31 Days to Scare ~ Frankenstein (1931)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Dr. Frankenstein dares to tamper with life and death by creating a human monster out of lifeless body parts.

Stars: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore

Director: James Whale

Rated: Passed

Running Length: 70 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Until recently, I’d never seen director James Whale’s landmark 1931 version of Frankenstein before, but I felt like I had.  That’s because there are so many iconic images, scenes, and vocals from it existing in popular culture that, like the creature at the center cobbled together from multiple bodies, one could easily have assembled it in their mind.  There’s obviously nothing like sitting down and actually watching the 70-minute film from beginning to end and the viewer is reminded again why some movies are classics and stand the test of time while others fade from memory before you’ve even made it home from the theater.  This is not one that’s easily forgotten.

After the unexpected success of Dracula in 1931, Universal Studios fast tracked their plans to create a host of horror films that could be made for relatively little money but would turn a nice profit for the studio.  The next film in this mix was Frankenstein and though originally intended to star Bela Lugosi as the Monster, the star of Dracula left after being unhappy with the way the role was coming together.  Looking back, it was fortunate that Lugosi could remain ever associated with the vampire Count he made iconic, making way for Boris Karloff to put his stamp on the Monster creation of Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein. 

While the movie is ostensibly based on the book by Mary Shelley that was published in 1818, it’s by way of an adaptation of a 1927 play that was itself adapted from the novel.  Like a game of telephone, Shelley’s story lost some of its intensity in the transition of mediums, but the outline is generally the same.  Scientist Frankenstein (Victor in the book, Henry in the movie) is obsessed with creating life out of dead matter and will resort to unorthodox methods to test his experiments.  Assembling a body out of the parts of cadavers, he brings the Creature (dubbed the Monster in the movie) to life but becomes repulsed by what he has created and abandons his work for his waiting fiancée, Elizabeth.  When the Monster breaks loose and starts to wreak havoc on the nearby village, Frankenstein has to confront his creation and put an end to the horror.

It’s hard not to watch Frankenstein and stop yourself from being a little awed at both the enormity of the impact the film has had while at the same time recognizing how scuttle bones the picture is at times.  Backdrops that ripple to indicate it’s not a cloudy sky but a painted curtain, concrete walls that bounce, some hasty editing to cover for special effects that weren’t quite perfected.  Yet for all those rinky-dink callouts, oh my goodness is this film gorgeous when it comes to costume design and some of the sets that were constructed.  Frankenstein’s lab and lair are incredible sights to behold, and the windmill finale is as impressive a set piece now as I’m sure it was then. 

At the beginning of the film, one of the actors comes out and makes a grand announcement to the audience that the movie we are about to see is shocking and this is our final warning to leave if we didn’t think we could take it.  It’s a nice touch to set the mood and I’m sure must have gotten some audience members hearts racing.  Of course, we look at a low impact (in terms of horror) film such as Frankenstein now and wonder how it could have ever been considered ‘scary’ but then again, consider that much of the talk then was based on word of mouth so many people were going to this after someone told them about it.  The hype built up in their heads was likely looming large and this pre-show announcement would only boost that hope for thrill even more. 

Performance-wise, the film tends toward the typical broad-ness of the era with everyone affecting that same stage-y presentational way of delivering their dialogue but it’s really all about Karloff as the Monster. While Karloff also memorably played The Mummy the next year in 1932, he would always be associated with Frankenstein and for good reason.  There’s an emotional core to this creature and Karloff discovers it early on.  The Frankenstein character has gone on to be portrayed as a mouth-breathing dunderhead at times but not the way Karloff has played it. This is a confused living being trying to adjust to his surroundings that didn’t ask for the situation he’s in but being forced to conform.  It’s no wonder we often sympathize with the Monster more than any of the other characters.

Followed by six sequels that started with Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 (no, I haven’t seen that either…yikes!) and ending with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948 (yes, I’ve seen that and it’s grand!), Karloff would return for two as the Monster and one as Dr. Frankenstein!  The character of the Monster would go on to be a popular figure in many horror related features through the years, it certainly helped Universal continue to churn out their initial batch of now-legendary monster movies.  Attempts at remakes that are closer to Shelley’s original novel have been made over the years, but the image of this 1931 Frankenstein sets a high bar for any subsequent production.  That’s saying something about the longevity of this picture.  It’s (still) alive, indeed.

31 Days to Scare ~ Death Valley (1982)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A divorced mother, her young son and her new boyfriend set out on a road trip through Death Valley and run afoul of a local serial killer.

Stars: Peter Billingsley, Paul Le Mat, Catherine Hicks, Stephen McHattie, Wilford Brimley, Edward Herrmann

Director: Dick Richards

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: One of my bucket list road trips remains an out West journey to visit the Grand Canyon and drive through Death Valley.  So perhaps watching this 1982 horror movie about a family that get tangled up in a murder mystery after the precocious youngster of their trio stumbles onto a murder scene and makes off with a key piece of evidence that can identify the killer wasn’t the best advertisement to pack up the car next summer.  On the other hand, as presented by director Dick Richards from Richard Rothstein’s original screenplay, Death Valley is a lot less intense than it could have been and that’s both a good thing at times and a bad thing when it sadly should count the most.

