

But he does not find a space slug on this asteroid; instead the atmosphere causes him to shrink down to a handy pocket size. There he meets the Lilliputian people of the planet Rheton. They are lead by the wise Sesom (Francis X. Bushman). There is the sultry Liara (Coleen Grey), the pretty but mute Zetha (Dolores Faith) and the angry Herron (Anthony Dexter). All Chapman wants to do is return to earth, but that may not be so easy. You see the evil Solarites are waging a war against the people or Rheton. Chapman is caught in the middle, and he may have no hope of ever escaping The Phantom Planet.

Movie Review:
Frank is the first known Poke-naut!
If you are familiar with the rocket movies of the 1950s then you have a pretty good idea of what The Phantom Planet is like. It’s got the square jawed American hero landing on a strange world, the alien babes immediately fall for him, there’s a jealous alien man who tries to thwart him, the leader is a wise old guy and there’s some kind of crazy monster that does some damage before the hero kicks its butt. All the beats are hit so no real surprises from this movie. But it is the little things that make The Phantom Planet a bit of an oddity.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an astronaut more annoyed to be in outer space than Captain Frank Chapman (even Captain Cameron from Star Trek: Generations seemed more eager to explore the unknown). I’m not sure if it is Fredericks acting or the script or maybe a combination of both, but Chapman just doesn’t see any wonder or awe in space travel. He’s brave, yes, but he’s also kind of a jerk. His first act upon meeting alien life – he attacks it! He is annoyed that the aliens have different rules than the good old U.S. of A! He’s miffed that he isn’t given free reign to wander around the alien world and touch anything he wants. He’s grumpy when two super hot space babes are drooling all over him. And he whines that Rheton isn’t just like Earth. He reminds me of the annoying American tourists who go overseas and complain that the McDonalds doesn’t taste just like the one back home.

For Makonnen it is all about the good and the beautiful. 
What is funny is that his copilot, Ray Makonnen (Richard Weber) actually seems to want to travel in outer space. His little bit of character development shows us that he is looking for “the good and the beautiful” in the universe. If he had survived the first act I’m guessing he wouldn’t have attacked the aliens on sight or been so darn grumpy about first contact with another life form. But too bad for us, Makonnen does deliver his dead-meat speech about wanting to find “the good and the beautiful”. This seals his doom, and while he sacrifices himself to save Frank we sigh and hope he gets sucked into a wormhole and ends up on the planet with the Fire Maidens from Outer Space.

Speaking of maidens, the two ladies of the story do a pretty good job with the roles they are given. Coleen Grey plays the sexy and manipulative Liara very well. Fans of MST3K will recognize her from The Leech Woman. She serves as Franks main source of information about the world of Rheton. She obviously has the hots for him, but mostly because she likes strong men, and Herron just isn’t doing it for her. Not hard to see why since Herron is almost as big a wet blanket as Frank is. Again, I’m not sure if it is the script or the acting, but Dexter doesn’t give the character much life, other than really, really hating Frank.

Liara is the beautiful and Zetha is the good.
The Phantom Planet also gives us the lovely mute Zetha, who spends most of the film pining away for Frank. She can’t talk, but she can sure look crest fallen whenever Liara wanders away with our wooden hero. For some reason, she falls for him the minute she sees him. And for some reason he falls for her (granted Liara is a bit pushy). The writing here is all done for plot convenience, so don’t expect any deep character development in the love story.

Francis X. Bushman is probably best known for his role in the silent production of Ben Hur. He certainly has a bit of gravitas and he brings that to role of the wise elder Sessom. He makes the Martian wise man in Santa Claus Conquersthe Martians look like joke. But I do wonder if his performance inspired the similar character in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. The other big name (although he was unknown at the time he made the film) is Richard Kiel. He’s in a huge goofy costume and he spends most of his screen time trapped in a futuristic jail cell. I kinda feel bad for Kiel, since he is walking around very gingerly. I’m betting he couldn’t see a darn thing in that outfit. Unfortunately his shambling around and careful motions make him far from frightening. The only monster I’ve seen move slower was Tor Johnson in The Beast of YuccaFlats.

Flaming popcorn attacks the extra crispy piece.
The production design is typical of a low budget science fiction film of the era. The rockets are your typical design, lacking the flair of the spaceships seen in The First Spaceship on Venus. I love the asteroids; they look like huge chunks for granola or maybe pieces of Kentucky Fried Chicken hurtling through the void. Most of the alien technology in The Phantom Planet is strange looking crystal control panels and the gravity plates, which were probably just plastic or rubber squares put on the set. The flaming spaceships of the Solarites are kinda funny, since they are literally on fire as they swoop through space. The sound effects for their weapons sounds just like old west six shooters. Some of the most creative special effects are used when Frank shrinks down in size. His giant helmet actually becomes one of the sets, and was probably the most expensive element of the production.

But special effects don’t make a film. The story and some of the scientific concepts are what end up scuttling this one. The plot is very predictable, not a bad thing in itself, but our lead is so unlikable. I just want to slap Frank when he starts whining about how Rheton is not like the USA. Well duh! You’re on another planet! Isn’t that why you wanted to be an astronaut in the first place? With this guy being the focus of the film, it’s hard to get too invested in his fate.

