Movie Review ~ Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria)

The Facts

Synopsis: A film director reflects on the choices he’s made in life as past and present come crashing down around him.

Stars: Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia, Julieta Serrano, Kiti Mánver, Nora Navas

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Throughout his nearly 40-year career, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has come to be associated with bright, bold, adventurous films that pushed boundaries and buttons with the kind of glee only someone with a true love of cinema could get away with.  He’s a lot like Quentin Tarantino in that he clearly has a deep respect for movies and the filmmaking process and treats each of his pictures as a work of art, carefully constructing them to be just so.  You know when a new Almodóvar film comes to the screen that it’s the result of a considerable amount of ideas and always with a piece of the director himself obviously (or not so obviously) pinned within.

In Almodóvar’s newest work, Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria) the Oscar-winning director turns in his most personal work yet, a thinly veiled autobiographical exploration of a man celebrated for his directorial achievements now facing a decline in success and ambition.  Looking back at his childhood during the 1960s, his young adult life in the 1980s, and then in the present as he reconnects with people from his past he has unresolved issues with, the movie isn’t strictly a recounting of Almodóvar’s life but from what I gather it hews fairly close to what we knew of his trajectory.

As his greatest film is being re-released on the eve of its 30th anniversary, Spanish director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, The 33) is drawn to get back in touch with the star of that film who he hasn’t spoken to since their movie was first in theaters.  Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) is reluctant at first to welcome Salvador back into his life but soon the men are speaking like old friends with Alberto even introducing Salvador to heroin which he promptly becomes dependent on.  It’s during his drug episodes that Salvador retreats into memories of his childhood with his mother (Penelope Cruz, Murder on the Orient Express  and, later, Julieta Serrano) and several episodic awakenings he has growing up.

Back in the present, Salvador begins to expunge some of his old hang-ups and regrets through his writing which Alberto performs as monologues at a local theater.  One audience member (Leonardo Sbaraglia) hears the monologue and recognizes a story as an affair he had with Salvador and asks Alberto to help him locate Salvador so that they may both have closure to what was obviously an important time for both men.  It’s this scene that really speaks volumes about the loneliness Salvador feels, realizing whatever demons he thought were gone with his writing might still be around when he sees his former lover.  It’s ostensibly just a scene between two former flames but Banderas and Sbaraglia create a palpable chemistry that clues you into just how deep their relationship was back in the day.

As with all Almodóvar films, there are a lot of characters to keep track of and intertwining timelines with chance occurrences that can only happen in the movies.  It’s these very cinematic touches that remind us we’re watching a movie but don’t rob the scene from its realism in emotion, strong feelings Almodóvar doesn’t seem to have trouble evoking.  That’s what makes his films so special over time, even the zanier films of the ‘80s and ‘90s that were off-the-wall were rooted in a particular emotional resonance that just happened to be amplified in volume by Almodóvar’s artistic touches.

As Almodóvar’s pseudo stand-in, Banderas turns in the best work in quite some time, maybe ever.  Winning the prestigious Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, he’s surely on his way to his first Best Actor Oscar nomination and with good reason.  Playing the rascally side of Salvador with a nice flicker in his eye while parlaying that into a deep sadness at his loss of inspiration for what he used to love doing, the long-standing relationship Banderas has with Almodóvar surely helped him in getting the performance just right.  The Salvador-Alberto relationship is supposedly based on the Almodóvar-Banderas one and it’s interesting to watch Banderas as Almodóvar interact with another actor playing a version of himself.

For her brief cameo, Cruz (another frequent Almodóvar collaborator) makes a strong impression as Salvador’s strong-willed mother who pushed her son to go his own way, even when it was contradictory do the norm.  I didn’t quite believe Cruz’s character would have aged into Serrano’s but both actresses carry the same steely resilience of a parent holding fast to helping their child through all thorny walks of life.  Serrano and Banderas share some great scenes that are sensitive and thought provoking until they become heart breaking by the film’s conclusion.

After countless films that range in genre and tone, Almodóvar’s latest represents a welcome leveling off reflection of a career and a life.  Not as awash in colors or jarring to the senses as his early work, nor as challenging as his later entries that tipped toward campy thrillers, this feels like Almodóvar exhaling and letting go of a different kind of evoked emotion all together.

Movie Review ~ Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

The Facts

Synopsis: Maleficent and her goddaughter Aurora begin to question the complex family ties that bind them as they are pulled in different directions by impending nuptials, unexpected allies, and dark new forces at play.

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Skrein, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harris Dickinson, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Robert Lindsay

Director: Joachim Rønning

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: The spindles of the spinning wheels were poised and ready to strike when Maleficent was released in 2014 to much fanfare.  How would ardent fans of the classic Disney animated feature Sleeping Beauty react to a live-action retelling of the genesis of the evil fairy that cursed the snoozing princess?  Crafting a backstory for the dark fairy that softened her up a bit but still let her sinister side through, the film was saturated with CGI and not all of it looked great.  While it added it’s own twist to the fairy tale, it still felt tied to the source material and lifted large portions of dialogue from the 1959 animated film.  The result was a box-office winner that satisfied but didn’t exactly inspire – there was simply too large a shadow looming over it.

