31 Days of Horror Day 31: House of Wax

1381114081_10Day 31: House of Wax

Greetings,dear readers! It’s hard to believe it’s Halloween already and my 31-day horror blogathon is coming to an end. Well,nothing lasts forever. But do not fret! I will continue blogging and then do this again next October. For the last day I have a film that’s one of my absolute favorites. It’s the original House of Wax from 1953. You may remember from my earlier blog post about The Fall of the House of Usher that I’m a huge Vincent Price fan. This is one of his best films. And that’s saying something!

In House of Wax,Price plays Professor Henry Jarrod,a true artist who makes his wax sculptures very lifelike. He specializes in historical sculptures,such as Marie Antoinette and Joan of Arc. His business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts)needs a better return on his investment. Burke pushes Jarrod to create more lurid art,like a chamber of horrors. Jarrod refuses,and Burke sets the place ablaze,destroying all of Jarrod’s beautiful artwork. Burke then hopes to collect the insurance money for the fire. Jarrod is presumed to have died in the fire. But he resurfaces 18 months later when he opens a new exhibit. His art has taken on a much darker tone,and he has yet to reproduce his favorite work: Marie Antoinette. When Jarrod meets his new assistant’s beautiful friend Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk),he realizes he has found the perfect model. But Jarrod has a very particular way of making his wax sculptures that no one knows about. I’ll leave you to watch the film and discover his secret yourself.

House of Wax has a lot of fun with its concept. It’s a unique showcase for Vincent Price. He’s wonderful as the tortured artist. But then,Price brings class to any material he is given. I would say this,along with all the Poe adaptations he appeared in,and House on Haunted Hill,are his best works. The rest of the cast here is superb as well,especially Phyllis Kirk as Sue Allen. She portrays suspicious and vulnerable so well. Not only can she scream when she has to,she tells whole parts of the story with her facial expressions. It’s a brilliant performance!

The film benefits from a beautiful look. That’s a credit to cinematographers Bert Glennon,J. Peverell Marley,and Robert Burks. The look,especially of Jarrod’s sculptures,is something to behold. The whole film has a beautiful color palette. Makeup artist Gordon Bau does a great job as well,particularly when Price’s character gets disfigured in the fire. Director Andre De Toth’s House of Wax is a horror classic that lives up to the hype. It’s a perfect film to end this writing journey with!

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31 Days of Horror Day 30: The Curse of Frankenstein

curse-of-frankenstein-hanging-creatureDay 30: The Curse of Frakenstein

For day 30 of my 31 days of horror,it’s The Curse of Frankenstein. Hammer studios released a lot of great horror films from the 1950s on. Many of them featured the dynamic duo of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Both appear in my daily pick.

The plot? From Internet Movie Database:

In prison and awaiting execution, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) recounts to a priest (Alex Gallier) what led him to his current circumstance. He inherited his family’s wealth after the death of his mother when he was still only a young man. He hired Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) as his tutor and he immediately developed an interest in medical science. After several years, he and Krempe became equals and he developed an interest in the origins and nature of life. After successfully re-animating a dead dog, Victor sets about constructing a man (Christopher Lee) using body parts he acquires for the purpose including the hands of a pianist and the brain of a renowned scholar. As Frankenstein’s excesses continue to grow, Krempe is not only repulsed by what his friend has done but is concerned for the safety of the beautiful Elizabeth (Hazel Court), Victor’s cousin and fiancée who has come to live with them. His experiments lead to tragedy and his eventual demise.

It’s a really interesting twist on the original Frankenstein tale. Cushing brings gravitas and charm to Dr. Frankenstein. And then there’s Christopher Lee playing the monster. While I do love Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the creature,Lee is also excellent. Instead of the bolt through the neck and the square head,Lee is more horribly scarred and sinister looking. He really does look like a bunch of body parts sewn together. It makes the monster all the more terrifying. Lee and Cushing elevate any material they are given,and that’s certainly the case here. The Curse of Frankenstein could have been a cheap knockoff of the 1931 James Whale film,but director Terence Fisher and his crew have put a unique spin on the classic monster tale.

The Curse of Frankenstein is one of the best looking of all the Hammer productions. Credit art director Ted Marshall,production designer Bernard Robinson,and cinematographer Jack Asher. Every detail of the film is beautifully Gothic,including Frankenstein’s lab. Every evil doctor has to have a scary lab. It’s an unwritten rule in horror films. The Curse of Frankenstein is one of the best in the Hammer library. It’s always a joy to watch Cushing and Lee bring such scary material to the screen. Check this one out if you haven’t already!

