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It came as quite a shock to learn, mere moments ago, that Christopher Lee has gone. (I came THIS close to cashing it all in this week, myself: I was driving along, minding my own business, when a 91 year old woman T-boned me- on the driver's side. My hands are trembling even as I write.) In his autobiography, Christopher Lee wastes little time on his performance(s) as Dracula. It's understandable, I suppose: whenever an actor becomes TOO readily identified with a fictional persona, the thespian tends to resent it- and the character. Instances of this are legion. Still, Christopher Lee was, for many, the quintessential Dracula, and one of only a handful of truly unforgettable actors to make his mark in fright Films. Dracula HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE was one of those Fright Films that my brother and I stayed up late (past Midnight) to see- and it scared us so bad that we literally jumped into each other's arms when someone walked into the room. Christopher Lee may be gone- but forgotten? Not in my lifetime.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
MEN FROM THE MONASTERY/DISCIPLES OF DEATH is about as close as one can get to a non-stop action movie. It opens with Fang (Fu Sheng) literally fighting his way out of a Shaolin Temple (going through what is referred to as "Death Alley," a gauntlet he must run against sometimes armed opponents just to prove that he DESERVES to leave- and to LIVE). He has one advantage: by immersing himself in a special vat of liquid over his years at the temple, he has strengthened his skin to the point that he's impervious to weapons (except for one particularly vulnerable area- revealed by his former master to a pair of rivals who want him dead). Although his attackers try to kill him with a sword, he exits uninjured. Cut to disciple number two, Hu (Chen Kuan-chi), who sets out to avenge his father's death in a gambling den. He fails at first, but Fang suggests he join the nearest Temple and learn kung fu- which he does, in one of the quickest such scenes I've ever seen, and returns to avenge his father. Cut to disciple number three, Hung, played by Chen Kuan Tai. He's being hunted by the Manchus while forming an army to oppose them. It all comes together in climactic battle after battle so apparently gory that the screen turns red (a la, HEROES TWO), then goes to black and white for most of the rest of the movie (until Chen Kuan Tai brings up the rear). If you're a fan of all-out action, I highly recommend MEN FROM THE MONASTERY.
While it may have been better suited to Saturday mornings, PLANET OF THE APES had its merits: the performances weren't bad; the sets were out of this world (wink, wink, nudge, nudge); and the makeup was absolutely FANTASTIC. As with most television (Past and Present), the greatest weakness lay in the writing (hence, my assertion that the show would've been better suited to the Saturday morning lineup). The basic concept was viable, but the overall approach gave it that "made-for-the-kiddies" throwaway feel. Just recently, I happened across a Titan book, PLANET OF THE APES: EVOLUTION OF THE LEGEND by Jeff Bond and Joe Fordham, that singlehandedly helped rekindle my obsession with all things Ape: it's a massive, beautifully done look at the series from original conception to the most recent movies, and it reminded me of just how much I love the original movies (which remain, for me, the Pinnacle of Fantasy Filmmaking); there are scores of color shots I've never seen before, many of them full page and begging to be framed. If you're an Apes fan, it's a must-have.
VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN was one of those movies I'd been dying to see for years and I must admit that I wasn't as disappointed as I was afraid I was going to be: it's a thoroughly enjoyable (if often historically wonky) action movie, and boasts perhaps the finest dogfights ever committed to film (certainly far superior to the aerial combat sequences in movies like THE BLUE MAX and THE RED BARON). The greatest fault with VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN is, of course, the script: it comes to us from the same husband and wife team who botched both Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND (retitled THE OMEGA MAN, though Neville in the movie was clearly NOT the last man on Earth) and the dreadful BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES; that VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN turned out as well as it did is something of a miracle and no doubt attributable to Roger Corman's direction. Though (justifiably) famous for his low budget forays into Fantasy and Exploitation films, Corman pulls off quite a coup here. Kudos.
One of my all-time favorites from the Golden Age of Fantasy Films (the 1950s through the 1960s), VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is STILL riveting. The eerie goings-on are beautifully understated, and the horrors that stem from the minds of the alien-begat brats seem all the more shocking as a consequence. The final scenes, wherein Sanders tries to maintain the facade that will enable him to deal once and for all with the brats, are among some of the greatest in the history of Fright Films. For fans who can appreciate solid storytelling and good, imaginative drama, it doesn't get much better than VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. (With the notable exceptions of the original STAR TREK and THE X FILES, we haven't had very much in the way of truly QUALITY Fantastic Fiction on television since the premature demise of THE OUTER LIMITS- the original series-; maybe it's time someone produced another black and white anthology series for the Small Screen. It couldn't hurt...)
