Category Archives: Horror

Shadow of the Vampire (2000, E. Elias Merhige)

Shadow of the Vampire opens with some title cards explaining the setup. Well, it opens with some title cards explaining the setup after what feels like nine minute opening titles. In reality… it’s six. Vampire ostensibly runs ninety-five minutes.

Anyway. The title cards setup the making of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s highly influential 1922 vampire film. The cards end saying Nosferatu is going to establish Murnau as one of “the greatest directors of all time,” which would imply Vampire’s going to be very positive about Nosferatu and Murnau.

Not so much as it turns out. John Malkovich plays Murnau. The movie presents him as a pretentious dick, which you’d think Malkovich could easily play, but not so much. Steven Katz’s script is particularly wanting in the Murnau characterization department. Besides a visit to a sex club and drug use, there’s nothing to Malkovich’s character. He gets the least character development of anyone in the film. Except Eddie Izzard, who gets ingloriously chucked at some point. Anyway. Murnau’s direction is always played for laughs in one way or another. Sometimes it’s in how Izzard (as the human lead in Nosferatu) acts, sometimes it’s in how Malkovich directs, but there’s always a bit of a joke. Sometimes there’s a lot of one. Shadow of the Vampire has some good laughs.

But Vampire’s not a biopic or non-fiction. It’s about how Malkovich has hired a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to play the vampire in the movie. Two big problems. One, Dafoe’s a vampire who wants to kill people. Two, he’s not an actor. There’s some real funny stuff with Dafoe. It’s just not particularly good funny stuff. Vampire’s not a comedy. Director Merhige manages to get into the third act without ever fully committing to a tone. He eventually does pick one and, wow, it’s a bad choice.

But Dafoe. Let’s just get it out of the way. He’s phenomenal. His performance gets the humor in the situation, but never at the expense of being scary. Katz and Merhige never take advantage of that aspect of Dafoe’s performance–the spontaneity of it. Because they’re not doing particularly good work.

At no point does Vampire show much potential. Malkovich is chemistry-free with everyone, which is a problem when it comes to leading lady (barely in the movie, completely “harpy,” ultimate damsel-in-distress Catherine McCormack) who he’s apparently been intimate with. Kinky sex implication intimate. He uses it to control McCormack. But she’s barely in the movie–three scenes, maybe four.

He’s also no good with Udo Kier as Nosferatu’s producer, or Cary Elwes as the ladies man cameraman. Or Izzard, but he and Malkovich don’t actually share the screen much. Malkovich is usually directing Izzard in Nosferatu, not acting opposite him. Malkovich also doesn’t have any chemistry with Aden Gillett, who plays the Nosferatu screenwriter. Gillett’s got no purpose except suspect Dafoe and play well opposite Kier. So Merhige does get these actors need to play well off one another, he just doesn’t do anything to facilitate it. Kier and Gillett have one of the film’s best scenes, if not the best. They bond with Dafoe.

So while often amusing–and quick-paced, at the expense of logic and character development and narrative gestures–Vampire doesn’t have much heft. Then it tries to get some and it doesn’t work out. At all.

The third act’s a bust, with Merhige, Katz, and Malkovich the prime offenders. But mostly Katz. There’s nothing you can do with the third act as written. Then Malkovich, then Merhige. Merhige needed to figure out how to cover for Malkovich’s broad performance.

Kier and Elwes are all right. Same goes for McCormack and Izzard. After Dafoe, Gillett gives the best performance. No one gets enough to do, not even Dafoe. Kind of especially not Dafoe.

Technically it’s a little dull, but still colorful. Lou Bogue’s photography doesn’t do crisp. Chris Wyatt’s editing is good. He knows how to cut for the comedy. Dan Jones’s music isn’t memorable.

Merhige’s composition is a little too tight, his narrative impulses aren’t good–somehow he still keeps a nice, brisk pace–he’s indifferent to actors’ performances. Lots, but nothing to really suggest how bad the movie’s going to close.

It’s worth seeing for Dafoe’s performance. And maybe Malkovich’s if you don’t like him. Vampire pretends Malkovich is giving a great performance–one where he has chemistry with Dafoe and whatnot–but Malkovich doesn’t even put in enough effort to pretend anything similar. It’s a problem.

