Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Shaun of the Dead (2004) movie poster

director Edgar Wright
viewed: 10/30/2015

Part 2 of our horror/comedy Halloween double feature, tailored to my son, was 2004’s Shaun of the Dead.  It’s the film that put star Simon Pegg and director/co-writer Edgar Wright on the map.  Like What We Do in the Shadows (2014), I had seen it before (though it was probably during my brief period of not writing my film diary.)

I’d remembered it fondly.  In fact, I think when I’ve watched any other film of Wright’s I’ve always thought back to Shaun and still figured it was his best film.  My 14 year old son thinks Edgar Wright is super cool, so he was pretty keen to see it.

You know, …it’s amusing, it’s good, but….I guess I don’t like it as much as I thought I would.  It’s kind of crazy to think it’s over 10 years old now.

I still think Wright is interesting and talented.  I don’t know that I think he’s made a great movie yet, though.

The kids liked it.  Though I think we all agreed that What We Do in the Shadows was the funnier of the two.

Ah well.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) movie poster

directors Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement
viewed: 10/30/2015

For the past several years, I’ve made October an all horror film month for the kids and myself, probably as a fair amount of people do.  Oddly enough, my daughter loves it, but my son flits in and out with it, sometimes into it, sometimes gets a little too freaked out.

Also, recently, they’ve gotten into watching Flight of the Conchords, which I failed to see in its day.  Actually, it was after watching What We Do in the Shadows a few months back that finally got me around to checking out Conchords.  So, for him, for our Halloween night movie fest, we went with a horror/comedy double feature, starting with this mockumentary about vampire flatmates in New Zealand.

I liked it again.  Maybe a little more, now familiar with Jermaine Clement and Rhys Darby (Murray from Conchords, showing up here as the alpha werewolf).  The kids both liked it too.  Taika Waititi, who co-wrote, co-directed, and co-stars in the film with Clement, is also very funny and sweet as Viago.

Fun stuff.

Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (1959)

Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (1959) movie poster

director Mitsugu Okura
viewed: 10/28/2015

Kaidan, or Kwaidan, essentially a Japanese ghost story, whether you’re talking Lafcaido Hearn’s book of translated tales or the more famous 1964 film, Kwaidan, or other tales of ghost and the supernatural.  This film, Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan, is adapted from a 19th century Kabuki play and an interesting and surprisingly gory (for 1959) flick, available through Criterion editions in the States.

It’s the story of two callow and ruthless men in Edo-era Japan, one a ronin, the other more of a servant or lesser class.  Through murder, trickery, and other cruel deceptions, they land themselves wives from a good family.  But then even that isn’t enough.  The samurai wants to trade up again and is willing to kill his wife and child to attain an even higher status and station.  Since this is a ghost story, it’s safe to say that it doesn’t work out so well for him.

The 1964 Kwaidan is a much bigger production, most stylized and classy.  But this movie is cleverly filmed, with some nice set tracking shots and creative set designs.  There are some gruesome effects, some elegant effects, and the overall film is quite good.

The film opens with a warning that reads something akin to “hell hath no fury like a wife scorned” and I guess that turns out to be good advice.

The Black Scorpion (1957)

The Black Scorpion (1957)

director Edward Ludwig
viewed: 10/26/2015

I love me some stop-motion monsters.  How I’ve missed seeing Edward Ludwig’s The Black Scorpion all these years, I’ll never know.  Animated by Willis O’Brien and Pete Peterson, there are scorpions and more scoprions, a giant worm with arms, and even a six-legged giant trapdoor spider!

The stop-motion might have been done on the cheap (compared to O’Brien’s breakout stop-motion work in the original King Kong (1931)) but there’s quite a bit of it.  For a low-budget B-picture from the brief heyday of the “giant animal” movies (Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957) to name a few), this is one of the few to feature stop-motion FX and action.  Not just giant puppet props or forced perspective live action little creatures big.  I’m all about stop-motion.  Always was.

Shot in Mexico, the film is affable and enjoyable, especially if you have an affection for 1950’s horror movies like I do.  Volcanoes are erupting, from the very first frame, and from deep within the bowels of the Earth emerge these long-dormant monsters that start attacking man and cattle.  Guns can penetrate their exoskeletons.  How are humans to defeat them?

Some of the action is cheaper than others, with silhouetted scorpions rampaging down streets of people.  But much of it was quite good.  According to lore, Peterson wound up doing most of the animation, apprenticing for O’Brien.  Included on the DVD are a couple of long-lost short test films that Peterson made that are both really fun and cool to see.  The close-ups of the scorpions, the image that is emblazoned on most of the posters for the film, is wonderfully lurid, camp silliness, especially with its near ever-present globs of drool.

If I’d seen this as a kid, I would have been pretty into it.  As an adult, same.

