Down From the Shelf ~ Planes, Trains and Automobiles

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man must struggle to travel home for Thanksgiving with an obnoxious slob of a shower ring salesman his only companion.

Stars: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Michael McKean, Kevin Bacon, Ben Stein

Director: John Hughes

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

Original Release Date: November 25, 1987

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Here’s a movie I’m really, truly thankful for.  30 years (!!!) after its original release, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a gift that has kept on giving to countless people throughout the year but especially at Thanksgiving.  Writing this review in 2017 as I’m about to hit the road to celebrate the holiday with family, I knew I had to get my annual viewing of this one in a day before the big Turkey Day. Revisiting this one is like meeting up with an old friend who tells the same jokes but still delivers them with a master’s precision.

It’s two days before Thanksgiving and marketing exec Neal Page (Steven Martin, Parenthood) is rushing to catch an early flight home to Chicago to be with his family for the holiday.  If only he could make it to the airport.  In mid-day NYC rush hour traffic, he races for a cab with another big shot (Kevin Bacon in a cameo done as a favor to John Hughes right before they made She’s Having a Baby together), gets his cab stolen out from under him by an unseen man toting a large trunk with him, and arrives at the terminal to find his flight delayed.  That’s where he meets Del Griffith (John Candy, Splash), a portly shower ring salesman that turns out to be the cab thief.  When their plane is diverted to Kansas on account of the weather, Neal and Del become unlikely travel mates as they work together to get back to their families.

Hughes was on a real roll at this point, having just come off of directing back to back to back to back hits that have become seminal favorites (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) not to mention writing National Lampoon’s Vacation, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful.  This was his first movie to deal with real adults and it’s a marvelous pairing of a perfectly assembled cast with Hughes’ hilarious (if episodic) script.  There’s not a single boring moment in the movie, pretty remarkable considering how hard it is to sustain comedy for any length of time, let alone 92 minutes.

The movie is filled with classic scenes.  Martin and Candy waking up in their small hotel bed in an awkward embrace, Martin’s hysterically foul-mouthed run-in with a car rental agent (Edie McClurg, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), Candy driving cross-country and accidentally getting both of his arms stuck behind him while Martin sleeps, the list goes on.  Hughes is smart enough to have Del be the catalyst for a joke but not make him the ultimate target, to do that would be too cruel to be funny and that’s not what he’s interested in.

Martin is great as the tightly wound Neal who alternates between hating the schlubby Del and hating himself for the way he treats him.  It’s not hard to see why Neal gets so frustrated, either, because Del does himself no favors.  He’s a slob, he takes all the air out of any room he’s in, he doesn’t recognize normal social signals, and he has an uncanny way of destroying anything he touches.  Still, in Candy’s brilliant hands he’s a lovable dude and by the time the movie reaches its surprisingly emotional zenith, you’ll probably be like me and wiping tears away.  Oh yeah, I cry every time I watch the movie…I know I will and have accepted it at this point.

On a personal note, I can’t watch this movie without remembering my late father’s howling laugh when I first saw it.  I can still hear him roaring at Candy’s cluelessness and Martin’s slow-burn reactions.  This was a family favorite of ours and while my dad isn’t here to watch it with me, I think of him constantly when I put it on.  I watch a lot of movies and don’t always take the time to go back and rewatch many films…but there are exceptions and Planes, Trains and Automobiles is certainly one of them.

Movie Review ~ Jigsaw

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Bodies are turning up around the city, each having met a uniquely gruesome demise. As the investigation proceeds, evidence points to one suspect: John Kramer, the man known as Jigsaw, who has been dead for ten years.

Stars: Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Clé Bennett, Hannah Emily Anderson, Laura Vandervoort, Mandela Van Peebles, Paul Braunstein, Brittany Allen, Josiah Black

Director: Peter Spierig & Michael Spierig

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: The biggest question left by this turgid attempt to reboot the Saw series is “Why”?  Why wait all this time?  The last entry, the now-incorrectly titled Saw 3D: The Final Chapter came out in 2010 and put a rather decent pin in the whole shebang.  Why go back to the well that has long since dried up,  providing no nutritional substance in plot, character, or creativity?  Isn’t it obvious? This is a product from a studio (Lionsgate) desperate to find another dependable franchise to ciphon out money from the pockets of easily enticed moviegoers.  Keeping their tradition of not screening these films for crictics, I was one of those audience members curious enough to venture out the week before Halloween to see how this series would get revived.

