Showing posts with label suspense. Show all posts
Showing posts with label suspense. Show all posts

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Dial M for Murder (1954)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Studios: Warner Bros.
Starring: Grace Kelly, Ray Milland, Robert Cummings, John Williams, Anthony Dawson
Tagline: Is this the man she was waiting for... or the man who was waiting for her?
MPAA Rating: PG
Genre: thriller, mystery, crime, drama, suspense
Scare score: D-
Rating: B+

Plot overview: After learning about his wife Margot's (Kelly) affair, English tennis player Tony Wendice (Milland) blackmails an old school chum (Dawson) into murdering her. After his seemingly perfect scheme goes awry, however, Tony must frame his wife instead.

I love Hitchcock. What an expansive career this Master of Suspense had. That being said, this may be one of the first times I've reviewed one of his movies that I wouldn't actually consider a horror. Based off of the play by screenwriter Frederick Knott, this movie makes the horror blog with a whopping PG rating. Talk about amateur hour. Unlike Strangers on a Train, The Birds, and especially Psycho, Dial M for Murder is more similar to his films like Rope or even Rear Window (my personal favorite) in that they deal more with the suspense, meticulous planning, and repercussions of a crime than the actual horror of it (not to mention the majority of the action taking place in a single room). Regarding Strangers on a Train, both films share the 'perfect murder' and blackmail concepts, as well as two main characters both being professional tennis players (think doubles and double-crossing).

Hitchcock loved few things more than the perfect plot and 'wrongfully accused' scenarios, and these themes are exactly what this film ultimately comes down to. We have strong performances from all of our leads, with an especially creepy Anthony Dawson as the hitman and a wonderfully British Chief Inspector in John Williams— not surprisingly, both of these actors played the same roles in the 1952 Broadway production of the show. Ray Milland plays a fantastically eerie and calmly maniacal husband who remains fixated on manipulating and deceiving all those around him until he can exact the perfect revenge on his unfaithful—yet still dedicated—wife. Speaking of which, this was Kelly's first time working with Hitchcock, and apparently he enjoyed her work so much that she would go on to star in Rear Window (that same year!) as well as 1955's To Catch a Thief.

The most notable aspect of this film is the cinematography. The movie was originally filmed to be shown in 3D, but due to technical issues and poor audience reception, it was released as your regular flat movie and went on to achieve general acclaim at the box office. Shot almost entirely inside the Wendices' apartment—and with that one fantastic "God's eye" view from above the scene—the suspense of this movie is established more through plot that any trick of the camera. Hitchcock was a professional at perverting his audience into not only witnessing crime but partaking in it. As Rear Window becomes a shocking lesson in voyeurism, so Dial M for Murder finds us practically rooting for Tony and his hired man Lesgate/ Swann to get away with the seemingly perfect crime. Indeed, the suspense in this movie comes in the form of us expecting—but not knowing if—the murder will go off without a hitch— until Tony's watch stops and the whole things seems to fall apart before our eyes. As Hitchcock himself said, "The best way to do it is with scissors" (I see you, Jordan Peele). At the climax of our suspense, we witness an accidental death marking one of very few times we actually witness something so visceral in a Hitchcock movie (most of the action usually takes place just offscreen and is implied). Though Grace Kelly shines brighter in Rear Window, her character's progression in this film is marked in beautiful ways, such as her wardrobe changing from whites, to blues, to greys, to black, or during the almost dreamlike (nightmarish?), hallucinatory courtroom scene and the lighting therein.


If you're a fan of Hitchcock, you're likely to enjoy this film: The theme of control, common in the director's filmography, runs strong in this movie, especially as demonstrated by the maniacal Tony. It is this strong need for control that ultimately creates even more suspense as the pieces—just seconds beforehand so perfectly aligned—start to fall apart. My biggest qualm from a realistic point of view is that, while the clever Chief Inspector Hubbard uses wisdom, insight, and luck to hypothesize his solution to the crime, it seemed to me that none of his investigation was actually very legal, at least in terms of his swapping coats and keys or sneaking into the Wendices' apartment as he pleased. Love a perfect crime puzzle to be so expertly solved, but it left me wondering just how ethical his approach was.