Vampire’s got too many problems.

BOMB

CREDITS

Directed by E. Elias Merhige; written by Steven Katz; director of photography, Lou Bogue; edited by Chris Wyatt; music by Dan Jones; production designer, Assheton Gorton; produced by Nicolas Cage and Jeff Levine; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring John Malkovich (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau), Willem Dafoe (Max Schreck), Udo Kier (Albin Grau), Eddie Izzard (Gustav von Wangenheim), Aden Gillett (Henrik Galeen), Cary Elwes (Fritz Arno Wagner), Ronan Vibert (Wolfgang Müller), and Catherine McCormack (Greta Schröder).


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House (1986, Steve Miner)

House has got technical failures, acting failures, plotting failures (sort of), but it also has the mystery of William Katt’s hair. In some scenes it’s the standard Katt blond, but in other scenes, it’s brown. Sometimes it’s dark brown. Sometimes it looks like a perm. And it never looks like a perm when Katt’s been wet, because–of course–whenever Katt gets wet, his hair’s immediately dry the next shot.

Sadly, the mystery of Katt’s hair color isn’t part of the film. It almost seems like it might be, when Katt decides not to finish brushing his teeth but to instead go investigate the haunted closet in the haunted house he’s living in. It’s all very silly. And not in a good way.

For a while, it seems like House might be silly in a good way. It’s never funny and it’s never scary. Problematic as the film’s supposedly a horror comedy. Or a comedic horror. Katt can’t act comedy, Miner can’t direct comedy, screenwriter Ethan Wiley technically does in fact write comedy, but it’s so bad co-star George Wendt can’t even make it work. In fact, he seems mildly confused at the film’s inability to land a joke.

Wendt’s still awful, regardless of his confusion. The more lines you have in House, the less likely you are to escape unscathed. A handful of actors make it out without embarrassing themselves. Mostly. And sort of Kay Lenz. Watching House, you feel bad for Kay Lenz. She’s part of the “joke,” which is kind of ick since she’s Katt’s ex-wife and they broke up because their son disappeared because the House ate him. Though, really, maybe it isn’t why she left Katt. Maybe I had already glazed over. Because they’re both kind of great considering their son disappeared. Lenz’s a successful nighttime soap star and Katt’s a horror author. Except he’s trying to write a book about his time in Vietnam with Bull from “Night Court” and Kevin Costner’s dad from Field of Dreams.

Sorry. The mind wanders when watching House; you can’t help but wish you were watching almost anything else with the actors involved.

Anyway, once the haunted house starts taunting Katt with his missing son, there’s a lot of Katt emoting. Some of it with blond hair, some of it with brown hair. Katt’s not good at the emoting. Katt’s not good at much, though he is able to wear a V-neck sweater down to his belly button and make it seem reasonable for his character. V-necks are at the beginning when House seems like it might be dumb fun.

But Katt trades in those deep v-necks for military fatigues. Starting when he rigs a bunch of camera to photograph the haunted house but then somehow never takes any pictures, not even ones of not haunted things. Wiley’s script has a lot of dumb moments. You don’t have to think hard to be thinking too hard for House.

Like when Katt calls the FBI to check in on his missing son and the FBI tells him to stop calling the CIA too.

Actually, the movie doesn’t start off with much promise of dumb fun. I’m wrong. Michael Ensign, in the third or fourth scene, kind of ruins any potential for fun. He’s desperately unfunny and the scene needs to be funny, because Katt can’t play straight man. Katt’s terrible when he mugs through a “comedy” sequence, but he’s even worse when he’s trying to be reasonable.

There’s nothing reasonable about House.

Also Katt’s really bad at his timing. Some of it is no doubt on Miner and editor Michael N. Knue, but a lot of it is Katt. He’s always late reacting to action or other actors.

Also bad is Harry Manfredini’s score. And Mac Ahlberg’s photography. Even if Katt really was dying his hair throughout filming and it’s not just Ahlberg shooting it poorly, the film would still be shot poorly.

