Today in “things I never thought I’d live to see”, 88 Films have announced via their facebook page that director Ho Meng Hua’s deliciously bizarre action-horror-revenge fantasy The Oily Maniac 「 油鬼子」, from Shaw Brothers in 1976, will see its high definition video debut in July.
Danny Lee (THE KILLER) played one of cinema’s most unlikely superheroes in THE OILY MANIAC (1976) – a Shaw Brothers creature-feature classic that is only now gaining a much-deserved premiere in the UK! In this gooey gem of a monster-mash, Lee plays a Hong Kong everyman who has been crippled and is down-on-his-luck – that is, until he learns of a spell that can turn him into a transformative and transmorphing pile of ferocious but malevolent mush. Yes, he is THE OILY MANIAC – and in this Cantonese predecessor to Troma’s THE TOXIC AVENGER, he is able to appear and re-appear at will, making it all the more tricky for his arch-enemies to dillute his delirious brilliance. Directed by the prolific Meng Hua Ho (THE FLYING GULLOTINE), this is one Far Eastern B-movie masterpiece that deserves to be seen and appreciated in full HD!
Etruscan gladiator-slave Quintillus Aurelius rises from the ruins of Pompeii to reclaim his reincarnated bride in this occasionally odd and often rote science fiction horror, produced by Robert E. Kent (Invisible Invaders) for the prolific Edward Small (Witness For the Prosecution) and directed by B-picture genre dependable Edward L. Cahn (Creature With the Atom Brain).
Curse of the Faceless Man plays in a more or less predictable fashion, with a gaggle of Neapolitan scientists working to uncover the secrets of their discovery; a man, perfectly preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD (never-mind that the real-life inspirations for the film’s ‘Volcano Man’ were poured plaster through and through, shaped by the cavities left by Pompeii’s long-decomposed dead); as bodies start to pile up. Elsewhere artist Tina (Elaine Edwards, The Bat) is haunted by dreams of the faceless man, of his slavish imprisonment in the past and of his misdeeds in the present. On the anniversary of the eruption of Vesuvius Tina succumbs to her psychic connection with the faceless man and the pair, reliving their doomed flight of two-thousand years ago, make their way towards the sea . . .
This is another of those films which was arguably better than it needed to be, reasonably photographed (by The Outer Limits regular Kenneth Peach) and intelligibly edited, with a capable cast (including a perennially disinterested Richard Anderson, The Six Million Dollar Man, and the lovely Adele Mara, Wake of the Red Witch) who do little to embarrass themselves. The primary draw, then as now, remains the faceless man himself, a memorably blank make-up by Charles Gemora performed by the substantially buff Bob Bryant (My Seven Little Bares). He reminds of the meteor-encrusted astronaut of the following year’s First Man Into Space, albeit less grotesque. The score by Gerald Fried (The Killing) lends the beast a suitable atmosphere in its various budget rampages, knocking through doors and bashing in the skull of the occasional misplaced guard.
Curse of the Faceless Man isn’t a bad hour to spend all told, provided expectations aren’t set to high for it. Pseudo-DeMille-ian narration by genre regular and frequent screen general Morris Ankrum (Invaders From Mars) may put it a notch or two higher in my book, but this is pretty standard monster-on-the-loose fair, and perfectly average among its contemporaries. It may not sound like much of a recommendation, but those of you looking to scratch that mid-century sci-fi / horror itch could do much worse.
As of this writing Curse of the Faceless Man is available for streaming, and in HD besides, via Prime Instant Video through Amazon. The film is also available on Blu-ray through Kino Lorber, who include a commentary for the feature by Chris Alexander.
Tokusatsu Tuesdays is a regular feature relating to Japanese special effects entertainments and their associated whatsits, and a bridge, so to speak, between ExploderButton and its sister site, Eiga · Bouei.
Out of the string of grim and out-there sci-fi horrors Shochiku Company produced at the tail end of the 1960s, perhaps the grimmest and most out-there of them all was 1968’s 「昆虫大戦争」 Genocide.
A sort of precursor to the ecologically-minded nature-gone-wild horrors of the 1970s, Genocide finds a small island in the South Pacific serving as ground zero for clandestine biological warfare experiments, a wrong-man murder mystery, simmering Vietnam-era East-West tensions, and an apocalyptic revolt of the insect world as well. Drug-addled soldiers descend into trauma-fueled murder frenzies, fifth-columnist hotel managers letch, and scientists elucidate insidious insect intent from out of a groovy psychotropic haze, all while a lost H-bomb ticks ever more ominously away.
Needless to say, Genocide had an awful lot on its plate.
The production boasts plenty of talent with recent experience in Shochiku sci-fi – director Kazui NIHONMATSU, a long-time assistant director for the company best known for 1967’s one-of-a-kind kaiju goof-off The X From Outer Space, X‘s effects supervisor Keiji KAWAKAMI (The Thick-Walled Room), X and Goké Bodysnatcher From Hell photographer Shizuo HIRASE, as well as X-actor Keisuke SONOI (Affair of the Heart), Goké co-star Kathy Horan, and long-time scenarist and Goké scribe Susumu TAKAKU (The Blood Sword of the 99th Virgin). Chief among the returning staff however, for the sake of this article at least, is prolific composer Shunsuke KIKUCHI, who had been tasked with Goké‘s score just a few months prior.
Kikuchi’s work on Genocide is marked by his usual trademarks (staccato low-brass for action and extended muted brass for suspense and atmosphere, with ecstatic ascending motifs to punctuate the major plot beats), but it is also possessed of a nuance and subtlety not typically expected of the composer.
