FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Poe Excursions!

 

An Excursion in Poe

by Kristin Battestella

 

A little bit of Edgar can be found in anywhere – if you know where to look.

 

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Oval PortraitStormy nights, carriages, red velvet, and antiques accent this loose 1972 adaptation alongside candles, staircases, ominous housekeepers, late relatives, and ghostly piano playing. The titular painting, apparitions, and haunted house atmosphere come early with eerie music, lovelorn letters, and fainting ladies. However the inaccurate Civil War costumes, shabby uniforms, off kilter voices, and dark print make it difficult to tell who’s Union or Confederate. The echoing overlays, visions of past couples, and angry artist can’t overcome the lookalike characters, soap opera stylings, and rip off plots. Sure Poe’s tale is thin, but here the new wife shocks everyone by coming down the stairs in Rebecca’s clothes – and yes that’s the late subject’s name. More people keep arriving, but the ghostly possessions are put on hold for flashbacks with rally calls, cavalry, and a soldier on the lamb that look borrowed from another picture. If this scandal is where the story starts, why not begin there? Of course, there’s also confusion between this movie and another with the same cast called One Minute Before Death, and the bookends make it seem like the two movies are combined into one on top of weak scripting, fly by night production, and jumpy flash cuts between the back and forth that never lets the forbidden love build. The muddled dialogue and stalling gothic romance feel like part of the story is missing – compromising the illicit, funerals, and grave robbing before more hysterics, wills, and tacked on ghosts. Though watchable – bemusing even thanks to the overlong, nonsensical dancing with the corpse finale that’s probably followed by some good old fashioned necrophilia – this could have been a better, faithful adaptation of Poe’s story instead of some kind of two for the price of one messy that doesn’t go together.

 

The Fall of the House of UsherThere’s not a lot of information available on this elusive 1949 British adaptation of Poe’s famously flawed siblings. The opening here is weird, with Brit pimps in their boys club chatting up their Poe favorites. When the story moves into the tale itself, however, solid dialogue from the book, lovely period décor, and bizarre designs put on the right demented atmosphere. Piano interludes, candlelight, unique photography, and one very creepy crazy mama add to the fun. Yes, today’s audiences may feel the plot meanders a bit with seeming slow or quiet scenes. Fortunately, the fade-in editing, ticking clocks, and slow-burning wicks encapsulate the tomb-like mood. This actually does what an adaptation should do- I want to go read the source again! It’s a bit dry, but this one is worth the Poe study or classroom comparison for the scares and macabre it gets right.

The Raven He’s hamming it up and quoting death as his talisman – Bela Lugosi is creepy as ever behind his doctor’s mask and a suave god complex for this 1935 Poe based hour. The bearded, raspy, demented looking Boris Karloff (also of the unrelated 1963 mash-up of the same name with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre) is trying to reform his criminal ways, but Lugosi’s twisted doctoring wrenches that! This quick plot wastes no time thanks to car accidents, desperate medicine, titular quotes, mad love, and torture gear. Though not a full-on, proper adaptation of the famed poem, great shadows, interiors, organ music, furs, fedoras, and screams accent the obsessed with Poe layers and madcap style. A large ensemble can make it tough to tell who is who, and we don’t see much of the Poe-esque devices or their violence compared to the torture porn we expect today. However, the time here is steeped in an entertaining interwar gothic atmosphere – the wild contraptions are fun yet there are poignant moments and comeuppance amid the haunted house attraction mayhem. Edgar aficionados and fans of the cast will enjoy the uncanny charm here.

 

Spirits of the DeadI’m not really a Jane Fonda fan, but she looks superb in this colorful 1968 Italian anthology with designs from Edgar Allan Poe. Perfect locales, music, horses, castles, and foggy coasts set an ethereal, dreamy mood for the first tale here. The period costumes and sixties fusion might be a bit too Barbarella, and some will be put off by the spoken French and reading subtitles. Yet Fonda fans will enjoy the suggested kinky and ménage taunts- even if it’s her brother Peter (Easy Rider) sparking the obsessions. ‘Metzengerstein’ is more sauce than scares, but it might have made a nice fantasy movie by itself.  By contrast, ‘William Wilson’ adds Italian occupation and religious motifs for the second installment.  Iffy kid acting, look a likes, and flashbacks can be confusing to start and some of the butchery won’t be for everyone. However great fashions, sweet cadavers, autopsy educations, and historical brutalities are scary good- not to mention a dark-haired, poker playing Brigitte Bardot (And God Created Woman) to keep the questions on one’s conscious and duality from getting too dry. Terrence Stamp (Billy Budd) is a wonderful drunkard in the almost too trippy ‘Toby Dammit’ finale, but cool Roman amusement, bizarre locations, and weird play within a play production keep the plot from being too nonsensical. Though the final ten minutes get tough, the well-edited and intense driving scenes make for a fitting overall conclusion.  Not all will enjoy the near-psychedelic period and foreign sensibilities, but this is some twisted fun for fans of the players and all involved.

 

Tale of a Vampire – A delicious Julian Sands (Warlock, people, Warlock) leads this 1992 brooding character study brimming with “Annabel Lee” and Poe references to match the bleak back alleys, dark morgues, abandoned blue buildings, and dreary British mood. Despite the underlying urge to bite, predatory love, black cats, creepy vampire beds, and sucking on some bloody fingers, this isn’t a gorefest thanks to multilayered social awkwardness, melancholy, loss, and conflict. This lovelorn vampire spends his time in the rare books section of a sweet old library – you use that card catalog! The plot is unfortunately very slow, the isolated characters have no sounding board, and confusing flashbacks of lookalike women and lost bliss don’t explain much. The centuries ago golden patinas are well shot, however the uneven pacing and flawed constructs interfere with the storytelling. We should have seen the past to start, using that previous to accent the current torment and slightly unreal, demented fairy tale tone. Why is the audience more sad than creeped by this thirsty stalker? Fine performances carry the drama once the characters actually interact by quoting history and poets in insightful two-handers. “’Tis better to have loved and lost” and all that. Lighting and shadow schemes add to the mysterious rivals, for good love or ill pain possibilities, and strange seductions. Can it really be love if a vampire’s idea of romance is to consume the life of his lover? It’s oddly pleasing to see this kind of twisted vampire bite symbolism rather than teenage moon eyes, and this simmer builds to a fine finale with some interesting surprises. While not scary, the Gothic romanticism and Victorian waxing on forever and death not being the end of love provide a solid helping of morbid and memento mori.