Shall we pump the brakes for a second, take the first exit, and make a quick loop to see what got us here?  We’re back in the early days of the slasher film when the studios were clamoring for content, but no one had truly settled on what was going to be attractive to audiences.  They’d later find out that this crowd preferred as much violence, gore, and nudity as possible, so these initial attempts were cautious on all of the above elements and that’s readily apparent in Death Valley.  Even the casual observer can tell Richards is uncomfortable with bloody violence and has included only the bare minimum and though there was obviously more nudity in one scene early on, it’s been edited down to a quick glimpse to protect the innocent. 

This leaves Death Valley feeling like a movie that’s almost embarrassed to be what it is and what it is ain’t that awful, just half-baked…or maybe overbaked depending on how you look at it.  At 87 minutes, Rothstein doesn’t quite have enough plot to fill a feature length so there’s more family drama included than audiences of that time would have cared for.  Take the opening of the movie for instance, with child star Peter Billingsley (a year before his iconic role in A Christmas Story) as Billy walking around NYC with his dad (the late Edward Hermann of The Lost Boys) before saying goodbye as Billy heads off with his divorced mom for a trip to the other coast with her new boyfriend.  This is precious time eaten up by melodrama of the Douglas Sirk variety.  The actors are quite stellar and it’s the first indication of the strength of the main cast but, accompanied by a bouncy score, it feels incongruous for what’s to come next.

Arriving in Arizona for their road trip, Billy meets Mike (Paul Le Mat, Puppet Master) the high school sweetheart of his mom Sally (Catherine Hicks, Child’s Play) who has come back into her life after her marriage ended.  Reluctant to accept the new man at first, his aloofness to Mike spurs on his curiosity to explore the sights whenever they stop off at a tourist trap.  That’s how he ends up (rather boldly, like a true New Yorker) going into an RV that has just been occupied by an unseen killer and his latest victims.  Finding a necklace on the ground, he picks it up and walks away with it, only realizing later that it’s the same one the unsettling server (Stephen McHattie, Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal) at their motel wears. Cue the clanging orchestral score to indicate danger. No, really, composer Dana Kaproff’ love of a nice sting is worse than a persistent bee and as effective as it as when it aligns with the action, when it doesn’t it feels like something went wrong in the editing.

While the movie offers a few surprises along the way, including and up to an interesting finale, it has some stretches that get a little iffy where time is concerned.  Like Billy’s evening with a babysitter which is essentially us observing him and his caretaker watching TV while she eyeballs his stash of candy.  Riveting stuff, this is not.  When Richards does put things into motion, there’s a degree of suspense but it’s of the slow-boil variety, never red-hot tension.  It’s fitting that Rothstein went on to create the mystery anthology series The Hitchhiker because Death Valley feels like it could be a predecessor to that show in content and form…and might have worked better within that shorter running time.  This isn’t a skippable effort at all, it’s just a bit of a trip you don’t have to take if you have other destinations, you’d rather get to first.

Movie Review ~ Dune (2021)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people

Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Charlotte Rampling

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 155 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  Am I a perfect audience member for the newest attempt to adapt Dune, Frank Herbert’s celebrated 1965 novel?  Long thought to be too complex to be translated onto the screen, it was famously attempted by the artist and director Alejandro Jodorowsky who began his work in 1974 before abandoning the project two years into pre-production.  Years later David Lynch more infamously tried his hand at the piece, releasing his completed film in 1984 to disastrous reviews and failing to make back it’s budget at the box office.  While it has gone on to achieve a cult-like status, no one would say it’s any kind of definitive version of the film.  More notable where the two miniseries that aired on the Sci Fi channel, essentially giving that fledgling cable company street cred from the industry and fans at the same time.

Me?  I’ve never seen any adaptation or read the book(s) and while I normally try to do my homework before a remake, reboot, or other comes out, for the version of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve arriving in theaters now I decided to chuck it all and do absolutely nothing.  So that’s why I might be the best all-around viewer because I’m coming at it with no pre-conceived notions about the source material or previous adaptations to compare it to or feel like it has to live-up to anything.  The only thing it had to contend with were the monstrous expectations the studio had put by delaying it nearly a year from its original release date, insisting it was an experience best reserved for theaters on the biggest screen possible.

Like the recent release of No Time to Die, I’m willing to admit that while some of the releases that came out during the pandemic lockdown shuttered theaters worked just fine when viewed at home, Dune is a film that deserves to be witnessed on a screen so big it should feel overwhelming…like the movie itself.  This is a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-blue-moon sort of event movie that can’t be replicated completely when seen at home.  Though it was made available on HBOMax the same day it opened in theaters, you can’t compare the two viewings because the movie is the movie and it’s great, but the awe-inspiring visuals are knockouts when projected in their sheer enormity.

Unrestrained praise for the theatrical exhibition aside, Dune is more than anything an example of filmmaking (and a filmmaker) firing on all cylinders where each piece of the cinematic puzzle working together to make something incredible.  Yet to (in my mind) make a film that isn’t worth watching multiple times, Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) has a clear vision of what this movie is and should be (and, as you’ll know right of the bat…will be in the future) so there is rarely a moment along the way where Dune isn’t absolutely on course in its narrative storyline.  From what I understand, that’s where the previous adaptations have run into trouble.  Herbert’s novels have deeper meanings and storylines with interwoven characters, times, and subplots and to juggle those all is an immense challenge.  The director, along with co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts (Passengers) and Eric Roth (2018’s A Star is Born) have focused the action and events to be cohesive and trackable – you could likely watch this on mute and still get the idea of what’s happening.

So…what IS happening in Dune, you may ask?  Let me attempt a small breakdown of it all.

