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Monday, November 29, 2010

Dark Shadows

      A lonely woman travels by train to a fog-drenched, sleepy seaside town.  Her destination- a gloomy old mansion named Collinwood...

      Originally airing on ABC in 1966, "Dark Shadows" started as a deliciously gothic and gloomy afternoon soap. The story was about a woman, Victoria Winters, who was raised an orphan and takes a job as governess at the seaside manor of Collinwood, in the small town of Collinsport, Maine. Victoria soon learns that something strange is going on with the mysterious Collins family, led by matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard.  Film legend Joan Bennett played Elizabeth, giving an air of class to the show.  The first season languished on- to be honest, not much really happens in the first season.  Basically the cast of characters are introduced, and while watching, you can tell that something is eventually going to happen, but it does take its time getting there.  In fact, the show was dangerously close to being cancelled and lost forever in oblivion.

      However,with the sudden introduction of a character, Barnabas Collins, near the end of Season One, it became an instant, world-wide phenomenon as it took a full-blown turn into the supernatural.  Barnabas, you see, is a vampire who's been locked away in his coffin for the last 250 years or so.  Once Barbabas arrives at Collinwood, all hell breaks loose as all sorts of supernatural shenanigans start to happen.  "Dark Shadows" was certainly no ordinary soap opera, and while most soap operas are addicting, this one is about the most addictive of them all.  People went absolutely nuts over this show back in the latter 60's.  And it's easy to see why.

     First of all, it's campy.  Shot on a low-budget, there are many shots where you can plainly see the overhead microphone, shadows of the crew members, and actors constantly flubbing their lines.  Yet, all of this only adds to the appeal of "Dark Shadows".  It becomes almost as if you're watching a stage production.  "Dark Shadows" also broke new ground for a daytime soap.  Seemingly no topic was off limits- besides the lead star being a vampire, the show would introduce witches, demons, ghosts, werewolves, bodies in the cellar, and even the Devil himself at one point.

     Second, television audiences had just never seen anything like this before.  "Dark Shadows" was absolutely unique from the very first episode.  Shot in black and white at first, the show incorporated many classic horror film elements.  Creaking doors, fog-swept mansions, and many other Gothic trappings all helped the wonderfully spooky atmosphere the show would become known for.  "Dark Shadows" also concentrated more on character and plot, rather than cheap scares.  The show still provided many great, eerie moments.

     As campy as the show could be, it still boasted a most impressive cast- one of the most impressive assembled for any American daytime television series.  Besides the aforementioned Joan Bennett, many other Hollywood and Broadway actors and actresses contributed to the show- Jonathan Frid, Grayson Hall, Abe Vigoda, Marsha Mason, Nancy Barrett, Thayer David, Kate Jackson, and Louis Edmonds, just to name a few.  The show was also clearly inspired by the film-noir and Gothic cinema of the 1940's.

     "Dark Shadows" deliberately moved slowly but surely.  Building tension and suspense, the show took its time developing story lines and plot elements.  Relying instead on shadows, fog, candlelight, whispers, and mysteries to weave its hypnotic and addicting spell.  The show was a huge smash, shooting Jonathan Frid and the rest of the cast to instant superstardom.  A merchandising explosion would follow as well, offering up everything from lunchboxes to board games.  The show was truly a phenomenon of the 60's.  And extremely influential, as well.  The supernatural soap has attracted a huge cult following that easily rivals that of "Star Trek", and shows no signs of slowing down.  Beloved by its millions of adoring fans, "Dark Shadows" is truly immortal.  Although one of the most far-fetched television shows of all time, it's also one of the more believable because of its bloopers.  Because in real life, we all flub our lines and knock things over from time to time.  I'm going back, thanks to Netflix, and re-watching every episode of this wonderfully dark and strange show.  Right now, I'm getting deep in to Season Two, and things are really starting to pick up.  This is great stuff, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