Five years later Maleficent is back and this time she’s free from being moved through the paces recounting a story we already know the end of and more’s the better in my opinion.  While it still relies far too much on CGI (though in a make-believe kingdom stuffed with elves, sprites, and other woodland creations what did you expect?) it’s a more engaging story than the first.  I won’t say the stakes are exactly higher in the sequel but future happiness for more than just Princess Aurora (now Queen of the Moors Aurora) is on the line.  The biggest improvement is that screenwriters Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast), Micah Fitzerman-Blue, and Noah Harpster give star Angelina Jolie a worthy opponent in another high cheekbone-d A-lister.

Living in their happily ever after bliss, Aurora (Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon) and Philip (Harris Dickinson) decide to make it official and get married, much to the dismay of Maleficent (Jolie, Kung Fu Panda 2) who still feels the sting of scorned love and wishes to keep her goddaughter close to her.  Pledging to keep Aurora happy, Maleficent agrees to meet Philip’s parents for a dinner at their castle but doesn’t make a great first impression, living up to her reputation as a temperamental guest.  When the King (Robert Lindsay) falls under a spell before they can have dessert, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!) accuses Maleficent of resorting to her old tricks to stop the wedding.

Fleeing the castle and Aurora’s suspecting glare, Maleficent is injured and taken in by a horde of Dark Feys, winged creatures like her that possess many of her same powers.  Even without her godmother by her side, Aurora moves forward with her wedding to Philip, unknowingly entering into dangerous territory with Ingrith who has a dark agenda planned for her future daughter-in-law and the land she reigns over.  As a war brews between the human kingdom and the Moor forces, a power struggle emerges between Ingrith and Maleficent that will alter the fate of many of our favorite characters.

What’s surprising to note in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is how much time Jolie is absent from the film.  It’s not a significant amount of time but there are large stretches when you’ll likely miss her presence because she lends the film (as she did in the first) a certain winking fun.  When she’s not onscreen, the action starts to feel a little melodramatic and silly and even Pfeiffer isn’t immune to some over-the-top bits of camp.  Still, Pfeiffer doesn’t often get to play the heavy like she does here and she looks like she’s having a grand time in her gorgeous costumes by Ellen Mirojnick (The Greatest Showman).  The sparring between Pfeiffer and Jolie is a bit restrained (even the ladies in Downton Abbey got a few more snide jabs in) but they are both strong forces that have a commanding onscreen presence.  Often, the screen is definitely not big enough for the two of them.

While the CGI is still plentiful, it’s smoother looking than the first film so not quite as cartoony this time around.  I enjoyed the aerial views of the two kingdoms resting next to one another and the various creature creations the artists have dreamed up.  I could have done without two gibberish speaking nymphs that get trapped in a dungeon by a fallen pixie (Warwick Davis, Solo: A Star Wars Story) but as a whole the variety of flora and fauna were a wonder to behold.  Director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Kon-Tiki) keeps the movie going full steam ahead, even if it does clock in longer than it should running nearly two hours.  There’s perhaps a bit too much time spent with the Dark Feys Borra (Ed Skrein, Alita: Battle Angel) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor, The Lion King) without giving them more backstory but its in service to getting back to the main action with Maleficent and Ingrith.

While I still find Fanning to be lacking in the total package for a next generation leading lady, she’s improving and shows it here with a more balanced take on a princess coming into her own.  Paired with the cardboard-ish Dickinson, she doesn’t let the script put her into a damsel in distress box and gamely takes action in the super-sized finale.  There’s one line near the end that’s terribly misogynistic that I’ve been stuck over for the last few days and it’s almost enough for me to knock the film a whole star down.  I’ve decided in the end I’m giving it a slight pass seeing the resolution to another storyline that could have gone wrong handled in an unexpected way.

Pairing nicely with the original movie, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil didn’t have a huge hurdle to overcome in living up to its predecessor.  I think it will please fans of the first film and, like me, might serve as an improvement over what came before.  It goes to show you how getting the right combination of people together is worth taking the time for, had this sequel been turned out quickly after Maleficent came out in 2014 it might not have been as polished as this follow-up is.

Movie Review ~ Miss Virginia

The Facts

Synopsis: A struggling inner-city mother sacrifices everything to give her son a good education. Unwilling to allow her son to stay in a dangerous school, she launches a movement that could save his future – and that of thousands like him.

Stars: Uzo Aduba, Matthew Modine, Niles Fitch, Vanessa Williams, Aunjanue Ellis, Adina Porter, Amirah Vann

Director: R.J. Daniel Hanna

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Growing up, the hardest subject for me to master was math.  It took a while to get the basics but after I did, it was easy to spot the patterns once I figured out the formulas.  It all boils down to a simple equation that, no matter the length or contributing factors, follows a strict guideline without deviation.  It allows for confidence in solution and outcome and, often, predictability from the start.  You can apply the same algebraic analogy to a movie like Miss Virginia, a drama inspired by real life events which runs down a checklist of oft-used devices to come up with an expected, if only occasionally stirring, resolution.  It may not be incredibly thought-provoking filmmaking, but it does have a certain passing charm.

