Monday, June 30, 2014

June Review

Lots of pickings this month... all right, so I was jet setting around Europe.  This summer I'll be back home, bored, and hopefully watching many horror movies!

For your consideration:

1.  Dracula (1931): A-
2.  Aliens (1986): B
3.  Leprechaun (1993): D+

Aliens (1986)

Not to be confused with Alien, although it is the sequel.

Director:  James Cameron
Studios:  20th Century Fox
Starring:  Sigourney Weaver; ft. Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, Lance Henriksen, Mark Rolston
Tagline:  This time it's war.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, action, thriller, science fiction, drama, suspense, alien, monster
Scare score:  C-
Rating:  B

Plot overview:  Following the events of the first film, Ellen Ripley (Weaver) awakens from her stasis after fifty-seven years.  Having expected to only sleep for several weeks, Ripley finds the world, or indeed, the universe around her to be quite changed, with the happenings aboard the Nostromo called into questioning and her reputation smeared as she is stripped of her space piloting license.  To add insult to injury, Ripley also learns that the planet where they first found the Alien eggs is now a terraforming colony under Weyland-Yutani Corporation.  Desperate to prevent more deaths at the hands or claws of the monstrous Aliens, Ripley agrees to return to LV-426, where the organization has lost contact with the terraforming colony.  Will Ripley and a team of Marines be enough to stop a potential Alien outbreak?

Super short entry here.  Watched this movie immediately after I watched Alien, so it's been a while.  In my book, this is much more of an action movie, filled with a sort of Vietnam-in-space feel plus a premature '90s sense of style and humor, all of which dulls the sense of terror.  Sure there is plenty of suspense plus a few jumpy moments (it's the Alien franchise, after all), but the movie is not especially frightening.  Even the C- might be too high of a rating.

Our cast of characters is highly entertaining here, filled with some of James Cameron's favorites, making this movie even an outer space prequel to Titanic or a more hostile Avatar.  Aside from Miss Weaver (so much love), my personal favorite was Bill Paxton as private Hudson.  He is the original bro in his tough-talking, rough-acting, curse-loving, gun-happy role; equal parts action and comedy.  Feminists rejoice in the Saturn Award-winning performance of Jenette Goldstein as private Vasquez, but other activists may frown upon the casting the white actress in the role of a powerful and gun happy Hispanic Marine.

The interesting thing about this movie is its further exploration of the Alien universe, providing us with more explanation about the Xenomorphs, how their race works, and if the Corporation has any influence in their breeding and fate.  There is most certainly sinister commentary here regarding corporatism and capitalism, which monetary gain held over human safety.  Among other societal critiques, Alien also touches on sexuality, rape, gender roles, and politics in general.  Racy!

Sitting here a month after watching the film, my honest opinion is that there are memorable special effects and memorable characters, but no scares come to mind.  The trip to another world with futuristic technology is always fun for those who love a touch of sci-fi in horror, but otherwise, aside from some suspenseful chase scenes and a good battle or two, the first film boasts a more true sense of terror.

Final critique:  In a long line of horror and sci-fi hits, Aliens simply remains overshadowed by the film that started it all.  Filled with action, cursing, gun violence, and good special effects, this film is certainly not the scariest in the bunch.  Definitely entertaining with some creative Alien nests, cocoons, and beasts themselves, but not too frightening overall.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Leprechaun (1993)

Hey Horror fans, sorry for the horror hiatus.  I've been traveling a lot this month, and the horror movies I did watch I just haven't blogged about.  Allow me to squeeze in a few short and shallow reviews before the month is out.

Director:  Mark Jones
Studios:  Trimark Pictures
Starring:  Warwick Davis, Jennifer Aniston (I know), Ken Olandt, Robert Hy Gorman, Mark Holton
Tagline:  Your luck just ran out.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, fantasy, comedy, monster, folklore
Scare score:  D-
Rating:  D+

Plot overview:  After tricking a leprechaun (Davis) out of his gold, old Dan O'Grady (Shay Duffin) thinks his luck has changed.  Little does he know that the malicious leprechaun has followed him back to his small home in California, stopping at nothing to get his gold back.  After a deadly bout with the wicked creature, O'Grady locks the leprechaun in a crate in the basement, keeping it at bay with a four leaf clover, the leprechaun's bane.  Months later, J.D. Reding (John Sanderford) and his spoiled LA daughter Tory (Aniston) move into the abandoned O'Grady house, unaware of the evil trapped in the basement.

