October 25, 2011

The Black Cat (1934)

I’VE BEEN MEANING to see Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat ever since it was part of Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments several years ago.

And even though the clip shown of The Black Cat on that special gave away the ending, it was such a horrifying image for its time that I felt compelled to see the entire film – and find out if Ulmer had pushed the envelope in other areas as well.

Honeymooning in Hungary, Joan (Julie Bishop) and Peter (David Manners) share their train compartment with Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Bela Lugosi), a courtly but tragic man returning to the remains of the town he defended before becoming a prisoner of war for fifteen years and losing contact with his wife and daughter. When their hotel-bound bus crashes in a mountain storm and Joan is injured, the travelers seek refuge with famed architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), whose house is built fortress-like upon the site of the bloody battlefield where Verdegast was captured. It turns out Verdegast and Poelzig share a past: Poelzig had coveted Verdegast’s wife, and Verdegast believes that Poelzig knows what happened to her and his daughter. Meanwhile, Poelzig has several creepy secrets of his own…and a hidden agenda.


Lugosi and Karloff were two of Universal’s heavy hitters when they made The Black Cat – having starred, respectively, in Dracula and Frankenstein three years earlier. This was their first pairing together, and it’s exhilarating – almost surreal – to see them share screen time if you’ve never done so.

The ghoulish Karloff – clothed in black robes and constantly looking up at his guests from a downward tilted head – is the creepier of the two. He’s even introduced rising slowly in silhouette from his bed, making comparisons to his Frankenstein monster rising from the lab table impossible to ignore. Lugosi largely plays it straight as Verdegast, a wronged man bent on revenge. He’s so methodical about plotting his vengeance, at one point he even sides with Poelzig to prevent Joan and Peter from leaving. (The scene of the symbolic chess match between Poelzig and Verdegast is also a nice touch.)

However, The Black Cat is disappointing for anyone hoping to see true horror unfold. The first half is very pedestrian, with only an occasional dash of creepiness. That leaves roughly a half hour in this 65-minute film, and Ulmer (working from a script by Peter Ruric) doesn’t ratchet up the action or terror until it’s too late. Everything starts to come together in the last quarter of the film, but it feels like Ulmer’s racing to the end and merely touching on key story points so they’re resolved before the credits.

Other elements also tarnish any chance at The Black Cat delivering true scares. The dated, melodramatic, and sometimes inappropriate score by Heinz Roemheld often spoils what could be perfect scenes of tension or suspense. Poor editing reveals several continuity errors. And that horrifying scene mentioned earlier? The glimpse shown on Bravo is actually, and sadly, the entire shot – its shocking effect gone as quickly as the scene itself.

Revenge, secrets, betrayal, devil worship, necrophilia, incest – one would think all these topics rolled into one film would make for a shocking story to watch. But with the exception of a couple of moments and the final, frenetic fifteen minutes, The Black Cat is more drama than horror. It’s exciting to see two legends of the genre square off, but the pacing and payoff of the film are lacking.


Is it suitable for your kids?
In The Black Cat, several people are shot, with one person dripping blood from their mouth; a driver is killed in a bus accident; two people are choked unconscious; Poelzig walks past a collection of dead (yet immaculately preserved) women suspended in glass cases; and a person is skinned alive in silhouette for several seconds.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Unless she’s a devout fan of classic Universal monsters, or the careers of Lugosi and Karloff, I doubt it. And if she’s a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, be forewarned: The Black Cat is Poe in title only.

"I like her hair. It reminds me of this bride I used to know..."

The Black Cat
* Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
* Screenwriter: Peter Ruric
* Stars: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Julie Bishop, David Manners, Harry Cording, Lucille Lund
* MPAA Rating: N/A

Rent The Black Cat from Netflix >>

October 19, 2011

The Bleeding House (2011)

I LOVE HORROR FILMS. But lately, I’ve been underwhelmed by what’s being released.

Major studio horror has been largely tepid PG-13 fare, while my attempts to appreciate independent horror films have left me unsatisfied and frustrated.