Way way WAY in the future, Spice is a valuable resource to anyone that can harvest it and harness it’s power.  With the universe under the command of an unseen Emperor and overseen by various “houses” within the Galactic Empire, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac, The Addams Family 2) has been ordered by the Emperor to the planet Arrakis which is the only current source of Spice.  Accompanied by his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, The Greatest Showman), mother to his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet, Lady Bird) they travel to the planet to find the previous House (led by Stellan Skarsgård, Cinderella, and overseen by My Spy’s Dave Bautista) left the harvesting equipment in disrepair.  Recognizing they were set-up to fail and eventually betrayed by those they trusted, the House of Atreides will need to find favor with the people of Arrakis (and avoid the terrifying sandworms trolling around the Spice fields) if they are to survive a plot that was cruelly set into motion from the top levels of the Empire.

Sounds a lot like another space epic that just ended a few years back, doesn’t it?  It’s not quite the same, but there are ripples of those Shakespearean twists that Star Wars employed so well throughout the film.  Dune very much succeeds on its own merits, however and that’s not just thanks to Villeneuve’s specific direction and eye for visual acuity.  The performances are top notch, and this has to be Chalamet’s best showing since his Oscar-nominated turn in Call Me by Your Name…I’d even say there are times when its better.  Acting can get lost in these spectacles but Chalamet doesn’t let that important aspect slip.  Neither do Ferguson, Isaac, or terrific supporting players Josh Brolin (Oldboy) and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) playing allies to Atriedes that fend off attacks from all sides.  Billed high but seen little is Zendaya (Malcolm & Marie), though she’ll be kept busy enough…later.

Ah…the later aspect of Dune.  It’s now well known this film is but the first chapter of a longer series but how many more and how long will we need to wait until the next one arrives?  Even knowing this is the initial entry point into this world shouldn’t dissuade you from getting out to this one because it’s as standalone a film as can be, with its own thrills and humungous set-pieces that make for breathless action sequences.  At times I wished for subtitles because the sound design is often as complex as the story…but that’s what a home rewatch is for.  And I’ll be getting to that as soon as I’m through with this review. Spice up your life and climb this mountain as soon as possible.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Seduction (1982)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A popular Los Angeles anchorwoman is stalked by a photographer who’s obsessed with her and wants to win her affections at any cost.

Stars: Morgan Fairchild, Michael Sarrazin, Vince Edwards, Andrew Stevens, Colleen Camp, Kevin Brophy, Wendy Smith Howard, Joanne Linville

Director: David Schmoeller

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I’m not quite sure how I wound up crossing paths with The Seduction, I just know that I found myself in the mood for some early ‘80s glam wrapped around a slightly sleazy plot and this more than fit the bill.  Here’s another film with a VHS cover that stared back at me from the shelf of my home video store for years, but I didn’t dare even suggest it as a possibility of a rental to my parents because…well, just look at that image of the gorgeous Morgan Fairchild featured above.  They would have taken one sideways glance at that fallen spaghetti strap and sent me out to the car to wait for them to pick out our movie of the night…and who knows what unknown Richard Attenborough film we would have wound up with.  No, I knew that my time with this one would eventually arrive.  And here we are…decades later.

Was the wait worth it? Well, let’s say this. I was happy to get reacquainted with Fairchild after all this time because while she was never going to be an Oscar-winning motion picture powerhouse, she had a seriously strong run for a number of years on television as the go-to for assertive boss ladies that ruled the roost.  That’s why her work in The Seduction is of such interest, and what must have attracted her to the role, because her character begins the film in such a vulnerable state (literally, she’s first shown swimming quite nude in her pool) and eventually takes control of her terrifying situation.  It does take some effort to get there, though, and by the time it does the viewer may wonder why an apparently intelligent woman waits so long to take a stand.

The opening of The Seduction takes place during that aforementioned nude swim, a slow breaststroke (no pun intended) over which Dionne Warwick breathlessly coos about “Love’s Hiding Place”, written by composer Lalo Schifrin (Tales of Halloween).  The song is lousy but Schifrin’s score throughout the film tends to underline the freedom Jamie Douglas (Fairchild) feels as the movie begins only to turn menacing as neighbor/stalker Derek (Andrew Stevens, The Fury) obsessively pushes his way into every aspect of her life and won’t take no for an answer.  A successful anchorwoman for the 6 o’clock news, Jamie has achieved success in her work and has equality in her relationship with her reporter boyfriend Brandon (Michael Sarrazin), a man that would do anything to protect her. 

Even Brandon is no match for Derek’s fixation on Jamie and unlike other films with similar themes, writer/director David Schmoeller (Puppet Master) has his fanatic villain get right to business before you can make too much of an indent in your couch.  He’s so aggressive with his advances that it’s no wonder Jamie rebuffs him, not to mention she already has a boyfriend that she likes just fine, thank you very much.  Derek has an admirer of his own, co-worker Julie (Wendy Smith Howard) and I halfway thought her plotline would somehow intertwine with a series of murders Jamie is investigating of young women being brutally killed by an assailant known as the Sweetheart Killer.  Alas, Schmoeller only has eyes (and energy) for one plot and with The Seduction running 104 minutes…it’s a lot of plot to get through.

