Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Nothing But Trouble

In the house of bones and rubber phalli

What's it about?

Tonight's Spooky Movie Tuesday pic is "Nothing But Trouble" (Warner Bros., 1991). Chris Thorne (Chevy Chase) has it all: A large apartment, fine cigars, wine, and more than enough money thanks to his job as a publisher of a financial analysis and advice newspaper.

Also, his doorman is the director's brother with an Irish accent, for some reason.

On his way to a party that he's hosting in his apartment he runs into lawyer Diane Lightson (Demi Moore) with whom he attempts to strike up a conversation only for her to see a file in his possession and freak out, taking the file and leaving him. As it happens a client (and her boyfriend) lied to her about a business deal and now he's avoiding her. She returns the file to Chris at his party and then asks if she can borrow his car to drive to Atlantic City to confront her client.
What kind of evil, manipulative, little... person asks a complete stranger to borrow his car?

Chris insists on driving her there instead and the two make plans to leave the next day, inadvertently inviting two of Chris's clients, Brazilian millionaire Fausto Squiriniszu (Taylor Negron) and his sister Renalda (Bertila Damas).
"Heeeey! We're the comic relief in a film mostly casted with comedians!"

The four set out the next day in Chris's vintage 1983 BMW 733i, a sporty sedan equipped with the latest communication and navigation equipment (specifically, a cellular car phone and an ETAK cartridge-based electronic atlas, as this was before civilian use of GPS was commonplace).
I cannot stress how sweet this car is.

This one scene sparked a love of vehicle-based navigation for a younger me.

The quartet decide to get off the highway and have a picnic, making a detour through the rustbelt village of "Valkenvania." While traveling through the village they discover a burned-out coal town with tough-looking poor residents. In their haste to get out of the area, they fail to stop at a stop sign, and are set upon by the local constable Dennis Valkenheiser (John Candy).
"Hi! You might remember me as the lovable Uncle Buck, or funny Del Griffith, but in this movie I'm "The Heavy.""

"Dot dot dot."

They attempt to outrun the law enforcement officer, whose souped-up car easily overtakes the BMW. Caught due to the intervention of a second constable, a machine-gun toting Miss Purdah (Valri Bromfield), the four are brought before the court in the heart of Valkenvania. There they meet Justice of the Peace Alvin Valkenheiser (Dan Aykroyd), a disfigured World War I veteran and engineer who has rigged his family's decrepit home/salvage yard/courthouse with many strange contraptions and frightening deathtraps to lure criminals into his lair and to their doom.
Despite the makeup, not as funny or as scary as Aykroyd thinks.

Can the four make it out alive, or will they succumb to the Judge and his monstrous offspring?

Some background

This film was developed and written by brothers Peter and Dan Aykroyd, based on an incident that Dan had experienced in the 1970s where he had been pulled over for speeding in rural New York State and brought before the local justice of the peace who kept him for tea afterwards. While Dan and Peter were attending a horror movie (Clive Barker's "Hellraiser" in 1987) with producer Robert K. Weiss, Weiss noticed people laughing in the audience and suggested that the trio make a horror comedy together, and the rest is history. More on that later.

Personal interest

I saw this film in theaters back in 1991. It looked interesting, the original SNL players were known for making bankable films at this time (Ghostbusters, anyone?), and there was a lot of buzz for it in fantasy and horror magazines of the time. How could I lose?

The good

While Aykroyd, Chase, Moore and Candy get the billing, the real star of this film is the setting.

Impressively horrific, and somewhat accurate.

Valkenvania is (loosely) based on the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Centralia is best known for the decades-long coal fires that were sparked in a mine there, and which burn underground until this very day, driving the residents away and making every step a potential literal descent into hell. The town of Valkenvania also embodies the rust belt, a corridor of rural land throughout the northeast U.S. in which a lot of old European farming communities were exploited by big business and converted to industrialized mechanization that quickly brought wealth to the people, then just as quickly died off, resulting in abandoned homes and rusting machinery dotting the landscape for hundreds of miles in every direction. You can just walk out in the woods in the seeming middle of nowhere and find an old truck, rotting steel cisterns, or something that looks like a medieval catapult. Every inch of the set designs drip with outmoded detail, rotting Americana, and rusted machinery.
The real monsters were the Pennsylvanians all along.

