Devil Rides Out, The (1968)

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

The beauty of woman . . . the demon of darkness . . . the unholy union of “The Devil’s Bride”

The Duc Du Richleau and Rex Van Ryn arrive at the house of their friend Simon Aron for a long-awaited reunion. However Simon has forgotten about them and is instead holding a mysterious party for an astronomical society. Richleau then discovers that the society is a really a coven of Satanists led by the charismatic Mocata and the two men bundle Simon away to safety. That is the least of their troubles though as Mocata won’t let Simon go that easily and uses all of his black magic powers to claim Simon’s soul. Mocata had summoned the Angel of Death and it will not return to Hell empty-handed.

 

Having firmly established themselves as Gothic horror specialists in the 50s and 60s with their array of Frankenstein and Dracula films, Hammer‘s fortunes began to wane a little in the late 60s. There were only so many times that audiences could watch Frankenstein fail again or see Dracula staked before it got repetitive. So the studio decided to dabble in the black arts and looked for other literature that they could bring to the screen. Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel, The Devil Rides Out, seemed like a perfect fit with its tales of black magic, ritual sacrifices and shady good versus evil dynamics which Hammer loved. In fact an adaptation of the novel had first been proposed by Hammer in 1963 but with the subject matter proving controversial (even on its eventual release) it was put on the back burner until 1967 when censorship had become a little more relaxed and this finally went into production. The studio pulled out all of the big guns – their top director Terence Fisher, composer James Bernard and the legendary Christopher Lee – to make sure that this was a hit. It has since become one of Hammer’s most celebrated films and whilst its slow pace is a product of its time, it is a film which lingers long in the mind after viewing.

The Devil Rides Out pulls out the dark, sinister undertones almost right from the beginning as both the scholarly Du Richleau and sceptical Rex go to visit Simon at his party and realise something is not right. There is a constant sense that something terrifying is lurking around waiting to be unleashed. Nowadays this would be replicated with a bombardment of special effects but this is old school horror and the power of the film lies in suggestion rather than visuals. Wheatley knew his occult down to very fine detail and every shred of knowledge is crammed into the screen in some form either by visuals in the form of the lavish ceremonial sets or through dialogue (much of which is spoken by Christopher Lee which instantly makes it sound credible – more on him later though) in which we get to know things like the exact amount of people that need to be present at one of these ceremonies and so forth. If you don’t know anything about the occult, chances are you’ll have picked a few things up afterwards.

The piece-de-resistance of the film is the scene in which Du Richleau, Marie, Reggie and Simon stay inside a protective circle chalk-drawn out on the floor and must survive the night as Mocata sends all manner of black magic forces against them including the Angel of Death and a giant tarantula. It sounds a lot more epic than it turns out and the quality of the special effects varies between enemies (they do age the film considerably) but the scene is more about atmosphere and tension and that it manages to nail.

Rather more alarmingly is the scene in the woods for the first attempt to baptise Simon into the cult. As the cultists chant and sacrifice, a goat-headed figure appears representing the Devil himself. Even though it is blatantly a guy in a mask, the entire scene is rather unsettling for its intent than any outright shock. The less said about an early scene in which Du Richleau and Rex are greeted by the sight of a demon arising from a hidden pentagram (simply a cross-eyed black guy – someone call the politically correct brigade!) the better. I guess what I like about the film is that it believes in itself. Rex is asked to buy into the existence of black magic at the start of the film by Du Richleau and in effect he’s asking the audience to buy into it as well. The scene with the Devil in the woods is presented almost as matter-of-fact with hardly any focus on the goat-headed apparition perched on a rock watching the ritual. This makes it all the more terrifying.

Whilst the film plods along when it isn’t conducting black magic rituals and the less-than-subtle Christian messages get a little too sickening towards the end, it is the performances which make this a true Hammer classic. Christopher Lee has often stated that out of all of the films that he’s starred in, this was his favourite and it’s easy to see why from his viewpoint: he gets to star as the good guy for a change! If see you ‘starring Christopher Lee’ in a title, you assume that he’s the bad guy such as his typecasting over the years has dictated. But whilst his sinister moustache and beard lends itself to images of Satanic priests, Lee’s usual pomp, grandeur, intensity and directness make for an interesting choice of hero. It’s one of Lee’s best performances, certainly more energetic and committed to the script than I can recall from other films (and I’ve seen a lot of Lee’s films).

Charles Gray, more famous for his appearance as Blofeld in James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever, stars opposite him as Mocata and though Gray’s more feminine persona and foppish voice does detract slightly from the character, his smarm and arrogance slices through the screen and more than adequately gives him a creepy edge. His quote “I will not be back. But something will, tonight” is delivered with devilish relish as he warns Marie of the night they’re about to face and smirks at the thought of their suffering. Mocata and Du Richleau are set up as binary opposites to each other, much like Dracula and Van Helsing were in the Dracula films or even Professor X and Magneto in the X-Men films (to use a more recent example). With equal powers and equal knowledge of the other, the tense stand-offs between the two smacks of intellectuals playing chess with human pawns. Its sterling work and credit must also go to writer Richard Matheson for crafting such enthralling characters. The rest of the cast don’t make nearly as much of an impression but when you’re in the shadows of Lee and Gray on this form, there’s no shame in that.