The latter is evident from the very beginning, with the main title’s more emphatic strains complemented by a Vertigo-esque layer of violins and flutes and the first tentative appeals towards Genocide‘s melancholic love theme. The theme reveals itself in full for Joji and Yukari (love theme), a restrained minute and 43 seconds whose judicious blend of high and mid-range strings perfectly evoke the fated nature of the two lovers – Joji, in over his head with a mysterious foreign mistress and jailed for murders he did not commit, and Yukari, faced with the prospect of raising their unborn child on her own.
As Yukari is to the greater film, Kikuchi’s bittersweet love theme is a glimmer of hope and humanity amidst Genocide‘s overwhelming gloominess, receiving plaintive reprises all the way through to the film’s doom-ridden finale. In Mankind’s Final Sunrise the theme emerges tentatively from a plume of nuclear destruction, a single violin with increasingly rich harmonized accompaniment, but its resolution is cut short by Ending‘s resounding and atonal piano din.
Cinema-Kan’s restored CD release of Genocide‘s score makes it easier to appreciate Kikuchi’s work than ever before. The film’s eccentric narrative seems to have compelled him towards more variety than his scores typically achieve, from the bright chords and jungle-trotting exoticism of Jungle Search to the insectine woodwinds and mounting tonal chaos of Revived Fear. Cinema-Kan went back to the original 6mm tape recordings to build this 42 minute release, which collects the film’s music in total for the first time ever, and with excellent sound to boot – Kikuchi’s laser brass is crisp and clear, free of the distortion I’ve become accustomed to hearing with it.
In addition to the requisite liner notes (in this case a heavily illustrated booklet complete with film credits, release notes, a listing of Genocide‘s past LP and CD releases, track-specific commentary, and a biographical section on the composer) Cinema-Kan offer a few on-disc surprises as well. The incidental music heard over the radio in the film is present in full, and what a weird mix it is. Lobby BGM is in the light chamber music style, while Radio Music 1 is pure glitzy pop, electric guitar and all. Radio Music 2 and 3 are different still, lurid and torchy numbers to compliment the seediness of the hotel bar they’re overheard in. Listeners get a couple of bonus tracks as well – a percussion-only alternate take for Jungle Search, and a recording of the isolated music from the film’s trailer.
Particularly innocently faithful priest Peter (Gene LeBrock) and his family – wife Annie (Barbara Bingham) and little kids Martin (Troll 2’s Michael Stephenson) and Carole (Theresa F. Walker) move into the wrong house, or really, are maneuvered into moving into that place by his mentor, one Reverend Jonathan (Stephen Brown), I think. Please keep in mind this movie was written by Claudio Fragasso, so half of the logical connections have to be provided by the viewer or the film would go from “makes no goddamn sense at all” to the noise a brain makes when it dribbles out of a helpless cult film blogger’s ears.
Anyhow, it’s really not a good place for a family to stay, for the house is haunted by a bunch of women in black shrouds – of course once burned for witchcraft they may or may not have committed – who like to tear holes in the fabric of reality, produce dry ice fog of astonishing density, and kidnap children for sport. These charming dead persons are lead by a dead child murderess (Mary Coulson, I believe) who not just murdered her little victims but ate their souls to be able to bring them down to her favourite demon’s part of wherever he dwells.
It was an encounter with that lovely woman right before she was executed on the electric chair that broke down the faith of Peter’s old seminary friend – who unlike Peter became a Catholic priest – George (David Brandon ably assisted by buckets full of sweat). Ever since, George has sort of dropped out of the priesthood, sort of become an alcoholic, is looking for knowledge Man Was Not Meant to Know. and may or may not be possessed by the demon the murderess prayed to, depending on the mood of Fragasso when he wrote any given scene. In any case, when the shrouded ladies get rude, it’s George who helps Peter in various ways, until the whole thing fake-climaxes in a hilarious exorcism and other assorted nonsense.
As we all know, when Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso ended their partnership, Mattei took with him whatever actual sense there was between the two (and given Mattei’s later output, that statement is rather frightening), while Fragasso went on to transfer full control to his Id and gave us Troll 2. Shot in the same year as that epochal achievement, and featuring the same non-acting child actor in Michael Stephenson, Beyond Darkness will probably always be “the normal one” in comparison, seeing that it features a vaguely understandable plot, contains only half a dozen or so scenes that might traumatise the unprepared by their sheer fucking weirdness, and even tells a – if completely unrelatable and absurdly told – story about faith lost and found and glowing holes in the wall that lead to another dimension belonging to demons none of the three priests in the film calls Hell.
Of course, compared with Troll 2, most films are “the normal one”, and you can’t really say Fragasso didn’t apply most of his powers of coming up with sheer bizarre bullshit dressed up in improbable dialogue while setting his camera at an angle when shooting Beyond Darkness. This is after all still a film that has his perhaps sometimes possessed doubting priest suddenly popping up at his old mentor’s church to sweat profusely and jam a bit on the organ while both men babble nonsense about demons a theology doctorate wouldn’t help one to understand, where there’s a scene shot via flying knife cam, and whose kidnap, rescue and possession plot is told in the most convoluted way possible. But hey, I’m pretty sure the good guys win thanks to mentor guy shouting at a demon really loudly while staying home in his church until a Satanic bible burns and mentor guy himself dies from a heart attack (see, you can hear Fragasso think, my film’s just like The Exorcist); which is pretty good, because without that, Peter and Annie would have sacrificed their own son to the demons – and only Peter has the excuse of being possessed at the time.