To their credit, Fairchild and Stevens are admirable in their respective roles of victim and victimizer and both are asked to do some outrageous things over the course of the film.  I mean, Fairchild and co-star Colleen Camp (The House with a Clock in Its Walls) have a long scene at a gym and in the sauna/steam room/showers and then she comes home and instantly gets into a bubble bath where Stevens watches her from the closet.  Didn’t she JUST take a shower?  It’s all in service to that quickening pulse race of titillation that just reads as skeevy now.  Yet both actors are well cast in their parts, and I believed in what they were selling.  The same business of no one being able to protect the woman being terrorized that exists in movies today runs rampant here and it’s nice to see some action being taken by Fairchild finally. Still, it does arrive late in the film after so much has happened to poor Jamie that you don’t so much root for her as you start to hope something happens to one of them to cause the other to lose interest.

Rather expectedly, The Seduction was a big ‘ole flopperoo when it arrived in theaters in January 1982.  On Golden Pond, Absence of Malice, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (which was released in June of 1981) beat it at the box office.  Fairchild and Stevens would go on to have considerably long careers working in television and Schmoeller would find himself behind several notable movies in the direct to video horror market in the coming decades.  There’s no real seducing going on in The Seduction and it could be classified more as The Distraction, but it’s decently made, competently acted, and has a satisfying finale.  For the genre, that’s three important boxes checked.

31 Days to Scare ~ Malignant

The Facts:

Synopsis: Madison is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities.

Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Mckenna Grace, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jake Abel, Ray Chase, Jean Louisa Kelly, Susanna Thompson

Director: James Wan

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I feel as if I should start a review of Malignant by dividing up the reader into two different categories.  Are you the type of person that sees a horror film and need to have it grounded in some kind of truth, a reality that benefits from an explanation with sound science behind it?  If you are, please step to the left and I can find you another movie later.  For the rest of you still with me, I invite you to try out this ambitious bit of terror that unfurls itself slowly before taking several shots of adrenaline as it reaches its climax.  It’s utter nonsense, let’s be real clear, and gets so crazy you almost wonder if it’s going to turn out to be some huge joke with a “Gotcha” dance break, but it’s in the way it takes itself so seriously that ultimately makes Malignant such a wild ride.

The movie locked me down almost from its first shot, the imposing Simion Research Hospital perched high on a cliff one rainy night in 1992.  Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie, The Water Diviner) is documenting the study of her patient Gabriel when she’s suddenly called to his room to witness something…strange.  Jumping ahead to 2019 and into the Seattle home of Madison (Annabelle Wallis, The Mummy) and her good for nothing husband Steve (Jake Abel, The Host), we barely get to meet the couple before we learn that Steve likes to rough up the pregnant Madison and that she’s lost several babies because of it.  It’s during one row that he smashes her head up against a wall, leaving her bleeding from the back of her head and needing to lie down.  Later that night, a ghostly figure appears and makes Madison a widow, eventually sending her to the hospital where she loses another baby. (Fear not of spoilers…this is all within the first 10 minutes!)

With the police investigating Steve’s strange death, Madison returns home with her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson, We Summon the Darkness) and let’s her in on a little secret: Madison was adopted when she was very young after being abandoned by her birth mother. She also had an imaginary friend when she was young…a boy named Gabriel.  While Madison is putting her life back together and recovering, several other seemingly unrelated people are meeting the same dark figure that did-in wife beating Steve. One woman (Jean Louisa Kelly, Uncle Buck) is hunted down after giving a tour of Seattle’s underground city, others are violently slaughtered by the specter that walks funny and evades Detective Shaw (George Young) and Detective Moss (Michole Briana White, Songbird) with apparent ease.  It’s during these new crimes that Madison starts to see visions of the killer at work, like she is actually there when it is happening.

Director James Wan, working from Akela Cooper’s (Hell Fest) script (which he gets a story credit on along with his wife Ingrid Bisu who also appears in the film), has a long history with creating iconic horror characters and/or series.  An original creative behind the Saw series as well as directing Insidious and it’s sequel as well as The Conjuring and it’s follow-up, Wan fit in Malignant after directing Aquaman and before he set to work on the big-budget follow-up to that superhero film.  This feels like a pet project that Warner Brothers let him roll with and perhaps why Wan pulls out all the tricks in his arsenal for a movie that’s way more fun to watch than dissect.  There’s just too much bonkers business going on to take it all that seriously, even if some of the resolution has some grounding in science.

While the big reveal is a total doozy, it’s not close to the end of the film and it’s a credit not just to Wan but the rest of the cast that they are able to continue making the film engaging while carrying a rather strange idea to its bloody conclusion.  It’s during that time when Wan goes heavy metal on the action with dynamic camera angles (the director has never met a multi-level house he can’t shoot entirely from above in an uninterrupted take as an actor goes from floor to floor) and limber stunt people to bend and twist their way around in largely practical physical acts that boggle the mind.  It’s all very breathless and a tad exhausting…and I loved it.

It truly helps Wan has a cast that is taking the material deadly seriously.  Were they to even wink slightly at the camera it would have broken the illusion that someone was in on the silliness of it all.  With her dark hair and eye lined lids, Wallis is tortured soul personified and quite good as a wild-eyed woman putting together her past while trying to figure out if she needs to be worried more about her present.  Wan tends to cast his leading females well and he’s got another bullseye here.  Production elements are top notch and watching the film in 4K HD on HBOMax the cinematography from Michael Burgess (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) is spooky and spot-on. 

When this is published, Malignant is sadly not available to watch on HBOMax (who’s the smartypants that decided it shouldn’t be available for Halloween??) but could be playing at a local theater near you.  Try to catch it on a rainy night, because if you are in the right frame of mind, this is a decidedly good watch and fun for the “sure, ok, why not” explanation that meets viewers ninety minutes in.  The cast is strong and Wan is more than prepared to present a film made with precision and skill.  Don’t cut Malignant out of your queue without investigating it a little bit.

