SPUTNIK (2020) – Science Fiction Horror At Its Best



Few folks would disagree that 2020 has been a rough year, but one bright spot is it has produced a steady stream of very good horror movies.

You can go ahead and add SPUTNIK (2020) to the list, a very effective horror science fiction film which hails from Estonia and takes place in the Soviet Union in 1983.

When a Soviet spacecraft returns to Earth, one cosmonaut is found dead, the other bloodied and disoriented. Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) calls in psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) to help evaluate the condition of the surviving cosmonaut, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov). What they discover is that there is an alien creature living inside Veshnyakov that emerges from his body at night only to return a short time later. It needs Veshnyakov’s body to survive in its new environment, and by living inside its host, it has developed a symbiotic relationship, one where Veshnyakov can no longer survive without it.

The less said about the plot of SPUTNIK,  the better, as one of the best parts of this movie is its thought-provoking script by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev. It tells a compelling story which scores high on the suspense meter, delves into science fiction themes revolving around alien life forms, covers Soviet era Cold War suspense, and manages to encompass the theme of abandonment, of how we all need someone else to survive in this world. After all, the word Sputnik, while the name of the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, launched by the Soviet Union, also means “companion” in Russian.

In terms of tone and feel, SPUTNIK has more in common with films like EX MACHINA (2014) and ARRIVAL (2016) than it does with the ALIEN movies.

That being said, the actual alien in this one is pretty cool looking. It reminded me of a miniature version of the monster from CLOVERFIELD (2008). The special effects here are excellent, and the creature looks creepy and real.

Director Egor Abramenko keeps the thrills tight and builds suspense throughout. There are some genuinely horrific scenes in this one, as well as plenty of low key thought-provoking moments of intrigue.

The cast is superb. Oksana Akinshina leads the way as psychologist Tatyana Klimova. Akinshina’s performance carries the movie. Tatyana is more than up to the task of standing up to the Soviet military, personified here by Colonel Semiradov, but she becomes more vulnerable as she grows closer to her subject, cosmonaut Konstantin. She also has some really cool scenes where she attempts to communicate with the alien creature.

Likewise, Fedor Bondarchuk is excellent as Colonel Semiradov, the military man who sells himself to Tatyana as a man independent of his superiors, but in reality is most interested in the alien for its potential use as a weapon.

And Pyotr Fyodorov is also very good as cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov, a man who believes himself a hero but is also pained by choices he has made in his personal life. And what he knows about the alien inside him also makes him yet another intriguing aspect to this story.

The fourth principal character in this movie is Yan Rigel, an eminent Soviet scientist who at first is jealous of Tatyana’s involvement in the investigation, and he’s well played by Anton Vasilev. Rigel eventually becomes a sympathetic character, and Vasilev keeps the changes this character undergoes believable throughout.

SPUTNIK also features a strong music score by Oleg Karpachev, which really adds a lot to the movie and further enhances its uneasy mood.

I really liked SPUTNIK, and it’s one of my favorite movies of the year so far. In terms of enjoyable horror movies from 2020, SPUTNIK joins the likes of THE INVISIBLE MAN, UNDERWATER,  THE RENTAL, WE SUMMON  THE DARKNESS, THE WRETCHED, and RELIC, all 2020 releases, all really good horror movies.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking science fiction film, one that mixes its cerebral themes with emotional ones, plus adds some genuine horror and suspense to the mix, then look no further than SPUTNIK.

It’s science fiction horror at its best.








THE SILENCING (2020) – Serial Killer Thriller Almost Very Good

the silencing

Annabelle Wallis in THE SILENCING (2020)

I’m a fan of Annabelle Wallis, and so when I saw she was starring in THE SILENCING (2020), a serial killer thriller which takes places in the Canadian wilderness, I definitely wanted to check it out.

Gustafson (Annabelle Wallis) is the new sheriff in town, and when she’s not on the job she’s dealing with her troubled younger brother Brooks (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) who’s constantly running afoul of the law, and with good reason, as he was abused for years by his stepparents.

When Gustafson and her officers discover the dead body of a teenage girl in the woods, it appears as if she had been hunted before she had been killed.

At the morgue, one of the locals, Rayburn (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) whose daughter has been missing for five years, asks to see the body, and it turns out that the deceased is not his daughter. Rayburn is now an alcoholic, and because his daughter hated hunting so much, he now operates a wildlife sanctuary where he works to protect animals from hunters, complete with cameras set up all through the woods, in memory of his daughter.

One night, Rayburn sees on his cameras a young woman fleeing through the woods, being pursued by a stalker dressed in animal fur. Rayburn races into the woods, confronts the assailant, and manages to rescue the girl, who he brings back to his home.

But the killer has not given up and follows them back there, around the same time that Sheriff Gustafson arrives for a different matter. What follows next is a brutal game of cat and mouse as the hunt for the killer intensifies.

At the outset, THE SILENCING possessed the look and feel of a couple of other teenage girl murder stories which take place in the wildnerness, Christopher Nolan’s INSOMNIA (2002) and Taylor Sheridan’s WIND RIVER (2017). Now, INSOMNIA and WIND RIVER are both much better movies than THE SILENCING, but this film has its moments.

There’s a twist midway through that I didn’t see coming that I really liked. In fact, it almost gave new meaning to the film’s title, but alas, this doesn’t happen, as it’s followed by a couple of more twists, and unfortunately, there is just one twist too many. I didn’t like the final one, which led to a very standard and disappointing conclusion.