This kind of nonsense is obviously only the tip of the iceberg of nonsense and non-sequiturs Beyond Darkness barfs into our eyes, ears and brains. I might be mixing my metaphors a little here but this is only appropriate when talking about a Fragasso film. In fact, it’s more or less the same approach Beyond Darkness is applying to storytelling. Visually, Fragasso is all about all kinds of crooked camera angles that are probably meant to be stylish and creepy but most of the time seem tacky and weird, incredible amounts of dry ice fog, glowing holes in walls (with dry ice fog coming through them, obviously), dry ice fog, close-ups of eyes, dry ice fog, and more dry ice fog. Well, that and sweat, because all of the actors seem permanently drenched in a way that might – like a few other elements here – suggest some sort of misguided homage to Lucio Fulci, with David Brandon so caught up in the hot sweating action it’s a wonder nobody drowned in his fluids.
From time to time, between the nonsensical, the inane, and the bizarre, Fragasso also hits on an image that’s honestly creepy, like the shrouded (or really, wearing something that suggests he has seen The Woman in Black and/or photos of Victorian mourning garb) women stretching their hands through walls, doors, etc, again demonstrating that you don’t need to watch a “good” movie to see something shudder-worthy.
So, how much did I love this wondrous abomination of a film? Well, I wouldn’t want to marry it right now, but I’m interested in a long-term relationship full of speeches about demons, tasteless child ghosts, and some good old dimensional rifts in the walls.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?
Some middle-aged guy (the body of Jack Hawkins and the awkwardly dubbed voice of Charles Gray) visits the high-tech – by way of what looks a bit like a set from a cost-effective (but awesome) SF TV show – psychiatric clinic of one Professor Tremayne (Donald Pleasence). Tremayne shows off his four favourite patients while mumbling something about how his deep research into the cases and the truth about them will change everything.
This being a British horror anthology movie, with each patient lies a tale. There’s little Paul (Russell Lewis), who has a pair of permanently warring parents (Georgia Brown and Donald Houston), a nice private tutor (David Wood), and an imaginary friend who just happens to be an invisible tiger cleverly named “Mr. Tiger”. The obvious thing happens.
Next up is Timothy Patrick (Peter McEnery). His tale involves the inheritance of quite a few antiquities, among them the (soon to be moving) picture of one Uncle Albert (Frank Forsyth) and a penny-farthing that once belonged to the man. The unicylce or the picture or both have telekinetic powers that violently draw Timothy onto the cycle, make him cycle quite hard and transport him into the unicycling past where he takes the place of Albert and repeats a scene or two from a doomed romance (his past adventure love and present day love both being played by Suzy Kendall, the former one in a hilariously melodramatic manner) while being observed by what looks like mud zombie Uncle Albert. Obviously, past and future catastrophe looms.
Patient number three is Brian (Michael Jayston). Brian lives peacefully in a large house in the woods with his mildly irascible –she’s being played by Joan Collins after all – wife/girlfriend Bella until he finds an about human-sized and vaguely woman-shaped piece of a tree in the woods. Obviously, he’s dragging it home and putting it in his living room. Soon, the age-old tale of a man’s affections split between a piece of wood and a woman repeats again.
Last but not least, we witness the tale of Auriol (Kim Novak), a literary agent who’s rather fond of her best client, the “Polynesian” – or “Hawaiian”, going by the whole luau thing – writer Keoki (Leon Lissek, obviously neither Polynesian nor Hawaiian but then it is rather difficult to imagine somebody with the appropriate ethnicity taking on this particular role). Little does she expect that Keoki is in the process of fulfilling the last wish of his dear old mum, namely, to sacrifice a virgin to their favourite god and have a nice cannibalistic get-together afterwards. As luck will have it, Auriol’s daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm) just happens to be a virgin. And wow, isn’t it quite the coincidence Auriol is actually planning a little luau for him! Accidental inter-family cannibalism just might ensue.
As the observant reader might have noticed, the stories contained in this not Amicus produced (despite being directed by dear old Freddie Francis and featuring a structure and actors you might know all too well from the Amicus films) British horror anthology are utter, preposterous tosh, ending on notes as obvious as moonlight, while still managing to be flat-out crazy.
If you’re looking for something moody, thoughtful or just vaguely believable, you’ve come to the wrong film. Like a lot of these anthologies, this one’s a horror comic made flesh, but – apart from tale number four – it’s less EC style horror than the sort of thing Charlton Comics would have put out in comics code times (with perhaps a bit more blood than would have been allowed there on screen), stuff that at the best of times distracts from how pedestrian it should be by being outright crazy. Which is pretty much exactly what Tales That Witness Madness does after the somewhat useless first story, adding utterly peculiar elements to the stories that would seem ill-advised in a film actually out to scare its audience. Seriously, a haunted penny-farthing? And let’s not even talk about the whole of story number three, which just might be one of the major achievements of human arts.
Talking of ill-advised, it is rather difficult not to realize – even if you pretend very hard not to notice – how much of a racist fever dream the film’s last tale is, with its evil brown people killing a white virgin and feeding her to her own mother, and there’s really nothing I can find to excuse it, so if that sort of thing offends you (and good on you), you’ll loathe the rest of the film for it, too, I suppose. On the other hand, I found this tale so preposterous and silly in tone while also being gloriously lurid I couldn’t help but enjoy it more than a little. It’s just very difficult for me to look at this sort of thing (particularly in a film made more than forty years ago) and take it seriously enough to get angry or even very annoyed at the dead people responsible; not that I approve of it, mind you.
Be that as it may, Francis is pretty much the ideal director for this whole beautiful mess, combining his usual wonderful sense of visual style with the appropriate shamelessness to actually bring these deeply stupid tales to glowing life. Francis has just the right sense for movement and colour to turn this into a moving comic strip, clearly realizing that attempting to add class to this stuff would be a fool’s errand and opting for being as lurid and peculiar as possible, a task he fulfils with aplomb (as well as, one assumes, on time and on a not very large budget). Despite being quite so silly, the film also shows a wonderful sense of the telling (yet weird) detail that is best demonstrated by how the tree thing in tale number three is a bit more shaped like a woman in every scene, until the rip-roaring denouement that suggests a piece of tree is preferable to poor Joan Collins.
