61 Days of Halloween: Dead Souls (2012)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween, as well as a list of previously featured titles, please go here.

Dead Souls (2012)

I have frequently argued that when I choose to watch a TV movie that does not preclude it from inclusion in BAM Award consideration. However, on occasion some TV movies, I must admit, will have me shy away for a while. This is one I regretted letting slip. I think this were late 2012 re-airings of this Chiller original film but I let it slip owing to the fact that I was bogged down in my Year-End Sprint. I wish I hadn’t. However, this film is very much alive for my favorite older films of 2013 list.

The synopsis on the onscreen guide was thankfully bereft of information. With a setup up kind of like this on the menu: John returns to his birthplace to learn the secrets of his biological family; there’s a lot of blanks left to fill in.

The film starts strong from the very start. What you see is a shocking series of events, including crucifixions (easily cringe-inducing for me) as well as intimations of some kind of cult activity. However, the exact nature of what is going on is a bit obscured. Thus, we the audience are placed much in the same place as the protagonist, discovering along with him. That’s a good place to be in.

What this film does that’s slightly off the beaten path is that it plays out like a haunted house/ghost story, but also has an element of occult building and that puts it’s own spins on the events.

It leaves its protagonist John (Jesse James) alone much of the time. That’s good for character work, especially when there’s an expressive actor in tow. James has a natural sensitivity that exudes off the screen and allows him to carry the vehicle quite easily. He effortlessly handles the notes he has to play in the film: thoughtful, quiet, scared – and, upon learning what he deals with, feeling an emotional pull to the place and his family he’d never known. He does brilliant work here.

The arc of Emma (Magda Apanowicz) is also a benefit to this film. Whereas, she seems like she’ll be a bothersome and unnatural guest much like the one in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, she softens, becomes a sidekick and co-combatant with the protagonist.

By the conclusion of the film not only are the blanks left un-filled by the beginning filled in but a new spin on the occult has been portrayed. Not to mention that the start is mirrored, completed and filled in by that point. This is a horror film that’s a little different and ought not be overlook, and I’m kind of kicking myself for letting it slip through the cracks last year.

61 Days of Halloween: Seven Deaths in a Cat’s Eye (1973)

Introduction

For an explanation of the concept of 61 Days of Halloween, as well as a list of previously featured films, please go here.

Seven Deaths in a Cat’s Eye (1973)

Seven Death in a Cat’s Eye takes a slightly offbeat approach to the whodunit aspect of the story. As I have celebrated, and complained about when the opposite is true, the title is not only eye-catching but literal. However, that is one of the few intriguing things about the way this story is handled.

There is one ludicrous red herring that is both poorly handled and so far out of left-field compared to the rest of the things that occur in the film that it sticks out terribly and drags the film down. However, at least this insane thing that occurs – that I’m sparing you a spoiler about – is something notable and interesting.

Perhaps the biggest issue this film has is the lulls between its deaths and characterization. It does fairly well with one supporting character, but the protagonist is the kind we get facts dropped about but don’t really get to know. This is the kind of lead that we’re supposed to root for simply because they’re the lead, and we’re really given no other impetus to give a damn about them at all.

While the approach does well to obfuscate the identity of the killer the climactic reveal and confrontation really aren’t as such. There are some decently executed kills, however, the most memorable thing about film ends up being title and the ridiculous red herring.

61 Days of Halloween: House of Dracula (1945)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween, as well as a list of previously featured titles, please go here.

House of Dracula (1945)

What House of Dracula attempts to do is similar to what House of Frankenstein did before it, and that is to create a tale that balances most if not all the Universal monsters. When people complain of the lack of originality in modern cinema I can’t say that I blame them, it’s only that they act like it’s new. There have always been property projects and series that became cash cows that studios went back to repeatedly. The smaller ones were more likely to over-exploit certain successes. So after House of Frankestein worked, why wouldn’t Universal try the trick again?

The problem here ends up being one of balance. The Wolf Man’s involvement, here it’s Lon Chaney, Jr. playing him as per usual, is perhaps the best because his storyline gets the fullest and most complete treatment. The notion of the current Count Dracula being the one to seek a cure, much in the way Dracula’s Daughter did, except this time through blood transfusions rather than psychiatry is an interesting one. His fairly static nature, as the battle is fought and lost isn’t really an issue, but rather it’s his scarcity. That scarcity makes the title a misnomer.

This film is really about the doctor all these monsters seek his counsel. However, that doctor’s plot is not without its issues. It may have been a hamfisted attempt at foreshadowing, but there is an uncharacteristically dumb and manic maneuver he tries early. If it is a foreshadowing attempt it’s in no way earned and poorly executed.

The element that’s used to bring the story to a conclusion is also one of the least effective in all of drama and I’ll leave it at that. It’s not that this film isn’t without moments but that’s all it can boast, and what do moments really mean when the center doesn’t hold?

61 Days of Halloween: Carrie (2013)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween, as well as a list of previously featured films, go here.

Carrie (2013)

I’m well past the point of complaining about remakes based on principal alone, as a matter of fact, the same goes for sequels too. In part, the reason for that is that it’s sort of a myopic view of things. Throughout the whole of film history there have been series of films that refused to die as well as stories that either we (or the studios) have not grown tired of. Stephen King, as much of an institution as he is, is still with us such that it may seem that three adaptations in 39 years of the tale being in print is a bit much, especially when the writer is in question is not only alive but prolific.