The screenplay by Micah Ranum is bursting with potential but just never really gets there. It’s as if it needed one more rewrite. The pervading feel of gloom is there throughout, seen mostly through Rayburn’s brooding over the unknown fate of his daughter, but also through the lives of everyone living in the area, and it’s here where the script doesn’t finish the job. Other than Rayburn and Sheriff Gustafson, we know very little about the other characters in this one. Had we gotten a real sense about the problems of these people, it would have gone a long way in making this a deeper story.

The dialogue is also nothing to write home about, and as I said, the film’s final twist doesn’t really add anything to the movie. In fact, it makes it worse.

The pacing is also very slow. The film only runs for 93 minutes but at times seemed longer, and this is because there are a lot of scenes where characters are having conversations which seem peripheral to the story rather than getting right down to the very intriguing murder investigation. Director Robin Pront captures the mood of the piece with dreary photography, and the suspense builds early on leading up to the first twist, but later, the intensity dwindles. The ending is predictable, and as such, a letdown.

I definitely enjoyed Annabelle Wallis as Sheriff Gustafson, a flawed and very interesting character who would have been even more so had the writing held up. Wallis of course starred in the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS (2013-1019), and she also starred in ANNABELLE (2014).

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is also excellent as Rayburn, who ends up pretty much being the main character in this one.

The rest of the cast is also very good, including Hero Fiennes Tiffin as Gustafson’s brother Brooks, Melanie Scrofano as Rayburn’s ex-wife Debbie, Zahn McClarnon as officer Blackhawk, who also happens to be Debbie’s current husband, and Charlotte Lindsay Marron as Molly, the teen who Rayburn attempts to rescue.

THE SILENCING is almost a very good movie. Its story just needed a bit more fleshing out. As it stands, it’s a decent thriller with some good acting performances, but at the end of the day, even with a neat twist in the middle, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

As such, I won’t be shouting from the rooftops praising THE SILENCING. No, I’ll be somewhat….. silent.








PROJECT POWER (2020) – Pill Popping Superhero Tale Mildly Diverting


project power

A superhero movie where the superheroes need to pop a pill to get their superpowers? Hmm. Sounds like the quintessential American superhero story!

That’s the premise behind PROJECT POWER (2020), a new superhero movie now available on Netflix.

In New Orleans, there’s this new pill on the streets that’s all the rage. Pop it and it gives you a superpower. Of course, like any drug, it can be dangerous, so for some folks, when they take it, they—- blow up!  Yikes! 

Police detective Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is busy on the streets of New Orleans trying to track down the main supplier of these super pills. He befriends a young dealer named Robin (Dominique Fishback) who’s doing this to pay the medical bills for her sick mother. Robin supplies Frank with information here and there, but nothing major.

Frank’s investigation is further compounded by men in suits who continually show up and shut the door on the local police, frustrating both Frank and his superior, Captain Craine (Courtney B. Vance). But then Craine shares a tip with Frank, that the men in suits are looking for a man named Art (Jamie Foxx) who they believe is the main supplier, and so Frank decides to find him first.

And Art is on the streets, but he’s not the main supplier. He is actually searching for his daughter, who was kidnapped by these strange scientist folks who are using her “special” DNA as part of their experiments developing this drug. On his search, Art crosses paths with Robin, and with Frank closing in, these three characters eventually come together  setting up the main confrontation with the film’s baddies.

PROJECT POWER has its moments, but not enough of them to lift this one to superior super hero status. The best part of this one is its cast.

Jamie Foxx is excellent as Art, the former soldier who’s out to take down the superpill cartel in order to rescue his daughter. He gets some good lines, has deadly charisma throughout, and looks believable taking down all the bad guys.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is equally as good as Frank, the cop who’s trying to do right by his city. Like Foxx, Gordon-Levitt gets a lot of good lines and also looks believable in the action scenes.

And Dominque Fishback shines as Robin in a very spirited performance.

All three of these performers deliver the goods and create some likeable characters, so even when the story isn’t firing on all cylinders, at the very least you get to enjoy these folks on screen.

The screenplay by Mattson Tomlin is okay. It’s really nothing we haven’t seen before. The super pill stuff is actually a bit confusing. On the one hand, characters speak of how it enhances the powers already inside the individuals taking it, but in the next breath, we see the scientists experimenting with animal and human DNA. Which one is it?

And like a lot of superhero movies, PROJECT POWER suffers from a lack of a villain. There isn’t one main bad guy here, and the few who appear in this film are sadly lacking in both villainous vision and charisma.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have this one looking good. It’s all slick and polished, but the action sequences rarely wow, and the fight scenes while commendable don’t really stand out.

PROJECT POWER is a mixed bag. I enjoyed the actors in this one immensely, and thought they created some very likable characters, but the story here never really takes off, nor do the action scenes do much to lift this one.

It doesn’t really compare to the films in the Marvel cinematic universe, although it is better than some of the awful DC films which have come out in the past few years. It also just doesn’t really have the feel of a superhero movie. It plays more like a police action/ science fiction tale.

At the end of the day, PROJECT POWER proves to be a mild diversion for those of us waiting for the day when theaters reopen and the major superhero releases return to the big screen.







Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis in THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944).

I have a soft spot for the Universal movies featuring Kharis the Mummy.

They’re not widely considered Universal’s best, but I’ve always enjoyed them, and even though Kharis might lose a foot race to Michael Myers, I’ve always found him creepy and frightening, especially when played by Lon Chaney Jr., which he was in three of the four films to feature the character.