At the end of the day, this movie is what it is.  Any horror movie based around a small creature that speaks in (FORCED) singsong rhymes, mixing too much "comedy" with otherwise frightening circumstances is definitely not a favorite movie of mine.  Nor could you expect something like this to do too well at the box office, although Leprechaun has incredibly spawned a rather large franchise, including Leprechaun: Origins, set to release this August.  Admittedly, I'll still be at the theater.

One thing this movie does well (besides the fact that it locked down Jennifer Aniston as its star) is that it entertains.  Yes, it's stupid, colorful, and childish, but I surprised myself when I was able to sit through the whole thing without any problems.  That doesn't mean I'm going to give the movie a good rating even though I'm usually pretty lenient anyway.

Acting is better than what you might expect it to be like.  A young Aniston, only one year before her Friends debut, is fresh if superficial, cast as the typical teenager Tory who would rather surround herself with the riches of Rodeo Drive but instead learns to kick some Irish butt in order to charm hunky handyman Nathan (Olandt).  Olandt is your typical hunky good guy, shadowed around by mischievous kid brother Alex (Hy Gorman) and big bodied and small brained Ozzie (Holton) - think Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men.  Ozzie is dumb and slow and entirely responsible for the film's major dilemma first when he brushes aside the four leaf clover, unknowingly freeing the leprechaun, and then again when he accidentally swallows one of the leprechaun's gold pieces.  The implied scatological conundrum turns what would otherwise be a story a of a leprechaun reclaiming his gold into a feature film.  Thanks for nothing, Ozzie.

Otherwise, the movie follows its course of events, somewhat reminiscent of a cat-and-mouse game between the magical leprechaun and the frightened young adults.  As much as the leprechaun himself may be one of the more bizarre and frustrating characters in the horror genre, Warwick Davis absolutely commends a big nod as he makes this unique creature totally his own.  I'm a big fan of Davis and his many and varied roles throughout film.  Not surprisingly, he plays the rhyming, murderous leprechaun in his own fun and original way.

Final review:  We've all heard of or at least seen some reference to the Leprechaun movies, and I shudder to say it's the type of film people think of when they try to belittle the horror genre.  Still, this first film sees the evil leprechaun long before he goes to space, or "2" the hood, or to any of the many direct-to-video sequels.  Regardless, this film entertains, and why not give it a watch around St. Patrick's Day?  Jennifer Aniston should be reason enough.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Dracula (1931)

Director:  Tod Browning, Karl Freund
Studios:  Universal Pictures
Starring:  Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan
Tagline:  The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!
MPAA Rating:  Unrated/ Approved/ PG
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, monster, vampire, classic, Universal Horror, black and white
Scare score:  D-
Rating:  A-

Plot overview:  After purchasing property in London, the bizarre yet charming vampire Count Dracula (Lugosi) begins to target the young and beautiful socialite Mina (Chandler).

We're starting off June with an all time classic, one of the true forefathers of the horror genre: Dracula.  For it is this film, along with its 1931 companion Frankenstein, that truly founded American cinema's love for monster movies.  Although quite similar in plot and filming to its predecessor, the technically illegal Nosferatu, it is this 1931 film version of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel that has truly defined the character of Count Dracula to modern audiences, with Legosi's portrayal the crowning jewel of vampire depictions to date.

If you've read the Horror Blog before, you'll know my feelings for Universal Horror movies: unabashed love and admiration.  If I could go back in time, I would love to witness these early days of Hollywood's golden era.  But alas, here I am 90 years later, and the best I can do is blog about it.  With that out on the table, you'll also know that Horror Buff is well aware that Universal Horror, while bringing us important and wonderful plots, costumes, and characters, is no longer reputable for the actual scare factors, which, compared to our contemporary horror movies, could be described as inexistent.  That being said, if you're looking for scary movies that will make you jump in your seat, Dracula, like its friends The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Mummy, among others, are not the movies to turn to.