 

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FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Bell, Book, and Candle

Bell Book and Candle is still Great, Witchy Fun

By Kristin Battestella

 

We may think all the young adult fantasy books, Potter-esque films, and shows like Charmed have cornered the magic market onscreen, but classics like 1958’s Bell Book and Candle have kept the kooky comedy and witchy situations innocent and fun all along.

Over Christmas, good natured New York witch Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak) grows a little tired of her witchy ways and Aunt Queenie’s (Elsa Lanchester) magical games. When Gil falls in love with publisher and upstairs neighbor Shep Henderson (James Stewart), she uses her cat Pyewacket to cast a spell. Shep must fall in love with Gil and thus not marry her former rival and college classmate Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule, 3 Women). While all the love blossoms, Gil’s warlock brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon) assists writer Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs) in his new book ‘Magic in Manhattan’. Will Shep’s publication of the book expose the Holroyds’ witchy ways and ruin Gil’s romance with Shep?

Based upon the play by John Van Druten (Gaslight, Cabaret), director Richard Quine (Sunny Side of the Street) and screenwriter Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity) craft a charming look at the power and hijinks of magic and love. We often allude to love being like a bewitching spell in lyrics and poetry. Even though a spell is cast in Bell Book and Candle, we’re never quite sure where the magic ends and the true love begins. The fanciful and fun take on possible love from socially at odds groups-humans and witches-is lighthearted and still enjoyable today. We can make all the modern and hefty allusions we want about mixed romances or stereotypes about practitioners of witchcraft, but it’s nice to just take in a sweet movie with none of those pretenses. There are a few lighting effects, camera tricks, and the proverbial smoke and mirrors, but more than anything Bell Book and Candle allows its players the time and space to show the magical fun.

Yes, Jimmy Stewart (Harvey, It’s A Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rear Window, Anatomy of a Murder, need I go on?) is a little too old to be a leading man here against Kim Novak, but he’s still delightful as the straight man publisher caught in the magical mix of spells and romance. We believe a charming witch could get Shep all flustered, confused, and tongue-tied due to Stewart’s loveable slip-ups. His mix of enchantment and clueless nonsense when confronted with the world of witchcraft must have been great fun then-as it still is now to the modern viewer. Stewart’s old, and perhaps his performance is a bit Capra-esque old fashioned, but it’s a fun turn nonetheless. As wonderfully fooled as Shep is, Jack Lemmon’s Nicky is wickedly slick. His magic is all in good fun, too, but he can’t resist the spotlight. Nicky’s ill-attempted exposé writing collaborations mix the crazy ambition with the sardonic blend of wit and drama contemporary audiences expect from the late star of Grumpy Old Men and The Odd Couple. In a way, there is a touch of passing the torch between the graying Stewart and energetic Lemmon. Both men handled the romance, seriousness, and comedy of their roles before and after Bell Book and Candle with a style and class not often found in today’s young acting crowd.

Though not as famous as her male counterparts, its fun to see Kim Novak paired with Jimmy Stewart again after Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense filled Vertigo the same year. Novak’s good witch longing for love does take some getting used to after her deceptive dame in Vertigo, but her husky voice and dynamite eyes adhere to the femme and witchy vibe we expect. Her costumes are hip, with mostly spooky black or eye-catching reds- but what’s with the high, almost white hair? There’s not many close ups of Novak for some reason, but the ones we’re given are breathtaking. Fun effects and cat motifs add to Gil’s already enchanting ways, too. We believe her when she says she has the power to get things done, yet we feel for her wishes for normalcy. Likewise, Elsa Lanchester’s (The Private Life of Henry VIII, Bride of Frankenstein, Witness for the Prosecution) Aunt Queenie is great fun as the elder, kooky and mischievous sprite helping with some good natured interference and match making. Comedy maven Ernie Kovacs (Our Man in Havana, North to Alaska) is also a delight as author Sidney Redlitch – an ‘expert’ of modern witches among us who fails to see the warlocks right under his nose.

Part of Bell Book and Candle’s charm is its fun fifties color and style: the cigarettes, quirky music, Oscar nominated high-end fashion and nonchalant, cute effects. The high life of mid century New York is a delightful time capsule, and the pillow talk approach to witchcraft is in a way modern but no less sweet. However, part of this charm also irrevocably dates the portrayal. It’s 1958- the innocence of the post war years would soon be lost. Some of the whirlwind two-week romance is a little too innocent with no innuendo before the quick marriage talk, and even the colorful styles and titled fedoras would be on the fashion outs in a few years’ time. It’s as if the onscreen attitudes and styles are a final fifties hurrah before the turmoil and realizations of the sixties.

Now I’m sorry to say that I don’t know anything about current Wiccan and religious practices; but naturally modern pagans and witches looking for some seriousness and accuracy won’t find it in Bell Book and Candle. While not deliberately offensive, the clean cut fifties stylings goes for the traditional broomstick stereotypes. It’s great if you like films with some witchy fun, but there’s no realistic portrayal here. Classic film fans, however, can also enjoy the similar I Married A Witch (1942) starring Veronica Lake- both films are often attributed as the inspiration for the beloved television series Bewitched. Modern romantic fans tired of the same inane plots over and over will be charmed, too. Youthful audiences who still enjoy enchanting tales like Bewitched or Hocus Pocus can take in Bell Book and Candle at Halloween, Christmas, or any time of year.