31 Days to Scare ~ Night Teeth

The Facts:

Synopsis: A college student moonlighting as a chauffeur picks up two mysterious women for a night of party-hopping across LA. But when he uncovers their bloodthirsty intentions – and their dangerous, shadowy underworld – he must fight to stay alive.

Stars: Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Debby Ryan, Lucy Fry, Raúl Castillo, Alfie Allen, Alexander Ludwig, Sydney Sweeney, Megan Fox

Director: Adam Randall

Rated: NR

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If I haven’t said it enough already in the last few months, let me say it unequivocally: Netflix is truly running circles around the other streaming services (and Hollywood studios) in bringing back the pleasingly retro films that were made for mass appeal consumption in theaters two decades ago…but with a modern eye.  Already scoring this summer and again earlier this month with resurrections of the teen slasher film (the Fear Street trilogy {1994, 1978, 1666}, and There’s Someone Inside Your House), they’ve now got a sleek and stylish vampire flick on their hands, and I sure hope they treat it better than they did another one they unjustly ignored in July.  That would be Blood Red Sky, a wild action film that can be summarized bluntly as ‘vicious vampires on a hijacked plane’ but is way, way more insane that that.  The L.A. set Night Teeth is less in your face but every bit as entertaining in the way it unfolds at its own pace, benefitting from a charismatic cast and a sleek production overseen by director Adam Randall.

I’ve loved vampire movies ever since I can remember, voraciously reading all that I could, going as “Generic Vampire with Cape” for Halloween during my formative years more than a few times, and seeing every fanged flick that came out…but there’s a stumbling block I’ve found with each new one that arises up from its coffin.  With so many variations to the vampire lore, the rules are always changing so no two groups of bloodsuckers are ever quite the same.  Usually, this is just an excuse for lazy writers to work around small budgets, tiny talent, or miniscule creative input but first-time writer Brent Dillon finds an interesting morsel of a hook to set the stage for the events of Night Teeth that felt unforced for once. 

Turf wars have led to a long-standing rivalry between different tribes of vampires in and around the Los Angeles area.  As part of a truce enacted, tribes were expected to never feed on the unwilling, stay in their own neighborhoods, and never cross into the realm of another without being expressly invited…and that rarely happens.  Making sure the night hunters keep to their word is a band of human protectors and at the opening of Night Teeth it’s Jay (Raúl Castillo, Wrath of Man) one of these guards. that first realizes one tribe is about to start something big when he and his girlfriend come face to face with Victor (Alfie Allen, John Wick), a creepy leader for a tribe that isn’t known for playing nice.  It’s nearly sunrise, though, so any more action will have to wait for later that evening. 

Meanwhile, Jay’s brother Benny (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Bumblebee) is a college student trying to make ends meet while dreaming of becoming a music producer.  Living with his grandmother and occasionally seeing Jay pop in, he’s a tad sheltered and doesn’t get out much. After overhearing Jay’s heated phone exchange, Benny convinces his unusually distracted older brother to let him fill in at his car service job to make some extra cash.  Posing as Jay, he sets out for a supposedly easy night chauffeuring for just one booking but after meeting the beautiful Blaire (Debby Ryan, The Opening Act) and her vixen-ish pal Zoe (Lucy Fry, Vampire Academy) he’ll wish he stayed home and finished mixing his latest demo track.  Because these are deadly dames.

Writer Dillon and director Randall keep most of Night Teeth tight and taut, never letting what could start to feel repetitious (Benny takes the women to a series of parties/locales where they enact some carnage in service to Victor’s plot to take over the L.A. scene) get too stale by the third round.  There are enough interesting things going on with Benny slowly discovering what’s going on after a few stops and characters that refreshingly aren’t obnoxious toxics so you want to remain engaged.  Usually in these movies a couple is thrown together just for some standard romantic entanglement but in Night Teeth the chemistry feels genuine, another piece that works for the overall benefit of its success.  I liked the energy Ryan and Fry were putting out there and enjoy even more what Lendeborg was giving back to them in return.

I don’t say it often but even at nearly two hours, the movie is just as long as it needs to be.  I’m not sure if I would have cut out anything because this was far more enjoyable than even the souped-up preview would have you believe.  I could have even done with more of certain aspects, like the all-too brief cameos of Megan Fox (Till Death) and Sydney Sweeney (Nocturne) as mavens of one tribe who realize far too late they’ve underestimated a rival.  For all you Fox fans that may be coming to this one expecting your queen to play a significant role…don’t expect too much.  If I tell you she only had one day of filming, does that give you an idea of what you’ll be getting?

While this might pair nice with Blood Red Sky for a double dose of vampire mayhem, double sides of Netflix’s most polished bloodsucking coin, I’d suggest you check out Randall’s previous film as well.  I See You came out in 2019 and is a sneaky little horror nugget that gets under your skin far more than you might think.  Like Night Teeth, it’s made with generous amount of style but doesn’t let any kind of flare overwhelm the necessary storytelling.  Do make the effort to sink your chompers into Night Teeth, especially to show Netflix these kinds of movies are valued and encourage them to make more!

 

31 Days to Scare ~ Sleepwalkers (1992)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mother-and-son team of strange vampiric shapeshifting creatures able to stay alive only by feeding on the life-force of the innocent move to a small town to avoid discovery while searching for their next victim.