 

The Devil Rides Out is a stand-out film in Hammer’s massive film library. Without Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster in the film, the studio showed that they could deliver classic horror films and this is certainly one of their best efforts despite it not doing all that well when it was released. It has since found much respect and with a towering, near career-best performance from Christopher Lee at its core, The Devil Rides Out is classic horror at its most daring.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Cemetery Gates (2006)

Cemetery Gates (2006)

Trespassers will be eaten!

A genetically mutated Tasmanian devil is released into a woodland cemetery by the two eco-activists who stole it from its laboratory. This is unfortunate for a group of college students who have chosen the cemetery as the location to shoot their low-budget zombie film.

 

Cemetery Gates has clearly been designed as some sort of throwback to the 80s low budget home video flicks and there’s plenty of evidence that the makers of the film have seen their fair share of horror films. With its low budget, a slightly camp approach, a good old fashioned man-in-a-monster-suit and plenty of splatter, Cemetery Gates tries a little too hard to impress but it the end product never really matches up to it’s aspirations.

“It will kill seventeen people in ninety minutes” proudly boasts the trailer. This is all well and good if there were more than a handful of main characters but as there aren’t, this means that the film trots out as many non-characters as possible to be ripped to shreds. You know the type of non-character I’m on about – people without names, introduced in the film in one scene and literally killed by the same scene without so much as a whimper. There are hillbillies, stoners, joggers, cemetery workers and more who all cross paths with the monster with obvious consequences. They have no bearing on the story. They don’t contribute anything to the film except die a horrible death. It’s just an endless array of fodder for the Tasmanian devil to devour and it gets boring. How I am supposed to care about these people if I know they’re going to die about two minutes after being introduced into the film?

The first-rate gore effects look fantastic in the kills, with heads being smashed into fences and arms getting torn from sockets. But after a while, they lose their shine because there’s just too many of them. Whilst an effect looks good the first time, it soon outstays its welcome after the third repetition. There’s no suspense or build-up to the attacks, the Tasmanian devil just stumbles across a newly-introduced character and then proceeds to tear them a new one. In many respects, this just sums up the entire film which is basically a gore set piece fan’s dream. Unfortunately this does not make for a good viewing experience as there’s nothing of substance to hold it all together. The gore and set pieces were clearly priority here, with the script trailing in last place.

Not helping matters is the fact that the film is shot during the day so you’ll get a good, regular look at the monster. We all know it’s a guy-in-a-suit but this isn’t the problem, it’s just the fact that you can tell it’s a guy-in-a-suit without hesitation! Couldn’t they have shot the film more at night or dusk when there was a little less sunlight to illuminate the suit? They could have kept the monster partially hidden or submerged in darkness – anything to hide the suit a little more. Having it run around in broad daylight is asking for trouble, especially when the camera tends to linger upon it. However, I’ll take this rubber-suited monster over a CGI creation any day and it shows no mercy to anyone that it comes across. I would have just liked to see a bit of intelligence used in how it was shot on film.

Cult horror actor Reggie Bannister (famous thanks to his role in the Phantasm series) is on hand to provide the necessary ‘name’ in the cast. He looks as bored as I felt in his role as the scientist who created the Tasmanian devil and tries to keep a straight face throughout proceedings despite clearly knowing the film is a load of rubbish. The rest of the cast are terrible – most of the people on show don’t even get names as I’ve alluded to in the review. Kristin Novak only gets a brief mention because she provides the token nudity.

 

Cemetery Gates is gory and at least shows that there is some potential from the director as his heart is obviously in the right place. But when there’s hardly any story, no real structure and a lot of people running around being killed off without anything resembling characterisation, there’s only so far the blood can stretch before it wears thin.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Arachnoquake (2012)

Arachnoquake (2012)

The world will quake in fear

A series of earthquakes around New Orleans releases a new breed of deadly subterranean spiders that begin to terrorise the city.

 

Sy Fy does its best ten years overdue Eight-Legged Freaks impression with this laughably inept spider invasion flick. To say that they’ve covered virtually every single creature known to man in their Sy Fy Originals, I can’t recall them doing too many about spiders before and then all of a sudden, a couple come along at once. Camel Spiders was first in 2011 (though I haven’t seen it yet) and now along comes Arachnoquake, a film which evidently tries to play on its witty title in some self-belief that it’s different the other genre films. But, with the same old tired routines, clichéd characters, regurgitated scripts and low end CGI effects, it was never going to be anything other than run-of-the-mill. Truth be told, this is by no means the worst that Sy Fy has put out in the last couple of few years but….let’s face it with a title like Arachnoquake you’re hardly expecting The Godfather of monster movies are you?

One look at director Griff Furst’s list of prior credits should read like a warning sign: 100 Million BC, Swamp Shark and Lake Placid 3, the former being one of the worst creature feature films I’ve had the misfortune of reviewing. I’ve heard that Mr Furst has directly responded to fans criticism in the past so if you’re reading this – please stop making films!