Live Action Reviews! by Crystal Connor: The Appearance

 

liveaction

Master Imaginationist and Instagram photographer Crystal Connor is the Chief Imagineer working for the Department of Sleep Prevention’s Nightmare Division. A Washington State native she loves anything to do with monsters, bad guys (as in evil-geniuses & super-villains.  Not ‘those’ kind her mother warned her about), rogue scientific experiments, jewelry, sky-high high-heeled shoes & unreasonably priced handbags.

When she’s not terrorizing her fans and racking up frequent flyers miles by gallivanting all over the country attending fan conventions and writer’s conferences she reviews indie horror and science fiction films for both her personal blog and HorrorAddicts.net

She is also considering changing her professional title to dramatization specialist because it so much more theatrical than being a mere drama queen.

http://wordsmithcrystalconnor.com

http://www.facebook.com/notesfromtheauthor

Download your free copy of …And They All Lived Happily Ever After! from Podiobooks.com and see why the name Crystal Connor has become “A Trusted Name in Terror!” 

http://podiobooks.com/title/and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horror Seeker: Is “IT” for better or worse?

Pennywise is possibly Stephen King’s most iconic character, having been brought to life first in the 1990 TV miniseries IT, played brilliantly by Tim Curry. So, it was no surprise to hear about the reboot that came out last year, and I have to say I was happy enough with it. I think my anticipation got the better of me then, as the amazement of the film has all but worn off, but it was enough of a spur for me to pick up a copy of the book and get it read before the next chapters is released which is scheduled for Sept. 6 of next year.

Now, I could go on about the exhausted complaints about the 2017 film, or give you a nostalgic love letter as to why the original is better- it really is-, but I’d rather talk about the potential that Chapter 2 could have in store for us.

First off, no story is worth anything without its characters, and IT is arguably one of the most laborious efforts to flesh them out. However, I feel this is where the book and the 1990 miniseries win over the reboot. Believability. The characters, right down to the simple extras, I was convinced that there was something serious going on. Well, okay, not everything was so serious; of course the scene in the library and Curry’s imposing, yet hilarious laugh. But it all worked, at least as far as I’m concerned. It’s said, you don’t want to work with animals or children in film, for obvious reasons, but I felt young Bill’s pain, I empathized and feared for Ben and Mike, and Henry Bowers, good God, has to be one of the coolest young antagonists out there. That was enough for me to lend credibility to the rest (Richie, Beverly, Eddie, and Stan). As far as the 2017 rendition goes though, while I enjoyed the movie enough, it felt more like a group of kids trying really hard to impersonate these characters, if that makes sense. Stan’s Jewish, yeah we know. Richie is a motor mouth, Eddie is paranoid about being sick, and so on. Now, I know they’re just kids, and that’s how kids behave, but to me, it felt a little too forced.

And lets not forget to address the clown in the room! Not for nostalgic loyalty alone, but I give it to Tim Curry any day, taking nothing away from Bill Skarsgard. Just as quotable, just as memorable, and even more accurate to the appearance of Pennywise, but again, believability. You wouldn’t let your kid near either of these two, right? But, be honest about which one you’d be more nervous around. Skarsgard was unnerving, Curry was unassuming. And that, I feel played more into Pennywise’s goal of luring kids in. I called the characters in the 1990 version victims, but the 2017 one- stupid!

Now, it’s lost potential seeing as how the cast is set, and really the only one I’m looking forward to seeing is James McAvoy as adult Bill, but wouldn’t it have been a fantastic turn-a-cast if they were able to round up the children actors of the miniseries to play the adults of the Losers Club? They’re the perfect age, perfect timing! Oh, what a lost opportunity if there ever was one. But, speaking of returns, you have to wonder, will Tim Curry cameo? I’ll leave that for anticipation.

But there is an undeniable silver lining in the upcoming Chapter, and that is that it will take place in present day. This, I am hoping will give Pennywise, as well as the story itself room to evolve, as it will be stepping outside of IT‘s known universe, perhaps (I know that King’s books are latent with references to Pennywise here and there, so if I missed something please let me know). This move alone will hopefully justify IT‘s re-imagining, cause why else remake a movie (if not for the cash grab) than to take it someplace else? IT could restore my interest in remakes, but that’s an article for another time.

One last note I’d like to discuss, one that was brought to my attention by a friend and that is, can people- namely kids- relate to the story today? This may be something that hurts the story as a whole, because while people in 1990 could relate better to those in the late ’50s, getting into trouble and going places where they weren’t supposed to, do kids today really share the same attitudes and behaviors? I’m sure some do, they’re kids, but one of the aspects of the book I think I missed out on, which is why I didn’t find IT all that scary, was I grew up in the late 80’s/early 90’s. A changing environment, and even more so today. People aren’t the same as they were 30, or even 60 years ago. I think, while the themes of the story might still stick, the atmosphere not so much. This may be a challenge for Chapter 2. Make IT scary, make IT fun! Either way, I’ll be seeing IT, won’t you? You’ll die, if you try not to. You’ll die if you try…

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Krampus (2015)

Krampus is Disappointing Holiday Horror Fare

by Kristin Battestella

 

If you think your December is bad, consider the anti-Saint Nick killer of the 2015 horror comedy Krampus. Though starting strong with relatable holiday family sarcasm and budding snowbound scares, this PG-13 combination tale never embraces its unique monster potential and fizzles into disappointing, pedestrian fare.