I should have stayed home.

The film offers nothing new to add to the mythology of John Kramer (Tobin Bell), the madman that offered a sick kind of redemption to troubled souls.  Placing them in increasingly serpentine traps that were designed to have them inflict pain on themselves or others, Kramer sought to help these people that strayed back to the path of good.  Too bad so many of them wound up literally in pieces along the way.

As Jigsaw opens, Kramer has been gone for ten years but a new game has started that bear his calling card.  The clues left behind all point to Kramer but how can a man dead and buried for a decade be running this new horror show?  The red herrings abound with little logic, most of the time the cops on the case (led by Callum Keith Rennie, Fifty Shades of Grey) point to a suspect that may have looked at them sideways or on some undisclosed second-sight instinct.

Medical examiner Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) is brought in to help the police figure out the clues but it’s really his plucky assistant Eleanor Bonneville (Hannah Emily Anderson, whose character name is more memorable than her performance) that lasers in on who is responsible for the killing but not necessarily why.  At the same time the experts are tracking the killer and examining mutilated bodies, we bounce back and forth to a deadly game playing out in real-time that is supposed to be feeding us clues but might just be another fake-out that this franchise has been so dastardly in introducing.

The acting by all is terrible (which is pretty par for the course) but the bad performances might be easier to take if anyone (at all) was the least bit invested in what they were doing.  Directed by The Spierig Brothers with little fanfare, I can only hope their next film, Winchester: The House that Ghosts Built, is a more promising endeavor.  This is a puzzle that you don’t need any kind of brainpower to solve, just the willingness to turn it off as you enter the theater.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Silence of the Lambs

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young F.B.I. cadet must receive the help of an incarcerated and manipulative cannibal killer to help catch another serial killer, a madman who skins his victims.

Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Lawrence A. Bonney, Kasi Lemmons, Lawrence T. Wrentz

Director: Jonathan Demme

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: As we began to near the end of 31 Days to Scare 2017 I started thinking about what could be the grand finale selection. So many films from the golden age of Hollywood or the new wave of auteur filmmakers could have taken the final spot and there are certainly classics and classics in the making I’ve neglected to feature this year…but at the end of the day it call comes down to this: The Silence of the Lambs.

Though many would classify this as more suspense thriller than outright horror, I’d argue it’s a hybrid of numerous genres. Encapsulating everything from the cold sweat of a Western face-off to the investigative moxie of a political conspiracy flick, The Silence of the Lambs isn’t just one thing at any one time. That’s why it’s an enduring classic, a movie that swept the Academy Awards though the Academy had long had a clear aversion to rewarding any kind of horror effort. Director Jonathan Demme (Ricki and the Flash) brought his assured A-game to the screen and working with Ted Tally’s brilliant adaptation of Thomas Harris’s chilling novel they created something mighty special…and very very VERY scary.

Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, Carnage) is plucked from a morning run on the orders of her superior Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn, The Bourne Legacy). He wants her to take a swipe at interviewing the notorious serial killer Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, Noah)and see if he’ll open up to her. She sees it as a chance to impress her boss, Crawford hopies it’s something more than that. Knowingly sending her into the hungry lions den as bait, he hopes to entice the brilliant madman into helping with the investigation into an active killer (Ted Levine) that has been abducting, shooting, and skinning his victims.

The initial meeting between Starling and Lecter is the stuff of movie clip show heaven. A master class of restrained acting from both actors (who would win Oscars for their work), these scenes are so intricately designed because often the two aren’t even in the same shot as the other…yet it’s directed in a way that you feel they are. It’s a thrilling and dangerous relationship and though there are other supporting characters in the movie (Kasi Lemmons, Candyman, as Clarice’s academy friend and Brooke Smith, Interstellar, as a new target for the murderer) the movie is at its absolute best when Foster and Hopkins are quid pro quo-ing.