Final critique: This is a lovely and enjoyable film, even if it's not one of Hitchcock's absolute best pieces of work. To clarify, I make my ratings based on what constitutes a good horror movie, so that is why this film only gets a B+ from me while other, arguably much poorer quality movies have gotten higher ratings in the past. With a dazzling cast and even better suspense, we see a movie flipped on its head halfway through, and we continue to go along for the whole unexpected ride. In terms of the scare score, as I stated earlier, this really isn't a horror film as I'd traditionally define it, so while the suspense might have you holding your breath as the 'perfect crime' comes to a climax, I don't think anyone is going to get too scared by this film. Instead, it's a perfect watch when you want something suspenseful or creepy, but with more of a crime drama feel instead of anything too horrifying.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Wicker Man (1973)

Director: Robin Hardy
Studios: British Lion Films
Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento; ft. Ingrid Pitt
Tagline: Flesh to touch... Flesh to burn! Don't keep the Wicker Man waiting!
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, psychological thriller, mystery, drama, suspense, cult, occult
Scare score: C-
Rating: B+

Plot overview: After receiving a mysterious letter alerting him about a missing girl, police Sergeant Neil Howie (Woodward) ventures alone to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle. His investigation is steadily thwarted by the townspeople, who first deny that the girl, Rowan (Gerry Cowper), ever existed and then claim that she passed away. Howie, a devout Christian, is further put off by the locals' pagan beliefs and traditions, headed by the genteel but unsympathetic Lord Summerisle (Lee). As Howie grows closer to solving the mystery, he becomes part of the town's May Day celebrations and soon learns the horrifying truth about the island and its people.

I have mixed feelings about this movie mostly because of the time period and because of how much thrilling potential the film ultimately fails to live up to. That being said, it was shot on a small budget and was a fairly rushed production, and given the general kitsch of the genre in the early '70s, it's incredible what a lasting impact this movie has had.

The Wicker Man is equally imaginative and macabre, well-researched and well if dramatically acted, and it includes some truly beautiful shots of Scotland and the Hebrides, especially in the stunning opening and final sequences. Even with the beautiful open landscapes, we feel a sort of claustrophobia as Howie enters the tiny island community, remaining an outcast in every sense of the word throughout his investigation. There is something frustrating about trying to take something seriously—especially the alleged disappearance of a child—only to be met with folly, ridicule, and condescension, and Howie encounters that in spades.

Aside from its great plot—adapted from David Pinner's novel Ritual and in many ways recreated in the Netflix original Apostle—this movie relies on strong acting to carry us through the deepening mystery. Edward Woodward forces us to take him as seriously as Sgt. Howie takes himself in the movie and delivers some especially wonderful scenes closer to the end. How special is it to see the late, great Christopher Lee? Hot off his success with Hammer Horror (which I grew up on but haven't reviewed yet!), a younger-than-we're-used-to-seeing-him Lee takes on a more cerebral role as the lofty and manipulative Lord Summerisle. More like Lord Exposition amirite? Still, a great performance from him. Individual characters also stand out throughout the film in varied and creepy ways, most notably the Swedish beauty Britt Ekland as a pagan temptress, her creepy father played by Lindsay Kemp (a lover and muse of David Bowie), an especially sinister Aubrey Morris as the gravedigger, and a very formidable Ian "Mammoth" Campbell.

Fun fact: In a 2005 interview, Christopher Lee would consider this his best film. Saruman and Counts Dooku and Dracula can take a hike.

Though the editing feels choppy throughout and I don't think the mystery meets its full potential, this movie has a lot of positive points. Designed specifically to deliver more drawn out suspense and not to rely fully on jump scares or gore unlike other horror movies of the time, The Wicker Man is an enduringly creepy movie. The disturbing norms and traditions of Summerisle start early in the movie and don't stop coming, more often than not based around or in the form of music and dancing. The filmmakers did a great job at researching paganism and representing it in a fairly unbiased way throughout the movie— in fact, the only judgments we see made upon these traditions come from the zealous Howie. The film features plenty of mellow '70s music—I felt like I was listening to Nick Drake half the time—but there is some really beautiful traditional music as well. Some of the most memorably unsettling musical scenes are the May pole, birds-and-bees-style song led by children and the schoolmaster as well as some horrifying chanting and arm-swaying at the end.