So when I came across The Bleeding House, I wasn’t sure what to think. It’s not a mainstream release from a big studio, but rather Tribeca Film, who knows a thing or two about championing quality filmmaking and up-and-coming directors. Yet there still is a bit of an indie vibe with their releases…

Before I could overthink any more, I popped in The Bleeding House and hit play…

Meet the Smiths: milquetoast husband Matt (Richard Bekins), resentful wife Marilyn (Betsy Aidem), even more resentful teenage son Quentin (Charlie Hewson), and troubled teen daughter Gloria (Alexandra Chando), who only answers to the name “Blackbird.” They’re a family living in a back-road Midwestern home and sharing a mysterious, traumatic past. When sweet-talking southern gentleman Nick (Patrick Breen) arrives on their doorstep, his calm, outgoing nature and neighborly Christian personality seem to be just the remedy the Smith family needs. However, as the stranger’s true intentions come to light, he emerges as a cold, driven killer, who thinks he has been sent from God to serve punishment upon the family for their past.


The Bleeding House is writer/director Philip Gelatt’s first film, and it’s a doozy. He lets the tension and discomfort in the Smith house grow slowly and steadily, until Nick’s true intentions are revealed. Even then, Gelatt doesn’t let up on the uneasiness or queasiness, doing it all at a pace that’s as methodical as Nick when he's delivering his special brand of salvation.

As the Bible-toting, self-righteous stranger, Patrick Breen owns every scene he’s in without being showy. He portrays Nick as every bit the southern gentleman, whether he’s spouting homespun colloquialisms or daintily washing blood off his hands and knife so as not to soil his immaculate white suit. He’s essentially a traveling salesman of salvation – the Smiths aren’t the first family he’s visited – who’s committed to his twisted sense of “kindness” as he literally bleeds people dry.

With The Bleeding House, Philip Gelatt eschews the jump scares and heavy-handedness of many recent horror flops and delivers a film that’s both captivating and harrowing, with a dash of nihilism for good measure. Seek it out to experience genuine, well-crafted terror.

Is it suitable for your kids?
That would be no. A bird’s neck is snapped; several people are hit on the head with blunt objects; many people are stabbed; three people have their throats slit, with a lingering shot of one dead person’s head and neck, blood oozing out of the wound; Nick drains the blood from two of his victims via a pump and tube mechanism; a person’s head is bashed in with a rock; two people are shot dead; and a person stitches up their own knife wound, in close-up.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If she likes effective horror/thrillers, The Bleeding House is one worth watching together…provided she can stand close-up shots of blood being siphoned out of people and into large containers and mason jars.

God is great, God is good,
but he sent a weirdo to our 'hood.

The Bleeding House
* Director: Philip Gelatt
* Screenwriter: Philip Gelatt
* Stars: Patrick Breen, Alexandra Chando, Betsy Aidem, Charlie Hewson, Nina Lisandrello, Richard Bekins
* MPAA Rating: R

Buy The Bleeding House (DVD) at Half.com >>
Rent The Bleeding House from Netflix >>

October 14, 2011

Win a prize pack from the new movie Johnny English Reborn!

YOU COULD WIN a prize pack courtesy of the new Universal Pictures film Johnny English Reborn, in theaters October 21!

One winner will receive:
  • A $25 Fandango Gift Card
  • A Universal Double Feature DVD (Bean: The Movie and Johnny English)
Rowan Atkinson returns to the role of the improbable secret agent who doesn't know fear or danger in the comedy-spy thriller Johnny English Reborn. In his latest adventure, the most unlikely intelligence officer in Her Majesty's Secret Service must stop a group of international assassins before they eliminate a world leader and cause global chaos.

How to Enter:
Comment on this post by October 28, 2011. I will then pick one comment at random and post the winner soon after. (The winner will then have to e-mail me their mailing address to receive their prize pack.)

  • You must have a link to your e-mail address on your Blogger profile page. If not, you must provide your e-mail address in your comment.
  • Prize pack is available to United States mailing addresses only.
Good luck!

October 10, 2011

Kirby: Fright to the Finish (2005)

MOST KIDS HAVE one obsession. Something they know everything about. Something they can’t stop talking about. For Dash, it’s Kirby.

You may know Kirby from the many Nintendo videogames he’s starred in over the last twenty years, each featuring a massive cast of characters and powers that make me feel older every time I try to memorize them. In other words, if you’ve ever felt confused or overwhelmed by shows such as Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Dragonball Z, or Bakugan, you may feel the same way with Kirby’s universe. (Click here for a primer.)