     Leading up to its release in 2008, CLOVERFIELD had been hyped for months via viral marketing and media coverage.  Sometimes I get weary of mass marketing of a movie- there are times where the finished result just didn't live up to all the hype.  So did CLOVERFIELD live up to all the hype, you ask? Absolutely. It is one of the most enjoyable and original monster movies I've ever seen. By using the same hand-held camera technique as THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, CLOVERFIELD immediately places you directly in the action and terror with no knowledge or warning, which is quite disorienting. Presented as "footage" found after a monster attacks and destroys New York City, a camera is found in what was formerly known as Central Park. Imagine GODZILLA meets the THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, and you get this film. And it's an amazingly visceral experience. As unbelievable as the scenario is, what you're seeing does seem quite realistic It's also completely un-conventional. If you're the annoying type of movie-goer who demands tons of details, a happy, tidy ending, and a hip soundtrack full of popular songs that have nothing whatsoever to do with the movie- then CLOVERFIELD might not be for you. As with the whole "hand-held" thing going in,  people are either going to love it or hate it anyway.

      But to me, it's a brilliant premise and presentation, and there are many prime examples. For one, like THE BIRDS, the film has no score. It has a disquieting and eerie effect. After a misleading and relaxing start, the viewer, along with the characters, are suddenly thrust into a terrifying and unpredicable situation. And not knowing anything about what's going on, we feel as if we're really there with the characters. After the city "earthquake" that starts the frenzied monster attacks on the city, I sat there with a tummy full of butterflies, absolutely glued to the screen. The movie is scary, suspenseful, and thoroughly entertaining. Overall, there is just not a dull moment to be found anywhere in CLOVERFIELD.

     And it's certainly not your typical cookie cutter, Hollywood film. J.J. Abrams (LOST) delivers a monster movie that dares to be different, and it thoroughly succeeds. This movie is meant to be watched more than once, too.  I notice something new everytime I see it. The special effects are some of the most seamless and realistic I've ever seen in a movie, and I like that the monster itself is never shown in its entirety. We get glimpses, quick cuts, and far away shots- and are left to piece together the full monster. I find this movie to be an excellent piece of filmmaking, and a hell of a lot of fun. Monster movies seem to be back with a vengeance, and that's a great thing in my book. CLOVERFIELD, along with THE DESCENT and THE MIST are great examples of the genre.  Monstrously fun!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Kolchak: The Night Stalker/ The Night Strangler

        Eccentric and abrasive Las Vegas reporter Carl Kolchak stumbles upon the story of his life as a series of ghastly murders rock the city. It seems a modern-day vampire is preying on young women, and from the startling discovery of a dead girl's body stuffed into a garbage can in the opening scene, "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" enthralled and terrified audiences as it aired on January 11, of 1972.  Legendary Dan Curtis, of "Dark Shadows" fame, produced one of TV's best and most-loved movies, and a memorable slice of 70's horror.  Darren McGavin is fantastic as the impulsive Kolchak- it's arguably one of the most memorable performances of the decade.  It's almost hard to believe it back then,  but ABC's Movie Of the Week was a big deal- and hands down tops of all TV-movies.  And during that time, some of the greatest TV shockers of all time aired- "Don't Be Afraid Of the Dark", "Trilogy Of Terror", and of course, "Kolchak". "The Night Stalker" offers just the right amount of creepy atmosphere and scary moments.  The movie was so popular, a sequel, "Kolchak: The Night Strangler" followed, then a weekly series followed that. 

      Based on science and folklore with a dash of supernatural thrown in, "Kolchak" was a ratings smash.  Since it was produced by Dan Curtis, you can see traces of "Dark Shadows" here and there throughout "The Night Stalker".  (And yes, I love "Dark Shadows"...).   You can also see how influential "Kolchak" would be in the future with "The X-Files".  This is a great vampire flick with a witty and atmospheric script by the great Richard Matheson.  Crackling with tension and paranoia, "The Night Stalker"  is great stuff.  They certainly don't make movies like this anymore.  But thanks to Netflix and DVD's, they can still be enjoyed today.  Often cited as the best TV movie of all time, the original and refreshing story of a modern-day Dracula terrorizing Las Vegas is a groovy, scary time capsule of the funky and weird 70's.  I recommend a "Kolchak" double feature and watch back-to-back with "The Night Strangler".