All this being said, THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944), the third film in the Kharis series and the second to star Chaney, is probably my least favorite of the series, which is funny, because for a lot of folks it’s their pick for the best of the bunch. But not for me, and the main reason for my lack of love for this one— don’t get me wrong, I still like this movie—is it’s just not as memorable as the other films in the series. It just sort of goes through the motions. THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942) contained one of the best endings in the entire series, and THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944) took place in the Louisiana swamps which added a unique flavor and made Kharis even creepier as he lurked in and out of the bayou.

But THE MUMMY’S GHOST does have Lon Chaney Jr., and that’s a plus.

THE MUMMY’S GHOST opens with the so-old-he’s-going-to-keel-over-any-second Egyptian high priest Andoheb (George Zucco) giving instructions to yet another high priest Yousef Bey (John Carradine). Bey’s mission is to travel to the U.S., specifically to Massachusetts, and there retrieve the bodies of Kharis the mummy and the mummified princess, whose remains are inside a museum there. Even though we saw Kharis supposedly perish in a fire at the end of THE MUMMY’S TOMB, it’s hinted at in this film that he can’t really die, which is convenient, because the first time we see Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) in this movie, he just sort of emerges from the woods, with no explanation as to how he escaped the fire in the previous movie.

In Massachusetts, the story revolves around two college students, Tom (Robert Lowery) and his girlfriend Amina (Ramsay Ames), who we learn is part Egyptian. Cue dramatic music! Yousef Bey arrives, finds Kharis, brews the all important tana leaves, nine to be exact, to keep his favorite Mummy fit and strong, and together they plan to steal the mummified body of the princess Ananka, which makes Kharis happy since he’s finally going to see his long lost girlfriend again. But alas, when they attempt to remove the body, it crumples to dust, which infuriates Kharis, and he reacts by nearly tearing down the museum!

But not to worry, it’s discovered that the spirit of Ananka is now living inside Amina! And so, Kharis and Yousef Bey change their plans and go after Amina, and all is going well for them too, until once again the high priest messes things up. Yes, Yousef Bey falls in love with Amina and decides he wants her for himself. I can just see Kharis rolling his eyes in disgust: every time a high priest is sent to help him, the result is the same, the priest falls in love with a woman and screws up the mission. It’s true!

THE MUMMY’S GHOST does have one of the better casts in the series, and it’s loaded with veteran character actors, including Frank Reicher, known to horror fans as Captain Englehorn in both KING KONG (1933) and SON OF KONG (1933). Reicher plays a college professor named Norman who is an Egyptian scholar, a role he reprised from the previous film, THE MUMMY’S TOMB. He has a bit more screen time here in GHOST, and gets to enjoy one of the better scenes in the film. It’s just a small bit, where he converses with his wife after a long night of researching, but it’s such a sincere loving moment, it makes his death at the hands of Kharis moments later all the more frightening and sad.

Robert Lowery play the male romantic lead Tom, and he’s decent enough. A few years later Lowery would play Batman in the serial BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949). Ramsay Ames plays Amina, and she’s okay but her performance has never really wowed me.

Likewise the great John Carradine is just meh here as Yousef Bey. It’s still fun to see him though. And George Zucco makes the most of his brief scenes early on as the aged Andoheb.

This is the second time Lon Chaney Jr. played Kharis, and I think it’s his least effective. The make-up simply isn’t as spooky looking as it was in THE MUMMY’S TOMB, and Kharis simply doesn’t have all that many memorable moments here. In fact, in this movie, Kharis seems to be slower than ever, as there are too many scenes where we just see him walking. Walking. And walking. He’s much scarier when he’s murdering. Now, that does happen here in THE MUMMY’S GHOST, but for some reason these scenes don’t resonate as well as similar scenes in the other movies.

Sadly, director Reginald Le Borg just doesn’t really craft many scary scenes here.

Also, when the hero of your movie is a dog, that’s not a good thing. Kharis steals the body of Amina, and Tom and the authorities are clueless, until Tom’s dog barks to him and leads him and the police on a chase to hunt down Kharis!

Where is he, boy? Where is Kharis? Take us to him!

Er, no.

But that’s sort of what happens in this one.

The screenplay by Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher, and Brenda Weisberg does contain the interesting element of the princess Ananka’s soul entering Amina’s body, and does set up a somewhat memorable conclusion where Kharis carries Amina into the swamps as her body undergoes a frightening transformation. In fact, this is the part of the movie that most fans cite as being their favorite. For me, it’s too little too late. Hammer Films would borrow heavily from this conclusion for their Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee remake THE MUMMY (1959) only without the frightening transformation.

Sucher and Jay also wrote the screenplay to the previous film in the series, THE MUMMY’S TOMB. and Jay wrote the screenplay to one of my favorite Bela Lugosi movies, THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943). Both those screenplays are better than the one for THE MUMMY’S GHOST.

And while it’s not explicitly said in the movie, the ghost in the film’s title probably refers to the ghost of Ananka whose spirit takes up residence inside the body of Amina.

At the end of the day, THE MUMMY’S GHOST is still an opportunity to see Kharis the Mummy strut his stuff, and for me, especially during the lazy hazy  days of summer, that’s a good thing.



WE SUMMON THE DARKNESS (2020) – Horror Movie Flawed But Still Works

we summon the darkness

Amy Forsyth, Alexandra Daddario, and Maddie Hasson in WE SUMMON THE DARKNESS (2020).