In 2003, Virginia Walden Ford (Uzo Aduba) was a single-mother raising a 15-year-old son in Washington D.C. who we first meet in the principal’s office at her son’s inner-city public school.  Finding out James (Niles Fitch, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) has been skipping school without her knowledge, she imparts on him the importance of applying himself only to wind up back in the office a short time later when James is caught bullying another student, though we know he’s only guilty by unfortunate association.  Frustrated by the lack of support from the administration and afraid of seeing her son withdraw further into a troubled life she enrolls him at a nearby private school and takes on an extra janitorial job for Lorraine Townsend (Aunjanue Ellis, If Beale Street Could Talk), a congressional representative, in order to pay the high tuition fee.

As she gets to know Lorraine, Virginia educates herself on a flawed structure that funnels money into the public school system when it could be used to provide scholarships/vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools.  Wanting that for her son, she attempts to get Lorraine on board, only to find the helpful ear she thought she had might already be bought and paid for by a town full of lobbyists.  Organizing a grassroots campaign, Virginia pounds the pavement and stirs a community with similar interest for their sons and daughters, putting a target on her back along the way.  When she joins with a popular but eccentric congressman (Matthew Modine, Pacific Heights) she enters the big leagues and her personal life becomes fair game used by the opposition to discredit her platform.

As a feature film, Miss Virginia plays a little light in the dramatic heft department.  Without any strong names to ground the picture it has the feel of a made for television movie that found its way into your local theater.  That’s not a dig on the actors in any way because the performances across the board are delivered with the exact amount of Serious Importance (save for Vanessa Williams doing her umpteenth catty arched eyebrow role) but watching the film from home I get the impression it played better than it would on a screen 50 times as large.  There’s not a lot of flair to R.J. Daniel Hanna’s direction and certainly not to Erin O’Connor’s so-so script.  O’Connor seems to be ticking off boxes in a how-to book for screenwriters with these types of films, including an unfortunate late-breaking incident meant to create an additional dramatic push forward for the community that only serves to remind audiences how derivative a turn the movie is willing to take.

I’m surprised that it’s taken this long for Aduba to appear in such a prominent role in a movie.  An Emmy-winning breakout star on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, Aduba has been busy with that show for the last several years but with that series wrapped I look forward to seeing her more in roles that give her a chance to show a different side.  While she isn’t always successful in transitioning her internal feelings to the external, you can see her working through Virginia’s incredulity with a system that seems designed to see her fail and her determination to prevail shining through.  With his hair looking as crazy as his accent sounds, Modine is quirky but never dull as Virginia’s Capital Hill insider and the two work well together.  Modine is making some interesting choices here, I’m not sure it totally works, but I liked it whenever he was onscreen with Aduba.  A special shout-out to Amirah Vann (And So It Goes) as a woman in Virginia’s neighborhood that joins her cause, bringing some vitality to the movie when it starts to sag.

Not being familiar with Virginia Walden Ford or the landmark D.C. legislation she had a hand in securing before seeing Miss Virginia, I’m glad this one came my way.  It’s pleasantly light in the political area, steering clear of the stumping and denser legal maneuvering in favor of a more personal engagement narrative.  Though generic in tone, it’s big in spirit and intention.  I wouldn’t make it a priority to catch this one in theaters, though do add it to your streaming queue when it shows up there shortly.

31 Days to Scare ~ Holiday Hell

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mysterious shopkeeper narrates four horror tales, each set during a different holiday.

Stars: Jeffrey Combs, Joel Murray, Jeff Bryan Davis, Meagan Karimi-Naser, Lisa Coronado

Director: Jeremy Berg, David Burns, Jeff Ferrell, Jeff Vigil

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I really tried to hold back from giving you another anthology during this year’s 31 Days to Scare but this was a new one that came my way and I had to give it a shot.  I get a sense these short film structured scare flicks are making a tiny comeback so count on seeing more pop up because they are easy to produce and, with a bigger budget and the ability to attract actors from a higher paygrade, can turn a quick profit.  Now, in the case of Holiday Hell, there’s little profit to be had because the film will be going direct to streaming so they’re counting on interested parties being enticed by the artwork and reading the plot summary.  Clearly that was enough to get me to check this out.  It’s not an entirely wasted evening but the low budget hampers this one quite a bit.

A woman is on the hunt for a last-minute Christmas gift and finds herself in an antique store owned by a weary shopkeeper (Jeffrey Combs, The Frighteners) about to lock up for the evening.  Desperate, she asks him to please stay open a while longer and help her pick something out.   Like other anthologies such as From Beyond the Grave, the shopkeeper is happy to oblige and offers up four objects found in the shop and the gruesome tales that accompany them.  Now, I don’t know about you but if I had the choice between a bloody Santa suit and a really nice bottle of wine, I’d take the pinot noir any day…but obviously this woman knows who she’s buying for so she’s willing to hear the shopkeeper out.

The first story involves a porcelain mask used to cover the face of a disfigured girl that lived in a house where a massacre took place.  A group of kids has broken in for a Valentine’s Day make-out session and, shocker, a killer wearing the same mask returns and stars to off them one at a time.  There’s a bit of a mystery at play here and it works for the short running length, but any interest is often spoiled by the abysmal acting.  I liked the heroine was a girl with a hearing impairment and it had a twist I didn’t spot but I couldn’t get over some really terrible performances.  The next item the shopkeeper offers up is rabbi doll from a Hanukkah-set tale.  When a boy receives the doll as a present, he uses it as protection against his babysitter who has evil plans for him.  More bad acting in this segment but, again, a decent kernel of an idea.