The Vampire’s Coffin (1958)

The Vampire's Coffin (1958) movie poster

director Fernando Méndez
viewed: 10/25/2015

Netflix seems to have abandoned trying to offer more obscure and cult films lately.  At least to my eye.  They’re letting their once robust DVD stock taper and decline and their streaming services have shriveled in the areas that most interest me.

So, when a flick like The Brainiac (1962) or The Vampire’s Coffin (1958) shows up, it pops out on the site.  Both films star Abel Salazar and come from a Mexican film industry with good production values and are both “Spooktacular!”, if you will. I would love to see more 1950’s-1960’s Mexican horror films, if anyone is listening.

Besides sharing Salazar, the two films seem moderately randomly chosen, perhaps more so The Vampire’s Coffin (original title: El ataúd del Vampiro), which turns out to be a sequel for the 1957 El vampiro, also starring Salazar and directed by Fernando Méndez.  Why have the sequel and not the original?

It matters little to figuring out the story, though at the same time, the characters are constantly referencing the events of the first film, in which they uncovered a vampire and apparently killed him.  The Vampire’s Coffin starts out with grave robbers, one of whom is a doctor interested in researching the vampire for science.  What I’m guessing is a seriously convoluted happenstance, this ghoulish doctor’s co-worker is Dr. Enrique Saldívar (Salazar) who happened to have been the one to have killed the vampire in the first place.

The film slues back and forth between eeriness and light comedy.  The vampire, played by Germán Robles, is straight out of central casting, all ready for Halloween, dressed like Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee.  At times, he turns into a very squeaky bat, dancing around on very visible wires.  And to be honest, he’s a pretty ineffectual vampire.  He rarely sinks his teeth into anything that sticks.

The film is actually very effectively shot, with some nice scenes in both a graveyard and later in a wax museum.  It shows signs of a very slick film industry, one which sadly hasn’t been imported nearly enough.  I would love to see more.

The Brainiac (1962)

The Brainiac (1962) movie poster

director Chano Urueta
viewed: 10/24/2015

Amazingly weird, cheap, cheesy and wonderful, The Brainiac is a Mexican horror film unique and pulpy.

Abel Salazar stars as a 15th century heathen/hedonist burned at the stake for a plethora of crimes.  He vows revenge on his persecutors, hailing a passing comet and vowing to return in 300 years to wreak his vengeance on their descendants.  You know he makes good on his threat.

He returns as some bizarro monster with sucker-pincer hands, a long nose, wild hair and beard, and a gruesome snake-like tongue which he uses to suck the brains from his victims.  As it turns out, he needs a regular diet of brains to take on his more human form as he insinuates himself into society to track his victims.

The monster feels uniquely Mexican, as if torn from the pages of the period’s pulp comics and magazines, something campy but oddly folkloric.  And while it’s obviously a cheap rubber ensemble, I loved the pulsating brain motion.  It’s hard not to love.

The production values are otherwise quite good.

Totally dug it.

The Burning (1981)

The Burning (1981) movie poster

director Tony Maylam
viewed: 10/24/2015

Who knew that The Burning, a solid slasher from the true heyday of the genre, was the first big feature film for the Miramax boys Harvey and Bob Weinstein?  And rather than hunting for films already made or talent already in development, the story emanated right from their heads, Bob even co-screen credit.

When the drunken camp handyman gets horribly burned by a prank gone awry, he somehow manages to survive his injuries, break loose upon New York City (briefly) and then take out his vengeance on all the campers he can get his trimming shears on.  That’s about all the story you need in a movie like this.

Loosely based on the Staten Island urban legend of Cropsey (given its due in the 2009 documentary of the same name), The Burning also features such unusual early roles for the likes of Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens, and Brian Backer (the latter of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1981) fame).  On top of all that, the gory FX are crafted by the ever-invented Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead (1978), Maniac (1980) & Friday the 13th (1980), to name but a few).

The early 1980’s are crowded with summer camp slashers, but this is indeed another one that should not be overlooked.  Its connections and competitors have their merits but The Burning is a very competent flick, featuring some good gore moments courtesy of Savini, some gratuitous nudity courtesy of the period, and some good character courtesy of all involved.

Crimson Peak (2015)

Crimson Peak (2015) movie poster

director Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 10/24/2015 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

I like Guillermo del Toro.  I’ve been with him since Cronos (1993) and have seen him craft an interesting career between beautiful art film horror (The Devil’s Backbone (2001) & Pan’s Labyrinth (2005)) and Hollywood science fiction comic book nonsense (Mimic (1997), Blade II (2002), Hellboy (2004), Hellboy II (2008), & Pacific Rim (2013).)

Why list all his feature films?  Because if you look at his body of work, you can see that he’s gone back and forth with regularity between artsy stuff and more commercial fare.  Heck, he might even have another one on his resume by now if he didn’t squander a number of years with Peter Jackson on that Hobbit (2012) monstrosity.

