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February 25, 2009

The Anniversary

1968, Dir. by Roy Ward Baker

The legendary Hammer Films studio is known primarily for their recreations of Universal's classic monsters, specifically their run of Dracula films from 1958-1974 that usually featured Christopher Lee. What a lot of film fans don't know starting out is that Hammer also produced a slew of other films in genres that range from prehistoric epics to swashbucklers to even the occasional dark comedy starring a Hollywood legend. That would be this one.

The Anniversary stars the legendary Bette Davis as a one-eyed mother of three, much to the dismay of '80s songstress Kim Carnes (you know, who sang Bette Davis Eyes). She's vicious and manipulative, and one heck of twisted blast to behold.

The Plot
Mrs. Taggart (Davis) and her sons run the family carpentry business, despite Mr. Taggart's passing years before. However, things are less than friendly. Her oldest son, Henry, is a pervert who steals women's clothing (but at least leaves money on the clotheslines) for his own pleasure. The middle son, Terry is married with five kids and a sixth on the way, but his tired of his mother's control and plans to move to Canada with the family as an escape. And the youngest, Tom, is a smart-alec who can't wait to show off his new young fiancee to mom, and to do whatever it takes to shut her up.

I know you're probably thinking "Hey, that's an interesting group of characters! I wonder if there's some kind of event that could bring them together for entertainment's sake?". Well, that's why the movie's called The Anniversary. Duh.

The Good
No commentary on this film could possible begin with anything but Davis' turn as Mrs. Taggart. Billed as "the most MERCILESS mother of them all!" in promotional materials, Davis hams it up with glee, taking joy in the fact she's unleashed as such a diabolical character. This was her second tour with Hammer after the known The Nanny three year's earlier, but it's clear that she is having a lot of fun with the comedic evil she shows in this film. She also does a great job of interacting with the rest of the cast, and holds the proceedings together quite nicely.

Thankfully, it's a two way street, and the rest of the cast holds their own against the overbearing matriarch. Sheila Hancock is most effective as Terry's controlling wife who's mother's archnemesis for most of the film, and Elaine Taylor gets in some chops as young Tom's fiancee Shirley. There's an interesting dynamic throughout the film in regard to the female characters taking control of the males in their relationships (in fact, it could be said that Henry's perversion is an effort to compensate for the lack of a controlling woman of his own). This plays heavily in the final act, as Davis' mother pits everyone against each other while watching with glee.

The film is directed by Roy Ward Baker who made a lot of horror for Hammer (including their Kung Fu crossover The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires), but also directed Marilyn Monroe in another dark comedy, Don't Bother to Knock, and the original Titanic epic A Night to Remember. He doesn't get a chance to use his varied skills in this very staged production (which was adapted from a play by master Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster), but he paces the film extremely well. There's a lot going on throughout the day the film takes place in (even fireworks!), and he and Sangster do a great job of bringing it all together without confusion.

The Bad
The biggest complaint I had with The Anniversary came in the final act. As the plot continues to escalate by the mother pitting everyone against each other, there are a few revelations and plot devices that take the film a bit too far over the line that separates dark comedy from twisted psychodrama. Particular alarming are a couple of tricks involving possibly dead children which, while serving their purpose of proving how vile Mother is, come off as incredibly harsh and slightly difficult to stomach. Of course, there's also the question of why these characters would even give such a demanding and inhuman character so much attention, which is not always answered in regard to each character. The film never dwells too much on these faults or lets them get out of hand, thankfully, but it treads close to uncomfortable ground often enough that many viewers could be turned off to the film in general.

Random Moments
  • Davis' eyepatch is a crucial plot point in the second act, and I'm partially glad it was explained...but on the other hand, just letting her have an eyepatch should be enough to prove evil exists! (I'm guessing they had to distinguish her from a pirate, hence the explanation).
  • Don't miss the strange revelation of the young Shirley's "flaw"...a strange defect that seems kinda cooky...before you consider the rest of the film.
  • Also memorable is a short scene in which Terry and Karen's children are shown to be quite scared by Grandma's eccentricities. I wouldn't have gone near her, either.
The Verdict
The Anniversary is about as dark as a comedy of its era could be, and I admire the fearlessness of all involved. With Davis taking the lead and the capable family playing it straight faced, it takes a while for the film to grab ahold of the viewer. Hours after viewing the film, I can't help but shake my head in surprise at a lot of the twists, and smile at the all-out tenacity of Baker's adaptation. The Anniversary is a strange entry into Hammer's canon, but I think it's a welcome addition that I'd recommend to anyone interested in a twisted family tale or a high-cheese star performance.

