Kbatz: Dragonwyck

Frightening Flix

Dragonwyck A Spooky and Charming Little Old Film

By Kristin Battestella

 

I was a bit surprised when I stumbled upon this 1946 title starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price, for I had never heard of it before. Based upon 1944 novel by Anya Seton, Dragonwyck is a creepy little gothic tale of frightful mansions and murderous tendencies.

Miranda Wells (Tierney) dreams of bigger things than her family’s Connecticut farm, much to the chagrin of her devout parents Ephraim (Walter Houston) and Abigail (Anne Revere). When a letter arrives from Abigail’s distant and wealthy cousin Nicholas Van Ryan (Price), Miranda takes the offered opportunity to serve as companion to Nicholas’ daughter Katrine (Connie Marshall, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) at the Van Ryan’s legendary Hudson Valley estate Dragonwyck. Once at the mansion, however, tales of hauntings, local unrest, and the uneven relationship between Nicholas and his wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne) can’t deter Miranda from falling in love with Nicholas. But of course, he is married, and spends far too many nights in his secret tower room…

Though not a horror movie or thriller per se, Dragonwyck has many fearful moments and suspense-filled sequences, largely due to the simplest suggestions of intrigue. The black and white cinematography, creepy angles, spooky lighting, and haunting score by the famed Alfred Newman (How the West Was Won, The King and I, Camelot) give just the right amount of suggestion that not all is well at Dragonwyck. Screenwriter and first time director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, Cleopatra) makes great strides in giving us the basis of the novel’s complex time and place, but some sequences in Dragonwyck do seem ill edited. Quick references to a change of time and place aren’t enough to indicate the move-sometimes it seems like you’re watching a film ‘edited for content and cut to run in the time allotted.’ Thankfully, performance and story win out with the help of great costumes and gothic sets.

220px-dragonwyck_film_poster

I don’t know much about Prince Aly Khan, except that he seemed to mentally ruin not one, but two Hollywood ladies- Rita Hayworth and Gene Tierney. Perhaps more well known today for her many romances, Tierney (Laura, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Leave Her To Heaven) was pretty and she could act. Maybe her beauty draws the viewer in, but Tierney’s expressions of innocence, naiveté, and love keep us interested in Miranda. We want her to find joy and happiness-even if the high society life at Dragonwyck clearly spells doom. Likewise, parents Walter Huston (Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre) and Anne Revere (National Velvet, The Song of Bernadette) are stern and respectable parents with only the best interests at heart. Observant viewers will also see a young Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) as Peggy, the crippled Irish maid with a good heart.

It’s pretty plain to see that the ‘low’ farming folk have more values and morals than the ‘high’ Hudson folk, but Vivienne Osborne (Tomorrow at Seven) earns a piece of sympathy as Nicholas’ wife Johanna. She seems chubby and more interested in food than her daughter, but we feel that in some ways, this snotty style is not her fault. Her callous upbringing and lack of attention from her deceitful husband help blur the lines between this detailed look at the early Victorian lifestyle and Hudson society. But of course, Vincent Price (The Ten Commandments, The Pit and the Pendulum) plays a man who is not always what he seems. He’s thinner and more subdued than what we expect from the maniacal old horror maven to come in later films. Price’s Nicholas looks the waistcoat and top hat society man, we believe he can be respectable and a good love for Miranda-and yet we should know better. Price shows his range through Nicholas’ love, flagrant callousness, addictions, and other… nefarious… tendencies.

Dragonwyck is not a perfect film, and it is a little dated in some respects. Mankiewicz’ inexperience as a debut director also hampers some scenes. Nevertheless, gothic lovers and fans of classic suspense can enjoy Dragonwyck. Younger audiences may not understand some of the historical back-story about patroon landowners keeping tenant farmers in feudal like arrangements, but the spooky air is just right for a youthful scare or two. But of course, the DVD edition of Dragonwyck is now out of print. Thankfully, fans of Vincent Price can pick up a copy in several horror sets. It’s a strange placement, but fans of the cast and viewers who love a little bit of Bronte suspense will enjoy getting their hands on Dragonwyck. I’m tempted to find the book now, too!

Kbatz: Dream House

Frightening Flix

Dream House A Mishmash of Wasted Talent.

By Kristin Battestella

 

Despite the digital cable’s one star warning, I settled in for a creepy night with this recent 2011 thriller. Unfortunately, the real life romance sparked on-set for stars Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz really is the claim to fame here.

Editor Will Atenten (Craig) and his artist wife Libby (Weisz) have quit their jobs and purchased the country house of their dreams at last! As they settle in, local teens harass the couple and their young daughters for being unaware of the home’s murderous history. Friendly neighbor Ann Patterson (Naomi Watts) tries to be sympathetic to Will, but he slowly suspects his new home and family life are not what they appear to be…

Much acclaimed director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, The Field) ends up hampered by the multiple personality script and PG-13 rating enforced by the studio here. The location and accents are never explained, nor is whether the narrative is all just part of the ‘novel being written by the main character’ cliché. Dream House isn’t meant to be a full on scary horror movie, but it drops the ball on the mystery and suspense thriller vibes. Everything looks either too daytime normal with an unrealistically idyllic, no money worries happy family or evening can’t see dark and confusing everything thrown at the fan attempt. There’s not a lot of atmosphere to build suspense, and nothing happens for the first twenty minutes. This slow start is costly time in a 90-minute movie, and a too early twist halfway thru Dream House changes the entire purpose of the picture completely. The surprise is nothing shocking; Dream House is a lot like Shutter Island. You can see the snafu coming almost from the cold opening, and the viewers are left with nothing to care about except the famous players. I came into the film unaware of its history, but it’s no surprise that the stars disowned the end result and all subsequent promotions. From just a ho-hum picture about a family in a hew house to a crime history and a man on the case, the hints to something deeper and what could have been are there. Unfortunately, there’s not enough depth to make any of it worthwhile.

