Thursday, October 29, 2020

Exhumed: Zombies on PBS

Vampires retain their identity and werewolves can control themselves when the moon isn’t full, but when a loved one turns zombie, there’s just no talking to them anymore. That’s why they’re so scary. Judging from election season social media feeds, it appears about 98% of the country is afflicted. In some films, there’s a cure for the zombie virus, so maybe there’s still hope for us all. Yet, the surge of interest most represent some serious rising collective neuroses. At least that is the take offered by host Dr. Emily Zarka and her talking head experts in Exhumed: A History of Zombies, a special presentation of PBS Digital’s Monstrum, which premieres tomorrow on broadcast PBS stations.

Exhumed
gives a full but ideologically charged history of zombies, starting with dubious early 20th Century pseudo-anthropologic studies and travelogues of Haiti through the early 21st Century zombie boom, fueled by The Walking Dead and its imitators. Appropriately, Zarka identifies Victor Helperin’s White Zombie as the touchstone film of the ostensibly Caribbean-influenced, overtly-voodoo zombie period and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as the turn towards the zombie apocalypse era. (However, real fans might be disappointed Hammer’s Plague of Zombies does not get some credit as a transitional film.)

Zarka and company refract just about every facet of zombie history through a prism of race and colonialism, which is fair to a point, but it eventually becomes simplistic, reductive, and overtly political. Completely lost in their analysis is one of the most obvious sources of zombie fear: the loss of individuality to the collective, which is probably just as relevant to the current obsession with the walking undead as our inherited colonialist guilt. Nevertheless, Zarka tries to shoehorn Peele’s
Get Out into the discussion. (It really isn’t even a horror movie, but rather a sci-fi thriller, despite reviews to the contrary, whereas Us is truly terrifying.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Shudder: May the Devil Take You Too

The problem with surviving a horror movie is it’s never really over. This is the second demonic rodeo for all the characters we are about to meet, so that necessarily means some will not be so lucky this time around. In the previous film, Alfie Wijaya and her little step-sister Nara literally survived an encounter with the Devil, but she is still haunted by the experience. Nevertheless, a group of terrified Indonesian orphans abducts her in the belief she can help them defeat their old demonic tormentor, who has recently reasserted himself. Wijaya suspects her presence will be like fighting a grease fire with a can of gasoline, but nobody asks her opinion in Timo Tjahjanto’s May the Devil Take You Too, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

Budi, Jenar, Martha, Gadis, Leo, Kristi, and Dewi are sort of like the grown-kids from
It, except they were horribly abused orphans—and Dewi will be killed in the prologue. They grew up in a provincial orphanage, where they became accustomed to the cruelty of wealthy founder Pak Ayub. However, they were forced to kill him when they discovered Ayub intended to sacrifice them to the demon Molloch. They thought that was the end of it until his demonic spirit started attacking Gadis, the weakest of their circle.

Martha, the bookish one, studied the old demon-worshiper’s Black Bible and identified Wijaya as a demonic survivor with enough mojo to deliver the necessary incantations. She did not go easily and she remains skeptical. However, when the irredeemable Ayub starts possessing and killing his former victims, Wijaya is forced to go along with the plan, in order to protect Nara.

Although the concept is not exactly unprecedented, there is still a good deal of utter and complete lunacy in
Take You Too. Arguably, it is also a bit restrained compared to some of Tjahjanto’s previous work (especially as part of the Mo Brothers), but there are still a fair number of over-the-top gross-out scenes. It certainly should not diminish Tjahjanto’s fan following. To the contrary, the way the eerie sense of foreboding gets under viewers’ skin and leads to rapidly escalating anxiety should only burnish his rep.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Welcome to the Circle

They call themselves “The Circle” and they are big on “circle of life” symbolism. Yet, they are not as troubling as The Lion King, because unlike Disney, they are not complicit in the Xinjiang genocide of the Uyghurs. It might be a malevolent homicidal cult with apparent supernatural powers, but it has some kind of moral standards. Nevertheless, the mixture of horror and fantastical elements is frequently unnerving in screenwriter-director David Fowler’s Welcome to the Circle, which releases today on DVD and VOD.

“Fortunately” for Greg and his daughter Samantha, Circle cult-members Lotus Cloud and Sky happened along after their tent was mauled by a bear—at least that is their explanation. While the injured father recuperates, they initiate Sam in a crash course of indoctrination. Their flower child rhetoric sounds appealing to the young girl, but when the father comes to, he immediately suspects they are in a profoundly dangerous spot, as indeed they are.

According Mathew, who seems to have more authority than the women, their “community” was founded by Percy Stephens. According to anecdotes, he was a rather colorful adventurer, but the strange man seen at in distance in several surreal photos displayed around the compound looks banally evil, in a rather severe way. The film shifts gears dramatically around the halfway point, when we meet the spectacularly abrasive Grady, a cult deprogrammer hired by Gabriella and James to abduct/liberate their wife and sister. However, Grady declined to disclose his personal connection to the Circle, until it really starts to hit the fan.

It hits hard too. The secrets of the Circle are absolutely bonkers, including shifting identities, feedback loops, and mannequin-doppelgangers that appear to be uncannily generated. Think of it as Moorhead & Benson’s
The Endless fused with Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, on peyote. There are times when Welcome might have actually been scarier if it had been a bit more grounded, but its inventiveness is truly (and literally) a trip. The way Fowler brings everything back to the circular theme is particularly intriguing. It is not merely hippy-dippy doublespeak. It is this essence of what the cult is and how it operates.

Even though the character initially comes on way too strong by any rational standard, Ben Cotton’s portrayal of Grady’s surly defiance in the face of the Circle’s sinister, disorienting machinations is an awesome force to behold. He even compares to Bruce Campbell in the
Evil Dead franchise.

Eye of the Devil, Scored by Gary McFarland

It was a far cry from his pop-jazz collaborations with Gabor Szabo, but Gary McFarland’s moody symphonic soundtrack album had been mastered and a commissioned jacket was even teased on Verve record sleeves, but the horror film’s production delays eventually scuttled its release. Decades after his untimely death, it was finally issued on a collector’s label. It is too bad we didn’t get it much sooner, because the themes are quite distinctive and they perfectly underscore the dramatic pagan visuals of J. Lee Thompson’s Eye of the Devil (a.k.a. 13), which airs this Friday night on TCM.

Philippe de Montfaucon is the lord of his ancestral French chateau and the surrounding vineyards, but he rarely allows his British wife and children to visit—for good reason. News of another harvest failure forces him to make a homecoming, but he adamantly leaves Catherine and the kids behind. She just can’t take the hint, though, so she soon follows with their bratty son Jacques and his younger sister Antoinette.