The clues that Lecter gives Starling sends the young trainee on her own hunt to find the madman while working through painful memories of her past. Lector preys on her vulnerability that’s hidden far beneath her steely exterior. He knows she has a lot to prove and manipulates every situation to make her demonstrate her worth…down to catching a killer almost entirely on her own. Whether she’s crawling into an abandoned storage unit (creepy!) or being pursued in an underground labyrinth (seriously…creepy!) Foster plays Clarice as intelligent but not a soothsayer in knowing the best way around each situation. With limited screen time, Hopkins is really a supporting player but his impact is so great and his presence so missed when he’s not around he easily nabbed his Best Actor statue away from other nominees.

The late Demme’s personal preference for having actors speak directly into the camera makes the movie feel very intimate, secretive, real…he does this in most every one of his films but never to the success rate he achieves here. It’s a movie that works every time in every single way. There’s no fat anywhere to be found, it’s 118 minutes of perfectly constructed shots and revealing dialogue. Winning Oscars not only for its lead actors but for Demme, Tally, and Best Picture, The Silence of the Lambs is tough viewing and not for the squeamish but to see it is to appreciate the stylish storytelling on display. Perfect.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Omen (1976)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Mysterious deaths surround an American ambassador. Could the child that he is raising actually be the Antichrist? The Devil’s own son?

Stars: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Harvey Stephens, Patrick Troughton

Director: Richard Donner

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Here’s another great example of why the old adage, ‘They don’t make ‘em like they used to!’ is so apropos. The Omen was released in 1976 right at the height of Hollywood’s fascination with the Devil and the many ways he can turn up. Over the ensuing years he pops up in many place. Maybe it’s in a house (The Amityville Horror), an apartment building (The Sentinel), a car (Christine), or in the case of Rosemary’s Baby and this popular hit, seemingly innocent children.

Robert Thom (Gregory Peck, Cape Fear) is an American diplomat living in Rome with his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) awaiting the birth of their child. When their baby is stillborn, Robert cannot bear to tell his wife for fear of her sanity and agrees to adopt a baby boy that was orphaned on the same night. How Robert can live with this deception without any signs of guilt is curious but a stalwart actor like Peck makes it work all the same. As the boy grows into a toddler and Robert is made the U.S Ambassador to the UK, the Thoms move to the English countryside and that’s when things start to get a little weird and pretty deadly.

When the boy’s nanny dies under suspicious circumstances and a new one (Bille Whitelaw, Night Watch, truly terrifying) appears with sinister motivations, the Thoms get thrown into a deeper mystery surrounding the origins of their adopted son. Enlisting the help of a priest (Patrick Troughton) and a photographer (David Warner Waxwork), Robert learns that the agreement he entered into has dark consequences. Traveling back to Rome and to the place where the boy’s mother was buried, what he finds out could bring about the downfall of humanity if the boy is allowed to live.

Directed by Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, The Lost Boys) from a script by David Seltzer (Bird on a Wire), The Omen still rings true decades after the original release. There’s a welcome absence of the kind of hysterics and histrionics that often accompany stories about the Devil and Donner has assembled an excellent company of actors and filmmakers to elevate this to high-class gothic horror. Jerry Goldsmith’s instantly recognizable score won him his only Oscar (crazy!) and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor’s strong camera work helped land him his next gig: Star Wars. Peck would seem to be a bit buttoned-up for this type of role but by the time he’s being chased around a cemetery by rabid dogs or going to battle with Whitelaw’s evil nanny he seems to be having a jolly old time.  The late Remick is so lovely here as a doomed wife and mother, no one does wide-eyed terror with such beauty.

Followed by three increasingly poor sequels before an ill-advised (but not a total travesty) remake in 2006, The Omen is one of those films that people remember seeing but might not recall the last time they did. If it has been a while for you, fire this one up because it delivers oodles of shocks and goosebumps with each viewing.

31 Days to Scare ~ Candyman

The Facts:

Synopsis: The Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster’s myth.

Stars: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons, Vanessa Williams, Bernard Rose, Michael Culkin

Director: Bernard Rose

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Growing up, I watched many horror movies and usually found them more funny than actually scary. Most of the films I saw had a heightened sense of reality so you could always tell they were operating in the confines of a fantasy world and not based in reality. It was easy to disassociate with the blood and gore because you would see the edges of the make-up applied or would jokingly feel that the characters got what was coming to them for going camping in the woods where a madman was rumored to be lurking.

Then there are movies like Candyman.