The final two tales are longer and begin with Joel Murray (Monsters University) as a put-upon man in a dead-end job and a nagging wife.  As Christmas draws near, he knows he’ll have to be the Santa at his office Christmas party and when he takes a new medication his company sells before he puts the suit on, he can’t foresee the murderous side of him it will bring out.  This one was pretty sleazy and felt like it was out of place in context with the others, definitely the weakest of the bunch, though I would take a gander it was likely the favorite one of the filmmakers.  The final tale actually turns the tables a bit in a nice reversal to the previous action.  A young girl takes a room in a rural farmhouse in the middle of a town that’s decidedly creepy…and has been waiting for someone just like her to fill an important role for a childless couple.

The wraparound story that fills the gaps between the tales serves up some good moments as well, which isn’t always the case with anthology films.  Instead of being a time waster in between chapters, the shopkeeper and customer are worked in nicely to the stories and into the finale of the film.  Holiday Hell ends with a bit of a thud but it at least finishes off it’s thought before the credits roll.  I like that kind of resolution better than many horror films which seem to go to black mid-scream.  Definitely a notch above most of the awful dreck often shoved in our faces around this time of year, but could have been much better.

31 Days to Scare ~ Fright (1972)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Teenage babysitter Amanda arrives at the Lloyd home to watch their young son for the evening. But it seems that the strangely nervous Mrs. Lloyd is hiding a shocking secret…

Stars: Honor Blackman, Susan George, Ian Bannen, John Gregson, George Cole, Dennis Waterman

Director: Peter Collinson

Rated: PG

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Don’t let their love of monarchies, tea times, or cricket fool you, the Brits can get down and dirty in the horror department just like their grubby Yank friends across the pond.  While Hollywood had Universal Studios churning out a fine slate of monster films in the ‘40s as well as other independent distributors popularizing B-movie drive-in fare during the ‘50’s and 60’s, the scare business in England really started to take on a new life in the ‘70s.  Up until then there was a bit of a restrained regality to films produced by Hammer Studios in European countries for UK and US distribution. With the dawn of a new decade came more risk-taking and a greater emphasis on risqué material that pushed the limit of the fuddy duddy censors.

Released in 1971 by British Lion Films in the UK and stateside later in 1972, Fright is an interesting discovery.  We’ve seen so many movies where a babysitter is terrorized by a maniac that it’s become far more than a cliché but this was one of the first uses of the set-up and it’s useful to keep that in mind watching the events unfold.  This was before Halloween and When a Stranger Calls so there was no real baseline for audiences to get an idea of what it would be like to be alone in a remote location and have to fight for survival.

The mood is set from the beginning while the credits play over singer Nannette crooning the haunting ‘Ladybird’ as we watch Amanda (Susan George, Straw Dogs) walking alongside a dirt road, trekking deeper away from town toward the secluded home of the Lloyds.  Filling in for their regular babysitter, Amanda is watching over young Tara for the evening while Mr. Lloyd (George Cole) and Mrs. Lloyd (Honor Blackman, Goldfinger) step out to celebrate a special occasion.  There’s something a little…off about Mrs. Lloyd though.  Maybe it’s the numerous locks on the door.  Are they to keep someone out?  To keep someone in?  Why does she seem so nervous?  Is there a reason she doesn’t want to say what she’s going out to celebrate?

The genial Amanda seems unfazed by the numerous warning signs, writing them off as just a new mother nervous to leave her toddler alone.  Confident she can handle whatever comes her way, she gets the Lloyds off on their way and settles in for a quiet evening with some tea, a good magazine, and maybe a scary movie.  The stillness of the night doesn’t last for long though as faulty lights, strange noises, unreliable telephones, and a face-to-face meeting with a psychopath soon disrupt her plans.  Screenwriter Tudor Gates (a longtime affiliate with Hammer) has a swell set-up for Fright and lays the gameplan out with precision…I just don’t think it was enough for a full film.

At the same time Fright was made, the Brits were also doing a bang-up job with horror anthology films.  From Beyond the Grave, Tales from the Crypt, and Asylum are all fun collections of short tales of shock that make quick work of their plots.  Fright works best in its dynamite opening 45 minutes as Amanda arrives, settles, and is then sent spinning into a nightmare.  Where it starts to fall apart is the latter half which devolves into an overly dramatic stand-off that drags on far too long.  Even though it’s performed exceedingly well by all involved, in particularly the gorgeous George who is put through the ringer, your attention likely will drift the further we get away from the taut opening.  If it had been trimmed to more compact running time, this would have been a knockout chapter in a longer cinematic omnibus.

Director Peter Collinson’s film looks great and I liked the way he used the camera differently to shoot the action, often framing Amanda from interesting angles.  There’s a lot of unexpected shots I wouldn’t have thought of and good POV moments that keep the tension at a high level.  In addition to George, Blackman is solid as the tightly wound mother we eventually learn has good reason to be on edge.  Without saying too much, Ian Bannen’s performance is a tricky one and he knows when to lean into the material and when to lay off the gas and just coast.  I don’t know what they gave the young child playing the Lloyd baby but whoa, they are remarkably serene even when adults are shrieking mere inches from their face.

