31 Days to Scare ~ House of Usher (1960)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Upon entering his fiancée’s family mansion, a man discovers a savage family curse and fears that his future brother-in-law has entombed his bride-to-be prematurely.

Stars: Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey, Harry Ellerbe

Director: Roger Corman

Rated: Approved

Running Length: 79 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: As a scary movie fan and critic, I have to admit to you that while I’ve covered many ghoulish galleries in the hellish haunted basements of the horror genre, there is a rather blatant blind spot that I’ve ignored for too long.  The fact that it’s taken me so long to come to terms with it is not so much owning up to my own failure as it is to just accepting how far behind I am and the enormity of ground I have to cover to catch up.  What’s more, there’s no reason I should have let it get this bad, this out of control, this widespread.  I should have dealt with it as a teen or consulted with friends as a young adult.  Surely, I could have sought assistance as I struck out on my own?

Here we are in 2020 and I’m just now beginning to deal with this problem.  I am sorrowfully, shamefully, inexcusably, late to the party on Vincent Price movies.  Oh, I’ve seen Price in his later pictures where he played pivotal roles as inspiration and so much more for Tim Burton’s early features and the snazzy first remake of House of Wax (in even snazzier 3D!) but it’s the films he became famous off of that have eluded me until recently.  These were the classic macabre flicks he made with legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman and, to get even more specific, the films they made based off the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  Though Price has made a number of notable horror films throughout his career (some of them campy, some of them excellent) the Corman/Price/Poe treasures are the entries that seemed to come up the most in conversation.

That’s how it happened that I made my visit to the House of Usher, Corman’s 1960 collaboration with Price, the first of a number of films the duo would make together and by far their most successful financially and artistically.  Adapted by science fiction novelist Richard Matheson (JAWS 3-D) and released by independent production company American International Pictures who up until then had only produced black and white cheapies, House of Usher was a big color Cinemascope gamble that paid off in a lasting way.  It set off a wave of Poe adaptations, effectively changed the course of Price’s career, and gave some street cred to Corman who would also release the original Little Shop of Horrors that same year.

Tweaking Poe’s original dark tale slightly, Matheson injects some romanticism into the picture by filtering the events through the eyes of Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) as he arrives at the decaying titular homestead seeking his fiancé, Madeline (Myrna Fahey) who hasn’t returned to Boston after a recent visit. Before he has the chance to see her, he meets her brother Roderick (Price, Michael Jackson: Thriller) who urges Philip to leave and forget about the woman he loves and Roderick appears to be protecting from a family sickness about to consume her.  A timid long-time family butler (Harry Ellerbe) provides little corroborating information or assistance, leaving Philip to fight for Madeline’s life on his own against her dangerous sibling…or has he been the one that needed protection from the moment he walked in the door?

For a movie with by and large four-people in the cast, it’s amazing how engaging it all is.  Numerous scenes are just two people talking, often the sign of amateur screenwriting, but Matheson’s take on Poe is quite thrilling and grabs you from the start.  Ditto the production design which is pretty spectacular considering the budget limitations and that the whole thing was shot in a little over two weeks.  Nothing looks like it’s going to fall apart if you sneezed nor do the costumes give off a chintzy vibe.  It’s all beamed in pulsating colors that merge well within the visuals, especially in a creepy dream sequence which helps explain the inky past of the Usher clan.

Performances are also highly entertaining for all the right reasons.  Price is so dramatically melodramatic, a perfect fit with his overly sensitive character that doesn’t like loud noises, or extremes of any kind for that matter.  It may not be saying an awful lot (for the award, not the actor), but his work earned Damon a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer and he’s a committed leading man who possesses the looks and the layers to make you want to cheer him on but still hate him a little bit for having such great hair.  The lovely Fahey is a mysterious beauty when we first meet her, standing in sharp contrast to her frightening transformation near the end.

Yes, back to the scares.  This one has them and not just in the extended finale that is downright spooky.  Several passages in this relatively short film will raise the hairs on your neck, often just hearing Price describe the actions of one of his ancestors.  When it comes to giving you major goosebumps, nothing much beats Fahey’s piercing scream, which is heard several times and what many scream queens clearly modeled their loud lungs after.  For a film that’s a solid 60 years old and has had a number of versions before and since, Corman’s House of Usher clearly was built with material strong enough to last the test of time because it still works today and is a justified classic in the genre.

Movie Review ~ Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time – Vol. 2 Horror and Sci-Fi

The Facts

Synopsis: The greatest cult horror and science fiction films of all-time are studied in vivid detail in the second volume of Time Warp. Includes groundbreaking classics like Night of the Living Dead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and sci-fi gems such as Blade Runner, and A Clockwork Orange.

Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Sean Young, Joe Morton, Malcolm McDowell, Bruce Campbell, Roger Corman, John Sayles, Mary Woronov, Ed Neal, Rob Zombie, Joe Dante, John Waters, Illeana Douglas, Kevin Pollak

Director: Danny Wolf

Rated: NR

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s fitting that horror and sci-fi are the subject of the second volume of the documentary Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time, seeing that the genre was so prone to sequel-itis over the years. Yet many of the titles featured in this shorter follow-up to Volume 1 are stand-alone entities, which surely have contributed to their unique followings over time. From the obscure but not quite forgotten Liquid Sky to the oft-mentioned importance of the original Night of the Living Dead, these were usually shoe-stringed budgeted kitchen-sink endeavors that caught on over time.

Joined again by the strange panel of moderators consisting of Joe Dante (Matinee), John Waters (Pink Flamingos), Illeana Douglas (Cape Fear), and Kevin Pollak (Indian Summer), director Danny Wolf moves away from the general ‘Midnight Madness’ theme from the preceding chapter. For his follow-up, he centers on a more specific genre that produced a bevy of cult titles throughout the last several decades. Not all the choices are obvious ones and though a number of quips and factoids presented over the 83 minutes are what you could glean from a trivia track off of a special edition DVD, it’s the delivery of said bits that make this such an enormous treat for film fans. Even if horror/sci-fi isn’t your bag, there are enough familiar faces that float by, either as stars reflecting on their earlier work or fans commenting on the importance of the title on the medium, that I think you’ll get a kick out of this.

I mean, you can hardly go wrong when you have interviews with Jeff Goldblum cheekily riffing on his experience making The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and straining to remember the illegible plot. Or an actress from The Human Centipede reflecting on the casting process and attempting to find nobility in the acting that went on while filming a movie where the mouth of her character was sewn to the business end of a companion. I thought Mary Woronov recounting her time on Death Race 2000 was a hoot, proving again she’s one of the best interview subjects for these kind of documentaries. Special mention goes to Sean Young who pulls no punches when discussing her time on the set of Blade Runner – say what you will about Young’s antics over the years but she definitely speaks up for herself.

Along with critical hot takes throughout, this is another well put together look into movies that started off the beaten path and have generally found their way into a lasting conversation. They may not have had A-list talent (well, not at the time) but they’ve garnered a name for themselves through longevity and staying power that other titles in their genre haven’t found. This covers a nice swath of tastes too, from the pomp of A Clockwork Orange to the worms and all grotesqueries found in The Evil Dead and Re-Animator.  It’s just long enough to cover more than the basics but doesn’t slog on to encapsulate additional titles that don’t quite fit the bill.  While the oeuvre might not be your completely cup of tea, there’s a little something for everyone from laughs to trivia.

31 Days to Scare ~ Brain Dead (1990)

The Facts:

Synopsis: In a showdown of man versus machine, Martin plunges into a chaotic nightmare trying to save his mind from the megalomaniacal corporation.

Stars: Bill Pullman, Bill Paxton, Bud Cort, Patricia Charbonneau, George Kennedy, Nicholas Pryor

Director: Adam Simon

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Spoiler alert right from the start: the poster for Brain Dead is very deceiving. The face on the cover doesn’t belong to any of our lead cast members nor does it factor in at all to what happens during the 85 minutes of this low-budget horror film from prolific producer Roger Corman. It’s an effective hook ,though, and I’m guessing it helped earn a rental from most people who never even bothered to look at the back for a plot synopsis. That was Corman’s specialty, creating a box art that that catches the eye and sets some intrigue in the eye of the consumer.

The good news about Brain Dead is that, slightly false advertising aside, it’s a dandy of a horror/thriller hybrid that has several soon to be heavy hitters doing some good work early in their careers. I’m not sure if any of them would necessarily voluntarily list the movie on their resume but their presence alone makes the film an interesting watch. Add to that a script from Charles Beaumont who wrote multiple episodes of The Twilight Zone and you have a movie that rises above its meager production to be a somewhat low-wattage cult favorite.

Dr. Rex Martin (Bill Pullman, American Ultra) is a scientist focusing on brain studies. Experimenting with new techniques, he’s contacted by an old friend (Bill Paxton, Edge of Tomorrow) on behalf of the organization he works for. Seems that one of their employees (Bud Cort) has suffered a mental break and is in a delusional state. He is the only one that knows a certain series of numbers imperative in advancing their business but in his current state he can’t remember or is unwilling to provide a response. Paxton’s character wants Pullman to help extract the data using his untested methods…at least that’s what Pullman thinks is going on.  After a rather standard first half hour the film takes the first of several turns that changes the way Pullman (and we the audience) looks at the situation. The lines of reality blur and we aren’t sure if Pullman is the doctor, the patient, or something in between.

Director Adam Simon keeps things strange enough to keep the 85 minutes rocketing along and there’s enough gore to punctuate the action when it gets staid.  I’d advise keeping yourself distraction free while watching Brain Dead because the plot twists and turns on a dime – you won’t want to miss where the film is heading. While it’s no gigantic achievement, considering the cast alone it’s definitely a hidden gem in the Corman catalog.