IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GORGO (1961)

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When you think of giant monster movies, you most likely think of Godzilla and King Kong, arguably the two most famous giant movie monsters of all time, and you probably think of Japan’s Toho Studios, who made so many of those Godzilla movies we love, as well as plenty of other giant monster adventures.

But today’s movie, GORGO (1961), hails from the United Kingdom, a country that historically did not churn out a whole bunch of giant monster movies. And while in some ways the plot borrows heavily from the original GODZILLA (1954), except in this case rather than Godzilla emerging from the ocean to destroy Tokyo, we have Gorgo emerging from the ocean to pummel London, GORGO is a good enough giant monster movie to stand on its own.

In fact, the special effects in this one depicting Gorgo’s assault on London are right up there with Godzilla’s more famous attack on Tokyo. Topnotch stuff! So much so, that this sequence which pretty much takes up the entire second half of the movie, ranks as one of the best monster-attacks-city sequences ever put on film! The movie is only 78 minutes long, and so at the end of the day, GORGO is one action-packed giant monster movie!

But it’s also rather odd in that it’s one of the few monster movies— or any movie for that matter— that doesn’t really feature any women! There are no female main characters, and I think there’s only two women in the film who even speak any lines of dialogue!

Then again, giant Gorgo is a female, as she is a mommy monster in search of her baby monster which gets kidnapped and taken to London. Hmm. Maybe Gorgo’s contract stipulated that she would be the only prominent female in the cast?

Anyway, GORGO is the story of Joe Ryan (Bill Travers) and Sam Slade (William Sylvester) who helm a salvage vessel, and when they discover a sea monster off the coast of Ireland, they capture it and decide to bring it back to London in order to make money off it. These guys obviously went to the Carl Denham school of business! Little boy Sean (Vincent Winter), who lives on the island where Gorgo is discovered, tells Joe and Sam that they shouldn’t capture the monster and take him away, but the adults don’t listen to him. So, Sean secretly stows away on the ship, and when Joe and Sam discover him, they decide to take care of him and pretty much adopt him for the rest of the movie. Er, Sean, where the hell are your parents?

They bring Gorgo to London where he is shown off at a circus and much to Joe and Sam’s delight, makes them lots of money. But it turns out, this is only a baby Gorgo, and when mommy Gorgo emerges from the ocean, she’s none too happy about her son being abducted, and so she swims to London and attacks the city in order to get him back.

And there’s your plot!

GORGO was directed by Eugene Lourie, who must have loved giant monster movies, because this was the fourth time he directed a movie about a giant monster! His first, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), is probably his most famous, as it featured the special effects of Ray Harryhausen and was based on the short story “The Fog Horn,” by Ray Bradbury. Lourie followed this up with THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (1958), a film about a giant robot, and then he made THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959), which featured the special effects of KING KONG creator Willis O’Brien, which told the story of a yet another giant sea monster.

And then he made GORGO. Overall, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is probably his best movie, mostly because it did feature the effects of Ray Harryhausen, but GORGO is a close second, and the attack on London is far more intense than any of the scenes found in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

Even more interesting, these are the only four movies Eugene Lourie ever directed! He should have directed more, because all four of these movies are very good, and two of them, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and GORGO are downright excellent! Lourie passed away in 1991 from heart failure.

Robert L. Richards and Daniel James wrote the screenplay which tells a decent enough giant monster story, with the one glaring oddity being that there are no women in this story whatsoever!

Young Vincent Winter, who played Sean, would become disappointed with acting and turn to working behind the scenes where he would serve as an assistant director for many movies, including the Christopher Reeve SUPERMAN (1978). Winter died in 1998 from a heart attack at the age of 50.

Also in the cast is Martin Benson, who played the circus owner who promotes Gorgo in London. Benson is no stranger to genre films, having played doomed Father Spiletto in THE OMEN (1976), and, in the role I remember him most for, playing the weasel-like Mr. Rash in NIGHT CREATURES (1962), Hammer’s pirate adventure starring Peter Cushing and Oliver Reed. Benson also had a “pressing engagement” in the Sean Connery James Bond classic GOLDFINGER (1964), as his character ends up being crushed in a car by Oddjob.

And speaking of Hammer Films, in the scene where baby Gorgo is paraded around London, you can see Hammer’s THE MUMMY (1959) playing at the theater at Piccadilly Circus.

The impressive special effects were created by Tom Howard, who would later work on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Interestingly enough, the same monster suit was used for both mommy Gorgo and baby Gorgo, and the size difference was achieved with different sets and models, as well as different roar sound effects.

When GORGO was released in 1961, there had only been two Godzilla movies released, the original and its sequel GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955), but the filmmakers must have had Godzilla in mind because they premiered GORGO in Japan rather than in the United Kingdom.

Japan returned the favor by basically remaking GORGO as MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET (1967) (Its original and better title is GAPPA THE TRIPHIBIAN MONSTERS), a tale in which a mommy and a daddy monster attack Tokyo in order to bring back their baby monster which had been taken to Japan.

The lesson from both these movies is, if you’re going to put a young giant monster in a show, you’d best ask its parents’ permission first! You might also want to include them in the contract and give them a piece of the proceeds!

GORGO is one of the better giant monster movies of yesteryear. In spite of the dubious decision not to feature any female characters in its story other than the giant monster Gorgo herself, this one features really good special effects and a second-half giant monster assault on London that can’t be beat!