Clearly, it pays off putting effort even into the silliest things.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?
Update (6/13/2015): The original post continues below – received the Blu-ray on Wednesday and wanted to share some quick thoughts. Firstly, I really wanted to love this release. The film is a bona fide household favorite, and there was the potential, at least, to really knock the socks off the so-so presentations of the past. Unfortunately, VCI’s The Giant Spider Invasion is pretty terrible, at least in so far as the feature presentation is concerned. People will bellyache about the Mpeg-2 video encode, but that’s an utterly inconsequential technicality in this case – the transfer on-disc would look terrible regardless. The problem here is processing, processing, and still more processing. The grainy, scratch-riddled source elements have been practically sand-blasted, with much of the already modest detail the picture possessed carelessly scrubbed away in the process. Artificial sharpening and motion errors (a stuttered ghosting effect that appears from time to time) just add to the troubles – for all the improvements in color and framing over past editions, the disc just looks bad.
Samples are included below, in uncompressed PNG. The trailers on-disc hint at what might have been. The damage is there in the form of vertical scratches and plenty of dust and speckles, but the unprocessed image is miles in advance of what can be seen in the feature presentation. Unless you’re really, really itching to shell out nearly $30 for the newly-produced extras (the HD galleries, trailers, and Rebane interview that accompany the Blu-ray are neat, but only add up to maybe half an hour of material) then this disc is a complete pass. I never thought I’d prefer an early ’80s VHS to a modern Blu-ray release, but I suppose them’s the breaks. What a disappointment.
The Giant Spider Invasion – feature screenshots:
trailer / television spot screenshots:
Does this film even need an introduction? Bill Rebane’s Midwestern big-bug epic is pretty infamous these days (the lampooning from cult program MST3K is, admittedly, hilarious), but was a significant drive-in hit in its own time. I remember seeing it on television as a kid in the late ’80s and thinking it was pretty much the best thing I had ever seen – the gangly spider mock-ups and trashy atmosphere creeped me out in the best of ways back then.
Long available only in editions culled from masters dating at least as far back as my first experience with the film, The Giant Spider Invasion is set to make an unlikely comeback next week courtesy of VCI. The label will be releasing a fresh DVD of the film (with tasty supplemental accompaniment) in wide distribution, but the big news is their web-exclusive (it appears to be available from their webstore only at present) Blu-ray, a loaded deluxe edition that’s set to present The Giant Spider Invasion in widescreen and HD for the first time in its lengthy home video history.
Supplements for the Blu-ray are stacked. Quoting from the VCI site:
New 2015 Documentary by Daniel Griffith – “Size Does Matter! Making The Giant Spider Invasion”
Bonus CD from “The Giant Spider Invasion the Musical” – 14 Rockin’ Tracks from the forth-coming Live Musical-Stage Play
Mini ‘TGSI’ Collectible Comic Book
The SUPER-8 Version (the original home media format!)
The SUPER-8 Version re-edited in HD!
Archival Interviews with cult-film director Bill Rebane and other members of the cast, crew and Super-fans
Archival Interview with actor Robert Easton (Kester)
Bill Rebane introduction by Kevin Murphy and Mike Nelson (of Mystery Science Theater fame)
Extensive Behind-the-Scenes Photo Gallery
Original Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots
Archival TV News Reports
Liner Notes written by Tom Stockman, WeAreMovieGeeks.com
VCI are set to present The Giant Spider Invasion at its theatrical 1.85:1 ratio with LPCM audio (VCI say Dolby Digital, but the DVDDrive-In review disputes this) and optional English subtitles. No complaints here. I’m fascinated to see how it all shakes out, and all the more so given VCI’s spotty track record (in so far as feature presentation is concerned at least). So long as this Blu-ray plays better than my 25-plus-year-old Japanese VHS I suspect I’ll be happy enough.
The peaceful life of the girls of a Catholic boarding school in a small Japanese town turns first strange, then rather too exciting, and finally tragic. It starts when one day, everyone’s favourite student Aya locks herself into her room, and after a month, she’s still not coming out.
She does appear in the dreams of some of her friends, though, whispering into their ears to free her from “the curse that can only afflict women”. The dreams turn to frightening visions, and soon, some of the girls find themselves sleepwalking during these visions, waking up in front of a portrait photo of Aya, and just about to kiss that photo. There’s an urban legend about a love spell ritual and a curse connected to that sort of thing going around in school, but it’s disconcertingly vague, so it’s not much help in any attempt of the girls to understand what’s going on around them. What’s not vague is the fact that those of the girls who do end up kissing the photo disappear without a trace.
Has Aya really cursed the others – and if so, why – or is something rather different and quite a bit more complicated going on here?
Officially, Mari Asato’s Fatal Frame is some kind of adaptation of the fine (at least those I could play before they landed in the exclusivity-grabbing hands of Nintendo) series of survival horror videogames known as Project Zero here in Europe, but if you expect a film about girls and young women hunting ghosts with the help of a magical camera, you’ll not be too happy here, even though photos do play an important role in the plot. The main connections between the film and the games are certain thematic concerns: girls growing up, girls uncovering the dark secrets of the past, sometimes even their own, the societal and internal emotional pressures on the lives of young women, and the difficulties added to them by a Shinto and animist inspired supernatural world that, unlike in our world, actually exists. The rest are merely nods in the direction of fans of the games.
