Movie Reviews 200 – Black Sabbath (1963)

November 23, 2014

Black SabbathCelebrating my 200th movie review, I thought it only fitting that I spotlight a special movie. So I chose 1963’s Black Sabbath from the patriarch of Italian Horror cinema, Mario Bava and featuring none other than Boris Karloff in his last hurrah before churning out mostly mediocre fare in his final years.

Not to be confused with the Heavy Metal band showcasing Ozzie Osbourne and his crew of misfit bangers who adopted the group name in homage to the english release, the original Italian version bore the title “I Tre Volti Della Paura” (which translates as “Three Faces of Fear”).

The movie is a three set anthology, a format not particularly unusual for horror movies at the time and a joint venture with Amicus films, who basically provided Karloff’s services to Galatea films in Italy. My DVD (from the Mario Bava Collection set) only had subtitles, so I’m not sure if a dubbed version is available, but don’t let that stop you. In fact hearing Boris speaking  Italian is almost worth it alone.

The  first piece is “The Telephone”, about a woman living alone and terrorized by a caller who seems to know her every move in her apartment. We soon deduce that a man she once helped imprison has just been released and she frantically calls one of her older friends with whom she had some sort of falling out years ago. The suspense grows as we learn the true nature of the events surrounding the characters, but even so, the ending comes as a surprise. The European flavour is most evident in this story with brazen sexuality from the very first scene featuring Michèle Mercier disrobing as she arrives home and then bordering on the taboo as the story progresses.

The centerpiece “The Wurdulak” is the story starring Karloff as the patriarch of a 19th Century Russian peasant family in a town who seems resigned to the fate of a local legendary vampire-like curse. As a noble visitor named Vladimir (Mark Damon)  takes refuge in the home of one family after finding a knife embedded in a headless body, he learns the tale of the curse of the Wurdulak. The grandfather Gorca (Karloff), has left to battle to Wurdulak and has ordered the family that if he does not return before midnight, he is not to be let back in, as by then he will have succumbed to the beast and as a ‘walking cadaver’ himself, he will pounce upon the next person he loves most. The family is indecisive as Gorca returns seconds after the stroke of midnight and starts behaving strangely. Vladimir has fallen for the young and beautiful Sdenka (Susy Andersen) but first the family has to figure what to make of Gorca’s sudden interest in his young grandson and the fact that the knife Vladimir found was Gorca’s.

Easily the best of the three stories (although all are powerful), the colors are lavish and bold throughout, with scenes saturated in reds, greens, blues and yellows. The movie poster says it all.

The final story, “The Drop of Water” is about a caretaker (Jacqueline Pierreux) who is called upon when one of her elderly patients has passed away late one night and takes the opportunity to pilfer one of the dead woman’s rings. She is of course haunted by the ghost of the old woman sporting a freakish death mask like you’ve never seen before. Her haunting is exemplified by the sound of dripping water and a pestering fly, both of which were present at the time of her crime.

Simply a masterful anthology that rivals anything from Hammer or other Amicus productions and one of the best Bava directorial outings rivaled only perhaps by Black Sunday.

Movie Reviews 199 – Grité una Noche (2005)

November 17, 2014

Grite Una NocheI’ve professed my admiration for Adrían García Bogliano before, first for Masacre, Esta Noche (which he co-directed with his brother Ramiro) and then again for Habitaciones Para Turistas. Those low budget Spanish gems (also written by the Bogliano brothers) were refreshingly original stories that caught viewers off guard when realization set in about the true shocking circumstances of the protagonists found themselves in.

Unfortunately Grité una Noche (Scream the Night), filmed in the interim period, fails to deliver the anticipated originality and charm and opts for a mundane and simplistic ghost story. I actually enjoyed the non-cohesive beginning where we are trying to figure who’s who among a band of loosely knit girlfriends and school mates as they talk about boys, snipe one another and rebel as all teenagers do. We soon find out the relationships of the friends and family members including which have had particular experiences that will figure into the story.