The Mike's Rating: Prime Choice

February 16, 2009

The Unknown

1927, Dir. by Tod Browning

(OK. I'm in parentheses.

The reason for this is simple. Today's review is of The Unknown, one of the classic collaborations of Director Tod Browning and Star Lon Chaney, Sr. Since it was made in 1927, and movies with sound were a bit of a luxury then, it's a silent film. Thus, I'm putting my review in parentheses, so it'll be silent too. As an homage, of sorts.

The film in question focuses on Mr. Chaney playing Alonzo, an armless knife-thrower (you read that right) in a circus who's madly in love with the daughter of the proprietor (played by a young Joan Crawford). She's sick of the men that put their hands all over her, especially the local strongman who's after her attention too. But there's a catch, because Alonzo's not what he seems. Tragic and ironic hijinks ensue.

Anyway, I can't say anything about this movie that Chaney couldn't have said himself....without talking. "The Man With 1000 Faces" makes this movie a masterpiece with his face....thus I'm gonna let him cover my review too....

Here's what Lon thinks (and you can click to see his closeups). I think it translates to awesomeness.)

February 10, 2009

My Name is Bruce

2008, Dir. by Bruce Campbell

Bruce. Campbell. Those two words alone can bring music to the ears. A couple of reviews back I talked about how "Icon" status seems to be a dime a dozen for horror "stars" of the last 30 years. Well, in the case of Bruce Campbell, it's all true, baby.

Best of all, Mr. Campbell knows it. Though it could be argued he's only been the star of four successful films, he's made his name as the preeminent name in b-movie schlock for an entire generation of film geeks. In fact, he's now to that great point in an actor's career...where he gets to make fun of himself. There is much rejoicing.

The Plot
The movie begins by telling us of the legend of Guan Di, the ancient Chinese god of war and guardian of bean dip, who happens to have been trapped in a mine in a small town called Gold Lick over 100 years ago. Unfortunately, a young man named Jeff who's obsessed with the movies of a certain Mr. Campbell, along with a friend and their lady friends of the evening, unleashes (or unreashes, depending on who you talk to) said demon. And somehow he convinces the town there's only one man that can save them - the man who's currently starring in Cavealien 2.

Meanwhile, the real-life Mr. Campbell has his own problems. He's hated for his antics on set of his latest sequel, having trouble relating with his agent (old friend Ted Raimi in one of three roles), and placated only by drinking alcohol, even if it comes from a dog bowl. (If you read nothing else in this review, at least click on that last link. It's worth it.)

So, Campbell jumps at the opportunity for a new role slaying a demon in Gold Lick, especially after being kidnapped and meeting Jeff's young mother. When he realizes the demon is real, he's forced to show his true colors.

The Good
Fans of horror cinema of the last three decades will find much to love in Campbell's mix of hero worship and self-deprecation. The script (which Campbell didn't write, surprisingly) is inspired by an old series of comics featuring Hollywood hero Alan Ladd (aka, Shane) facing challenges based on the films he'd starred in and is always charming, if not deep. Campbell eats up the chance to be the big man on campus, and he should - most of the film was shot on his property in Oregon in a move made to avoid upping the film's budget. He never has a problem being the butt of a joke, but also is still as good as ever when taking on the hero role. The rest of the cast knows their role opposite the director/star/main character, and no one seems to take anything too seriously.

There are a lot of in-jokes for fans, of course, with references to some of Bruce's films and spoofs of some of his less ambitious works (like the previously mentioned Cavealien films, which sadly don't exist in the real world). A couple of old friends from the past show up in Evil Dead 2's Dan Hicks and Army of Darkness' Tim Quill (who I nicknamed Fu Manchu many years ago thanks to his awesome mustache), although their presence is spent primarily on a silly Brokeback Mountain gag. His Evil Dead co-star Ellen Sandweiss (who I erroneously referred to as his girlfriend in that film in a past review, when she actually portrayed his sister Cheryl) also appears in a brief role, this time as his ex-wife Cheryl.

Finally, the demon Guan Di is pretty cool. In fact, I'd say the film's best serious moments are when the demon pops up, which is a testament to the crew for making an effective b-movie monster and backing it up well.

The Bad
My want to love My Name is Bruce is far too strong for me to say too much negative about the film. One could argue that Campbell's film is ridiculously cheesy, not funny unless you don't know the back stories, and entirely self-serving. To which I would say - "Yeah. So????"