Final critique: Overall, this is a weird movie that remains eerie and impactful nearly 50 years later— it really does put the "cult" in cult classic. Part of me wishes it were made in a different time period or with a different production quality, but at the end of the day, it all came together to make something very digestible for general audiences without being too scary to watch. Really it's hardly scary at all, but the questions it raises are where the true terror comes in. While watching, you know you're uncomfortable or frightened, even if you can't put your finger on it, and the suspense builds beautifully right up until the last shot.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Us (2019)

So it's been almost 3.5 years, what can I say?

Director: Jordan Peele
Studios: Blumhouse Productions, Monkeypaw Productions, Universal Pictures
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Elisabeth Moss, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex
Tagline: Watch Yourself.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, psychological thriller, home invasion, family drama, conspiracy, suspense
Scare score: C-
Rating: A-

Plot overview: As a young girl (Madison Curry), Adelaide (Nyong'o) encounters a frightening double of herself in a boardwalk house of mirrors. Years later and now with two young children of her own (Wright Joseph, Alex), Adelaide still can't shake the fear of her lingering shadow. She is forced to take a good look at herself after a family clad in red jumpsuits and armed with scissors shows up in the middle of the night.

I stand by my feelings that Get Out changed the horror game and breathed new life into our favorite genre, which I feel has grown more popular in recent years for a few reasons. First, I think we are experiencing a generation of writers and directors/producers who grew up during a beautiful age of horror movies (the '80s) and are now bringing their own dreams to life, filled with nods to the past. Secondly, I think Hollywood is more comfortable with the idea of well-made and even niche horror movies with a message, not just the sensual slashers that plagued (and pleasured) us in the 2000s, and not to mention there are more small studios who can work to take on these projects. Finally—and I have to look into statistics or data on this—but I feel that more audiences want and enjoy horror today, if only because for many people, the real world at present is even more horrible than what they're seeing onscreen.

That being said, don't go into Us expecting it to be the next Get Out. They are different films made for different purposes, and in many aspects I felt they have some different messages to share. Now back to the film at hand.

Us is a freaky, fun, and dynamic movie that plays first and foremost with the themes of division, duplicity, and the doppelgänger. As teased by the movie poster, the viewer should know to go into the film expecting us to "watch ourselves," or know that "we are our own worst enemy" while questioning what lies beneath. As many famous horror movies allow the killer to take on a new identity while masked, so Us forces us to think about what masks we wear on a daily basis to get ahead, to thrive, or merely to survive. The first foil we encounter is between the Wilsons—Adelaide's family—and their friends the Tylers. Headed by "it's vodka o'clock" wife Kitty (Moss) and one-upping husband Josh (Tim Heidecker), the Tylers and their bratty twin daughters are everything their respective Wilson counterparts are not: proud, overly talkative, selfish, and entitled. These families ultimately represent a larger message in the film that Peele tries to make with a Biblical subtext: It doesn't matter who you are, what you look like, or what you have, because when the oppressed masses rise up, we'll all be subjected to the same fate. 

This looming thought is introduced several times via the local doomsday man beckoning a sign saying "Jeremiah 11:11." If you don't have your pocket Bible handy during the movie, you'll have to wait until the end to know that this passage reads "Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them." But what evil could this possibly mean? We'll explore after the Spoilers jump.

For those of you who don't want anything spoiled, I will say that I enjoyed this film. The scares were underwhelming but Peele in his own right has become wonderfully adept at suspense flavored either with humor or very human fear. As in Get Out, the audience and characters alike discover absurdity in the most terrifying moments, and while this trick helps treat the viewer as more intelligent than the plethora of on-the-nose horror films of the past (and present), it makes things no less horrifying for everyone involved. Again, this is likely part of Peele's commentary on our world today, where things feel topsy turvy and equally terrible.

I thought Lupita Nyong'o and Elisabeth Moss were brilliant in this film—Moss as her doppelgänger specifically has a memorable silent scream we see via a reflection. Winston Duke as Adelaide's husband Gabe adds a charming levity to the movie and both Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as their children do incredible jobs. Nyong'o especially explores her duality of light and dark, smooth and jagged, evil and not in a performance that deserves major award recognition. The casting for this film was excellent, especially because of the task that was asked of each actor. The cinematography was also gorgeous, with the many and varied scenes of public and private spaces, light and dark, above and below inviting us in to a visual feast. I'm still dreaming about the house of mirrors and that escalator. No surprise that this was the handiwork of Mike Gioulakis, who brought us It Follows, one of my favorite horror movies of all time that I still haven't blogged about because I took a casual 3.5-year hiatus.