The title, by the way, comes from the Gorgon, as Gorgo is short for Gorgon, and it refers to the Medusa tale of the creature so hideous one look at her would turn people to stone. While Gorgo is not that hideous looking, the creature is indeed monstrous and is impressive to behold.

So, you don’t have to be afraid of Gorgo’s face. It won’t turn you into stone. On the other hand, you probably should be afraid of Gorgo’s feet, which will turn you into some itty-bitty pieces of crushed flesh and bone when they step on you.

—END—

MONSTER MOVIES: THE FRANKENSTEIN MONSTER – The Universal & Hammer Frankenstein Series

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I’ve loved horror movies all my life.

But long before I called them horror movies, I referred to them as Monster Movies. As a kid, it was rare that I would say “I’m going to watch a horror movie.” Instead, it was “time to watch a monster movie!”

Part of this may have been the influence of reading the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, and enjoying all of Forry Ackerman’s affectionate coverage of movie monsters. But the other part certainly was most of the time I was watching movies that had monsters in them!

And so today, I’d like to celebrate some of these monsters, specifically the Frankenstein Monster. Here’s a look at the Frankenstein Monster in the two most important Frankenstein film series, the Universal and Hammer Frankenstein movies, and I rank each Monster performance with the Monster Meter, with four brains being the best and zero brains being the worst. Okay, here we go.

The Universal series:

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The Monster (Boris Karloff) in FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

FRANKENSTEIN (1931) – The Monster – ?- Sure, he was listed in the credits this way, but we all know by now that it was Boris Karloff playing the monster in this original shocker by Universal studios. It was the role that made Karloff a household name, and rightly so. It still remains my all-time favorite Frankenstein Monster performance. Karloff captures the perfect balance between an innocent being recently born with the insane violence of an unstoppable monster. There are several sequences in this movie where Karloff’s Monster is so violent and brutally powerful it still is frightening to watch.

Monster Meter: Four brains.

 

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – The Monster – Karloff. This time he was so famous that his name was listed in the credits as only Karloff, but again, it was Boris Karloff playing the role of the Monster in a movie that many critics hail as the best of the Universal Frankenstein movies. It’s certainly more ambitious than FRANKENSTEIN. And Karloff does more with the role, as the Monster even learns how to speak. I still slightly prefer FRANKENSTEIN, but I will say that Karloff’s performances in these two movies are probably the most powerful performances of the Monster ever put on film.

Monster Meter: Four brains.

 

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) – The Monster – Boris Karloff. The third and last time Karloff played the Monster was the least effective. While the film is elaborate and features big budget sets and a stellar cast that also includes Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, and Lionel Atwill, this film begins the sad trend in the Universal Frankestein movies where the Monster simply didn’t do as much as he did in the first two movies. Here, he’s a patient on a slab for most of the film, and once he becomes active, he’s a far cry from the Monster we saw in the first two movies. He doesn’t even speak anymore.

Monster Meter: Three brains.

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The Monster (Lon Chaney Jr. ) in THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942)

 

THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) – The Monster – Lon Chaney Jr. As much as I like Lon Chaney Jr., I don’t really like his interpretation of the Monster here. He takes over the role from Boris Karloff, and although he means well, he just doesn’t possess Karloff’s instincts. The attempt is made to make the Monster more active again, but Chaney simply lacks Karloff’s unpredictable ferocity and sympathetic understanding. I will say that this is the one time where Chaney disappoints as a monster, as he of course owned Larry Talbot/The Wolfman, made an effective Dracula in SON OF DRACULA (1943), and I thought played a very frightening Kharis the Mummy in his three MUMMY movies.

Monster Meter: Two brains.

 

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) – The Monster- Bela Lugosi. Lugosi turned down the role in 1931 because the Monster had no dialogue, a decision that haunted the rest of his career, as the film instead launched the career of Boris Karloff who went on to largely overshadow Lugosi as the king of horror over the next two decades. This should have been an awesome role for Lugosi. It made perfect sense story wise, for at the end of the previous film, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, the brain of the manipulative Ygor (Lugosi) was placed inside the Monster. In FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, the Monster was supposed to speak with Ygor’s voice, and be blind, but all his dialogue was cut as were references to the Monster’s blindness. The story goes that because of World War II, Universal balked at having a Frankenstein Monster talking about taking over the world. The sad result was the film makes Lugosi’s performance look silly, as he goes about with his arms outstretched in front of him, walking tentatively. He was doing this of course because he was blind! But the film cut all references to this, and the audience had no idea at the time what the heck was up with Lugosi’s Monster.

Monster Meter: Two and a half brains.

 

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) – The Monster – Glenn Strange – Strange takes over the Monster duties here, in Universal’s first monster fest, also featuring Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man, and John Carradine as Dracula. Boris Karloff returns to the series here as the evil Dr. Niemann. Strange is an okay Monster, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do.

Monster Meter: Two brains.

 

HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) – The Monster – Glenn Strange – Strange returns as the Monster in Universal’s second Monster romp.

Monster Meter: Two brains.

 

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) – The Monster – Glenn Strange – The third time is the charm for Glenn Strange as he gives his best performance as the Monster in this Abbott and Costello comedy which in addition to being hilariously funny is also one of Universal’s best Monster movies! The Monster even talks again! Notable for Bela Lugosi’s return as Dracula, and also once more features Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man. Look fast for Chaney as the Frankenstein Monster in the sequence where he tosses the nurse out the window, as he was filling in for an injured Glenn Strange at the time!

