31 Days to Scare ~ Asylum

asylum

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young psychiatrist interviews four inmates in a mental asylum to satisfy a requirement for employment.

Stars: Sylvia Syms, Peter Cushing, Barry Morse, Ann Firbank, John Franklyn-Robbins, Britt Ekland, Charlotte Rampling, James Villiers, Megs Jenkins, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Geoffrey Bayldon, Robert Powell, Sylvia Marriott, Daniel Johns, Frank Forsyth, Tony Wall

Director: Roy Ward Baker

Rated: PG

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I’ve reviewed anthology horror a bit in previous 31 Days to Scare entries (see From Beyond the Grave, After Midnight, & Cat’s Eye) so it’s only fitting to kick off another year with one of those forgotten gems from the 70s that were so popular.  Asylum is another product coming out of British based Amicus Productions, a company as synonymous with anthology horror as Hammer Studios was during the same era for its revisionist takes on legendary horror figures.

As is the case with all anthology films, this one has several short stories all weaved together by a thin framework.  For Asylum the set-up works better than the others thanks to a clever set-up finding a young doctor being challenged by his new colleague to figure out which of the patients he’s interviewing is really the recently committed former head of the mental ward they all work at.

Asylum was written by Robert Bloch who made a name for himself with the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho and he brings some of that same wicked sense of humor to the four tales that we’re treated to over the course of a very short 88 minutes.

The stories run the gamut from quite frightening (in the case of Frozen Fear, a revenge tale) to the ho-hum (the unfulfilled promise of the otherwise interesting The Weird Tailor) but none of the stories lack for substance or interest.  Even though it was made in 1972, the film holds up nicely today considering modern audiences unnatural bloodlust.

I’ve long hoped that anthology horror makes a nifty comeback and with the advent of shows like American Horror Story I think we’re inching closer to a revitalization.  Films like Asylum and its countless copycats have provided some textbook examples of how to make entertaining films that don’t waste your time or your brain cells.  They’re largely a lark but what fun it is to be scared!

Bond-ed for Life ~ The Man with the Golden Gun

The James Bond franchise is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and with the release of Skyfall I wanted to take a look back at the 22 (23 if you count the rogue Never Say Never Again, 24 if you count the 1967 spoof of Casino Royale) films that have come before it.  So sit back, grab your shaken-not-stirred martini and follow me on a trip down Bond memory lane.

The Facts:

Synopsis: Bond is led to believe that he is targeted by the world’s most expensive assassin and must hunt him down to stop him.

Stars: Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Maud Adams, Hervé Villechaize

Director: Guy Hamilton

Rated: PG

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Moore’s second feature as Bond was released in Christmas of 1974…just a scant 18 months after Live and Let Die introduced the actor as the new 007.  While Live and Let Die seemed to be catered a bit to the blaxploitation films that were popular in the early 70’s, The Man with the Golden Gun has a style that is less about trying to fit in with other films and more concerned with the calling cards that made Bond the popular character he had become.

It’s all on display here.  A great title track sung by Lulu, beautiful Bond babes (Ekland and Adams are two of the best looking ones Bond ever sized up), a plot concerning global terrorism laid out by an evil mastermind (Lee) attended to by a colorful henchman (Villechaize).  These classic Bond elements stew together nicely thanks to a snappy script by Tom Mankiewicz and Richard Maibaum and unobtrusive direction from longtime Bond director Hamilton.

Moore is improved as well from his first outing…shaking off the introductory jitters and more confident in his assorted tweed jackets, leisure suits, and silky robes.  Moore’s uppercrust take on Bond parallels nicely with Lee’s refined villain Scaramanga and both actors give each other something to work with when they go gun-to-gun in a rousing if anti-climactic frenzied finale.

Over the course of these films the henchman can sometimes steal scenes away from the main villain and that’s no exception for diminutive Villechaize as Nick Nack.  We’re never quite sure what side he’s on – you get the sense he’s the kind of henchman that would turn on his boss should a better opportunity arise.  He’s featured a bit more prominently than other #2’s have been but the character is so oddly weird that you can’t help but enjoy his screen time.  Only a few years later he’d star in TV’s Fantasy Island…and I often forget that this came first.