Resembling more an italian Giallo at times with a spectre that sports a blonde wig and wearing sunglasses whose apparition keeps on spooking the girls, we slowly learn about a kid who committed suicide at the local high school. The movie then devolves into the mundane and monotonous ghost story we’ve seen a million times before, only done better. For this particular trip Bogliano could have learned a thing or two from the people who made the Whispering Corridors series.

The best this film could muster is a daring lesbian first encounter in lieu of any surprises or twists. Sorry Adrían, but I rate this one a pass.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Alex Irvine (2014)

November 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes NovelThis isn’t so much a novel review as it is a comparison of the novelization of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by Alex Irvine to the movie. So be forewarned, I assume readers are already at least familiar with the movie.

First let’s be clear on one point.There are two distinct kinds of movie ‘novelizations’.

When a movie is based on a preexisting novel, the movie is really an adaptation of the novel and may have little (or almost nothing in some cases) in common. The movie is basically cashing in on a novel of some repute, whether it adheres to the story or not. Ironically the 1968 Planet of the Apes movie was one of those where the movie adaptation treatment which only kept the basic premise and the main characters was vastly superior to Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des Singes.

The other, more common novelization, as is the case here with the novelization of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is strictly an adaptation based on the movie script (or one of the preliminary scripts as the movie is still in development). In these cases there is little or no difference between the written word and what appears on screen. The studios and publishers are basically trying to cash in on the popularity of the movie, luring a few who haven’t seen the movie and simply want to read the story, but more likely targeted to the ardent fan of the subject matter, as I include myself in that category for all things Planet of the Apes.

But even with direct script novelizations authors sometime take liberties, and while not changing any scenes, they can still provide new, fresh perception and depth to the characters and give readers insight into events and specific actions. This is often provided by describing the thought process of characters or highlighting things that characters have visually singled out that may have been missed onscreen by moviegoers. In this way, a novelization can deliver a richer experience to a movie.

I was hoping that this particular novelization would fall into that latter category and provide an enhanced experience to Dawn. A movie featuring talking apes who are only beginning to grasp the concept of speech it provides an excellent opportunity to explore more. What are the apes who hardly speak  thinking? What is their unique take on events given their non-human perspective? Even the main character Caesar, while the most proficient speaker, he is not very verbose, and mostly still signs rather than speak with the other apes. So if you are looking for more insight on the characters, this novelization fails in that regard.

So what, if anything does the novel have to offer compared to the movie itself? I did find it interesting in how they handled Koba’s last scene.  Koba plunges down the skyscraper into the abyss below but there is no definitive eyewitness account of any human or ape seeing him splatter below and everybody just assumes he died in the plunge. It’s an important distinction because in the moments leading up to his death during the battle with Caesar the building is rocked and many apes lose their footing. The novel mentions apes clearly dying as a result (described as bodies laying across beams), but some, including Caesar, manage to grip onto beams and other fixtures. So it is possible, however unlikely, that Koba also managed to grip onto something on the way down. This is a case where the novel could have easily provided clarification but it did not.

There is one small pertinent addition to the novel and an important one considering what we can expect in the next movie. Some of the early movie teasers and trailers showed scenes of a battleship entering the San Francisco bay, but this footage never made it into the movie for some reason or another. This scene is included at the end of the novel, shaping a potential new heightened war among the apes and humans. Now it is possible that the scene was excised from the movie because the franchise brain trusts changed their mind and no longer wanted this to be the cliffhanger as some other direction has since been decided upon. Perhaps they just did not bother removing it from the novel or, more likely, it was too late to change because printing was already in progress. Whatever the reason for the difference it will be interesting to see if readers did get a real advance peek.

Movie Reviews 198 – Black Christmas (1974)

November 9, 2014

Black ChristmasThere are plenty of debates regarding the birth of the slasher film and what impact some of those films had on others that followed them. Black Christmas was one of those that, while not making an initial immediate impact (it’s US release was terribly bungled) influenced many genre filmmakers in the following years and is now considered a cult classic. With good reason I might add.