As a teen, I remember seeing this some weeknight with my dad at the Mall of America (RIP General Cinema!) and not really knowing what to expect. Yikes, I was in for a shocking treat. Based on Clive Barker’s short story (which I read a few years ago and found quite spellbinding) and adapted by director Bernard Rose who changes the action from the UK’s rundown council house neighborhood to Chicago’s inner city slum, Candyman has had a lasting impression on me throughout the years. How can a movie I’ve seen at least a dozen times still make me keep a light on at night, still send a chill up my spine, still make me dread certain passages?

Grad student Helen Lyle (Virgina Madsen, Joy, an inspring choice) is doing a study on modern urban legends with her colleague Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons, The Silence of the Lambs). While interviewing subjects they hear the tale of an invisible killer with a grotesque hook for a hand now said to haunt Chicago’s famed Cabrini Green housing project. Dubbed Candyman over time by the superstitious locals, Helen and Bernadette investigate the claims in an effort to support their thesis. The deeper into the mythology of Candyman (Tony Todd) Helen goes, the greater the danger as her cavalier skepticism rouses the fabled slayer to show up and make an example out of her.

From the very first shot in the title sequence set to a creepy as hell music box score from Phillip Glass, your spidey senses should be tingling. Rose isn’t interested in bringing forth a supernatural creature that can’t be identified but in presenting the myth of a dangerous figure than manifests itself in reality. On more than one occasion it’s suggested the residents of Cabrini Green are harboring this creature or attributing other crimes to him as a way to ward off urban sprawl and keep people away.

The film takes its time to get to the madness and when it does it unleashes some fairly grotesque imagery and copious amount of blood. It all seems just a hair above slasher film territory but it’s interested in being more classy than truly exploitative. When bodies start to turn up and a baby goes missing, Helen herself is implicated as a possible killer and must track down the heart of the legend to clear her name and save an innocent life. The finale is a bold move by the filmmakers, even if they pander to the audience with a gruesome (if satisfying) epilogue.

You have a lot of options for scary movies around Halloween and Candyman might already be on your watchlist. If it isn’t, consider replacing one of the more obvious choices (Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street) and check out this modern horror classic. It’s followed by two sequels, with only the first (Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh) of possible interest if you liked this one.

31 Days to Scare ~ In Dreams

The Facts:

Synopsis: A suburban housewife learns that she has psychic connections to a serial killer, and can predict this person’s motives through her dreams.

Stars: Annette Bening, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Robert Downey Jr., Paul Guilfoyle, Margo Martindale

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I wanted to say right off the bat that I’m giving In Dreams a higher score than it probably deserves…or even has rightly earned despite some good intentions. While the overall movie feels like a bit of a clunker by the time is gets to its overblown third act, leading up to it there are some interesting ideas and certainly some intriguing performances.

Based on the novel Doll’s Eyes by Bari Wood (but supposedly wildly different in plot) this one comes to us via Neil Jordan, the writer/director of The Crying Game and screenwriter Bruce Robinson (Jennifer 8). Jordan takes a page from his cult favorite The Company of Wolves and frames In Dreams as part fairy tale, part horror show. Starting strong with visuals of a town that was flooded to make way for a reservoir that’s now the dumping ground for a psychotic killer, Jordan spends the first 45 minutes slowly building the tension but loses his grip when the line between dreams and reality get too blurred.

In the same year she’d go on to receive an Oscar nomination for American Beauty, Annette Bening (Girl Most Likely) is kinda a mess as a wife and mother who discovers she has a psychic link to the person that’s been abducting little girls and leaving their bodies underwater. Bening has grown into such a dependable presence on screen, especially in these last 10 years, but In Dreams was released when she hadn’t quite found her zone yet. She’s either cool and collected, purring her lines to her befuddled husband (Aidan Quinn, Blink) and skeptical shrink (Stephen Rea who should never, ever, attempt the New Yahk accent he tries out here) or she’s totally unhinged, laugh-crying her way through Robinson and Jordan’s chuckle inducing dialogue.

Her performance isn’t even the most bizarre one on display. No, that would be Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge) as the serial killer toying with Bening and her family. With his hair dyed red and peering at us from behind green contacts, Downey Jr. nails the creepy part of his role but can’t make head or tails of what else he should be doing. This was long before Downey Jr. had his Marvel renaissance and the actor seems fairly adrift here.

