Category Archives: Horror

Fright Night (1985, Tom Holland)

So much of Fright Night is humdrum, with the occasional energy pulses whenever Chris Sarandon gets to be vampirish, I didn’t really expect it to get any better. I certainly didn’t expect director Holland to go all out on the special effects or even Roddy McDowall to get such good material. I also didn’t expect Stephen Geoffreys to go from pointless background to constant annoyance; Geoffreys isn’t any good to begin with, so when he gets even worse, it claws. Especially as he gets one of the great effects sequences.

Unfortunately, Holland hasn’t set Fright Night up to be easily saved, not even by effects sequences. Especially not as the technically superior finale lacks much dramatic oomph. Fright Night starts being about William Ragsdale’s curious, then terrified teenager. The part requires someone who can get away not just with being nosy, but a jerk to girlfriend Amanda Bearse. Ragsdale’s got absolutely no charisma. Five minutes in the first act feels like a half hour, as Ragsdale starts to investigate new next door neighbor Sarandon while ignoring Bearse and palling around with Geoffreys. Only it turns out the palling makes Geoffreys miserable and he feels picked on; it can’t be any other characters who pick on him, because there’s no one else in the movie. Holland isn’t interested in directing a high school movie.

There’s the requisite eighties club scene, however. Fright Night does have a club scene. It’s even a good club scene–Sarandon seduces Bearse, while Ragsdale goofs off trying to figure out a payphone. Better photography would’ve helped; Jan Kiesser’s photography is always competent, but never excellent. Still Sarandon and Bearse are good in the scene. Sarandon plays the part of bloodsucker as eighties thoughtful stud well. So well his relationship with his charmless doofus sidekick Jonathan Stark never works. Seeing him have a subplot with Bearse, some character development, it’s nice.

Bearse has a terrible part. She’s got no chemistry with Ragsdale, which would be hard because Ragsdale’s actively unappealing. But she does all right as a reincarnated lady love of a vampire. Of course, it’s kind of creepy since she’s seventeen and Sarandon is forty-three and Holland does nothing to establish Bearse’s character other than her being a prude who’s better that trig than mathematic dummy Ragsdale.

So the two vampire seduction scenes are good. Just a tad too exploitative. Even if you remove the female actor being underage, Holland really doesn’t want to deal with any of the repercussions of the film’s events. Fright Night is a spoofy comedy. It’s also a terrible scary movie. And it’s a special effects spectacular. It’s sometimes exquisite–though in McDowall and Sarandon’s performances. None of the other actors give unqualified good performances; they need stronger direction and Holland apparently doesn’t give it to them. Maybe he’s just in a hurry to the never hinted at special effects finale but even it lacks personality.

The score is another big disconnect. For example, when Ragsdale is suspiciously peeping on Sarandon, Brad Fiedel’s score goes to its synthpop vampire seduction thing. And Holland doesn’t seem to notice it doing nothing for the film or Ragdale’s performance. Ragsdale’s what happens if Billy Peltzer is unlikable.

Oddly enough, the seduction part of the score ends up being the most effective, if only because editor Kent Beyda screws up the rest of Fiedel’s work. Fright Night is not well-edited. Almost never. And, along with the frequent, unchecked bombastic music and Kiesser’s flat photography, the filmmaking itself acts as a barrier. Nowhere near as much as Ragsdale being an unlikable shit (maybe because he’s at least seven years too old for the part), but it does act as a barrier. Fright Night lacks mood. Holland’s all over the place, often competently or better, but his direction is moodless and needs to be quite the opposite.

Also Ragsdale is really, really, really, really bland until Bearse, Geoffreys, and McDowall take over. And Geoffreys is really bland too, but he’s not as damaging the overall experience.

So once McDowall’s part is bigger, Fright Night starts to get better, then it gets good, then it chokes on an epilogue. So after opening too flat to make an impression, Fright Night still ends up being a disappointment.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tom Holland; director of photography, Jan Kiesser; edited by Kent Beyda; music by Brad Fiedel; production designer, John DeCuir Jr.; produced by Herb Jaffe; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring William Ragsdale (Charley Brewster), Roddy McDowall (Peter Vincent), Chris Sarandon (Jerry Dandrige), Amanda Bearse (Amy Peterson), Stephen Geoffreys (Ed Thompson), Jonathan Stark (Billy Cole), Art Evans (Detective Lennox), and Dorothy Fielding (Judy Brewster).