Young Max (Emjay Anthony) wants his parents (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) to have some Christmas spirit again. Unfortunately, arguments with his visiting Aunt Linda (Allison Tolman), Uncle Howard (David Koechner), and his nasty cousins make Max tear up his ridiculed letter to Santa Claus – creating an invitation for the evil, ancient spirit of Krampus to descend their chimney instead…

 

Writer and director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat) starts Krampus with promising seasonal satire and jovial Bing Crosby holiday tunes winking at the December mad dash shopping. The out of hand festiveness increases thanks to crying kids on Santa’s lap, stressed and glum employees, and fighting customers tasered by security while the crowd videos it all on their smartphones. A Christmas Carol is on the television, mom’s obsessing over the perfect crème brulee, and the War on Christmas peppers the news – Krampus is up front about its holiday honesty with debates over Santa being a cheap marketing ploy to sell Coca Cola and cruel tales of his crashed sleigh and Big Nick eating his reindeer to survive. Arguments at the table worsen every year, and the hope of the holidays being like they used to be can’t be overcome by one’s DNA. The destruction of an admittedly preposterous letter to Santa summons a thunderous snowstorm and blackout – no heat, water, or electricity and twelve crabby people. The usual holiday tiffs turn into worse bleak as mysterious snowmen surround the isolated house and thumps on the roof aren’t the sleigh they expected. Scary attacks from under the snowbanks and jack in the box decoys create suspense as do abandoned trucks, echoes lost in the blizzard, and footprints suggesting an upright goat walking on its hind legs. While under siege, the family re-discovers sentimental ornaments and recalls late relatives – there’s nothing like a monster attack to bring everyone together at Christmas! Gunshots break the silent holiday night and people go missing as the sub-zero temperatures drop. These are realistic scares, and the family asleep about the fire will soon be privy to the evil coming down the chimney with baited hooks and sinister presents to lure children for punishment rather than giving. Initially accurate wisecracks and understandable difficulty in believing Krampus is at work help the self-aware mix of interior drama and terrors amok. Unfortunately, Krampus is surprisingly lacking in its own folklore flair and descends into a busy, supposedly cognizant but unintentionally laughable lag trading what should be innate fears and the uniquely sinister for rowdy action or juvenile delays. The misleading comedy label becomes an excuse for silly animated accessories, undercutting the terror of Krampus waiting within the walls ready to emerge and abduct. Shooting at what they don’t understand, falling asleep when they must stay awake, not heeding the Krampus tale when they hear it – perhaps a united spirit or singing a carol might vanquish the monstrous invasion, but Krampus instead divides its family in a hollow finale asking for a do over on the sorry not sorry.

Likable dad Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) isn’t traveling for work but he’s still on business calls, creating a supposed marital strain and leaving his son to watch Charlie Brown alone. Tom’s sardonic wanting to get the holiday over with turns into action as the scares mount, and he uses his town knowledge for a fighting advantage and plan of attack to proactively protect his family. Sadly, the adults in Krampus are under developed clichés –ironic place holders learning how to make sacrifices for a happy holiday just because the plot says so. We never know what Tom’s job is, where they live, or why the marriage is troubled, compromising any relatability the stars have. Toni Collette’s (United States of Tara) Sarah tries to make Christmas perfect by having everything super clean, but her decorating is considered to be “Martha Stewart threw up in here” over the top. She has some moxie when her kitchen or fancy food are criticized, but her angel on top of the tree saccharin doesn’t add the spirit Krampus needs. Though too brief, Krista Sadler (Lena Rais) provides Old World strength and wisdom as the German-speaking grandmother Omi, and she respects the past when cultural ethnicity and traditions mattered instead of celebrations without meaning. Omi crosses herself once – the only time Jesus is referenced in a Christmas parable about sacrifice – and does what needs to be done but Krampus remains too modern and mainstream bland, generic rather than Germanic. The titular potential is neutered by stagnant characters who never really learn but drop in quick succession – almost as if they knew the ninety minutes were up and an absolutely wrong time and place joke was due to deflate any meaningful foothold. I almost want to see Krampus from his point of view, watching as his nasty influence and take rather than give plan reveals everyone’s true colors.

Emjay Anthony’s (Chef) Max wears a bow tie, annoyingly repeats everything his grandmother says, and claims he’s smart and old enough to know what’s happening – never mind that his torn up and tossed to the wind letter is what brought the wrath of Krampus upon them. At thirteen he’s too old to believe in Santa Clause, and Max even gets in a fight defending the Jolly One before writing him seeking help for his family. If Max truly wanted Christmas to be as it was, he could have gone ahead with their traditions and reminded everyone of their holiday memories instead of bitching over his letter to Santa being read aloud. That’s the worst thing that has ever happened to him? That embarrassment is worth cursing your family to damnation? Unfortunately, Max thinks he can fix his fault by asking for a reset, and Krampus sacrifices its Scrooge scared straight possibility in favor of the very millennial blasé it warns against. Likewise, daughter Stefanie LaVie Owen (The Carrie Diaries) is irrelevant alongside too many gross, mean, disposable cousins and a baby who’s initially forgotten in a tricked out Hummer named Lucinda. I think the family dog gets more screen time than some of the non-speaking kids! Sarah’s sister Allison Tolman (Fargo) is made little woman simple while her redneck husband David Koechner (The Office) forges an odd friendship with Tom. He has useful skills and calls it like it is, but Krampus makes him smart or stupid as needed. Conchata Ferrell’s (Two and a Half Men) Aunt Dorothy gets through the scares with some peppermint schnapps – Krampus liking schnapps is never mentioned, boo – and her drunken sarcasm should be the only requisite quipping comedy. Unfortunately, Krampus goes overboard with ill timed laughs and puns in all the wrong places. Does this bitter family deserve what Krampus brings? We never know them as anything more than script proxies, so the audience can’t be sure.

Blowing snow, aerial shots, and weather effects give Krampus a fitting brr alongside holiday music and other bells, chimes, and diegetic sounds of the season. Fine blackout schemes and blue patinas work well – a chilly to contrast the yellow firelight and candlelit glows. While the leaping from house to house and rooftop flying effects are messy CGI, the thumping landings and howling echoes match the horned silhouette, giant hooves, and beastly furry cloak. Brief binocular sightings, unseen creatures attacking under the snow, and abandoned, frosty homes with trashed wreaths and destroyed fireplaces invoke fitting fears alongside trees on fire and ruined presents. Krampus uses practical designs and doesn’t reveal the full enormity of the monster – leaving the caressing, pointed nails and long, too close for comfort tongue to suggest the sinister. There’s minimal technology as well – tablets and smartphones are used until their power dies – but the gingerbread men effects are poor, even stupid along with unnecessary jesters and animated toys, hectic attic battles, confusing flue action, and intercut household sieges. Krampus himself doesn’t do very much as his trying to be humorous but ultimately laughable little minions run amok. The notion of his Santa mask having something hidden underneath is disappointing up close, and minimally used evil elves abducting children, a sack of souls collected by Krampus, and his ghoulish sleigh are better reversions on the theme. The retro animated flashback is also an old school anchor for Krampus, showing the bleak loss of seasonal spirit and giving in terrible times with a sad narration and the scared reaction of one little girl. Unfortunately, the fiery finale leaves some audiences confused, and the production mistakenly relies on alternate scenes or commentaries – absent on the rental blu-ray, naturally – and companion books to explain Krampus when a film must take care of itself.