Fortunately, Fatal Frame the movie is much too well made a film to make this loose approach to adaptation annoying – even though I’d still like to see a film about young women photographing ghosts while uncovering the secrets of the past – telling a clever story with quite a bit of subtextual pull in an interesting and satisfying way. Going by the films I’ve seen by director Asato, she’s one of the rays of light among younger Japanese genre directors, the kind of woman who can turn on paper crappy sounding franchise work into pretty great low budget films which definitely show a personal handwriting and thematic concerns, in particular concerning female friendship, love between women, and growing up.
Obviously, these are some of the main themes of Fatal Frame, too, sometimes elegantly, sometimes somewhat bluntly expressed and intensified through the supernatural. At first, the film does threaten to be beholden to a bit of lesbian panic but the longer it goes on, the clearer it becomes Asano (who is also responsible for the script) is playing a different game with different rules, and clearly isn’t out to preach against the (highly doubtful) evils of girl-love, though, this being a Japanese film where a gay happy end still seems rather unthinkable, it’s not really embracing it either. It’s not all that important to Asano, either way, I think, for the director seems more interested in how the sexual aspects of growing up add to the general confusion of girls right on the line of becoming women, even before the threats of the supernatural come into it at all. While the film does have quite satisfying supernatural elements (and a bit of the Japanese gothic too), they are on the quiet side, the ghosts here being a pleasant antidote to the jump scares of contemporary US horror as well as to the fixation of some Japanese horror directors on repeating scenes from Ringu again and again. For some tastes, this approach might be too quiet and too little interested in the supernatural being scary but I found myself quickly invested in a film that does use the supernatural from a different angle than we’re used to right now; it does of course help I’m rather fond of quiet ghost stories, and that “quiet” doesn’t mean “without emotional stakes” or “harmless”.
While the storytelling becomes a bit flabby towards the film’s end – the sort of thing that happens when you have to tie up plot threads of not just your main characters’ growing up but also of more than one haunting and more than one case of very human evil – most of the film is very focused, with Asato’s highly composed looking, always clear and calm direction anchoring the film in a world of naturalistic sensation that can still turn into the dream-like and the strange with apparent ease. There are quite a few moments here I find quietly wonderful from a filmmaking perspective, at their core very simple scenes and concepts realized with a quiet confidence, helping unite character, mood and themes, and making it easy to ignore the film’s handful of missteps. If you – as I do – sometimes like admire the rhythm of a film, this might impress you as much as it does me.
On the technical side, Fatal Frame also impresses with a very Suspiria-like soundtrack (which certainly isn’t an accident given the film’s themes), mostly excellent photography and acting that is much better than I’ve become used to in Japanese low budget films. Unfortunately, the film having come to me without an official release in these parts, I have no idea which actress is playing which role, but they’re all good, so it’s fine in any case.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?
“What would you do if you accidentally discovered the house next door was occupied by something not human… something horrifying… something unspeakably evil? No one believes you – not your mom, not your girlfriend, not even the police. It knows that you know. You’ll do anything to protect yourself, but it’ll do anything to protect it’s secret…”
It’s not often that one can rely on a theatrical trailer to give an honest description of the film it represents, but in the case of Tom Holland’s 1985 horror opus Fright Night the advertising makes such excellent work of it that I feel no remorse in letting it do that part of my job for me. With inspirations ranging from Hammer to Hitchcock, a smart script, and a superb cast of players, Fright Night ranks as one of the very best of the ’80s genre revivals and a damn fine film in its own right. In theme it recalls the distinct brand of sci-fi terrors Universal’s B-picture department specialized in some thirty years before, in which all manner of fantastic horrors were visited upon small-town America, though in practice it’s a different beast all together. Standing in for the Cold War paranoia of then is a sexual anxiety fitting of Fright Night‘s teen leads, while the usual atom-born menace is lost in favor of one of the oldest fantasy threats of all – the vampire.
Taking place in an anonymous slice of Reagan-era suburbia, Fright Night follows the exploits of veritable every-teen Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), a high school kid with a beer light in his room, porno mags shoved between his encyclopedias, a doting single mother, and a girlfriend named Amy (Amanda Bearse) who loves him to bits even if she’s horrified to go “all the way“. Charley idolizes his local horror icon Peter Vincent, washed-up host of the late-night schlock marathons from which the film takes its name, stumbles through his trigonometry homework, and oh yeah – he has a vampire living next door who knows Charley knows about him and wants to kill him for his troubles. With no one believing his story, not even Vincent, Charley rightfully fears for his life, but things get even more personal when the suave bloodsucker next door takes a shine to his virginal girlfriend.
It is with that last point that Fright Night, a terrific horror film on its surface merits alone, reveals what’s really on its mind – sex. Some (including Julie Kirgo, who contributes the excellent liner notes for this release) have read homosexual undertones into the vampire Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon as the ultimate in sensual and be-sweatered yuppie menace) and his relationships with troubled young outsider “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys, who made a career of gay porn in the ’90s) and his live-in familiar Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark), but the most overt of the film’s sexual substance is of the straight variety. Indeed, Holland pushes the subject from the very start, opening with a bit of fumbling non-intercourse between Charley and his beloved. The vampire attack witnessed by Charley that starts all the trouble is an overtly sexualized affair and a later encounter between Dandridge and Amy (the spitting image of Jerry’s long-dead lover, natch) is even more so, with Amy cooing in orgasmic bliss as blood trickles down her back. In this context the growing conflict between Charley and the dastardly Dandridge becomes less about survival than about who will collect the sexy spoils and control the fate of Amy’s freshly-awakened sexuality.