dream_house_poster

Current James Bond Daniel Craig and beautiful Oscar winner Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) make a lovely couple onscreen and off, but Dream House doesn’t lend their chemistry much to do. Both seem a little too soft spoken, even mumbly or shy, and the confusing plot doesn’t help clarify their intentions. Thankfully, they do match each other wonderfully- unlike most thriller movies today with couples too young to be believable or an old man with a hottie wife. Craig and Weisz are the right age and maturity, and their caring of young co- stars Claire and Taylor Geare feels genuine. They aren’t bad; I doubt any such skilled thespians could be so. However, the players just have so little to do in Dream House. You can see Craig’s effort at a conflicted father with layers and feeling for his family, but the mishmashed editing and presentation on Will’s state of mind confuses the onesided Libby further. Audiences are once again left wanting more of Craig while wondering how someone like Weisz would stoop to the do nothing perfect artist mom in a run of the mill pseudo haunted house show. Sigh. With all the focus on Craigweisz, Best Actress nominee Naomi Watts (21 Grams, The Ring) is somewhat unexpectedly decent as the pretty and mysterious neighbor who knows the history of what’s gone down- supposedly. Of course, she’s not given much else, and Marton Csokas (Lord of the Rings) is equally strapped as her jerky ex-husband Jack. Any well-versed mystery thriller viewer will see his lame part in Dream House coming a mile away.

Fans of the cast or the Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz real life romance can have a good time with this film, and folks looking for something bad to watch for a drinking game or late night party can find something silly to enjoy. Unfortunately, there’s precious little here to appreciate otherwise. The players didn’t drop the ball, but somewhere along the line, someone really did a number to this Dream House.

Kbatz: Watery Vacation Frights

Frightening Flix

 

Watery Vacation Frights

by Kristin Battestella

 

These folks should have kept their toes away from these coastal horrors and icy vacations!

 

Bay CovePamela Sue Martin (Dynasty) Tim Matheson (The West Wing), Woody Harrelson (Cheers), Jeff Conway (Grease), Barbara Billingsly (Leave it to Beaver), and more familiar retro faces star in this 1987 television movie going by several titles. Full moons, chanting, cemeteries, churches, candles, confessions, and lightning immediately invoke an evil, medieval mood contrasting the eighties women’s business suits, shoulder pads, and complaining yuppies. All the denim, mod decor, jazz, and black satin slips go for a dated, trying to sexy mood, but that’s quickly left behind after our couple hears about a chance to invest their construction business in a nearby island fixer upper – moving from the big city and starting a family unfortunately blinds them from that suspicious bargain price! Eighteenth century history, hidden rosaries, creepy old books, dogs versus cats, and a locked basement accent the increasing strange old landlady, odd neighbors, generational residents, and mysterious figures in the window. Despite pretty greens, beach-side birds chirping, and smooth ferries; all black clothes, spooky quilts, torches, and an escalating colonial tone build to tales of burning at the stake and an abandoned puritan past. Fishy headstone dates, pentagrams under the general store, and missing pets divide husband and wife alongside work and home conflicts, mistrustful realtors, and explosive jeep accidents that look quite good even with a then television low budget. Phantom ye olde dressed kids, melodramatic slow motions screams, and up close soft focusing are however, a bit much, and the credits rush over a somewhat corny finale. While the gaslighting, sacrifices, and midnight deadlines proceed as expected with twists that won’t surprise most horror viewers, the crazy dreams, stormy nights, and hooded robes remain entertaining thanks to the likable cast and ghastly atmosphere.

 

Neverlake The modern amid old stone buildings, winding rural roads, and crisp hint of snow quickly turn to morbid Shelly poems, floating bodies, and dead trees for a teen on a Tuscan visit to her doctor father in this 2012 Italian production. While creepy kid shocks, hitting over the head Peter Pan motifs, juvenile fantastics, and redundant narrations seem pedestrian; the family dynamics, would be step mother, suspicious research, and locked doors accent the Etruscan studies, fragile statues, and ancient artifacts. Whispers on the lost healing powers of the Lake of Idols and exploring alone in the woods become foreboding thanks to sickly green water and nighttime warnings – not to mention the severe looking nearby hospitals, escalating injuries, and sudden operations. Although eerie dreams may be an excuse for visual horrors or shock music and “Ominous Ambiance” closed captions are bemusing, subtle ghostly sounds, natural winds, and watery phantoms work alongside talk of life giving rituals and fine Arezzo locations. Freaky dolls, minimal technology, cemetery visits, and ticking clock experiments add to the rogue archaeology, stolen relics, hidden rooms, serious reveals, and family twists. At times, however, the plot stalls, skipping over explanations and more interesting Etruscan ties while going overboard on other parallels – voiceovers feel tacked on as do the obviously sinister mechanics, obligatory child horrors, and mystical attempts. The need to return the effigies, household frights, and medical surprises are intriguing enough without the misleading video cover and slasher label. While easy to solve for wise horror viewers, this pace feels meant for a younger audience and doesn’t resort to overly trite Hollywood techniques. Though flawed, this directorial debut isn’t bad and can be a nice little spooky ghost story for teen viewers looking for a unique scare.