If you like horror movies and 1980s heavy metal rock music, chances are you’ll enjoy WE SUMMON THE DARKNESS (2020), a new horror movie now available on Netflix about three young women on their way to a heavy metal rock concert in 1988 Indiana, in an area where young people have been brutally murdered by members of a satanic cult.


That’s right. As the three women travel to the concert, the body count has reached eighteen. But that doesn’t deter these three friends, Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), Val (Maddie Hasson), and Beverly (Amy Forsyth) from going, as they are not about to let a little thing like satanic cult murders get in their way of some fun. They know how to take care of themselves.

In the parking lot outside the concert, they meet three young musicians, Mark (Keean Johnson), Kovacs (Logan Miller), and Ivan (Austin Swift), and since they hit it off and get along so well, after the concert Alexis invites them all back to her dad’s secluded home, since he’s away for the weekend.

How convenient.

What follows is not quite what you expect. Yes, it involves the satanic cult, but there’s a twist here, which is both good and bad. It’s good because it pivots the plot and gives this one a completely different feel. But it also gets in the way of it being as horrific and as frightening as it could have been. The longer it goes on, the more far-fetched it becomes.

But overall I enjoyed WE SUMMON THE DARKNESS very much. It just wasn’t as chilling as I expected it to be.

I really liked the screenplay by Alan Trezza.  The dialogue is excellent, realistic and humorous in lots of places. The girls’ conversation in the opening sequence while they’re driving to the concert is flat out hilarious.

The first half of this movie which sets up the horror elements is very good, and then once the story pivots, with its twist, it does run into a little trouble. At first, the twist is refreshing and innovative, but then things become more outlandish almost to the point of campiness, when early on it looked like this one was going to be a gritty hard-hitting thriller. And that’s largely because the cult isn’t anywhere near as disturbing as initially advertised.

As a result, as enjoyable as WE SUMMON THE DARKNESS is, it’s really not very scary.

Director Marc Meyers does an excellent job with the set-up, and he does capture the essence of the 1980s somewhat. The music is there, the hair styles, but not a whole lot else. And while there are violent scenes during the movie’s second half, they’re just not very intense. Again, the film goes for camp rather than shock.

The cast is good. All six of the main actors make impressions.  While I enjoyed both Alexandra Daddario and Maddie Hasson in their roles, I thought Amy Forsyth gave the best performance in the movie, as her character Beverly had a bit more depth than the others. She’s a runaway, new to this group of friends, and so throughout the ordeal she has more issues she’s dealing with.

Likewise, both Logan Miller and Austin Swift were enjoyable in their roles, and I thought Keean Johnson stood out most as Mark. He had the dark, brooding, persona going for him, and later when things get crazy, he’s the guy who steps up the most.

Johnny Knoxville plays John Henry Butler, a preacher who is constantly on the airwaves speaking against the evils of rock music and the satanic cult.

As silly as this movie eventually becomes, its subtext which speaks to the dangers of politicized religion and how often the most vocal of religious leaders are themselves worse than the threats of which they speak was not lost on me. In this day and age so much hate and misinformation is spewed in the name of religion.

Could WE SUMMON THE DARKNESS have been better? Sure. It could have been brutally frightening, a la GREEN ROOM (2015), or it could have gone full blown STRANGER THINGS (2016-present) and really nailed the 1980s. Or it could have been a high camp gore fest in an homage to THE EVIL DEAD ( 1981). It does none of these things.

But it is well-acted, well-written, and well-directed, and it makes for an enjoyable 90 minutes of diverting horror fun. It does get convoluted towards the end, and it’s never as in-your-face-disturbing as it needs to be, but overall it’s a polished piece of horror cinema, and it even has something to say about the overreach of religion.

It’s flawed, but WE SUMMON THE DARKNESS still works.

So go ahead. Summon the darkness!




THE HORROR JAR: Peter Cushing As Van Helsing


Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) goes to work in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, the column where we look at lists pertaining to horror movies.

Up today a look at the number of times Peter Cushing played Van Helsing in the movies. While Cushing played Baron Frankenstein more— he wreaked havoc as Victor Frankenstein six times in the movies— his portrayal of Dracula’s arch nemesis is right behind, as he wielded crucifixes and wooden stakes five times.

Here’s a look:

peter cushing - horror of dracula ending

Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) taking on Dracula in the famous finale of HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)


Director: Terence Fisher. Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster

Known outside the United States simply as DRACULA, this is arguably Hammer Films’ greatest horror movie. It followed immediately upon the heels of Hammer’s first international hit, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), which starred Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the Creature.

Both actors were reunited in HORROR OF DRACULA, with Lee portraying Dracula, and Cushing playing Van Helsing. Yet the film was tailored more for Cushing than for Lee, which made sense, since Cushing had been Britain’s number one TV star for nearly a decade, while Lee was a relative newcomer.  Cushing had the most screen time and was as awesome as ever, yet it was Lee with his ability to do more with less who arguably stole the show with one of the most chilling portrayals of Dracula ever.

Still, for Peter Cushing fans, his first turn as Van Helsing is pretty special. He played the character unlike the way Bram Stoker had written him in the novel DRACULA.  Gone was the wise elderly professor and in his place was a young dashing action hero, expertly played by Cushing. And with Christopher Lee shocking the heck out of the audience throughout the movie, a believable credible Van Helsing was needed. You had to believe that someone could stop Dracula, and Peter Cushing made this happen. It’s no surprise then, that the film’s conclusion, when these two heavyweights meet for the first time in Dracula’s castle, is the most exciting Dracula ending ever filmed.

