PLOT: Guillermo del Toro curates eight short tales of supernatural horror, mostly from young directors.
COMMENTS: At the start of each episode, Guillermo del Toro waddles in from a pool of darkness and stands before his prop cabinet, pulling out a small item relevant to the plot of the upcoming feature and a figurine representing the episode’s director. In heavily-accented, hard-to-understand English, he chokes out a few stiff sentences about the story. Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock he is not; but fortunately, del Toro proves a much better curator than host.
Other than the esteemed Vincenzo Natali, del Toro and the producers choose mostly up-and-comers to script and direct the eight episodes. Although perhaps it shouldn’t, given del Toro’s Hollwyood pull, it comes as a small surprise that these short features are largely acting showcases. The series standout is Academy Award-winner F. Murray Abraham as a clever but understandably-weary coroner in “The Autopsy.” Tim Blake Nelson, lending an earthy believability and even a little sympathy to his bitter xenophobic caricature in “Lot 36,” is also worth a mention, while “The Outside” is entirely built around Kate Miccuci’s nerdy-but-secretly-sexy persona. Essie Davis, as a bereaved ornithologist, also carries “The Murmuring,” Jennifer Kent’s marital-drama-cum-ghost-story. Then, there are a couple of cameos to appeal to cult movie fans: Crispin Glover in “Pickman’s Model” and Peter Weller in “The Viewing.” The relative star power on display here lends respectability and brings in viewers from outside horror fandom: mainstream critics were particularly drawn to the “The Murmuring”‘s realistic depiction of a husband and wife tiptoeing around their issues while burying themselves in their studies of bird-flocking behaviors on a Bergmanesque island.
When we first saw the names attached to direct, we were salivating over the inclusion of Ana Lily Amirpour and (especially) Panos Cosmatos (as well as the prospect of Crispin Glover in an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation). Those two directors do deliver both weirdness and quality, but the other episodes are all worth watching. Even the least of them have something to offer, usually in the acting department. The Glover episode is “Pickman’s Muse.” As previously mentioned, it’s a Lovecraft adaptation of the “man is driven mad by peering into the Beyond” variety that is eerie and atmospheric, but Continue reading CHANNEL 366: GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S CABINET OF CURIOSITIES (2022)→
PLOT: A meteorite lands at a remote New England farm and spreads alien madness to a family.
COMMENTS: The color out of space is actually lavender, or maybe it’s more of a fuchsia. At any rate, it’s in the pink/purple spectrum. It’s possible that this choice is a nod to From Beyond, which is also inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, and which I once wrote was “the pinkest horror movie ever made.” (Besides Beyond, Color reminded me of a number of 80s horrors, with shadings from The Shining, Poltergeist, and even Society.) Director Richard Stanley is committed to this color palette, which is prefigured in the streak of purple dye in Lavinia Gardner’s otherwise golden hair. In Lovecraft’s original story, a color never before seen by man was a metaphor for the ineffable quality of the alien visitor. In the movie, that color necessarily must be represented literally, and Stanley takes the literalism so excessively—slathering the film with liquid lilacs and violets—that the effect becomes almost as strange as an indescribable extraterrestrial hue. In fact, you only know when the alien presence has departed because the scene becomes drained of all color.
Bookended by quotations from Lovecraft‘s text, Color follows a standard horror movie arc: character setup, arrival of an evil presence, and steadily escalating eerie incidents that come to a climax. There are a lot of unusual sights along the way, however, starting with the purple mutant grasshopper/dragonfly hybrid with tie-dye spider-eye vision and progressing to general madness among the entire cast and a Cronenbergian mother/child re-assimilation. The utter inscrutability of the aliens’ nature and purpose is true to Lovecraft, though it may not be to some modern horror fans’ taste. Questions of whether the color arrives on the pink glowing meteor by accident or purposefully, and why it seems to suddenly depart—or perhaps just to go dormant—are left unanswered. “What touched this place cannot be understood or quantified by human science,” is the best those hoping for an explanation will get.
Despite being featured in the film’s promotion, Cage, as the family patriarch, doesn’t dominate the story. He doesn’t even start Cage-ing until halfway through, going all Jack Torrance after his kids forget to feed the alpaca, gesticulating wildly and switching accents mid-monologue. It’s the young stars Madeleine Arthur (as Lavinia) and Elliot Knight (as the surveyor) who are the main protagonists. I came into the experience looking forward to Cage bringing the crazy, but ended up happy that his peculiar lunacy merely seasoned the film a bit, rather than dominating it.
Due to its provenance— a weird fiction classic that’s been adapted many times, but never properly; a cult director come out of retirement to helm the project; Nic Freaking Cage— Color Out of Space is the hot ticket among cult film fans in early 2020. The movie doesn’t actually do anything truly unexpected, but nor does it disappoint. With Cage, a retro-80s horror pace and feel, and plenty of pretty swirling colors, it’s going to hit the sweet spot for a lot of viewers.