Stars: Brian Krause, Mädchen Amick, Alice Krige, Jim Haynie, Cindy Pickett, Ron Perlman, Lyman Ward, Dan Martin, Glenn Shadix

Director: Mick Garris

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: By 1992, the pickings in the Stephen King library of horrors to option into visual media properties was getting mighty slim.  With most of the bestselling author’s novels getting a big (or small) screen adaptation, Hollywood had turned to his short stories to either use as chapters in anthologies or expanding them into full length features.  Strangely, the writer had never put an idea to paper that was solely meant for the screen and so Sleepwalkers (or Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers as it was originally promoted) was something of a big deal when it was announced.  Here was a rare commodity, a previously unknown story that fans would have no prior knowledge of going in.  This could function to not let down those that had held his tomes in high regard only to be disappointed in the feature film version. On the other hand, much of what made King such a special writer in the first place was his way of getting into the mind of his characters and that was only something that could be seen on the page.

You must take this ungainly effort with a healthy dose of salt and vinegar then because at the end of the night is Sleepwalkers all that good of a Stephen King movie?  No, not really.  Does it work just fine as a mid-range horror film so popular in this era that delivers a few thrills here and there over the course of it’s barely 90-minute runtime?  Absolutely.  I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the movie and revisit it frequently, mostly because of one performance (we’ll get to it) but also because it seems to have a sense that it’s kind of silly and decides at a certain point to lean into the camp of it all. It’s no Misery, but it’s no Maximum Overdrive either.

Opening in a hastily abandoned home in Bodega Bay (where Hitchcock’s The Birds took place) at a crime scene littered with feline carcasses that I’m sure made the folks at PETA scream bloody murder, we jump over to small town Indiana at the home of Charles Brady and his mother Mary.  A good-looking high school student, Charles (Brian Krause) is the All-American boy next door on the outside but it’s all just a disguise that hides his true form: a nomadic shapeshifting werecat that feasts on virginal lifeforces.  That’s bad news for classmate Tanya (Mädchen Amick), who just got asked out on a date by Charles and is about to have a devil of a time fending off his advances once he reveals what’s underneath his wholesome features and true intentions.

You see, while Charles has to make sure he’s satiated, he’s also responsible for ensuring his “mother” is also fed, and Mary (Alice Krige, She Will) is one ravenous mama.  Well…maybe mama is too specific. It becomes clear quickly there’s more to this mother-son relationship than meets the eye and once Tanya proves to be significant trouble and more than Charles can handle, Mary has to step in and show her “son” how to get the job done right.  The residents of the small town are unprepared for the vicious beasts and more than a few go down in bloody shreds as the longest date night of Tanya’s life rages on.

The chief reason to see (and enjoy) Sleepwalkers is Krige sinking her teeth into her role and slowly chewing it in small bites.  Normally, this measured devouring would be more than any movie could tolerate but Krige possesses a special charm that makes her screen time almost giddy fun.  Here’s an actress that looks like she could be doing Shakespeare biting fingers off of characters and carrying grown men over her shoulder while firing a gun.  It’s a great pleasure to see her in action and you only wish King’s film had more of these trippy moments of delirium to keep up the strange sense of wonder.  At least director Mick Garris (writer of Hocus Pocus) seems to understand the movie needs to sway into the mood of the what King has produced and not resist the urge to acknowledge that it is pretty goofy.  I mean, the special effects range from neat-o to lame-o so the balance has to be struck somewhere in the middle for tone overall.

Despite making back it’s budget the film was seen as a disappointment when compared to King’s other, more sophisticated projects and Sleepwalkers is unfortunately often thought of in the lower rungs of his feature flicks.  That’s a bummer because the cast is made up of fun genre players (Pacific Rim’s Ron Perlman, DeepStar Six’s Cindy Pickett and her then-husband Lyman Ward from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as well as Glenn Shadix from Beetlejuice) and Amick should have been a bigger star.  Krige went on to be a memorable Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact and continues to turn in impressive performances with great presence.  If you’ve never seen it, it’s definitely one to check out if for nothing more than to further your Stephen King completism.

31 Days to Scare ~ Dead Calm (1989)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After tragically losing their son, a married couple are spending some time isolated at sea when they come across a stranger who has abandoned a sinking ship.

Stars: Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman, Billy Zane

Director: Phillip Noyce

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When recommending 1989’s Dead Calm, I also wish there was a way I could wave a magic wand and clear your mind of the last thirty years of movies its three stars and director would make.  All have gone on to be involved with massive projects (and even win one Oscar) and you can’t help but look at this gripping thriller they made before becoming Hollywood commodities in a different way than you would have back when it was first released.  Though the film remains a bona fide nail biter, I think the “before they were stars” wonder of it all could lessen the impact slightly for a viewer in 2021 as opposed to someone that sat down in a theater in April of 1989 when Dead Calm sailed onto U.S. shores and changed many careers.

The history of Dead Calm begins all the way back in 1963 when it was written as a novel by Charles Williams and attracted the attention of legendary director Orson Welles.  Welles liked it so much that he began filming the movie soon after but left it unfinished.  Years later a copy of the book fell into the hands of Australian director Philip Noyce (Above Suspicion) who got fellow Ozzies George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Terry Hayes (a collaborator with Miller on The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) involved and the rest was, uh, smooth sailing.  The cameras rolled in mid-1987 and the shoot took place over six months on the open sea. 