There are good performances aplenty in A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, and the cinematography is beautiful (being black and white helps), but it's the slow-moving narrative that keeps it from becoming anything other than just another indy vampire flick. If most independent films have one glaring weakness in common, it seems almost always to be in the writing: ideas that were old hat long before the filmmaker(s) stumbled across them seem fresh and new to them simply because they haven't: read very much in the way of, say, vampires, or: they've seen one too many contemporary take(s) on the all too familiar theme(s). A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT reminds me more than a little of Jim Jarmusch's ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. Trust me on this: there are many far better variations on this theme.
Like the groundbreaking soap opera DARK SHADOWS, PENNY DREADFUL touches on just about every literary and cinematic trope of the past 200 years. The stories of witches and mad scientists (and their monsters) and werewolves and vampires are intertwoven into a sometimes mesmerizing tapestry. Only the de rigeur "lovemaking" scenes so much a part of contemporary "storytelling" seem out of place (at least, to those of us who DON'T equate Horror with Sex). There are episodes of PENNY DREADFUL that are genuinely moving and downright dramatic, which is why I'll continue to follow along as best I can. DARK SHADOWS certainly DOES cast a long shadow...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
At least two-thirds of SUMMER OF BLOOD is laugh-out-loud funny. The reason: Onur Tukel, the contemporary Woody Allen. The script is genuinely funny, as is Tukel himself: he babbles on like Woody Allen, so self-absorbed that absolutely nothing gets between himself and his love of himself. His first encounter with a victim of a vampire is priceless: the man's bleeding out and can't talk because his throat has been ripped out. "Can you SIGN?" Tukel asks. The man begins to respond in sign language (subtitles translate the gestures)- but it doesn't really help... because Tukel doesn't know sign language. "Wow," he murmurs, in amazement: "You really DO know how to sign..." Tukel goes on to plumb the depths of life-after-death in a way that even Woody Allen could only dream of. SUMMER OF BLOOD pulls no punches and I recommend it for Onur Tukel's performance above all else.
KING KONG was one of those unforgettable childhood wonders that STILL manages to evoke a sense of wonder: using every sleight-of-hand movie-making technique then known to Man (and as well as pioneering a few new ones specifically for this occasion), Willis O'Brien and Company gave us "The Eighth Wonder of the World!" I confess: I blasphemed when I touted the Peter Jackson version over this one; beat me, please- I deserve it. It would've been interesting to see the KING KONG VS. FRANKENSTEIN O'Brien had in mind as a follow-up. (The "mutated" version of that idea became the Japanese Kaiju classic, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, in which an irradiated HEART literally blossoms into the giant "Frankenstein" monster; the sequel, WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, featured no reference to the earlier dust-up and NEITHER film credits O'Brien with the original idea.) When I arrived here in Crack Town, the disembodied head of the giant mechaniKong built for the heartbreakingly bad De Laurentis remake was on display outside of what was then Carolco Studios. I shot video of several kids sitting inside Kong's mouth and had planned to do a short about a boy who keeps dreaming that he's being eaten alive by a giant gorilla (in the end, he was to have been found dead of fright in the jaws of the giant head), but it never worked out. It's just as well, I guess: there've been a LOT of bad movies inspired by KING KONG; who needs one more...?
HE DOOD IT AGAIN is probably the best of the early MIGHTY MOUSE cartoons (at least, it's the best of the ones I've seen): the animation is on par with the Max and Dave Fleischer SUPERMAN cartoons of the same period- as might very well be expected, considering the fact that SUPER MOUSE started out wearing the already-iconic red and blue costume (with red cape) made famous by The Man of Steel himself, while also performing Super feats of strength and speed. Looming litigation no doubt forced the makers of the SUPER MOUSE cartoons to rechristen the rodent MIGHTY MOUSE and change his costume to the now-familiar yellow (though he still wore the red cape). Cats are invariably the protagonists in the SUPER MOUSE cartoons (the one exception I found being hunting dogs in THE LION AND THE MOUSE, which also featured a Super Mouse prone to drinking "hard cider," though titles like FRANKENSTEIN'S CAT and DOWN WITH CATS speak for themselves) and there isn't a lot going on storywise to distinguish one from the other, but it's the beautiful animation that makes them worth watching. I grew up watching reruns of the show that featured the famous theme song ("Mighty Mouse is on his way!" "Here I come to save the day!") and I've always loved the character- be he Super Mouse or Mighty Mouse.
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