 

220px-the_prowler

 

The Prowler Cape May filming locations accent this 1981 slasher alongside classic star Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train), black and white World War II newsreels, big band music, and swanky cars. Unfortunately, Dear John letters turn Avalon Bay’s 1945 graduation dance into unexpected horror thanks to the titular mask wearing killer, battlefield get ups, pitchforks, and plenty of blood. While the 1980 switch brings a new dance with short shorts, bad flirting deputies, and feathered hair, the murderer is back on the loose attacking the disposable babes – good girl, slut, wallflower, frienemy. Despite dainty, braless frills and steamy shower boobs, some scenes here are laughable with a dated and not exactly stellar cast. The music isn’t bad, but the dancing is pathetic, plot holes and disappearing characters come and go, the deputy just looks around rather than radioing for help, and a few stupid people don’t know they are in a horror movie. Fortunately, the killer personality is unique, and interesting camera perspectives or the generally unseen beyond the retro get up filming accent very good effects from gore master Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead) such as through the skull knives and poolside assaults with nasty yet realistic splatter. There are some false jump moments, but the tension raises and lowers organically without the need for amped up boos or crescendos. A creepy old man in a wheelchair, dark Victorian homes, cramped rooms, and covered furniture add to the chases, clues, desecrated graves, and fireplace shocks. The suspenseful stalking and shadowed silhouettes invoke more menace as the viewers guess who’s next. Though perhaps obvious at times with a slightly limp ending, unexpected turns and gunshot toppers compliment the early slasher staples at work – wise audiences can see the influence on Scream and other spoofs. Lone settings and individual isolation do better than large scale terrors here, making for some entertaining, shout at the television viewing. He has a pitchfork, honey, a chain on the door isn’t going to help! 

 

Don’t Go There!

 

Frozen – Not that one! Before there was Frozen, there was this 2010 ski resort escapade – which my husband said I probably wouldn’t like. Indeed there’s a lot going against this with obnoxious music, jerky attitudes, ski lift scams, a boyfriend proud to make his girl flirt to their advantage, and his jealous third wheel BFF. Playing in the snow, can’t ski montages, and kiddie mountain safety contribute to the trio’s awkwardness and lame arguing over skis or snowboards and cigarettes versus pot. The terrible slice of life dialogue and hollow conversation on the worst ways to die includes favorite cereals, Jaws, and Star Wars, because of course. Naturally, nobody goes skiing with their expensive phones, and nightfall and weather warnings are ignored so these yuppies can sneak passed quitting operators for one more huzzah. The mechanical creepy and equipment problems are ominous enough thanks to beautiful mountain snowscapes, bleak aerial photography, and up close overhead shots of dangerous gears, blades, and wires. Goggles, hats, and hoods invoke the brisk practical designs and chilly Utah locales while the lights out, howling winds, sleet, and thundersnow spell peril. Unfortunately, immature finger pointing and a going through the motions tone hamper the intriguing premise of being stuck on a ski lift for a week. Decoy snow truck rescues come too soon amid OMG boys admitting they are scared and people peeing themselves. The idea of jumping down is interesting, and frostbite, frozen appendages, critical gloves, and dropped gear are eventually addressed. However, the irony of breaking off an icicle to drink is never mentioned, nobody’s butt ever gets numb, and the danger is not as intense as it should be due to increasingly unrealistic turns. Though quality, painful screams and injury gore can’t overcome improbable wolf suspense and the stupidity of jumping legs first into an iced nighttime snowbank. You can’t use a snowboard to set a broken leg? Why didn’t they initially use their gear to zipline back down the lift instead of waiting to go by hand after its frozen? A big deal is made of smoking and matches to start but no one considers starting a signal fire? Can they still sue if they bribed the operator and were never really supposed to be there in the first place? Several intense moments can’t save this not very well thought out script – another pair of eyes to point out the unbelievable errors or a stronger cast could have made the chill zing. I would rather have had the bleak silence and the realism of not seeing the actors’ faces if it meant they actually zipped their hoods up all the way. Ultimately, the audience is given no reason to care and what should be a thrilling horror drama is more like a parable on how not to be a hipster skiing ass.

Kbatz: Lady Horrors!

Frightening Flix

 

Lady Horrors!

By Kristin Battestella

 

Because new, retro, foreign, zombies or witches – we all need some more ladies in our horror!