     Since "The Night Stalker" was such a huge success, ABC commissioned Richard Matheson to produce a follow-up.  Airing January 16 in 1973 and featuring a story about a serial killer stalking underground Seattle this time, "The Night Strangler" found lovable Carl Kolchak investigating a murderer who not only strangles his victims, but then with a syringe removes a tiny bit of blood.  Seems our Kolchak has left Vegas in disgust over the corrupt officials, and gets a job at the Daily Chronicle in Seattle.  Yes, folks, Kolchak is back, and soon stumbles across another wave of mysterious murders.  Even though it follows basically the same plot as the original, what helps the sequel this time around is an interesting and clever backstory to the killer- he's not a vampire this time, but more of a mad scientist,  with something about experiments to extend human life with elixirs made of human blood.  "The Night Strangler" also incorporates more humor into the scary moments this time around, but overall it's a strong and well-made sequel.  The creepy underground Seattle is truly a fantastic location- spooky stuff, to be sure.  The characters seem to be a bit more fleshed out this time around, and of course, how can you go wrong with Darren McGavin's performance in the first place?  He was simply born to play this role.  All in all a good, solid sequel that holds its own against the original.  Supremely entertaining and fun!

Home For the Holidays

      HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS is a wonderfully spooky and effective 1972 teleslasher that concerns four sisters (Sally Field, Jessica Harper, Jill Haworth, and Eleanor Parker!) returning to their family home to visit their dying father for the holidays. Seems dear Dad has asked them all to come home and kill his new wife (played by the fabulous Julie Harris...), whom he suspects is trying to do the same to him.  Really! Gathered at the Morgan family home on a stormy Christmas Eve, family secrets and skeletons are drug from the closet and true feelings come to the forefront.  On top of all this family drama- which almost ventures into high soap territory here and there- this is an Aaron Spelling production, you know- there happens to be a pitchfork-wielding psychopath in a rain-soaked yellow slicker on a murderous rampage. And if all of that isn't enough, of course a raging storm has knocked the phone lines out and caused the roads to flood.  After the first sister is found murdered, it would seem that somebody wants the four sisters dead. Supreme entertainment.

     Written by Joesph Stefano, a man who just happens to have written a screenplay for a little film named PSYCHO, HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS has all the classic horror movie elements- isolated farmhouse, storms, murderous motives, family drama, cut phone lines, washed out roads, chase scenes through the dark woods- you name it, it's here. It hums along nicely with many twists and turns.

     Sally Field was actually wanted by Sean S. Cunningham for the original FRIDAY THE 13TH, and after watching this, it's easy to see why. The scenes in HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS where Sally is chased through the woods by the killer is something straight out of an 80's slasher. This TV thriller creates a surprisingly early slasher atmosphere, which obviously inspired BLACK CHRISTMAS, which inspired HALLOWEEN... it's neat how that works, isn't it? It runs at about 78 minutes, which results in a pretty tight and suspenseful production. It's also simple and straightforward- which in my opinion can sometimes be the most effective. Like I said, the atmosphere in HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS is one of the main ingredients here, second only to the fine acting ensemble involved.  It's interesting that this production was so low-budget, they couldn't even afford snow for the exterior shots. Instead, they used a simple thunderstorm. Yet somehow it all works and the Christmastime atmosphere is amazing- it truly helps the film.

      Sadly a relic of an era long gone- the great TV horror movies were all but extinct by 1990 or so. This is one of the best, by far. The killer is as scary as any slasher you would have seen in an 80's feature film. The cast is to die for, and it's a classy and suspenseful production all the way. Not to be confused with the same-named but hilarious HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS with Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jr.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge

       As I've said before, I've never been a huge fan of Freddy Krueger. Yes, he was very scary in the original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and it's a genuine 80's classic of horror. Absolutely. ELM STREET was a true breath of fresh air, as we had been subjected to countless knife-wielding madmen wearing masks, which we love of course- but ELM STREET was truly different and creative. But somewhere around the third installment, I really started to lose interest in the old guy. Once he started cracking wicked one-liners, he just stopped being scary and started being annoying. To me, at least. Now I'm not dogging on the guy here- Anyway, I just recently re-visited the first sequel, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE. And wow! This is seriously the most homoerotic and campy horror movie of the 80's!

