Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Darkness at Blaisedon, A (1969)

... aka: Dead of Night: A Darkness at Blaisedon 

Directed by:
Lela Swift

Produced by Dan Curtis, this was intended to be the pilot episode for a supernatural-themed series titled Dead of Night. It runs just 52 minutes and was never actually aired on TV so the "series" both began and ended right here. It has much in common with Curtis' then-popular daytime soap Dark Shadows: it's set-bound, was shot cheaply on video, is mostly talk and features a relatively small cast. Not at all surprising since the director was Lela Swift, who had previously directed almost 600 (!) episodes of Shadows, and the writer was Sam Hall, who had written over 300. Mrs. Swift, perhaps the most prolific female television director of all time (she retired in 1989), also made a handful of other made-for-the-tube horrors such as Deadly Visitor (1973), The Gift of Terror (1973; which earned her a Daytime Emmy nod and was part of the ABC Afternoon Playbreak series), as well as the Wide World Mystery releases The Satan Murders (1974) and Alien Lover (1975). To my knowledge, none of those have seen the light of day since they aired on TV back in the 70s.

Angela Martin (Marj Dusay) inherits the dark, gloomy Blaisedon house from a dead aunt she's never met. Since she can't afford the upkeep on her secretary's salary, she's forced to try to sell it. The problem is that it's rumored to be haunted and no one wants to buy it. Being saddled with creepy, grumpy caretaker Seth Blakely (Thayer David), who informs her the home is "not fit for the living anymore," doesn't help matters. Angela seeks help from debonair Jonathan Fletcher (Kerwin Mathews), a former law student turned paranormal expert who became interested in all things supernatural after his dead father's ghost paid him a visit in college. Jonathan, along with his Indian assistant Sajid Raul (Cal Bellini), decide to take Angela back to the Blaisedon home to spend the night and see if there's any truth to those haunting rumors. Indeed there are. Almost immediately, all the hoary old haunted clichés (sudden gusts of wind blowing out candles, the organ playing all by itself, a "cold spot" upstairs where a violent act may have occurred years earlier...) start being trotted out.

Tracing back Angela's family history (using books conveniently located in the mansion's library), Jonathan determines that the malicious ghost responsible for the haunting belongs to its former owner: reclusive commodore Nicholas Blaise (Louis Edmonds). At the turn of the century, Nicholas murdered his brother because he believed he was having an affair with his wife, Melinda. Melinda responded by to that by hanging herself. Since Angela is a dead ringer for Melinda and may in fact be her reincarnation, Jonathan believes the restless commodore has lured her there in attempt to kill her and have her join him in the hereafter. There's a possession (when Angela slips on a cursed ruby ring that belonged to Melinda), a séance (where Angela speaks in Melinda's voice), some grave digging (when it's discovered that Melinda's body isn't in the casket) and a hidden, walled-in room that holds the key to the mystery.

After they survive the night in Blaisedon, Jonathan and Sajid offer Angela a job as a medium, and the trio would have no doubt gone on to investigate other paranormal cases if the series ever saw fruition. But it's kind of easy to see why that never happened. Though not badly made or acted for the medium, everything here seems overly-familiar and the whole project is ultimately forgettable (even by 1969 standards). Actor George Di Cenzo (who played prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in the excellent Manson movie Helter Skelter) was an the assistant to the producer.

First released on VHS by MPI, it's now available as an extra on the Dark Sky release of Curtis' made-for-TV trio of terror tales DEAD OF NIGHT (1976), which has nothing to do with the proposed series Dead of Night.


Onna kyûketsuki (1959)

... aka: Lady Vampire, The
... aka: Vampire Man
... aka: Woman Vampire, The

Directed by:
Nobuo Nakagawa

Late for his girlfriend's birthday party, Tokyo Times reporter Tamio Oki (Keinosuke Wada) and his taxi driver are speeding through the streets when a woman walks out in front of their car. Thinking they've hit her, the two get out only to discover that there's no body. Once they arrive at their destination, Tamio gets another glimpse of the same woman hanging out in the garden, but she disappears again. He goes in, finds his girlfriend Itsuko (Junko Ikeuchi) a little upset at him (well, until he hands over a present) and everyone gets started dancing, singing and eating cake. That is, until a surprise visitor stops in unexpectedly. That visitor is Miwako (Yôko Mihara), who disappeared twenty years ago when Itsuko was just a baby. Needless to say, Itsuko's father / Miwako's husband, Shigekatso (Torahiko Nakamura) is shocked to see her again, and even more shocked that she looks identical to the young bride he'd married over two decades earlier. Seeing as how she hasn't aged a day, Shigekatso calls in a doctor friend to look her over. He's unable to come up with any explanation for it, but Miwako is weak, confused and suffers from partial amnesia. She needs her sleep.