Ultimately, Fright wasn’t exactly the movie I thought it was going to be based on how it began.  When I had started the film, I turned off all the lights and prepared to settle in for 87 minutes but have to admit I flicked on a light about ten minutes in because it was just too creepy and I was scaring myself.  I wanted that same feeling throughout the film and while it definitely has an atmosphere I appreciated and performances aligned with the emotional stakes, the frights at the end didn’t match the frights at the start.

31 Days to Scare ~ Trick (2019)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A no-nonsense detective tries to track down a serial killer named Trick, who is terrorizing a small town.

Stars: Omar Epps, Ellen Adair, Kristina Reyes, Jamie Kennedy, Tom Atkins, Vanessa Aspillaga

Director: Patrick Lussier

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: When you’ve been a fan of horror for a long time, you get familiar with the names of those involved with every aspect of the filmmaking process.  Some people track particular writers from film to film or keep an eye on where a genre director decides to travel for their next project.  Can they improve upon their previous work you favored or are they stuck in a rut of same-ness that hints at art-for-paycheck inspiration instead of true artisanship?  Even if the flick winds up not being a masterpiece due to budget constraints, I’m willing to give points for trying if I can tell an effort was put into giving ardent fans what they’ve been screaming for.

When I first got wind Trick was coming out, the plot sounded like a fun throwback to those types of ’80s slasher films they don’t make anymore.  Featured in the cast were recognizable B-listers that would ring a bell for horror aficionados like Tom Atkins (Halloween III: Season of the Witch), Jamie Kennedy (Scream), and Omar Epps (Scream 2) and then behind the scenes were editor turned director Patrick Lussier (My Bloody Valentine 3D) co-writing the script with Todd Farmer (Drive Angry).  Now, we’re not talking extreme pedigree here but these are individuals that have been around town on the terror train before and should know the ins and outs of what makes for a well-plotted, nicely-paced, entertaining scary movie right?  Well, the trick’s on you, folks.  This is one rotten pumpkin.

At a typically raucous but otherwise innocuous teenage Halloween party several years back, a game of spin the knife turns deadly when a boy in a mask suddenly goes on a stabbing spree.  No one knows why the boy, Patrick aka ‘Trick’, lost his marbles but after taking out several unimportant extras he’s subdued by Cheryl (Kristina Reyes) and brought to the local hospital awaiting questioning by Detective Denver (Omar Epps).  Under the less than watchful eye of Dr. Steven (Jamie Kennedy, looking like no doctor I’d want to have examine me), Trick disappears into a river but not before incurring injuries that he couldn’t possibly survive…

Over the next three years, the legend of Trick lives on, and similar murders occur each Halloween in nearby towns.  Is it Trick back from the dead or a copycat seeking their 15 minutes of notoriety?  Quickly taking on urban legend status in this age of online dark web enthusiasts and cultists, Trick comes to symbolize a deep evil springing forth in the most unlikely of places, a theme the troublesome Joker already explored in a far more sophisticated way a short time ago.  Tracking Trick like a Javert with far less conviction or pathos, Denver tries to get his colleagues to see the connection between the yearly slayings. It isn’t until the killer inexplicably targets someone close to him that anyone gives notice…and even then it’s only to further distance themselves from the now-disgraced detective.  Bouncing forward to present day and it just so happens it’s the year Trick has come to settle the score against the survivors of his original attack through a lengthy evening that offers zero scares, a twist or two, but no real surprises.

Honestly, I had high hopes for this one and purposely avoided watching the trailer before giving this one a look.  I’m glad I did too because a whole heck of a lot is handed over to the audience, rendering some surprises null and void by the time anything of substance starts to happen in the movie.  This is such a rote, elementary effort that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was part of some sleepwalking experiment.  All the tired tropes are present, save for the red herring that points us in a different direction.  The biggest twist of the film is telegraphed from the beginning and even when it’s revealed it feels like an afterthought bit of padding disguised as a clever switcheroo.  The acting is absolutely dreadful, even lower than the usual standards for this fare.  The only bright spot in the cast was Melody Hurd as a young trick-or-treater who manages to make some of the Farmer/Lussier dialogue land without wincing.  When a pre-teen is acting circles around veterans, you’re in trouble.

Sometimes what can save horror films with lame plots are the effects or inventive kills but there is just no imagination on display here.  The killer starts off swinging a knife and sticks to that M.O. for some time, until they start to employ fancy set-ups that don’t even get the job done in one fell swoop!  Not that any victim puts up much of a fight, most just stand there and wait to be stabbed and then promptly die…or look dead only to show up in a later scene just mildly uncomfortable wrapped up in a bandage.  That lack of finality is at least consistent with the last half of the movie, though, because it simply never ends.  Forget seeing any alternate endings on the subsequent home release of the film because Lussier has included all of them here.  I honestly couldn’t believe how long and drawn out it all was, it’s like that guest at your party that says “good-bye” and then stays for another half hour chatting about leaving.