The night that she arrives, Madame de Montfaucon is rather freaked out to find a dozen cloaked figures performing some sort of ritual in the chateau. She is also quite put out by Odile and Christian de Caray, two Aryan-looking siblings, who frequently exercise their familial rights to hunt (with bow-and-arrow) on the de Montfaucon grounds. Brother Christian rather impertinently welcomed Madame by shooting a dove from the sky, right in front of her eyes. Yet, her preoccupied husband always dismisses her concerns. Clearly, bad things are afoot and the entire village is in league to keep her out of the way.

There are many reasons
Eye of the Devil could be dubbed a “cursed” film, beyond McFarland’s long-deferred soundtrack release (which surely would have been beneficial to the jazz musician at the time). Reportedly, an accident forced Kim Novak to pull out of the production after shooting several scenes, as Madame de Montfaucon. Yet, it is probably best remembered as the film debut of Sharon Tate, whose relevancy to a supposed film curse hardly needs explanation.

The truth is, Tate was quite good as Odile de Caray, sort of a witchy Diana-the-huntress-type. Despite the uncharitable reviews, she was quite chilling in a way that was clearly enhanced by her cover-model looks. Of course, Donald Pleasence, the old horror movie hand, was reliably creepy as the coldly sinister Father Dominic. Strangely, David Niven seems rather bored and uncomfortable playing de Montfaucon. However, Deborah Kerr really went all in when she tagged-in for Novak, playing the distraught, overheated, and altogether terrified Madame de Montfaucon.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Truth Seekers, from Nick Frost, Simon Pegg & Amazon

A telecom/internet company that actually provides good service? This is indeed the stuff of speculative fantasy. In the case of the very fictional Smyle broadband company, it is really just Gus Roberts, who is such a crackerjack installation and repair specialist. Yet, his true calling is the investigation of the paranormal. He (and his paltry online followers) never really witnessed much until he was partnered up with rookie “Elton John.” Suddenly, the two technicians are constantly confronting ghosts during their wifi repairs in writer-creators Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Nat Saunders & James Serafinowicz’s 8-episode Truth Seekers, which premieres this Friday on Amazon Prime.

Fixing cable and boosting signals comes so effortlessly to Roberts, it leaves him plenty of time for his internet show,
Truth Seekers, but so far, hardly anyone has found time to watch. His appreciative boss Dave hopes some of his magic will rub off on an unpromising recruit, Elton John (that’s a recurring joke, as you might have guessed). Lo and behold, as soon as they make a service call at the quaint cottage of Connolly’s Nook, they start hearing ghostly noises and even discover a secret room.

Once is enough for “John,” but Roberts convinces him to come back the next day. Their assignment will be the Portland Beacon, a cheesy “haunted” hotel that is completely phony—except when they arrive, the supernatural activity goes off the scale. This all still freaks out John, but he still forges a friendship and comradery with Roberts. He will also take a personal interest in their next case. That would be their stowaway, Astrid, a young woman chased by legitimately scary looking specters.

Frankly, the writing of the supernatural stuff is probably sharper than the comic material in
Truth Seekers. A lot of it is surprisingly inventive, especially the way elements of the second episode, which largely feels like a one-off, become important again as the grand conspiracy comes to light in later installments. The comedy is hit-or-miss, but it is mostly rather muted, except for some awkward old guy slapstick from Roberts’ old man, played to the crotchety hilt by Malcolm McDowell (a.k.a. Mick Travis, H.G. Wells, or Caligula). A little of John’s agoraphobic fangirl sister fangirl sister Helen also goes along way.

Fortunately, the buddy chemistry between Roberts and John is always genial and unforced. Nick Frost and Samson Kayo play off each other nicely, in an upbeat manner, expressing malice for none. That is true for the show in general. In fact, the character of Roberts and Frost’s portrayal of him are quite refreshing, because they never mock him as an anti-social “lone gunman” nut-case. Instead, he is a highly productive member of society, who is keenly aware of his status in the online ecosystem, but keeps plugging away with
Truth Seekers, out of a passion for the truth. He is also tragically widowed—a fact that will have later significance.

Josephine Baker: The Story of an Awakening, on Cinemoi

She became a fashion icon by notoriously wearing very little. She was the toast of Paris, who returned the city’s love by joining the French resistance. For her service, she was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, along with Vera Atkins and Noor Inayat Khan (posthumously), the subjects of A Call to Spy. Rather fittingly, Ilana Navaro’s Josephine Baker: The Story of an Awakening premieres this Thursday on Cinémoi, the film and fashion network.

Baker grew up in Missouri, a Union border state that felt more like the Old South, around the time Woodrow Wilson segregated the Federal government. She broke into show business in the storied Cotton Club, clawing her way from a back stage gig to a featured spot in the chorus. However, it was Paris, where Baker became a star. Yet, she was constantly frustrated in her attempts to expand her French popularity with American audiences.


Baker passed away in 1975 and achieved her career peaks in the 1920s and 1930s, so none of her contemporaries are really around anymore. As a result, there is a conspicuous but unavoidable lack of personal voices in
Awakening. Instead, Navaro relies on a handful of talking head academics, who provide competent commentary, but nobody really gives a sense of Baker, beyond the legend.

Of course, that is really what Navaro’s hour-long documentary is most concerned with. Even more than the Parisian night club icon,
Awakening examines Baker as a symbol of French resistance and Civil Rights activism. To a large extent, Awakening is more about how others perceived Baker than her personal relationships. Arguably, her “Rainbow Tribe” adoption of twelve children from around the world made her an early forerunner to Angelina Jolie, but there had to be more drama and complications involved than Awakening lets on.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Madhouse, Starring Vincent Price & Peter Cushing

Old horror actors never die. They just get repackaged. Pete Cushing is a perfect example. Twenty-two years after he died, he appeared again in Rogue One, through some CGI trickery. He had seen it before, but less sophisticated. In this 1974 horror movie about horror actors, the late Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone get special screen credits, appearing in vintage film clips that also featured Cushing’s co-star Vincent Price. Horror movies might grant immortal fame, but they are also a dangerous business in Jim Clark’s Madhouse, which airs Monday night on TCM.

Paul Toombes used to be a huge star portraying Dr. Death, the Freddy Krueger of his era. However, his career and his sanity crash-dived after the violent murder of his fiancée. Of course, they had drunkenly argued in front of half the industry before her untimely demise, so everyone assumes he did it. Frankly, Toombes doesn’t even know himself, because he blacked out. Perversely, the scandal maintains interest in Dr. Death, so when he is finally released from the sanitarium, he reluctantly agrees to star in a Dr. Death TV reboot.

As part of the agreement, Toombes must stay with his old friend, Herbert Flay, the screenwriter of the Dr. Death series, who will keep him out of trouble. At least that’s the idea. Unfortunately, Toombes is a magnetic for would-be exploiters, like Elizabeth Peters, an aspiring starlet, whose annoying attempts to seduce Toombes makes her a cinch to get murdered. Fortunately, his network publicist, Julia Wilson is good at running interference, but not good enough. Soon, bodies are piling up, inducing flashbacks of horror to the increasingly unstable Toombes.