Monster Meter: Three brains.

 

The Hammer series:

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The Creature (Christopher Lee) in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) – The Creature – Christopher Lee. The Hammer Frankenstein series, unlike the Universal series, focused on Victor Frankenstein, played by Peter Cushing, rather than on the Monster. Each Hammer Frankenstein flick featured a different Monster. Poor Christopher Lee received no love back in the day, and his performance as the Creature was widely panned by critics. But you know what? Other than Karloff’s performance in the first two Universal films, Lee delivers the second best performance as a Frankenstein creation! Lee’s Creature is an insane killer, and darting in and out of the shadows, he actually has more of a Michael Meyers vibe going on in this film than a Boris Karloff feel. With horrifying make-up by Philip Leakey, it’s a shame that this Creature only appeared in this one movie. On the other hand, it kinda makes Lee’s performance all the more special. It’s one not to miss!

Monster Meter: Three and a half brains.

 

THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) – The Monster/Karl – Michael Gwynn. This sequel to THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is one of the most intelligent Frankenstein moves ever made. It has a thought-provoking script and phenomenal performances, led by Peter Cushing, reprising his role as Baron Victor Frankenstein. The only trouble is this one forgot to be scary. Plus, the Monster, played here by Michael Gwynn, pales in comparison to Lee’s Creature in the previous film.

Monster Meter: Two brains.

 

THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964) – The Creature – Kiwi Kingston – The Hammer Frankenstein movie most influenced by the Universal series, with the make-up on Australian wrestler Kiwi Kingston reminiscent of the make-up on the Universal Monster. Not a bad entry in the series, but not a very good one either. This one has more action and chills than REVENGE, but its plot is silly and no where near as thought-provoking or as adult as the plots of the first two films in the series.

Monster Meter: Two brains.

 

FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN  (1967) – Christina – Susan Denberg – The Creature in this one is as the title says, a woman, played here by Playboy model Susan Denberg. A good looking— no pun intended— Hammer production that is largely done-in by a weak script that doesn’t make much sense when you really think about it. The best part of this one is the dynamic between Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein and Thorley Walter’s Doctor Hertz, who capture a sort of Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson vibe in this one.

Monster Meter: Two brains.

frankenstein must be destroyed freddie jones

His brain is in someone else’s body. Dr. Brandt/Professor Richter (Freddie Jones) seeks revenge against Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969).

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED  (1969) – Professor Richter- Freddie Jones – By far, the darkest and most violent of the Hammer Frankenstein movies, and certainly Peter Cushing’s most villainous turn as Baron Frankenstein. For a lot of fans, this is the best of the Hammer Frankenstein series. It also features a neat script involving brain transplants, and Freddie Jones delivers an exceptional performance as a man whose brain has been transplanted into another man’s body. The scene where he returns home to try to convince his wife, who believes her husband is dead after seeing his mangled body, that he is in fact her husband, that his brain is inside another man’s body, is one of the more emotional scenes ever put in a Frankenstein movie. This one didn’t perform well at the box office and is said to have been director Terence Fisher’s biggest disappointment, as he believed this was a superior film and would be a big hit. The years have proven him right, but at the time, it was not considered a successful Hammer Film. Christopher Lee once said in an interview that he believed this film flopped because it didn’t really have a monster in it, and that’s what fans really wanted. I believe Lee’s observation to be correct.

Monster Meter: Three brains.

 

THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970) – The Monster – David Prowse – Hammer decided to remake THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN with Ralph Bates playing Victor Frankenstein and David Prowse playing the Monster. Unfortunately, this is the worst of the Hammer Frankensteins by a wide margin. David Prowse would go on of course to play Darth Vader in the STAR WARS movies.

Monster Meter: One brain.

 

FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974) – The Monster – David Prowse. Peter Cushing returns as Baron Frankenstein for the last time in what is essentially a poor man’s remake of THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Prowse plays a different Monster than the one he played in THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, and by doing so, he becomes the only actor to play a monster more than once in a Hammer Frankenstein Film. This one is all rather mediocre, and since it’s the final film in the series, it’s somewhat of a disappointment as it’s a weak way to finish a superior horror franchise.

Monster Meter: Two brains.

 

And there you have it. A look at the Frankenstein Monster in the Universal and Hammer series.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Print cover
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Ebook cover

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966)

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WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966) has always been one of my favorite Toho giant monsters movies.

One reason for this is nostalgia. In addition to its regular play on the popular Saturday afternoon Creature Double Feature back in the day, it also received a much-hyped prime time showing on our local UHF Channel 56 in Boston that had all the neighborhood kids, myself included, chirping about it before, during, and after it was aired.

But the main reason is it’s a darn good movie. Well, at least among films in the Toho canon, and this is no surprise since it was directed by arguably their top director, Ishiro Honda, who also directed the original GODZILLA (1954), THE MYSTERIANS (1957), KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968) to name just a few.

I was recently able to view the original Japanese version of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, which includes the Frankenstein references that were removed from the film when it was released in the U.S. back in 1970.