It’s hard to say whether Arachnoquake is better or worse than the others but at least this seems to be intentionally goofy and gets marks for at least knowing how silly everything is, or rather the first half of the film. The earlier scenes at least have a healthy sense of humour to keep them going and for some reason this is put on the back burner at the half-way point. Way to go, discarding the only differentiation between yourself and any number of generic ‘monster on the loose’ movies. Like virtually every Sy Fy Original going, it’s so generic and routine that writing constant reviews for these films gets to be more of a slog than watching them is! Don’t get me wrong – I love repetitive. I’m a massive monster movie fan. I’m a massive slasher fan. They streamline a simple formula and recycle the same things over and over again. But the films only work if they are given life and a spring in their step. When they don’t, it’s because everyone involved, from the cameramen to the writers and directors to the actors, feel like they’re going through the motions because they’re contracted to. Unfortunately that’s what these Sy Fy Originals feel like – they’re not made for love of the genre, they’re made for cheap cash and to fill schedules. So the routine and repetition becomes their undoing, not their strength.

There are small mercies: Arachnoquake wastes little time in getting the spiders out of the ground and attacking people. So you won’t be bogged down with exposition, not that the film needs to expand on its one-note characters any further than the limited back story and characterisation they receive before all hell breaks loose – they even manage to squeeze the father-son love-hate relationship into this as a slacker son who has failed to live up to his father’s expectations is given the chance to redeem himself in this crisis. Yawn.

The narrative is split into three parts, each focusing on a different group of survivors until gradually their paths cross and they join together. Only the Ethan Phillips-Olivia Hardt thread was any good and that was simply because Phillips is a sorely underrated character actor, if somewhat annoying at times, and Hardt is one of the hottest women I’ve ever seen and gets to parade around in a pair of tiny shorts. Regardless of which thread the film follows at any one given time, the predicaments and situations that the characters find themselves in are predictable and uninteresting. Main characters seem to have taken that invincibility potion which spells doom for the minor characters with a handful of lines.

And these minor characters meet doom quite a lot. If it isn’t small spiders scurrying out of the ruptures in the ground, it’s giant spiders climbing up buildings. If you’re familiar with Sy Fy work, then you’ll immediately understand the level of special effects that are on display here. The CGI spiders look alright and that’s about the best I can say about them. You’ll never believe that they’re real but they hop, crawl and drop across the screen on a regular basis. They can swim. They can breathe fire. An interesting idea with the spiders nesting inside human hosts, resulting in bulbous puss sacks on the skin which explode, was introduced but then never really taken any further. And despite the fact that these spiders are supposed to be attacking all of New Orleans, on many occasions you can see down the next street where filming wasn’t taking place and observe traffic and pedestrians going about their daily business as normal.

Edward Furlong – remember him? Falling from grace after his time as John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Furlong fell into alcoholism and drug addiction. Time has not been kind to the man (he’s only a couple of years older than me!) and I didn’t recognise him at first. His bloated appearance and bored-stiff attitude doesn’t help the film when he’s supposed to be one of the ‘star’ names to sell the project to potential markets. It also doesn’t help when he’s given the main role in a side story in which his creepy bus driver is ferrying a school bus full of cheerleaders when they’re attacked by the spiders. This originally promised a lot – cheerleaders + hungry spiders – but failed to deliver anything – nudity, gore or even a decent set piece. Furlong is left huffing and puffing along until he catches up with the other survivors.

 

Inventive title aside, Arachnoquake is hardly a world beater nor is it the coming of the Angel of Death. It’s a film which exists for ninety minutes or so and is content with staying in its own little low scale world despite promising something a lot funnier and more entertaining at the start similar to Tremors or Eight-Legged Freaks. Sy Fy have hardly outdone themselves this time around but it could have been worse – though is that really a criteria to review a film around?

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Hatchet II (2010)

Hatchet II (2010)

Victor Crowley Lives Again

After Marybeth escapes from the clutches of swamp-dwelling maniac Victor Crowley, she finds out the truth about her family’s connections to the madman. With the help of Reverend Zombie, she leads a group of hunters back into the swamp to retrieve the bodies of her family and put an end to the legend of Victor Crowley once and for all.

 

Adam Green’s much-heralded 2006 slasher Hatchet might not have been the blood-soaked return to old school horror that it was cracked up to be but it was a solid gore ride which knocked the socks off any big budget slash that the mainstream Hollywood had produced for years. I’m not sure whether the genre needed another throwback slasher (as a lot of recent slashers proclaim themselves to be in order to distinguish themselves from the rest – but in doing so they create a new norm) and I don’t think it would have been a genre staple along the lines of The Burning had it been released in the decade it so craves to homage. But it was alright, certainly there are a lot worse out there. It met with a lot of critical praise whilst it did the festival rounds and its connection to the core audience meant that a sequel was inevitable. A few years later, and with a reported budget of only $800,000, Hatchet II comes along and follows on from where the previous one left of, albeit it with a different actress in the lead role.