 

Instead of wasteful ignorance and apathy, perhaps a prayer or some faith could have given Krampus a stronger battle of wills? The neither here nor there tone inadvertently embraces both anti-religion by not mentioning anything creche yet also admonishes audiences for treating Christmas like a going through the motions date on the calendar. A straight forward family holiday drama or full on horror one or the other decision may have served Krampus better – breathing room to trust its own dark, sardonic allegory instead of dampening good horrors with a humorous overload. What’s supposed to be so funny about Krampus anyway? This is a divisive, anti-Home Alone, and Krampus’ need for commercial safety, weak jokes, and trite action combines for an uneven parody and try hard “oops my bad” disappointment that inexplicably underutilizes its own ominous folklore.

FRIGHTENING FLIX by Kbatz – Kong: Skull Island

Despite Narrative Flaws, Kong: Skull Island is a Rip Roaring Good Time

by Kristin Battestella

 

Without a doubt the 2017 MonsterVerse cum 2014 Godzilla prequel Kong: Skull Island has its flaws. One shouldn’t expect perfection or deep thoughts with this fun jungle ride brimming with action and big monsters. But heck yeah let’s over-analyze the shit out of it, shall we?

Bill Randa (John Goodman) recruits ex-SAS tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to join the secret government group Monarch’s expedition to the elusive Skull Island alongside Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard’s (Samuel L. Jackson) elite helicopter escort. Landsat officials and mission science teams use seismic charges to map and study the island – awakening ancient monsters friend and foe, government conspiracies, and personal vengeance as the team rescues crashed World War II veteran Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) from the fantastic isle protected by King Kong.

 

Kong: Skull Island’s opening World War II crash transitions to newspapers, archive footage, and period photography on the mysterious Monarch organization as audio quotes from Truman and Kennedy lead to bleak 1973 DC protests and ironic quips about the screwed up time in Washington. Monarch needs funding to mount this satellite mapping expedition and its under the rug search amid ominous whispers of ship eating monsters and Bermuda Triangle fantastics surrounding this uncharted Pacific island. Fiery explosives reflect in the aviator glasses, animals flee the seismic bombs, and distorted music is drowned out by the destruction. People who think they are so big are made small by Kong’s giant hands and teeth – an excellent introduction with superb monster graphics and motion capture. Warped gunfire and thumping helicopter blades add foreboding to the mighty monster silhouettes as separated civilians, stranded scientists, and angry military argue who takes orders from whom. Nixon winks, geek references, and “Hold on to your butts!” keeps the old school cool coming early and often alongside minute to minute action montages with diegetic classic rock, first person shooter video game angles, and intriguing camera shots. Skull Island is an embarrassment of riches with too much to see in one viewing thanks to wild giant spider impalements and more well done personal horror vignettes with blood, gore, and brain splatter nods to Cannibal Holocaust and Evil Dead. Slow motion over the shoulder fears, creaking animal approaches, that giant log come to life – aren’t walking sticks bad enough?! The rush to repair a salvaged airplane turned riverboat adds more flying monsters and aerial fatalities to the adventure. Kong is an angry mother, but he didn’t do anything wrong in protecting his home from the dangerous creatures man has stirred, and the mission only has its bombing in the name of science to blame. Fortunately, culture shock jokes create lighthearted fun, since it’s more of a cold war with summers off, a man on the moon is eating Spam after sipping Tang, and The Cubs are never going to win the World Series. Likewise the excellent graveyard sequence combines all Skull Island’s divided and united people with scene stealing visuals, action, and monsters. Retro picture flashes and rewind clicks accent gritty zooms and intense monster filming with green gas heightening the sense of smelly vomit, skulls, bones, and gas masks. Deadly cigarettes, flames, lighters, and fumes add to the swords and machine guns poised atop the triceratops skull as man comes to regret the cruel and violent destruction he has caused.

Of course, Skull Island is also a very messy movie with an uneven dual focus. This should be either a Vietnam, horrors of war, military monster Apocalypse Now with a photographer and a scientist OR the scientific monstrosity adventure a la Jurassic Park with one ex-SAS tracker but not BOTH plots giving nobody their fair share. The us versus them scientists in blue and military in green sitting on opposite sides of the briefing is never capitalized upon but redundantly introduces everyone by name after the port of call arrivals already suffice. Likewise, conflicting, convoluted information dumps on hollow earth inklings, monsters exist proof, nature taking back the planet subtext, and more conspiracies are lost amid who’s doing the suspicious underground mapping or using dangerous seismic charges – and none of it is as important as the visual destruction despite precious little time to enjoy the awe-inspiring views. Increasingly intrusive hip highlights and filler montages distract viewers with busy, loud hyperbole, and fine jokes aren’t needed to alleviate tension because intercutting between separated characters walking to and fro for action fodder never leaves the audience with anyone long enough to appreciate their peril. Casual wonder, superficial dear family letters, and featherweight Icarus speeches can’t keep up with the up up up piecemeal quest, soldiers rightfully spazzing over the giant monkey are paid dust in favor of repeated clicks west or evac north fluff, and one trek in the wrong direction for a dead man proves pointless on top of unnecessary revenge. What should be somber shipwreck history and ancient monster worship become tossed aside double talk, and the science dialogue, monsters, and mission objectives change as people act stupid from scene to scene as needed. Littering the narrative with so many excuses that we just don’t care how each group of people and their monster attacks tie together is incredibly annoying because there is so much more potential to the friend or foe ominous and native people glossed over with photos and peace signs. Slo mo hold me back man tears turn laughable thanks to all over the place point of view voiceovers with no time for a breather properly addressing the nonsensical. Quotes about an enemy not existing until you make one get squashed between more meandering, on the nose rock montages while blow torches are convenient in one scene but forgotten the next. Our two women never talk to each other, and Skull Island can’t stick to telling its story well because it’s so desperate to appeal to as many bang for its buck viewers as possible – leaving the World War II radiation and ancient cave paintings hodgepodge to do nothing but set up the inevitable sequel.