And there are Frankenstein references because WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is a sequel to Toho’s Frankenstein flick, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965). I’m not sure why the Frankenstein connection was initially severed, but it’s too bad it was done, because the film works even better as a Frankenstein movie.

The story of a giant Frankenstein monster and his “brother” is much more intriguing than a story about two random gargantuas. And WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is a better movie than FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, which means it’s one of those rare cases where the sequel is an improvement on the original.

In WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, a mysterious monster is terrorizing the countryside attacking and eating people. It is also avoiding detection, as it always disappears quickly after it attacks, preventing the authorities from being able to stop it. It’s assumed that this is the same creature which escaped from the lab of Dr. Paul Stewart (Russ Tamblyn) and his fellow scientists. Of course, in the original version, this was the Frankenstein monster from FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD. Dr. Stewart doesn’t think it’s the same creature, because the one which escaped from his lab was peaceful and would never harm humans.

It’s later discovered that there are two gargantuas, the original who escaped from Stewart’s lab, and a new more menancing one, who is believed to be a sort of clone from the first. These two behemoths eventually do battle. Hence, the war of the gargantuas.

The best part of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is that there are lots of scenes featuring the gargantuas. In lesser Toho movies, you have to sit through long stretches of usually boring dialogue and bland characters while you wait for the monsters to make their appearances. Not so here with WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. These creatures are in this movie a lot. There is a ton of giant monster action.

And director Ishiro Honda, who also wrote the screenplay,  fills this one with a lot of memorable scenes. The film opens with a frightening sequence where a slimy looking giant octopus attacks a ship, only to be deterred by an even scarier looking gargantua, who makes quick work of the octopus before turning his attention to the crew of the ship which he promptly consumes for a yummy dessert

There are a bunch of rather frightening scenes in this one. In spite of this being a silly giant monster movie, there are some dark moments. The scene where a group of hikers encounter the gargantua waiting for them in a dense fog has always been one that gives me the shivers. Likewise, in another sequence on a boat, the gargangtua is seen staring up at the passengers from under the water. We’re gonna need a bigger boat!

And the battle scenes here are second to none. There’s an excellent sequence where the gargantua comes out of the water to attack an airport, and of course, the climactic battle between the two garagantuas is a keeper.

If you’re a fan of the Toho movies, this is one film you do not want to miss, and if you’ve never seen a Toho film, this is a good one to start with, although I do recommend watching FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD first, since this is a sequel to that movie.

All in all, if you love giant monster movie action and want to see an A-list director at the top of his game, then check out WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS.

It’s a gargantuan good time!

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Picture of the Day: Winter Monsters – HORROR EXPRESS (1972)

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The alien creature early on in HORROR EXPRESS (1972), one of Peter Cushing’s and Christopher Lee’s finest horror movies.

One of my favorite Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing movies is HORROR EXPRESS (1972), a Spanish/British production by director Eugenio Martin.

This horror tale about an alien creature loose on the wintry Trans Siberian Express in 1906 is one of the best movies Cushing and Lee ever made together, and one of the few where they play co-heroes, working together on the train to save the passengers from the murderous alien.

It also features Telly Savalas as a ruthless Russian Captain who shows up at the end with his Russian soldiers to torment both the passengers and the monster. It’s a wild ride, and the fact that it’s not a Hammer Film, and hence plays out like a Spanish horror movie, is all the more refreshing.

Besides Cushing and Lee, the other memorable part of this movie is the alien creature. At first, it shows up inside a monstrously-looking fossil of a possible missing link, in the photo above, and later it enters the bodies of various passengers on the train. But early on, the look of the monster is really cool, and has always been one of my favorite parts of this movie.

And pardon me for indulging in this fantasy, but although this film takes place in 1906, it was filmed in 1972 and retains a 1970s style of filmmaking, complete with zoom shots and a funky soundtrack. So, there’s just something about this one which has always made me imagine Darren McGavin’s Carl Kolchak as a passenger on this train doing his Night Stalker best to help solve the mystery. Kolchak would have been right at home on the HORROR EXPRESS.

Looking for a cool monster to watch this winter? Look no further than the creature in HORROR EXPRESS (1972), one of Peter Cushing’s and Christopher Lee’s best horror movies.

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UNDERWATER (2020) – First Exceptional Horror Movie of 2020

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UNDERWATER (2020) wastes no time diving into action.

Within minutes of its opening credits, the crisis begins, and this new underwater horror movie starring Kristen Stewart is off and running.

Now, I’m a big fan of Stewart’s, and other than the TWILIGHT movies, every movie she’s in she makes that much better. Things are no different here with UNDERWATER. Stewart is terrific.

Underwater horror movies/thrillers are nothing new. In fact, there was one year, 1989, which featured three of them: DEEPSTAR SIX (1989), LEVIATHAN (1989), and James Cameron’s big budget THE ABYSS (1989). You can go all the way back to Irwin Allen’s VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1961) and Disney’s production of Jules Verne’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954). There’s a long history here.

Some are calling UNDERWATER, “ALIEN under water.”  This isn’t really an apt comparison. While there are some similarities, UNDERWATER tells its own story, and to be honest, other than the obvious “crew stalked by monstrous threat,” I didn’t think of ALIEN at all while watching UNDERWATER.

So, how does UNDERWATER hold up to the rest of the underwater thriller movies? Surprisingly well.