The Canexploitation bonanza that resulted from the infamous Canadian Tax Credit program of the 70’s intended to invigorate the fledgling Canadian film industry gave us such films as Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine and even financed some of David Cronenberg’s earlier films. But Black Christmas was one of the more polished films and is easily one of the best products to emerge from the initiative.

Producer and director Bob Clark enlisted genre favorite John Saxon and a bunch of young actresses including star Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and even SCTV alumni Andrea Martin to play the sorority house members that are terrorized by mysterious prank phone caller “Billy”. Having already begun murdering girls in town, Billy manages to enter and hide in the attic of the Pi Kappa Sig sorority house upon which he then targets the occupants remaining after most have left for Christmas vacations.

Lt. Fuller (Saxon) is the cop piecing together the clues including a hilarious sex pun left in an official police statement by Barb (Kidder), the obvious rebel of the bunch of girls. He’s also got to deal with a nip drinking House Mother who sneaks a swig every minute she’s alone, and the obvious suspect in failed pianist scholar Peter (Keir Dullea of Starlost, 2001 fame), a spurned lover of Jess (Hussey). One of the reasons for the films success is not only the range of suspects viewers have to judge, but the open ending that keeps “Billy” almost as mysterious as he was at the beginning. “Billy” will never be as Famous as Jason, Mike Myers or Freddy Krueger, but he paved the way for his bloody brethren.

SlientNightEvilNightAlso released as Silent Night, Evil Night and Stranger in the House, (that last title being ironic in that the movie When a Stranger Calls released five years later basically stole the premise of this movie), the suspense is thick throughout and the chills are as cold as the film’s winter Holiday setting.

Another great irony is that producer Clark is probably best known for another classic Christmas movie he made a few years later, the holiday favorite A Christmas Story. But in that movie the threat comes from a Red Ryder B.B. gun and the everyone’s fear that Ralphie will shoot his eye out. I highly recommend a double feature night where you watch both of these classics together and get the very best, if polar opposite, takes on Yuletide viewing.

Movie Reviews 197 – Children of the Corn: Revelation (2001)

October 27, 2014

Children of the Corn RevelationIt’s watching movies like these that make me question my obsession to be a ‘completist’ and watch every movie in a series no matter how bad the successive releases get. It’s taken me more than four months to recover from Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return and finally watch this seventh installment in the Children of the Corn series. More importantly, Children of the Corn: Revelation is the last movie that I have. Well for now at least.

It begins promisingly enough with a woman who arrives at a recently condemned building into which her grandmother has inexplicably just moved into. All the tenants have received their 30 day eviction notices, and as you can imagine the last tenants remaining are all ‘down on their luck’ stereotypes including a stripper, a thief, a pothead and a wheelchair bound grumpy old man. Not the kind of folks you’d want meet at an apartment building get together party.

Jamie (Claudette Mink) finds that her grandmother has vanished sometime before her arrival and it is up to her and a reluctant police officer to solve the mysterious disappearance.  Over time Jamie learns a lot about her grandmother’s past that includes her being the sole survivor of a large circus tent fire in which a number of children perished 60 years ago. All the more so compelling given the fact that Jamie own parents recently died in a fire as well.

Jamie’s hunt for clues among the tenants is useless and the only other intriguing aspects are the sporadic appearance of a shadowy disfigured priest (Michael Ironside) and ghostly looking kids seen both in the apartment complex and the surrounding neighborhood.  Aside from the kids the only hint to series theme are the cornstalks that grow profusely around the edge of the building, and the priests single dire warning about “He who walks behind the rows”.

The main problem with this movie is that after setting up the interesting mystery, the latter half of the film becomes a killfest in which each of the tenants die gruesome deaths but only after finding dried corn wreaths on their front doors. It’s all silly at this point, and Jamie’s sleuthing eventually determines that the current upswell is related to that faithful fire long ago. A waste of a good cast and an otherwise decent production. What this movie needed was a better script that built up on the initial mystery instead of opting for the splatter focus as an ending. Not that there’s anything wrong with the splatter, it’s just that splatter, corny or otherwise.  does not make a movie. This movie is better than it’s predecessor, but just barely. And that’s how I sat through this one. Just barely.