Hatchet II had a bit of a choppy ride before it was released. The film was originally released in a handful of US theatres without a rating in an attempt to act a shining light to similar-minded film makers (not just horror film makers but anyone sick of the MPAA holding them back). Unfortunately it didn’t work out and after a bit of bad press, the film was pulled with the official response explaining this decision as ‘poor box office performance’ – but what do you expect when you only offer it to a small percentage of the population – you’re not going to get a Skyfall-esque opening weekend. The film has since been released onto DVD with the MPAA getting their way in the end and with it, the brutal crushing of a potential rebellion against the ratings system. Ah well, at least someone had to try.

So on with the review itself! If you’re expecting the same sort of over-drenched, tongue-in-cheek carnage as the original then you’re in the right place as Hatchet II does a faithful job of recreating the same sort of feel and atmosphere as the original. It does take time getting started and it takes over thirty minutes for the film to eventually get back into the swamp. Before then, you’ve got flashback footage of how Victor Crowley came to be. Let’s face it: people don’t normally watch sequels unless they’ve seen the first so anyone watching this should already know his back story and what happened. To me it just seems like a lot of filler to pad out the running time.

Even when the film switches focus to the swamp, there’s little real story to keep things moving. The group of hunters split up and then proceed to get killed off one-by-one before the final showdown with Crowley and the survivors at his ramshackle hut. Everything in between the kills seems like a real slog to get through. A lot of slashers have always been built around their set pieces and this is evident in Hatchet II, with stilted dialogue, thinly-sketched new characters and a tepid atmosphere which lacks any real tension keeping the pace of the film bogged down into the swamp. Clock watching until the next kill shouldn’t really be on the agenda here but it is. But at least they’re worth the wait.

Hatchet II ramps up the red level from the sublime to the ridiculous at times and the kills here are some of the most satisfying you’ll see for a long time. If it isn’t Crowley ripping off the jaws of his victims, he’s battering their skulls to pulp with hatchets, decapitating them using table tops and a conducting a final kill which has to be seen to be described. I mean basically the film is just a series of inter-linking jaw-dropping kills which are brought to life with amazing practical effects – you’ll not seen a sign of any CGI here. This is old school gore that Tom Savini would be proud of. It’s a slowly dying art but it’s nice to see people still have the passion and the ability to produce the goods when they need to.

Kane Hodder is back as Victor Crowley and he’s as physically impressive as ever. I dare you not to laugh out loud at the moment his deformed killer strides out of the woods carrying THE biggest chainsaw ever committed to film. Tony Todd had a cameo in the first one but his role is given centre stage this time around and the film is all the better for it by having such a genre great in a pivotal role. Todd oozes class and charisma and his Reverend Zombie character is one of the best parts of the film, switching between protagonist and antagonist whenever the situation suits him. Danielle Harris is a perennial favourite of mine for obvious reasons but she brings little to the role that she took over from Tamara Feldman other than her good looks. The rest of the cast is made up of generic-looking actors who fulfil the variety of redneck and psychotic hunter character roles without even trying. If you look like a redneck, that’s good enough characterisation for this film as the audience does the rest.

 

Hatchet II is just about as good or bad as the original depending on whether you like your slashers gloopy, gorey and a bit dopey or want a bit more meat to your meal. The film is definitely not up to the hype and publicity it received but it works fine as a low budget slasher homage. I was going to suggest that film makers leave the whole “80s slasher throwback” cliché alone for a while as it’s in danger of becoming saturated but then I have seen that there is a further sequel in the works. At this rate, The Hatchet series is going to become part of the problem, not the solution.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Shark Week (2012)

Shark Week (2012)

7 days, 7 sharks… 1 survivor!

A wealthy sadist traps a complete group of strangers on his secluded island compound where they are force to compete in a horrifying gauntlet against a relentless onslaught of man-eating sharks, each species more deadly than the last.

 

Saw meets Jaws or that’s what The Asylum would lead you to believe with in Shark Week, their latest CGI killer monster flick and next one off its production line of straight-to-DVD offerings. With its assault of colourful cover posters, catchy tag lines, sound byte-heavy trailers and generally over -indulgent self-promotion, Shark Week was never going to live up to anywhere near expectation. But having watched my fair share of Asylum flicks over recent years, those expectations were rock bottom to begin with and, as the case was with the utterly bonkers Nazis at the Centre of the Earth, Shark Week manages to mildly impress – though only because I’m setting it against the Asylum’s own benchmarks of bad film making rather than any feasible rating scale!

At first glance, Shark Week looks the part. In fact it may well be The Asylum’s best looking feature to date. The cinematography is crisp. The location work is top drawer with a variety of desert island settings and dank underground caverns really coming to life. The CGI-rendered landscapes of some of their previous outings have been mainly dropped in favour of actual location shooting which makes all the difference. The production values have definitely been stepped up a notch. Finally, The Asylum make a film which….well actually looks like a film.

Shark Week plays itself seriously, which has been met with some criticism by other reviewers, but I find that the material wouldn’t have worked with a straight-laced approach (not that it works that much better as it stands). There’s a decent idea waiting to come out of this but the muddled manner in which the characters have to go from watery location to watery location is a bit flimsy at best, all the while the motivation for their entrapment is a feeble revenge plot. The constant need to get the characters into the water just reeks of a one-note idea being stretched for all its worth over eighty-six minutes. In the end, you really get the sense that this idea, as absurd as it may seem in this one, would have worked with a bigger budget, better writers – well generally away from The Asylum’s grasp! Or it could have worked with other ‘creature feature’ whipping boys like crocodiles or tigers which would have made the situations seem less forced with the characters being based on land and thus the script needing less reasons to throw them into danger.