As if Price, Cushing, and archival appearances from Karloff and Rathbone were not enough to satisfy vintage horror fans, Robert Quarry, a.k.a. Count Yorga, also appears as crass network head, Oliver Quayle. Of course, Price and Cushing are the main attraction, slyly and surprisingly poignantly playing off their own careers and images. Price is a wonderfully tragic figure, who in many ways represents a continuation of his grandly elegiac turn as Edward Lionheart in the classic
Theater of Blood. Likewise, Cushing is effortlessly sophisticated yet deeply sad as old Flay. Even though it is not exactly the most profoundly written part in cinematic history, Natasha Pynne (who also co-starred in a Hammer pirate movie) plays Wilson with appealing forcefulness and energy.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Moorhead & Benson’s Synchronic

It might be a trip, but it isn’t necessarily fun to take. However, it is great to watch from the safety of the audience’s perspective. In this case, the very latest designer drug has an especially heavy kick. It alters the mind’s perspective of time, inducing literal time travel. Of course, getting back is the difficult part in Synchronic, the latest film from Moorhead & Benson (a.k.a. Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead), which just opened in actual theaters (but obviously not in the City).

Steve Danube and Dennis Dannelly have been seeing some pretty horrifying things recently when responding to calls as New Orleans paramedics. The crime scenes are inexplicably surreal, but there is one commonality, the newest synthetic: Synchronic. Sadly, double-pronged tragedy will soon hit very close to home for both first responders. Dannelly’s daughter Brianna will mysteriously disappear while taking Synchronic at a college party and Danube will be diagnosed with a brain tumor. As fate would have it, the growth is right above his pineal gland.

Sick of the destruction wrought by Synchronic, Danube buys up all the remaining borderline-legal stock, but doing so, he draws the attention of a stranger who knows its time-traveling secret. Evidently, it works through the pineal gland, which usually calcifies for those who reach their third responsible decade or so, but Danube’s has been kept ironically and unhealthily young. To find Brianna, he will take a series of spectacularly bad trips, with each one steadily depleting his supply.

Moorhead & Benson are emerging as masters of genre films that are mind-bending, but also powerfully emotionally charged. As with their prior collaborations, Benson handles the screenwriting on his own, but
Synchronicity is clearly very much shaped and informed by their partnership. To a large extent, the film portrays all the hard work necessary to make bromance work, long after the equivalent of the bro honeymoon. Yet, they still pull us in with an intriguing genre hook—in this case a take on time travel that we really haven’t seen before.

Anthony Mackie is flat-out terrific as Danube. It is a complex portrayal of a flawed man, who shifts from being angry at the world and life in general to an acute concern over some very extreme developments—that’s called growing up. He banters and spars with Jamie Dornan’s Dannelly quite effectively, but the chemistry he develops with Ally Ioannides, as Brianna, is even more interesting. It is the kind of jury-rigged family relationships that are so important in real-life, but are rarely seen on film.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Clint Eastwood: Hollywood Outlaw, on Reelz


If you want to talk about box office longevity, consider the fact Clint Eastwood scored two of his largest grossing hits after he turned 75: American Sniper and Gran Torino. Yet, you couldn’t get much more “outlaw” in Hollywood than endorsing Trump in 2016. (However, Eastwood was subsequently disappointed by the chaos, because he actually had experience governing as mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea.) The remarkable career of the jazz-loving actor-director is surveyed somewhat fannishly in Clint Eastwood: Hollywood Outlaw, which airs tomorrow night on Reelz.

It is immediately clear a career as long and accomplished as Eastwood’s cannot be done justice in an hour-long special. Frankly, the same was true of Richard Schickel’s
Eastwood Directs, a DVD extra-doc that had a special screening at Tribeca, which was a bit longer and predated Sniper, Sully, The Mule, and Richard Jewell. Still, it offers us an opportunity take stock of the legendary maverick and make note of films we want to revisit, which is the point of this review. For instance, Firefox is only seen in passing, but it is a nifty espionage-techno-thriller.

Regardless,
Hollywood Outlaw, from supervising producer-director Randy Martin and writer-producer Travis Mabrey is a brisk tribute that provides a decent thumbnail of the man and his movies. Happily, there is indeed a clip from his uncredited debut in the classic Revenge of the Creature. They duly cover Rawhide, the Spaghetti Westerns, Dirty Harry, his work as a director, including his first foray, Play Misty for Me, and his Oscar winners, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. Strangely though, they give rather short shrift to Sniper, which remains his top grossing film of all time.

Logically,
Richard Jewell gets considerable time, since it is his most recent. Happily for jazz fans, Bird gets an overdue ovation, but all the great non-fiction music documentaries he has helped shepherd, like Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser and Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way go unmentioned—that is probably a logical editorial choice, but it just shows Martin and Mabrey really needed more time to tackle Eastwood’s body of work.

Kolchak—The Night Stalker: The Devil’s Platform

Carl Kolchak, investigative reporter of the paranormal, intends to expose Chicago State Senate candidate Robert Palmer for selling his soul to the devil. However, in Palmer’s defense, this implies he once had a soul. That is more than can be said for the soulless extremist statist candidates for president we had to choose from this year. Nevertheless, it would be better for good government if Kolchak can derail Palmer’s campaign in “The Devil’s Platform,” one of the best episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which airs midnight Saturday on Me TV.

Admittedly, the
Kolchak series was never quite as good as the original TV films written by Richard Matheson, but this was definitely a sinister high point. Kolchak’s hopelessly conventional editor Tony Vincenzo dispatched him to interview Palmer, the fast-rising challenger. Initially, it is the sort of puff-piece assignment he resents, but he gets interested when the elevator carrying Palmer’s campaign manager fatally plunges in a supernaturally freak accident. That would be the same campaign manager who had just threatened to expose his corruption. The only survivor to come out of the death chamber is a rottweiler-like hell hound.

It turns out two of the rival incumbent’s closest aides also recently died in convenient accidents. Kolchak smells a conspiracy story, especially since Palmer has suddenly disappeared from view. Of course, Vincenzo doesn’t want to hear his crazy theories about Palmer, especially since the candidate sounds like a liberal dem. Kolchak’s only lead is the pentagram pendant he snatched from the collar of big black dog that is now dogging him.

Tom Skerritt should have played more villains, because he made one of the series’ best as prospective Sen. Palmer. He chews the scenery like a horror pro. “Devil’s Platform” is also one of the best written episodes, by career TV writer Donn Mullaly (a veteran of
I Led 3 Lives, among other shows), who gives us a surprisingly tense climatic confrontation, because it involves a temptation that perfectly fits Kolchak’s ambitions. Of course, the devil dog motif is also pretty ominous—and yet kind of cool too, in a Led Zeppelin sort of way.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Haunting of the Mary Celeste, Co-Starring Richard Roundtree

History's most infamous lost ship has a short but distinguished filmography. It was the subject of a docudrama short directed by Jacques Tourneur, who directed Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, and it inspired Phantom Ship (a.k.a. The Mystery of the Mary Celeste), an early Hammer production starring Bela Lugosi. That is some intimidating company, so Shana Betz called in Shaft for back-up. Richard Roundtree does indeed co-star in Betz’s The Haunting of the Mary Celeste, which releases tomorrow on-demand.