 

All the people should have been listed in the blurb at the bottom of the Skull Island poster because no one character is fully developed – least of all top billed Tom Hiddleston as tracker James Conrad, who spends more time giving repetitive exposition on clicks, radius, or distance and unnecessary let’s go, no time to waste obviousness. It’s also noticeable that the character concept was changed when T. Hiddy was cast – perhaps in a Legendary twofer contract with Crimson Peak or during filming, for the grimy shirt jaded and gritty bearded wanderer is traded for a sunshine blonde matinee idol buff. It’s like a different guy shows up for the mission! When meeting Conrad in the bar, he’s ruthless with a cue stick. However, on the island, he’s the team negotiator, going from a rugged bad ass asking for five times the mercenary money to…Tom Hiddleston. Viewers see him as himself in Skull Island and The Night Manager rather than his Loki visage – maybe because it looks like he’s wearing his own clothes again onscreen – but someone should have been in charge of his eye candy fitness as his increasing muscles or shrinking wet shirt vary throughout the adventure. The mysteriously decommissioned tracker also suddenly cares, sneaking into restricted areas to check out the bombs and question the mission even though Conrad never gets to use this seemingly new found good guy muster. His great line, “I suppose no man comes home from war, not really,” and brief mentions of his lost father – Tom, please, no more characters with daddy issues! – go unredeemed save for dad’s handy lighter to rectify a lifetime of searching for something you can never find. Instead of calm, problem solving Conrad challenging Packard, our expert tracker gets lost and seeks higher ground before taking charge anyway after useless self sacrifices. Despite his name, there’s very little Heart of Darkness to Conrad, yet the character remains overly serious and that divine accent feels out of place – taking longer and prettier to say his exposition in a different, formal rhythm amid all the fast, casual slang. Although he has the best gas mask glory moment in Skull Island and some of the samurai choreography is reminiscent of the first advance in 300, our would be hero has no winking Indiana Jones moment nor does he take off his shirt. Why hold back when you can go all the way? But hey, those biceps aren’t enough to forgive the fact that Conrad wears a gun in a shoulder holster and never uses it!

With our rugged man and Brie Larson (Room) as anti-war photographer Mason Weaver, Skull Island feels very The People That Time Forgot. However, Weaver doesn’t cry out for her camera’s safety or click away as much as she perhaps should. She never runs out of film and such gear perils or mishaps could have been an ongoing gag, but Conrad seems to look out for her camera more than she does. There is rightfully no overt romantic plot further crowding Skull Island with unnecessary saccharin, yet their feeling each other out banter should have been utilized more – Weaver interrupts Conrad’s hero zoom by motioning for him to move over on the helicopter seat and he does. All these charming, award winning thespians have so little room to breath, leaving Weaver with lame one liners and nothing to do. The “Bitch, please!” retort for her to have several seats isn’t the right response, but her trite platitudes won’t get all these macho men pointing guns at each other to stand down either. Fortunately, her outfit isn’t uber skimpy, and Larson’s modern earthy look is perhaps the most seventies style in the cast. Weaver goes from skeptical equals Pulitzer to island believer saving injured animals too quickly with no depth to her island connections if any before ending by saying she will expose their information rather than keep this precious ecosystem secret. She could have been a hippie tree hugging activist woman alone in tune for peace with Kong, but Weaver’s touching moments with the ape are too few and far between. Whether there is some kind of native spirit and island good to counter the evil creatures below isn’t explored, and while all the scientists pick up guns, Weaver shoots with her camera only – a nice statement that just leads to her getting rescued by Conrad in every dangerous situation. A brief moment of her refusing a gun and more of her resourceful ingenuity as with Conrad’s handy lighter would have added better character strength and humor. Sadly, Skull Island has both Weaver taking pictures to expose Monarch and John Goodman’s (The Big Lebowski) underutilized Bill Randa recording film for his secret organization’s posterity. What is the point of having both such rival documentarians on the trip when they never even have the chance to object to each other onscreen?

 

But why you gotta be mean like that to Kong, Nick Fury? Despite the Vietnam withdrawals underway and orders to head home, Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Packard isn’t ready for the war to end. He wonders what this the fight was all for – accepting this final mission without considering the families and day jobs waiting for his Sky Devils stateside. Packard resents the camera and the media’s influence on the war as more dangerous than a gun, and objects to calling the battle lost. He’s upset at Kong for destroying his helicopter team, blaming the ape and demanding payback when he’s the one who ordered them to fly through the island’s nonsensical storm front. There’s room for more psyche, but other plot contrivances compromise Packard’s fanatical. His insistence on taking out Kong instead of the more deadly skull creature continues even when his reason for pursuing one over the other is proven more fatal, and Packard gets around the island just fine without the obligatory SAS tracker, gutting any tension the two are apparently supposed to have. After aimlessly walking for half of Skull Island, Packard needlessly divides the group when they actually come together, and any deeper hates the monster because he hates himself guilt about man’s supposed superiority is never fully explored. Certainly the Lieutenant Colonel did nothing wrong in ordering his men and defending his homeland from the horrors of war, but he takes the extinguishing the wrong monster too far and doesn’t learn from any of the mission’s bureaucratic stupidity, ultimately using napalm to flush out more creatures than he can handle. Likewise his soldiers – family man macguffin Toby Kebbell (Control), headband wearing Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), and letters to his mama Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) don’t listen to local information on avoiding island perils. At once they decide it’s all for one and one for all while telling others they will be left behind if they don’t like the plan, and none of them go against the Colonel even when he is wrong and the chain of command has broken. Although dead pan Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) eating in the face of giant apes is good levity, the too crowded Skull Island keeps these military men stereotypically hip with shirtless photo sessions and no questions asked until after the fact rather than developing any killer edge e.g. Predator.