Once again The Asylum don’t quite ‘get’ what effectively works in killer shark film – namely the sharks. I was expecting lousy CGI effects and even lousier integration with the natural environment and human actors and that’s what I got. No surprises because my expectations were that low to begin with. Aside from the hammerhead attack, the rest of the attack scenes consist of the same thing: badly illuminated shots, dreadful CGI sharks, characters struggling and thrashing around in the water before they start stabbing at the shark with whatever sharp objects they have and all in the midst of some rapid-fire editing so that you haven’t got the foggiest clue what is going on. It might work once but the repetitive nature of the attacks soon get boring. They’re meant to be the selling point of the film but each encounter with a shark is virtually the same thing despite the novelty of different sharks being used.

I will give Shark Week some credit in that it’s got a decent pace. It seems like The Asylum are learning their lessons and not constantly bombarding the viewer with scenes that last a maximum of a minute before rapidly moving on to the next one. The film tries to draw itself out a little bit, introducing the overall problem quickly but then settling down a little to try and flesh out the characters and develop some sort of story. Whilst the attempts at characterisation and the story being a little ‘deeper’ than normal miss most of the time, it’s nice to see the studio actually trying for a change and they’ll only learn from this in future.

The token ‘names’ amongst the cast come from Patrick Bergin and Yancy Butler as the two antagonists of the piece. Bergin (Patriot Games) does his most-blatant Jigsaw-like impression as wealthy Tiburon – well I’m guessing that’s who he’s supposed to be modelled on, preaching to his victims before their next shark encounter and letting them know of ways out. Bergin chews the scenery well so it’s a shame he has little screen time with anyone else apart from his assistant. Yancy Butler co-stars as said assistant and seems to have the exact same expression on her face throughout the entire film, looking bored and in desperate need of some sleep.

 

Having read the above review, you’d assume that I hated Shark Week and you’d be more or less right. The idea itself isn’t awful, just the execution. But there’s something I can’t quite put my finger on which makes it stand out more than the other Asylum films. It’s not the cast. It’s not the effects, that’s for sure! It’s not even the script. There’s just something here which promises a brighter future for the company. I’ll give the folks over at The Asylum a little bit of credit. Their films are getting better, little-by-little, but getting better nonetheless.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Jeepers! The creepers are after Bud and Lou!

Two hapless freight handlers, Wilbur and Chick, are asked to dispatch two crates to a local wax museum, allegedly containing the bodies of Dracula and the Frankenstein monster. In the midst of their bumbling behaviour, Dracula is freed and he sets about reviving the Frankenstein monster to act as his servant. In order to make the monster more docile, Dracula decides to implant another brain into it and singles out Wilbur for the host.

 

After Universal Studios had exhausted their iconic horror monsters by pairing them off against each other in less and lesser films like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, they looked for a new hook in which to breathe new life into their flagging fortunes. At the same time, popular comedy duo Abbott and Costello were beginning to run out of ideas and they too needed a new injection of life to keep themselves on the top of their game (being one of the biggest box office draws of their time). Someone came up with the madcap idea of pairing both Abbott and Costello and the Universal monsters off against each other and thus a legacy was born.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is quite simply fantastic comedy-horror at its most innocent and delightful. There are no pretences here. No smut. It is not desperate to make you laugh. It’s all natural, light-hearted entertainment. This is mainly down to the leading pair. Like many successful double-acts, their teaming has a simple set-up: Abbott is the straight man, Costello the buffoon. The two react to each other perfectly, retorting with slapstick, physical comedy or some zippy one-liners. One particular routine that they re-use is one in which Costello sees the monster of the piece but it disappears before Abbott comes along. Then Costello desperately tries to convince Abbott that he’s just seen something horrible but Abbott won’t believe him. It’s a good routine and one which they re-used time and time again. Add in a revolving door, Dracula and the Frankenstein monster to this skit and you’ve got one (or two since the routine is worked twice here) of the best examples of comic delivery from this era.

What is great about the film is that the script treats the monsters with respect. They are not the sources of the comedy and the butt of the jokes but are portrayed as serious characters. Rather it is the actions and reactions of Abbott and Costello which provide the laughs. The monsters follow on from their previous cinematic treatment: Dracula is manipulative and charismatic, the Wolf Man a tragic figure and the Frankenstein monster as a lumbering giant with an infant mentality. The monsters are given reasonably equal screen time so that you get a decent dose of each one.