Rachel is a “scientist” specializing in explanations for the mysterious disappearance of the Mary Celeste off the Azores in 1872. The passengers and crew vanished without a trace, but the ship itself and its cargo were undamaged—including a substantial shipment of booze, according to Tourneur’s
The Ship that Died—not something a gang of mutineers are likely to leave untouched. It is one of the great unsolved maritime mysteries, but Rachel’s interest appears to be decidedly personal.

As Rachel explains to Tulls, the dodgy charter captain her small research team is forced to hire, she hypothesizes the Mary Celeste traveled through some kind of “rift,” but the souls aboard were somehow pulled back, like gun shot residue. Of course, if he knew they were looking for some kind of paranormal anomaly around the estimated site of the ship’s misadventures, he probably would not have accepted the gig, but here they are, suddenly stranded with no power in open waters, with people on-board disappearing one-by-one.

Haunting
will not blow anyone’s mind, but it is reliable in an appealing B-movie kind of way. Screenwriter David Ross (sharing story credit with Jerome Olivier) devises some reasonably creative pseudo-science, which Betz executes briskly and economically. She and cinematographer Raquel Fernandez Nunez also give the proceedings an ominous look and vibe.

On the Rocks, Very Definitely Starring Bill Murray

The neighborhoods are mostly Tribeca and the Meatpacking District instead of the Upper Eastside, but the vibe is Woody Allen all the way. Nature abhors a vacuum, even one created by hypocritical wokeness, so apparently Sophia Coppola is jockeying to become the next leading chronicler of neurotic City residents. It is a good thing too, because we have plenty of neuroses. Yet, rather logically, it is the defiantly politically incorrect character who gets all the laughs in Coppola’s On the Rocks, which premieres on Apple TV tomorrow.

The main reason anyone cares about
On the Rocks is Bill Murray, who previously starred in Coppola’s breakout hit, Lost in Translation. He provides the comedy and everything else interesting playing Felix King, a roguish Manhattan art dealer. Like everyone else, Laura forgives his shortcomings, because of his charm, even though he was unfaithful to her mother. Unfortunately, that makes him the best or maybe worst person to ask when she starts to suspect her husband Dean is having an affair with a work colleague.

Naturally, old man Felix immediately concludes where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Laura tries to dismiss his warnings as the projections of a serial philanderer, but he makes a convincing case, as the weird circumstances of Dean’s constant business travel keep piling up. Soon, she and her dad start tailing Dean around Lower Manhattan late-night hotspots, giving them (or at least Felix) plenty of opportunities to imbibe cocktails.

That is basically the gist of it, but it is often funny, thanks to Murray’s vermouth-dry wise-cracking. Frankly, the film is at its best when it just sets up his riffing. Still, Murray develops a down-to-earth, believable rapport with Rashida Jones’ Laura. (Many viewers will be tempted to read a biographical dimension into her performance, given her father Quincy Jones’ reputation as a ladies man, just like we’re often tempted to read things into Woody Allen movies.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Shudder: 32 Malasana Street

This Madrid address is the Spanish equivalent of 112 Ocean Avenue (the Amityville Horror house). At least that is what the “based on a true story” tag line would have us believe. It certainly looks like a sinister building, but the location is choice. That could lead to a dilemma New Yorkers could appreciate. Unfortunately, for this family, there were no notorious history disclosure requirements during the mid-1970s in Spain. Consequently, they are in for some sleepless nights in Albert Pinto’s 32 Malasana Street, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

Candela and her common-law husband Manolo were having a hard time in their stifling rural village, so they sold-out lock, stock, and barrel to afford their new Madrid flat, but it is still highly mortgaged. Her daughter Amparo his ambitions to work as a flight attendant, but she must care for her bratty five-year-old brother Rafael and her somewhat dementia-addled grandfather. Yet, he seems to be the first to pick up on the sinister nature of their new home.

In fact, he sort of precipitates the first crisis (or really the start of their sustained nightmare), when Amparo is forced to chase after him, leaving Rafael alone. After he vanishes, the middle brother Pepe starts getting mysterious notes regarding his whereabout, while Amparo receives phantom calls on the phone line they have not had time to activate. Soon, even stubborn Manolo must admit there is something very wrong about the flat.

The family’s apartment and the supposedly empty bordering unit represent some wonderfully creepy art and set design work. However, horror fans better see it while they can, because the way the film wrings scares out of protected groups (starting with the elderly and the disabled, but eventually including even greater sacred cows) is likely to get it cancelled by some professionally offended interest group.

Regardless, it is pretty scary stuff. Superficially, it follows a typical haunted movie beat-sheet, but Pinto’s execution is creepily effective and screenwriters Ramon Campos and Gema R. Neira constantly find ways to freshen up familiar elements. The way the climatic exorcism attempt plunges into utter chaos is a perfect example.

Beasts Clawing at Straws: More Korean Noir, a Whole Lot More

We have a modern banking system precisely so people do not have to carry around large sums of cash. Those who still do, probably have a very good reason to avoid regulatory-mandated reporting. That includes pretty much all the thugs, grifters, and losers in Kim Yong-hoon’s Beasts Clawing at Straws, which opens today in select theaters (but of course not New York).

There is a Louis Vuitton bag full of cash. It could be a fake, but that’s not really the point. It is not entirely clear who it started with, but it will change hands many times. To make matters a bit more complicated, Kim somewhat shuffles around the order events,
Pulp Fiction-style. There is Tae-young, a corrupt customs worker, who is working a scam to pay-off the loan shark. His lover Yeon-hee left him holding the bag for her debts with Park Du-man, a less than understanding loan shark. Tae-young hopes to make a big score scamming an old school chum, but his mark is scared off by sleazy detective.

Meanwhile, Yeon-hee manages a dodgy club, employing Mi-ran, a manipulative prostitute, who convinces a punky Chinese gangster to kill her abusive husband. Eventually, one of these scammers will leave that fateful bag of cash in a locker of the spa (presumably not by choice), where luckless sad sack Jung-man gets belittled by his younger boss for low wages. When he finds the bag, it leads to an ethical crisis and considerable danger.