There’s going to be a lot of unsuspecting people lured in by Trick’s fine-looking poster and by the previous credits of the filmmakers touted on the promotional material.  Lussier cut his teeth editing films for Wes Craven but has yet to show he learned anything of value from that master of horror.  Not every one of Craven’s films was a winner but I don’t think you could ever say they were uneventful in their execution.  Considering everyone involved, this is a monumental disappointment.  I’ve a feeling Trick would be a movie Craven could have spiced up a bit but in the hands of Lussier/Farmer it is a D.O.A. attempt to cash in on the lack of good slasher movies.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Sentinel (1977)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman moves to an apartment in a building which houses a sinister evil.

Stars: Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Martin Balsam, Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken, Sylvia Miles, Beverly D’Angelo, John Carradine, Ava Gardner

Director: Michael Winner

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Largely due to the success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, there was a huge boom in horror films with religious overtones released in the ‘70s.  Seemed like at the heart of every haunted house or strange acting neighbor was a gate to hell or devil possession.  It didn’t just stop on the sliver screen either, television movies got into the game as well with above average entries like Summer of Fear pitting Linda Blair against a devil-ish relative.  By the time The Sentinel was released to theaters in February of 1977 ,there wasn’t a whole lot movie-goers hadn’t already been exposed to.

What elevates The Sentinel a bit higher than its fellow occult brethren is a first-rate cast of big names, sure-handed direction from a director that knew his way around the material, and a script thoughtfully adapted from a best-selling novel.  Maintaining the mood of Jeffrey Konvitz’s popular 1974 tome, Konovitz and director Michael Winner lift the story from the page to the screen with ease, transferring a plot with several different threads into an efficient chiller with plenty of twists, turns, and more than its share of scares.  While it falls into excess at times and may invoke some winces seen through “woke” eyes, it makes it though largely on its high production values and overall sophistication.  Did I mention the cast?  It’s like The Love Boat for the inhabitants of Hell.

In New York City, in-demand model Allison (Cristina Raines) is looking for a place of her own.  Though cohabitating with her long-term boyfriend (Chris Sarandon), she’s never lived by herself and feels like she needs space to be independent.  All the apartments she finds are too expensive (even though an early montage shows Alison on no less than 7 major magazine covers so…how broke is she?) but fate takes her to the offices of Helen Logan (Ava Gardner) who just happens to have the perfect spot for her.  A handsome brownstone with a great view, the furnished apartment is hers for the bargain price of $500, no, make that $400.   It’s a no-brainer.  To the brownstone, Alison will go.

Haunted by a teenage trauma she carries with her even today, living alone doesn’t go so well for Alison.  Though she meets a kindly neighbor (Burgess Meredith) just after moving in, she begins to experience strange occurrences and hears another neighbor loudly clomping around above her bedroom during the night.  She begins to suffer horrible migraines and fainting spells, all unexplained events that coincided with her moving into her new apartment.  When she meets a few more neighbors that aren’t so genial (including a mute Beverly D’Angelo who does something rather explicit in front of Alison) and begins to be curious about the blind priest that lives on the top floor, she starts to investigate with the help of her boyfriend.  The more she learns about the history of the building, the deeper into darkness she’ll plunge because it’s not just the neighbors she has to be afraid of.

Director Winner had already made numerous films that had received acclaim before he took on The Sentinel so it’s easy to see why he didn’t have any trouble securing his roster of stars.  Rains makes for a lovely lead, even when she devolves into a sweaty screaming mess she has an air of dignity about her that makes us care for the character.  In smaller roles that may require them to exhibit perverse behavior (or simply act out a perversion), the veteran stars shine in their brief bits of screen time.  Gardner, in particular, seems to be taking glorious delight playing a glam grand dame of NY real estate.  Check out Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone) as a cop with no lines who is partnered with Eli Wallach called in to investigate when Rains goes off the deep end.   The bit parts could also double as a Before They Were Stars clip — so many people show up here that went on to have long careers.

The movie is problematic to be sure, with some attitudes toward different sexual orientations a bit passé and a finale that’s downright offensive…but it’s all a time capsule of the temperature of the time the movie was made and released.  Winner isn’t shy about showing a bundle of extremes be it gore or nudity so audiences are warned to gird their loins and steel themselves when the film goes barreling toward its abrupt but appropriate conclusion.  There’s quite a lot of good stuff going on here and it’s spooky enough to warrant a recommendation if you’re so inclined.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Invisible Man (1933)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A scientist finds a way of becoming invisible, but in doing so, he becomes murderously insane.

Stars: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O’Connor, Forrester Harvey

Director: James Whale

Rated: NR

Running Length: 71 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I think it’s safe to say The Invisible Man doesn’t get as much love as his fellow Universal Monsters, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolfman.  Heck, I’d even say The Creature from the Black Lagoon gets a few more hits on his Instagram.  While The Invisible Man (actually Dr. Jack Griffin in this first installment) may not be as instantly memorable as others in Universal’s stable of spooky characters, his debut film is a landmark achievement in technique and surprisingly complex storytelling for the era.