31 Days of Horror Day 29: A Nightmare on Elm Street

28298014_Day 29: A Nightmare on Elm Street

There have been plenty of slasher killers in the movies. In the 1980s,two in particular reigned supreme. There was Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th and Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. Of the two,I definitely prefer Freddy. He has a lot more personality and,frankly,his franchise is just better. Freddy is the subject of my day 29 pick: A Nightmare on Elm Street. Director Wes Craven showed up in an earlier blog entry on The Serpent and the Rainbow. What can I say? The man was one of our great horror directors.

For the uninitiated,let me give you a brief film synopsis. On Elm Street,Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends are having strange dreams with the same creepy character in them. The man of their nightmares is Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund),who rocks a hideous red and green sweater,tattered fedora,and a glove with knives on it. Very stylish! Nancy’s friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) has a particularly bad dream one night about Freddy. That’s of course when her mom chooses to leave her alone at the house for the weekend while she goes off to spend a weekend with her boyfriend. Nancy and Tina decide to have a sleepover together to keep each other company and relieve their anxieties. Also joining in is Nancy boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp,in his big screen debut!) and Tina’s boyfriend Rod (Jsu Garcia). That night,while Rod and Tina are sleeping together,Tina *spoiler alert* meets her untimely end while having a nightmare. The death of Tina where she gets dragged up the bedroom wall and torn to shreds is one of the scariest and most creative death scenes in horror history. Of course,the police don’t believe Rod when he says he didn’t kill Tina. The two fought a lot and the door was locked when Tina was killed. How else could another person have gotten in? Rod is arrested by Nancy’s father Lt. Thompson (John Saxon). Nancy then sets out to literally never sleep again,fearing if she does she’ll end up like Tina. She takes caffeine pills and keeps a pot of coffee in her bedroom to stay awake. A really nice touch is when you see Nancy trying to stay awake by watching Evil Dead on TV. Eventually Nancy learns Freddy isn’t a figment of her imagination. Her mother Marge (Ronee Blakley) tells her one night that Freddy Krueger was a child murderer who got off scott-free because of a legal technicality. In the aftermath,the outraged neighborhood parents (including Nancy’s mother) cornered him in an alley and burned him to death. Freddy is after Nancy and her friends as revenge against their parents. Needless to say,that doesn’t help Nancy sleep at night.

A Nightmare on Elm Street has a simple set-up,but it’s executed very well. There are great scary moments in it,including the death of Tina and a great nightmare Nancy has when she falls asleep in English class. There’s also a great scene that will make you afraid to take baths. The whole cast is terrific,including Heather Langenkamp. Johnny Depp does a really great job in his first film. It was a great springboard for his career. John Saxon and Ronee Blakley are great as Nancy’s estranged and absent parents. But the real star here is Robert Englund. He has so much menace and personality as Freddy. Even his physicality in the film is scary,especially in a creepy shot where his arm seems to stretch on forever and then we see a closeup of his face and his glove while he gives us a great maniacal laugh. It’s a performance that still gives me nightmares. Whoever cast him should get an Oscar!

While A Nightmare on Elm Street did have some crummy sequels afterwards,the original still stands the test of time. Side note: Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare are two really good sequels worth your time! Wes Craven gave us so many great nightmares over the years,but Freddy Krueger is his magnum opus.

31 Days of Halloween Day 28: Something Wicked This Way Comes

7n_disneyremakessomething00Day 28: Something Wicked This Way Comes

For day 28 of my 31 days of horror blogathon,I’m going with some horror from Disney. My pick of the day is the underrated Something Wicked This Way Comes. Based on a story by Ray Bradbury,it’s one of the best dark films to ever be made by Walt Disney. It boasts a great cast that includes Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce. On the off-chance you missed this as a kid,go and track a copy of it down. It’s great for all ages.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is set in Green Town,Illinois. 12 year-old Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) are neighbors and best buddies. Will’s father Charles Halloway (Jason Robards) is the local librarian and Jim and his mother are waiting for Jim’s father to return. The boys know all the locals. There’s their school teacher Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield) who yearns for youth and beauty;Mr. Crosetti the lonely barber (Richard Davalos) ;Mr Tetley (Jake Dengel) the greedy cigar store owner;and bartender Ed (James Stacy) who has a severed arm and leg yet wants to be a football hero.  Jim buys a lighting rod one night that tells him a storm is coming. During the night,the boys hear a mysterious train. They run into the woods to catch the arrival of the train,but don’t see a soul. However, they do see Mr. Dark’s (Jonathan Pryce) Pandemonium Carnival all set-up to be explored. Soon the boys notice that people in town are disappearing and figure out that Mr. Dark and the Dust Witch (Pam Grier) made the missing people’s dreams come true. But there’s a catch. In return,Mr. Dark gets their souls. Now Mr. Dark is after Jim and will,but Charles Halloway has a journal from his father about the autumn carnival that might be their last chance to defeat the evil. That’s the film in a nutshell.