Fright Night may have sex on the brain, but it’s top priority is still thrills and chills. Holland and company don’t disappoint. Though bolstered by terrific practical effects and creature design from Randall William Cook and Richard Edlund (Oscar-winning alumni of Ghostbusters and Raiders of the Lost Ark) Fright Night‘s most effective moments remain its simplest – Charley investigating suspicious noises in the night, Dandridge suddenly appearing in the corner of a darkened bedroom, or “Evil” Ed running into the stalking menace in a misty alleyway. Holland shows a keen understanding for the genre throughout, both in his taught direction (this, his debut as director, remains his best work in that regard) and in the intelligence of his screenwriting, and never neglects the horror of the situation. Much more importantly, he never neglects the characters who make that horror tick.
To that end it’s impossible to discuss Fright Night without also discussing its cast, perhaps the best in practice of any of the decade’s revival horrors. Roddy McDowall gives the performance of his later career (one he would reprise in Fright Night Part 2 three years later) as down on his luck horror icon Peter Vincent, whose career as cinema’s preeminent vampire killer has collapsed into a low-pay hosting gig on a late night film show. Initially paid to help cure Charley of his vampire delusions, Vincent soon finds himself the unlikely ally of the child, and forced to summon the courage of a role he’d played so many times before to combat an evil all too real. McDowall balances Vincent’s tremendous charm and ego (his reaction upon discovering Charley and his friends don’t want his autograph is priceless) with underlying insecurity and, ultimately, courage, and practically owns the picture in the process.
At the more malignant end of the spectrum lies Chris Sarandon as the devilish Jerry Dandridge who, along with Kinski, Schreck, Lugosi, and Lee, exists as one of film’s most memorable vampires. Dandridge – who eschews the traditional cape for snazzy cable knit sweaters and hankers just as much for fresh fruit (fruit bat?) as for the supple necks of prostitutes – is every bit a product of the decade in which the film was made, an upper crust yuppie bloodsucker with a penchant for remodeling homes and antiquing. He keeps up with the pop music scene and looks perfectly placed in the neon haze of a discotheque, and the dark, wry sense of humor he cultivates only makes him seem all the more dangerous (“What’s the matter Charley? Afraid I’d never come over without being invited first?”). But Dandridge is more than just yuppie trappings and a handsome smirk, whistling “Strangers in the Night” as he stalks his prey. Sarandon’s ace performance lends the character an attractive outsider mystique and a feral magnetism that’s difficult to ignore. He’s a perfect villain, made all the more effective by just how tempting he makes the evil he represents appear.
Like Dandridge, Fright Night itself is very much a product of its time, though it’s no less successful a picture today for the polka dotted linoleum on its floors or the Ian Hunter on its soundtrack. It remains the best film of writer and director Tom Holland’s career (is that really The Langoliers I see in your filmography?), and easily makes my short list of the most satisfying genre efforts of the ’80s. Among its too often lamentable brethren Fright Night manages to be something different, something special, and for those keen on quality horror it’s an absolute must-see.
Twilight Time’s initial limited release of Fright Night didn’t last very long when it went up for sale in late 2011, and I suppose it should really come as no surprise that their new Fright Night: 30th Anniversary Edition has received much the same reception. Even with its boosted production run of 5000 units this improved reissue has already become a bona fide collector’s item, selling out well before its release date ever arrived. (It’s worth noting, for those keen on just owning the film in HD, that an affordable barebones Blu-ray edition has been issued by Sony in Germany, Japan and elsewhere) I’ll not linger too much on the transfer itself – if I’m not mistaken the same HD master was used for both this and the older Twilight Time edition of Fright Night, though the 30th Anniversary Blu-ray does offer improved technical specs. The 106 minute feature expands comfortably into dual layer territory on the new release, courtesy of a healthy Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 29.4 Mbps (original disc was single layered, 21.5 Mbps average bitrate). I noticed no significant issues aside from some infrequent blocking, and the screenshots in this article should give you an idea of what to expect writ large. Audio options expand a bit as well. The 30th Anniversary Blu-ray package offers the same 5.1 DTS-HD MA remix as before (with optional English SDH subtitles), but also includes the film’s original 2.0 stereo mix (also in lossless DTS-HD MA) – a nice addition for the purists out there.
While the technical advancements are pretty modest (though appreciated none-the-less), the supplemental additions are substantial to say the least. A pair of audio commentaries from IconsofFright are now conveniently available on disc (they were mentioned in the booklet for the first release, but not included on disc), and Twilight Time’s usual isolated score track is present and accounted for. With regards to video content the new release provides a trio of Schock till you Drop “Choice Cuts” interviews with Tom Holland (totaling around half an hour), as well as the lengthy original Electronic Press Kit (contemporaneous interviews, clips, and behind-the-scenes footage cut into a variety of television-ready segments, ~90 minutes), a 54 minute recording of the Fear Fest Fright Night reunion panel from 2008, a pair of theatrical trailers (G-rated and R-rated), and a collection of still photos and memorabilia images provided by director Tom Holland. It’s a nice mix of stuff all in all, sure to give Fright Night fans a few solid hours of substantive distraction, and even if some of it is already available free of charge online (the Choice Cuts interviews, the commentaries) its inclusion here is certainly preferable to the alternative. The Fright Night: 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray looks to be all region compatible, and played just fine in my Region B secondary deck.
There isn’t much more to say. The Fright Night: 30th Anniversary Blu-ray is a welcome upgrade to the editions the film has received in the past, and a pretty solid release of an ’80s cult favorite besides. Unfortunately it’s also well out-of-print, and the hysterical prices it’s already going for at eBay and elsewhere make a straight-up recommendation difficult. I’m more inclined to suggest one of the import editions – barebones though they may be, at $15 or less at least they won’t break the bank. Otherwise, the crucible of third party pricing awaits.