HORROR OF DRACULA was also the birth of James Bernard’s iconic Dracula music score.


Peter Cushing - van helsing - brides of dracula

Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) hot on the trail of vampires in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).


Director: Terence Fisher   Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, Edward Percy

Peter Cushing was right back at it again two year later when he reprised the role in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960). Unfortunately, Christopher Lee did not share his co-star’s enthusiasm and refused to return to play Dracula, in fear of being typecast. Lee would change his mind several years later.

Anyway,  as a result, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA does not feature Dracula. Instead, it’s a brand new story with a brand new vampire, Baron Meinster (David Peel). While Dracula’s omission may have harmed this one at the box office, that’s one of the few negatives one can find about this classic vampire movie.

Terence Fisher, Hammer’s best director, was at the top of his game here, and for most Hammer fans, this is the best looking and most atmospheric Dracula movie of them all. In fact, for many Hammer Films fans, BRIDES is their all time favorite Hammer Film!

Peter Cushing returns as Van Helsing, and once more his performance is spot-on, without equal. Again, he plays Van Helsing as an energetic, tireless hero, this time sparring with Baron Meinster. Their battles in an old windmill, while not as memorable as the conclusion of HORROR OF DRACULA, are still pretty intense and make for quite the notable ending.

There’s also the added bonus of Van Helsing’s relationship with the beautiful Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur). In a neat piece of drama, while Marianne is engaged to be married to vampire Baron Meinster, at the end of the movie, she ends up in Van Helsing’s arms, not the vampire’s.  The future Mrs. Van Helsing, perhaps?



Once again, it’s Dracula (Christopher Lee) vs. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) in DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

Director: Alan Gibson   Screenplay: Don Houghton

It would be a long time coming before Peter Cushing would play Van Helsing again, twelve years to be exact, and he wouldn’t even be playing the original character but a descendant of the original Van Helsing living in London in 1972, in Hammer Films’ Dracula update DRACULA A.D. 1972 which brought Dracula into the here and now.

The story goes that after the immense success of the TV movie THE NIGHT STALKER (1971) which told the story of a superhuman vampire terrorizing present-day Las Vegas, Hammer decided to get in on the action and bring Dracula into the 1970s as well.

A lot had happened since Christopher Lee had declined to play Dracula again back in 1960. He finally reprised the role in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), Hammer’s direct sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA, a superior thriller that sadly did not feature Peter Cushing in the cast. And then Lee played the character again in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) which smashed box office records for Hammer and became their biggest money maker ever. Dracula had become Hammer’s bread and butter. Lee reprised the role in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969) and again in THE SCARS OF DRACULA (1970).

With DRACULA A.D. 1972, Hammer finally decided it was time to bring Peter Cushing back into the Dracula series. Unfortunately, the “bringing Dracula into the 1970s” bit did not work out well at all, and the film was a monumental flop at the box office.

The good news is DRACULA A.D. 1972 has only gotten better with age. In 1972, what was considered bad dialogue and sloppy 1970s direction, today is viewed with fond nostalgia, and rather than being met with groans, the campy dialogue is greeted nowadays with loud approving laughter.

And you certainly can’t fault Lee or Cushing for the initial failure of DRACULA A.D. 1972. As expected, both actors deliver topnotch performances, especially Cushing as the original Van Helsing’s descendant, Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing. In 1972, Cushing was closer in age to the way Stoker had originally written the role, but nonetheless he still played the Professor as an action-oriented hero. His scenes where he works with Scotland Yard Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) are some of the best in the movie.

Cushing also gets a lot of memorable lines in this one. In fact, you could make the argument, though no one does, that his best ever Van Helsing performance is right here in DRACULA A.D. 1972. The only part that doesn’t work as well is the climactic confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula, as it does not contain anywhere near the same energy level as the conclusion to HORROR OF DRACULA.


Peter Cushing - satanic rites of dracula.jpg

Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) armed with a crucifix and a silver bullet in THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973).


Director: Alan Gibson   Screenplay: Don Houghton

Hammer wasted no time and dove right into production with their next Dracula movie, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973), which reunited the same creative team from DRACULA A.D. 1972, with Alan Gibson once again directing, Don Houghton writing the screenplay, and with Christopher Lee again playing Dracula, and Peter Cushing once more playing Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing. Even Michael Coles reprised his role as Scotland Yard Inspector Murray.

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA is pretty much a direct sequel to DRACULA A.D. 1972, as the events once again take place in present day London. At the time, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA was considered the superior movie of the two, but the trouble was, back in 1973 so few people saw it, because DRACULA A.D. 1972 had performed so poorly at the box office Hammer was unable to release SATANIC RITES in the United States.

It would take five years for the movie to make it to the U.S., as it was finally released in 1978 with the awful title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDES. Ugh!

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA took a page out of James Bond, and had Dracula acting as a sort of James Bond villain hell bent on taking over the world, complete with motorcycle driving henchmen! It was up to Inspector Murray and Professor Van Helsing to stop him!

Strangely, today, DRACULA A.D.1972 is considered the superior movie, as its campiness has aged well, while the convoluted James Bond style plot of SATANIC RITES has not.