While mum's resting, Tamio takes Itsuko to an art gallery and, low and behold, the two find that the award-winning painting is a nude portrait of Miwako. No one knows the first thing about the artist who painted it, but he goes by the name Shiro Sofue (Shigeru Amachi), and he's the dude always wearing shades in the daytime and accompanied by a dwarf sidekick he calls "Tiny." Shiro's real name is Nobutaka Takenaka and he's not quite human. OK, he's a centuries old vampire somehow connected to Miwako's bloodline, which is explained in a lengthy and confusing flashback. In a bizarre touch which injects werewolf mythos into the proceedings, the vampire is set off by the glow of the moon, which makes him uglier, fanged and clawed, and drives him into a murderous rampage. He kills a hotel maid and, when exposed in a nightclub, kills six different women. And you know how in most vampire movies the vampire casts no reflection? This film has scenes where the vampire is invisible and can ONLY be seen as a reflection in mirrors.

Naturally, Nobutaka / Shiro was the one to kidnap and entrance Miwako years earlier and now he wants his runaway bride back, even though she doesn't love him. After getting a slew of reporters and police officers on his tail for the murders, he finally manages to capture Miwako and retreats to his castle home. His castle is in the mountains hidden underground through a cave system and he shares company there with not only the dwarf but other ill-defined "monsters" such as a white-haired old witch and a bald strongman. The ladies in Nobutaka's life who've betrayed him over the years have been turned into statues that decorate the place.

Aside from its historical importance as one of the first Japanese vampire films and one of the earliest vampire films set in contemporary times, this boasts a very charismatic performance from Amachi. The film also has numerous impressive shots (with especially excellent use made of mirrors throughout the film), nice use of widescreen photography (with some breathtaking outdoor shots), very moody lighting and some striking minimalist set designs. Unfortunately, these pluses are all but thrown out the window by an awful final 20 minutes. Once Tamio, Itsuko and a slew of police invade the underground castle, the movie pretty much becomes an unintentionally hilarious disaster. For starters, the sets look incredibly cheap, with floors and walls wobbling throughout the action. Secondly, the fight choreography is terrible, with the vampire suddenly going all Errol Flynn with a fencing sword. The strongman's descent into a pool of bubbling water is done with all the finesse of Tor Johnson and watching the dwarf chase the screaming leading lady around all over the place is just plain comical.

Confused mythology doesn't help matters. I could care less about the fusion of vampire and werewolf tendencies for the villain, but little is explained. The link between his bloodline and the heroine's isn't adequately explained either (he does mention he likes the taste of their blood, but that doesn't count). Neither is how he became a vampire in the first place or who / what the dwarf, old woman and strongman are. Why does the moon turn him into a murderous beast throughout the film, but at the very end turn him into a white-haired corpse? There are lots of frustrating inconsistencies here. Too bad.

Nakagawa also made the impressive THE GHOST OF KASANE SWAMP (1957) and THE GHOST OF YOTSUYA (1959), as well as JIGOKU (1960), which many claim is the first gore film. Watch any of those and skip this one.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

555 (1988)

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Return of the Living Dead, The (1985)

Directed by:
Dan O'Bannon

A comic spin on George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) based - at least in part - on contributions from several Romero movie alum; Night co-writer John A. Russo, Night co-producer Russell Streiner and Rudy Ricci, who co-wrote Romero's romantic comedy THERE'S ALWAYS VANILLA (1971), this managed to carve its own path and proved to be pretty influential in its own right. Originally slated to be directed by Tobe Hopper, O'Bannon got the job instead and did a major re-write on the project's previous materials; adding most of the humor to the film himself. It also happened to be released the same year as DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), Romero's third installment in his "Dead" trilogy. Upon release, instant and perhaps unfair comparisons were drawn between the two films, with Return clearly coming out on top. Being the #1 box office draw the week it debuted, it not only managed to pummel Day (a flop by comparison) at the box office but also received a much-warmer reception from both audiences and mainstream critics. Roger Ebert, for instance, awarded Return with a 3 star "thumb's up" while Day received a discouraging 1 1/2 star "thumb's down." Regardless of the initial reaction nearly thirty years ago, both films have gone on to become very popular and respected films within the genre.

Though I like both movies a lot, I might even have to agree with the general consensus that Return is the more successful of the two, but I only say that judging both by what they were intended to be, not by directly comparing them. Day is a serious, apocalyptic horror tale, whereas Return is a comic spin on zombie films. Romero's film is bleak, gory, claustrophobic and dialogue-heavy. It has some very interesting ideas and is a thoughtful and entertaining film, but suffers from an uneven cast, with several key players giving grating, distracting, over-the-top performances. On the other hand, Return does an impressive balancing act, delivering plenty of laughs (more prevalent in the first half) that somehow never manage to compromise the horror content (which take an increasingly tighter hold as the film progresses). Return is also inventive, clever, well-paced and benefits a lot from the casting of three veteran character actors (Clu Gulager, James Karen and Don Calfa), usually support players all, and giving them each a chance to shine in their respective roles.