This write-up is based on the theatrical cut of the film, because it’s the one I’ve got. Given what I’ve read about the producer’s cut, it should actually improve heavily on some of the problems of the theatrical version when it comes to the whole cult/druid/whatever angle but seems to be cursed with an ending that would annoy the living crap out of me, and might drag considerably.
Apparently, not only was everyone’s favourite slasher movie killer Michael Myers freed by the mysterious man in black who shot up the police station Mickey was being held in in the last film but he and his brethren – all belonging to some sort of cult seemingly only populated by people of the medical profession(?) that wants to help Michael finish his murder spree because druids or something – also kidnapped the Mickster’s niece Jamie. Six years later, Jamie (grown up to be J.C. Brandy because the production didn’t want to afford the $5000 to get Danielle Harris back) escapes her captors together with a baby that is clearly supposed to be Michael’s child. Michael follows her and manages to kill Jamie after a bit of stalking, but not before she can hide away her daughter.
Remember little Tommy Doyle from the first movie? He has grown up to be played by Paul Rudd, and has turned into quite the Michael Myers conspiracy theorist. Thanks to a call for help Jamie left in a Howard Stern-style asshole radio personality show before she left the franchise forever, Tommy manages to find the child. Listening to the radio isn’t Tommy’s only hobby either. He lives right across from the old Myers house where now a bunch of Strodes (whose actual connection to Laurie Strode remains uncertain) make their home, and spies on them, or guards the family, or the house, or whatever. The only family members that need to interest us (aka the only ones in the film to not just be killed off as soon as a kill scene is needed) are Kara Strode (Marianne Hagan) and her little son Danny (Devin Gardner), because both will soon – and rather improbably – fall in with Tommy and therefore become particularly interesting not just to Michael but also to the cult that is helping him (the nature and sense of the cult this version of the film never really explains). We learn their interest in Michael has something to do with seeing him as continuing an ancient Celtic tradition of blood sacrifices of one’s own family, but the film never makes clear why these people want to be involved in that sort of thing, what they get out of it, or why they are also dabbling in incest.
As if that wasn’t enough, Doctor Loomis (still Donald Pleasence, again sadly underused as well as cursed with the true curse of Michael Myers, a bad script) – now retired, friendly, without facial scars and not once pushing his burned hand into somebody’s face while explaining the horrible price he had to pay for hunting Michael – has also heard Jamie’s call for help and involves himself in the whole affair too. Oh, and certain young people in Haddonfield want to instate Halloween again which was banned after the events of the last five (minus one) movies, and who could blame the authorities?
Now, reading over what I’ve just written, one might ask oneself what exactly Halloween number six is about, apart from Michael hunting a baby, and really, I haven’t mentioned abortive sub-plots like the one about Kara’s abusive father which, in classical slasher sequel fashion, all end in deaths before anything about them is resolved on a dramatic level, and for whose inclusion there seems to be little reason. Sure, you could see these things as attempts to give Kara more character than just “the newest female lead”, but if that was the plan, it doesn’t really work, and instead just adds another bit of ballast to a film that really could have used losing some.
A part of the reason for the confused state of plot and logic of this version of Curse of Michael Myers is one of those horrifying production histories that starts with a different script to the one the actors signed up for actually being shot and continues through various struggles between producers, director Joe Chappelle (who had a bright future in TV with shows like The Wire and Fringe before him) and who knows who else that seem to have left various people involved hating each other to this day, which does of course also make anything they say about each other utterly dubious. The push and pull behind the scenes resulted in a film that doesn’t seem to know what it is about beyond Michael Myers looking for a baby and randomly killing off characters, be they actually involved in the plot or not. Even here, I still have no idea why Michael kills the shock jock, for example, a character he hasn’t met and who is only just planning to go to the Myers house, particularly since the film shows Michael to be somewhere else right before the murder. Or, as already mentioned, what the cult wants with “pure, uncorrupted [huh!?] evil”, or why anybody involved in the theatrical cut thought it was a good idea to neither think about these things nor to provide an actual ending to the proceedings. And lets not even mention how the film does the typical slasher sequel thing of first hinting at something really interesting – like the way Tommy Doyle’s childhood encounter with Michael shaped his future – and then not doing anything interesting with it at all.
Having said all that, I now have to come to the point where I need to admit I enjoy (at least this version of) The Curse of Michael Myers quite a bit, not as a dignified sequel to Halloween but as a pretty and illogical bit of 90s horror that seems closer related to Italian horror of the 80s in how it mixes bizarre randomness with violence, in its insistence of not using logic even when that might turn out well for it, in its generally highly moody photography, and in direction that might not be able to stitch single scenes together to a coherent whole but that sure as hell can make these single non-cohering scenes work very well as a series of nightmare pictures about blood, murdering shapes, and threatened babies with a bit of nonsense about druids thrown in. Of course, the best of the Italian films also knew how to apply a degree of thematic coherence to their dream-like worlds, so a film as clueless about anything as The Curse of Michael Myers isn’t quite on their level, but for a production this troubled, managing to get this close to actual class is some sort of an achievement I think.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?
A piece of carnivorous pink snot falls to Earth in a meteor and chews its way through the population of a rural California town in this uneven (if ultimately lovable) remake of the oddball monster classic from 30 years before. Shawnee Smith (Becker) is the requisite teen-who-cried wolf, out to warn a disbelieving public after her boyfriend is unceremoniously devoured, while bad-boy Kevin Dillon (Platoon, Entourage) is the “unlikely” hero, a selfish anti-social who’s out for himself, at least until the script predictably dictates otherwise. Candy Clark (The Man Who Fell to Earth), Jeffrey DeMunn (Christmas Evil), Bill Moseley (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) and Paul McCrane (RoboCop) head up the disposable supporting cast, the most noteworthy items in the film’s all-you-can-eat buffet.