Within minutes of meeting main character Norah (Kristen Stewart), a mechanical engineer on a futuristic underwater oil drilling station, and it’s futuristic because the story takes place in 2050, an explosion rocks the rig and suddenly Norah and a handful of survivors are fighting for their lives.

The station has been completely compromised, and it’s crumbling from the top down, and so the survivors have to make their way down to the very bottom, the ocean floor, where they will put on underwater diving suits and walk across the ocean bottom to a neighboring facility where they will be able to access escape pods to jettison to the surface to await rescue. Trouble is, as they prepare to make this walk, they discover they are not alone. There are strange creatures lurking beneath the sea. Lots of them. And they’re hungry.

UNDERWATER has a fun premise, and it doesn’t disappoint. Throw a few survivors in harm’s way inside an underwater drilling station that is constantly being rocked by explosions, falling debris, and the deadly water pressure outside, and you have suspense and excitement even before the creatures show up.

And the creatures here only add to the excitement. In fact, they were among my favorite parts of the movie. They look good, they’re scary and intense, and not only are there a lot of them, but there are different ones as well. In fact, by the time this one ends, there’s a really big payoff in terms of monsters. UNDERWATER has a lot to offer for monster movie fans.

As I said, Kristen Stewart is excellent here in the lead role, and she makes for a likable and believable heroine. My favorite thing about Kristen Stewart as an actor is she has a sincere, moody presence, and she plays characters who are flawed yet extremely strong and resilient.

The rest of the cast is okay but pretty much follow Stewart’s lead. T.J. Miller, who is becoming typecast, provides the comic relief. Miller, who played a very similar role as Hud in the classic CLOVERFIELD (2008), and who’s been seen more recently in the DEADPOOL movies as Weasel, gets the best one-liners in the film. Miller is very good at this, and he’s fun to watch here, but it would be even more fun to see him play some other types of roles for a change.

Jessica Henwick is very good as well as the intern in the group. Vincent Cassel plays the Captain, and John Gallagher Jr. , who was memorable in such movies as THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2016) and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) is also one of the crew.

Director William Eubank wastes no time in getting this one jump-started, and the action stays consistent throughout. That being said, the pacing isn’t perfect. There are times when things slow down, and some of the underwater scenes, especially towards the end, are dark and murky and difficult to see.

The dialogue isn’t always sharp either. The screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad offers mostly panicked conversations and has little else to say, although it is mentioned briefly that the creatures’ presence is nature’s way of striking back since humans have taken their underwater drilling too far, and that humankind doesn’t belong there.

Brian Duffield also wrote the screenplay for the horror movie THE BABYSITTER (2017) which was a much more creative script than the one here for UNDERWATER. Still, he’s now written two very well-made horror movies. Adam Cozad wrote the screenplay for THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) and his work here is a step up from the TARZAN movie. All in all, the screenplay for UNDERWATER is decent enough.

But the best part of UNDERWATER is its monsters. They do not disappoint. They are cool looking and mysterious, deadly and relentless, and oh so hungry!

These creatures combined with Kristen Stewart and a fine supporting cast make UNDERWATER the first exceptional horror movie of 2020.

—END—

 

 

 

PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974)

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Who is this man with the golden mask?

King Midas?

Nope.

Thanos’ great uncle?

Try again.

It’s the Grand Vizier of Arabia, as played by Douglas Wilmer in the classic adventure/fantasy THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), featuring the spectacular stop-motion effects of Ray Harryhausen.

I don’t think there’s a movie out there which Ray Harryhausen put his name on that I don’t like. Harryhausen’s special effects are always top-notch, and the films in which they appeared nearly all classics of the genre.

In particular, I especially enjoy Harryhausen’s Sinbad movies. There were three of them: THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), and SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977). The first two are the best. As to which one is number one in the series, that’s a tough call. I’ve watched both these films a lot, and I have to concede that I find these two equally as good.

Sometimes I slightly prefer THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and other times it’s THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD. They’re both excellent movies and both feature fantastic effects by Ray Harryhausen.

The production design and costumes in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD are also phenomenal, which brings us to today’s photo, the man with the golden mask. But first a shout out to director Gordon Hessler who also directed THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a lurid and underrated horror flick starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. Here, Hessler keeps the pace quick and the action exciting. There’s also a strong sense of mystery and awe throughout.

I saw THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD at the drive-in movies when I was just 10 years-old, and I was instantly a fan. I was drawn into its fantasy world of magic and monsters, and I was particularly intrigued by the man in the golden mask, as pictured above, which I’ve always thought was a really cool look.

In the film, he hires Sinbad to help locate the Fountain of Destiny.

That’s actor Douglas Wilmer behind the mask. Wilmer made a ton of movies and appeared in everything from Hammer Films like THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), the Peter Sellers PINK PANTHER films, the James Bond flick OCTOPUSSY (1983), the Christopher Lee FU MANCHU movies, Ray Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), as well as playing Sherlock Holmes on British TV. Wilmer passed away in 2016 at the age of 96.

John Phillip Law makes for a heroic Sinbad, and the cast also includes Tom Baker as the villain Koura, and the very sexy Caroline Munro.

There’s a lot to like about THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, which is chock full of memorable Ray Harryhausen creations. But for me, the most memorable image from the film is Vizier with his mysterious golden mask.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

LEADING LADIES: ZITA JOHANN

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Boris Karloff and Zita Johann in THE MUMMY (1932).