Frank (Karen, giving a terrific comic performance here) runs the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky. After his boss Burt (Gulager) heads out for the Fourth of July weekend, Frank starts showing new employee Freddy (Thom Mathews) the ropes. Down in the basement are several metal drums, accidentally sent there by the military and each containing a shriveled corpse that Frank claims used to be living dead (Frank also claims that - wink, wink - Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story). One of the drums springs a leak, spraying Frank and Freddy directly in the face with a chemical called Trioxin, which knocks them both unconscious. When the two finally come to, they're deathly ill and notice that things in the warehouse that were dead before have miraculously been brought back to life... including a cadaver they have stored in the freezer! They, with help from Burt (who's called back in to help), dismember the corpse with a hacksaw and get nearby mortician Ernie (Calfa) to burn the remains in his crematorium. With the evidence now gone, everyone breaths a sigh of relief... at least temporarily.

The fumes from the crematorium head straight up into the sky, where they cause a sudden thunderstorm. The rain (which contains traces of the toxic chemical) coats the ground at neighboring "Resurrection Cemetery" and bring the dead crawling out of their graves. Freddy's girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) and some other friends just so happen to be there hanging out and end up getting in the middle of things. Unlike most earlier zombie films, the zombies here can talk, are clever enough to lure victims into their clutches (one even uses a police radio to call in more paramedics and cops at one point) and are not so much interested in eating humans as they are feasting on human brains. After all, "It hurts to be dead." Return is also noteworthy for featuring fast-moving, agile zombies who don't just shuffle around, but actually chase after victims. (The number of people who run around claiming that 21 DAYS LATER... [2002] created "running zombies" - and these are people who should know better - is insane!)

Eventually, the military gets wind of what's going down in Louisville and decide to do exactly what the military probably would do in real life if something like this were to occur.

Of the cast, Karen gets most of the laughs (my favorite bit is when he starts beating a revived "split dog" with a crutch!), though both Gulager ("I hit the fucking brain!") and Calfa have their moments. And when the film becomes more serious in tone, all three actors adjust accordingly and smoothly to the material. Another standout in the cast is Linnea Quigley. Playing the role of a morbid punkette named Trash, she does a memorable dance atop a cemetery crypt, is killed and returns from the dead as a zombie... all the while sans clothing. This role turned Quigley into one of the most beloved female horror stars of the last thirty years, though she would seldom get such a high profile movie as this one. Another of the actresses, Jewel Shepard, also used this film to launch her career as a "Scream Queen," though to date she's amassed only a handful of genre film credit and never the lead role. Others in the cast include Miguel A. Nunez Jr. and Mark Venturini (who both had roles in FRIDAY THE 13TH V the same year), John Philbin and Brian Peck.

Some of the zombie make-up is a little minimal and forgettable (every once in awhile a non-made up zombie extra can be spotted amongst the crowd), but the featured effects are solid. The oily, skeletal "tar man" zombie (who escaped from the broken military canister) and a rotten half woman zombie are especially good. There's also a great soundtrack, featuring songs from The Cramps ("The Surfin Dead"), The Damned, Roky Erickson, SSQ and others. Debuting director O'Bannon had already scripted the huge hit ALIEN (1979), and even had some prior experience with zombies, having written the sleeper DEAD & BURIED (1981) a few years earlier. It's a shame he hasn't had the opportunity to direct more because Return and his next effort, the Lovecraft-inspired THE RESURRECTED (1991), are both well above average.

As with all successful horror films, a handful of variable sequels followed. The awkwardly-titled RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, PART II (1988) had some great zombie make-ups and brought back Karen and Matthews (playing different roles), but the humor was mostly obvious and juvenile and the characters were irritating. Brian Yuzna's surprisingly good RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III (1993) was a serious, tragic love story punctuated with black humor and loads of gore (some of which caused ratings problems). The dreadful RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 4: NECROPOLIS (2004) and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 5: RAVE TO THE GRAVE (2005), which were filmed back-to-back in Eastern Europe and have more in common with brainless action-oriented zombie movies such as RESIDENT EVIL (2002) than their namesake, put the final nail in the coffin for this franchise.

Laurel Entertainment's Richard P. Rubinstein filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to try to prevent the filmmakers from using "Living Dead" in the title. A longer workprint version was unearthed in the early 90s, which ran 24 minutes longer than the theatrical release. In 2011, the two-hour retrospective documentary MORE BRAINS! A RETURN TO THE LIVING DEAD was released and featured interviews with nearly the entire cast and crew.


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