Columns, Holiday Specials

HALLOWEEN 2016 COLUMN

By • Oct 26th, 2016 •

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As always, this is the time of year when the distributors release their current or rejuvenated horror flicks for a primed holiday audience. The three best horror flicks of the year thus far, in your editor’s humble opinion, are THE GREEN ROOM, MAI-CHAN’S DAILY LIFE, and DON’T BREATHE. But what follows are worthy recent debuts timed for consumption by the holiday crowd.

Warner Archives’ HOLLYWOOD LEGENDS OF HORROR COLLECTION has been re-issued in time for the holidays. Though this collection had been previously released, it is now long out of print, hard to find, and commands substantial bucks on the internet market. Warner Archives decided to re-release it so that consumers could purchase it more cheaply, and so that Warner Bros could profit from the ongoing interest in these six choice titles. No renovation work has been done to the masters, but the original release was technically pleasing, and that is what you will get here. Plus juicy commentary tracks on five out of the six titles.

DOCTOR X (1932) is the first (2-strip Technicolor) color horror film, and the first accorded a modern setting – New York City. It has Lionel Atwill, and even better, a pre-KONG Fay Wray. It’s mild, except for its fairly wild acknowledgement of cannibalism, and historian Scott McQueen’s commentary is extremely rewarding. McQueen attempts to add a theatrical touch to the proceedings, but his research is so thorough that his vocal impressions are hardly necessary. Universal’s horror structure, he reveals, was 80% horror, 20% comedy, whereas the WB formula was 80% comedy, 20% horror.

THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X (1939) Bogart in a horror film!? It was his only such, and he bad-mouthed it in the years that followed, but it isn’t bad. Director Vincent Sherman provides the commentary, prodded by author Steve Haberman.

MAD LOVE (1935) is a cold, technical piece of work, not seductive at all, but well made by Karl Freund. Peter Lorre gives it his all, trying to cement himself into the fearful hearts of America, after having fled Nazi Germany. The best thing about it for me was the trailer, which finds Lorre draped over an arm-chair like Sergei Eisenstein while the typeface declares “…whom Chaplin called the greatest actor in the world,” immediately after which he answers the phone and deals amusedly with a rabid female fan who gushes over Lorre’s performance in M. One of the great trailers. The commentary is by Steve Haberman.

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) Of all the titles in this enjoyable collection, MASK is the big politically incorrect entrée. And as such, impossible to see as anything but a reflection of the times, it is really fun. Apparently Karloff and Loy accepted the fact that this could only be approached as semi-tongue-in-cheek, and that makes the viewing experience all the more fun. A mere few minutes over an hour, it never wears out its welcome. And being pre-code, it’s quite risqué as well. Greg Mank is our host on the commentary track.

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) So we have Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU and Lugosi doing himself rather than Chaney in this neat little regrind of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (now a lost film), directed by Tod Browning (who, with two in this collection, has the most films represented). Everyone involved probably felt this did more justice to the vampire tale than the ’31 film that kicked off the horror genre. One problem – the ending invokes a silent film staple that is just about as disappointing as the gimmick of ending a film with the protagonist waking from a dream. As for Lugosi, while he looks good, his screen time would scarcely fill a coming attraction. The most important name in the credits is neither Lugosi’s nor Browning’s, but rather James Wong Howe’s. What a fine look the film has. Commentators Kim Newman & Steve Jones have a delightful, enlightening chat throughout. Had it been longer than sixty minutes, we would have gotten even more insights out of them.

THE DEVIL DOLL (1936) is one of the final films of Tod Browning, whose like-minded partnership with Lon Chaney gave us some of the most perverse stories ever told on celluloid. After Chaney’s death Browning foundered in Hollywood, botching DRACULA big time without his pal a) playing the count and b) providing him with inspiration. He also, I’m told, had difficulties adjusting to sound. But by 1936 he’d regained his confidence, and it’s a lightweight but charming horror/fantasy. Seeing Lionel Barrymore dolled up as an old lady, you still can’t help but think of Chaney in THE UNHOLY THREE (twice). This is the only film in the collection without a commentary.

Sony – HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016)

Here’s a sweet, non-horror film I’m slipping in, though there’s a connection to the genre in that the director Taika Waititi co-directed WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS. A New Zealand production, it makes the usual great use of the country’s vistas. Starring are local well-known actor Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison, a child actor who gives one of the better performances of the year. The off-beat supporting cast contribute admirably to the tone, which is light, quirky, and absurd, with bouts of mild tension because of the plotting. It’s good-natured and feel-good without the often symbiotic feeling of being emotionally manipulated — the script, direction, and music are too good to let you fall into that trap. (Leonard Cohen’s music even make an appearance.) On the commentary track, director Waititi chats throughout, but Neill skypes in his contributions for 44 minutes, at which point Dannison takes over for the remainder. It apparently was an extremely enjoyable film to make, concerning the adventures of a juvenile delinquent and a grizzled, cynical old-timer on the run together with the authorities in hot, incompetent pursuit.