After the success of other monster movies Universal made this adaptation of the novel by H.G. Wells a priority and went through several screenplays that strayed from the Wells source material.  Having been burned by the last adaptation of his work, 1932’s middling Island of Lost Souls based on The Island of Dr. Moreau, Wells insisted The Invisible Man stick closer to his original vision. Screenwriter R.C. Sherriff’s final draft paid attention to the wishes of Wells and there are only slight differences between the novel and the movie.  Overseeing it all was director James Whale, who scored such profound success in the horror genre with Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, not to mention Bride of Frankenstein which was on the horizon after The Invisible Man.

What makes The Invisible Man so interesting and creatively different from the jump is that it isn’t an origin story, per se.  When we first meet Griffin (Claude Rains) on a wintery night arriving at a small pub looking for a room, he’s already been through an experiment that has turned him invisible.  Seeking a quiet space where he can rest and perform tests to find a way to reverse his condition, it’s only when the pub owner and his wife (a hilariously campy and over the top Una O’Connor) won’t leave him alone when the trouble starts.   Lashing out in the first of several increasingly violent episodes, Griffin eventually descends into mad scientist territory as he terrorizes his sly former colleague (William Harrigan) and a countryside gripped with fear.  The only person he reserves any warmth for is Flora (Gloria Stuart, Titanic), his fiancé who is willing to stick with him, even knowing his murderous impulses.

For a 71-minute movie, Sherriff (via Wells) packs quite a lot of ideas and layered narrative into the action.  In a movie-going time that was still getting used to “talkies”, audiences had to truly listen to the dialogue to follow along and learn how Griffin came to his current state and how he plans to fix it.  All of the backstory usually shown to us is relayed via rapid-fire dialogue so you better strap yourself in and don’t miss a beat.  When Griffn goes off the rails and begins to use his invisibility as a weapon, there are various plots on how to catch The Invisible Man and not all of them are as simple as throwing a bag of flour on the guy.  I was surprised and pleased to find such confidence put in audiences by the filmmakers, they clearly were aiming for a sophistication that maybe wasn’t quite present in earlier Universal monster movies.

The effects utilized are impressive, even now.  Sure, some of the unmasking’s are a little rough around the edges and you can see the image overlay technique used.  More often than not, though, it’s hard to detect immediately how the effect was accomplished and even harder to spot the wires for the items that float through the air as if Griffin is carrying them from one place to another.  Even films 80 years later aren’t as consistently clean in their efforts to hide the magic.  Watching a documentary after the movie ended revealed most of the tricks and while some were simple bits of practical on-set effects, there were many that required time-intensive work…but the results are worth it.

While I loved seeing another film directed by James Whale and the source material of H.G. Wells is grand, I wouldn’t say The Invisible Man is my favorite of the Universal Monster films. It may lack the thrill of Frankenstein or the creepy chills given by Dracula but there’s something about The Invisible Man that’s particularly captivating.  Spawning several sequels and almost getting a reboot a few years back as part of the now scrapped Dark Universe, there’s no substitute for the original.   I’d never seen it before this year but it’s absolutely one of those titles you can’t let slip by you.

31 Days to Scare ~ Vampire Circus

The Facts:

Synopsis: As the plague sweeps the countryside, a quarantined village is visited by a mysterious traveling circus. Soon, young children begin to disappear, and the locals suspect the circus troupe might be hiding a horrifying secret.

Stars: Adrienne Corri, John Moulder-Brown, Laurence Payne, Thorley Walters, Lynne Frederick, Anthony Higgins

Director: Robert Young

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  A longtime fan of Hammer Studios and their horror tales, I’ve come to see recently just how limited my scope was in my formative years.  I’m making up for the time that I focused in on some of the more generic (but still worthy!) offerings and am quite enjoying expanding my horizons. With titles that might not be so in the mainstream featuring the familiar names that trigger a notion of what you can expect, like a Dracula or a Frankenstein or a Werewolf, I’m finding some fairly excellent experiences on a regular basis. I almost feel bad saying I’ve “discovered” these movies because they’ve been there all along just waiting for me to find them. So, with great humility, let’s talk about Vampire Circus.

How had I never seen this one before?  I’d heard Vampire Circus spoken of highly before and know I’ve seen the poster numerous times over the years; it’s striking image of eyes wide and a mouth open and fangs bared is instantly memorable.  Making an impact with promises of blood and mayhem, I can say the movie delivers on all accounts and it’s an R-rated delight from a studio that started off a little tentative in their willingness to go the extra mile.  From the beginning, it’s clear this isn’t just another standard vampire flick filmed against an eastern European backdrop…there’s some plot that’s been thought out and it’s exceedingly well made.

An extended prologue finds a group of villagers in the Serbian village of Stetl finally doing away with the vampire Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) who has been preying on the young children in the village.  As he dies, he curses the townspeople and their children, promising they will all die in order for him to live once more.  Entrusting a follower (Domini Blythe) to find his relation and tell him what the villagers had done, the Count dies and his castle is destroyed.  Fifteen years pass and the village has indeed been plagued by one problem after another.  A plague has cut them off from the rest of the world and no one can go in or out…until the circus comes to town.