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Voodoo Black Exorcist (1974, Manuel Caño)

Voodoo Black Exorcist is exasperatingly dull. In the first scene, which is before the opening titles, after a few seconds it becomes clear seventh century Haitian lovers Aldo Sambrell and Eva León aren’t just star-crossed, they’re also in blackface. Voodoo Exorcist Black is not a Blaxploitation horror film, but a (dubbed) Spanish remake of The Mummy set in the Caribbean.

Though calling it a horror movie is a little too gracious, because it’s never scary. It’s only compelling twice–both involving León, who isn’t good or appealing, she’s just the one who suffers the most in Santiago Moncada’s weird script and she gets some pity. So when León’s threatened, maybe Black Exorcist Voodoo registers a pulse. Maybe.

So after this terribly done but somewhat energetic opening sequence, the film moves to the present. By showing NASA footage of shuttle launches and moon shots and whatever else. It’s weird. It’s a weird way to do a time transition and one has to wonder if it was in the original Spanish version or something the dubbers came up with. Because the dubbers do a lot on the film. They do a lot.

But it’s not clear they make the movie much worse. Black Voodoo Exorcist is already atrocious. Maybe if there was some background noise it would help on some of the cruise ship interiors. I forgot–the movie is a Mummy remake set on a cruise ship. The cruise ship is transporting the mummy, who occasionally turns into an intense white guy, also Aldo Sambrell. León and Sambrell might have been black a thousand years ago, but now they’re both white. León through reincarnation, Sambrell… just because? He even becomes black again when he mummifies. It’s weird. But it’s just a bad weird.

Eventually Sambrell teams up with archeologist Alfredo Mayo. Mayo is León’s lover. She’s his secretary. She wants to get married. Even though he’s a gross old man and she’s a hot young woman, he doesn’t seem to want to get married. There’s no tension about it though, because both actors are so bad. And the script. And Caño’s exasperatingly bad direction.

Exorcist Black Voodoo is Panavision too. It’s a nice wide frame of cruise ship exteriors and not cruise ship interiors. Even though Roberto Ochoa’s photography isn’t good, it’s bright enough to betray visual inconsistency. But Caño’s setups are all bad so it’s easily on him too.

In the second act, the movie actually teases being interesting as Sambrell starts courting León. By starts, I mean there’s a short scene. Then it’s over and it’s back to being boring. Then Fernando Sancho’s self-depreciating police inspector gets all the screen time as he investigates Sambrell.

Exorcist Voodoo Black is a movie where a cop turns a firehose on an escaping thousand year-old voodoo mummy (Sambrell’s always running when in his mummy makeup). And it’s not amusing for a frame.

I’m not even sure Voodoo Black Exorcist deserves a good joke made about it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Manuel Caño; written by Santiago Moncada; director of photography, Roberto Ochoa; edited by Antonio Ramírez de Loaysa and Frederic Vich; music by Fernando García Morcillo; produced by José Antonio Pérez Giner; released by Horizon Films.

Starring Aldo Sambrell (Guedé Nibo), Eva León (Silvia), Alfredo Mayo (Dr. Kessling), and Fernando Sancho (Comisario Domínguez).


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Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, Jack Clayton)

Nothing connects with Something Wicked This Way Comes, though Jonathan Pryce’s performance is probably the closest thing to a complete success. Jason Robards is often quite good, but he’s both protagonist and subject of the film, which neither director Clayton nor writer Ray Bradbury (adapting his own novel) really seem to know how to transition between. Ostensibly, the leads of the film are young teens Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson, who find their small town threatened by Pryce’s demonic carnival owner. But they’re just in distress; it’s up to Robards to save them.

Along the way–Something Wicked runs a long ninety-some minutes–strange things happen to the other townsfolk, at least the ones the film has time to introduce in the talky first act. Clayton’s direction is never scary enough, Stephen H. Burum’s photography is never atmospheric enough, and Argyle Nelson Jr. and Barry Mark Gordon’s editing is always problematic. Something Wicked’s target audience is teen boys but the script is about a fifty-something man coming to terms with waiting too long to have a child. If Clayton just went for creepy, it might have all worked out better.

Especially considering all the special effects until the finale are weak. The finale’s special effects are fantastic. They’re not on screen long enough–that editing is always problematic, like I said–but they’re fantastic.

Also unimpressive is James Horner’s score, which occasionally makes the film seem longer, even though it’s not bad. It just doesn’t work. Nothing in Something Wicked works. Except the aforementioned Jonathan Pryce.

