April 9th, 2008

BLACK SABBATH (1964) ***

Boris Karloff stands in front of a blue void and narrates three tales of terror from Italian horror maestro Mario (Black Sunday) Bava. 

 

In the first story, The Telephone (** ½), a hot chick gets menacing phone calls from a mysterious stranger who can see her every move.  She deduces the caller is her recently escaped homicidal boyfriend so she calls her sexy friend (and lover!  HEY OH!) and has her come over to keep her company.  Unfortunately for her, her ex also shows up looking to ring her pretty little neck.    

 

Bava slowly builds suspense and does a fine job at maintaining it, which is quite a feat considering this is essentially a one person story.  Too bad the plot is paper thin and suffers from a lifeless ending.  It also doesn’t help that it goes on way too long, even though it only runs 30 minutes. 

 

The next story, The Wurdalak (***) stars Karloff as the titular vampire who returns to his family’s home after his death to feed off his living relatives.  (Wurdalaks can only drink the blood of their loved ones.)  He puts the bite on them one by one until only his hot daughter and the romantic lead Mark Damon are left.  It all ends with the hottie sinking her teeth into Damon’s jugular.  (Hey, at least that means she loves him, right?)

 

This segment has the look of a Corman Poe movie (co-star Damon was also in The Fall of the House of Usher), but it has a sinister charm all it’s own.  The scene where Karloff puts his grandchild on his knee and leers at him ominously like he’s going to turn him into a hot lunch will certainly give you the heebie jeebies and the severed head gag is superb for a 60’s flick.  Although this story suffers from some pokey pacing (at almost 40 minutes, it’s by far the longest of the stories), it’s easily the best looking of the bunch as the colorful cinematography is absolutely spellbinding.   

 

The Drop of Water (***) tells the story of a bitchy nurse who is hired by a mortician to prepare the corpse of an old clairvoyant for her funeral.  While dressing the body, the nurse steals the corpse’s ring and faces the wrath of the old woman’s ghost, which personifies itself in the form of an annoying fly, an irritating drop of water, and finally in the form of the old woman’s ghost.  

 

This story may be the best of them all as it’s straight up meat and potatoes horror that channels the best of the EC Horror Comics as well as Bava’s patented gothic sensibilities.  It’s short, simple, and to the point and the villain gets her just desserts in the end, so what’s not to like?

 

The exploitation geniuses at AIP bought this flick, changed around the order of the stories, took out all the references to lesbianism and re-titled it to cash in on their previous Bava hit, Black Sunday.  While it’s nowhere near the same league as that immortal classic, Black Sabbath is still quite a lot of fun for both anthology fans and Bava loyalists.  I especially liked the way Bava used sound to enhance the film’s atmosphere.  In The Telephone, it’s the constant ringing of the phone, it’s the whirling winds that signal the return of The Wurdalak, and in The Drop of Water it’s… well the drop of water.  The film is also lushly photographed (the trippy Karloff hosted framing device in particular) and ranks among one of the finest looking films Bava ever cranked out.    

 

AKA:  The Three Faces of Fear.

TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983) ***

 

Steven Spielberg produced and co-directed this entertaining updating of Rod Serling’s immortal television classic.  Although his segment is decidedly the weakest of the lot, we should be thankful to the ‘Berg for getting such a great bunch of directors together for this minor classic.  I’m a sucker for anthology movies anyway, so it doesn’t really matter to me that this thing is uneven as all get out.  What matters is that I grew up watching this flick and despite it’s major flaws (again, Spielberg’s sappy ass segment); watching it now as an adult, it’s still a lot of fun. 

 

The Prologue (****) stars Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks driving in a car along a deserted stretch of road in the middle of the night.  Bored, they start to play road games to pass the time.  First they try to scare each other; then they hum themes to TV shows and try to guess them.  This inevitably leads to a discussion of The Twilight Zone and how scary it was.  Aykroyd then decides to show Brooks something “REALLY scary” and turns into a blue faced zombie that howls like a jaguar in heat. 