Like Jaws, Noyce benefited from the location in giving the audience a sense of isolation for an unlucky couple trying to forget a recent tragedy and the trouble they unknowingly welcome aboard in the from of a stranded stranger.  When the stranger turns out to be a psychotic that has sunk his own ship to hide a bloody crime, he manages to get the husband off the boat long enough to take control of the new vessel and the wife.  Now the couple must find a way to communicate and independently stay alive from the dangers present on both ships.

While Billy Zane (Ghosts of War) was the true fresh face of the bunch, the Hawaiian-born, Australian-raised Nicole Kidman (Aquaman) was already an established star down under.  It was Sam Neill (Peter Rabbit) who was considered the veteran, having played Damien Thorn in a third Omen film and weathered the nightmare horror experience that was Possession.  Just coming off A Cry in the Night (aka Evil Angela aka A Dingo Stole My Baby: The Movie) with Meryl Streep, Neill was a considerable “get” for this small-ish picture.

You can see what attracted a filmmaker like Welles to the original story. There’s a tortured soul living in all three main characters and the novel expands on this more, lessening some of the vice grip tension the screenplay from Hayes employs.  That’s why the film Noyce has made is so much of a thrill, because you never know quite what’s about to happen or where the characters might be headed next.  Kidman’s grief-stricken spouse was involved in a horrific accident that claimed the life of her son and always carries the guilt of that with her, unable to share intimacy with her husband out of shame because of it.  Without admitting it, the husband might be directing some of that guilt her way as well, though he makes a good show at hiding it.  Zane’s monstrosity picks up on this once he gets them separated and manipulates that…but also misjudges just how deep the earlier life changing event has bonded the couple, preparing them for what is currently taking place.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the overly commercial ending was a studio intervention to add an extra shot of adrenaline, but the movie succeeds just fine without it.  Dead Calm had already completed its carefully plotted voyage without capsizing its precious suspense cargo in the process.  I wish we had the option of watching Noyce’s original cut instead of the one with the tacked-on joy buzzer of a climax but at least it gives us a few more minutes of the gorgeous cinematography from Dean Semler (Razorback and an Oscar winner for Dances with Wolves) because the work he does is truly magnificent.  Surprisingly, this was a bit of dud at the box office but cleaned up nicely on home video and yes, it holds up like a watertight seal all these years later. It all worked out fine for those involved. The next year Kidman would star in Days of Thunder with future husband Tom Cruise and Noyce’s follow-up film would be 1992’s Patriot Games, the sequel to Sam Neill’s next movie, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. Zane would have to wait through a few years of forgettable films before scoring big time with his next sea faring flick…1997’s Titanic.

31 Days to Scare ~ Scream Pretty Peggy (1973)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A sculptor hires young college girls to take care of his elderly mother and his supposedly insane sister, both of whom live in the old family mansion with him.

Stars: Ted Bessell, Sian Barbara Allen, Bette Davis, Charles Drake, Allan Arbus,Tovah Feldshuh

Director: Gordon Hessler

Rated: NR

Running Length: 74 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: All I keep reading about in the many movie rabbit holes I often find myself in was how different TV movies were before the advent of cable television.  Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s these were stop-what-you’re-doing and watch events that commanded the attention of a public that saw famous faces from screens big and small.  While not the most current A-listers, these stars of yesteryear or rising hopefuls would appear weekly in dramas, comedies, and a rather large selection of mysteries/thrillers or horror films with commercials to break up the mounting tension.  These are the ones that are the most interesting to me (obviously for this series) because to hear people tell it, they still remember the scares these tales of terror gave them. 

One of the most famous stars to grace these pulpy movies was none other than Oscar winner Bette Davis (The Watcher in the Woods). While her time on the silver screen had mostly run its seasoned course by the time the TV Movie of the Week picked up steam, she found regular work as a “special guest star’ in numerous television projects that made good use of her poise and presence.  It could be said the first TV horror for this era was 1973’s Scream Pretty Peggy and while it doesn’t rank high on the list of the most memorable roles Davis created, it is notable for providing the actress some meaty moments to chew on while the rest of the cast is left with paltry scraps to pick over.

It’s almost unfair to promote Davis as being such a star of the movie because she’s really not in that much of the 74-minute film.  The cast is small enough as it is but the bulk of it plays out between young Sian Barbara Allen as college student Peggy Johns who seeks out a job as a housekeeper at the massive estate of famed sculptor Jeffrey Elliot (Ted Bessell).  Hired more to look out for his aging mother (Davis), Peggy’s eager to please Jeffrey because she has an ulterior motive for wanting the job in the first place.  An aspiring artist herself, she seeks his approval for her own piece and maybe something more than their employer/employee relationship but both Jeffrey and his mother keep themselves at a distance for reasons that slowly become clearer.

I’d say more but there’s not a lot of plot left to talk about above and beyond that.  I was surprised the script, co-written by longtime Hammer Studios screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, among others) and Arthur Hoffe is so staid and without much action.  I’ve a feeling it was Hoffe’s premise that Sangster was brought it to flesh out and amp up.  Yet there’s only so much one can do to raise the stakes, especially in the early ‘70s on network TV, for this particular story with its similarities to another famous suspense director’s most known movie. I won’t say which, but the lead actress has a daughter that followed her into the movie business, same genre too. 