Something Wicked This Way Comes has great writing. Ray Bradbury adapted his own story into the screenplay after all. Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson are very enjoyable as Will and Jim. They’re up to the material they’ve been given. Without good child actors the whole thing would have sunk like a stone. But the real stars here are Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce. Robards is one of the greatest of all actors,and he brings gravitas to the role of Will’s father. He plays the part of the lonely librarian and wise but stern father perfectly. It’s another great performance in his storied career. Then there’s Jonathan Pryce. he’s absolutely brilliant as Mr. Dark! He doesn’t look like a scary guy,and that’s part of what makes him so menacing. Pryce looks like your next door neighbor. But behind his everyman look and easy charm is the mind of a great villain.

It’s great watching the story of the film unfold. Readers of Ray Bradbury’s original work will be pleased to find Something Wicked This Way Comes will be pleased to find it a faithful adaptation. Before I finish,I want to give a few shout-outs. The late James Horner did the moody score. It’s one of his best! Stephen H. Burum adds to the creepy atmosphere with his great cinematography. Finally,I have to acknowledge set decorator Rick Simpson,production designer Richard MacDonald,and art directors Richard Lawrence,John B. Mansbridge,and John Marshall. All of them make the carnival come alive. The look makes it look like a fun but creepy place.

Something Wicked This Way Comes may be too scary for very little kids. But for ages 8 and older,it’s a haunted delight! It’s in the great tradition of dark Disney tales like Mr. Boogedy and Return to Oz. Watch this one with the whole family!

31 Days of Horror Day 27: Evil Dead

evildead1

Day 27: Evil Dead

You didn’t really think I was going to do a 31 day horror blogathon and not talk about Evil Dead,did you? The Evil Dead trilogy is a must every October. The first film in the series is the ultimate cabin in the woods movie. It’s gory,cheaply made,and one of the best/most horrific of all movie experiences out there. Ignore the recent remake. Sam Raimi’s original film has rightfully earned its place as a horror cult classic.

The plot? Five friends take a vacation to a cabin in the woods. Upon arrival,they discover a book in the cabin called The Book of the Dead along with a tape recorder belonging to a professor who owns the cabin. Inevitably,one of them plays back the recording,which turns out to be recitations of Candarian resurrection passages translated from the book by the professor. This unleashes a dark force in the woods. In no time people start turning into evil deadites. The characters learn that the only way to kill the deadites is by bodily dismemberment. And it gets even more bloody/gory from there.

Evil Dead was made on the cheap. There’s lots of bloody claymation for the corpses and clever camera tricks. What it lacks in budget it more than makes up for with imagination. There are two sequences in particular that I love in this movie. The first one is where Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) runs off into the woods and gets attacked by the trees that have come to life thanks to the evil spirits unleashed by the resurrection passages. There are some really neat sight gags and special effects. The other sequence I want to highlight is what happens right after. Cheryl narrowly escapes the tree attack and runs back to the cabin. To show us the evil chasing her,Raimi gives us a great tracking shot of the camera barreling through the woods. it’s a great way to show what’s happening from the perspective of the killer.

Before I finish, I have to acknowledge the cast of this movie. They’re a very believable group of teenage friends. But the one who stands out the most is Bruce Campbell as Ashley Williams. Campbell would go on to star in the next to films in the series: Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn and Army of Darkness. It’s great to see his character grow in those other two films. Army of Darkness in particular is a hoot!

Evil Dead is a lot of fun. But be warned: it is plenty gory. There are a lot of deaths by chainsaw,ax,and other creative tools of dismemberment. But it’s done in an over the top way that makes it funny too. The other films in the series take that the nth degree. Sam Raimi’s first entry in his Evil Dead trilogy may not have had a ton of money. But it delivers some great scares with its creativity. Does it ever! Come for the gore. Stay for Bruce Campbell.

31 Days of Horror Day 26: Labyrinth

labyrinth-jareth-sara-bwDay 26: Labyrinth

Every once in a while two things go together that you think never will. A case in point is the film Labyrinth,my day 26 pick. It was directed by Jim Henson,the creative genius behind the Muppets and stars David Bowie. Jim Henson and David Bowie. Let that collaborative concept idea just sink in a minute. It doesn’t exactly sound like a match made in heaven. But it’s actually one of the most wonderful,dark films for kids that has ever been made. Released in 1986,it has developed quite the following since its initial release. To see it is to understand why.