 

This segment written and directed by John (An American Werewolf in London) Landis is a great way to start things off.  He keeps the audience off balance and effectively sets the mood for what’s to come.  (Landis also makes great use of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Midnight Special”.)  Aykroyd and Brooks have great chemistry together and it’s a shame they never starred in anything else together as this scene is easily the most memorable thing in the entire movie (if not one of the best opening scenes of any movie ever).  Too bad things get pretty spotty after Aykroyd turns into a monster.  Watch this segment with the lights out for maximum effect. 

 

Landis also directed the first installment, Time Out (***) starring Vic Morrow as a racist who walks into a bar and insults every minority known to man.  When he steps out of the pub, he finds himself in WWII Germany and all the Nazis think he’s a Jew so they round him up and try to haul him off to the concentration camp.  He then winds up in the south where a bunch of KKK members (led by John Larroquette of all people) thinks he’s black and try to hang him.  Next, Morrow ends up in Vietnam where a platoon of soldiers mistakes him for VC and tries to blow him away. 

 

There’s an undeniable pall that hangs over this entire story.  Everyone knows that Vic Morrow and two little kids died in a helicopter crash while filming this.  Morrow’s death (and the subsequent legal fallout) forced Landis to end the segment abruptly, which makes things even more depressing.  Still the story is quite captivating and even though it’s as predictable as a junkie hooker, it has an overall good “message” to it.  Landis films things in his usual matter of fact manner that is well suited to the subject matter (he even tosses out a sly reference to Animal House in there for good measure).  But it’s Morrow’s performance that is the centerpiece of the story.  Throughout the character’s journey, you actually begin to sympathize with him.  I’m not quite sure if that’s because of his acting ability, or the fact that you know the dude ended up taking a helicopter to the face while filming this flick, but you certainly can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. 

 

Next comes Kick the Can (**) and it’s easily one of the worst cinematic atrocities director Spielberg has ever committed.   (It’s worse than Hook, if that gives you any indication.)  It’s all about a happy old man (Scatman Crothers) who comes to a retirement home where he teaches the residents to become youthful by playing a simple game of Kick the Can.  But his can possesses magical powers and turns the old farts into annoying youngsters and Crothers offers them all a second chance at their youth.  If you couldn’t guess what happens next, the old timers eventually decide to stay ancient while still retaining “fresh young minds”. 

 

Kick the Can?  You’ll be hoping these old fuckers Kick the Bucket.  I’ll admit the set-up of the story works and Spielberg really knows how to pull you in, but once the old fogeys turn into little brats, all bets are off.  Spielberg has always been able to balance whimsy with syrupy melodramatics, but here, he completely goes overboard with the sappiness as the story is schmaltzy enough to put you into a goddamned diabetic coma. 

 

It’s a Good Life (****), the third story was helmed by Joe (Piranha) Dante, and features Kathleen Quinlan as a schoolteacher who gives a young boy a ride home where she meets his very peculiar “family” who all live in constant fear of him.  She soon learns that the tyke has bizarre powers that include (but are not limited to) wishing people into cartoons, personifying the Tasmanian Devil and making it come out of the television, and removing the mouth of his sister.  Quinlan finally realizes that all the boy needed was a little TLC and agrees to mother him and help him hone his powers. 

 

Dante really lets loose on this segment and shows a lot of visual pizzazz, especially during the scenes involving the crazed animated characters coming to life.  The scene where the kid’s sister (Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson) gets sucked into the cartoon and is murdered is kinda freaky (“That’s all, Ethel!”) and the reveal of the mouthless sister (The Runaways’ lead singer Cherie Currie) gave me freaking nightmares as a kid.  This story is also anchored by great performances by a host of Dante regulars such as Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy and William Schallert who all shine in their supporting roles.  Look also for a cameo by Billy Mumy, who played the kid role on the original show. 