PLOT: Things are going well for Dan Cain, a talented third-year student at the prestigious Miskatonic University Medical School, until his advertisement for a roommate is answered by Herbert West, a combative genius who thinks knows he is on the verge of conquering death. After Dan witnesses West’s “re-agent” applied to his erstwhile cat, he becomes enthralled, and things quickly get out of hand when a human test spirals out of control, resulting in murder, kidnapping, and a decapitated nemesis.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Jeffrey Combs brings his A-game with a maniacal-steadfastness as Herbert West as he squares off against Hammer horror would-have-been David Gale—his gaunt(er), sinister(er) adversary. Beyond these two weirdos, there’s the off-kilter combination of gore and humor, best illustrated by the macabre and hilarious romp involving the untimely death and untimely subsequent death of a pet cat.
COMMENTS: Those who read their horror literature know that H.P. Lovecraft‘s work occupies an unfortunate spot on the Venn diagram, trapped in the “hauntingly entertaining” and “fairly unfilmable” intersection. This has not stopped directors from trying, to be sure, but if one were asked to list the top five Lovecraft adaptations, it’d be tough to get as far as the pinky-finger. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator would be on that list. While his horror-gore-buddy comedy doesn’t strictly adhere to the more sinister original, as a compact update it ticks all the Lovecraft boxes: unsettling, outlandish, macabre, and nihilistic. Somehow, Gordon and his crew add “hilarious” to this otherwise depressing mix, in the process making Re-Animator one of the most popular, memorable, and comical genre films ((Though the term is disapproved of by some, I’ll use “genre film” until I stumble across a comparably brief mental short-hand.)) to come from the golden ’80s.
With a movie this brief, efficient storytelling is key. Bam, we meet Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), brilliant and insane. Bam, we meet Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), skilled and compassionate. Bam, we meet Doctor Hill (David Gale), determined and fraudulent. West and Cain quickly become housemates, and Cain witnesses West’s genius. West quickly antagonizes Doctor Hill by questioning his academic integrity, setting the scene for nemesis. Lurking on the periphery are the school’s Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and his daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton)—their presence instrumental for the various showdowns. Throughout this quick-moving narrative are bunches of what gore-effects people refer to as “gags” (love that term): a re-animated cat, a re-animated strongman, a re-animated academic, a re-animated doctor, and culminating with a re-animated horde. Each step Herbert West takes brings him closer to both his greatest triumph and his organ-strewn downfall. No points if you guessed that Dan Cain ends up taking up the mantle.
A Vincent Price six pack has made its way to Blu-Ray. The set features some of the actor’s most iconic roles, along with at least one surprise inclusion. It is by no means a complete collection, as it concentrates primarily on the late actor’s work with Roger Corman and AIP (since most of these movies were adapted from works by Edgar Allan Poe they are known as the “Poe cycle”). Even by that criteria, the collection is a mere introduction.
Price cemented his status as horror icon in Andre De Toth’s House of Wax (1953), despite the fact that that this 3D box office hit is a flat and unimaginative remake of Michael Curtiz’ vastly superior Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). In a way, this parallels Price himself. Although he has been beatified by genre aficionados, and despite doing occasionally fine acting work, Price’ carefully crafted screen persona seems more derivative than innovative. That persona lacks the authenticity of a Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, or Dwight Frye. The passage of time makes that even more apparent. Still, the veteran actor could often supply a luster to pedestrian productions, without necessarily redeeming them.
Fortunately, this Blu Ray collection, although somewhat haphazard in concept and packaging, is a marketable compilation in a “Vincent Price’s Greatest Hits Volume One” style. Like most such compilations, the choices deemed “greatest” are not without debate.
With The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) Roger Corman convinced AIP to give him an increased budget of $270,000 (which included color film) along with an extended shooting schedule ( a whole 15 days). Convincing the producers was no simple feat, as the film, with a literary source, lacked a identifiable “monster.” Somehow, Corman won Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson over when he pitched the house itself as the supernatural antagonist. While the film is not a masterpiece, Corman’s enthusiasm, matched by Price, the surreal cinematography by Floyd Crosby (High Noon), Lex Baxter’s score, and screenplay by cult genre favorite Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man), makes it possibly the best of the Corman Poe cycle. This assessment is shared by most critics and by Price himself (although, reportedly, the actor’s personal favorite of his own films was MGM’s 1973 black comedy Theater of Blood).
Price’s aristocratic bearing and pronounced theatricality makes the effete, sensitive, and cowardly Roderick Usher utterly convincing. There is more than a hint of an incestuous relationship between Roderick and his sister, Madeline (Myrna Fahey), leading to masochistic decay and fiery finale. Almost singlehandedly, Price carries the film in the acting department, with his co-stars going the distance in convincing us that protagonist family is indeed a bland lot. Remarkably, the film was a box office success. This, along with critical accolades, paved the path for seven additional Poe-inspired films.