References to some of our other horror favorites abounded, including nods to The Twilight Zone, The Shining, and I think especially to The Strangers, to name a few. I even loved how this was pitched as "a new nightmare" à la Wes Craven but now from Jordan Peele. From the opening overhead view (God's eye?) akin to Kubrick's famous opening credits, to the concept of twins to the tight interior angles, The Shining was the film most referenced as helping inspire Peele for his second major horror picture, so I was surprised to see just how much time was spent feeling like your standard home invasion.


I didn't know what to expect going into the theater. Trailers certainly teased the concept of the dark doppelgänger, but this film packed much more into its 116-minute run time. In fact, I think the movie's biggest fault is that it packed too much into its ambitious plot.

I am obsessed with the '80s and also with amusement parks in movies (The Lost Boys, Strangers on a Train, even Teen Witch, to name a few), so I found many scenes from this movie practically magical, especially when Adelaide discovers the underground world beneath the boardwalk. The '80s kitsch was also so good, especially with the Hands Across America plot, because Peele uses it to provide commentary on the parallels between the Regan '80s and our current world: There is a sense of hollowness or superficiality that makes even kind or humanitarian gestures seem fake. Here again we see our theme of duplicity: public and private faces, doublespeak and hidden messages, behavior vs. intent. Who are we really? How do you categorize between "good" and "evil" when some people are just trying to survive? And will we pay for it all?

I was not expecting the eerie (and slightly irrelevant?) opening title message about vast unused tunnels under the United States, which immediately threw me for a curveball upon seeing the movie. As it turns out, this would become one of many aspects the movie included to feel spookier, but that I feel didn't fully pan out. At the end of the day, I really enjoyed this movie, but the myth it wanted us to buy into was too big and too vague for me to feel totally comfortable with it. Sure, most horror movies are based on ridiculous plots, and even Get Out was *impossible*, but there was something about the idea that some government (?) agency cloned us all and forced our Tethered doubles to mimic our every moves in their subterranean classrooms and hallways all while feasting on raw rabbit. I enjoyed the concept of the "puppet masters" and the "puppets," mostly for how this complements the theme of doubles, and even though I found myself adoring the scene where Red explains this all to Adelaide, it was just too much. Regarding the Tethered doppelgängers, I loved their sort of nonspeak (except for Heidecker, who I thought went overboard with the sounds/ was too comically animated more so than the others), and I think that raspy, breathing-in-to-talk choice was really effective.

As far as the twist ending goes, I wish I could say I saw it coming but I didn't until closer to the end. There were times during the film—especially as we see Adelaide embrace the violence and become more animalistic, even through her son's eyes—when I wondered if she had somehow been swapped without us knowing, but of course it was all much more sinister than that. I would love to rewatch the film knowing what I know now in order to pick up on all of those delicious clues. I think it would have cued me in sooner to the concept of the secrets we keep, the truths we ignore, and the masks we wear to live the lives we think we are supposed to live or that we think we deserve to live, even at the expense—whether we know about it or not—of many other people. Are we innocent of the suffering of these Others, who in many ways are just like Us? Or are we guilty, even if we are unaware of their existence in a Sunken Place of sorts, of all that we did not do to right these wrongs? And furthermore, what price to we pay to rise out of those dark places and join the happy majority above ground? I viewed this transition as the "invitation to whiteness" so prominent in the United States by which many peoples and cultures that were once considered minorities were invited to join the white group in power (think women, the Irish, Italians). Some people, such as dark-skinned black Americans, may never be formally invited to join this group, but over time, the decreasing white group realizes its power is slipping and thus invites another marginalized group to rise either to real or imagined power. And of course, many formerly-non-power individuals jump at this opportunity to live out their own American Dream— but at what price? This is the fear 'Adelaide' lives in constantly, knowing that she has abandoned her people beneath the ground to advance only herself, and it provides major commentary about what it's like to alternate between power and non-power groups in the United States. Ultimately it's the real Adelaide-turned-Red who teaches the other Tethereds what it means to have true agency and to have to truly fight, unite, and join hands to make a statement that the world will finally listen to. It's a revolution, and it's no coincidence that Adelaide knew what she was missing from the world above in order to stay determined, inspire the other Tethereds (via "the dance"), and ultimately fight back and educate/moralize the 'Adelaide' we know on the concepts of reparations, revenge, and justice.