There are simply so, so, so many superfluous people in Skull Island that you can argue almost anyone doesn’t really need to be here. Landsat fraidy cat John Ortiz (Fast & Furious) deserves more than ticking the Hispanic check box with his own personal homage to Jurassic World. This looks like a diverse ensemble with representation from all walks of life, but it isn’t diversity if each monster fodder minority has five cliché lines while the white people save the day. Geologist Corey Hawkins (24: Legacy) and biologist Jing Tian (The Great Wall) look like they filmed their scenes separately from everyone else. Their brief conversations happen with no one else around and they don’t really interact with anybody on the island – simultaneously missing the opportunity for statements on the struggles of a well educated black man with a radical theory while nonetheless desperate to appeal to Asian markets with an intelligent but meek biologist who barely speaks. Hawkins’ Houston Brooks objects to the titular craziness with almost the exact same words as Mann’s Slivko, and eventually, the scientists are told to go back to the boat – which they easily find and operate without Conrad holding their hands. The post-credits scene likewise has them repeating Randa’s words on the monsters to come while again telling us not much of anything on Monarch’s intentions. Fortunately, John C. Reilly’s (Chicago) kooky World War II castaway Hank Marlow is the most dynamic character in Skull Island. He’s happy these new found people are real because he’s more than ready to get home to beer, hot dogs, and the Chicago Cubs, becoming the only fish out of water in this crazy habitat that receives any narrative payoff. I also dare say Marlow’s opening cross cultural duel turned bond with Japanese singer Miyavi as Gunpei Ikari and their subsequent hear tell eight attempts to leave the island during their forced twenty-eight year sabbatical may have been the more dramatically interesting tale – “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and all that.

 

Fine gunfire, brief World War II designs, aerial action, and impressive photography also pepper Skull Island. A variety of cool ships accent the beautiful, tropical, misty, hot locations from Hawaii, Australia, and Vietnam amid lovely waters, deadly swamps, and killer jungles keeping everyone good and sweaty. There are dangerous rocks, mountains, vegetation, and animals, too – but that giant water buffalo thing has a cute nose! Unique patinas, golden sunsets, neon, bright blues, red lighting, and choice zooms set off every frame in Skull Island, and a fiery haze makes the night time battle with Kong befitting of the island’s devilish face shape. However, despite all the old school touches, Skull Island doesn’t feel as aged as it could be. A 1973 Life Magazine and a record player don’t a la the past when everybody looks so today. The money here is rightfully spent on the badass ape kids will dig, but younger audiences probably won’t notice the early computers, retro televisions, dark room photography, old reel frames, slide projectors, or rotary phones and period references. Fortunately, these creatures are so big that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) must pull the camera back – we can see the well choreographed rumble without hiding behind panoramic swoops and hectic editing. Kong breaking free from a shipwreck’s chains is a fine homage, and the deleted scenes with more platoon camaraderie and a bristling introduction between Conrad and Packard should have been kept. Of course, Skull Island is available in different video editions with seller and regional behind the scenes exclusives. An official comic book also continues the adventure, but I wish the background material or what happens next wasn’t relegated to extras or waiting on another picture in the franchise. Although, ironically, Skull Island might have made a great limited television series with fulfilled episodes dedicated to our mad military man, lost tracker, photographer, castaway, or scorned scientists.

Kong:Skull Island seems like it began with storyboards of cool things for Kong and company to do with everything else as filler to meet the feature length duration. There’s no time to stay on Skull Island and explore its myths or monsters, and this does indeed feel like one mere stepping stone toward the inevitable Godzilla vs. Kong anticipation in 2020 thanks to postscript MonsterVerse revelations. Though entertaining, the forties bookends are abrupt and in between viewers are spoiled for choice of eye candy. Skull Island is meant to be a monster money maker and it shows with this sweet but shallow action. It wants to be man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself, but superficially potlucks all the deep possibilities. Thankfully, Skull Island is not a film meant for critical eyes and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Despite its narrative flaws, there’s just so much fan service that Kong: Skull Island was bound to be an enjoyable success.

 

FRIGHTENING FLIX by Kbatz: Mummy Movies!

Unwrapping a Mummy or Two!

By Kristin Battestella

 

Seen any good mummy movies lately?

 

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb – Based upon Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars novel, this 1971 Hammer outing gets right to the saucy, sexy mummies, colorful jewels, tombs, and classic Egyptian designs not through spectacle of production but via subdued lighting, firelight, soft music, foreboding curses, and a silent, dreamy start. The intriguing father and daughter dynamic between Valerie Leon (The Spy Who Loved Me) and Andrew Kier (Quartermass and the Pit) is both endearing and suspicious – straight jackets, psychics, ominous constellations, cluttered museums, and sinister relics likewise contribute to the visual mixing of old, Egyptology styles and early seventies designs. Pleasing hysterical fears, snake scares, uneasy reunions, and power struggles unravel the reincarnation tale nicely. It is tough, however, to see some of the night sky transitions, and the simmering 94 minutes may be too quiet or dry for today’s speedy audiences. Subtitles would help with the exposition as well – especially for the fun homage character names like Tod Browning that may be missed otherwise. Brief nudity, one by one deaths, the collecting of killer artifacts, and a resurrection countdown also feel somewhat rudimentary at times, predictable before snappy and missing some Hammer panache in cast or direction. Considering the on set death of director Seth Holt (Taste of Fear) and the departure of Peter Cushing – both briefly discussed in the DVD’s features – the film’s flaws are certainly understandable. Besides, this is still most definitely watchable with an enjoyably moody atmosphere and fun, subjective finish.