The "I.D. room" is very interesting.

Coupled with the Judge's horrific devices, it makes for a very frightening if not familiar (for me, at least) experience.
The "Mister Bonestripper" prop was made from a used $15,000 roller coaster.

Weird cameos by a Baldwin (Daniel Baldwin, specifically) and the hip-hop band Digital Underground (including Tupac Shakur) just add to the film's strangeness.
You even get a Baldwin as a drug dealer, though at this point in the 90s I'm not sure that he was acting.

Yep. That's Digital Underground.

There are a lot of top-notch makeup and latex effects in this movie, which sadly are used more for gross-out shock than for actual horror.
The horrific "Giant Babies" were apparently dreams that Dan Aykroyd was having at the time.

The bad, or at the very least malaise

I'm afraid that there's a lot of bad to cover. The film has extremely low ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic now and garnered a lot of negative press back in the day (Roger Ebert claimed once that he encouraged teens talking loudly in the theater to keep it up so that he wouldn't have to hear the film). While I don't think that it's as bad as all that, the movie has problems. It's in this weird limbo where it's not quite horrific enough to be a true "horror" film, but not nearly funny enough to be a "comedy." The film only made a fraction of its $40,000,000 budget back and was a commercial failure for Warner Brothers. Rumor has it that no directors liked the script, and Dan Aykroyd took over directorial duties just to get the film made. Similarly, according to Aykroyd, he took double-duty roles as both Judge Valkenheiser and his grandson, the monstrous Bobo, simply because no one else wanted to deal with the level of makeup and costuming involved. There are parts of the script that are largely improvised because the fledgling director Aykroyd would not say "no" to anything that the crew or cast wanted to do, which increased production time and grossly inflated the budget. It's one of those films where they've casted comedy gold in the form of John Candy, and they made him play the "straight man" (this is an annoying trope at this point). Now, you might think that dual casting Candy as Dennis's sister "Eldona" would be a way to make up for that deficit, except that they made the character mute, so in this persona he has no lines and spends most of the film making "goo-goo" eyes at Chevy Chase.

The plot almost seems contrived to put Candy in a wedding dress.

The jokes fall flat, the cast of comedians isn't as funny as it should be, and the gross-out humor isn't so much horrific as it is gross. Weird hot dogs with messy condiments, old man farts, wooden legs; that sort of thing.

The music isn't anything to write home about. The score by Michael Kamen is serviceable but not memorable, but there's a lot of Warner Records properties awkwardly shoehorned in at every available moment to sell the soundtrack (a major part of the Hollywood business model back then). Even the Digital Underground song "Same Song" is forgettable, only charting its highest at number 61 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the context of the film, it goes on way too long, and is reprised during the ending credits.

More history: The reception was so universally bad that Dan Aykroyd never directed another film. He has many production credits and writing credits under his belt, but decided the stress of directing was too much for him. Apparently, he felt so bad about how the film was perceived that he wrote apology letters to everyone involved, although there is no concrete record of this beyond Aykroyd's anecdotes.

To sum up, if you're looking for a scare, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a funny comedy, look elsewhere. If you're looking for dramatic (or comedic) performances, look elsewhere. Getting the picture? However, I am fascinated by the sets and production design (even if some of it is just converted old western sets -- and they are), and if you have a similar interest, it is worth checking out.

This crushy hallway thing reminds me of so many local buildings...

Not safe for kids, but at least they'll appreciate the humor

This film is rated PG-13 for minor horror elements and implied death. There's no actual blood, gore, or viscera shown, but there are a lot of freshly-stripped skeletons and a few prosthetic rubber penises (I really wish that I was making that latter part up), so probably don't watch with young children, although they'll probably appreciate the humor more than someone with a fully fused skull. There is frequent tobacco use (Chevy Chase smokes cigars) and some drug use shown, though the drug dealers don't get out unscathed.

Where can you find it?