 

The House of the Devil – Creepy menus, cult statistics, and retro credits start this 2009 blu-ray featuring Jocelin Donahue (The Burrowers), Dee Wallace (The Howling), and Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000). Payphones, eighties rhythms, and old fashioned style add period flair alongside onscreen smoking, maps, feathered hair, and a big old cabinet television showing Night of the Living Dead. Even the giant Walkman and slightly corny music montage and dance about the house has a purpose in the narrative. Church bells, cemeteries, and an imminent eclipse lay the scary foundation, and rather than an opening scare fake-out, writer/director/editor Ti West (The Innkeepers) uses zooms and movement within the camera frame to create viewer intimacy, closing in from the chilly exterior and ominous windows as the suspicious phone calls lead to desperate babysitting jobs, desolate night drives, and a maze-like Victorian manor. Yes, our Samantha is at times very dumb and unaware she is in a horror movies thanks to plot holes a collaborator not wearing so many behind the scenes hats could have clarified. Mistakes and convenient contrivances in the somewhat tacked on final act also break the solitary point of view for the audience’s benefit. However, that finale free for all with ritual candles, hooded robes, and a sudden twist ending is in the seventies splatter spirit, and the simmering, silent build happens naturally over the film. Instead of hollow thrills a minute, the viewer is allowed time to suspect the scary attic, theorize on suspicious photos, and listen for every noise – we know something is supposed to happen but not when. Though this kind of approach may seem boring to some, this innate alone trickle let’s us appreciate the dark basement and the inopportune power outage for when the titular frights do happen. It’s nice to have something different from the mainstream horror trite, too – not to mention an $8 pizza! 

 

Hush – Writer and director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Absentia) and his wife, co-writer, and star Kate Siegel place our deaf-mute author in a pleasant forest cabin for some writing, relaxation, and terror in this 2016 eighty minute Netflix original. Comfort cooking noise fades and unheard laptop tones switch to wild kitchen alarms – immediately establishing the common sounds taken for granted alongside subtitled Sign Language, feeling vibrations for sound, and hearing an author voice in your head brainstorms. Friends speak while they sign, breaking up the quiet for the viewer, and we must pay attention to writing onscreen such as book jackets and manuscript text. Understandably, phone technology and Facetime calls are important, but an over-reliance on gadgets in horror can be tiring and soon dated with wi-fi switches, lost connections, and cut power. Fortunately, the intimate home makes the audience accustomed to the hearing challenges before adding the muffled silence, unseen scares, unheard screams, and instant cyberstalking. Through windows or foreground focus and background action, we have the full perspective when the protagonist doesn’t. It is however a mistake to reveal the crossbow and Bowie knife wielding stalker so completely. We don’t need to know the sociopath motivation nor should the viewer feel for the killer or care if he has any personality, and removing his mask just creates limp assholery. The frightening unknown with footstep vibrations, hands at the window, and approaching shadows creates a better siege, and the mystery of who and why is lost in the contrived lulls and stupid mistakes while Maddie waits around for his taunts instead of fighting back. Why not set something on fire, smoke signal authorities? Having her inner monologue address the situation and the pros or cons in each course of action is also better than breaking Maddie’s point of view and using fake out possibilities. Although it’s a pity millennial viewers wouldn’t watch something that was all silent, the long periods with no dialogue, sound effects, and score crescendos do just fine in accenting these unique dynamics. While not perfect, this tale has enough thriller tense and innate woman alone in peril – and thus proves exactly why I must know where all the windows, entrances, and exits are in a given location and never sit with my back to any of them!

Hush_2016_poster

 

Maggie Sad voicemails, outbreak news reports, desolate cities, quarantines, and martial law immediately set the bleak outlook for infected daughter Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) and her gray bearded father Arnold Schwarzenegger in this 2015 zombie drama. Wait – Arnold? In a drama movie? About zombies? No choppers?! Nope, this is not an action horror movie, and gruesome gurneys, gangrene encounters, and blackened decay are not played for scares. Here the body horrors and social breakdowns go hand in hand – science can’t put a dent into the virus fast enough, and loved ones must wait as the vein discolorations and white out eyes spread toward heightened smells and cannibalistic tendencies. Minimal technology, chopping wood, rustic generators, cassettes, and older horseshoe phones accent the isolated farmhouse as insect buzzing, infected neighbors, and animal dangers mount. Younger siblings are sent away, and step-mom Joely Richardson (Nip/tuck) struggles with her faith, strength of conviction, and the promises they’ve made despite the deadly risks. How does a teenager keep it together when she has nothing better to do but sit around and die? Do you call friends for a last hurrah? This flawed father won’t send his daughter to die in quarantine with strangers, but he can’t give the painful lethal injection at home or make it a quick end, either. Creepy doctor visits amplify the stigmas and paranoia regarding these in between infected, and nice teen moments soon give way to growls and necroambulist changes. Where is the line between siege removal authorities and family compassion? Someone has to take control and there’s no time for sympathy – just the inevitable breakdown of families desperate to stay together. Governator Arnold produced the film sans salary, and the off-type surprise provides heart wrenching results and must see performances. Granted, most audiences probably expected zombie action thrills a minute and there are unnecessary artistic shots, long pauses, and plodding direction at times. However, this is a strong story with hefty goodbye conversations, and it is surprising such realistically upsetting and horrible circumstances rather than horror went unnoticed. Without mainstream box office demands, indie releases are free to tell their story as it needs to be told, and this tearjerker delivers a great spin on the flooded and increasing derivative zombie genre. 