The plot of Labyrinth is pretty straight forward. A young girl named Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is left home alone by her parents. She has to babysit her baby brother Toby (Toby Froud). Toby drives Sarah crazy by doing the things babies do: crying and generally making a fuss. Sarah does what any reasonable babysitter would do. She tells him a story to try to make him sleep. While telling Toby a bedtime story,she accidentally conjures up the Goblin King (David Bowie). He kidnaps Toby and takes him to his castle. Sarah has to rescue Toby before midnight or he will turn into a goblin. Her journey to find the Goblin King’s castle and rescue her baby brother leads to encounters with all sorts of strange creatures and creepy places.

Jennifer Connelly is wonderful as Sarah. But David Bowie as the Goblin King Jareth steals the show. His performance could easily have turned into camp and been all about his crazy costume and his rock songs. Not that those two things in the movie aren’t awesome. But Bowie has a lot of fun playing Jareth and its a joy to watch him play the part. What’s interesting is he’s not just a scary bad guy. He has a lot of genuine charm. It’s a performance that blows me away to this day. Labyrinth is a perfect showcase for Bowie and his talents.

What also makes Labyrinth work is the great visual look. The puppets are a treat. But what also would you expect from a film directed by a creative genius like Jim Henson? Then there are the sets. They look like something straight out of an MC Escher painting. Credit production designer Elliot Scott art directors Terry Ackland-Snow,Roger Cain,Peter Howitt,Frank Walsh,and Michael White. All of them,along with cinematographer Alex Thomson,make Labyrinth one of the most visually striking films ever made. It’s a joy to experience the beautiful,Gothic world all of them created. Oh,and the music in Labyrinth? Pretty good. And not just David Bowie’s songs (Magic Dance is the best of the bunch) are great. So is the score of Trevor Jones.

Labyrinth is one of those films that grows on me every time I watch it. It’s a dark fairy tale,in the great tradition of recent masterpieces like Pan’s Labyrinth. Director Jim Henson does a brilliant job of bringing all the great creative elements together to tell one of the great modern fantasy horror stories. The journey through Labyrinth is an adventure worth taking!

31 Days of Horror Day 25: Misery

screenshot-lrg-27Day 25: Misery

Terror in Stephen King stories usually comes from the supernatural in one way or another. In Carrie it’s Carrie White discovering her telekinetic powers,in Christine it’s a beat up car that turns out to be possessed,in The Shining it’s the evil spirits in the Overlook Hotel. But in Misery,the terror comes from something even more terrifying: an obsessed fan. Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes may not have demonic powers,but she is one of the scariest characters in the history of Stephen King novels. And that’s saying something!

Misery is based on a book of the same name. In it,an author named Paul Sheldon (James Caan),has just finished writing his latest book up at his cabin. It’s just a tradition he has. On his way back,he gets into a car accident while driving through a blizzard. He’s rescue by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). She tells him it’s an honor to have him recover in her home. Things seem to be looking up. But it’s a Stephen King novel so the good feeling won’t last long. Turns out Annie is an obsessed fan. “I’m your #1 fan,” she says. Annie is not as sweet of an admirer as she seems. She’s none to pleased when she reads Sheldon’s latest novel and her favorite character is killed off. Misery Chastain has been the main character in a series of books by Sheldon. He wants to move on artistically,so he kills her off. This sets Annie off. She literally holds Sheldon prisoner in her house while he recovers and forces him to rewrite the book to her liking.

This material could have easily been over the top and campy. But the two lead stars (who are the only characters on screen for 99% of the movie) make this a wonderfully entertained claustrophoic thriller. Kathy Bates,always a joy to watch on screen,is wonderfully menacing as Annie. She won an Oscar for her performance,the only actor to win for a performance in a King adaptation. She plays both the sweet and dark sides of her character perfectly. The scene that really solidifies her performance is the famous one where she hobbles Caan while he’s in bed. So scary! I want to give a little credit to James Caan too. His performance doesn’t get talked about a lot because his role isn’t as showy. But he’s very convincing as the terrified author. One of the cool things is that he’s not a stupid character. He actually comes up with some bright ideas to try to escape. We really feel for him in that terrible situation. Finally,there’s a really sold supporting performance from Richard Farnsworth as the town sheriff. He isn’t on screen for long,but he’s rock solid.

Misery is one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King material on screen. It ranks up there with Carrie and The Shawshank Redemption. It was directed by Rob Reiner,who also directed Stand By Me (another King adaptation) and my favorite romantic comedy of all-time: When Harry Met Sally. One of the things that makes Misery really interesting too is that it was based on interactions King had with his fans. What a great idea for a story! Misery is worth a look,especially to see Kathy Bates in her Oscar-winning performance. I also recommend checking out another performance of hers in a Stephen King adaptation: Dolores Claiborne. It doesn’t get as much attention,but it’s fantastic!