"Nothing But Trouble" is available on DVD and Blu-ray but is also available to rent or buy on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, or Vudu. It is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video for no extra cost with a subscription as of this publishing.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Arsenic and Old Lace

Brewsters' Dozens

What is it about?

Tonight's Spooky Movie Tuesday pic is "Arsenic and Old Lace" (Warner Brothers, 1944). It's Halloween, and Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is on top of the world;

"Yes, darling, I'm on top of the world with an outrageous made-up accent!"

a professional New York theater critic and author who wrote the book on bachelorhood (literally) has finally succumbed to love and married his childhood sweetheart, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane).
Pictured: The saddest woman in cinema.

The two just need to make a stop in Brooklyn: Elaine to her father's to pack for the Honeymoon and Mortimer to tell his family the news. His two aunts Abbie (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair)
The music cues you to how adorable these two are.

are the sweetest, kindest people you'd ever meet, taking care of Mortimer's younger brother, Teddy (John Alexander), who has delusions that he's United States President Theodore Roosevelt.
You have to love Teddy.

So, when Mortimer discovers his saccharinely cute, adorable little aunts are hiding a horrifying secret buried in their basement, his entire life begins to unravel in short order.
"Will you be staying in our basement, Mr. Gibbs?" "What?" "Would you like some wine?"

Now he has to enact a plan to have Teddy committed to a rest home to keep his aunts out of prison, but there are additional complications: The arrival of his estranged criminal psychotic brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey)
Raymond Massey doesn't blink in close-ups, making him even creepier.

and his diminutive accomplice, the alcoholic Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), who are trying to make the Brewster home their base of operations,
Even if you don't know who this is, you've seen portrayals of him elsewhere, I guarantee it.

all while the local police patrolmen Brophy (Edward McNamara) and O'Hara (Jack Carson) stop in to check on the elderly Brewster sisters.
Not quite Keystone Kops, but close.

Can Mortimer figure out how to sort his family in time to save his marriage... Or his life?

Some backgroud

This film by legendary Hollywood director Frank Capra (known for such classics as "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and "It's a Wonderful Life") is based on the 1939 Joseph Kesselring play of the same name, and the film follows a play-like production: It takes place on mostly one set, the massive main room of the Brewster home. This keeps the story focused and the dialogue punchy, which is what you want in a fast-paced comedy film. The Brewster home, in fact, was one of the largest movie sets ever constructed up to that time, even the exterior being filmed on a soundstage with a painting and miniatures acting as the backdrop beyond the Brooklyn Bridge. The effort pays off, with the controlled lighting keeping everything delightfully creepy throughout. I was going to give a bit of trivia that the Bell Telephone Company provided the phones used in the movie to improve awareness for their new "French" handset style phone (where the microphone and earpiece were in the same unit), but I couldn't find any corroborating evidence of this, as the Western Electric Model 102 (which featured the French design) came out in 1929, and the newest one they could have used for the film was the 1937 Model 302 which was essentially an internal redesign.

The phone in question, care of Wikipedia contributor Kbrose  

Don't believe all the trivia you see on IMDB, folks.

A personal breakthrough

Now, there was a time when I was younger (at least three decades ago) where I wouldn't watch black and white movies. I felt that the craft (resolution, sound design, etc.) just wasn't as good as contemporary movies and not worth my time. But I'm telling you: You're doing yourself a disservice if you're not giving these old films a look. Not only is it a window into a different time, but there is a surprising amount of complexity in cinema, even before color film became available. This is the movie that got me to sit up and pay attention to the cinema of the past.

The good

In case you don't know, this film is a black comedy, and an extremely funny one. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair reprise their roles of Abbie and Martha from the play and are in my opinion the best part of the film, as they are so sweet and kind while being completely and absolutely oblivious to the abject horror of their "hobby."

That's quite a used men's hat collection...

Cary Grant was apparently dragged for his over-the-top acting in this film, which he was allegedly upset by, but he plays the role of a Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck character to absolute perfection in my opinion (who wouldn't be a little crazy given what his character goes through in the production).
"What's so interesting in that window seat," you might ask.