Peter Cushing also has fewer memorable scenes as Van Helsing in this one. One of the more memorable sequences does involve Van Helsing confronting Dracula in his high rise office, a scene in which Lee payed Bela Lugosi homage by using a Hungarian accent, but even this scene is somewhat jarring, seeing Dracula seated behind a desk a la Ernest Stavro Blofeld. The only thing missing is his holding a cat, or in this case, perhaps a bat!

The ending to SATANIC RITES is actually very, very good, and in a neat touch, as if to symbolize that the series had finally ended, after Dracula disintegrates into dust, once more the only thing remaining of him is his ring, a homage to the ending to HORROR OF DRACULA. In that movie, Van Helsing left the ring on the floor, and the piece of jewelry proved instrumental in reviving Dracula in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS. At the end of SATANIC RITES, Cushing’s Van Helsing picks up the ring. Most likely for safe keeping.

The series had ended.

Only, it hadn’t.


peter cushing- legend of the seven golden vampires

Peter Cushing plays Van Helsing for the last time in THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974).


Director: Roy Ward Baker   Screenplay: Don Houghton

While Christopher Lee had finally had enough and called it quits after playing Dracula seven times for Hammer, the studio decided it still had one more Dracula picture left.

The gimmick this time was it would be their first martial arts Dracula movie. Yep, Dracula’s spirit enters a Chinese warlord, and he returns to China to lead their infamous seven golden vampires.

Hot on Dracula’s trail it’s, you got it! Van Helsing! And Peter Cushing agreed to play the role again, and since this story takes place in 1904, Cushing once again plays the original Van Helsing, a role he hadn’t played since THE BRIDES OF DRACULA in 1960.

As Dracula movies go, THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is— well, interesting. It did not perform well at the box office, and unlike DRACULA A.D. 1972 hasn’t really developed a cult following, mostly because it’s just so— different. Kung fu fights in a Dracula movie?

I actually like this movie a lot, and I think most of it works well. It’s actually quite the handsome production, well-directed by Roy Ward Baker. It also features one of James Bernard’s best renditions of his famous Dracula score.

And of course you have Peter Cushing playing Van Helsing, sadly for the very last time. Also sad is that he’s missing from most of the action scenes here. While Cushing always played Van Helsing as a physical hero, he wasn’t quite up for the martial arts scenes. That being said, I’ll give you three guesses as to who finally destroys Dracula in this movie, and the first two don’t count

THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is actually a lot of fun, and today it provides a nice showcase for Peter Cushing’s final movie portrayal of one of his most iconic roles, Dr. Van Helsing.

Okay, there you have it. A look at Peter Cushing’s five movie portrayals of Van Helsing. Now go have some fun and watch some of these!

Hope you enjoyed today’s column and that you’ll join me again next time for another HORROR JAR column where we’ll look at more horror movie lists.

As always, thanks for reading!












DESPERADOS (2020) – Vulgar Rom Com Actually Has Charm and Provides Laughs


Sarah Burns, Nasim Pedrad, and Anna Camp sending an off-color email in DESPERADOS (2020), setting the stage for the ensuing madcap comedy.

DESPERADOS (2020), a new rom com currently available on Netflix, is getting deplorable reviews.  But I enjoyed this one. I liked the characters, and I laughed quite a bit, which for me is the true indicator of a good comedy. Make me laugh, and I’m in.

DESPERADOS made me laugh.

Wesley (Nasim Pedrad) is having a tough go at it. She can’t get a job, as her efforts to land a position as a school guidance counselor continue to be fruitless. She’s having no luck with dating, as the men she’s interested in keep marrying other women, and her latest blind date with a guy named Sean (Lamorne Morris) is over within minutes. But when she meets Jared (Robbie Amell) she is swept off her feet, and the two hit it off immediately and share a night of passionate lovemaking.

However, the following week, Jared ghosts her, as he doesn’t reply to her texts. Frustrated, she and her two best friends, Brooke (Anna Camp) and Kaylie (Sarah Burns) get drunk and decide to write Jared the nastiest email ever, which they do. And just as they are sending it, Jared calls Wesley and tells her he’s in a hospital in Mexico recovering from a nasty accident, and that he’s been in a medically induced coma all week.


Wesley decides that there is no way she can allow Jared to read that email, and she deduces that the only way to do this is to go to Mexico herself, find Jared’s computer, which is in his hotel room, and delete the email herself before he’s released from the hospital. Brooke and Kaylie agree to go with her.

And so the rest of the movie follows their madcap attempts at finding that computer and deleting the email.

As stories go, the one told in DESPERADOS is nothing new or special, but there’s just something amiable about it that had me chuckling throughout. In spite of its frequent and not always successful vulgar humor, there’s a simple playfulness present in this movie that hearkens way, way back to the classic rom coms of yesteryear, those Doris Day/Rock Hudson gems from the 1950s-60s.

And DESPERADOS wastes no time. Its pre-credit sequence where Wesley interviews with a nun for a guidance counselor position at a Catholic school, and she’s pretty much got the job, but she keeps on talking about her views on sex and masturbation, for instance, is— well, flat out hilarious is what it is! I was laughing out loud before the opening credits, and that for me was a very good sign.

The screenplay by Ellen Rapoport is very funny. It does get lewd and crude, and not always with good results. For instance, there’s an explicit bit with a dolphin that I did not find funny at all. Nor did I enjoy the running gag about Wesley being accused of being a pedophile because she keeps crossing paths with a young boy in various unintended sexual situations, and the boy obviously develops a crush on her. Honestly, I found nothing comical about this plot point.

