Monday, November 19, 2018

THE FUNGUS AMONG US





I can emphatically state that I had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Joshua Kennedy's latest film, THE FUNGUS AMONG US. (That statement alone might make some of Josh's fans happy). That fact enables me to write a totally unbiased (yeah, right) blog post about the production.

How creative is Joshua Kennedy? While busy prepping the most important project of his young life--HOUSE OF THE GORGON--Josh decided to make another film altogether. The result is a wild mixture of neo-noir, 1950s low-budget monster movies, "bad girl" flicks, and 1970s grindhouse attitude.

The story begins in Vandorf County, Texas, in the middle of the night, where four brazen young women (played by Stephanie Marie Baggett, Gabriela Pedraza, Jamie Trevino, and Natalie Wise) kidnap an innocent girl (Stephanie Jo Saez) who they believe to be a mayor's daughter. Trouble is, she isn't the mayor's daughter--and a massive rainstorm is heading for the area. The women, and their captive, take shelter in an empty house that is up for sale. The ladies have more moxie than brains, and they are at a loss at what to do about the situation. Soon a tough-talking fellow named Dutch (Marco Munoz) arrives. Dutch is the one who planned the kidnapping in the first place, and the four ladies "work" for him (you can probably guess what their job description is). Like his "employees", Dutch isn't exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, and he tries to think of a way how they all can still get some ransom money. But this motley crew has bigger problems--the house is inexplicably filled with cotton candy-like strands of deadly fungus!

THE FUNGUS AMONG US reminded me of a pre-Poe Roger Corman film--it's in black & white, the few characters spend a lot of time arguing with one another, and there is a monster that at first seems ridiculous but is actually quite effective. What's really surprising about the film is that it clocks in at a crisp 40 minutes or so. It's as if Josh skipped all the extraneous filler that one finds in so many low-budget fantastic movies of the 50s and 60s right off the bat and just focused on the "good stuff". There's no sequences of characters relating their backstory, or scenes of the kidnap victim bonding with her captors--and there's no explanation for the fungus whatsoever. The story may be a bit predictable, but because there's no detours along the way, it works rather well.

The black & white photography is very well done, and most of the scenes involving the fungus are tinted a sickly green. I'm not going to dwell on the fungus attacks--I don't want to give too much away--but there is a very nice Freddie Francis-style shot which reveals the fungus' POV!

One thing you can expect from every Joshua Kennedy movie is a cast featuring some very attractive female talent, and THE FUNGUS AMONG US is no exception (Natalie Wise in particular has excellent screen presence). You can also expect plenty of in-jokes and geeky references--I'll let you spot those for yourselves.

THE FUNGUS AMONG US is short--so short that I was left wanting more. It's still a worthy addition to the Joshua Kennedy Cinematic Universe. The movie features a John Carpenter-esque original music score by Tom Milligan, so I assume this means that Josh will be able to release it on home video in the near future.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA On Blu-ray From Warner Archive









The Warner Archive Collection follows up its Blu-ray release of Hammer's DRACULA A.D. 1972 with that movie's sequel, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973).

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA was the last Hammer Dracula film to feature Christopher Lee. It continues the modern setting of DRACULA A.D. 1972, along with many of that film's characters, such as Peter Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing, Michael Coles' Inspector Murray, and Jessica Van Helsing (this time around portrayed by Joanna Lumley). While DRACULA A.D. 1972 had a goofy mod sensibility and was rated PG, SATANIC RITES is much darker in tone and was rated R. SATANIC RITES features such things as a young naked girl being stabbed as part of a....satanic rite, and a putrefying plague victim.

Director Alan Gibson and screenwriter Don Houghton (both returning from DRACULA A.D. 1972) give this entry more of an urban crime thriller feel, with motorcycle chases, fistfights, and sniper attacks. John Cacavas' music score (which I am listening to on CD right now as I write this) also has a cop movie-Lalo Schifrin feel to it. Houghton's story has a number of far-reaching elements that the actual movie doesn't have the budget to live up to. In SATANIC RITES Dracula is in disguise as a mysterious tycoon, almost a Bond villain type, who is using various influential members of the British ruling class to help bring about his final vengeance on mankind.

Many have compared the SATANIC RITES plot to that of an episode of THE AVENGERS, but Jonathan Rigby in his seminal book ENGLISH GOTHIC makes the case that it seems more like a DOCTOR WHO serial (a show which Don Houghton wrote several stories for). Imagine the characters of Van Helsing, Jessica, and Inspector Murray being replaced by the Doctor, one of his female companions, and the Brigadier, and substitute the Master for Dracula, and you'll know what Rigby means.