The makeup on Raymond Massey as Jonathan Brewster is creepy and horrific, but also a bit over-the-top (the running joke in the movie is that he looks like Boris Karloff -- presumedly as Frankenstein's monster -- which is doubly funny when you realize that Karloff actually played Jonathan in the original play). As usual, Peter Lorre gives a terrific performance with his trademark bug-eyed stare and slimy demeanor filling the role of Dr. Einstein perfectly.

The bad

I can't think of one single bad thing about this movie. I guess that if your idea of horror is blood and gore, you're not going to get that visceral punch.

Pretty safe for kids

This film is unrated, but honestly, it's a very soft "PG." I can't think of a more perfect family Halloween movie. It takes place on All Hallows' Eve, it's got a graveyard, scary villains, zero gore, no swearing, and even though dead bodies find their way into the shots, you never quite see them. What's more, the dialogue is fast-paced and funny, the actors are all at the top of their comedic game, and it's great seeing the usually suave Cary Grant overreact to the insanity around him.

Where can you find it?

"Arsenic and Old Lace" is available on DVD, to rent/buy on several streaming services, and available to watch for free (with Spanish subtitles) on archive.org, here.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The Terror

The horror... The horror... where's the freakin' horror?

Sorry: I'm a day late in posting this, as I was pretty sleep deprived last night and couldn't keep my head up.

What's it about?

Tonight's "Spooky Movie Tuesday" pic is "The Terror" (Roger Corman Productions, 1963). When French Lieutenant Andre Duvalier (played by Jack something-or-other) gets separated from his regiment while moving through Prussia, he finds a beautiful young woman who tells him her name is Helene (Sandra Knight) precariously standing in the ocean near the rocks.

"Wait 'til they get a load of me!"

Rushing to save her, he is attacked by a hawk and nearly drowned and rendered unconscious.
The wistful Helene... or is it Lissa?

He awakens in the home of an old woman named Katrina (Dorothy Neumann), who tells him that her servant, the mute Gustaf (Jonathan Haze) rescued him from the sea.
"Girl? There's no girl. There never was a girl. There never will be any girl. Ever. Anywhere. I'm not being evasive -- YOU'RE being evasive!"

When Andre asks about the girl, Katrina feigns ignorance. Gustaf, who is not as mute as he lets on, later tells Andre that he must go to the castle of Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe (Boris Karloff) to save the girl.
"I'm Baron Generic Von Evil of Sinistershire."

Andre goes to the decrepit castle only to stumble upon the girl again, who disappears suddenly. Andre enters the castle and discovers that the Baron and his servant Stefan (played by 'B' movie legend Dick Miller) are the only apparent occupants. As Andre investigates further, he begins to untangle a web of murder and deceit that spans decades.
DICK. FREAKIN'. MILLER. I had to do a double-take when he showed up.

Can he uncover the story and save Helene -- or himself?

Some background

While this film isn't based on a book by Edgar Allen Poe, it absolutely has the vibes of one (specifically, "The Fall of the House of Usher" and the poem "Lenore"), and director and producer Roger Corman has acknowledged that it's his love letter to that particular storyteller (it was filmed using assets from Corman's previous E.A. Poe film, "The Raven" -- also featuring Karloff). By this time the lead of this movie, Jack Whatshisface was already a 'B' movie regular, appearing in several Corman pictures since the late 1950s.

"You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?"

Whatever. He'll never amount to anything, unlike his elderly costar and horror movie legend Boris Karloff, who had appeared in over 180 movies and TV shows BEFORE this came out, and who starred in over 20 more after this (even a few after his death in 1969 -- he was that prolific). And we have Dick Miller, who only just recently passed away, and had almost as many acting credits as Karloff! I have listed Jack, Karloff, Miller, Knight, Neumann, and Haze, and that is the entire cast of this film, other than the animal actors. While Corman has the directing credit, he shared directing duties with his protégé Francis Ford Coppola (the famed eventual director of "The Godfather" trilogy) among others doing second unit filming, including the lead actor John something.