If you are familiar with Bram Stoker's novel, or with other film versions of Dracula, you will perhaps recognize a rehash of characters and plots taken from the original work and rearranged into movie format.  Take, for example, the character of Renfield (portrayed by Dwight Frye, a recurring actor in Universal Horror), who has in this film version replaced the role of John Harker as Dracula's solicitor.  In fact, Mr. Frye plays an extremely similar role in this movie as he does in Frankenstein as Fritz, Henry Frankenstein's assistant, a crazed, dedicated servant.  Then the actual character of John Harker (Manners) takes on more of a pretty boy role, not unlike Manners' role in The Mummy.  

While Frye's acting in this movie calls for over-the-top eccentricity, he often makes himself creepier than even the title character.   Our leading lady Helen Chandler was not a favorite of mine, often delivering lines with an ingenue's melodrama yet with a lack of true feeling.  She becomes, however, more interesting towards the end of the film as she suffers from the undead infirmity that the Count curses her with.  Drawing heavily from the silent film era, there are some magnificent shots with her eyes and facial expressions.  Universal Horror veteran Edward Van Sloan is present yet again in the typical role of an elderly and knowledgable doctor or supernatural professional (Frankenstein, The Mummy), here depicting monster's bane Van Helsing.  

For good reason, the star of the film is Bela Lugosi himself as Count Dracula.  Due to his native roots in Transylvania, Mr. Lugosi brings the dramatic flare of a foreign and irregular accent into the character, often permitting his dialogue alone to make us uncomfortable.  I specifically enjoy that he is not disguised nor caked in makeup; his look in the film is quite natural and quite his own.  Not a bad looking guy, Lugosi's Dracula perfectly fits the head honcho of all vampires reputation as devilishly charming, using his regal and exotic flare (and demonic mind control capabilities) to charm women before snacking on them.  Like many other horror fans out there, I agree that Lugosi is untouchable in this early portrayal of Dracula, having left an iconic and cultural mark that has not been and cannot be easily surpassed.  

I was surprised by the cinematography of this movie, finding some shots to seem pretty modern and much more thought-out compared to contemporary Universal Horror films.  One of my favorite scenes was when the newly-escaped Renfield is on all fours, crawling towards the recently-fainted maid (Moon Carroll?  Unsure of the credits).  As he approaches her, moving like a wild beast closing in on its prey, the camera simultaneously pans down, making the audience feel like it is their own impending doom as well as the maid's.  Also, I surprisingly did not dislike the countless shots that focused on Dracula's hypnotic eyes - scenes much akin to the popular shots of a transformed Lon Chaney, Jr. running around the woods in The Wolf Man.  They are still spooky in their own way.

My main problems with this movie would simply be that it, like many others, is too old to be truly scary today.  The movie is enjoyable, but it took me three nights to get through because I kept falling asleep.  I realize that's my own fault as well, but it simply wasn't captivating to a sleepy Horror Buff.  Furthermore, the poor, poor editing of this movie prevents it from reaching its full potential.  There are countless cut shots, jumps in the plot line, and odd sequences that we realize we can attribute to poor editing and poor censorship, leaving almost a careless feel about the whole product.  Really a shame, and even frustrating at times.  (Examples: Renfield suddenly appearing a crazed slave to Dracula, leaving us unsure if its even the same character and if not where this new guy came from; Renfield somehow knowing who Mina is, and no one seeming to care when he says creepy things about her, etc).

Fun facts:  May 26th was the 117th anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker's Gothic novel.  This movie adaption was released in the US on Valentine's Day in 1931!  Talk about romantic.

Final critique:  This is a good movie.  It is not a scary movie, but it is a good movie that really brings us back to the horror and monster movies of yore.  Given Dracula's lasting impact on the entire horror industry, it's only right that we watch and revere this movie, especially its titular star Bela Lugosi.  A sort of classic around Halloween time, I would recommend this movie to horror newbies and horror veterans alike, as well as to those who frighten easily because this movie will not be too much for you to see.  While boring and very old feeling at times, this is an interesting and entertaining movie that maintains its mark in the horror genre.