But in addition to videogames, Kirby also has been the star of his own TV series, Kirby: Right Back at Ya!, which ran on American television in the early 2000s – and culminated with the full-length movie, Kirby: Fright to the Finish.

Kirby finds his greatest challenge yet when an invasion of alien spaceships nearly destroys his planet, and he sets off into outer space to confront his archrival eNeMeE ("enemy").


Kirby: Fright to the Finish wastes no time getting started: It jumps in exactly where the TV series left off, as we watch Kirby and his friends try to stop eNeMeE once and for all. The action and chase sequences are pretty exciting, even a little bit intense – with lots of weapon attacks and explosions. It all leads to a final battle sequence (Kirby’s crew attacking eNeMeE’s fortress) that gives big-budget, wide-release films a run for their money.

Throughout Fright to the Finish, Kirby acquires unique superpowers by inhaling certain items while riding his Warpstar. It’d take a whole other review to name and describe them all, but here’s a sampling: Baton Kirby, Water Kirby, Iron Kirby, Top Kirby, Crash Kirby, Cook Kirby, Ice Kirby, Bomb Kirby, and Fire Kirby. With each power Kirby obtains, he’s able to lay the smack down on the bad guys in a new and unique way.

For grown-ups, there are a couple of characters whose voices will sound familiar: The awesomely named Meta Knight sounds like Bela Lugosi (he even dons a Dracula-like cape), while King Dedede’s lackey, a snail named Escargoon, sounds like an aggravated Paul Lynde.

I can see why Dash likes Kirby so much; frankly, I probably would have dug him if he were around during my childhood. He’s the classic case of not judging a book by its cover: a cute and unassuming pink puff who, when provoked or threatened, can kick some serious butt.

Yes, there are many, many characters in Kirby’s world. But even though I can’t tell Waddle Dee from Waddle Doo, or Lololo from Lalala, it doesn’t take away from how much fun it is to watch Kirby: Fright to the Finish. It stands on its own as a highly entertaining film.


What did Dash and Jack-Jack think?
Are you kidding? Finding Kirby: Fright to the Finish on Amazon for a measly $4 was the biggest and best investment we’ve ever made, as far as Dash is concerned. It’s one of his favorite films, if not the favorite. Jack-Jack enjoys the Kirby-verse as well, getting a kick out of all the different, colorful, magical characters.

Is it suitable for your kids?
Some action scenes in Kirby: Fright to the Finish can get a bit intense, with explosions and Kirby and his friends in peril (the scene where eNeMeE’s “Destryas” (right) attack Kirby’s village is pretty heavy). There is also some minor name-calling (“lame-o”), and a villain describes his wish to push someone off a bridge.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
She might make an emotional investment when Kirby and his equally cute friends are in danger, but the amount of action, battles, and stuff blowing up makes me think she may tune out before the end credits.

'Cuz every girl's crazy 'bout a sharp-dressed...uh...
I'll say "vertically challenged humanoid?"

Buy Kirby: Fright to the Finish at Half.com >>
Rent Kirby: Fright to the Finish from Netflix >>

October 5, 2011

Without Warning (1980)

IT’S FUNNY what you remember from your childhood.

A couple of years ago, there was a great website called Cultra Rare Videos, whose owner posted full movies for download – mostly out-of-print VHS or films in the public domain.

It was there I noticed Without Warning, a sci-fi/horror flick from 1980, and my mind immediately went to my grandparents’ house, where I watched it on HBO in their wood-paneled living room.

I remember thinking it was pretty awesome. I was also 11 at the time.

And even though I’ve been burned quite often trying to relive the greatness of movies I saw and loved as a kid (see: The Cat from Outer Space), I downloaded Without Warning, let it sit in my hard drive for two years, then finally re-watched it last week.

With the use of disc-like flying creatures, an alien hunts human prey in a rural lakeside town – including four young adults on a camping trip.


It’s hard to believe it took four screenwriters to come up with this.