The special effects design is good. The execution is iffy. Miner doesn’t know how to showcase any of it. Because it’s a bad movie–poorly made, poorly acted, poorly everything. Miner’s direction is a bust.

I haven’t even got time for the terrible Vietnam flashbacks. They’re also dumb. Because Wiley’s script is dumb. And the acting is bad. And the directing is worse. And they’re all obviously on sound stages because there’s never any sky, though who knows… it’s not like Miner knows how to compose a shot on location either.

As a horror movie, House gets a fail. As a comedy, it gets a fail. It’s never funny, it’s never scary. Successful comedy probably wouldn’t have helped (who’d have done it–just Wendt, I suppose–because never Katt), but successful horror might have been nice. Some danger would’ve been fine.

A lot of things would’ve been fine but no. House is never fine (much less very, very, very fine).

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Miner; screenplay by Ethan Wiley, based on a story by Fred Dekker; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Michael K. Knue; music by Harry Manfredini; production designer, Gregg Fonseca; produced by Sean S. Cunningham; released by New World Pictures.

Starring William Katt (Roger Cobb), George Wendt (Harold Gorton), Richard Moll (Big Ben), Kay Lenz (Sandy Sinclair), Mary Stavin (Tanya), Michael Ensign (Chet Parker), Susan French (Aunt Elizabeth), and Dwier Brown (Lieutenant).


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Puppet Master 5 (1994, Jeff Burr)

Puppet Master 5 opens with the series’s (unfortunately) standard lengthy opening title sequences. There’s nothing exciting about it, just white text on black and Richard Band’s theme in the background. The film’s single surprise in the titles is Band just getting an “original music by” credit. Michael Wetherwax is here to adapt it. He’s the Ken Thorne of Puppet Master movies.

He actually does a great job. Puppet Master 5’s music sounds different. It’s got more energy during the slasher sequences. It gets so weird during one of the chase scenes, it sounds like the wrong music track was laid down. But it works. It’s lively.

A lot of Puppet Master 5 is lively. But the film does a lot to delay that energy. After the opening titles, there’s a scene with Ron O’Neal as a police detective interrogating lead Gordon Currie. Puppet Master 5 takes place right after 4. Currie is a genius scientist who gets chosen to be puppet master to an assortment of sentient, animate puppets. They’re all being hunted by an evil Egyptian demon. O’Neal doesn’t believe Currie’s story. Lawyer Diane McBain makes concerned faces. For a moment, Puppet Master 5 seems like it’s at least going to be a little different. The actors will be better. O’Neal might not have great lines and his part might be mispelled in the end credits, but he gives a professional performance. Same with McBain. She has maybe one line. It all feels strangely competent.

Then, of course, the movie fumbles and flashbacks back. A five minute flashback of the last movie’s events. For all those people who thought Puppet Master 5 would be a good jumping on point for the series.

The first puppet sequence doesn’t impress. A puppet escaping from the police lock-up while the officer-in-charge listens to musak. In fact, it’s an ominous sign for the film’s music, so it’s rather cool it turns out to be okay.

But then Ian Ogilvy shows up. He’s playing Currie’s boss. Not of the animate killer (but only bad people) puppets but of the science thing. Ogilvy’s kind of great. He’s hamming it through, the stuck-up British guy who’s actually not entirely proper. Turns out Ogilvy’s in league with the Pentagon to weaponize the puppets. “Holy shit that WAS Clu Gulager” Clu Gulager cameos for a scene as one of the Pentagon suits.

Anyway. Ogilvy hires these three idiots to help him steal the puppets. Nicholas Guest is the boss of the other two idiots. He’s no fun. Willard E. Pugh is fun and nearly good, certainly the best of the three. But Duane Whitaker is more fun, though not actually good. Even if you remove the “Holy shit that’s Maynard; is he going to go get the gimp” factor from Whitaker, he’s still more fun. Because the good puppets spend some time beating him up for being a jerk. They can’t kill him, because they’re good, but giving him a solid beatdown is something else. It even leads to an amusing moment when the puppets hide Whitaker’s unconscious body from female “lead” Chandra West.