However, the frank and colorful conversations among Wesley and her best friends Brooke and Kaylie about sex I found hilarious. There’s a line about going down and “would you rather” that made me laugh out loud.

The physical comedy is also very good. Director LP sets up lots of slapstick scenes, from Wesley’s attempts to climb an electric fence to a dubious leap from a hotel balcony.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alum Nasim Pedrad excels as Wesley, and she really does carry this movie. She’s extremely entertaining, and since she’s in nearly every scene, I couldn’t help but enjoy watching from beginning to end.

She also shares strong chemistry with Lamorne Morris, as his character Sean by chance also happens to be in Mexico. He helps her on her mission to rescue her relationship with Jared. Of course in doing so, he and Wesley begin to fall for each other. Again, not the most original plot point, but it works here thanks to solid writing and first-rate performances by Pedrad and Morris. Morris starred in the TV show NEW GIRL (2011-18), and interestingly enough Pedrad also co-starred on that show for a time as Morris’ love interest.

Anna Camp and Sarah Burns round out the cast as Wesley’s friends Brooke and Kaylie, and they each enjoy fine moments in the movie. The scene where they attempt to pick up two guys at a bar in Mexico is one of the crudest yet funniest scenes in the movie.

And Heather Graham shows up towards the film’s end as a spiritual guru Angel de la Paz in what could have been a total throwaway role, but it’s not. She hangs around long enough to have a key scene in the movie.

Does all of DESPERADOS work? Nope.  Some of it doesn’t, like its depiction of the Mexican hotel workers, which I found to be cliche and beneath the type of characterizations we should be seeing in the here and now. But overall I laughed much more than I thought I would.


I actually enjoyed DESPERADOS more than the well-received rom com THE HALF OF IT (2020), simply because I laughed more. I also thought it was far funnier than THE LOVEBIRDS (2020), COFFEE & KAREEM (2020), and LIKE A BOSS (2020), some other recent comedies I’ve reviewed this year.

If you’re looking to laugh, and you don’t mind your rom coms on the vulgar side, look no further than DESPERADOS. Ignore what critics are saying. It’s the real deal. In spite of its formulaic plot, it has a romantic story tucked away neatly inside its frank sexual conversations and crass sight gags, culminating in a movie that somehow manages to capture the spirit of the classic romantic comedies of yesteryear, and it does this by giving us flawed characters who mean well, and comedy that actually makes us laugh.

And these days, where finding a good movie comedy is proving as difficult as finding disinfectant cleaners at the grocery store, that’s saying quite a lot.



THE RENTAL (2020) – Exceptional Thriller Let Down By Substandard Ending


Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Jeremy Allen White, and Sheila Vand as the doomed foursome in THE RENTAL (2020)

You know the old adage, “if it’s too good to be true it probably is.”

Or is it, “if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t?” Hmm. That’s a debate for a different column.

Either way, that’s the case made here in THE RENTAL (2020), a new horror movie by first-time director Dave Franco, which tells the story of two couples enjoying a dream vacation house for the weekend, only to find out that things aren’t so dreamy there. This is all well and good, except the reason why things aren’t so dreamy there, is a head-scratcher.

And that’s because the superior screenplay by Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg sets up the perfect story, with really believable characters, and places them in a subtly precarious situation, and so for two thirds of the movie, THE RENTAL is an extremely satisfying and intriguing thriller. But then everything unravels in the film’s final reel with a standard and not very interesting conclusion which is fathoms below all that had come before it.

THE RENTAL (2020) opens with power couple Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) planning the perfect weekend getaway at a remarkable rental property off in the wilderness. Charlie and Mina run their own business together, and for them, it’s the perfect union. They are not however, together romantically. No, Charlie is married to Michelle (Alison Brie), and Mina is dating Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White). Hmm, I sense trouble in paradise.

And so do these two couples even before they head out to the rental home, as Mina’s initial application for the vacation property was denied, while moments later Charlie’s was accepted. Since Mina is of Middle Eastern descent, she immediately smells racism. Their suspicions aren’t assuaged when they meet the man renting the house, a rather unsavory looking fellow named Taylor (Toby Huss). He explains that his wealthy brother owns the property, while he only tends to the caretaking duties.

Tension mounts as the foursome feels uncomfortable about Taylor as he seems to come and go as he pleases, and also as Charlie and Mina find it more difficult to resist the sexual tension between them, and as Michelle and Josh begin to notice. The suspense builds as events happen which threaten to turn their lives upside down, and then the film throws a curveball into the mix which comes out of nowhere. Which is too bad because what came before it was pretty darn good.

Up until the disappointing conclusion, I was really, really enjoying THE RENTAL. The screenplay by director Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg creates a captivating story with interesting characters and believable dialogue throughout. I liked the dynamic between the two couples, which I thought worked really well. Charlie and Mina’s relationship isn’t one we see on screen all that often, two professionals who adore each other’s work and seem to be completely in sync and in love but on a professional level. It’s a no-brainer that they are sexually attracted to each other. Yet, in the same breath, Charlie is happily married to Michelle, and Mina really loves Josh, and so Charlie and Mina intellectually really don’t want to be with each other. Further adding to the mix is that Josh is very insecure and feels inferior to both Charlie and Mina, and part of him expects Mina to leave him.

So, even before you get to the horror elements, you have a really engaging story happening.