More energy in direction from Gordon Hessler would help, or at least from the cast. However, aside from Davis who is a massive trooper in getting her scenes imbued with some sense of urgency, the two main leads treat the proceedings like they’re acting out a family drama rather than a house of horrors mystery.  In fact, while I liked Allen’s free-spirited Peggy at first, once it becomes obvious how much of a follower she was and to such a wet blanket like Bessel’s cardboard bland Jeffrey I was almost rooting for the sinister figure we assume to be Jeffrey’s insane sister to catch and eliminate her like she had a young Tovah Feldshuh (Love Type D) in the pre-credit sequence.

How glad was I to see that boutique home media distributor Kino Studio Classics was releasing a number of these TV movies in a 2K remaster just in time for Halloween?  I’d started to watch Scream Pretty Peggy on YouTube before (tip, you can watch SO many of these old movies of the week via YouTube) and the quality was good but not great.  The folks over at Kino Studio Classics have obtained a sparkling remaster that looks just gorgeous.  It’s crisp and colorful, down to the gaudy eye make-up and lipstick Davis wears, a small callback to her look in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, maybe?   For that alone, the movie is worth a look, but it will likely be more of a view out of curiosity than anything else.  It’s not bad enough to be laughable, not scary enough to be scream-able, but Davis makes it interesting enough to be watchable.

If you’re looking for reviews of other TV movies of this era, check out my posts on Home for the Holidays (1972) with Sally Field and A Howling in the Woods (1971) with Barbara Eden.

Movie Review ~ The Rescue (2021)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A chronicle of the enthralling, against-all-odds story that transfixed the world in 2018: the daring rescue of twelve boys and their coach from deep inside a flooded cave in Northern Thailand.

Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It already plays like a movie.  An otherwise ordinary day in the summer of 2018 goes sideways quickly when a Northern Thailand youth soccer team made up of 12 boys and their coach venture into a cave and become trapped when it floods without much warning.  With little hope of exiting on their own, the government first calls in their own reserve of divers to bring them out but sans the experience for such a lengthy and perilous dive it proves to be futile.  Then an international team of skilled cave divers are flown in, working with local authorities to regroup and plan a way to locate the team and bring them out safely.  All before the oncoming monsoon season submerges the caves fully, drowning them. 

These events played out over 18 days as the world watched on the edge of their seats, unable to do anything but wait for news to come out of Thailand that the mission had failed, or the team had emerged from the caves with the assistance of the professionals.  It’s no spoiler to report they survived, but at the expense of the life of one Thai Navy SEAL at the time and another who died from an infection contracted at the scene.  So, approaching the new National Geogrpahic documentary The Rescue (in theaters now before debuting on Disney+ in December) one must ask what they hope to gain insight on if they already know of the events that transpired and its resolution.

There’s the challenge for recent Oscar-winning documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin who scaled to the highest heights with the incredible accomplishment of Free Solo.  They are working with a different sort of beast here, stepping in to direct The Rescue after its original director Kevin Macdonald had to bow out to focus his time on 2021’s The Mauritanian.  Maybe that’s why it doesn’t feel as completely innovative a creation as Free Solo or perhaps it is stymied by some legalese around the rights to the story of the Tham Luang cave rescue.  It’s crazy, but Netflix owns the “life rights” to the boys/coach while NatGeo owns the rights to the story of the men who ran the rescue operation.  Which is why you’ll see competing projects on the same topic arriving over the next few years. 

The good news is that I think the directors were the right choice to jump this hurdle because they’re used to speaking to those that favor somewhat niche extreme sports.  In much the same way they were able to bring out the different colors of free climber Alex Honnold, Vasarhelyi & Chin work similar magic in their interviews with a range of cave divers that admit to being outcasts in high school and last picked on the playground.  Taking them back through those harrowing days in the caves when they didn’t know what they would initially find takes its toll and it doesn’t appear that the men have recounted it so much yet that it’s a rote memory.  There are still residual effects of the experience they can’t hide and it’s all there for us to see.

Without having access to more info on the team trapped inside the cave, there’s often a little one-sidedness to the film which makes the first half a bit slow moving.  It’s necessary to gives us an idea of the scope of just how far in they were so we know the distance the divers swam but it’s, how shall I say it?, uneventful. Only when we get to the actual rescue operation does the film find some footing but even that relies on recreated footage (that’s pawned off as real, more on that later) to bolster the immediacy of it.  Regarding those recreations, it wouldn’t feel so strange if it wasn’t edited alongside actual footage from inside the cave.  Without a disclaimer at the beginning that there was this mix, it feels like the viewer is being led slightly astray. Even the notice at the end is cleverly worded to further distance itself from actually saying much of it was staged.

The emotional beats of the film are there, though.  You can’t help but get emotional when the various international representatives speak of the cultures and countries working together to save these lives, especially viewing it at a time when we all seem so divided.  I wish a little more focus had been on the Thai man that died, but his widow speaks so eloquently about what it meant to him to be of service and how important it is to her to have been his wife that the full emotional weight of the loss hits home quite powerfully.  I also appreciated there were additional insights offered into the lives of the divers, one who experienced a devastating loss in conjunction with a pivotal moment of celebration.

A narrative feature on the rescue at Tham Luang is being made (with Ron Howard supposedly directing…interesting) so this documentary isn’t the last word on the subject, but I suspect The Rescue will be the most in-depth piece on the people that risked their lives to save others.  For a follow-up to their Academy Award winning film, Vasarhelyi & Chin show they will continue to be strong players in this category, and I won’t be surprised if we see them at the ceremony again because of this film.  It’s a worthwhile watch and while it takes a bit to get moving, when it does begin to execute its mission it’s a breathless endeavor.