The main supporting cast–Mary Grace Canfield, Richard Davalos, Jake Dengel, James Stacy–don’t help things. They’re too obviously contrived, too obviously pragmatic (except Canfield, all of them have shops in a row so it’s easy to introduce them all to both Peterson and Robards). Bradbury’s script treats everyone as a caricature, except maybe Peterson and Robards. Peterson’s performance isn’t good enough–he’s annoying–and Robards gets some lame material. Poor Diane Ladd has nothing to do, except go from being a tragic abandoned wife to a succubus, entertaining men while son Carson sleeps unawares upstairs.

Pam Grier shows up as one of Pryce’s minions and makes an impression thanks to some solid costumes and terrible special effects, but her few lines aren’t memorable. Same goes for Ellen Geer’s character, mother to Peterson, wife to Robards. Something Wicked’s characters ought to have some interesting backstory, but they just don’t. It doesn’t help whenever Bradbury tries to bring it up, he just goes with blocks of expository dialogue.

The film suffered studio tinkering, but it’s hard to imagine they broke things too much. Something Wicked’s pieces simply don’t add up to anything. It’s a shame, because the production values are great and there’s excellent potential for Robards’s performance. And Pryce’s good, regardless.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Clayton; screenplay by Ray Bradbury, based on his novel; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by Argyle Nelson Jr. and Barry Mark Gordon; music by James Horner; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Peter Douglas; released by Buena Vista Distribution Company.

Starring Vidal Peterson (Will Halloway), Shawn Carson (Jim Nightshade), Jason Robards (Charles Halloway), Jonathan Pryce (Mr. Dark), Ellen Geer (Mrs. Halloway), Diane Ladd (Mrs. Nightshade), Royal Dano (Tom Fury), Mary Grace Canfield (Miss Foley), Richard Davalos (Mr. Crosetti), Jake Dengel (Mr. Tetley), James Stacy (Ed) and Pam Grier (The Dust Witch).


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Dead Silence (2007, James Wan), the unrated version

Dead Silence is pretty dumb, but it’s often incredibly well-made, which makes up for a lot of the dumbness. There are a lot of problems with the acting–lead Ryan Kwanten is particularly lacking when delivering the weak dialogue though he’s otherwise acceptable as a scream king. Or, in the case of Dead Silence, where the monster gets you if you scream, he’s acceptable as a non-scream king. But the film relies heavily on exposition. Even when Kwanten’s not talking–or even when he’s listening to one of the better actors (Donnie Wahlberg and Michael Fairman, for example)–there’s the constant threat of a weak performance.

Also bad is Laura Regan as Kwanten’s wife. They’re obnoxiously cute or at least screenwriter Leigh Whannell intends them to be cute. It doesn’t really come off. Partially because of the performances, partially because of the writing. Dead Silence has enormous plot holes and logic gaps. Director Wan manages to get across a lot of them, but there’s only so much style can do. Eventually, the logic gaps catch up with the film. At that point, however, Wahlberg’s got a bigger part so at least he’s chewing the scenery in a terribly written cop role.

Michael N. Knue’s editing is good. The first act is hurried, partially due to the script. It’s only successful thanks to Knue’s editing. He slows it down for the rest of the film, which takes place over a couple unlikely days, and doesn’t get to affect the pace as much. It’s still good editing in the latter part, it’s just not expertly hurried.

Solid photography from John R. Leonetti too, though Dead Silence has been through a lot of post-production for the colors. Director Wan focuses the viewer’s attention, usually obviously, and always pragmatically. Dead Silence is a light film, untold horrors of ventriloquism or not; Wan’s direction at least gives it the impression of heft.

Middling support from Bob Gunton and Amber Valletta don’t really hurt the picture. It’d have been nice if they were better as Kwanten’s estranged family, but it probably wouldn’t have helped the picture much.

Once Dead Silence finds its pace in the middle–after Knue’s no longer keeping things moving through aggressive cutting–it’s a solidly diverting, if questionably acted and definitely poorly written, horror picture. The big reveal is terrible and Wan goes out of his way to forecast it. Maybe not the particulars but at least the concept for the solution. Whannell’s script lacks any depth, it’s just too bad it’s similarly shallow as far as conclusions go.

But Wan does a fine job putting it all together, bad script, weak lead. It’s far more competent than it needs to be.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Wan; screenplay by Leigh Whannell, based on a story by Wan and Whannell; director of photography, John R. Leonetti; edited by Michael N. Knue; music by Charlie Clouser; production designer, Julie Berghoff; produced by Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman, and Oren Koules; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Ryan Kwanten (Jamie Ashen), Laura Regan (Lisa Ashen), Donnie Wahlberg (Det. Lipton), Michael Fairman (Henry Walker), Amber Valletta (Ella Ashen), Bob Gunton (Edward Ashen), Joan Heney (Marion Walker) and Judith Roberts (Mary Shaw).


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