     A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was extremely successful when it hit theaters in 1984, so a sequel was inevitable. Two years later, we got one, titled A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 2 FREDDY'S REVENGE. And what a curious sequel it was. The film is full of blatantly obvious homosexual undertones- lots of male nudity, the school coach who just happens to be a leather daddy- even Jesse, the main character, at one point ends up in a gay bar. Jesse also keeps saying throughout the film that there's something inside him that wants to "come out", and he's obviously more interested in his buddy than his girlfriend. (His buddy, Grady, was played by Robert Rusler- do you blame Jesse? haha) It's actually quite amazing that they not only had the balls to pull this off in 1986, but even more amazing is the fact that nobody seemed to notice any of the gay stuff at the time.  At least I didn't.

     FREDDY'S REVENGE is set five years after the original film. A new man and his family have bought Nancy's house, who went mad from her ordeal and is now institutionalized. Mark Patton deliciously plays Jesse, the oldest son who now occupies Nancy's bedroom.  He seems to be a sexually confused teenager who starts having terrible nightmares. Yes, Freddy is back, haunting Jesse's dreams now, and is intent on taking over Jesse's body and using it for his dirty work. FREDDYS' REVENGE tends to be the least favorite of the series, and on some levels, it's easy to see why.

     There are definitely some silly moments to be found, but also some pretty good moments too. The opening bus scene is actually done quite well, and the "transformation" scene is also a standout moment. Freddy is still pretty much kept in the dark for most of the film, which is much more effective, and is played very sinister. It's the last time Robert Englund plays Freddy seriously, as further performances up the camp factor. The movie has a good premise- I like the idea of Freddy trying to take over somebody's body, and I like that Jessie is living in the original house. And the idea that  that this kid is or could be sexually confused was actually a pretty bold move for 1986. I was fourteen at the time I first saw this, and seeing it as an adult now, it's obvious a lot of stuff went right over my head.

     FREDDY'S REVENGE is a camp lover's delight as there are many hilarious moments to be found. Clu Gulager and Hope Lange certainly camp it up as Jesse's parents, although Kim Myers delivers an honest and earnest performance as Lisa, Jesse's girlfriend. She also very much resembles a young Meryl Streep. Throw in sexy 80's icon Robert Rusler as Jesse's wise-cracking best friend Grady, and you've got yourself a rather memorable sequel, to be honest. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE is certainly one of the most curious and strange horror movies to come out of the 80's. There are moments of high horror mixed with high camp- which in my eyes certainly makes for interesting viewing.

     This is the most underrated of the series, even though some fans complain about the implied bisexuality of the main character.  I find it to personally give the film an unusual twist- and in all the following sequels, nothing this original or bold can be found anywhere. This film offers plenty of flaws, but I would give it a solid B just for creativity and uniqueness.

     As I said before, this is the last film where Freddy is played for terror, instead of for laughs. Freddy thankfully does not fire off embarrassing and silly one-liners in this film- if that's what you're looking for, skip to Parts 3 and on. This sequel for the most part seems to be more concerned with racking up tension instead of the body count, and that's perfectly fine with me. It's not a great film, but it's not a terrible film either. I find it quite fascinating, actually.And it definitely has some great and memorable moments. It does seem that the film has gained a definite cult following in the past few years, and Mark Patton is proud of his participation in the film and of being one of the first male 'final girls'. And rightly so. Ah, the 80's.

The Amityville Horror


     I love Margot Kidder.  I really do.  She alway seems like she'd be that cool aunt who would sneak up to the attic with you and pull out a joint at Thanksgiving.  Always saucy, Margot starred in the awesome BLACK CHRISTMAS, and of course will always be Lois Lane.Which brings us to that hoary classic we all know and love- THE AMITYVILLE HORROR starring Margot Kidder and James Brolin. Supposedly based on the "true" story of the Lutz family, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR successfully started a franchise of books and films, and made funny, triangular windows and barn-shaped homes instant icons of horror around the world.