In all seriousness, I did have some issues with My Name is Bruce. Some of the humor is quite juvenile - there are gay jokes, prostitute jokes, even transgender jokes. None of this is meanspirited, but it's a slight letdown after the serious, yet hilarious tone of Campbell's last masterpiece, Bubba Ho-Tep. As well, there's not much depth to Campbell's "character", and it would have been nice to see the star take a more serious approach to his career choices at some point, even if only for a monologue.

Random Moments
  • Instead of that serious moment, we get this scene instead. Which it's really hard to complain about.
  • While I thought my nerdness was big, the young Jeff has one heck of a memorabilia collection. And he creates this for Bruce...I want one.
  • During one scene, the background music is clearly Bernard Herrmann's score from Psycho. I thought I recognized the music in some other scenes, but that was the only one I could clearly place.
The Verdict
My Name is Bruce was predestined for greatness, and I knew going in that there was no way the film could live up to the expectations of fans like myself. Thankfully, Campbell and his cast and crew put together a fun film that hits more than enough to keep a nerd like me happy. While I'm initially sad the film didn't blow the last 27 and 3/4 years of my film-going life out of the water, I know I'll keep watching it over and over again. I know that I've already watched all the special features, and I know that I'll soon be watching the film with commentary. I know that it will live on more for me than many better films, because it hits the cheesy notes that I dig and it seems sure to continue to go down easy. I know that, as a sort of lifetime achievement piece, it's already a crucial part of my Midnight Movie canon.

The Mike's Rating: Legends Series


1983, Dir. by Lewis Teague

For starters, this will be one of the few movies I review on this website that I have starred in a remake of. It's true - I did play the role of Cujo in a friend's project during our 12th Grade Contemporary Literature class (or something like that, I don't even remember what the class was called). With all due respect to the fella to the left of this text, I was one convincing rabid Saint Bernard.

Hollywood has higher standards, however, and thus the 1983 adaptation of Stephen King's novel did not star The Mike. It was a wise move, because I was two at the time, and still had a peanut shaped head. So, 1 Cool point goes out to director Lewis Teague and the producers.

The Plot
Vic and Donna Trenton (Daniel Hugh-Kelly and Dee Wallace), and their six-year-old son Tad (Danny Pintauro) live a happy life in Maine. But like most people Stephen King writes into his home state, things aren't entirely what they seem. Vic's successful advertising job is slipping away, as is his marriage - as it appears Donna is having an affair with a town handyman (Christopher Stone, Wallace's husband in real life at the time). Things go to crud, Vic leaves town to try and save his job, and Donna and Tad take their breaking down pinto to the farm of a local mechanic (the cool Ed Lauter), which happens to be on the completely secluded side of town (and it's funny how many small towns have these!)

Oh, and at the same time, said mechanic's friendly Saint Bernard, Cujo (an ancient indian term for "unstoppable force" - not a good sign) has gotten a bad case of rabies, and become determined to kill anything that moves. Couple that with the Trentons' car breaking down right in that driveway on the completely secluded side of town, and you've got a horror movie!

The Good
As the attempt at a synopsis above shows (or maybe doesn't, I don't know) there isn't a lot to King's story. He contributed heavily to the film's script, but it's clear that a lot of the book's ideas made it straight into the film. While a lot of the more descriptive bits of the book aren't fleshed out in the film, the man vs. beast nature of the story is still evident. Most importantly, the hopelessness that sets in on the trapped mother and son is thick, and there's a lot of natural tension - disregarding a ridiculous spinning camera while everyone cries and screams shot.

The beast dog himself is pretty impressive. Five Saint Bernards under heavy makeup, plus a robotronic beast and a dog suit for humans were used to bring Cujo to life, but you'd never know it from watching the film. It interacts well with the actors, especially Wallace (working on her third creature feature in three years), who conveys terror wonderfully.

The film's best scene comes when Wallace's Donna tries to escape but decides to look under the car...not a good idea.

The Bad
For all the good things Cujo has going for it in the simple story elements, there's bit wrong with it too. The film seems imbalanced while it's going, as there seems to be more time spent on the story's beginning and characters than is spent with the infected beast. The exposition is welcome and helpful, but the slightly shortened second half makes me wish for a little more carnage once the film's over.

Most importantly, my biggest pet peeve about any movie lives within this film - the inconsistent and occasionally terrible child actor. Young Mr. Pinatauro, while acceptable for most of the film, becomes grating while trapped in the car. I give him some credit, considering the film is a little taxing for a young man, but I needed a little less screaming at times. It's like he took it to 11, when 8 would have sufficed.