 

Zita Johann only had eight screen credits, but one of them is well-known to horror fans.

When she starred opposite Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY (1932) she delivered one of the great performances in a Universal monster movie. Her portrayal of Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnated Princess Anckesen-Amon, was mystical, mysterious, tragic, and very sexy.

And in terms of classic horror, that’s all she wrote. It was one and done for Johann, which is too bad, because she was really good in THE MUMMY.

Here’s a partial look at Johann’s film career:

THE STRUGGLE (1931) – Florrie – Johann’s film debut is in this drama about alcoholism, the final feature directed by D.W. Griffith.

TIGER SHARK (1932) – Quita Silva- Romance directed by Howard Hawks, also starring Edward G. Robinson and featuring J. Carroll Naish.

THE MUMMY (1932)- Helen Grosvenor – one of Universal’s best monster movies. Slow-paced but eerie to its core, this Karl Freund directed thriller features a remarkable performance by Boris Karloff as the living mummy Im Ho Tep, who, once resurrected, seeks out the mummified body of his former love, the Princess Anckesen-Amon.

THE MUMMY is really a tragic love story. Im Ho Tep’s life is shattered when his forbidden love, the Princess Anckesen-Amon, dies at a young age. When he tries to resurrect her using the Scroll of Thoth, he’s found out and sentenced to death. He meets a horrifying end as he’s buried alive.

Centuries later, in 1921, his mummified body is discovered and accidentally resurrected. He resurfaces in 1932 and helps archeologists unearth the tomb of the mummified Princess Anckesen-Amon, in the hopes of once more bringing her back to life.

While attempting to do so, he discovers Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who’s the splitting image of Anckesen-Amon. Convinced that Helen is Anckesen-Amon reincarnated, Im Ho Tep seeks to kill her and bring her back to life so they can live together for all eternity.

THE MUMMY also features the phenomenal make-up work of Jack Pierce, and fine supporting performances by Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, but it’s Boris Karloff and Zita Johann who drive THE MUMMY.

Johann’s wide eyes and dark features give her a sensual, mysterious presence. She makes for a strong, independent female character, and she’s convincing as the reincarnated princess.

In THE MUMMY, Johann delivers one of my favorite performances by an actress in the Universal monster movies.

RAIDERS OF THE LIVING DEAD (1986) – Librarian – Zita Johann’s final screen credit in this 1980s zombie flick.

Zita Johann was born on July 14, 1904 in Austria-Hungary. Before acting in the movies, she performed on Broadway starting in 1924.

In THE MUMMY, she and director Karl Freund did not get along. According to Johann, Freund went out of his way to make her life miserable on set. That being said, Johann did develop the reputation for being a difficult actress to work with. Evidently, she turned down lots of scripts, which may explain why she made so few movies.

I wish Johann had made more movies. Her performance as Helen Grosvenor has always been a treat for me and one of the best parts of THE MUMMY. Watching Johan portray Grosvenor, you’ll easily see why Karloff’s Im Ho Tep was in love with her.

Johann passed away on September 20, 1993 in Nyack, New York at the age of 89 from pneumonia.

Zita Johann – July 14, 1904 – September 20, 1993.

I hope you enjoyed this LEADING LADIES column and will join me again next time when we look at another leading lady from horror cinema.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: STEPHANIE (2017)

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Shree Crooks as STEPHANIE (2017)

STEPHANIE (2017), a horror film about a little girl facing an unknown horrific threat all by her lonesome almost works.

Almost.

What stops this flick from ultimately succeeding is a lack of courage on the part of the filmmakers to take this story to the deepest dark places it should have gone. Instead, we have a plot tweak midway through that changes everything, and the film is worse off for it.

When STEPHANIE opens, young Stephanie (Shree Crooks) is home alone, occupying herself with her imaginary stuffed animal friends, getting into mischief as any child would do left to their own devices. She attempts among other things to cook and clean on her own, running afoul of every day threats like broken glass on the floor while walking barefoot. You’ll wince even before the supernatural elements are introduced.  Just why she’s by herself we’re not exactly sure, although there seems to have been some sort of apocalyptic incident that has wiped out at the very least the population around her.

One night, as she brushes her teeth and plays in front of the bathroom mirror, she hears a strange noise coming from the darkness. She knows what it is. Evidently, there is some sort of “monster” which enters her house at times, and to escape, she has to hide and remain silent. She hears the monster foraging throughout the house, growling and sniffing for prey, and then it leaves.

Adding to the mystery there’s also a dead body in her house, Stephanie’s brother, who seems to have succumbed to whatever malady wiped out everyone else. Stephanie it appears is immune. But then one day, Stephanie’s parents return, and while she is overjoyed to see them, she suddenly wonders why they left her alone in the first place.

And it’s at this point in the movie where the plot changes, and from here on in, things just  don’t work as well because the story enters territory we’ve all seen before and any innovative freshness the film possessed earlier disappears.

Which is too bad because the first half of STEPHANIE is really, really good, and the biggest reason why is the performance by young actress Shree Crooks as Stephanie. I hesitate to give such high praise to such a young actress, but she’s so good here she’s nearly mesmerizing. Early on, when she has the run of the house, she’s fun to watch, and later when the monster invades, you share in Stephanie’s terror. Crooks does fear really well.