All in all, I think the most impressive thing about this movie was the challenge handed to the actors who all had to play two versions of themselves. This added such a richness to the film and at many points I found myself questioning if they truly had found other actors to play these roles. Nyong'o especially delivered in her two roles, and that final fight/dance scene was absolutely stunning. Her physicality throughout the film as both characters was excellent.

Final critique: I enjoyed this film, but I find myself describing it to others as "freaky" and not scary. I didn't feel disappointed at the end, but I do think it was ambitious to the point of feeling a little unfinished or hazy around the edges. Still, the plot was fresh and fun, and the commentary on the oppressed masses rising up is Peele's clearest commentary reminding us that, especially in today's world, we are our own worst enemy.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Director: Roman Polanski
Studios: William Castle Productions, Paramount Pictures
Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer
Tagline: Pray for Rosemary's Baby
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, drama, suspense, witches, cult, spawn of satan
Scare score: C+
Rating: A

Plot overview: Rosemary (Farrow) and Guy (Cassavetes) Woodhouse are a happy young couple living in a luxurious, new apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Guy is a driven, aspiring actor, and Rosemary is a kind but naïve homemaker and hopeful mother-to-be. Although warned by their dear friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) about the strange and dark history of their new building, The Bramford, the young couple are happy in their apartment and are openly embraced by their elderly, eccentric neighbors Minnie (Gordon) and Roman (Blackmer) Castevet. After Rosemary conceives, she goes through an increasingly painful pregnancy, but she has Minnie to help her with home remedies and even the care of one of New York's top obstetricians, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy). As her concern about her unborn child grows greater, Rosemary also begins to learn about the possibility that Roman's family and friends practice witchcraft. Unfortunately, Guy becomes more distant as his acting career takes off substantially. Ultimately alone and scared, Rosemary becomes more desperate to protect her unborn baby, although soon she will realize it might be herself that needs the protection.

This movie is great. Hands down, it is a slow and steady, suspenseful success. Following the eerie (irritating) opening music, we find ourselves in a very real 1960s Manhattan. Rosemary is perfectly chic throughout the whole movie, from her mod minidress, to the wallpaper she puts up in the nursery, to her iconic Vidal Sassoon haircut. While the plot isn't something I personally believe to be plausible, the world that it takes place within most certainly was copied from Polanski and author Ira Levin's real life.

Let's start by talking about Mia Farrow. I mean, come on. She makes Rosemary such an interesting protagonist, even though she spends most the movie confused, in pain, or scared. While there isn't exactly enough depth to make her very realistic (mainly just a mother's instinct to protect her child), there is something really interesting about her. I enjoyed following her on her scary and uncertain journey through pregnancy and potential insemination by satan. Mainly I liked her look: mod, frail, cute, and determined. She was a truly perfect choice for this role.

The other character that sticks out for me, as she did for awards committees at the time, is Minnie Castevet. Ruth Gordon is a ridiculous character from her first scene to her last. The best part is, there are absolutely women like this living in Manhattan that you encounter from time to time on the subway or sidewalk: those old, loud, noisy, tacky, 'devil may care' types— you know to stay out of their way. Ruth turns Minnie into an almost preposterous character who, while annoying, we can still find to be endearing. The mystery behind the many characters in this cast leaves us questioning who is good and who is bad until the end, when perhaps we question our own definitions of 'good' and 'evil.'

I guess the only thing I don't love in this movie is that it drags on at times. At 136 minutes, this certainly isn't the longest film we've ever seen, but the lack of action makes it more noticeable. Not that this movie would benefit from much more action than it already has, but I'm just saying. We can only watch Rosemary wander around pregnant and in pain for so long.