     The movie is loads of fun and borders on high camp 90% of the time- gobs of flies, puking nuns, black goo oozing out of toilets, red eyes in windows, demonic voices, Rod Steiger scarfing up every bit of scenery along the way, and James Brolin packing some serious heat under those skivvies of his. Regardless of your opinion on whether all of this really happened, the movie itself has attained almost cult status and is one of the most famous horror films to come out of the 1970's. I'm sure by now you know the story. George and Kathy Lutz buy an unbelievably cheap house in Amityville, Long Island. The home was the sight of the infamous DeFeo murders the previous year. George and Kathy Lutz and their children move into the house on 112 Ocean Avenue and are instantly plagued by strange and frightening experiences until 28 days later when they leave all their belongings behind and flee for their very lives.

    THE AMITYVILLE HORROR has all the classic elements of a great ghost story- respected actors and director, an eerie back story, and a super-creepy score by Lalo Schifrin. This was one of my favorites growing up, and of course I own the box set (The DVD boxset contains some great special features if your'e a geek like me and find documentaries and the making of certain movies fascinating- it includes not one, but two History Channel documentaries on the actual Amityville murder case and the paranormal investigations that followed, plus a trip down memory lane with our favorite Margot in a featurette about making the movie.  Good stuff.) The cinematography on THE AMITYVILLE HORROR is top notch, and the use of colors work to great effect here-different tinted shots of the house, combined with some great exterior shots of fall foliage help the overall look. And the set design. Can you name a single more famous or well-known design of a "haunted house" in a film? It instantly struck a chord in movie-goers and became a pop culture phenomenon by the time the 80's rolled around.

      This was huge stuff back in the late 70's, with the original murders and the whole Lutz debacle. Regardless of how good or bad the movie actually is, its infamy will live on. On an interesting note, if it weren't for the true story of the DeFeo massacre that actually happened there, would the movie itself be so memorable and well-loved? For me personally, it's impossible not to think of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR when the 1970's are brought up, it's that ingrained into my psyche, I guess. So I would say yes, it would.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


"In space no one can hear you scream."

     The crew of the spaceship Nostromo are on their way back to Earth when they pick up a distress signal on an unknown planet.   Stopping to investigate the suspected SOS, they instead find an extremely lethal alien life form that boards their ship. One by one, the crew members fall victim to the terrifying monster.

     One of the greatest monster movies ever, Ridley Scott's "Alien" completely gets under your skin.  The way he shot this movie, combined with H.R. Giger's unbelievable designs, create a claustrophobic, tension filled nightmare.  It's amazing that even though this movie is over 20 years old, it really hasn't dated much. It's still as bleak and futuristic today as it was upon its release in 1979. The atmosphere on this movie is simply amazing. Claustrophobia reigns supreme here- but the film offers so much more. Everything about this movie is amazing- acting, directing, set design, music- pure movie-making perfection. Scott's deliberately slow pacing and editing create an overwhelming sense of fear and dread.   The opening titles perfectly set the tone and mood of this movie.  The audience instantly knows what it's in store for. We know something horrible is going to happen, we just don't know when.  And by the time things do get really scary, we're already sucked in. Jerry Goldsmith's score also greatly enhances the terror here- the movie simply wouldn't have worked near as well without it.

         Almost set up like a classic slasher movie in outerspace, we soon find the crewmembers being knocked off one by one until the final showdown between Ripley and the Alien.  But ALIEN is certainly not your standard "Hollywood" horror movie.  There are no moments of comic relief.  No messages of hope. It refuses to give the audience breaks in the growing tension. And the characters don't suddenly lose all sanity for the sake of a death scene. Everything in ALIEN unfolds just as it would in real life. For some, it's hard to get into a movie like this.

      Sigourney Weaver created one of the most successful characters in movie history with her Ripley. She owns this movie-I simply can't imagine any other actress playing her character.  And she proved that a female character could carry a type of movie usually reserved for males. But the praise doesn't just go to Sigourney- the entire cast deserve full credit here.  The Alien itself is one of the greatest monsters in movie history, a truly original and terrifying creation, and the film was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for film preservation.  Oh, and the trailer is hands down one of the greatest horror movie (or any movie...) trailers I've ever seen- if I were sitting in a theater and saw this, I would have to see this movie immediately. A film that never gets old and it always entertaining.

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