There’s some decent atmosphere created, scenes shot in the town underwater and a sinister apple orchard are nice showcases for Darius Khondji’s (Magic in the Moonlight) cinematography and Bening’s visions are nicely done. There’s even an ominous staging of Snow White in the forest starring the actress playing Bening’s daughter and about a three dozen other cherubs. It all adds up to a movie that looks great and has some spooky moments but one that eventually makes absolutely no sense at all…especially a poorly thought out finale that feels like it was reshot late in the game. In reality, In Dreams is a bust but there’s so many good people involved it’s worth watching at least once.

31 Days to Scare ~ Night Watch (1973)

The Facts:

Synopsis: While rich widow Ellen Wheeler is staring out of the window one evening, she believes she’s witnessed a murder. The only problem is, does anybody else believe her, or is it just another manifestation of her recent nervous breakdown?

Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey, Billie Whitelaw, Robert Lang, Tony Britton, Linda Hayden

Director: Brian G. Hutton

Rated: PG

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Here’s a forgotten bit of fun for you today, the 1973 film adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s 1972 play, Night Watch.  Fletcher was the celebrated author of the suspense thriller Sorry, Wrong Number which began as a radio play before making its debut on stage and, eventually, on screen.  While Night Watch wasn’t as successful as Fletcher’s earlier work in play or film format, there’s still something all-together interesting watching a star like Elizabeth Taylor sink her teeth into her juicy leading role and then shake it back and forth like a maniac.

Taylor appears as Ellen Wheeler, a widow living with her new husband John (Laurence Harvey, Liz’s co-star in her Oscar winning Butterfield 8) in an insanely well decorated London terraced house.  Her friend Sarah (Billie Whitelaw, The Omen) is staying with them, party to catch-up with her old chum and partly to be closer to a mysterious man she’s having an affair with.  Still haunted by the death of her previous husband who perished in an automobile accident with his mistress, Ellen stays up nights moping around her house.

One stormy night (don’t all good mysteries start like this?) Ellen sees what she thinks is a dead body in the decaying mansion next door.  The glimpse is brief (so brief I missed it and had to rewind it to see) but when the police investigate they turn up nothing.  Ellen is convinced of what she saw, though, and drives everyone around her mad with her protestations of what she believes she’s seen.

Though pretty stage-y at times (nearly the entire action takes place in several rooms in Ellen’s house), the film has a nice way of building tension the crazier Ellen starts to act.  Did she really see a body and does the killer set their sights on her?  Or is there something more sinister at work?  Don’t worry, I’ll never tell the twist.  I didn’t totally see it coming but thinking back the film sets up its finale almost from the start.  There’s even some clever bits of distraction that had me going down the wrong road for quite some time.

Harvey and Whitelaw are up for the challenge of going toe-to-toe with their violet-eyed costar and both add some nice layers to underwritten roles, Whitelaw especially never tips us off if she’s a friend to trust or to be suspicious of.  The film belongs solely to Taylor and the actress revels in her growing hysteria.  Add to that some hilariously flouncy muumuus she tears around her house in and a penchant for wearing heaps of make-up even in the dead of night and you have a camp performance that’s at times quite a hoot to behold.  Taylor’s a good actress, though, and knows when to dial back her effort, something that always set her apart from her peers.

I’d be interested in reading the play and see how much of it was changed as it transitioned to the silver screen.  For the year it was released and the rating it received, I was surprised at the amount of blood and mature situations on display.  It’s got a strong finale set in a dark house and if you can get your hands on a copy of Night Watch, it’s worth a look thanks to the leading lady and other strong performances.

If you want a good laugh, here’s a link to a review of a 1986 revival of the play from the New York times
http://www.nytimes.com/1986/12/09/theater/stage-night-watch-by-lucille-fletcher.html

31 Days to Scare ~ Amityville II: The Possession

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family moves into their new home, which proves to be evil, resulting in the demonic possession of the teenage son. Only the local priest can save him.