The good stuff

Let's try to get the good out of the way. The acting is solid, and everyone gives a solid performance. The setting of the old European castle on the rocky cliffs by the seashore is fittingly haunting, the music is appropriately creepy, featuring a shrill and spooky score that is appropriate for this sort of film. There are even some minor animations at the beginning in some macabre fashion. The story is one of those, "is it really supernatural, or is it a fake-out" tales that will keep you guessing (although maybe not necessarily for the right reasons). The costumes look good, and the production is mostly on-point. The camera work is exceptional for a film from this era, appropriately angled with many full-face close-ups, unlike the often mid-range single frame dialogue scenes found in many old low-budget horror films.

The bad stuff

Now for the bad, and I'm afraid that there's a lot of it. The film starts with a promising jump scare, as the Baron opens a secret door and is set upon by a horrific skeleton… which is never explained or mentioned again. The script is… not that strong. The dialogue just isn't on-par with other horror and thriller classics, and that limits the delivery of the actors, which is a major problem, as most of the movie is just talking. While you learn more about the characters, their connections, and their motivations, the last act is just sort of dropped on you out of nowhere and makes no sense. Seriously, it's a twist so stupid and out of left field that I'm shocked that M. Night Shyamalan hasn't stolen it yet. Just when you think that the plot is going to wrap up at the end with the supernatural exposed for something sensible, the movie pulls the rug out from under you. Here is an example: Late in the runtime, Andre and Stefan break into the sealed room of the Baron's dead wife Lissa, finding a cradle. It would make sense that Helene is the child of the Baron and his wife Lissa, and that is why she resembles her and that is why she has been brainwashed into killing the Baron at the behest of another character. BUT NO -- the cradle has NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING ELSE IN THE MOVIE. And that is a major problem with this work -- there's too many red herrings and senseless twists that aren't even alluded to in the rest of the film. I won't ruin the ending for you, but it is similarly dumb.

I mentioned the sets, the setting, and the costumes were legitimately impressive earlier, but it’s all for naught; most of the movie is shot in horrid "day for night" scenes that ruin the aesthetic. It is hard to feel creeped out when every scene looks like a sunny California day with a blue filter slapped over everything. I know: Making a motion picture in the dark with film is challenging and requires a large crew and technical know-how, but this is just fails so hard. Also, this has that low-budget sixties overblown color, so despite the gothic setting people bleed bright red blood that isn't so much gross or realistic as it is laughably unbelievable.

"AAAAH! I got strawberry jam in my eyes, and I can still see the sun at night!"

By far the biggest failing of the movie is the pacing. While only about an hour and a half long, it feels like it drags. What facts we are given are trickled out slowly, and as stated before many of them are misleading, which makes them feel even more insulting in hindsight.

Don't watch with kids.

This film came out before the rating system, though I would say that it is probably PG-13. There is no nudity, swearing, tobacco or drug use, but there are a few scenes of horrific gruesome effects, though the most graphic is a simple time-lapse camera trick that seems laughable by today's standards. It is not appropriate for young children, although they'll absolutely fall asleep if you try to show it to them.

Where can you find it?

"The Terror" is available on a wide variety of free streaming services and is included with Amazon Prime Video at no extra charge as of this review.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Hellboy Animated: Blood & Iron

Vampires and Woofers and Sneks! Oh my!

What's it about?

Tonight's Spooky Movie Tuesday pic is "Hellboy Animated: Blood & Iron" (Film Roman, 2007).

Starts out as a bit of a downer, actually.

Professor Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) has been having nightmares; flashbacks to a case that he solved in 1939 involving a vampire named Erzebet Ondrushko (voiced by Kath Soucie but based on Hungarian real-life alleged serial killer Elizabeth Bathory), who went on a killing spree, murdering young women in her home country of Transylvania to use their blood to retain her beauty and youth.
He imagines that he sees her in the mirror, which makes no sense (she's a vampire).

During a mission assignment at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) the Professor insists on full team to help him investigate what appears to be a publicity stunt: A rich landowner named Jack Trombolt (J. Grant Albrecht) is using his political connections to get the BPRD to verify that his new mansion is haunted to make it a tourist attraction.
"My mansion is worth a billion dollars! Unless you're the tax assessor, then it's only eighteen million."