Heck, he’s on Twitter these days, sharing his breadth of passions and facinations.  He does his own design work, probably at most well-realized in Pan’s Labyrinth, but I give the guy credit.  And double heck, I was probably a total outlier myself because I actually enjoyed Pacific Rim.

Crimson Peak looks fantastic.  It’s beautifully designed and shot.  Victorian Gothic horror story with lush colors and featuring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain, all very sumptuous themselves in their own ways.

It’s an earnest and devout throwback of a ghost film, hearkening of the days of Hammer horror or classic terrors like The Innocents (1961) or Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963).  It’s also an original screenplay, if not the most original of ideas for the story.  All of the loving details are all onscreen.  Vividly.

But it’s not spectacular.  It’s not haunting (to me, at least).  It was enjoyable enough, but not the least enthralling.  My kids enjoyed it.  I liked it.  I’m not saying I didn’t like it.

For my money, the best ghost story film of this century has been Alejandro Amenábar’s 2001 film, The Others.  There is a film with less showy designs and more creepy creeps.

But I will continue to like del Toro.  And I’ll look forward to his next films.

The Mist (2007)

The Mist (2007) movie poster

director Frank Darabont
viewed: 10/23/2015

We revisited Frank Darabont’s The Mist not so much because I remembered it fondly (I saw it 8 years ago when it came out), but I thought it might entertain the kiddies.

The big thing that has changed since seeing The Mist in 2008 is The Walking Dead.  It would be Darabont’s next project, launching in 2010.  In a lot of ways, The Mist is a template for casting and directing the later television zombie apocalypse, only this time with Lovecraftian beasties.  In fact, appearing in the movie are future Walking Dead cast members Melissa McBride and Laurie Holden.  And while maybe those are the only two I recognized, you already get a sense of casting an apocalypse for diversity and character acting well in place.  Walking Dead executive producer Greg Nicotero served on The Mist as creature designer.

The Mist has some good things going for it.  Darabont builds the characters deftly and uses the setting of the grocery store to good measure.

But the film is more flawed than good.  The creature effects are not great.  Those tentacles have not aged well.  In one of the better set-up scenes, when giant insects are attracted to the flashlights, the creatures fail to have uniqueness or impact.  Digital really lets you down, as it often has.

Additionally, while some of the characterization is good, some of it is still over the top.  Marcia Gay Harden gives her all as the manic grocery store preacher, but she’s so intense, it’s hard to fathom any large group would be so turned to her way of thinking, especially after only a day or two of entrapment.  In fact, the film’s other potent device, the suicides, also are hard to buy.  It’s only been a couple of days and people are dropping themselves like flies.

I didn’t come around to The Walking Dead until last year, but now I’m in.  And from the perspective of how that show has evolved, it’s interesting to see somewhat of a sketch draft from before it went to market.

The Man Without a Body (1957)

The Man Without a Body (1957) movie poster

directors Charles Saunders and W. Lee Wilder
viewed: 10/23/2015

Digging into the 1950’s horror/sci-fi films of W. Lee Wilder, I’ve noted that he has less in common with his brother Billy Wilder than he does with another notable Hollywood director, the wonderfully awful Ed Wood, Jr.  Unlike the other films of Wilder’s that I’ve seen recently (Phantom from Space (1953), Killers from Space (1954), The Snow Creature (1954), and Fright (1955)), The Man Without a Body wasn’t written by his son Myles, was shot in the UK for a seemingly higher budget than his Poverty Row flicks, and shared directorial credit with Charles Saunders (though sources claim Saunders didn’t have a lot to do with the film).

The Man Without a Body has one of the most absurd plots of all time.  Rich industrialist Karl Broussard (George Coulouris) is dying of a brain tumor so he seeks a radical medical solution, a brain transplant!  While you rack your brain trying to figure how this would keep “him” alive, add this to the mix: the brain he seeks out is that of sixteenth century prophet, Nostradamus, because of his great intellect.  You see it doesn’t matter that he’s been dead 400 years if his brain has been kept properly.

So they bring the head back to life and tell old Nostradamus all about the wonders of the 20th century.  Meanwhile Broussard gets crazier and crazier with his gorgeous mistress Odette (Nadja Regin) having begun an affair with one of the doctors.  This wouldn’t be quite the camp classic if the “man without a body” didn’t eventually get attached to a body — and it does, in particularly wonderfully terrible form.

While some of the visual effects are actually reasonably cool (I really liked the eyes that were kept alive on their own, looking around the room), the final creation with Nostradamus’s head on the doctor’s body is held in place with a massive rectangular bandage.  I’ve noted before that Wilder’s lack of interest in the aesthetics of his monsters being one of his worst consistent failures.  Here, like in Killers from Space, the badness turns to comic goodness.