I've never been much of a fan of THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, but after seeing it in such pristine condition, I have to admit the story seemed to flow a little bit better. What more praise can I heap on Peter Cushing? He basically explains all the plot points of the movie and has them not only make sense, but feel important as well. Christopher Lee gets a bit more to do as the Count than usual in a Hammer Dracula movie, but you still get the feeling it's not enough. (He does get to use a Bela Lugosi-like accent during a scene in which he is trying to hide his identity.)

Freddie Jones has a small but memorable role as one of the influential men Dracula is using, and Valerie Van Ost has a notable part as one of Dracula's victims. Joanna Lumley is hindered by a new characterization for Jessica Van Helsing. When Jessica was played by Stephanie Beacham in DRACULA A.D. 1972, she had a spunky aspect to her, and she was as different from Dr. Van Helsing as one could imagine. Here, she's mentioned in dialogue as being an important assistant to Dr. Van Helsing, but she doesn't do much of anything except wind up in Dracula's clutches at the climax.

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA is a long way away from the glory days of Hammer, but it does feature a couple of great Cushing-Lee confrontations, including the very last time the two would battle each other on-screen.

The Warner Archive Collection's Blu-ray of THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA is by far the best I have ever seen this movie look. The film has had a tortured history on home video, with several public domain versions and even a few that were actually the American release version of the film which was titled COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE. The Warner Archive Blu-ray is the full original uncut version of the film, and it is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture is much sharper and clearer than all the other versions, and the sound is vastly improved as well, being in DTS-HD. The only extra is a trailer, but thankfully it is one for the original release version, not one of those floating around for the COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE theatrical release.

Simply put, this Blu-ray of THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA is the only one of this title any Hammer fan needs to own.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Monster Kid Radio's Classic Five Core Deck Card Of The Month For November








Now, there isn't really of lot of choices for this question. When it comes right down to it, for me anyway, there's only three: WHITE ZOMBIE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (the original version, of course). 

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is an excellent film, but like most of the Val Lewton RKO thrillers, at times it seems too stately for its own good. The original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is the ultimate true modern horror film, and I also believe it is the most influential American independent film of all time. 

Now WHITE ZOMBIE...I'm a huge fan of that movie. It has a distinctive, weird fairy tale quality to it. Yes, at times it feels archaic and amateurish (especially in the acting of some of the supporting cast), but I think that reinforces the unusual atmosphere. WHITE ZOMBIE doesn't have the polish of a major studio production, and for whatever reason that makes the film have more impact for me. 

The major reason I favor WHITE ZOMBIE is Bela Lugosi's performance as zombie master Murder Legendre. Bela truly is a show in himself here....he's made up to look like a malevolent Satan, and you can tell he's clearly enjoying himself in the role. He makes the most out of several memorable lines of dialogue ("We understand each other better now." "For you, my friend, they are the angels of death.") and he's afforded many expressionistic close-ups. I honestly think that Bela has more of a showcase in WHITE ZOMBIE than he does in the 1931 DRACULA!

If Bela wasn't in WHITE ZOMBIE, this movie would definitely suffer. Supporting players Madge Bellamy, Robert Frazer, and John Harron are all a bit ragged (I don't think working with actors was one of director Victor Halperin's strengths), but they do accentuate the movie's bedtime story mentality. The characterizations are not important here--it's the overall creepiness, the sense of long-ago dread that pervades throughout. One of the most notable sequences in the film is when we are shown Lugosi's zombies slaving away at his mill. The sound of the mill grinding away--I can hear it even while writing this!--that chalkboard scratching-like noise is one of the greatest movie sound effects I have ever heard.

So WHITE ZOMBIE is my favorite black & white zombie movie. It is old-fashioned and kind of silly, but try watching it alone late at night. It still has the ability to fascinate, especially since it features one of Bela Lugosi's most impressive performances. 



Saturday, November 10, 2018

THE WASP WOMAN On Blu-ray From Shout Factory









The 1959 Roger Corman THE WASP WOMAN isn't one of the director's better films, and it's not even one of the more notable fantastic films of its period--so why did Shout Factory give it a major Blu-ray release? Because that's what Shout Factory does, and let's all give thanks that they do it.