The plot and dialogue of Without Warning are by-the-numbers moviemaking for early ‘80s horror: Clueless teens/twentysomethings go out in the country/wilderness, encounter local yokels who warn them of dangers, they pay no attention, proceed to their destination, make out, then get picked off one by one.

Without Warning’s biggest enemy is its pacing. Director Greydon Clark never latches onto a tempo to help build momentum or suspense. Sure, he creates a foreboding atmosphere here and there, but true terror is never achieved. (The most effective element is composer Dan Wyman’s spooky blend of piano tinklings and early ‘80s synth.)

The four lead young actors go through the motions as eventual victims to the alien and his Frisbee face-huggers. But just like the original Friday the 13th (also 1980) features a then-unknown Kevin Bacon, Without Warning has a then-unknown David Caruso (NYPD Blue, CSI: Miami) – who rocks the turn-of-the-‘80s gym shorts like nobody’s business.

In addition to the young foursome, Without Warning offers a two-for-one on eccentric character actors, each bringing their own brand of crazy: Martin Landau as the local nutjob who swears he’s also seen the flying alien critters, and Jack Palance as the local hunter who knows what the alien’s doing (“He came down here for the sport. He wants to get himself a few trophies.”). It’s hard to believe they’d each win Oscars for Best Supporting Actor a few years after slumming here.

Clark relies heavily on POV camerawork, for both the alien and its potential victims. He also pulls the Jaws card by not showing the monster until late in the film. But while Steven Spielberg’s classic does an unbeatable job of cranking up the tension and dread in place of showing the creature, Without Warning’s story and characters just plod along from one scene to the next until the alien is finally revealed in the last 15 minutes.

And even when the alien is finally revealed (in an admittedly cool shot where he’s standing stoically in a field, surrounded by low-hanging fog), he looks like something you’d see in dozens of ’50s B-movie sci-fi flicks: a giant bulbous head with pointy ears and teeth (1957’s Invasion of the Saucer Men comes to mind). He doesn’t do much but stand still and toss his flying creatures at people. I think he growled once.

The flying creatures are an interesting dichotomy: In flight, they look incredibly hokey; you’d swear you could see the strings if you squint. But once they’ve latched on to the one of their victims, the effects are largely impressive for their time: lots of pulsating/suction movements, expandable talons that puncture the victim’s flesh, and a nasty mouth on its underside lined with frantically gnashing teeth.

If you’ve never heard of Without Warning, you’re not missing much – unless you’re morbidly curious to see what cheapo B-sci-fi/horror films from the early ‘80s were like. Contrary to its title, you have been warned.

aka It Came Without Warning, The Warning.

  • Without Warning is basically a blueprint for Predator: A giant alien from another planet comes to hunt humans for sport. In fact, 7’ 2” actor Kevin Peter Hall played each alien in both films.
  • The special effects and makeup designer, Greg Cannom, would win Academy Awards for his work in Dracula, Mrs. Doubtfire, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
  • F Troop’s Larry Storch appears as a doomed scout leader, much like Dick Van Patten’s scout leader from Beware! The Blob.
  • There has never been an official DVD release of Without Warning, due to the rights being sold to companies who then go bankrupt or are in financial turmoil (Orion Pictures, MGM). However, it’s pretty easy to find on YouTube.
Is it suitable for your kids?
Without Warning is rated R and features several scenes of graphic violence: The flying critters drill into victims’ flesh, accompanied by crunchy, gooey sound effects; Sandy and Greg find the bodies of the aliens’ victims in a shack, and two of them have gaping, gooey holes in their heads and eye sockets; Taylor shoots the alien in the arm, and blue alien blood squirts from the wound; Landau’s character accidentally shoots the local sheriff in the gut; and an explosion claims the lives of two key characters. There are also mild profanities here and there, and Tom and Beth make out by the lake.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Unless she has a soft spot for early ‘80s B-horror/sci-fi, I doubt it.

Looking at legs as white as those should come...(puts on sunglasses)...with a warning.

Without Warning
* Director: Greydon Clark
* Screenwriters: Lyn Freeman, Daniel Grodnik, Ben Nett, Steve Mathis
* Stars: Tarah Nutter, Christopher S. Nelson, Jack Palance, Martin Landau, David Caruso, Lynn Theel, Neville Brand
* MPAA Rating: R


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