All the killing from the puppets is the little demon monster. The big demon humps–literally–his life force into a little demon monster. It’s the same model as the last movie’s little demon monsters, which look like the little Lost World: Jurassic Park dinosaurs but without tails. And done with puppets, not CGI.

And it’s also supposed to be a puppet. Because there’s a long scene with the big demon–presumably a larger than life puppet, but terribly designed and detailed (though the hand effects are amazing)–talking to the little demon monster and it sounds like he too is a “puppet master.” Or at least he really likes to talk to his action figures.

The little demon monster is different from last movie’s because it’s got bling. It starts hunting down Ogilvy and the three idiots.

Those scenes, played equally for humor and suspense, work out well. They take up a lot of Puppet Master 5’s second act and, even when it’s Guest and there’s even not a unspecific bemusement quality, the scenes work. Adolfo Bartoli’s lighting actually has personality. He and Burr all of a sudden decide to have some style. And with Whitaker dressed as a cowboy, Pugh as a Shaft knockoff, Guest as a sports fan, and Ogilvy as a British square–it’s a lot. In the right way.

Sadly, Puppet Master 5 isn’t just these four idiots getting in the middle of the little demon hunting the puppets. There’s still Currie and West. And Teresa Hill, who plays West’s friend who the demon monsters attacked last movie. She’s in the hospital–not one of the film’s more convincing sets–but she can see the big demon and his plans. Like the one where he stands behind the little demon and tells the toy he’s going to hump his life force into it.

That footage is repeated at least twice in the movie.

So at first it seems like Currie and West might have a storyline together. Currie has this sex dream about West being all sultry in a bath tub full of blood; see, the puppets are bleeding her out and she feels all naughty for Currie.

It’s weird. Unpleasantly so. It also goes nowhere. Because once Currie and West get to the closed hotel (along with the long opening titles, another series standard), West gets nothing to do beyond scream and try to save Currie. Currie meanwhile gets to do his computer magic to communicate with Hill. She’s projecting her consciousness into the computer. Oddly, there’s not a lot she can do because the computer’s DOS, after all.

Eventually the little demon comes for West and Currie and the puppets get involved and Guy Rolfe is back. He’s the original puppet master. Now he shows up with his head superimposed over one of the puppets so he can give words of wisdom to Currie.

Currie starts the film a lot better than he ends it. He’s intolerable by the third act; somehow him being knocked out and West trying to save him is more annoying than when he’s pretending to read the computer screen and it’s hard to imagine anything more annoying than that one. Except maybe his inability to deliver one-liners.

Ogilvy’s kind of great. Though his glasses change lenses. Or sometimes appear not to have lenses at all. It’s distracting.

The movie would’ve been a lot better with just Ogilvy and the idiots getting hunted by puppets. The more Currie, the more West, the worse Puppet Master 5 gets. It’s unfortunate. Director Burr, cinematographer Bartoli, editor Margeret-Anne Smith, and composer Wetherwax (sorry, adapter)–they push through the budget restrictions and deliver some actually horrific little demon kills. When it’s not going well, they just keep going until it works. It’s impressive (and unexpected).

Shame about the rest of the movie, which can’t even get a good voice performance out of Jake McKinnon as the big demon. Movie knows to cameo Clu Gulager but not get a good voice performance for the villain. Of course it doesn’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jeff Burr; screenplay by Steven E. Carr, Jo Duffy, Todd Henschell, Douglas Aarniokoski, and Keith Payson, based on characters created by David Schmoeller; director of photography, Adolfo Bartoli; edited by Margeret-Anne Smith; music by Michael Wetherwax; production designer, Milo; produced by Charles Band; released by Paramount Home Video.

Starring Gordon Currie (Rick Myers), Chandra West (Susie), Ian Ogilvy (Jennings), Nicholas Guest (Hendy), Duane Whitaker (Scott), Willard E. Pugh (Jason), Teresa Hill (Lauren), and Guy Rolfe (Toulon).