 

Picnic at Hanging RockThe Criterion blu-ray has almost two hours more features discussing this 1975 Australian spooky drama based on the Joan Lindsay novel about schoolgirls gone missing in 1900. The innocent white lace and valentine wishes are soon to be ill foreboding thanks to eerie music and budding whispers. These girls tighten each others corsets in parallel shots with mirrors, BFF poetry, latent suggestions, and repression abound. The seventies breezy fits the late Victoria ruffles, hats, and parasols – gloves are permitted to be removed for this excursion! Capable Aussie help and buttoned up British elite mark a strong class divide, and pretty mountain vistas, wild vegetation, and rocky mazes contrast the lovely yet out of place English manor. Straightforward, controlled camerawork captures the society at home, but surreal, swooning outdoor panoramas invoke Bermuda Triangle suggestions alongside dreamy voiceovers, rolling cloud rumbles, and red symbolism. Insects, reptiles, swans, disturbed bird migrations, fickle horses, watches stopping at noon – the metaphysical or transcendental signs imply something beyond mere coming of age and sexual awakening. Trance like magnetic lures radiating from the titular nooks and crannies stir these Gibson Girl naps, and askew slow motion reflects this layered beauty meets danger. The enchanting blonde, the nerdy girl with glasses, an awkward brunette, and the complaining chubby girl – standard horror stereotypes today – all talk as if they are up to something naughty with self-aware doomed to die chats before scandalously removing their shoes and stockings. A flirty French teacher, the severe math teacher in red reciting lava flow build up and volcano rising statistics with an uncomfortable kinky – we don’t see what happens. However, hearing the screams and watching the resulting hysterics make it creepier. Incomplete searches, Victorian speculation, and unreliable witnesses muddle the investigation, but most importantly, doctors assure the survivors are still chaste. Such delicate interrogations and polite society leave newspapers and angry townsfolk wondering while the school faces its own fallout with withdrawals, unpaid terms, drinking, and guilt. Yes, there’s some artistic license with absent families, poor forensics, and missing evidence ignored. Surprising connections, however, and good twists in the final forty minutes keep this damn disturbing – and it’s all done without gore or effects. The innate power of suggestion, period restraints, and our own social expectations drum up all kinds of unknown possibilities, and I don’t know how anyone doesn’t consider this a horror movie.

 

the-witch-2015

The Witch – We don’t get many Puritan period pieces anymore much less ninety minutes plus of simmering 17th century horror as seen in this 2015 festival darling. Big hats, white collars, thee versus thou court room arguments, and family banishments immediately establish the ye olde alongside natural lighting and authentic thatch buildings for a rural, simplistic ambiance. Unfortunately, such exile to these empty, harsh, unyielding lands turns devotions to desperation with gray crops, bloody eggs, abductions, and babies in peril raising tensions in the humble hovel. Spooky forests, fireside red lighting, blood, nudity, ravens, and primal rituals suggest a dark underbelly only partially seen with hazy splices, shadows, and moonlight. The screen is occasionally all black and certain scenes are very tough to see, but such visual bewitching adds to the folktale surreal. Personal, intimate prayers are addressed directly to the camera, and we feel for Anya Taylor-Joy (Atlantis) as Thomasin when she apologizes for her sin of playing on the Sabbath. The scripture heavy dialogue and religious names are fittingly period yet remain understandable as coming of age children question how an innocent baby can be guilty of sin. Both parents’ faces are shadowed with hats, dirt, and impurity, yet snapping mom Kate Dickie (Red Road) gives Thomasin all the difficult work. Increasing dog problems, ram troubles, and creepy rabbits contribute to the toughness – the young twins chant oldeth nursery songs to the goats and claim there is a witch at work, but dad Ralph Ineson (Game of Thrones) isn’t totally forthcoming with his grief, hopeless trading, and family pressures. The isolated, starving couple argues, debating on sending the children away as the strain, zealousness, and fears mount. Ominous lantern light, alluring witchcraft, and almost ritualistic in itself bloodlettings stir the finger pointing hysterics while great performances hit home the wild bed fits and exorcism-esque prayers. Somebody has to be blamed. Where do you get help when evil would take advantage of such hypocrisy and social failings? It’s easy to imagine the fantastic or confuse apparitions of the dead as angels when the devil answers your pleas instead of Grace. Maybe one has to be familiar with Puritan history or Biblical texts to fully appreciate the struggles and references here. However, contemporary audiences should realize that there’s more to the horror film genre than today’s rinse repeat wham bam boo gore. Although a brighter picture would have been nice, the genuine designs here are much more pleasing than any digital overkill. Doubt, what you don’t see, and the power of suggestion escalate the horrors with maniacal laughter, screams, and one scary voice leading to a deliriously delicious finale. Why aren’t these niche indies that do film making right really the mainstream cinema?

 

Don’t forget you can read more of our Feminine Horror recommendations in the Horror Addicts Guide to Life!

Kbatz: Phantom of the Opera (1989)

Frightening Flix

 

 

Freddy’s Phantom of the Opera a Mixed Bag

By Kristin Battestella

 

 

The 1989 version of The Phantom of the Opera adds a whole lot of gory to update the oft-adapted novel. Unfortunately, the convoluted changes to the source sully what could be a fine macabre rendition, leaving more crossed signals than scares.

New York singer Christine Day (Jill Schoelen) finds herself upon the stage of a past London opera house after discovering a lost Don Juan Triumphant manuscript by alleged murderer and composer Erik Destler (Robert Englund). Erik has paid a disfiguring Faustian price to have his music heard – the devil has scarred his face and now the Opera Ghost must use the flesh of his victims to mask his horrendous wounds. When he hears Christine sing, however, The Phantom seeks to dispose of diva La Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence) and replace her with his muse. Will Christine come to love her musical benefactor or discover his murderous hobbies?