Just one of a slog of high-profile ’50s monster remakes to descend upon cinemas in the ’70s and ’80s, Chuck Russell’s (The Mask) 1988 redux of Jack H. Harris’ considerable 1958 hit is also one of the least interesting, dramatically speaking. Scripting from director Russell and co-writer Frank Darabont (The Green Mile) can’t hold a candle to Carpenter, Cronenberg, or Kaufman’s more lauded revivals – the expected nods to the events of the original are supported by some rote action setups and plenty of cocky one-liners, but not much else. Russell and Darabont’s only significant narrative addition is that of a tiresome evil-government subplot, in which the amorphous star of the show is revealed to be (surprise!) a bio-war experiment gone awry. Joe Seneca does his best as the unethical man of science behind the whole mess, and makes his monologues about disappearing dinosaurs and Russians sound like better stuff than they really are, but he and his army of hazmat goons never amount to more than an unnecessary distraction. Like most of the rest of the film’s cast, they’re all just so much blob-chow in the end.
For all of its dramatic inadequacies The Blob does have at least one undeniable strength: an abundance of gore and creature effects that rate among the best of their type and time, and which take to their logical conclusion aspects of the concept largely left to the imagination in the ’58 original. Clearly influenced by Rob Bottin’s landmark make-up effects for Carpenter’s repulsive 1982 classic The Thing (ad art from which can be glimpsed in The Blob‘s projection room scene), Tony Gardner (make-up effects creator), Lyle Conway (creature effects creator), and a platoon of technicians put the man-eating mucous front and center with as many gross-out set-pieces as the budget would allow – and it allowed for a lot. Tristar and a cadre of producers (including the original’s Jack H. Harris) threw nearly $20 million at the film, big-time money for an R-rated monster pic and only a fraction of which would be recouped at the box office.
Conway and Gardner’s new-and-improved blob jiggles and writhes and tumbles over itself with ambling, carnivorous purpose, melting its way through its unfortunate prey like the creeping sac of digestive fluids it’s supposed to be. Those with a taste for such things will find no shortage of top-flight gore gags on display – the blob’s first victim (hobo Billy Beck) is reduced to a disembodied torso and slather of sputtering grease, while an ill-fated football jock’s would-be romantic conquest collapses into a slimy mass of blob tentacles as he cops a feel. Stand-out of the lot is the death of fry cook Clayton Landey, who finds himself the bizarre casualty of the world’s hungriest clogged sink – The Blob was one of the first films I ever recall seeing, courtesy of my father’s questionable taste in family programming (I was only 4 or 5 – surely I’d never remember this, or Miracle Mile, or Goodbye Emmanuelle…), and this effects gag stuck hard in my shocked little mind. I was scared silly of sink drains for days.
Supporting all the gore is a bona fide monster rampage that plays like the sort of thing Universal threatened its quintessential Western communities with so often (Tarantula, The Monolith Monsters and so on). The blob creeps through small-town city streets, snatching up the occasional fleeing citizen and duking it out with Joe Seneca’s dim-witted hazmat army before plastering itself to the front doors of town hall – stand-in for the original film’s beleaguered diner. There it makes easy pickings of the people trapped inside (no one checks for emergency exits?) until the teens inevitably arrive to save the day, packing automatic rifles and thermite charges in addition to the ’58 film’s comparatively quaint fire extinguishers. There are shades of other classic horrors to be had among all the modern action flash, with Shawnee Smith’s one-girl fight against encroaching blob tentacles strongly recalling the climactic action of It Came From Beneath the Sea, and despite the glitzy trappings the end result is in keeping with the source film – the monster is left impotent and frozen, but far from dead, in the middle of downtown, and the question of whether it might rise to feed again is left well open.
The Blob certainly has it’s issues, and plenty of ’em, but it’s a film I find difficult to criticize too harshly. What it does well it tends to do very well, and so long as that eponymous cascade of people-eating goop is on screen it can really do no wrong. The Blob‘s major practical effects production still holds up well, even under the increased scrutiny afforded by HD video, and I suspect there’s a whole generation of new CG-raised youngsters that would find plenty to admire in its slick and sticky monster antics. Nearly thirty years after the fact this blob remains a gruesome good time, and those in the mood for a tasty gross-out treat could do far, far worse.
The Blob is reviewed from the new Twilight Time blu-ray, a limited edition of 5,000 (already nearly sold-out according to the label) that streets with their other releases for this October. The disc presents the film at its theatrical 1.85:1 ratio by way of a Sony-licensed 1080p master. The Blob is in about as fine a condition here as one might reasonably hope, some occasional artifacting and a touch of noisiness aside – the screenshots should give a good indication of what to expect. The average video bitrate is middling (19.6 Mbps), but the image is quite pleasing in motion – clean of all but the most marginal of damage, with strong contrast, well-saturated color, and a solid level of detail besides. The last I saw The Blob was on cable half a decade or more ago, so this was an upgrade for me to say the least.
Audio (originally presented in Ultra Stereo) sounds great in 5.1 surround DTS-HD MA, clear and with a good degree of separation that adds plenty to the appeal of the frequent monster scenes, and is supported by optional English SDH subtitles. An isolated track of Michael Hoenig’s rather mundane score (stereo, DTS-HD MA as well), a commentary track with director Chuck Russell and Shock Till You Drop‘s Ryan Turek, a pair of original theatrical trailers (gory and non), and a featurette of The Blob‘s presentation as part of Cinefamily’s Friday Night Frights round out the supplemental content. The Blob is single layered and looks to be all-region compatible (it plays without issue on my Region B secondary deck), and is available while supplies last through ScreenArchives.com.