Stars: Burt Young, Rutanya Alda, Jack Magner, Andrew Prine, Diane Franklin, Moses Gunn, James Olson

Director: Damiano Damiani

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Few would argue that 1979’s The Amityville Horror is any kind of movie to write home about.  While it’s poster, preview, and press shots suggested a snazzy new twist on The Exorcist the final product was ham-fisted, poorly acted, and more funny than scary.  Still, the public that had made the book that inspired the movie a bestseller turned the feature film adaptation into the second highest grossing film of the year ahead of Alien, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and The Muppet Movie.  I mean…think on that…it made 86 million dollars, 20m short of the #1 title, Kramer vs. Kramer.

Three years later new producer Dino De Laurentis took over the property and made this prequel to the events that transpired in the original.  Now the movie would focus on the murders that took place in the house and supposedly were the source of the haunting that plagued future tenants.  While it’s considered one of the stronger entries in the franchise of countless sequels spawned over the next several decades, it’s easy to see where director Damiano Damiani and screenwriter Tommy Lee Wallace (Fright Night Part 2 and Halloween III: Season of the Witch) ripped off other films when piecing together their contribution to the Amityville legacy.

The Montelli family has moved into that soon to be infamous house with the windows that look like eyes.  Nestled into the sleepy hamlet of Amityville in Long Island, NY the family has relocated to start a new, quieter life.  Still, they bring some major baggage with them.  The father (Burt Young) is an abusive drunk, the mother (Rutanya Alda) is religious woman frightened of her husband’s anger, and while their two youngest children seem to adjust well to the new living arrangements it’s tougher on eldest son Sonny (Jack Magner) and daughter Patricia (Diane Franklin).

Sonny’s a loner, a perfect vessel for the evil that lurks within the house to prey upon.  It isn’t long before Sonny’s demeanor changes and he becomes more physically hostile to his father and sexually predatory with his sister, both unfortunately icky subplots that just don’t feel good.  The more the family fights to save Sonny’s soul, the deeper the possession becomes.  If you’ve seen the opening of The Conjuring 2, you’ll know what happens next…if you haven’t, well, it doesn’t end well.

Though operating on a small budget, Damiani makes his film effectively creepy and often downright frightening as Sonny begins to show outwardly the possession going on within.  There’s good use of lighting to keep figures in the dark so that they can be discovered at precisely the right moment and the tension builds slowly but aggressively.  Performances are uniformly good and, gross incest plotline aside, Wallace’s script goes for realism instead of hyperactive hysteria.  The film has several climaxes, and each arrive with an assured flair for intensity.

Far less successful than its predecessor, Amityville II: The Possession still gives me the chills all these years and multiple viewings later.  It’s a dark movie though, filled with some hard to watch sequences of physical abuse and inappropriate conduct that’s in no way glorified or excused.  The focus of the horror is on the house but it’s tenants might not have been all that good to begin with.

31 Days to Scare ~ Fright Night Part 2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Three years after killing the vampire in the original, Charley Brewster has started to believe it was all his imagination and starts to forget that vampires truly exist – until four strangers arrive at Peter Vincent’s house and starts to have an unhealthy interest in Charley, Peter and Charley’s new girlfriend.

Stars: William Ragsdale, Roddy McDowall, Traci Lind, Julie Carmen, Jon Gries, Brian Thompson, Russell Clark, Ernie Sabella

Director: Tommy Lee Wallace

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: After 1985’s Fright Night became a schlocky fun hit, it’s not a shocker that a sequel was greenlit and found its way to theaters. What is surprising, however, is that it took nearly three years for it to arrive. Remember, this was a time when every year a new Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street came out because there was big money in quickly churning out a sequel, not to mention a whole host of like-minded horror films that wanted their own franchise to materialize. The extra years likely helped the overall satisfaction level of Fright Night Part 2, even though it didn’t make nearly as big of an impact on the box office as its predecessor.

Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) has spent the last three years putting the frightening events that took place in his otherwise quiet neighborhood out of his mind. With the help of his psychologist (Ernie Sabella) he’s even managed to convince himself that he dreamed his neighbor was a vampire preying on young women and eventually went after Charley once the high-school student started investigating the deaths. Aided by campy late night TV host and former C-Movie actor Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), the two vanquished the vamp and things went back to normal.