So, early on the story had me hooked. I wanted to know why Stephanie was alone and just what kind of monster kept breaking into her house.  And I cared enough about young Stephanie that I was ready to watch a film about just one little girl on her own having to square off against a monstrous threat.

But ultimately this isn’t the story STEPHANIE has to tell. Her parents arrive home, and the inevitable plot twist isn’t up to snuff and only serves to steer the story into familiar territory, which is far less satisfying than what had come before it. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, STEPHANIE ends up being just a standard horror movie.

Frank Grillo and Anna Torv [recently of Netflix’ MINDHUNTER (2017-19)] play Stephanie’s parents, and while there’s nothing wrong with their performances, they unfortunately appear in the film’s inferior second half.

The screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski tells two different stories, and I enjoyed the first story much better than the second. The first half of the story with Stephanie home alone works so well I was really looking forward to seeing how she was going to deal with the monster in her house, but that confrontation never happens.

Director Akiva Goldsman sets up some suspenseful scenes early on, especially when the monster invades the house. Goldsman also deserves plenty of credit for capturing such a powerful performance from such a young performer. Shree Crooks completely carries the first half of the movie all by her lonesome.

Later, when the story pivots, the scares are much more standard, the results more predictable.

STEPHANIE did not have a theatrical release and was instead marketed straight to video on demand. I saw it on Netflix.

As it stands, it’s not a bad horror movie, but based on the way it started, it had the potential to be something very special, if only the initial story had been allowed to develop.

In spite of this, Shree Crooks delivers the performance of the movie. She’s terrific throughout, and she’s the main reason to see STEPHANIE.

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RAMPAGE (2018) – Giant Monster Tale Keeps Things Light

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I am not a fan of movies based on video games.

However, I do enjoy movies about giant monsters, and in general I find Dwayne Johnson to be an amiable screen presence.  So, while I expected very little from RAMPAGE (2018), a giant monster adventure loosely based on the classic arcade video game, I certainly wasn’t dreading it.

RAMPAGE opens in space with an experiment gone wrong. A scientist attempts to return to Earth but her ship burns up upon re-entering the atmosphere.  However, capsules containing an experimental genetic pathogen which causes its subjects to grow and mutate into unstoppable aggressors survive the flight and crash to the ground where they are ingested by a gorilla, a wolf, and a crocodile.

The albino gorilla, named George, lives in a zoo and is cared for by a zoologist named Davis (Dwayne Johnson).  When George suddenly grows and becomes aggressive, Davis tries to protect his prize gorilla, who also happens to be his friend. Have I said yet that this one is silly at times?  Well, there. I said it.

Enter Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) who used to work for the company that created the rogue DNA.  Yep, once more, the bad guy in the film is yet another— repeat after me– evil company!— this time led by the ice-cold Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman) and her goofy brother Brett (Jake Lacy). Kate tried to expose the evil company for what it was, but was jailed for her efforts.  Worse yet, she blames the death of her brother on Wyden’s faulty research. As a result, Kate wants to take Wyden down, and she and Davis join forces because she tells him that if he wants to save George, Wyden has the answers.

But not so fast! Enter shadowy government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who wants to stop the monsters, Davis’ and Kate’s rogue efforts, and the Wydens. He sure has his hands full.

And all three giant monsters are stomping towards Chicago, drawn there by a signal set up by Claire Wyden to bring them there so she can reclaim her research and save her company. What. A. Stupid. Plan.

Yes, everyone’s heading to Chicago, for one big climactic— rampage!

But don’t expect a horrific monstrous finale because RAMPAGE keeps things light. The best thing I can say about RAMPAGE is that it tries to have fun throughout, and for the most part, it is a fun movie.  It’s also a rather silly movie and as such doesn’t do its giant monster tale many favors.

Director Brad Peyton, who also directed Dwayne Johnson in the earthquake melodrama SAN ANDREAS (2015), keeps the action safe and tame. The best action sequence is the final one, when all three monsters converge in Chicago. Before that, there are a few okay scenes, like the hunt for the wolf, and the sequence where George wakes up on the plane, but really nothing all that spectacular.  That being said, I enjoyed RAMPAGE more than SAN ANDREAS.

The screenplay by four writers, Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, and Adam Sztykiel is a mixed bag. In general, it does a good job telling its monster story and moves it along nicely towards it climactic showdown in Chicago. But a lot of the dialogue is pretty bad. Most of Dwayne Johnson’s lines don’t work.  His one liners come off as “Arnold Schwarzenegger-lite.”

And the friendship story between Davis and George made me want to gag. It’s sappier than a maple tree. As such, the rampaging George is more akin to Mighty Joe Young than King Kong.

The monsters are also a mixed bag. The close-ups of George look pretty good, but the giant Wolf and Crocodile didn’t really impress me. Yet another example of underwhelming CGI effects.

Dwayne Johnson does his thing, and per usual, he’s entertaining throughout. He makes Davis a likable character who’s easy to root for. And seriously, there aren’t too many actors on the planet who could share a scene with three gigantic CGI monsters, take part in their physical rampage, and look believable doing it.

Naomie Harris, so memorable as Moneypenny in the new James Bond movies, as well as having notable roles in a bunch of other films, including MOONLIGHT (2016) and OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016), to name just a couple, doesn’t fare as well here in RAMPAGE. Her character, Dr. Kate Caldwell, in spite of her dramatic desire for revenge against the Wyden company, is reduced to being Dwayne Johnson’s sidekick and eventual love interest.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as government agent Harvey Russell does his best Negan shtick, the character he plays on THE WALKING DEAD, only this time he’s one of the good guys rather than the villain. Morgan gives the liveliest performance in the movie.