With Barbara Steele looking to become the “female Karloff” after Mario Bava’s hit Black Sunday (1960), the Price/Steele pairing in The Pit and Pendulum (1961) should have been a star teaming worthy of the Karloff/Lugosi collaborations of the 1930s. Unfortunately, Steele is wasted (and worse, dubbed) as the doomed (and believed dead) unfaithful wife-in-waiting. The team of Corman, Price, Matheson, Crosby, and Baxter return for this disappointing second entry. Pendulum is an eclectic low budget genre soaper, sloppily utilizing elements from numerous Poe stories. Steele isn’t the only wasted talent. Reliable character actors Luana Anders and John Kerr, poorly directed, come off as surprisingly stiff and mechanical. At the polar opposite is Continue reading THE VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION (2013 BLU-RAY)→
PLOT: A pair of mad scientists develop a device that activates the dormant human pineal gland, allowing them access to “the beyond.”
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: From Beyond is a solid little cult-y 1980s B-horror, but it just barely cracks the “weird” barrier. As wild as it seems when Jeffrey Combs is running around with a penile pineal gland waving from his forehead, in terms of strangeness, Beyond is a dim echo of Gordon’s prior Lovecraftian update, Re-Animator (1985).
COMMENTS: Let’s just get this out of the way first: From Beyond has to be the pinkest horror movie ever made. I don’t know what the Beyond is like, but based on the light that streams from its world into ours when the barrier between the two is breached, I am guessing that it’s a gay disco. An aquatic gay disco, since those who come over from the other side are wet and glistening, and the native inhabitants, whom you can see floating around our dimension once your pineal gland has been stimulated, look like eels and jellyfish. To From Beyond‘s credit, this crazy coral color scheme works; because we’ve never seen gooey monsters from beyond flushed by a hot pink incandescence before, it’s genuinely abnormal. Lots of things about From Beyond are abnormal, in fact, like the pineal-irradiating Resonator made from a couple of giant tuning forks and one of those plasma balls you can buy from Spencer’s gifts. Or Jeffrey Combs, somehow zombified after his hair has been sucked off by a giant worm, slurping people’s brains out through their eyeballs (what’s his motivation?) Or the evil pink blob-head from Beyond using his psychic powers to convince Barbara Crampton to don a skintight black leather corset and matching thong (I think I understand his motivation). From Beyond finds a near perfect tone for this sort of material. It’s completely absurd, but it always takes itself seriously, trusting the audience to sort out the humor from the horror without big signs pointing at the jokes. Shamelessly made to capitalize on the success of 1985’s Re-Animator, From Beyond is another modernized, R-rated H.P. Lovecraft adaptation with nerdy Combs as an apprentice mad scientist and sexy Barbara Crampton as the love interest (Crampton and Combs were the Bogie and Bacall of slime-spewing, boundary-pushing mid-1980s H.P. Lovecraft adaptations). Here, Crampton is given a larger and more serious role as a criminal psychiatrist whose obsession with the strange case turns her into something of a mad scientist herself—although she still provides plenty of eye-candy once she lets her hair out of that bun and ditches the glasses and buttoned-up-to-her-chin blouse. Combs is a competent actor, but there’s not much to his character here. Gordon had not yet figured out that this actor is wasted unless he’s playing some variation of Herbert West, a malevolent nerd with a God complex, rather than just some good-natured schlub in a Miskatonic U. T-shirt. Although From Beyond pales a bit in comparison to its immediate predecessor—and it would have taken a miracle to recreate Re-Animator‘s mix of carnage, black comedy and general outrageousness—this one is still a good time for horror fans looking for cheap thrills delivered with otherworldly panache.
Shout! Factory’s new From Beyond release on its Scream! Factory sub-label ports over all the special features from the old MGM edition (including the commentary with Gordon, Combs, Crampton, and producer Brian Yuzna) and adds several new interviews, along with a second commentary from scriptwriter Dennis Paoli, who reads some of Lovecraft’s original story. This “Collector’s Edition” is available in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack only (neither format is currently being sold separately).
“To Oblivion” is a slightly aged short based on a few stories by H.P. Lovecraft. It may not be completely out of the room like some of the shorts we pick out, but it is certainly a comfortable distance outside the box.
PLOT: In this H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, a a string of grisly killings is linked to an unnameable creature inhabiting the loft of an abandoned New England mill inherited by newlyweds.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Shuttered Room showcases a strange story of monsters and madness. The setting is claustrophobic and creepy, the characters are downright bizarre, and so are the situations that the protagonists stumble into. The cinematography is expertly, if not artfully, executed. Thus the viewer expects a conventional storyline, and it is unsettling when shocking events unfold.
COMMENTS: A newlywed couple, Mike and Susannah Kelton (Young, Lynley) travel to an island off of the Connecticut shoreline to visit an old mill which Sue just inherited. It was once her childhood home. From the start, she has reservations, but the couple perseveres at Mike’s urging. They need to view the property with the goal of renovating the mill into a bed and breakfast.
As soon as they arrive on the island, the locals begin subjecting them to the old “Yew ain’t from around here!” treatment (even though Sue is). Mike meets her uncle who insists that they should leave. The uncle’s employee shows Mike his mutilated face, missing an eye, and reports that the injury was caused by the devil when he got drunk and spent a night in the abandoned mill. The couple also meet the local ruffians, a gang of unsavory toughs led by a psychopath named Ethan (Reed), who happens to be Sue’s cousin. Mike is a dignified magazine editor. Both he and Sue are city-slickers—and it Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: THE SHUTTERED ROOM (1967)→
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