Bela Lugosi is back as Count Dracula and I was shocked to find that this was only the second time he had played the role of the famous vampire, following on from Dracula in 1931. Dracula is the main villain of the piece, getting slightly more to do than the other monsters throughout the film as a whole but suffering a little towards the finale. The Frankenstein monster does the opposite to Dracula, starting off as a bit player but becoming the main focus in the last third. The Wolf Man, played by horror legend Lon Chaney Jr, gets little more to do than run around growling in the background most of the time when the other monsters are around. The script could quite easily have worked just as well without him (and in fact save the Wolf Man for a less-crowded sequel where he could be the main focus) but he does get his own individual moments to shine with a few transformation scenes.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was the final Universal film to feature Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man for fifty six years until the release of Van Helsing. Oddly enough, despite the monsters being paired off against each other in previous films, it is in this one where the Wolf Man and Dracula physically get involved with each other.

 

It’s a fitting finale to this classic period of vintage horror and the overall send-off that the monsters receive in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the perfect kind-hearted tribute to a golden era. Easily one of the greatest comedy-horrors of all time.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

AS PRIVATE EYES…they’re getting an Eyeful!

Boxer Tommy Nelson is accused of killing his manager and injects himself with an experimental invisibility serum in order to hide from the police and find out the real killer. He enlists the help of two bumbling private detectives, Bud and Lou, and with their help, he devises a plan to trap the real killer by having Lou pose as a boxer, aided by his invisible punches.

 

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was such a popular hit that the much-loved comedy duo were regularly paired off against some of Universal’s classic gallery of monsters. The seeds for Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man had been sown at the end of their first horror outing, as the Invisible Man (voiced by none other than Vincent Price) introduces himself to the duo at the end of the film. Price sadly does not return in this one but maybe he saw what was coming. The result is a film which grossly fails to live up to the potential shenanigans that Abbott and Costello should have been getting up to with an Invisible Man.

I really don’t get the love for this one. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is nowhere near as funny as some of their other ‘Meet’ films yet it has received way more critical praise and was financially more successful than their horror outings. This one is hardly played for the horror factor as the character of the Invisible Man was never really meant to be in the same league of monstrousness as Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man. It’s perhaps this which doesn’t do the film any favours. The character of the Invisible Man, Tommy Nelson in this one, is played seriously and there are attempts to give him some sort of story with the warnings of becoming psychotic after being invisible for too long. But unlike the horror elements of their previous outings, the drama doesn’t really click here. Abbott and Costello don’t really seem out of their element as they did when they were up against Dracula and Frankenstein and everything happens as a matter of fact. The duo go along with Nelson’s plan from the beginning, taking on board the notion of an invisible man with little apprehension.

The highlight set piece of the film is the boxing bout at the end where Lou is to go up against tough boxer Rocky Hanlon, with Tommy providing invisible punches. I’m sure it all sounded a lot funnier on paper and what we get is an overlong sequence of Lou pratting around in the ring in his shorts and pretending to fall over, slip, trip and stumble like the buffoon his character is meant to be. The physical comedy just isn’t funny and I always preferred the verbal sparring that Abbott and Costello did with each other, most notably their variations on the “Who’s On First?” routine. They manage to hit a few decent home runs with a couple of scenes but there’s nowhere near enough material to keep the film consistently funny. Lou Costello was always the stooge and his clowning around can get pretty tiresome as he looks at the camera with that knowing look to break down the fourth wall with the audience. One of the highlights of the other ‘Meet’ films, even the worse ones, was that Costello spent the majority of the film trying to convince Abbott that there were monsters lurking around. This lead to all manner of mishaps with bodies appearing and disappearing, chases around corridors, castles and tombs and Costello trying to hold it all together before he thought he was going crazy. But here, Abbott learns of the existence of the Invisible Man quite early which strips away most of the comedy potential. Seeing the two work hand-in-hand with the monster of the movie isn’t as entertaining as watching Costello fall apart on screen as Abbott reprimands him.

The true star of the show is the invisibility special effects. Truly excellent for 1951, we get to see scenes of Bud and Lou playing cards with the invisible man and taking him out to dinner where he eats spaghetti. The invisibility aspect plays host to a number of sight gags throughout the film as various characters don’t know where Tommy is. In the film’s best effect, the Invisible Man receives a blood transfusion and begins to visualise, with his veins materialising first as the blood is pumped in followed by the rest of his body. The effects were great for their era and still hold up extremely well today. It’s a pity that the comedy doesn’t.

 

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is an undignified end to Universal’s Invisible Man series and a run of five previous films featuring H. G. Wells’ classic character was to come to an end. Abbott and Costello would be back to face more Universal monsters but this is not one of their better efforts and doesn’t hold a candle to the classic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Aztec Rex (2007)

Aztec Rex (2007)

In 1518 A.D. only the noblest warriors survive

Arriving in Mexico in 1551, Spanish explorers led by Cortés come across an Aztec tribe who worship a dinosaur as a god and offer it regular blood sacrifices to keep it at bay. After a failed attempt to enslave the tribe for his own gain, Cortés agrees to help them rid themselves off the dinosaur if they release him and his men.