Random Moments
  • There's a Pavlovian undercurrent when Cujo's violence is triggered, twice, by the ringing telephone in the mechanic's home.
  • There's a police officer named Bannerman that shows up in the final act...a reference to the sherrif in King's The Dead Zone.
  • Who's responsible for getting Cujo to be this rabid fellow he becomes? This little fella.
The Verdict
Cujo is a solid little horror film, but it never really reaches the level of the text. Of the King books I've read (and can remember), this is one of the most difficult to adapt, because a large portion of the book is explanation of the setting and the dog's actions - things that are more easily explained than conveyed on film. There are enough interesting moments to make it a watchable and slightly enjoyable film, but there are also reminders of why it's sometimes better to read a book that hamper the movie from being great.

The Mike's Rating: Solid Selection

February 8, 2009

Satan's Playground

2005, Dir. by Dante Tomaselli

Ever since American horror films had their boom in the Reagan era (and there's got to be a correlation there), a lot of people have earned the status of "icons of horror". The thing is, they're not all Robert Englund or Bruce Campbell. Thus is the case with Satan's Playground - a Texas Chainsaw Massacre wannabe that fails to even meet Wrong Turn's standards - which boasts not one but THREE "icons". They include Felissa Rose of Sleepaway Camp fame; Ellen Sandweiss who was Campbell's lady friend in The Evil Dead; and Edwin Neal - the deranged hitchiker from the original TCM.

There are a couple things one needs to remember when names like these get thrown around as carrying a modern flick. Firstly, there's a reason you haven't seen them headlining horrors in the last 2 decades - they're not entirely good actors. Secondly - and more crucially - they're usually desperate. This means any role, any time, as long as their name gets on the promo materials.

Despite these factors, I went ahead and watched Satan's Playground anyway. Is it because I'm too faithful, or because I'm stupid? Are they one and the same? You decide.

The Plot
Donna (Rose) and her gangly-Michael Phelps-looking autistic son Sean, along with her sister Paula (Sandweiss) are traveling along the Jersey roadways when their car breaks down. Looking for help, they come across the home of 96 year-old Mrs. Leeds, a creepy old lady living with two of her deranged kids, who has claims here 13th child was actually a bat-faced devil. Killings and bloodlettings ensue.

If this sounds kind of familiar, it's because it's based on the real-life urban legend of the Jersey Devil, which the hockey team was named after (and which was also the topic of a far superior episode of the X-Files). It's supposedly a hooved biped with wings and the aforementioned bat-face that roams the countryside of Pine Barrens, NJ - but it's never shown on screen here, so we wouldn't know.

The Good
Well, most of the film is in frame. Other than that, I don't have much.

I suppose I could give slight credit in regard to the Leeds family, as they are definitely creepy looking. Rose does as good a job as she can in the lead, and can still scream, but she's not really built to carry a film like she has to here.

The Bad
Pretty much everything. For starters, the movie is dull. There's little character development, and people choose their actions for the sake of the plot, which is entirely paint-by-numbers. Tomaselli tries to compensate by adding an overbearing musical score and ridiculous sound effects. So basically you get 80 minutes of running around and being chased and screaming, wihtout any levity. The movie wants to be a non-stop nightmare, but it's not engaging enough to be intimidating. It's a snarling teddy bear of a film.

The final act is especially frustrating, with a great example of the unmistakable horror tradition called "I've brought a lone cop who doesn't believe in backup or radios for contacting others, clearly everything will be OK, right? Oh crap!" This leads to the Evil Dead ripoff ending, mercifully ending the film before I had to sit in its stench any longer.

Random Moments
  • There's nothing notable or memorable in this movie. Even Rose, who I've grown a sick crush on through horror documentaries and interviews I've seen her in, is slightly disappointing. I blame the movie though, not her.
  • OK, there's one funny moment when the son gets sucked into a suckhole in the ground, which made me think of many ironic "Michael Phelps lookalike is drowning!" jokes.
The Verdict
I spent most of the runtime of this movie trying to think of the word to describe how much it sucked. I'm gonna go with festered. This movie sat on my TV screen festering for 82 minutes, reminding me of how bad being a fan of cult cinema can get. Sorry to the "icons" involved, but they already got their paychecks.

Felissa, if you're out there reading this (and you should be), your movie sucked, and you should have known better. You're still awesome. Love and kisses, The Mike.

The Mike's Rating: RUN AWAY!