Now a college student with a new girlfriend (Traci Lind), Charley continues to make a new life for himself but while visiting Peter’s new apartment he catches a glimpse of a new tenant, Regine (Julie Carmen), and her entourage. Strangely drawn to the beauty, Charley soon falls under the spell of another vampire who’s out for more than just blood…she wants an eternity of revenge. It’s up to Peter and Charley’s gal-pal to fend off vampires, werewolves, and one bug-eating macho man and save him from falling victim to the vampy vixen.

While it is admittedly a carbon copy of the original operating on a slightly smaller budget, this is a fine looking film that manages to make sense from scene to scene. Directed by horror veteran Tommy Lee Wallace (Amityville II: The Possession, Halloween III: Season of the Witch and TV’s IT) who was also the production designer on the original Halloween, the movie has a real moody ambiance that blends nicely with its surprisingly wacky asides. McDowall hams it up again with panache while Ragsdale and Lind have more brother-sister chemistry than any true actual heat. Carmen dives head first into her killer seductress and sports some hysterically ‘80s hair and clothing in the process. Special mention to Russell Clark as an ahead of his time trans vampire who not only makes his roller-skating bloodsucker quite menacing but looks damn good in the process.

So many sequels can’t manage to get out from under the shadow of their previous installments and the same is true with Fright Night Part 2. While it’s a sequel that’s not quite an equal, it’s a noble effort with ideas that work far more often than they fail. A word of caution, it’s hard as heck to find this movie on DVD without paying a fortune, might I point you toward the YouTube link below instead?

31 Days to Scare ~ House of Wax 3D (1953)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An associate burns down a wax museum with the owner inside, but he survives only to become vengeful and murderous.

Stars: Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Frank Lovejoy, Charles Bronson, Paul Cavanagh

Director: André De Toth

Rated: Approved

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: There are a lot of firsts that House of Wax can lay claim to. It was the first color 3-D feature from an American production company and the first 3-D film presented in a theater boasting the multi-dimensional stereophonic sound. We’re a bit too used to an enhanced movie-going experience now, but try to put yourself in the place of audience members back in 1953 when this horror classic was released. Before things got too bloody and gross, it didn’t take much for audiences to shriek in terror…now add in the new-fangled technology and the frights truly leaped off the screen. Not only does this make excellent use of the 3-D effects, it’s a way above average movie on the whole.

The prologue of the film takes place in a wax museum curated by Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price), a man possessing an eerie ability to construct life-like historical figures in wax. Though he’s looking to buy-out his ne’er-do-well business partner so he can make the masterpieces he wants, the partner has a quicker plan in mind and burns down the museum for the insurance money. All of Jarrod’s pieces are lost and though he’s severely disfigured, Jarrod survives and begins a plan of mysterious revenge.

For the remainder of the film, we watch as Jarrod emerges from the ashes with a brand new wax museum that becomes a hot ticket in town. Too bad not everyone that wronged him is around to see the fantastic displays of recognizable faces from history. Then again, underneath the costumes and adornments don’t those faces look sort of…familiar? Figuring out what’s really going on and who is truly behind it all is just part of the fun to be had here.

What sets the one apart from the bunch is not only its well-executed 3-D effects but its care for storytelling and characterizations. At 88 minutes, there’s a lot of ground to cover but everything feels nice and lean, with no extra fatty sections that drag the action to a halt. In addition to Price’s typically benevolent investment in a tragic character, there’s a lovely leading lady in Phyllis Kirk and even appearances from future Morticia Addams Carolyn Jones and a young Charles Bronson. The finale manages to stick its landing with two different race against time action sequences happening at once.

The history behind this one is interesting as well. Originally written as a play, it was first made into a movie back in 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum starring Fay Wray. This 1953 production is nearly a shot for shot remake of that movie, a very impressive feat. Some may recall this was remade in 2005 with the plot drastically altered and, Paris Hilton’s performance notwithstanding, it acquitted itself nicely if not overly memorably.

Unlike many 3-D movies released in the subsequent years, House of Wax is one that could still be enjoyed even without the added ‘oomph’ that the 3-D experience provided. While there are a few sequences where the filmmakers were clearly showboating, they aren’t as eye-rolling as the tired gags seen in Jaws 3-D or Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3-D. What ultimately makes the film worthy of its recent inclusion in the National Film Registry is that even taking away all of the 3-D hoopla there are numerous swell scares to be had. If you have the capability to watch this in 3-D, by all means, do so! If not, it’s still one to seek out for the classic that it is.