THE WASP WOMAN contains elements of THE FLY, THE WOLF MAN, and the Jekyll & Hyde story. Set in contemporary times, the tale concerns Janice Starling (Susan Cabot), the head--and main spokesmodel--of a major cosmetic company. The company's sales are starting to go down, and Janice is worried it may be due to the fact she's not as young as she used to be--she's now (gasp) entering her forties! A mysterious Dr. Zinthrop (Michael Mark) creates a serum from royal wasp jelly that he claims rejuvenates animals--and Janice decides to test it on herself. The serum works--all too well, as various complications ensue (the title of this movie is THE WASP WOMAN, after all).

THE WASP WOMAN is an okay little film (its original running time is around an hour), but I don't think it even ranks among the best of Roger Corman's 1950s movies, such as NOT OF THIS EARTH. What helps it the most is the lead performance by Susan Cabot. Instead of going to extremes with the character of Janice Starling, Cabot makes her believable and likable. Janice doesn't come off as obsessed with youth or beauty (at the beginning of the film she in fact doesn't look all that much different then when she becomes "younger"). Instead of ranting or raving, Cabot brings a measured tone to the film which offsets the more outlandish parts of the story. When she is in Wasp Woman mode the makeup is about what one would expect from a movie of this type made during this period, but in context I think it works.

Several members of the Roger Corman stock company had a hand in THE WASP WOMAN, either in front or behind the camera. Among the supporting players are Corman vets such as Barboura Morris and Bruno Ve Sota. Actor Leo Gordon, another long-time Corman associate, co-wrote the script, and Gordon's wife, Allison Hayes-lookalike Lynn Cartwright, has a small but memorable role as a smart-aleck receptionist. Future Spaghetti Western star Frank Wolff also has a tiny but showy role as a moving company employee. Michael Mark, who plays Dr. Zinthrop, was in several classic Universal horror films--Corman of course would use more famous Universal monster veterans such as Karloff, Lorre, Chaney Jr., and Rathbone in his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Roger Corman himself makes an acting cameo in the movie as a doctor, and his brother, co-producer Gene Corman, also puts in an appearance.

Shout Factory touts this disc of THE WASP WOMAN as presenting a new 2k scan of a fine grain print, and the black & white picture is razor sharp, with a full, clear soundtrack to go with it. The movie is in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.

What really makes this Blu-ray desirable are the extras. Shout Factory provides two different excellent commentaries. Troy Howarth gives a talk that is wry, informative, and entertaining. He discusses all the relevant details of the film, and he makes the case that Roger Corman should be credited with being economically creative instead of being called cheap. Tom Weaver's commentary focuses mostly on the life and career of Susan Cabot, who Weaver got to know personally in the mid-1980s. Cabot's life after her film career is a sad and bizarre one, as told by Weaver. Her story involves such subjects as King Hussein, growth hormones, and murder. Weaver takes some time off to allow Dr. Robert J. Kiss to give a short discussion on the theatrical and TV releases of THE WASP WOMAN.

Also included on this disc is the television version of THE WASP WOMAN, which runs about 10 minutes longer (apparently the theatrical version was too short for a movie on TV time slot). The added 10 minutes are at the beginning (the commentators credit them being directed by Jack Hill), and the sequence concerns footage of Dr. Zinthrop and his wasps--it's not really all that important to the rest of the story.

Some might consider the idea of  Shout Factory putting so much effort into a release of something like THE WASP WOMAN as overkill, but all that effort was why I bought the disc.


Sunday, November 4, 2018

Thelma Todd & Zasu Pitts: The Hal Roach Collection 1931-33






This summer Classic Flix released the entire series of Thelma Todd-Patsy Kelly short subject comedies on DVD, and now the Sprocket Vault brings us the complete Thelma Todd-Zasu Pitts series on DVD as well. The Todd/Pitts/Kelly comedies, produced at the Hal Roach Studios, are now finally all available officially on home video.

Whoever came up with the idea to team Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts knew what they were doing. The gorgeous Todd and the flighty, spinsterish Pitts were as different on-screen as two women could be, but they made an effective comedy duo. The ladies were a believable screen couple (they were friends in real life as well), and despite the crazy antics they had to go through, they still came off as appealing and likable.

I have to rate the Todd-Pitts shorts a bit higher than the Todd-Kelly series. The Todd-Pitts series has much more of a Pre-Code vibe to it--Thelma takes her off dress, or gets it torn off, in just about every entry (not that I'm complaining). The ladies are definitely put through the wringer in these films when it comes to physical slapstick. If one watches these shorts closely one can see visible bruises on both Thelma and Zasu. Richard Roberts, who provides audio commentaries on many of the films in this set, surmises that Zasu Pitts may have left the series not just due to monetary reasons--she may have been tired of being knocked around so much. I agree with that premise--Zasu really does get a workout, and she doesn't look very comfortable while having to engage in the horseplay. (By the way, despite the title of this DVD set, it is Zasu who gets top billing in all the shorts.)