I’ve already put in more words than this films deserves and doubt I’ll be watching Children of the Corn: Genesis, which at this point was the last movie in the series. But you know me. I am a completist so who knows.

Movie Reviews 196 – High Plains Drifter (1973)

October 20, 2014

High Plains DrifterThe Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Western career. Part of director Sergio Leone’s “Man with no Name” trilogy, it was where Eastwood would define his stoic, silent gunfighter persona and what would turn out to be his big break in film. But while the other movies in the trilogy are fine (A Fistfull of Dollars and For a few Dollars More) I would rate High Plains Drifter as my second favorite Eastwood western.

While it was his second feature directorial stint (he’d already made a mark in the director’s chair with Play Misty for Me) he clearly shows his talent for blending the gun battles with drama and characters, even if the character he plays is a thinly veiled copy of “the man with no name”, simply called “the stranger” in this movie.

The story is not very complex, but plot manages to retain a few lingering questions that really make it all the more interesting. Clint silently rides into a desolate small town and immediately raises eyebrows from all the town folk. After taking care of a few amenities mostly silently but not without incident he heads over to the barbershop. As he sits in the barbers chair for a much needed shave three gung-ho cowboy who he seems to have ticked the wrong way pile into the shop but before they can pull their twitchy triggers Clint mows them down with nary a flinch.

Trouble is, those gunfighters were hired by the town because three other gunmen put into jail a long time ago are scheduled to be released from prison and they’ve let it be known that they intend to return to the town to avenge their jail sentences. The town then tries to convince Clint to hang around and take care of the three men on the way. Clint decides to take on the town at the promise that they would “do anything” in return upon which Clint tests their resolve and the definition of “anything” often with comic results.

But there is much more to the history between the jailed outlaws and the townspeople that the stranger was led to believe. A dirty little secret where most in town aren’t as innocent as they portray themselves to be. The three men jailed killed the Marshall but the rest of the town just stood back and let them, turning their backs as the crime was being committed.

We eventually learn the whole truth of course but even so, there remains a nagging feeling that perhaps the stranger coming in as he did was no coincidence at all. All for you viewers to decide as you watch this underrated and somewhat forgotten dusty gem.

Movie Reviews 195 – The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003)

October 15, 2014

ZatoichiSpoiler alert to those we haven’t read my last blog, but having just watched The Book of Eli, this is technically the second ‘blind swordsman’ movie review in a row. And at the same time the stories are somewhat the opposite of one another, but to really understand that I’d have to spoil both movies.

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi  is one of those enduring movies that seems to break all the rules, but in the end delivers in every respect. The non-linear approach is applied not only to the chronology of events, but also to what at first appears to be a haphazard mix of stories and characters that eventually coincide.

We follow the slow paced elderly blind masseur Zatôichi (Takeshi Kitano, who also wrote directed and co-edited the film) as he arrives in a small town, only to quickly dismember a troupe of fighters that have just caught up with him. Obviously a skilled old samurai, he then takes lodging with an elderly woman who tells him the towns troubles with the current Yakuza gang.

At the same time an unemployed ronin comes to the same town accompanied by his sick wife. Desperate for work he seeks out employment as a ‘bodyguard’ (read: on-call assassin) and,  much to the chagrin of his wife, ends up working for the troublesome gang currently vying for power from two other gangs as they bully the village inhabitants.

Last but not least we encounter two young Geisha girls trying to lure men, but not for friendly frolicking and not just any men. These girls also have their sights set on specific members of the Yakuza gang and while their their mission is shrouded in mystery, it is nothing like another whopping secret they have.

While many movies like this span breathtaking fight scenes with comedy relief, this film goes way beyond the norm ending in a Bollywood-like colorful dance sequence that will blow your mind. (Did I really see that?) In between we have an overweight grown imbecile constantly charging around huts believing himself to be a ronin, a gambler who tries to mimic Zatôichi’s prowess at dice gambling, and a bumbling bartender and waiter at the local watering hole.