 

But they saved the best for last on Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (****).  Directed by George (The Road Warrior) Miller, this episode does not stop for a second and will particularly freak out people who hate to fly.  John Lithgow stars as a paranoid airplane passenger who sees a slimy green faced man on the wing of the plane.  He tries to warn everyone that the monster is trying to sabotage the plane, but of course, no one believes him.  He decides to take matters into his own hands, which brings him face to face with the booger faced beast. 

 

This one is a doozy.  From the breakneck pacing and lightning fast editing (this sucker is almost as intense as Road Warrior was and that’s saying a lot), Miller really ratchets up the suspense and keeps you as jumpy as Lithgow is; which is quite a feat.  Speaking of Lithgow, his performance is easily the best work he’s ever done and his pill-popping, wide-eyed manic behavior is something to behold.  (Look fast for the split second Mad Max reference when Lithgow’s eyes bulge out cartoonishly just like Toecutter’s.)  The ending also benefits from another appearance by Aykroyd, which really ties everything together. 

 

Despite the depressing aspect of the Landis lensed segment and the woefully whimsical Spielberg story, Twilight Zone:  The Movie still remains one of the best anthologies of the 80’s.  What makes the movie work is an obvious respect for the material (three of the four stories are remakes of episodes from the original series) along with a handful of stellar performances that really sell the more fantastic elements of the film.  One could only imagine if Spielberg had delivered as Dante and Miller did what the film COULD have been.  It’s obvious that they both were very hungry and had something to prove and the ‘Berg could’ve really taken a page out of their books.  The narration by Burgess Meredith (a vet of the old series) is fine, but it can’t hold a candle to Serling’s sardonic introductions.  At least the old theme music is enough to still give you goose bumps.   

 

Though not the blockbuster hit Spielberg might have been anticipating (probably from all the negative publicity stemming from the Morrow incident), Twilight Zone:  The Movie was popular enough to spawn a new weekly series.  Spielberg later created the similarly themed Amazing Stories series for television.

 

(Special Note:  Warner Bros. REMOVED the old opening studio logo and replaced it with the newer flashier one for the DVD release.  Not a big deal in the scheme of things, but it kinda ruined the nostalgia of watching the opening scene for me as I love that old school pudgy looking Warners logo.) 

RANDY RIDES ALONE (1934) ** ½

 

I love all these old westerns that John Wayne made for Lone Star Pictures back in the 30’s.  They usually recycled all the same plots, but Wayne was always cool, the pacing was always tight and they rarely ran any longer than an hour.  They can easily be found inexpensively on DVD or sometimes turn up on television, and if you’re a fan of Wayne’s, or westerns in general, you owe it to yourself to check them out.   

 

The opening to this one is a real grabber.  John Wayne rides into a one horse town and walks into a bar to grab himself a brew, only to find that the bartender and all the patrons have been massacred.  While the automatic piano plays endlessly, he’s spied on by a pair of mysterious eyes in a painting and it isn’t long before the local law shows up.  George “Gabby” Hayes plays the real culprit who masquerades as a harmless mute who implicates Wayne in the crime.  Wayne’s arrested, but with a little help from a purdy lady, he sets out to clear his name and get the bad guys. 

 

After a strong start, Randy Rides Alone quickly devolves into your routine oater.  That’s fine by me though because it clocks in at a scant 53 minutes, which whizzes by pretty fast.  Wayne again commands the screen and you can tell that even when he was a fresh faced newbie, he was destined to become a star.  A lot of fun is also had by watching Hayes chew up the scenery in a dual role and seeing the ever reliable Yakima Canutt in a supporting turn as a henchman. 

 

A fine performance by Wayne and a mountain of B western clichés may not add up to a whole lot, but you can certainly find a lot of worse ways to spend an hour. 

TALL IN THE SADDLE (1944) **

 

John Wayne comes to a prairie town to work on a ranch and befriends the crotchety, hard drinking, woman hating, George “Gabby” Hayes (whom Wayne refers to as “a miserable old cuss”).  They learn that the owner of the ranch has been murdered and Wayne sets out to find the killer while romancing not one but TWO vastly different women.  More people wind up dead and Wayne is predictably blamed and has to clear his name. 