Thelma Todd gets her share of knocks as well, but she still looks absolutely fantastic no matter what (her smile is simply devastating). Watching these shorts I began to wonder if it was a waste that someone as photogenic as Thelma spent so much time doing this type of comedy. But one has to consider that today Thelma's cult continues to grow and grow, while many of her female acting contemporaries who had starring roles in major films are basically forgotten.

My favorites among the Todd/Pitts shorts include ON THE LOOSE, which has the ladies complaining about being constantly taken on dates to Coney Island, only to find out their new beaus are treating them to a day at...Coney Island. This short also features a famous cameo at the end. THE BARGAIN OF THE CENTURY is an excellent entry, mainly due to the fact that it was directed by Charley Chase. SHOW BUSINESS is notable for being directed by Jules White, and it actually would be reworked as a Three Stooges short called A PAIN IN THE PULLMAN. ONE TRACK MINDS is my pick for the best of them all. It has the girls taking a train trip to Hollywood, were Thelma hopes to become a big star. This entry co-stars Spanky McFarland, Sterling Holloway, and Lucien Prival as a Von Stroheim-like movie director. The rest of the shorts are filled with performers familiar to fans of classic Hollywood comedy, such as Anita Garvin, Billy Gilbert, Charlie Hall, and Bud Jamison.

The Sprocket Vault has put an on-screen disclaimer on this set saying that the shorts included here may not be in the most prime condition, but they all looked fine to me...I would even say that visual & sound quality here is better than the Classic Flix Todd/Kelly set. The Sprocket Vault released a set of Charley Chase at Hal Roach shorts earlier this year, and this Todd/Pitts set has similar extras. Each short subject is treated to an audio commentary, and film historians Richard W. Roberts, Randy Skretvedt, Brent Walker, and Robert Farr do the honors. All four men spend quite a bit of time going over in minute detail the career histories of various supporting actors and bit players who appear in the shorts. They are so determined to do this that it feels at times that they forget about the shorts they are commenting on. Much information is repeated by the commentators, so that a few biographical sketches are given two or three different times. I'm not trying to knock these commentaries--I commend Sprocket Vault for including them--it's just that I wish the men had spent more time discussing Thelma and Zasu, and analyzing the series as a whole. (At least the commentaries tell you how to properly pronounce Zasu's name--it's "SAY-ZOO".) A stills gallery is included as well.

I sincerely hope Sprocket Vault comes out with more sets showcasing productions from the Hal Roach studios. Having all the Thelma Todd/Zasu Pitts/Patsy Kelly comedies on official home video has been a long time coming, but it's well worth it. For the most part these shorts hold up very well, and it's nice to watch something humorous that doesn't remind you of the real-world problems that we have to put up with today. 



Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Halloween Movie Memories




Whenever it gets near Halloween, a few people usually say to me, "Since you are a big monster movie fan, you must always get excited around this time of year." In all honesty...I don't. Especially in this day and age, when Halloween has basically become what every other holiday celebrated in America is now--an excuse for trendy yuppies to get drunk and/or hook up.

Back in the distant past, however...there was a reason for me to get excited over Halloween. Back before the internet, before YouTube, or streaming, or the availability of thousands of movies on home video....there was a time when most TV stations showed classic horror films around Halloween. I'm not just talking about special-themed cable stations--I mean ordinary, average local TV stations.

In the 1980s, when I was a young teenager and a burgeoning film buff, classic horror and science-fiction films were quite rare on TV. Yes, there was the great Svengoolie, but other than that......every so often, independent stations would show an old monster movie very late at night, but unless it was on the weekend, I wouldn't be able to see it.

So back then I always looked forward to Halloween. That's when the vaults were thrown wide open, so to speak. All sorts of classic fantastic films would be shown, and many of them were ones I had never actually seen! When October came around I would scan the TV Guide intently, and circle any monster movie listings that were on a channel I could get. Does anyone else remember doing that? Those were the days when TV Guide was the real TV Guide--when it was specifically tailored to each section of the country. I can imagine that now there are a fair number of Americans who have never even used a TV Guide, or any newspaper TV listing. Back then there were no on-screen guides or personal devices to remind you when something was on. You had to figure out on your own how to keep aware of any classic monster movie showings.

My family did eventually get a VCR, but as some of you may know, setting up a 1980s version of those things to receive and record channels was practically a thankless task. It always seemed that whenever I tried taping something late at night, the movie would get delayed, and I'd wind up not getting the ending.....or for whatever reason there would be a different program than the one listed. I much preferred watching an old horror or sci-fi movie as it was being shown--that way I knew for sure I wouldn't be missing it.