Beasts
is a maniacal throw-back to vintage Tarantino that is shamelessly bloody and savagely amusing. This is definitely a one-damned-thing-after-(or-before)-another kind of movie. Kim gets medieval with his cast, who dig in and torment each other mercilessly. Yet, honestly, Do-Yeon jeon plays Yeon-hee with such diva-like ruthlessness, she overshadows everyone.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Ukrainian Film Club: The Long Breakup

Historically, Ukraine has been in a precarious geographical position, bordering the Russian, Austrian, and Ottoman Empires. They decided to lean towards Russia. In retrospect, that was a mistake, because Russia never wanted to let them go. This is especially true for Czar Vlad, the Worst. Ukrainian-American journalist Katya Soldak examines the history of Ukraine and its relationship with Russia through the eyes of her friends and family in The Long Breakup, which screens virtually with a special online discussion tomorrow, sponsored by the Ukrainian Film Club and the Harriman Institute.

Soldak grew-up as an ardent member of the Young Pioneers, since she really didn’t have any choice or outside perspective. The USSR was a closed society that only allowed the population to get their news through state propaganda. Soldak’s family were Russian speakers and even maintained a summer cottage in Russia, so they traditionally identified as Russians just as much or more than Ukrainians.

Eventually, Soldak and most of her school friends turned against Communism when they learned how profoundly they had been misled by the state. Some Ukrainians, like her step-father, maintained pro-Russian biases, largely since they associated Russia with stability. Others, like her mother, remained apolitical, simply focusing on survival.

If you think recent American history has been chaotic, try living through the fall of Communism, two revolutions, and a war with Russia. Plus, Ukrainians also have a knack for electing terrible presidents, very much like the United States over the past twelve years. Soldak gives us a citizen-on-the-street’s perspective on the successive crises, which is interesting. However, the most significant aspect of the film is the way it tracks the influence of events and propaganda on popular opinion over time. We can watch her mother shift from her Russian leanings to finally embrace Ukraine as her nation. Yet, a minority of her college comrades remain so hardened in the Russian partisanship, it effectively ends their friendship.

Ritual of Evil: Dr. David Sorrell Meets His Match

Considering how many Hollywood celebrities have fallen for cults (Scientology, Nxivm), it only stands to reason some might get involved with Satanic groups. At least that way they can keep their shrinks, like Dr. David Sorrell. He happens to be an especially good one, who even makes a late-night house call at the beginning of Robert Day’s Ritual of Evil, the second Sorrell TV film, which releases today on DVD, along with Fear No Evil, on a one-disk set.

Sorrell has been called to the coastal beach house of a patient, heiress Aline Wiley, but he finds her former movie star aunt Jolene Wiley in a state of extreme inebriation and her niece Loey in alarmed agitation over the death of the family dog. The good doctor tries to establish some order, but he succumbs to a supernatural drowsiness, clearly (to viewers) brought on by a sinister demon statue.

The next day, everyone is distressed to learn Aline Wiley has committed suicide, including Larry Richmond, the African American folksinger, who had the misfortune of finding the body. Sorrell is also professionally distressed, since he never considered Wiley a suicide risk. Of course, he starts investigating, learning through Richmond that the previous night’s party descended into a black mass, during which a bearded hippy may or may not have been sacrificed. His perception of the night is a little hazy—and he won’t have much time to sharpen his recollections.

On the other hand, Sorrell will spend considerable time with Wiley family friend Leila Barton. Although the supposedly larky Satanic circle is ostensibly overseen by Jolene Wiley’s money-grubbing lover, Edward Bolander, Sorrell suspects Barton is the real brains behind the operation, which is maybe more serious than they let on. However, he also finds her quite charming—and the attraction is mutual. Ironically, Sorrell’s soulmate could well pose a profound risk to young Loey Wiley’s immortal soul and physical wellbeing.

So, things get super complicated in a way we rarely see in horror movies. “Loving the enemy” is usually the stuff of espionage thrillers and Mary Higgins Clark novels, but it works quite well in the Sorrell universe
. Jourdan and the late Diana Hyland have terrific good-vs-evil romantic chemistry. The generate a lot of heat, while staying true to their characters’ personas.

The Tingler, Starring Vincent Price

Like a pool hustler carrying his own cue, Vincent Price should have had his own specially tailored lab coat. Usually, he portrayed mad doctors conducting evil experiments. However, Dr. Warren Chapin is a more ambiguous researcher, who is working on some real science. It is crazy, but his discovery, a parasitic creature brought out by fear, nicely complimented showman-director William Castle’s “Percepto” gimmick. Scream for your life Castle advises viewers in his signature campy introduction to The Tingler, which airs Friday night on TCM.


Fear is Dr. Chapin’s specialty, as he explains to nebbish Ollie Higgins, who is exercising his court-mandated right to observe the autopsy of his freshly executed brother-in-law. It turns out his homicidal brother really died of fright from the anticipated voltage of the electric chair. That gets Chapin to thinking about his own emerging theories regarding the physical effects of fear.

When he scares the wits out of his unfaithful wife Isabel, he manages to x-ray the centipede-like “Tingler” on her spine. After conducting a sort of controlled experiment on himself, by dropping acid, Chapin develops a hypothesis that Tinglers feed off human fear, until the noise of their hosts’ screams forces them to break contact. That’s the theory, but what happens when someone can’t scream, like Higgins’ deaf-mute wife, Martha?

The Tingler
is notorious for Castle’s Percepto stunt. According to urban legend, he rigged select theater seats to give patrons electric shocks, but other sources say he merely hooked them up to buzzers. He also hired fainting shills and posted phony nurses in theater lobbies. In fact, The Tingler is probably more responsible for Castle’s huckster reputation than any other film.

Yet, the film never really gets credit for a pretty original concept. Frankly, Castle was arguably punching above his weight with his rather distinctive and even stylish execution. Dr. Chapin’s acid trip nightmare is creepy, but Martha Higgins’ freak-out sequence is truly surreal and sinister, inventively integrating the bright crimson red color of blood into the film’s shadowy black-and-white (despite his shticky rep, Castle was quite familiar with European art cinema and you can see the influence here).

Plus, Robb White’s screenplay pulls of some surprisingly clever misdirection. Admittedly, the dark sequences in which Price warns the audience to scream their lungs out because the Tingler is loose in their theater (or drive-in, according to alternate version) are definitely Castle-corny, but that is all part of the film’s charm.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Fear No Evil: Introducing Dr. David Sorrell

He came before Carl Kolchak and Fox Mulder, but Dr. David Sorrell was successful in his chosen field and widely respected by his peers. He also tried to maintain a degree of scientific skepticism, but when he encountered patients troubled by the supernatural, he did what needed to be done to ease their torment. He nearly had his own series, to have been titled Bedeviled, but fate and the network had other ideas. At least we have two vintage TV movies, including Paul Wendkos’s Fear No Evil, which Kino Lorber Studio Classics has collected on a one-disk set with Ritual of Evil, releasing tomorrow.