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Puppet Master 4 (1993, Jeff Burr)

Puppet Master 4 is in a race with itself. Can it deliver on the animate puppet action before the cast becomes too intolerable? Can it deliver before the stupid scenes get to be too much? No, as it turns out, it can’t. Puppet Master 4 doesn’t succeed. Not even a Frankenstein making-the-monster homage with the puppets can make up for the film’s problems.

It’s a high concept sequel about these research scientists doing bleeding edge work into artifical intelligence. They’re really close to computers being able to figure out how to get computers to play with blocks. But first, square scientists Stacie Randall and Felton Perry need to get renegade, rebel scientist Gordon Currie to do his work. Currie’s work with LaserTag-equipped robots has the power to change the world. And not everyone is happy with it. Like this painfully animatronic demon who sends little lizard monsters out to hunt down the scientists. The film opens strong with the promise of Pupper Master puppets versus these little… well, frankly, they’re little tailless Compys, basically. Full Moon predating Spielberg by a few years.

The painfully animatronic demon has some flunkies and they’re in a secret, skull-filled temple cave thing. Puppet Master 4 gets away with it for a while because it’s Full Moon, it’s Puppet Master4. As long as the puppets come through, it’ll all be fine.

Except when the annoying humans find the puppets, the story doesn’t stay with the puppets, it goes back to the annoying humans. See, in addition to being the smartest man alive, Currie is also the caretaker of the hotel where the first two Puppet Master movies took place. He’s the only one there. He calls up possible-girlfriend-but-the-script-never-clarifies Chandra West for a booty call. She comes over, but brings with her Currie’s childhood nemesis, now yuppie scientist Ash Adams, and psychic Teresa Hill. Apparently West and Hill are friends. It’s never actually clear if West knows Adams knows Currie. West gets absolutely nothing to do in Puppet Master 4.

It also means she gives the best performance, because it’s not like the movie gives anyone anything good to do. Five screenwriters on this film… it’s a bland script too. For the first half, the blandness is what saves it. When the plot gets busy–like Currie outfitting the puppets with miniature LaserTag guns so they can play together while listening to heavy metal and West can just sit and watch because girl–Puppet Master 4 gets worse. Adams is lousy as a sniveling opportunist, but he’s a lot worse when he’s got to do a oujia board or get attacked by the little lizard creatures. Same goes for Hill.

After staying reasonably steady in the tolerable bad range, the movie makes some big drops all at once. That halfway point is rough.

When Puppet Master Guy Rolfe–superimposed over a puppet’s head in some of the film’s less successful effects work–returns, it’s not successful but it does help get the movie out of its funk. Currie too gets much worse with more to do.

None of the actors get any help from director Burr, who’s best at the puppet stuff. Not the puppets fighting stuff, because Burr’s terrible at all fight scenes and most action scenes, but the puppets being animate on their own. Those sequences work. Puppet Master 4, when so inclined, can deliver its puppets. It just can’t deliver them enough.

Budgetary limits also show in the computers. Having Currie doofus around a computer, which is clearing not turned on, unable to pretend he’s doing any computer things… it doesn’t just make him unbelievable as a computer scientist, it makes him unlikable. Any investment in Currie in the movie is a waste. He just gets more and more annoying. Five screenwriters and they characterize him as an eleven year-old boy. The movie would’ve been far more successful if it had been about an eleven year-old boy genius.

That actor might have known how to use a computer.

So, Puppet Master 4. Good puppets, not enough of them. Bad acting, way too much of it. Burr’s direction is also a big problem.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jeff Burr; screenplay by Todd Henschell, Steven E. Carr, Jo Duffy, Douglas Aarniokoski, and Keith Payson, based on characters created by David Schmoeller; director of photography, Adolfo Bartoli; edited by Mark S. Manos and Margeret-Anne Smith; music by Richard Band; production designer, Milo; produced by Charles Band; released by Paramount Home Video.

Starring Gordon Currie (Rick Myers), Chandra West (Susie), Ash Adams (Cameron), Teresa Hill (Lauren), Stacie Randall (Dr. Leslie Piper), Felton Perry (Dr. Carl Baker), Michael Shamus Wiles (Stanley), and Guy Rolfe (Toulon).


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