 

Director Dwight H. Little (Rapid Fire) starts this Leroux adaptation from writers Gerry O’Hara (Ten Little Indians) and Duke Sandefur (Dark Justice) with a satanic warning, ominous music, a creepy bookshop, bloody manuscripts, and then contemporary New York opera auditions before a Victorian London transition. Unfortunately, the framing added to The Phantom of the Opera is more than confusing. Is it reincarnation, time travel, or immortality? Are we watching a flashback induced by some demonic spell when Erik’s music is played? Memories from The Phantom’s point of view recalling his devilish pact further muddle this twist. Though Faust elements from the novel and scenes or characters not often included in onscreen adaptations are represented, purists will wonder why these frustrating bookends and superfluous changes were shoehorned in here. Thankfully, the murderous opera mishaps and quick pace move for the 93-minute duration – the tale remains familiar enough and there’s no time to fully question the additions or the unnecessary endings that just keep on going forever. Evil elements, plenty of brutality, and some supernatural hocus-pocus make for a decidedly horror mood. We’ve know doubt that this angle will be sinister, not romantic, and many Phantom fans will enjoy the outright villainous tone even if the execution of the inserted spooky is laden with plot holes and flaws. Ironically, despite its gory strides and fiendish aspects, The Phantom of the Opera is clearly trying to ride the coattails of the musical productions and includes a disclaimer declaring that this version is unaffiliated with Webber and company. Go figure.

Fortunately, the gruesome Phantom skin and make up designs for star Robert Englund work devilishly good. He stitches up his icky face, harvests fresh flesh from his victims, and remains strong and skilled with weapons as he slices and dices. For all its misguided vision, this Phantom of the Opera is not afraid to bloody it up and out rightly mention sexual context – be it accusing peeping tom stagehands, some nighttime prostitution, or would-be rapacious action. Erik has his needs! Through his Faust pact and filleting folks, The Phantom maneuvers diva Carlotta’s exit early before going out to the local pub or spa for some more kills. His interest in Christine, however, feels secondary, lame, and tacked on to the demonic upkeep as if elevating the full on, killer creeper is meant to make us forget the obsessive love plot. Compared to what usually is the source of Erik’s motivation, this Opera Ghost doesn’t have much reason to hang around the house when he could be getting his lust and hellish tendencies elsewhere. Broadway shade, crammed in horror – the lengthy skin peel reveals help The Phantom of the Opera doubly cash in on Englund’s Nightmare on Elm Street heights as well as the musicals. This Erik is obviously not a sympathetic soul, but he’s not a multi dimensional villain either. He’s The Phantom and he’s bad this time around, oooo. The would-be menacing spectacle doesn’t do Englund justice or give him the layers and depths he is more than capable of delivering.

41dr1kQk-HL._SX200_QL80_

Poor Billy Nighy (Underworld) is also totally wasted in The Phantom of the Opera as an angry, would-be manipulative but largely ineffective opera owner. He doesn’t have much to do except bitch, and late stage star Stephanie Lawrence as Carlotta likewise feels blink and you miss her rather than any sort of antagonist. So-called inspectors and other nondescript secondary players are forgettable, as-needed plot devices or set dressings. Without much beyond the Raoul name change for Alex Hyde-White (Reed Richards in the infamous 1994 Fantastic Four film) as Christine’s barely there paramour Richard, it’s tough to follow his supposed heroics in the hectic underground finale much less root for his success. Sadly, all of these players could be excised – no name police could have been called to the opera house for the shoot ‘em up showdown and The Phantom of the Opera would have been no different. Critical in the role as Christine Day, Jill Schoelen (There Goes My Baby) also misses the mark if you are looking for a strong period piece blossom. While she makes a capable eighties scream queen, Schoelen is a fish out of water at the opera. Christine should do more than go round and round with Erik in one slow motion battle after another, right? But say hey, its SNL alum Molly Shannon!

There is a new blu-ray edition of The Phantom of the Opera, which is nice since the bare bones DVD has subtitles but tough to see alleyways and dark fight scenes. Again, the head rolling gore is well done, but some of the violence also feels unnecessary compared to the atmospheric blue lighting, red reflections, and flaming effects. Askew angles, the tilted hat, and shadowed, one eye close ups of The Phantom also up the brooding. There is little of the actual stage spectacle here, but the Victorian interiors and layers of Old World feel intimate. As horror, this production design is more than serviceable even if it’s not all it could have been. The subdued palette, generic costumes, and low budget mistakes, however, won’t be as grandiose as some Phantom of the Opera fans may expect – Erik’s lair looks like a standard, commonplace cave set with some candles. Perhaps that’s realistic to what the underground living would be, but there isn’t enough to it for a film. Fortunately, the scoring provides the right gothic mood and melody. Sure, it’s not quite sweeping and will seem knock off inferior to the more famous Phantom musics, but it is the one part of this conflicted Phantom of the Opera that does what it is supposed to do. And oh my, shout out for the floppy discs and giant computer monitors!