 

Sy-Fy offers up a huge pile of dinosaur crap with this pathetic monster movie that does as little as it can within the space of an hour and a half and expects you to be thankful for it when it’s finished. Aztec Rex (or Tyrannosaurus Azteca as it is known) comes from the man who brought you such classics as Leprechaun 3 and, er, Leprechaun 4: In Space so you know that his pedigree in the realms of low budget, trashy filmmaking is as corny as it gets – though oddly enough, Quentin Tarantino cites Brian Trenchard-Smith as one of his favourite directors! Aztec Rex stars a terribly-rendered CGI dinosaur, buckets of pound shop make-up and fake limbs they sell around Halloween time, and a cast who look like they’d be better off modelling in fashion shoots than pretending to be Spanish explorers or Aztec tribesmen.

Let’s cut to the chase and talk about the star of the show first – the T-Rex. Even by Sy-Fy standards, this prehistoric protagonist looks to be about two hundred million years out of date. Using the same couple of frames of animation time and time again, the film does little to maintain the flimsy illusion that this monster shares the same intergalactic plane as everything else. Trees don’t move. Branches aren’t snapped off. There are no footprints when it walks. There are no shadows cast on it by the forests. For all intents and purposes, this is a stealth dinosaur. I have no idea where they found or created this laughable CGI aberration but it doesn’t belong here.

Even though the dinosaur effects are some of the worst you’re likely to see, Aztec Rex is at least gory. Characters are bitten in half, have intestines slit open, bodies are chewed up and left to rot in all of their gruesome glory and survivors are showered in blood. Yes it looks a bit tacky but it’s at least making the effort in this department.  The dinosaur is well fed, much to the chagrin of numerous expendable tribesmen and some of Cortés’ lesser developed crewmen who find themselves on the wrong end of a bite. The blood looks more purple in colour than red and the screen is literally engulfed with gore whenever the dinosaur decides to feast. Although there are some old school make-up effects, there are also a lot of rubbish CGI bones and entrails dripping abut which makes everything look second rate and tacky as if someone had superimposed unrelated video game footage over the top of a New World drama piece.

The script attempts to cleverly intertwine itself with historical events surrounding Cortés and the Spanish conquests but, his name aside, there’s nothing else in here that would suggest factual information. I guess the inclusion of such history was to try and raise the material above its usual type but it fails dramatically. I can tolerate the fact that the Spanish characters are played by perfectly formed English actors but the Aztecs are played by a bunch of Hawaiians who would look more at home standing  outside a hotel in Honolulu and greeting people than pretending to be ancient savages. Plus there are only about twenty people in the entire film including non-speaking extras. You wonder just how often this tribe can afford to sacrifice its population given that you only ever see about six of them.

Whilst the film contains its fair share of problems, the most fundamental one is that it’s just not engrossing enough. You never care for the Spanish (after all, they’re just after gold). You never care for the Aztecs (they do sacrifice their own kind). And the dinosaurs, whilst garnering some pity at how lame they look, are not there for characterisation. After a dull start in which the Spanish attempt to enslave the village (the notion of six or so Spanish guys attempting to ‘storm’ a village which has an equally small number of people in it is just too daft to laugh at), the film then traps itself in a never-ending cycle of characters going off into the forest to try and kill the dinosaur and end up a few characters short by the end of the scene. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the film and you have a monotonous, tedious narrative which doesn’t entertain or hold interest on any level whatsoever.

 

You get what you deserve with Aztec Rex. It smacks of Sy-Fy right from the opening scene until the final credits – the cardboard characters, the bottom dollar effects, the repetitive narrative, the overly dramatic music  and the deadly serious script which attempts (and fails) to make everything you’re watching somehow more interesting, intelligent and higher grade. It’s dinosaur dung, plain and simple. Never mind a giant dinosaur frightening off the Spanish, a copy of Aztec Rex would have been enough to make Mexico uninhabitable for millennia!

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College (1991)

Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College (1991)

Everybody’s favorite troublemakers are on the loose again!

A college professor unleashes the Ghoulies from their bathroom prison when he reads out an enchantment from a comic book. Using them as his servants, he orders that they put a stop to prank week at the college, where rival frats continuously play jokes on one another in an attempt to win a crown.

 

Gremlins has a lot to answer for, spawning two successive similarly-themed ‘little monster’ franchises (Ghoulies and Critters) each of which have produced four films – no mean feat for any horror franchise (come to think of it, when Puppet Master currently stands at ten films plus a crossover with Demonic Toys, then any old franchise can sequelise itself into oblivion). In comparing the Gremlins-wannabes, the Ghoulies came off a lot worse than the Crites….and I mean a lot worse. Looking like sock puppets from the Victorian era that someone had found in a moth-ridden loft, the monsters looked every inch a pathetic bunch of no-hopers that wouldn’t scare a timid, ninety-year old granny who has had a few heart attacks and is clinging on to life. Someone saw some potential in them and after their disastrous first outing, even though the monsters were virtual spectators in their own film, they were back for the first sequel. Ghoulies II was just as awful as the first one, featuring marginally more Ghoulie action but they still looked like they’d been found in the rubbish dump. Not an auspicious start to a franchise.