Bruttenholm suspects that there's more to the story and enlists the BPRD's heavy hitters: His adopted son, the demon Hellboy (Ron Perlman),
Any excuse to take his shirt off. Typical.

Amphibious humanoid Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), pyrokinetic fire-starter Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), and human metal-detector and technical genius Sydney Leach (Rob Paulsen). Once the team starts investigating the haunting, they find that not only is it real, but it has much larger implications, culminating with the return of Bruttenholm's old nemesis!
There's a wee bit o'ghosties here!

A bit of background

This is the latter of the two "Hellboy Animated" series of direct-to-DVD films, the other being 2006's "Sword of Storms." They don't follow the continuity of the comic books, though they do implement a lot of elements from those works.

These woofers are from an unrelated comic, but shoehorned in.

They act as "prequels" to the 2004 film "Hellboy" directed by Guillermo Del Toro, who acts as a producer of these cartoons. Animation producer Michael Wolf is a veteran of animation, having worked on many film and television projects.

The good

The hand-drawn animation is far better than made-for-television animation of the era, but you wouldn't mistake it for a theatrical film, as it still has its rough moments. There is an impressive amount of cast here, reprising their roles from the theatrical film (and later the sequel). The situations presented are quite adult and spooky, with a surprising amount of blood, gore, and just a bit of nudity.

Trust me: you don't want to see much of this nudity.

It's not a gratuitous slasher film by any means, but it doesn't pull its punches with violent imagery. The story is (mostly) told skillfully, with reverse flashbacks showing snippets of the Professor's original case, revealing character motivations as it goes. There's a wide variety of monsters here, from vampires, to harpies, to werewolves, to lamia-like snake goddesses, and it feels "spookier" and more "Halloween" than the "Sword of Storms" film.
"Woofs on roofs! WOOFS ON ROOFS!"

The bad

It's not all good, though. As much as I approve of the technical animation, the character designs are a huge letdown for me. They try to stylize the characters in their own identity, but though the style they chose has some of "Hellboy" creator Mike Mignola's creative DNA, they ultimately look like a more childish and comedic version.

A good example: It sort of looks like something Mike Mignola would draw but the proportions are more cartoony.

This takes away much of the horror and grittiness, and I personally can't watch it without having flashbacks to "Clerks: The Animated Series," as the characters look really similar. As great as the film's voice cast is, there are noticeable absences, like Jeffrey Tambor's Tom Manning being voiced by "Darkwing Duck" voice actor Jim Cummings.
"All right team: Lets. Get. Dangerous!"

Further complicating matters (for me -- your mileage may vary) are other familiar voice actors that break the vibe and just cheapen the experience for me. Most notable is Kath Soucie, whose voice is always like nails grinding across a chalkboard to me and having her as the main villain takes away the terror as she sounds like Phil and Lil from "Rugrats."
"Hewwo! I'm Tewwifying!"

Rob Paulsen, who I love in other cartoons, sounds like "Rob Paulsen doing his inoffensive nerd voice" and really makes this feel like a Saturday morning rip-off. Cree Summer as Hecate is also sort of irritating, as I keep hearing her "blacksploitation voice" peeking through from her time on "Rugrats" and "Drawn Together." My only gripe with the story is that after the plot is satisfactorily wrapped up it devolves into Hellboy punching a goddess for 10 minutes, and that gets excessive.
This bit just feels sort of tacked on.

Not safe for kids. Sorry.

Do not, and I can't stress this enough, DO NOT watch this with young children. There's no sex, but there are depictions of gore, bloodletting, some nudity (breasts but no nipples), some brief swearing, some gunplay, and lots of death. It looks cute and cuddly from the screenshots, but don't be fooled.

Too spooky for kids!

Also: Too sexy for kids.

This film is unrated, but I feel that it mostly translates to a strong "PG-13" or a very soft "R."

Where can you find it to watch?

"Hellboy Animated: Blood & Iron" is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Blu-ray, or you can stream it for no additional cost on YouTube Premium.