 

The Phantom of the Opera suffers from its identity crisis as a horror film and a book adaptation just as it much as it proves a scary update of Leroux is possible. Had it abandoned the contemporary twists and devilish ties and simply played it straight while upping the sinister and gore, The Phantom of the Opera might have stood out from the crowd as more than a cliché Freddy or Webber cash in like those try hard, faux rip offs we get today. At times, this rendition feels like a bad edit, the audience test viewing that’s missing all its final bells and whistles. Are we still awaiting the real director’s cut with all the polish, clarification, and panache? The Phantom of the Opera is not the definitive adaptation of the novel, and ultimately, nor is it the best macabre rendition – I’m not sure anyone will ever surpass the Silent version in that regard. Mixed bag though it is, if spooky audiences, Phantom students, and Englund fans accept this late night tale for what it is, The Phantom of the Opera can be a fun, serviceable, gruesome good time – complete with the heads of divas in the punch bowl.

Kbatz: Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe

Frightening Flix

Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe Surprisingly Good

Several months ago, I saw an interview with Cassandra Peterson-aka Elvira-discussing Tomb of Ligeia, one of her favorites in the American Pictures International’s Poe series by director Roger Corman. Unfortunately, for the life of me I couldn’t recall having seen this final adaptation starring Vincent Price. When the 1969 film came on out on a double billed DVD with An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, I gave the set my full attention. Perhaps it’s not a total shocker since I like the rest of Corman’s Poe series, but Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe are surprisingly good.

Verden Fell (Price) vows that his late wife Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd) will defy death. He becomes reclusive and keeps away from sunlight with his dark colored glasses-until the beautiful Rowena (also Shepherd) erroneously comes to his ruined abbey. The couple falls in love, despite Rowena’s previous attachment to Verden’s friend Christopher (John Westbrook). They marry, but Rowena is ill at ease in Ligeia’s former home. Ligeia’s Egyptian antiques are everywhere; her spirit seems to linger over Verden during the night, and there’s a nasty black cat about that makes her displeasure known.

Director Roger Corman (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum) takes a few departures from his earlier Poe films by brightening up Tomb of Ligeia with natural locations and a little more romance than usual. Adapted by Robert Towne (Shampoo, Chinatown, Tequila Sunrise) from Poe’s short story, the analysis of mind and will power over death itself weaves the film together with ancient Egyptian allusions and plenty of ambiguity towards black cats. Each plot resolves satisfactory, but Poe’s twists and Corman’s interpretations leave the viewing thinking longer than prior pure shock conclusions.

Even though this is the last of the Poe pictures, Vincent Price looks younger here. His Verden is a little more sympathetic than his earlier, often evil roles. Not only is Price not as over the top as we love, but he’s actually sad sometimes, even pathetic with his dependence on his little glasses. But of course, Tomb of Ligeia does have the bizarrity we’d expect, including some ambiguity about necrophilia. Ew! Thankfully, Price looks good with Elizabeth Shepherd (Bleak House, Side Effects, Damien: Omen II). Any age difference doesn’t seem to factor in; they match well, and have nice, genuine chemistry. The more romantic tone between Verden and Rowena isn’t so tough to believe amid the scares. Nice as it is to have the sweet emotion amid the creeps; Shepherd is freaky in the duel bits as Ligeia. It’s obvious it is she, of course, but the showdown with Ligeia and the dream sequence with the ladies are well done. John Westbrook’s (The First Churchills) Christopher is in the odd middleman position in this love triangle, but his outside, sane perspective helps the audience balance out some of the horrors.

51SV1V838HL

While not as stylized as its Poe predecessor The Masque of the Red Death, Tomb of Ligeia has some beautiful natural locals and production. There’s a hefty amount of daylight scenes here-and they all work in the spooky, gothic, Early Victorian setting. There are some great ruined abbeys, the English countryside, and even a romantic stroll through Stonehenge. You might think these pieces don’t go together, but the morbid set interiors match the abbey in gothic look and spooky tone. The Victorian costumes are also early in style, alluding to a bit of the Bronte Sisters, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre. And of course, there’s a very disturbing classic Corman dream sequence that scares better than some of the stranger, more bizarre visual dream trickery previously done.

Side B of our set offers more Vincent Price in a one-man show called An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe. Price showcases four tales from Poe in various stage settings, beginning with “The Tell Tale Heart.” I imagine you’re familiar with the tale, and Price is delightfully over the top here. His crazed style suits the story. The production here looks a little low and bare, but theatre fans can certainly enjoy this spirited Poe dramatization. “The Sphinx” is actually a Poe story that’s new to me. Price changes his looks and time period for each tale, strengthening his suave approach to the audience. He is clearly enjoying the punch line here, and this tale is better dressed than “The Tell Tale Heart.” Some might think a one-man production is stale and boring, but swift camera movement keeps things fresh. Not the crazy angles and dizzying modern zooms, but there’s just enough cuts and close ups to create the illusions needed.

So, that’s how “The Cask of Amontillado” is pronounced! I was never quite sure. The older Price is made up even older here for this unusual interpretation. You’d expect to see this one played out, not in effect told as perhaps “The Tell-Tale Heart” can only be. Price, however, does the voices of both men involved, playing on the amusement of the story and the unreliable status of the narrator. The camera again moves with him, cutting from several sides and using duel tricks almost like Gollum and Smeagol in The Two Towers. It’s a simple maneuver, but it works with the very handsomely dressed dining room stage.