Led by a flame-haired gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri), the Circus of Night arrives in the village under mysterious circumstances and quickly begins to enthrall the townspeople with their unbelievable acts of daring and transformation.  High flying twin acrobats turn into, well, bats.  A panther can turn into a smoldering man in the blink of an eye.  Then there are the dancers who perform a risqué pas de duex (with full nudity, another reason the movie was slapped with an R rating) along with a funhouse hall of mirrors that turns deadly.  Oh…and most of them are vampires.  So begins a three-ring act of violence and revenge, with each victim being brought to the Count’s final resting place and being offered as a sacrifice, their blood restoring him to his full gory glory.

It takes longer than it should for the townspeople to figure out what’s going on but even when they do there are still a few mysteries yet to be solved that are gradually doled out before a blood-soaked finale set in a tomb.  The special effects are well-rendered and it’s more than a little bit scary at times.  In general, the atmosphere is right on target for the time and place, something Hammer was always so pitch perfect in achieving time after time.  The production design is lovely and the location shooting in Europe adds to the authenticity of the work.  Even the performances manage to be more than just your standard victim and prey stock characters, though not everyone can bare their fangs and sink them into necks as good as Anthony Higgins.

This is an absolute must-see for fans of horror, classics and new.  Especially if you have a penchant for the vampire genre and especially the Hammer brand of filmmaking, it’s an essential watch.  It drags ever so slightly in the middle with a bit of repetitive kills and sensuality but at 87 minutes you aren’t waiting around too long before things pick up again and the Vampire Circus prepares for its big finale.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Stuff

The Facts:

Synopsis: A delicious mysterious goo that oozes from the Earth is marketed as the newest dessert sensation. But the sugary treat rots more than teeth when zombie-like snackers begin infesting the world.

Stars: Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Scott Bloom, Danny Aiello

Director: Larry Cohen

Rated: R

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: When schlock director Larry Cohen passed away in March of 2019, he left behind a legacy of campy horror films that ran the gamut in tone and style.  He was comfortable with tightly paced Hollywood fare like Cellular and Phone Booth, likely because he was used to filming quick and fast having cut his teeth in low-budget horror films It’s Alive and God Told Me To.  Though his movies were amusing in a throwback sort of way (I dare you not to watch the ‘80s monster movie Q: The Winged Serpent and not have just a little bit of fun) they often were one joke/concepts that didn’t always have a resolution to their rather fantastical set-ups.  Good starts, bad endings.

Never is that more apparent than in The Stuff, Cohen’s 1985 sci-fi horror satire about a tasty substance that becomes everyone’s favorite snack.  Obviously commenting on the yogurt craze that was happening around that period of time, Cohen spends the first half hour or so of the film nicely structuring a framework of a society eager to jump on the bandwagon of the latest craze.  Marketed as The Stuff, every supermarket has a healthy stock and nearly all American households have one or more cartons in their refrigerators waiting to be consumed.  The advertising parodies Cohen has dreamed up are a riot, with commercials and jingles for The Stuff providing some decent laughs in their ridiculous earnestness.

There’s something bad about The Stuff, though, and we know it early on.  Suburban boy Jason (Scott Bloom) wakes in the middle of the night looking for a midnight treat and when he opens the fridge he sees The Stuff moving…crawling back into its carton.  His parents and brother don’t believe him, likely because they have been eating The Stuff on the regular and soon are trying to get him to eat it as well.  At the same time, a private investigator (Michael Moriarty) is hired by a rival corporation interested in stealing The Stuff’s formula and he begins to suspect the food may not exactly have the full support of the FDA.  Teaming up with an ad exec (Andrea Marcovicci) who had been working on The Stuff’s campaign, the investigator uncovers more than he bargained for and is soon on the run with Jason joining their ranks.  Can they stop the spread of The Stuff?

Cohen wastes no time diving headfirst into the action.  Literally, within the first moments of the film we see the goo bubbling out of the ground where an old man finds it, samples it, and thinks it could be something the entire world would want.  This all in the span of, oh, twenty seconds.  The first half of the movie is so front loaded with information and action that Cohen runs of interesting developments before the film has reached the sixty-minute mark.  That’s when he brings in Paul Sorvino (The Gambler) who has been waiting in the wings and, let me tell you, he is hungry to nosh on some scenery.  Sorvino’s military figure battling The Stuff like he’s going to war with the communists is a tired old cliché and only shows you how little the finale was truly thought out.

The concept of The Stuff is intriguing but Cohen did not fill the rest of the movie with anyone we remotely want to root for.  As Jason, Bloom is a total dud lacking conviction in any of his line readings and Marcovicci might have made for an interesting female lead playing a powerful businesswoman of the ‘80s…if Cohen didn’t have her jump into bed with Moriarty immediately when she thought he was a headhunter for another account she wanted.  As for Moriarty, he’s the lead and is truly, truly, atrocious.  A longtime Cohen favorite, Moriarty is going for some slick kind of character with, I’m guessing from his accent, some kind of bayou roots but winds up giving a bad performance for the history books.  Sporting a hideous toupee and laughing at the material almost as much as the audience is laughing at how bad he is in the movie, Moriarty pretty much ruins the movie.

When The Stuff starts to take on a life of its own, there are some decent special effects but it too often reminded me of The Blob (the original and the fun ‘80s remake), reminding me it had been a while since I’d fired one of those films up.  When you spend more time thinking of when you can start another movie you know the one you’re watching isn’t filling you up.  The Stuff isn’t a feast, just an interesting first taste.