Just to keep things honest, Frank admits that not everything
shrank in proportion. 
But then you get the science. A key plot point of the entire film is that Frank shrinks down in size. This keeps him from escaping Rheton, because even if he does escape, how will anyone find his teeny tiny body floating around. And then if he goes back to earth, he’ll be put in the first sideshow NASA can find. At least that is how Frank imagines it. Later Frank learns that his size is actually due to the atmosphere, so if he breathes his oxygen from his own tanks on his space suit, he’ll grow again. Wait, what? As Crow points out, “So humans are just like big old flesh balloons?” I also love how all the spaceships are able to make hard turns in outer space. It is hilarious looking. Then you have the crazy physics of The Phantom Planet itself as it hurtles around willy-nilly through space. How does it retain an atmosphere, or light or anything really?

In the final analysis, The Phantom Planet isn’t a great movie, but it falls right in the middle of other rocket movies of the era. It certainly could compete with 12 to the Moon or Project: Moonbase, but lacks the interest and dynamics of something like Moon Zero Two or even The First Spaceship on Venus. Still there is more than enough for Mike and bots to work with.

Episode Review:
Somewhere under all that is a very young
Richard Kiel.
One of the favorite genres for fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is the rocket ship flicks of the 1950s and 1960s. Especially during the Comedy Central years (and during Joel’s run as host in particular), lots of fun riffing accompanied these films. Most were black and white affairs, filled with American white men delving into space. Even Mystery Science Theater: The Movie featured a variant of this when it tackled This Island Earth. So it comes as a bit of surprise that this is the final rocket movie the series tackled.

In fact it had been a while since the crew had watched a film in this genre, so I think they were ready to go. The riffing comes pretty strong and steady throughout the film, and fits the pacing that was typical during the Sci-fi Channel years.

The shoving the bar event will never make
the Olympics.
The one thing that always pops into my head when I think of the riffing to The Phantom Planet is how fixated the guys get on the copilot Makonnen and his monologue on “the good and the beautiful”. The minute he stops and delivers his famous dead meat speech, the boys chuckle and then they start dropping references to it throughout the film. During the scene where the rocket is in peril and the two men prepare to space walk, Tom asks, “Permission to speak in flowery prose again sir?” When Frank starts to grumble about how screwed they are, Mike replies, “That was a bad and unbeautiful thing to say, sir!” And when we see Makkonnen flailing around as he hurtles off into the void after saving Frank, Crow declares him a Spazz-tronaut.

Mike and the bots have some fun with the asteroids and The Phantom Planet itself. They can’t decide what kind of food they look like, but they come up with all kinds of suggestions. Tom declares them “Honey bunches of DEATH!” and Mike thinks that “Those nooks and crannies really hold the butter.” Then when the doglike Solarites attack, Crow feels that “if the planet didn’t look like a chicken McNugget then the dogs wouldn’t attack.”

"I think he's running a little rich there."
Speaking of the Solarites, Mike and the bots have a ton of fun with the silly costumes and flaming spaceships for these creatures. As the Solarites swoop in to attack, Mike says in his dog voice “We just need a place to scoot!” Crow thinks “They are throwing flaming milk bones.” A close up of the Solarite piloting his ships as the flames lick up into the cockpit window causes Tom to say, “My check engine light is on. I wonder why?”

During the big finale, as Frank is growing back to normal size, he has a montage of the previous 80 minutes flash back into his brain. Including the scene that happened right before the montage started. Crow gets very irate and yells, “You can’t flash back to something we saw ten seconds ago!” Sad to say, I’ve used that line when watching many movies since then. Note to directors – please heed Crow’s advice. He knows what he’s talking about.

Mike doesn't seem concerned about the
good or the beautiful at this point.
Host segments start off with Mike, Crow and Tom attempting an Andy Roony-off, while Gypsy acts as a judge. It gets very, very silly. Meanwhile, Pearl receives her “Rule the World Starter Kit”. But some assembly is required. Unfortunately a key (and highly radioactive piece) is delivered to the Satellite of Love instead. The boys hesitate on returning it, so Pearl sends them The Phantom Planet as punishment. At the first break Tom is contemplating “the good and the beautiful”, and Mike helps him out with some suggestions. At the next break, Pearl is having a real problem putting together her doomsday device, when suddenly she experiences some paranormal activity in the castle. Inspired by the Theremin soundtrack, and the control panels used by the aliens of Rheton, Tom and Crow attempt to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star using water glass rims. Mike stops by and shows them up by playing a classical piece! He’s a master. When the movie ends Crow is dressed as a Solarite but stills feels empty inside. Pearl can’t get her doomsday device to work, but she can still work old-fashioned evil, like dumping hot oil on the villagers surrounding the castle.

Our hero, about to complain again.
This is one of those episodes that just hits all the right notes for some viewers. I know several people who love the rocket films and the riffing and for them, this is a great final hurrah for those movies. Ask them you you’ll probably get four or five stars. But for me, I find the whole thing fun, but lacking that extra something to really make it one of my favorites. “The good and the beautiful” jokes are fun, and the Solarite riffing is hilarious. But the rest just seems kinda standard stuff. I’ll recommend The Phantom Planet to fans of the genre, but for everyone else, this is a solid episode, but season nine had a few that were much funnier (especially the next two episodes: Pumaman and Werewolf).

So I end up give this three good and beautiful mute aliens out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 8.