The horror stuff is low-key, but it’s there, and it gradually builds, setting the stage for everything to go to hell at a moment’s notice, and strangely that’s where the problem lies. See, the answer the film provides as to just what the threat is inside this house, is a major letdown. First, it takes a page right out of Horror Movie 101, which the rest of this film is not. Now, this by itself, wouldn’t be enough to ruin this movie. I don’t mind a more traditional answer to a nontraditonal beginning. The biggest problem here is the explanation provided. It’s nonsensical. It’s akin to having a well-constructed thriller visited by a Michael Myers type killer in the final reel only without any of Myer’s backstory or reason for being.


As I said, this is Dave Franco’s directorial debut and it’s a good one. He builds suspense throughout and creates many unsettling moments. He also shoots this one to not look like a traditional horror movie, as there are plenty of bright sunshine filled scenes, especially of the scenery around the house. And then when things grow more sinister it’s dark and the fog rolls in. Franco of course is James Franco’s brother and is more known for his acting roles, having appeared in such films as THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017). NOW YOU SEE ME (2013), and 21 JUMP STREET (2012) to name just a few. His impressive directorial debut suggests he may have a career behind the camera as well.

I enjoyed the cast. Dan Stevens, who we just saw in the Will Ferrell comedy EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA (2020) is excellent as Charlie, the self-assured young entrepreneur who has his whole life ahead of him, a beautiful wife who he loves, and an incredibly brilliant business partner who he also absolutely adores. Perhaps too much. Stevens is a fine actor who we also saw earlier this year in THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020), and who also played the Beast in the Disney live-action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017).

Alison Brie, who is married to Dave Franco, is a wonderful actress who shines yet again here as Michelle, the wife who up until this weekend had no reason to doubt her successful husband. Brie is known for the TV series MADMEN (2007-2015) and GLOW (2017-2019), and we just saw her in the intriguing drama HORSE GIRL (2020)  a few weeks back.

Sheila Vand  gives what might be the best performance in the movie, as Mina, who is torn between her feelings for Charlie and Josh. She’s also the first to really receive bad vibes from Taylor. The best part of this movie is that the dynamic between the two couples is very real, largely because of the performances, and Vand leads the way. She also starred A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014).

Jeremy Allen White is convincing as Josh, who constantly lives in the shadow of his brother, and while he expresses anxiety about this, it’s not crippling nor cliche. He’s a pretty decent guy overall.

And Toby Huss is sufficiently creepy as the rather unsavory and racist caretaker Taylor. Huss also starred in HORSE GIRL with Alison Brie and had one of the film’s best scenes.

Overall, I liked THE RENTAL. Its disappointing conclusion didn’t ruin the movie for me, but it did take it down several notches from where it was.

It’s definitely worth a look. It’s just too bad it wasn’t able to finish what it started.

Yup. This is one weekend getaway that really was too good to be true.








RELIC (2020) – Thinking Person’s Haunted House Movie



RELIC (2020) is the thinking person’s haunted house movie.

Its tale of a grandmother, her daughter, and granddaughter is on one level a story of a house possessed, but on a deeper more figurative level it’s about dementia personified.

When Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her adult daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive at Kay’s mother’s house to check in on her, they discover that she’s not there. Kay informs the police and tells them that her mother is in her 80s and does tend to forget things sometimes and is easily confused. A search party covers the surrounding woods without success.

But then Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) suddenly is back inside the house, and every time Kay asks where she’s been, she changes the subject. Worried that her mom shouldn’t be living alone, Kay looks into elderly home options. Meanwhile, she and Sam stay on to keep an eye on Edna for a while.

Edna complains that there is someone else in the house, and while Kay initially dismisses this assertion as early dementia, things start happening which convince Kay and Sam otherwise.

RELIC is a slow-burn horror movie that scores high on the creepy meter. There are quiet eerie scenes throughout, and for me, this was the best part of this movie.

Sure, it’s a deeper screenplay than most, as written by director Natalie Erika James and Christian White. Its take on dementia is spot-on, and the doubt which Kay and Sam have towards Edna’s fears is believable and normal. So, when later they begin to see things differently, it makes for a scary transition.

Plus, the direction this story ultimately takes is so much better than grandmother really was seeing a ghost! It takes the figurative theme of how we lose everything including ourselves as we age and makes it literal.

RELIC is Natalie Erika James’ directorial debut and it’s an impressive one. The film is creepy throughout, and its ending is sad and horrifying at the same time. You might find yourself having to turn away from the screen.

On the other hand, it is very slow, and so for some viewers they may find themselves bored, but if you’re patient, there is a decent payoff.

The film is reminiscent of THE BABADOOK (2014) in terms of tone and feel.

The three principal actors are all very good. Emily Mortimer makes Kay the detached and often guilt-ridden daughter who kept away from her mother for so long and now towards the end is trying to make things right, although it doesn’t feel that way to her as she looks to put her mother into a home.

Bella Heathcote plays Sam as the devoted granddaughter who is much more enthusiastic about wanting to stay and help her grandmother around the house. And so it is far more upsetting for Sam when her grandmother begins to act in ways that make wanting to stay in the house all rather unpleasant.

And Robyn Nevin delivers the best performance in the movie as Edna, perfectly capturing what it’s like to live with dementia, as her personality switches on a dime. And she has one icy cold stare, that’s for sure!

I liked RELIC. It’s a quiet horror movie that is best watched on a quiet night with the lights out.

Preferably without your grandmother around!