It's almost impossible to articulate how exciting it was for me to watch a classic monster movie that I had never seen before on TV back then. Now you can go online and find the story synopsis of just about any movie ever made, or at least read dozens and dozens of blogs and reviews written about any movie ever made. In the 1980s, if you wanted info on classic fantastic films, you either read the few monster movie magazines that were still around, or you checked out horror movie books from your local libraries. (As I learned in later years, a lot of the info that I found was wrong.) To actually see a classic horror or science-fiction film--one that I had only read about or only seen a few stills of--was a treasured experience. Would the movie live up to my expectations? Would it be a dud? Would it be something I would remember for the rest of my life?

Today we take for granted all the entertainment content we have surrounding us. Most of the classic films we see now are in pristine condition, and they are in the correct aspect ration, and they're uncut, and we have audio commentaries and special features to accompany them. It's getting to the point now that viewing any classic film is as easy as turning on a light switch.

I'm certainly not complaining about being a present-day film buff--in many ways movie geeks are too spoiled. But there was something about seeing a classic monster movie for the very first time, late at night, on television....yes, the aspect ratios were wrong, and there were too many commercials, and it was more than likely edited...but that sense of discovery, that memory of seeing great performances by Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Cushing, Lee, Price, etc., that you had only read about....being exposed to master craftsmen such as Bava, Whale, Harryhausen...those experiences just can't be recaptured today. In a way I wish I could watch all the great fantastic films again for the very first time, just to have those moments of enchantment and wonder, just to have my imagination reinvigorated.


Saturday, October 27, 2018

Monster Kid Radio's Classic Five Core Deck Card Of The Month For October










My favorite mummy movie of all time is the 1959 THE MUMMY from Hammer Films.

Yes, the 1932 THE MUMMY from Universal is a great classic horror film. It has a dreamlike, creepy atmosphere, moody expressionistic direction from Karl Freund, and it features one of the best overall performances from Boris Karloff.

But can you even classify it as a "mummy movie"? Karloff only wears the full wrappings at the beginning of the story, and we really don't get to see him in action. My definition of a mummy movie is one where an actual mummy (an undead creature wrapped in bandages) has a major role.

The Hammer THE MUMMY isn't just a remake of the Karloff version, it's a reboot of the entire Universal Mummy franchise. It allows Christopher Lee to reenact Karloff's role as a ancient Egyptian lovesick High Priest, and also portray a new version of Lon Chaney Jr's Kharis. The result is one of Lee's best overall performances. Simply put, Christopher Lee is the best movie mummy of all time. He's not the typical movie mummy that most people expect--he isn't a guy with a pot belly stumbling and shambling about. Christopher Lee's Kharis is powerfully built, and powerfully expressive. The old joke about how all you have to do to get away from the Mummy is move at a fast walk doesn't apply here. Lee's Kharis, with his strength and determination, undeniably gives the impression of a supernatural creature that could easily stalk you down and kill you. Out of all the movie mummies, Lee's is the only one that feels dangerous.

There's another aspect to Lee's Kharis that gets overlooked--the poignancy of the character. He's punished because of his great love for a Princess, sentenced to a fate worse than death, then brought back to life into a world beyond his understanding and used by a man who considers him little more than a weapon. Despite being covered head-to-toe in a very complex and effective FX makeup (brilliantly realized by Roy Ashton), Lee is still able to convey Kharis' emotions through his body language and his eyes. Lee makes Kharis into more than just an unstoppable being--at times he's sad and shameful, and the viewer appreciates that there still is a human being underneath all the wrappings.

The Hammer THE MUMMY does have a somewhat messy story structure, due to the many flashbacks in the story. But it also has many other notable elements than just Christopher Lee. Peter Cushing makes a lot out of the John Banning character, and his interactions with Kharis result in some of the best moments in the history of the Cushing-Lee screen relationship. There's plenty of fine character actors on display here, such as George Pastell, Eddie Byrne, Felix Aylmer, Raymond Huntley, and the wonderful Michael Ripper. Yvonne Furneaux brings an exotic bearing to the leading lady Hammer Glamour part.

The '59 THE MUMMY is one of the best directed films of Terence Fisher, with top-notch color cinematography by Jack Asher and production design by Bernard Robinson. It also has a magnificent music score by Franz Reizenstein. It was produced during the height of Hammer's great Gothic period, and while it doesn't get the attention that THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA today, it should. It's my choice as the best mummy movie.