Scream! – THE THING (1982)

One of those rare horror remakes that departs enough from the substance of the original to claim a life of its own (Cronenberg’s THE FLY is another). Great practical effects by Rob Bottin, a Morricone score that I haven’t been able to get out of my head for 34 years, and an uneven but earnest ensemble cast headed by Kurt Russell. Check out Ben Peeples’ review accompanying this column but separately placed.

TENEBRAE – Argento by way of Synapse, whose avowed goal is to polish every frame into audio-visual perfection. This is one of the Italian giallo/horror master’s work from his most fertile, imaginative, and successful periods. The centerpiece sequence involving a thoughtless young girl and an insane, offended Doberman is one of cinema’s great examples of random, relentless horror. If it gets to be a bit too much for you, just keep repeating “Dario is wearing the gloves…Dario is wearing the gloves…”

Time Life – THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON – THE VAULT SERIES.

For the past few years SCREAM! Has released boxed collections of Vincent Price films. This year it’s Time Life’s turn to deliver Price unto us, not in a film collection, but rather as a delicious supplement on the JOHNNY CARSON VAULT SERIES, dating back to 1975. We’re talking literally delicious because Price’s appearance in this collection, listed as stand alone special content item, is a twenty-minute interlude during which he teaches Johnny to cook a trout! The first ten minutes, sitting with Johnny next to his desk, is pleasant, but once they’re hovering over the table of food, things gets pretty amusing, and the finale is actually shocking. I wonder if Anthony Bourdain has ever seen this segment? Of course there are many other special guests including Jack Palance, Gene Kelly, James Garner, Andy Kaufman, Truman Capote and Richard Pryor, so it’s expansive in its rewards. But for Halloween, it will join your Vincent Price horror shelf as a rare sidebar that further fleshes out the icon’s image.

KINO/Lorber – BURN WITCH BURN (1962) BluRay.

This intelligent witchcraft flick is adapted from a Ftitz Leiber novel that has been filmed before, notably as part of Lon Chaney Jr’s Inner Sanctum series produced by Universal in the ‘40s, and it was the best entrée from that franchise. Influenced by the then recent, critically successful release of Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS, director Sidney Hayers chose to go the B&W, artistic route. Recruiting Peter Wyngarde (an alumni of THE INNOCENTS where he played Quint’s ghost) as the lead made the comparison between the two films even more conspicuous. Wyngarde, looking suitably grizzled, provides a recent filmed interview, and Richard Matheson essays the commentary track, often unsuccessfully (time works its insidious ways on the brain cells…), but at such moments he often invokes other examples of his work, such as I AM LEGEND, TV’s THE TWILIGHT ZONE, etc.

Arrow – THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977)

Wes Craven was my oldest friend in the ‘biz.’ I watched with a mixture of awe and horror (the real kind, not the watching a film in the safety of your own home kind) when he went out to LA to make a career for himself, and I was part of his support system when he battled his low-key way to the top of the horror heap. The making of THE HILLS HAVE EYES was a particularly painful experience for him. I corresponded with him throughout the shoot, as one thing after another went wrong and he fought against compromise and depression to bring about a salvageable outcome. Much of that story, including our correspondence, will end up in my memoirs, currently being written. But in the meantime you should pick up this, his second watermark horror flick, a triumph of the will over truly vast adversarial forces, and a BluRay loaded with important supplementals.

Reel Gore Releasing – MASKS (2011)

Reel Gore Releasing is a reliable brand, targeting very specific genre pieces. MASKS is a well-made, elaborate and often expressionistic reach back into the golden days of Giallo. Is it really a major nod to Giallo, you ask? Well, it’s dedicated to Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Sergio Marino, so yes, it’s a modern Giallo. Setting it initially back in 1973 is even more evidence, and if you need further proof, the director acknowledges his sources in the lovely booklet enclosed in the BluRay case.

As in the recently reviewed musical noir LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, we follow the plight of an aspiring actress who will go the limit to establish herself, which leads to disaster. In LMOLM it was fresh-faced Doris Day, whose desperation was manipulated by a possessive low-level gangster. In MASKS, Susen Ermich pretty much inflicts the damage to herself by joining an elitist, fanatical theater cult that believes in literally sweating blood for your art. The school reminds us of the girl’s school in SUSPIRIA, but is littered with what seem like plastic shower curtains – a bizarre mise-en-scene (but there is never any indication of the micro-budget the director worked with).

A dispirited co-student with whom Susen bonds is a sort-of-vaguely-Sandra-Bernhard-looking Julita Witt, who arouses our sympathies more effectively than Ms. Ermich, whose near-impenetrable facial features (her ‘mask’) are one of the weaknesses of the film, since we are distanced to a degree from getting involved in her crisis, though I give director Andreas Marschall kudos for making a daring and paradoxically appropriate casting decision.

The cover art is quite lovely and provocative. Let it be known that this image doesn’t appear in the film. A woman is seen lying in just that pose, but she’s got all her clothes on. There is nudity in the film, just not that specific example.

And the score, available in the box set as a separate disc, is quite good, vacillating between lush pieces and eerie repetitive cues. What struck me as most unusual about the score was that I was hooked even before the film began, by the passionate music laid under the logo of Anolis Entertainment, one of the investment companies.

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