It’s strange that director Kenneth Johnson (V, Alien Nation) would do “The Pit and the Pendulum” here in 1972 when Roger Corman did the feature length film ten years earlier. Nevertheless, Price looks the old and crazy part. Each tale has progressed his age, the time period, and the story’s deceit. This short here is more abstract and dream like than Corman’s back story filled movie. The fire and brimstone effects in this Pit go for more frights rather than a Twilight Zone twist ending. You would think Vincent Price effectively reading books line for line onscreen would be boring, but no. The stories dramatized in these readings are all told in the past tense with Poe’s great unreliable narrator telling his askew interpretation to the audience. Even though it may look old or too theatre to modern audiences, An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe is perfect for Vincent Price fans, film students, or literature teachers looking for a short and sweet visual accompaniment for the classroom.

The DVD set of Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe is relatively simplistic, with only a commentary of Roger Corman and Elizabeth Shepherd. It’s a little slow in pacing, but fun and informative for the die-hard fan. The subtitles for Ligeia are great, too. Fans of the previous Poe pictures or sixties horror films can enjoy Tomb of Ligeia, but period piece and gothic fans should tune in, too. However, hardcore viewers looking for a blood fest and straight horror should skip these stylized tales. Likewise, I also don’t know about cat lovers enjoying Tomb of Ligeia. Feline folks will delight in the pesky cat scenarios, but cat enthusiasts won’t like some of the black cat bashing, either. Ah, it’s the beauty of Poe, something for everyone!

Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

PPZFor strange people like me who are both Horror addicts and Regency fans, the movie Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the perfect mix of gore, tradition, and humor.

To benefit those of you who have been under a rock, I will explain. This movie is based on the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies book series written first by Seth Grahame-Smith and improved upon by Steve Hockensmith. In its most basic description, it takes the original Jane Austen tale and ultimately inserts zombies, but it’s so much more than that. The lore behind the Bennett sisters and the rest of their relations has been “punked” zombie-style. Instead of the Bennett sisters being looked down upon because of money or poor relations, they are chastised by one set for being trained in martial arts in the Chinese style (vs. Mr. Darcy and the Japanese tradition) and by another set, they are chastised for being trained at all. Mr. Bennett has made sure his girls know how to defend themselves and others from the undead zombie horde. Mr. Darcy and his Aunt Catherine are also warriors, but trained in the more “upper class” Japanese style. No one much pays attention to the girls until zombies spring up in their neighborhood and then everyone hides under the table while the Bennett sister effectively take care of business.

Those of you who have not seen the film, might want to stop here. Spoilers ahead!

ppz4

Mr. Darcy is not the tall, commanding gentleman we’ve grown to love, but he is a warrior and has an understated sort of command. Lizzy and Jane are expertly played by two young women that I adored. Wickham is all he should be: charming, underhanded, evil…even if he looks more like Capt. Wentworth from Persuasion than P&P’s bad man. Out of all the actors, though, Lizzy (Lily James) is the star.

Written and directed by Burr Steers, I say bravo! He brought everything I wanted in this movie and none of what I didn’t. His humor and sincerity combined in a movie I will be owning as soon as it’s released. Instead of the mimicky spoof that the first book emanated, he seemed to take more of the whit and sincerity that the prequel (Dawn of the Dreadfuls) and sequel (Dreadfully Ever After) captured. The message in this film is one women can get behind and if your daughters are old enough to handle the gore, they should see it. It proves women are just as tough and can take care of themselves in battle, even in Regency gowns and stockings.

The fun-est scene is when Darcy and Lizzy have a disagreement and they use martial arts to settle it. At one point, Lizzy crisscrossed her feet around Darcy’s neck. Scary, but so sensual as Darcy looks down her long stockinged legs to the knife latched on her thigh. These girls are sexy anyway you look at it and they fill me with pride when they launch into battle. Go Lizzy! Go Jane! Lydia, Katie, Mary…battle those zombies like we know you can!

ppz2

This movie is not without faults. There are holes and a few instances of “skips” in action, such as when Darcy and Wickham are back to back, surrounded by a zombie horde and when we rejoin them they are suddenly alone, battling each other, no zombies in sight. But these holes are easily overlooked for the entertainment value it brings. For hard-core Janites, there are a few “YES!” moments that we have always wanted played out. What if Lizzy could beat up Darcy during the proposal? What if Darcy finally got to kick Wickham’s butt? What if Lizzy could prove to Lady Catherine she is worthy of Darcy after all?

One thing I felt kind of annoyed with was the “heaving bosoms” of Lizzy. Almost every single shot has her breathing hard, her breasts bouncing up and down in an over-amplified manner. If you can stop noticing it, you’re better than I, but I guess the guys had to have some incentive to watch. And taking my hubby along, I have to say he did enjoy it almost as much as I did. There are enough epic battle scenes and zombie confrontations to keep him occupied.

Although I loved this movie from beginning to end, the gore might be a little much for some of you not used to it. If, however, you are an avid watcher of The Walking Dead, Z Nation, or the movies of our most beloved George Romero, this will be tame gore for you. For the horror addicts, this has a few truly terrifying moments such as when Jane encounters a zombie woman in the woods clutching an undead baby to her breast. The undead are done pretty well for you, too. No Halloween store makeup here.

ppz3

There is definitely room left for a sequel, but if following the book series, a lot from the sequel and prequel will have to be filled in to complete the story. I’d love to see both the prequel and sequel filmed, but because this is such a niche market, I don’t think that dream will be realized.

I love this film and this is the first time I will have ever said this—the movie was better than the book! For you Janites who aren’t sure about the gore, give it a chance! Or just wait for someone to cut it into pieces on YouTube so you can enjoy the precious story moments in between the scares.