This ninth James Bond film has always had a soft spot in my heart – I think it was one of the first of these films I saw when I was a child so I naturally have good memories of renting it and watching the action unfold.  I’m fairly certain it was Lee who led me to the film as I was a huge fan of his Dracula films and probably thought he would sink his teeth into Bond at one point.  Even if he doesn’t bare his fangs, a hilariously fake looking third nipple is on display and plays a key role in the plot.

This is one of the lighter Bond films that seems to go by in a flash.  I mentioned it before but it’s worth saying again that the theme song is one of my absolute favorites, as is the Bond girl of glamorous Adams.  While it may not be fully 24 karats good…it’s no fool’s gold.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Wicker Man (1973)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A police sergeant is called to an island village in search of a missing girl whom the locals claim never existed. Stranger still, however, are the rituals that take place there.

Stars: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento

Director: Robin Hardy

Rated: R

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  In 2006 a remake of The Wicker Man was released (more like unleashed) onto audiences who rightly stayed in away in droves (not me…I saw it OPENING DAY…yeesh).  Sunk by a lousy script from director Neil LaBute and a hysterically awful performance by Nicolas Cage, the film was a total mess of a picture without any true redeeming quality.  I saw that film before I had ever seen the original so I was hesitant to see what could have inspired such a heinous remake.  Would it be worse?

Thankfully…no…but it’s an even odder duck than the remake.  This film from the UK has become a cult classic in the four decades since it was released and rightfully so, it has some wonderfully camp moments wrapped up in a creepy little thriller plotline.  While it was more amusing than scary, there are enough strange happenings going on in this tiny village to keep the audience interested in sticking around to see how it all turns out.

When police sergeant Howie (Woodward who will always be The Equalizer to me) arrives on Summerisle to investigate a report of a missing girl, he can’t be prepared for the kind of welcome he gets.  The townspeople refute the report and can’t even say for sure that a girl by that name lived there at all.  With its small population, Howie finds that hard to believe and his dealings with the town elders confirm his suspicions.  Where did the girl go and why does the entire hamlet seem to want to cover it up?  And what of the sinister looking autumnal festival that Howie happened to arrive just in time for?

The early 70’s brought a lot of occult and pagan conspiracy films to the film going audience and The Wicker Man is no exception.  This was before access to the history of these practices was widely known and dispersed via the internet so not everyone was finely tuned into what these dealings actually meant beyond celebrating the changing of the seasons.  The Wicker Man’s dealings are quite on the dark side but it’s presented in a quaint fashion of English refinement.

The town of Summerisle comes off as a fairy tale coastal UK…albeit with evil behind more than a few doorways.  As Howie goes from house to house and establishment to establishment he is drawn deeper into the mystery and beguiling nature of a few comely local lasses.  Very few scenes take place in the evening so the majority of the film happens in daylight hours when there isn’t much room for jump scares or other stalwarts of the genre.  Instead, director Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer create menace from seemingly innocuous happenstance.

More than a few times, I wondered if The Wicker Man was some sort of strange hybrid of horror and musical.  Hold on for a second before you remove this from your Netflix queue…it’s not an outright musical but it’s filled with more than a few creepy ditties that don’t necessarily fit in with what’s happening onscreen.  After a while, I just chalked it up to the film keeping us off balance with yet another slightly off occurrence that our main character deals with on the island.

As far as early 70’s European films go, it’s frank in its display of nudity in a non-sexual way.  More than one towns member is seen in their birthday suit in a natural display of the human form…and it goes with the no-rules nature that the town seems to employ. The baring of flesh has always been less of an issue in European cinema and it’s used here not in a lascivious way but to show Howie and the audience that these people will do just about anything they feel like doing whenever they feel like doing it.

With interesting turns by Lee, Pitt, and future Bond girl Ekland, Woodward has a nice group of actors to play off of.  Even though I knew where it was headed, the film takes the scenic and curvy route to reach its end destination.  As is the case with other films that deal with the occult (like the jaw-dropping Kill List), the ending leaves you with more questions than answers but could provide lively discussion among your group.

I struggled at times to really enjoy The Wicker Man but knew that getting through it was an important part of my cinematic education.  It’s a fine film that is pretty dated and tame by our 21st century ADD standards, but I can see why it had such an impact upon its first release and continues to catch people off guard even today.  You should never, ever see the remake but by all means take a visit to Summerisle and meet the wicker man.