We watch as the disparate storylines come to an ultimate unfortunate showdown between two sympathetic characters, only one of which can be victorious. While immensely entertaining, this is not a complete ‘feel good’ movie with everyone leaving happily, although that dance routine would have you believe otherwise. The gore is palpable and when you understand the circumstances of those two Geishas, their entertaining dances are actually quite creepy.

Apparently a staple Japanese cinema (like The One Armed Boxer, or Lone Wolf and Cub series) there are numerous Zatoichi films made over the years, many of them acclaimed. So keep an eye out there for others and not just this one. I certainly will.

Movie Reviews 194 – The Book of Eli (2010)

October 10, 2014

The Book of EliDenzel Washington and Mila Kunis don’t immediately spring to mind when deciding which stars would be good candidates for a post apocalyptic science fiction yarn, but the story of The Book of Eli is itself about as quirky as the cast selection.

We never really find out what happened to the Earth that resulted in its transformation to a dusty, barren wasteland with only the odd small town or isolated household still clinging to life. But Eli (Washington) is a peaceful man on a divine mission to ‘go west’ no matter what, and any attempts to stop or delay his goal quickly turns the reserved man into a lightening quick, knife wielding samurai who will at least nicely warn his aggressors once before slicing and dicing them in a heartbeat. Among his few possessions is a book that we soon learn is the main reason for his obscure mission.

Eli’s problem arises when he hits a dilapidated town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who not only himself has a penchant for books but has gangs scouring the earth for one book in particular. It is of course ‘the good book’ and it is of course the book that Eli is toting with his possessions.

But hang on. This isn’t an overzealous religion spouting one act pony of a movie. The obvious battles between Eli and Carnegie and his henchmen is interspersed with encounters with a number of other seedy, low-life gangs that roam the wild. Meanwhile, Eli reluctantly takes on a fellow traveler in Solara (Kunis) the rebel daughter of Carnegie’s current woman (played by Jennifer Beals). And before you go there, this isn’t a nouveau Adam and Eve story either.

There is a lot of silly stuff to suck up along the way, like what does Carnegie really expect from having the last bible in his possession, or to whom Eli is supposed to deliver it? But there is a lot of fun (and blood spurting) too in the barren world where people barter for water (remember Waterworld?) and where ‘traps’ are set out for wanderers, all reminiscent of Mad Max and other parched Earth movies.

While much of the movie is a predictable as are most biblical fables, the film does deliver in the end with a few walloping surprises that seem so obvious but only after the ‘reveal’. Not the best post-apocalyptic movie (there are so many) but better than I expected.

Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (Larry Tye, 2012)

September 14, 2014

Superman-bookLook. Up in the air. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s one of the most iconic characters ever created. It’s Superman.

This latest entry into the history of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic creation has everything you’d expect. Starting from his humble roots in a Baltimore bedroom from the then teenage creators, to becoming the first real comic book mega star, before moving onto all other forms of media from TV to movies. This book chronicles both sides of the printed page, the major milestones in the creators lives and the development and dispersion of the character in all media.

The first few chapters goes into detail how the boys finally got publisher DC comics to buy their little piece of the super character long before his origins, powers and weaknesses were fully developed. Even his strength varied greatly over the years, from the simplistic “Faster than a speeding locomotive and able to leap tall buildings” (yes, he could not even really fly in those early days) to having the almost insuperable power to move planets and suns to eventually having to tone down his powers in order to make some things challengeable and have more interesting stories.

Interest in the character himself alone would quickly fizzle out were it not for the many other secondary characters surrounding him including his parents (both adoptive and birth), friends, and lovers, naturally with emphasis on Lois Lane who dominates the Superman pages second only to the man himself, and these are covered in detail as well.

When it came to the early years of Superman, the original TV series starring George Reeves was almost as influential as the comics themselves and in some ways more so. The mysterious circumstances of the actors death is just a small part of the drama before and behind the camera lens that are discussed, conspiracy theories and all.