 

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb – Hammer producer Michael Carreras (Maniac) wrote and directed this 1964 sequel to The Mummy, and it’s a well shot piece with plenty of Egyptian color, tombs, flashbacks, artifacts, humor, and film within a film carnival spectacles. The 1900 designs are also period fine, but some scenes are obviously on-set small scale and lacking the expected all out Hammer values, making this follow up feel like some one else’s beat for beat B knock off rather than an authorized continuation. Opening blood and violence, characters at each other’s throats in fear of the eponymous threat, brief debates on traveling sideshow exhibitions, and scandalous belly dancing can’t overcome the slow, meandering pace while we await the well wrapped and perfectly lumbering Mummy violence. Jeanne Roland (You Only Live Twice) is very poorly dubbed, and beyond the over the top, annoying, love to hate Fred Clark (How to Marry A Millionaire) as a sell out American financier, the rest of the cast is interchangeably bland with no chemistry. The somewhat undynamic writing is uneven, with twists and mysteries either out of the blue, too tough to follow, or all too apparent. Though the sinister deaths aren’t scary, it’s all somehow enjoyably predictable because we’ve seen so many rinse and repeat Mummy films. This isn’t a bad movie, but it takes most of its time getting to the Mummy scenes we want to see – and we can see a lot of fact or fiction Egyptology programming today. It’s not quite solid on its own and feels sub par compared to its predecessor, yet this one will suffice Mummy fans and fits in perfectly with a pastiche viewing or marathon.

 

The Mummy – Karloff, Karloff, Karloff! The drawn, crusty, and dry opening makeup and mummification designs looks dynamite- accenting OMK’s tall, imposing, sullen, and stilted presence. His silent up close shots are indeed hypnotic and powerful- even if modern audiences might find this one more fanciful fantasy than truly frightful. Even though there is some tell, not shown off-screen action, the plot is well paced, with nice dialogue and support from Zita Johann (Tiger Shark) and Edward Van Sloan (Dracula). Some of the 1932 style or mannerisms, foreign languages, and customs of the time might be strange to us now, but the mysteries and iconography of Ancient Egypt look delightful. An action packed pseudo silent styled flashback also works wonders. The CGI spoiled may of course find things here slow and dated compared to the 1999 The Mummy, but seeing a film done when Egyptology was arguably at its height allows a little more of all that onscreen glamour and gold to shine through. Actually, I am usually completely against it, but I’d love to see this in color- at least once anyway. Sweetness!

The Mummy (1959) – Hammer perennials Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee team again for this well paced if somewhat familiar plot. Though he looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon in some scenes and is styled more like a Bond henchman doing the evil deeds of late Victorian villain George Pastell (also of The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb); Lee’s reanimated and mummified priest Kharis is dang menacing but no less tragic in his violence and lost love. His overbearing stature works wonders against the intelligent and suave archaeology gentleman Cushing- whether he’s in the dirty wraps or decked out in great Egyptian costumes, color, and brightness. The sets, however, could use some work, as the exteriors are a bit, well, plastic looking instead of mighty stonework monolith. Yvonne Furneaux (Repulsion) is also a lovely but slightly lightweight façade that’s a little out of place with Cushing’s take action and dueling wit. Fortunately, the musical charms accent the Egyptian suspense and cap off the scares beautifully. Toss in some humor and great fun and this version equals total entertainment.

 

The Mummy’s Curse – Stay with me now – this 1944 hour long Universal sequel marks the final appearance by Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis after The Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Ghost, which follow the 1932 original and The Mummy’s Hand. Got that? Of course, the timeline and locales are all over the place at this point anyway! We open with a French sing along to set the inexplicably changed Louisiana setting here before getting to the expected accursed mummy swamp recovery, investigating archaeology professors, and screaming dames. It’s amusing to see all the fearful and faux French accented locals, and reused stock footage from prior Mummy films creates further humor. But why is this exact same story being told to us again? Again but in a Louisiana swamp? A swamp that lies below a conveniently abandoned chapel where the Mummy hides? Fortunately, once the audience takes these leaps, Chaney’s resurrected and deadly, limbering monster can be enjoyed thanks to well done shadows, lighting, and crisp black and white photography. Virginia Christine (Tales of Wells Fargo) also has an excellent entrance as the revived Ananka, with eerie music, stilted movement, and great horror editing. Despite the spooky bayou atmosphere, this isn’t as scary movie as it should be – somehow Chaney’s crippled, dragging Mummy seems sad and used more than frightening. Poor thing misses a victim or two thanks to them, you know, walking away from him! Thankfully, the quick fun here is still watchable for fans, especially in a Mummy or Chaney viewing marathon.

 

The Mummy’s Hand – Be he curse protector or resurrection accomplice, George Zucco (Dead Men Walk) is slick as ever in this 67 minute 1940 Universal sort of sequel that’s otherwise lacking in the expected Mummy stars such as Karloff or Lon Chaney, Jr. These different characters create more remake than follow up feelings, and after awhile, these Mummy films do seem somewhat the same anyway. There’s a little too much humor and bumbling rivalries away from the titular action for this installment to be scary, too. Who has the money for the expedition? Who doesn’t want the archaeology to happen? What’s pretty daughter Peggy Moran (King of the Cowboys) doing pointing a gun at folks? Wallace Ford (The Rogue’s Tavern) is also an unnecessarily fast talking swindler sidekick for by the numbers Dick Foran (The Petrified Forest), and the then-modern Cairo pre-war styles and colloquialisms slow the plot down when there’s no time to waste. Fortunately, despite the black and white photography, the opening Egyptian flashback provides the expected regalia and spooky curses. Perhaps this entry is typical or nondescript in itself, but its fun for a classic marathon. When we finally do get to the tomb robbing action and Tom Tyler (The Adventures of Captain Marvel) as the murderously lurking about Kharis, this becomes a pleasant little viewing with a wild finish.