Malin Akerman, who co-starred with Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the dark superhero flick WATCHMEN (2009), is sufficiently ruthless as Claire Wyden, but in a strictly cartoonish way. Likewise, Jake Lacy seems to be having fun as her bumbling brother Brett. Lacy enjoyed a memorable brief bit in THEIR FINEST (2016) as the American war hero with no acting experience thrust into a lead movie role.

RAMPAGE isn’t bad. It has giant monsters, Dwayne Johnson, and some decent giant monster action sequences, but its silly script keeps things a bit too light throughout and never becomes all that engrossing. Instead, it plays out like a Saturday morning cartoon of yesteryear.

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A QUIET PLACE (2018) – Smart Horror Movie Riveting and Scary

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Talk about quiet horror!

Shh! No yelling! This is A QUIET PLACE.

A QUIET PLACE is a new horror movie by director John Krasinski, known mostly for his recurring role as Jim Halpert on the comedic TV show THE OFFICE (2005-2013) starring Steve Carell. Krasinski both directs and stars here, along with his real-life wife Emily Blunt.

A QUIET PLACE is a simple thriller that nonetheless works well.  Its tagline, “If they hear you, they hunt you,” sums up the film perfectly.

It’s yet another horror movie about an apocalypse, as this time it’s strange violent creatures that roam the countryside preying on human beings. They’re unstoppable and they’re hungry.  They’re also blind. To make up for their lack of sight, they possess incredible hearing, and thus that’s how they hunt. It’s exactly as the film’s tagline says, if they hear you they hunt you.  So, to survive, you have to be awfully quiet.

It’s kind of a silly premise, when you think about it, that these creatures would have made it this far without being stopped, but that being said, there’s nothing silly about the rest of A QUIET PLACE. It’s a solid thriller throughout.

A QUIET PLACE basically follows one family trying to survive among these creatures. They live in silence in their farmhouse.  There’s the father Lee (John Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), teen daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) who happens to be deaf, and younger son Marcus (Noah Jupe). They live in mortal fear of the creatures, having lost their youngest son to one of them in the film’s pre-credit sequence.

They’re also quite resourceful, devising a system to communicate with lights and creating an undergound sound proof room. But with three of these creatures living in the vicinity of their farm, they need to be.  And, oh yeah.  Evelyn is pregnant and is about to give birth. So much for a quiet place!

A QUIET PLACE possessed the same tone as another recent apocalyptic horror movie, IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), a movie I liked a lot. The big difference between the two is the threat was never defined in IT COMES AT NIGHT while here in A QUIET PLACE the threat is made known at the outset.

The creatures here reminded me of things found in the CLOVERFIELD universe. In fact, for a time, Paramount considered making this movie a part of the CLOVERFIELD franchise, which would have made perfect sense. The chilling scenes in the cornfields were also reminiscent of similar scenes in M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS (2002).  That being said, A QUIET PLACE isn’t derivative of these films. It stands on its own.

A QUIET PLACE starts off— well, quiet, and after a jarring pre-credit scene moves slowly for a bit before really picking up steam during its second act.  There are some really suspenseful scenes in this one. The centerpiece and the most intense scene by far is the entire birthing sequence when Emily Blunt’s Evelyn is trying to give birth while there’s a creature pursuing her.  Scary stuff!  And I loved every minute of it!

As I said, early on, things are really quiet, as the characters need to be silent, and with a minimum of dialogue, very little happening on the soundtrack, it made for a very different kind of viewing for a while. All the folks in the audience munching on popcorn seemed to stop and the theater got really silent.  Some of the younger audience members, teenagers, couldn’t contain themselves and felt the urge to shout out comments every once in a while, but once things heated up in the second half, they fell frighteningly silent.

I really enjoyed A QUIET PLACE.  The acting was superb.  John Krasinski is solid as Lee Abbott, the caring dad who will stop at nothing to protect his family.

I thought Emily Blunt gave the best performance in the film as mom Evelyn Abbott. Like the rest of the family, she’s haunted by the death of their youngest son.

Millicent Simmonds, deaf in real life, is excellent as Regan, the daughter who has issues with her father, since she believes he blames her for her little brother’s death. And Noah Jupe, who we saw in last year’s WONDER (2017) as Auggie’s friend Jack Will, makes for a very frightened Marcus Abbott.

A QUIET PLACE has a smart screenplay by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski. Its story is frightening throughout, and its characters likable and believable. It’s not perfect. I thought it was slow-going at first, and its resolution, the steps taken by the Abbotts to combat the creatures, made me scratch my head in disbelief that no one else had thought of this before.

John Krasinski does a terrific job directing as well. The early scenes, though slow-paced, take full advantage of sound, or lack thereof.  With a nearly silent soundtrack during its first half, all sounds are magnified and used to full effect.  And once the film takes off during its second half, the suspense is pretty much nonstop and a heck of a lot of fun.

A QUIET PLACE is a high quality horror movie, the kind of film like last year’s GET OUT (2017) that helps raise the bar for the horror genre.

It’s my favorite horror movie of the year so far.

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