Fact is, Superman, the supporting characters, and all the events they lived through on the printed pare were rarely consistent because of the many writers who helmed all the comics. But this book doesn’t only do a great job of pointing out these deviations. When DC decided it was high time to make things ‘correct’ not only in the Superman universe but all the other comic characters in it’s stable it came up with the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries that not only described the many parallel universes it devised to explain the inconsistencies, but created a cataclysmic solution to collapsing it all into one definitive universe. This book does helps sort out the end state for Superman as a result of Crisis. After Crisis, the next big ‘change’ in the Superman story was another ‘reset’ with the new Man of Steel series created by John Byrne in 1986, which, for a while at least, redefined Superman.

Of course the series of Superman movies starring Christopher Reeves are here as are the more recent Lois and Clark and Smallville TV shows. Some of the more interesting aspects of these not only include the constraints placed on the show makers, but how one of the shows haphazardly ended up having Superman killed off in the comics (in as much as a fictitious character can really die in a comic anyway).

Of course, along with success comes controversy and ultimately friction. Those familiar with the comics are probably also familiar with the many legal and moral battles Siegel and Shuster (and then their families after they themselves passed on) launched against DC comics almost as soon as the honeymoon years were over and the treasure trove that the character became was fully realised.  While most of it is well captured here, even a book published only two years ago was not able to fully envelop the lawsuits that continue to snake through the courts even today. Sadly, one cannot escape the fact that the only thing more American that Superman and apple pie is a never ending lawsuit.

But Superman (like the lawsuits) will live on and so will books like these.

Movie Reviews 193 – Slap Shot (1977)

August 11, 2014

Slap ShotBet you’d never thought you’d be reading a review for a 1970’s hockey movie here. But then again, I never thought I’d ever see an actor like Paul Newman in crude comedy about a minor league hockey team vying to remain afloat by putting on a carnival show of fights and other nefarious distractions both on and off the ice.

When team captain Reggie Dunlop (Newman) learns that the local steel plant and main town employer are shutting down he realizes that The Charlestown Chiefs may be folding up. With no prospective buyers lining up and an elusive owner that keeps to the shadows Reggie decides to turn the team’s fortunes on his own. First he concocts a rumour that there are buyers interested by planting false information in the local paper. But the fun really starts when he notices that the local fans have a taste for bloody brawls, especially when the distractions lead to actually winning games. As luck would have it, the team has just signed the Hanson brothers, three young bespectacled goons whose idea of game preparation include wrapping tin foil and tape over their knuckles.

Most of the focus is on Reggie who’s stoking the fighting flames in the locker room and Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean) the lone standout player who refuses to bow to the low brow tactics. But the show stealers are the Hanson brothers played by real life minor leaguers Steve Carlson, Jeff Carlson and Dave Hanson. (That’s right, they were more Carlson brothers than Hanson brothers). From the moment they are greeted at a train station by Reggie who finds them battling with a vending machine which stole their quarter, the audience just waits for their next appearance. The fun includes a French speaking goalie trying to master the English language, a crude womanizing lounge lizard, the one good looking player with buxom twins constantly in tow, and the finale that pits a bevy some of the most notorious hockey hit men who are amassed to put the Chiefs in the penalty box for good.

Directed by George Roy Hill (who also directed The Sting, The World According to Garp, and a host of other great movies) the film is laden with reverence to old time hockey and invocations of the ghost of coach “Toe” Blake. It’s a surreal peek at semi-pro sports, hockey lifestyles, fandom and economics but it made this offbeat comedy something of a sleeper hit especially here in Canada. Even the French speaking public loved it because of it’s authentic Quebecois slang and swearing. Cool Hand Luke fans will also be glad to see Newman reunited with his former co-star Strother (“What we’ve got here is a failure to Communicate”) Martin.

If that wasn’t enough the soundtrack featuring Maxine Nightingale’s one-hit-wonder “Get Right Back Where We Started From” will get you right back to the 70’s.


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