Paul Varney is not in the right state of mind to buy antiques when he pushes his way into a small shop, but he has cash in hand. Varney writes it off as a case of drunk antiquing when he finds the conspicuously evil looking mirror in his flat. Unfortunately, he wasn’t really drunk. He will not have to live with it very long either, because after attending a party at Sorrell’s apartment, he is killed in a freak accident (that viewers can plainly tell was supernaturally induced).

Sorrell did not know Sorrell or his fiancé, Barbara Anholt, before his party (they were friends of his mentor, Dr. Harry Snowden), but he takes a special interest in her recovery. She has the support of her would-have-been mother-in-law, who reconciles with Anholt, in their shared grief. However, Sorrell is concerned by her obsession with the sinister mirror, through which she believes she can still maintain a sexual connection to Varney. It seems to be depleting her vital energy, so Sorrell retraces Varney’s steps before purchasing it, which leads him to a weird esoteric “study group.”

Frankly, Louis Jourdan ought to be more widely recognized as a great horror thesp. He played Dracula and the villainous Dr. Anton Arcane in the
Swamp Thing movies, but he was also a terrific genre hero in the Sorrell movies. He sounds completely credible and rather soothing when treating his patients, so it is easy to buy into his success as a head-shrinker. It is also fun to watch him talking spooky stuff with the great Wilfrid Hyde-White, who looks like he had great fun playing Snowden, the more prone to accept the supernatural.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Darkness: Those Who Kill, on Acorn TV


Scandinavians are still largely seen as polite and friendly people in America, even though the region has become a leading exporter of serial killer thrillers. This time, it is a provincial Danish police force that must sleuth out and apprehend a particularly nasty predator. Of course, they initially only thought they were dealing with a single abduction (and presumed homicide), but a little detective work uncovers links to horrifying past crimes in creator Ina Bruhn’s 8-part Darkness: Those Who Kill, directed by Carsten Myllerup, which premieres tomorrow on Acorn TV.

Local police detective Jan Michelsen is not dealing well with the stress of the Julie Vinding kidnapping. He promised her parents he would find her, but after six fruitless months, his boss has down-graded the investigation’s priority. His wife left him and his career is hanging by a thread. Yet, when Michelsen tries to establish a connection to a ten-year-old cold case, he manages to find one, as well as the long-missing body. Then the unknown serial killer abducts Emma Holst, who is the exact same physical type as Vinding.

Suddenly, the case is hot again, so Michelsen’s boss brings in Louise Bergstein, a semi-retired profiler, currently working as a women’s shelter counselor. Like Michelsen, she also feels the need for redemption, but their strong personalities will frequently clash. Michelsen’s prickliness certainly does not help, but they each appreciate the other’s intelligence and dedication.

In many ways,
Darkness is a conventional, but very well executed serial killer thriller. However, there is a big game-changing revelation around the third episode that makes it difficult to review the series without being spoilery. Let’s just say Signe Egholm Olsen is terrific as Stine Velin, a woman who has a mysterious connection to the serial killer, Anders Kjeldsen.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

A Moment of Silence: For Bolivian Election Day

In the current polarized political climate, it is important to clarify: replacing one over-reaching leader with another is not a revolution—it’s a coup d’état—especially when the new autocrat has even greater centralized authority. Likewise, when a problematic democratic is bested by an aspiring tyrant, it is not good for democracy, even if it is the result of the popular vote. Such was the case when Evo Morales came to power in Bolivia. Tomorrow, Bolivians go to the polls and our election is in less than three weeks (in case you missed intrusive barrage of PSA’s). That makes this the perfect time to watch Ferdinando Vicentini Orgnani’s A Moment of Silence (Un Minuto de Silencio), which recently released on VOD platforms.

Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada, the president whose administration was toppled by the movement Morales commandeered, actually did great things for Bolivia. He curbed hyper-inflation relatively quickly and coupled privatization with increased social welfare systems. Yet, he failed to understand the coordinated guerilla campaign orchestrated against him, until it was too late. Frankly, we can see echoes of our own recent national experiences in the way Bolivian Chavists provoked Goni’s government with a blockade of La Paz and an ambush of a fuel convoy’s military escort, subsequently exploiting the collateral damage from their response to stoke public outrage.

Nevertheless, many Bolivians had high hopes when Morales came to power, especially the indigenous population, but also including the urban middle class. Tragically for the nation, those hopes were dashed. True to the example of his mentor, Hugo Chavez, Morales soon started imprisoning opposition leaders. Vicentini Orgnani’s own camera captures one such dissenting politician as Morales’ soldiers take him into custody.

Eventually, many of Morales core constituencies turned against him when he decided to blaze an expressway through the TIPNIS state park and indigenous territory, to serve his real masters, the cocoa growers (Vicentini Orgnani’s talking heads telling point out throughout his terms in office, Morales also held the presidency of the Bolivian cocoa growers’ federation). The local, less politically indigenous peoples started a massive protest march that provoked a swift and violent response from Morales (who used Venezuelan troops to do his dirty work, according to one survivor).

Friday, October 16, 2020

Don’t Look Back: Karma Kills

In horror movies, what comes around, always goes around. Karma kills. In fact, karma itself becomes a malevolent agent of scares in this horror movie. It might also get some help from an angry grudge-holding spirit, but whatever the forces at work, the implications are dire for Caitlin Kramer in director-screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick’s Don’t Look Back, which releases today on demand.

Some might think of this as the horror movie take on the infamous Kitty Genovese case, but it really isn’t. Her brother William Genovese pretty thoroughly debunks the alleged case of witness indifference, concluding
The New York Times exaggerated it to the point of fabrication in the documentary, The Witness. Regardless, Kramer and five other bystanders stood by gawking while Douglas Helton was bashed to death by a thug. Kramer shouldn’t be judged as harshly as the others, because the incident induced flashbacks to the brutal home invasion she barely survived, but that will not matter to the media and the victim’s brother.

Already wracked with guilt, Kramer starts seeing visions of the murdered man. Much to her boyfriend’s frustration, she becomes obsessed with notions of karma and angry ghosts, but she really starts to freak when she happens to see one of her fellow witnesses leap to his death, with what looks like a shadowy figure hovering behind him. He will not be the last of them to meet an untimely demise.

Don’t Look Back
(not to be confused with D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan doc) shares a structural-thematic kinship with the Final Destination franchise, which makes sense, since Reddick wrote the first two movies. Both focus on characters caught up in sinister cosmic dynamic beyond their control, but in the case of the new film, most of the by-standers sort of have themselves to blame.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Tales from the Hood 3, on Syfy

Can a horror anthology series maintain its identity without its iconic host? Is it still Tales from the Crypt without the Cryptkeeper? Is it still Creepshow without the Creep? Frankly, most fans probably do not have the same level of nostalgia for Mr. Simms, the creepy undertaker who spun the yarns in the prior two installments in the Tales from the Hood franchise. The 1995 original, starring Clarence Williams III has a strong cult following, but the 2018 sequel, with Keith David assuming the mantle of Mr. Simms, mostly underwhelmed fans and critics. Instead of Mr. Simms, this time we get the great Tony Todd providing the framing, but it is the little girl with him who will tell the tales of terror (we hope) in alternating writer-directors Rusty Cundieff & Darin Scott’s Tales from the Hood 3 (with Spike Lee still on-board as an executive producer), which premieres this Saturday on Syfy.