 

This leisurely paced western has way too many supporting characters and offers no surprises whatsoever but it benefits from a healthy budget and the considerable star presence of Wayne.  The flick is a little sparse in the action department (more people get pistol whipped than shot) but the highlight comes during a tense poker game in which Wayne gets the upper hand on a quick draw upstart.  Nobody reinvented the wheel on this one, but any movie featuring Wayne and Hayes is automatically worth a look in my book.  Ella Raines also provides some romantic sparks as the feisty spitfire who vies for Wayne’s affections.  Frequent Wayne co-star Ward Bond also turns up in a supporting role. 

 

Though Gabby is pretty funny, it’s Wayne who gets the best line of the movie when he says “I’d rather walk for somebody else than ride for you!”

SANTA FE STAMPEDE (1938) ** ½

 

John Wayne, Ray “Crash” Corrigan and Max Terhune star as “The Three Mesquiteers” (sort of like a precursor to The Three Amigos I guess) who come to the aid of a gold miner whose claim is in jeopardy of being stolen by a couple of no-goodniks who are in cahoots with a bunch of crooked lawmen and corrupt town officials.    

 

Despite being pretty by the numbers (Wayne is wrongfully accused of murder and has to clear his name for like the seven billionth time), the flick moves along at a breezy pace and is helped significantly by the easy chemistry of the three leads.  Corrigan and Terhune aren’t given a whole lot to do but let’s face it; you’re only watching this to see Wayne strut his stuff.  Santa Fe Stampede has a little bit more weight to it than most B westerns of the day, since it deals with the murder of a little girl, and that at least makes it stand out from the rest of the pack (or herd, if you prefer). 

 

Speaking of a herd, I don’t remember ever seeing a stampede in this movie (I’m not sure this even took place in Santa Fe to be honest with you), but that shouldn’t stop Wayne fans from checking this flick out.  

 

This was the 19th Mesquiteer movie (there were over FORTY Mesquiteer movies in all, the first being in 1936) and the third to star Wayne.  He played in five more Mesquiteer flicks before being replaced with Robert Livingston, who originated the role.  

 

Wayne and director George Sherman were still working together as late as 1971 when the pair made Big Jake.  Corrigan later paid the rent by playing gorillas in many a jungle picture.   

BREATHLESS (1960) **

Well, this is where the whole Frenchie New Wave thing got it’s start with director Jean-Luc Godard’s highly influential but incredibly vapid Breathless.  Looking back on it now, I can’t see what all the big fuss was about.  There’s nothing terribly innovative about a mess of jump cuts randomly edited in or having your characters sit around endlessly pontificating about God knows what.  I’m sure all those snooty critics, art house assholes and film school snobs had themselves a good cinematic circle jerk over this flick, but give me the ’83 Richard Gere remake any day. 

 

The plot is solid, if a bit thin.  A small time hood named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) goes on the lam for killing a cop and constantly pesters his teenage American flame (Jean Seberg) to run away with him while the coppers slowly catch up to him and gun him down in the street. 

 

Godard (who also has a small cameo) starts things off great as we see Belmondo going for a joyride, murdering a cop, and rolling guys in the john for pocket change.  However things get downright stagnant once Belmondo meets up with Seberg as they more or less just sit in bed and talk, talk, talk.  Seberg is fine as the angelic object of affection, but Belmondo is thoroughly grating as the Frenchie asshole who looks like Dermont Mulroney after a six day drunk.  Besides we all know he deserves to die because his name is MICHEL for God’s sakes.  I mean only in France can you be a wanted criminal and have a wimpy name like Michel. 

 
I’m sure this is the kind of flick that gets film scholars’ peckers harder than a table leg, but I much prefer the '83 remake.  I guess it all comes down to this:  What do you snack on when you watch movies?  Popcorn and soda or whole grain wheat baguettes and a grande half decaffeinated mocha crappuccino?  If you fall in the later category, this flick will definitely be up your alley.  If you’re a popcorn and soda kinda guy like me, this Breathless won’t be a hair on the nut sack of the Richard Gere version.