Otherwise I kind of enjoy that any logical audience member goes into the movie more or less knowing what's going to happen. Honestly, we are as in on the plot as the rest of the coven, with only Rosemary being left out. *Irony* Still, any film that can pull this predictable plot off while maintaining an audience—and finding new fans even 50 years later—is a home run.

Final critique:  If you are looking for a wild, fast-paced ride of scares and jumps, this is not the movie you want. If you are looking for a deeper, suspenseful, and subtly terrifying horror classic, then you've come to the right place. I would recommend Rosemary's Baby to any viewers, as it is a relatively calm and all around enjoyable movie with only a few scares or disturbing images. Really excellent film right here, perfect for a rainy afternoon or a quite night in.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Birds (1963)

For any of you old school horror fans out there, you hopefully knew that today (one day only!) was a nation-wide showing of one of Hitchcock's most memorable masterpieces, The Birds. While admittedly I sat across the aisle from some Chatty Cathies and sat behind an older man who apparently found the entire film quite laughable, seeing this horror classic on the silver screen was truly impressive... and pretty freaky.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Studio: Universal Pictures
Starring: Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, (introducing) Tippi Hedren
Tagline: The Birds is coming!
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: suspense, thriller, animals, unexplained phenomenon 
Scare score: B
Rating: A

Plot overview:  The young, attractive, and scandalous socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedren) bumps into Mitch Brenner (Taylor), a charming lawyer, while in a San Francisco - wait for it - bird shop. Brenner, who is shopping for lovebirds to gift to his kid sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), manages to insult the effortlessly flirtatious Daniels after revealing that he knows she has been to court for her crude playgirl behavior. Hoping to learn more about Brenner, Daniels embarks on a long, scenic drive up the California coast to Bodega Bay to deliver two lovebirds ("I see") to Brenner's family home, where the lawyer spends his weekends with his sister and hard-to-please mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Upon Miss Daniels's arrival to the tiny hamlet, however, freak bird attacks begin plaguing the town and its residents. While the attacks start small, hundreds upon hundreds of birds begin to amass, attacking individuals, then children, then the entire town in vicious bouts of winged violence. Soon, Melanie and the Brenners find themselves in an all-out battle for survival against the birds.

It's only appropriate that Hitch is the Master of Suspense since the first bird attack doesn't actually occur until about an hour into the film. In fact, aside from the whole, you know, bird attack thing, this could be a pretty sweet '50s/'60s drama/romance film. Rod Taylor reminded me exactly of Cary Grant throughout most of the movie. But back to the horror: Once the good birds go bad, I found myself physically squirming in my seat and biting my nails during the attack scenes. While the special effects are very outdated, a lot of the scenes were filmed with real birds which, combined with the constant blood, do make for some pretty thrilling, panicked sequences. Hitch's masterful camera angles add such suspense to some scenes, especially the all-out bird barrage against the Brenner home. I loved the different shots of each character in the bottom quarter of the screen with the ceiling taking up the upper 3/4s as we soon learn the birds have broken in through the roof upstairs. Lastly, the first scene of true terror that we see is when Lydia discovers the dead neighbor with his eyes pecked out—which is creepy—and then Hitchcock zooms in 3 TIMES straight into his bloody eye sockets. Excellent.

The scene in the restaurant before and while the birds amass their first large-scale attack on the town is excellent. There is mob psychology; frantic, accusative mothers; panicked townies; and even a village drunk— "It's the end of the world!" There is a very human aspect to this scene as suspense and fear simultaneously rise via discussion about the cause and solution of the town's winged dilemma. This is also the first scene in the film that verbally brings to the audience's attention that the bird attacks started the very afternoon that Melanie arrived to Bodega Bay. Is Melanie the cause of the attacks? Is Melanie, as she is publicly accused, evil? Are the various species of birds in the area reacting to the caged lovebirds that Melanie brought to Cathy? Or is there no natural, logical explanation? This question is never answered, which leaves the suspense unresolved and the film pretty awesome. It kind of reminded me of The Happening, only not terrible.