If you are not deeply invested in Mr. Simms, Cundieff’s “The Mouths of Babes and Demons,” the connective sequences featuring Todd, are indeed quite eerie. He plays a grandfatherly figure, who is desperately fleeing a pack of hooded ghouls with six-year-old-ish Brooklyn. However, as he listens to her sinister stories, we get a sense that there could be any even darker dynamic at play. Frankly, these are the only bits most viewers will want to re-watch, because they build up to a real “huh-what” climax and they are driven by vintage Tony Todd.

The first Tale from the Hood is also sturdily serviceable, following squarely in the EC Comics tradition. Scott’s “Ruby Gates” takes its name from the apartment building David Burr hopes to renovate and gentrify. He stands to make a small fortune is he can convince the last tenants holding out to vacate. Logically, he hires his go-to arsonist to start a small grease fire in their kitchen, because what could go wrong? It all proceeds in an orderly, by-the-numbers horror movie fashion but Scott’s execution is tight and effective.

Without question, Cundieff’s “The Bunker” is the low point of the film and maybe the last ten years of anthology films. It isn’t really even horror, but rather an attempt at an ironic
Outer Limits-style tale with a twist, focusing on a ranting and raving racist survivalist. Unfortunately, it is really more of an exercise in projection that sacrifices narrative and character development to ideological point-scoring. It is also marred by some really gross sexual references.

The sequel rebounds somewhat with Scott’s “Operatic,” starring Lynn Whitfield (the second most recognizable name attached to
Tales 3) as Marie Benoit, a Norma Desmond-ish opera diva, who hires Chela Simpson, an aspiring R&B vocalist to be her companion. Inevitably, Simpson and her lover start conspiring to murder the rich and demanding Benoit. Right, good luck with that. Again, we’ve seen these elements many times before (for instance, there are a number of similarities with Twilight Zone’s “Queen of the Nile” episode), but Scott cranks up the sexuality and the creepy imagery, so it is still fun to watch.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Shudder: The Mortuary Collection

The overwhelming majority of anthology films must be horror movies. Yet, they rarely get many scares out of their framing sequences—even though those are the parts we most remember. Let’s put it this way, when you hear the title Tales from the Crypt, do you think of a particular story or the ghoulish Cryptkeeper host? In this case, we have a worthy storyteller. His name is Montgomery Dark, a mortician by training, who tells a young woman about how some of the most interesting bodies came to his funeral parlor in Ryan Spindell’s The Mortuary Collection, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

Dark looks like he could be related to Angus Scrimm, but his wardrobe and the mortuary’s décor are wonderfully old world, in the style of the great Amicus horror anthologies of the 1960s and 1970s. Sam is a bratty snooper, who is obviously up to no good, but when she inquires about the help wanted sign, Dark is only too willing to interview her. It seems like the Raven’s End Mortuary doesn’t get a lot of applicants. Yet, as their discussion progresses, Sam convinces him to tell her about some of the most unusual bodies he worked on.

Essentially, Dark starts with a Lovecraftian warm-up joke. It is very funny, but lightweight, which she calls him out for. She much more approves of his following yarn, wherein a sexually irresponsible frat boy gets an unlikely taste of his own medicine. It features some wicked body horror, but it tries too hard to be woke (but yes, Sam appreciates that).

The third (or second proper) tale is surprisingly poignant. Wendell Owens is a decent fellow, who still earnestly loves his wife, but the burden of caring for her in her locked-in catatonic state has left him exhausted and desperate. He finally resorts to euthanasia, but his attempt takes a strange, fateful twist. This is a shockingly poignant story, with Barak Hardley’s heartfelt performance inspiring pathos and sympathy rather than scares.

By far, the strongest constituent story is the final one, which Sam tells herself—but the wrap-around narrative, which does indeed build towards something, is the best part of the film. Her anecdote starts off as a stylish homage to
Halloween and the entire babysitter-slasher sub-genre, but it takes a mordantly ironic twist. It is a wild ride that directly leads into the sinister conclusion of her interview with Mr. Dark.

Nightstream ’20: Landgraves (short)


Is there a more instantly sympathetic occupation for a protagonist than that of music critic (or journalist)? Everyone is with me on this, right? Be that as it may, Jeremie, a young French-Canadian music writer’s latest assignment is a bit of a double-edged sword. It is a high-profile gig, but the titular heavy metal duo is not exactly media-friendly in Jean-Francois Leblanc’s short film, Landgraves, which screens on-demand as part of the Head Trip shorts block during the online genre festival Nightstream.

Fans are excited that Landgraves are finally making music again, after their release from prison. Technically, they were convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, but the details are murky. They tell Jeremie they do not want to talk about it, but of course they do. They just want to tell it in their own time.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Kieler Street, on MHz


It isn't witness protection, because nobody who avails themselves of Omega's shadowy "relocation" services ever talks about their past. Jonas Schulman (as he is now known) was once a hardened criminal, but he spent all of his big score to restart his life in the quiet Norwegian town of Slusvik. He never looked back until forced by a nosy neighbor. Consequently, "Schulman" starts to suspect he is not the only client they relocated to Slusvik and some of them might be rather dangerous. The paranoia brews slowly, Scandinavian-style in Kieler Street, a 10-part series created and written by Stig Frode Henriksen, Jesper Sundnes & Patrik Syversen, which premieres today on MHz.

Since moving to Slusvik, Schulman married Elin and developed a positive step-parenting relationship with her daughter Sophie, but neither knows anything about his true past. Nobody does, until his neighbor and AA-partner Geir confronts him with research exposing the gaps in his legal record. It isn’t just Schulman. Half the neighborhood is in Geir’s potential blackmail file. Although Geir offers to bring Schulman in on his scheme, the former criminal is not about to take any chances, so he resorts to his old ways to solve the problem.

Of course, that just raises further issues, like body disposal and the like. Unfortunately, Sophie’s beloved cat Kaspar will be lost (presumably fatally) during the chaotic, extemporized process, which leads to no end of headaches for Schulman. Frankly, most viewers will be even more annoyed by all the whining over poor dear Kaspar than he is. Ironically, just when he assumes his crime has been exposed, it turns out the police actually discovered another body—that of a fifteen-year-old girl, presumably in Slusvik for a summer concert. Schulman also assumes the killer is a former shady criminal type like himself, who bought a new life in the formerly peaceful village.