The good news here is that Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College is the best of the series by a long shot. That’s not too hard considering the low budget ridiculousness of the previous two films and the sheer ineptitude of the next sequel. Hardly considered scary, this one works best if you take it into consideration with the other screwball 80s horror-comedies that were being released straight-to-video at the time. Containing frat boy humour, lots of drinking, a bit of college girl nudity, some cheap gore and a general feeling of harmless fun, Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College is best described as one of those juvenile American college comedies (National Lampoon’s Animal House, Porky’s, etc.) with some rubber monsters thrown into the mix. The entire plot revolves around two frat houses which are trying to one-up each other during prank week and the Ghoulies get involved. That’s literally it for story and what ensues is a cherry picking through the scrapbook of stereotypical college situations with little monsters causing havoc in each one. Sadly, the Ghoulies are once again given the shaft and they’re more background pests than outright threats.

There’s only three Ghoulies this time around and even though they look like shoddy stick puppets, they fair better than they’ve done in the previous outings, most likely due to the fact that there are fewer of them to animate. They look bigger than they did before, which gives them the impression of being overgrown kids when they dress up in frat gear. The bonus this time is that they talk. The little demons now fire off wisecracks and talk to each other instead of growling, leading to schoolboy humour-esque situations for example which they mimic the professor word for word. It’s hardly high-brow sophisticated comedy but it is daft and you’ll hate yourself for laughing along. The fact that they now talk leads to all manner of shenanigans, with the audience now able to listen to them joke amongst themselves whilst they perve on naked chicks or drink beer. And believe me, there’s plenty of naked chicks to go around, so much in fact that I must applaud the director for coming up with creative ways in which to justify it (like hell he does, he just constantly shows chicks taking showers).

Kevin McCarthy had fallen a long way since his glory days of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and he is given the thankless task of portraying Professor Ragnar, the man who controls the Ghoulies. McCarthy doesn’t give two hoots that he’s in something as terrible as this and ploughs on ahead with a crazed zest which puts many of his contemporaries to shame. If only everyone seemed to be having as much fun as him in their roles. Matthew Lillard, more famous as one of the killers in Scream (and of course, as Shaggy in Scooby Doo) makes his film debut here.

 

Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College is hard not to like in a “I know this is total rubbish but what the hell” sort of way but it doesn’t take itself seriously, emits an innocent charm and despite the silliness and stupidity, it’s still watchable 80s junk which hopes you’ll jump along for the childish ride. You’ll probably go along with it too – I certainly did.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Tarantula (1955)

Tarantula (1955)

Even Science was stunned!

A tarantula, which has been injected with experimental growth hormones, escapes the secret laboratory and grows to enormous size, causing havoc across the Arizona desert.

 

Tarantula is one of the 50s giant monster movies more famous entries and is not to be confused with the later 50s film, Earth Vs The Spider, also about a giant spider on the rampage in a desert town. But whereas that was attracted by rock and roll music, the spider in this one is simply hungry. Jack Arnold, fresh off legendary status with Creature from the Black Lagoon, brings his considerable talent to the table but unfortunately ends up with a throwaway science fiction movie which just so happens to have a giant spider running amok in.

Tarantula runs according to the well-embedded 50s atomic monster formula but a formula done reasonably effectively when the film wants to put the effort in. In this case the cause of the problem isn’t atomic radiation but an early form of genetic experimentation. It matters little in the long run though – either way there is a huge hungry spider on the loose. The film runs almost entirely without the spider as the plot regarding the scientists and the experiments takes the majority of the screen time. It’s a race against time for Professor Deemer to find a cure for his acromegaly which killed his partner and is now starting to kill him. It’s nowhere near as exciting as it sounds, if it sounds exciting anyway. At least there is some decent make-up effects on both characters as the slow effects of the syndrome begin to take their toll.

But we didn’t come for guys in make-up, we came for giant spiders. Tarantula is dreadfully dull. It’s almost fifty minutes into the film before you get a look at the giant spider. That said, the first shot of it climbing over the hill in silhouette form is pretty spine-tingling and there is another awesome shot of it slowly creeping up behind a couple of prospectors sitting by a dawn campfire. I may have lambasted special effects in similar 50s giant bug movies but here they look like they’ve had some time and effort devoted to them. The spider even casts a shadow across the background that it’s been superimposed onto. I mean its hardly groundbreaking stuff but the effects at least manage to make the spider look like its real, even if it seems that plenty of the shots are re-used. I just wish they’d have made more use of the spider instead of relegating it to background duty.

The spider doesn’t do an awful lot except toddle around the desert. Many shots of it walking across highways, climbing over rocks or traversing hills are inter-cut with the rest of the film. Nothing flash, just a ten second clip of it walking around to make you remember that it’s still out there. It doesn’t really get well fed (if you don’t take into consideration a herd of horses that it snacks upon) but then it hasn’t really done much to get its appetite worked up. When it does get around to attacking people, it’s the same scenario over and over: close-up of the spider bearing its fangs and going in for the kill and then a zoom-in shot of the unlucky victims(s) covering helplessly on the floor with some super-imposed legs either side of them. Hardly the most exciting attack scenes you’ll see.

On a final note, Clint Eastwood makes an uncredited appearance as one of the pilots who bomb the spider in the finale. Well, even greatness had to start somewhere.

 

Tarantula gets way more acclaim than it deserves but is still a fair way to spend time. There are far superior examples of the 50s monster movies but when this film wants to show off, it does so in style with some excellent special effects.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