The acting in the film is extremely impressive. As I learned in TCM's preview before the movie actually started, Alfred Hitchcock literally saw model Tippi Hedren in an ad and had the studio call her to arrange a meeting. This was her first professional acting gig, which might explain why, the first time I saw this film, I thought Melanie seemed pretty aloof. Upon a more thorough viewing, I think she was really great for a debut role: Miss Daniels is both active and reactive, naturally flirtatious and pleasant with a slight edginess, and even towards the end when she goes into shock she plays that very well. I need to give a special shout out to the very young Veronica Cartwright in the role of Cathy, who in both solemn, scary, and pleasant scenes (a combination of all three would be her 'birthday party from hell') is a tremendous actress. The other characters are also believable with much more depth than you will probably find in a modern horror. Like I said, even without all the bad birdies there is still a big film going on here, with creepy silence, plenty of build up, and a fulfilling amount of terror added in. That's suspense at its best.

Final critique:  This is a freaky film. Unpredictable, unexplained, unending terror at the hands, er, claws of a crazed, scary-sized, fast-moving, numerous, and so natural enemy. This film kind of has a Jaws affect to it, but in the air instead of the sea. We've all seen the people that scream when a pigeon flies by about a yard away from them in the city— just picture them if forced to watch The Birds. The acting is great, the setting is charming but creepy in its own way (that old victorian school, the church always in the background), and even with the outdated effects, all of the bird attacks are still scary (although the occasional giggle is still permissible). I recommend this film for all audiences who aren't looking for a simple slasher or screamfest of a movie. For those who scare really easily, I think this flick will provide more than a few jumps and reasons to cover your eyes, but it will only help toughen you up. The world should appreciate Hitchcock for all that he brought to the horror industry, so naturally one of his most famous films is fine by me.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Terror (1963)

Director: Roger Corman (collaborated with Francis Ford Coppola, among others)
Studio: Filmgroup
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Boris Karloff
Tagline: "DRACULA"... "FRANKENSTEIN"... "HOUSE of WAX"... "PIT and the PENDULUM"... and now The TERROR
MPAA Rating: unrated
Genre: suspense, mystery, ghost, haunting, witchcraft
Scare score: C-
Rating: C-

Late on a Sunday night after an exhausting weekend was the perfect time to watch this horror 'classic', a hefty title for a film that doesn't quite stand out in memory as much as, say, Dracula or Frankenstein.  It was difficult rating this film given its production in 1963 and one's automatic expectations of modern horror films, so I tried to take a step back, put myself in my 1960's horror shoes, and enjoy the ride.

Plot overview: Set in an undetermined European coastal country (French Empire? Modern-day Bulgaria? Romania?) in 1806, French lieutenant Andre Duvalier (Nicholson) has been separated from his regiment and is found "weary and disillusioned" on the beach.  Here he first meets mysterious beauty Helene (Sandra Knight) and becomes enraptured by her looks.  After she inexplicably disappears (she does this a lot throughout the film) into the water, Andre is attacked by a very angry hawk (a la The Birds) and passes out for the second time in the first 10 minutes of the movie.  When he comes to, he is in the care of an old woman (Dorothy Neumann) who nurses him back to health with a homemade potion from her sketchy lab-setup.  She is also mysterious (as is every single character in the movie, except for the flat, 1-dimensional Andre), leaving our protagonist with more questions than answers, specifically centered around the whereabouts and disputed existence of Helene, and a now mild-mannered hawk under the witch's, er, old woman's care.  At this point the plot takes a turn down the road of The Wicker Man as Andre searches the area, following clues to discover the truth about Helene, who he has now seen [mysteriously] on several occasions.  His search leads him to the spooky, run-down castle of the elderly Baron von Leppe (Karloff), who lives in a self-sentenced solitude with his hot tempered servant, Stefan (Dick Miller).  Andre quickly learns that the visions of Helene he has been seeing is the ghost of the Baron's wife Ilsa, who has been dead for 20 years.  Her brutal murder took place at the hands of her own husband, who returned from war to find her with another man, Eric, who we are told was killed by Stefan alongside the unfaithful Baroness.  The Baron admits that Ilsa's ghost has been haunting him for two years, urging him to commit suicide and join her eternally.


Little by little, with Andre's meddling and all of the other creepy characters' mysterious revealings, we learn that Ilsa's spirit has been brought back (questionably in Helene's body) by the local witch (Eric's mom!) to lure the guilty and self-loathing Baron into death and avenge Eric's murder as well.  Drama, confusion, and scares wait around every corner.