Kieler Street
is a slow-brooder, with a little too much emphasis on the “slow.” Arguably, the series could have benefited by being condensed to an eight- or even six-episode run. Nevertheless, it excels at creating a paranoid vibe and a general sense of unease. Schulman (and viewers) are keenly aware nobody might be whom they present themselves to be, because knows full well that he is not. The writer-creators consistently spring wicked new complications for Schulman, while skewering the provincialism of Slusvik (especially the busy-body denial of their mayor and the dark legacy of the turn-of-the-Century founder, Haakon Walter).

Nightstream ’20: An Unquiet Grave

Forget Kubler-Ross. Jamie is in the sixth, horror movie stage of grief: resurrection. It is tricky business—more so than he lets on with his late wife Julie’s identical twin sister Ava. These things never proceed according to plan do they? Yet, in this case, his attempts to reincarnate his beloved wife take a decidedly dark turn in Terence Krey’s An Unquiet Grave, which screens on-demand as part of the online genre festival, Nightstream.

Ava took her sister’s death nearly as hard as her husband did, so she agrees to help his radical esoteric plan to bring her back. It will not be easy though, because it requires them to conduct the ritual at the very spot where she was thrown from Jamie’s car and died. As the blood relative, Ava must also conduct it personally, without Jamie watching, like an occult corporate team-building exercise. However, everything is not as it seems.

The first two thirds of
Unquiet Grave serves as a terrific example of character-driver minimalist horror. There are practically no special effects per se, but the vibe is profoundly unsettling and the sense of foreboding keeps viewers on pins-and-needles. Unfortunately, it all dissipates during the third act, wherein the film veers into symbolism, depleting the accrued tension and undermining the narrative drive. It is like the film literally deflates itself.

Still, at least it had all that atmosphere and suspense to fritter away. The overwhelming majority of horror movies end disappointingly.
Unquiet Grave just does so earlier than most. Regardless, many genre fans will be impressed with what Krey and company achieve in the first fifty minutes or so.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Nightstream ’20: The Doorman

It is a pre-war building with a battle-tested doorman. Sgt. Ali Orski was decorated for valor, but the ambassador she was protecting was still assassinated during a terrorist attack. It really wasn’t her fault, but she is still tormented by guilt and flashbacks. Fate will give her a chance for redemption, but the stakes will be higher, because her family will be directly in harms way during Ryuhei Kitamura’s Die Hard-style The Doorman, which releases on DVD tomorrow, following its premiere on the opening day of the online genre festival, Nightstream.

After her return, Orski wanted to keep to herself, but she can’t totally ghost her Uncle Pat when he reaches out. Needing a job, she also lets him refer her for doorman gig at a tony Central Park apartment building, but she soon realizes she has been played. That happens to be where her late sister’s husband and children live. It has been a while, but they recognize her—and young Lily Stanton is especially keen to have her for holiday dinner, before the family leaves for an extended stay in England.

It turns out, the Stantons are one of only two tenants still in the building during its scheduled renovations. Frankly, there were not supposed to be there—just the elderly German husband and wife on the ground floor. Victor Dubois certainly was expecting them or a resourceful loose cannon like Orski. He carefully planned to take the old couple hostage to steal the art the now senile old man plundered from the Stasi’s secret archives during the waning days of the GDR. Unfortunately, he stashed the trove of paintings somewhere in their old flat, which is now occupied by the Stantons.

You get the idea, right? Yet somehow, this
Die Hard-style movie carries four writing credits: Lior Chefetz and Joe Swanson for the screenplay, as well as Greg Williams Matt McAllester for the story. Regardless, they manage to use old Manhattan in creative ways, devising secret doors, dumb waiters, and a hidden speakeasy for Orski and her surly teen nephew Max to sneak through in their attempts to evade Dubois’s hired guns.

Ruby Rose is no Cynthia Rothrock or Michelle Yeoh, but she is still a pretty solid action lead playing Orski. In fact, she has a convincing “cool aunt” thing going on when protecting Lily and Max. However, Rupert Evans’ charisma-challenged portrayal of their dad, Jon Stanton, makes it dashed hard to believe she could ever have had an illicit affair with her snotty, pasty-white brother-in-law. Not surprisingly, the kids are completely annoying, but Philip Whitchurch has some fine moments as grizzled Uncle Pat.

Twice-Told Tales, Starring Vincent Price

Hawthorne and Poe were both born in Massachusetts, but the former was widely seen as an upright New Englander of letters, while Poe was the disreputable Southerner, who dropped out of UVA and drunk himself to death in Baltimore. Yet, Poe inspired all the good horror movies, even though Hawthorne penned plenty of Gothic tales ripe with Puritanical hypocrisy. While Vincent Price was starring in Roger Corman’s classic Poe films, he also helped give Hawthorne similar treatment in Sidney Salkow’s under-appreciated anthology, Twice Told Tales, which airs this Friday on TCM.

Yes, these are stories of the macabre, but they are directly address the power of love, both to save and to destroy. For the opener, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” it will definitely be the latter case. The elderly scientist is enjoying a bittersweet birthday dinner with his old friend Alex Medbourne. Decades have passed since Heidegger’s fiancée Sylvia Ward tragically died on their wedding day, leaving him so heartbroken, he never loved again. In contrast, Medbourne romanced every woman he could—of course he would be the one played by Price (who appears in all three stories).

Heidegger expects to soon reunite with his beloved in death, but fate seems to present a tantalizing alternative. A freak storm releases a mysterious stream of water that apparently offers the power to restore youth and even renew life itself. Naturally, Heidegger duly revives Ward’s desiccated body, after rejuvenating himself and Medbourne, but the darkly O.Henry-esque reunion is not what he expects.

The “Heidegger” twist is very much akin to what you might expect from a
Twilight Zone episode, but the anguished emotion is quite surprising. Both Price and Sebastian Cabot (in the sub-titular role) are genuinely heart-breaking, offering proof that you really can find excellent dramatic work in these great old films that never got the critical love they deserve.

“Rappaccini’s Daughter” is a weirdly sunny story, largely taking place in a Padua garden, but what a garden it is. Giovanni Guasconti falls in love with the beautiful Beatrice Rappaccini from his garret window, but her mad scientist father Giacomo has taken extreme measures to protect her from the advances of adventurers. Yes, that would be Price again. Brett Halsey is a bit too shallow and bow-dried for the Old World setting, but Abraham Sofaer sounds convincingly wise and humanistic as Guasconti’s mentor, Prof. Baglioni.

Somewhat ironically, the concluding adaptation of Hawthorne’s novel,
The House of the Seven Gables could be considered more faithful than the previous feature-length take, which also starred Price, if you disregard the way producer-screenwriter Robert E. Kent pumped-up and augmented the supernatural elements. Regardless, the original Pycheon patriarch definitely did wrong by Matthew Maulle, well-earning the curse the condemned man allegedly leveled on him. Generations later, the Pyncheon’s are still haunted by the curse, as well as the legend that old man Maulle secretly stashed a great fortune in the grand house he was gallingly commissioned to build for his enemies.