Again, the quality of this un-remastered movie made it a bit difficult for me to get into, so I had to keep reminding myself to float back to 1963.  While the plot itself is pretty understandable with lots of little twists, I found the movie to be generally confusing, filled with too many scenes of characters running around in the dark, in the woods, in the castle, in the crypt, on the beach, and too many mysterious characters popping in and out, leaving us with more questions than answers until the very end.  The effects are not great (1963, Horror Buff, 1963!), including some presumably animated background drops that took me straight back to the good old days of Scooby Doo.  I did rather enjoy the make up of the corpse we see in the middle of the film, the bloody-and-blinded-by-the-hawk minor character shortly before his convincing fall off a cliff, and the gruesomely decaying face at the end of the film.  These provided some small scares that were certainly entertaining, and I can only imagine were very frightful for audiences at its debut.

I can't say I was a fan of Jack Nicholson in this movie.  Everybody else in the film is a convincing actor and an interesting character, except for our boring and even annoying protagonist, Andre.  Nicholson takes on one mode the entire time as a rather angry and unfazed military officer trying to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the mysterious beauty he has his eyes on.  His lines are delivered poorly, his acting is unconvincing, and his reactions to the twists and turns of the plot are non-existent.

From the moment Stefan, devoted servant to the Baron, begins to have long lines, I immediately found myself guessing what borough of New York City the actor Dick Miller was from.  Not to my surprise in the least, this Bronx native brings his very Bronx-y persona to this character, again, a peasant in Europe in 1806.  Hmm.  I wonder, however, if this was on purpose because Dick Miller was such a personality at the time.  Other than his quick-talking, short-tempered Bronx flare, Miller did a great job, and any viewer can relate to his character, who would do anything to protect his old master...including dying for him.

Karloff is excellent in his role, as we are led to believe, of the Baron Victor Frederick von Leppe, an old man of questionable mental fortitude, haunted by his personal ghosts and a very real one as well.  An absolute icon to the classic horror film industry, Karloff's Baron is both a character we can sympathize with and suspect of any and all wrong-doing that surrounds the plot of this film until we learn more about his true identity towards the end, and by that point, salvation from damnation is just too late.

Final critique: To appreciate this film, you need to be okay with the poor quality and sometimes kitschy set, plot, and overall feel of the production.  In the movie's defense, I will beat the dead horse and mention again that some 60's films tend to have a cheesy feeling about them anyway.  A modern remake, even one retaining the time period of Napoleon's Europe, of this movie could be really frightening.  I can't get over my disappointment with Nicholson's acting or lack thereof, but luckily he is more so a tool that helps unravel the plot for us to enjoy.  The ghost aspect of the film: a will-less, vengeful spirit under the control of an even more vengeful witch, was pretty cool since I wasn't even expecting the ghost to turn out to be real in the end.  Some of the confusion could have been easily eliminated via clearer scenes and small changes to simplify the plot.  The period was fun and different as far as most horror films go, sets were impressive overall, and all the characters (besides Lieutenant Devalier) were interesting and tragic in their own ways, adding depth and credit to the film.  To bring up the movie poster (seen above) for a second, I really have no idea how all those people in a web apply to this movie at all... very random.  The tagline, as well, isn't very creative, and in fact I'm not reminded of Dracula et all after having watched this film.  But that type of tagline does evoke thoughts of cinema in the 50's, and we must remember that this was advertisement in the 60's (Don Draper, even).  Lastly, the title of the film kind of sucks.  When I hear 'the terror' I imagine some devilish force, not just an attractive ghost commanded by a witch who in reality is pretty friendly, and in that case I'm still assuming that the 'terror' refers to Ilsa/ Helene.  Why not "The Baroness' Ghost" or "The Haunting of Castle von Leppe: Eternal Love, Eternal Damnation" (by now you've guessed I'm not in Hollywood writing movie scripts), or anything that gives us some preview as to what the film is actually about?  Anywho, I appreciated the small scares throughout the movie, although they were certainly not too scary for me watching this alone late at night in a dark house.  That being said, I'd recommend this movie to anybody, especially to those who scare easily, if they find the time to sit back and watch this somewhat suspenseful, somewhat grainy horror classic.