However, as I said, some tales just have a way of sticking around (in the words of King himself “Sometimes They Come Back”). Therefore, invalidity cannot be assigned based on the existence of this third version alone. The second being a 2002 rendition that I needed to be reminded just recently was actually a thing that I’d forgotten about.

With regards to the text itself, I am not a huge, huge fan of the book. I like it fine. However, when Stephen King recounted that early on he was dissatisfied enough to throw out his manuscript and it was his wife’s salvaging it and belief in the story that had him stick with it; I was not surprised. And, of course, I’m glad she did see something there because the rest, as they say, is history. It’s just that from among his oeuvre it never stuck out as a favorite, and it makes me glad I didn’t read him chronologically for that may have had me go on to other things. Prior to continuing, I must preemptively state that much of my discussion of this film will read like comparative analysis and fanboy whining. However, I’m left with little recourse since the version created here reads so much like a copy of the first.

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I do, however, share King’s own high regard for Brian De Palma’s version of the film. It’s a tremendous cinematic treatment of the tale that’s masterfully directed, but moreover, a lot of that success is due to Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie’s portrayal as the mother and daughter (earning each an Academy Award nomination), whose relationship is scarier than anything supernatural that occurs in the book or film.

However, owing to the fact that film was released in 1976, and so much has occurred in the world, some things in the tale needed to change. Due to the supernatural element added to the tale, this was never a film that caused too much hullabaloo with regards to its depiction of violence in schools (this recent Variety opinion piece not withstanding). This was a book that though occasionally banned, was never cited as the impetus for violence as his brilliant Rage was (written under his nom de plume Richard Bachman). Keeping all that in mind, as well as all the horrific incidences of bullying and school violence in the intervening years since the original big studio release and this one, something had to be altered to make this truly effective to a modern day sensibility.

Now, that’s not to say Carrie had to be altered to a point of un-recognition, or be tasteless and tactless in rendition, but while the situation she’s put in (the infamous inciting incident) does engender sympathy it seems a mere drop in the ocean compared to the stories of real life occurrences. Granted there are two escalations of Carrie’s humiliation with regards to that incident, however, it feels it needs a bit more.

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The incongruous and dated feeling that her humiliation gets is not aided by many production choices. In aesthetic terms the film feels stuck in many regards. While there are cell phones and an upload of the video to the internet some of the costuming (Miss Collins, the gym teacher’s attire) as well as the automobiles (all seeming to be of an older vintage) that had the film feeling stuck between a modern 1970s-set remake and an update that underscores the relative timidity of Carrie’s initial torturing. If anything the backward nature of the White house house should have stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the town.

Much of the discussion regarding the film and whether it works or not has surrounded Chloë Grace Moretz. If you look at my site you’ll see that in her breakout year she won my Entertainer of the Year Award. Clearly, I am admirer of her work in general. And where her involvement in this film falls short has more to do with production than anything on her part. The first thing that must be acknowledged is that all actors are artists, and the inclination of anyone remaking something is to put their own stamp on it. So expecting Moretz to reproduce Sissy Spacek’s turn is folly for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that you’re not casting someone to imitate someone else but rather for what they bring to the part. Considering she does have a past with horror, and vast experience, Moretz makes about as much sense as anyone. Things that were lacking with regards to building her performance have to do with editing (when it’d be more effective to see the results of what she’s doing rather than her reaction to it) but more often it’s actually in hair and make up. And I mean that in all seriousness.

There is a sequence of edits when the coach is trying to build her up and in some editing slight-of-hand she’s tidied so the barely-hidden, beautiful girl she is. The fact is more work needed doing to make Moretz seem more like a Carrie White than a Sue Snell. Her hair and dress both needed frumping up. It came off a bit too much like the glasses-and-a-ponytail gag in Not Another Teen Movie.

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Yet the biggest flat-lining in the film is the rote repetition of the exact story beats almost exactly as they happened before save with more advanced but inconsistently rendered CG. The wrinkles were often good (the principal’s inability to say the word “period,” Maggie’s self-mutilation, Tommy playing lacrosse, etc.) but these are all small things and when so much of the film is precisely the same, but emotionally flatter; you need more. There are occasional moments of viscera at the beginning and end but far too much “meh.”

“They’re all going to laugh at you,” Miss White says. This version isn’t quite laughable, but I was not impressed this time around at all.

4/10

61 Days of Hallowen: Son of Dracula (1943)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween, as well as a list of previously featured titles, please go here.

Son of Dracula (1943)

As I mentioned in the previous post about this series of films, and in other prior, one wants something a little different in the sequels to an original success; not so different that the intentions of the film have changed, but different enough to avoid rote repetition. The Dracula series from Universal, if nothing else, at least accomplished the goal of always offering up something different in its sequels.

How this film changes things up is not just making it about the Son of Dracula rather than his daughter but the approach becomes different as well. The film becomes one about a love triangle, and a Film Noir-like plot hatched by one of the characters involved, and, yes, a touch of madness as well, which is par for the course.

This is what lends the spark and intrigue to the tale, how vampirism is used in the motivations of the characters. It’s also interesting that here shifting the tale from England to America, thus, taking much of the Gothic element out is addressed as part of the story, and is part of the new count’s motivation and not just ignored. There is a touch of the old world through a supporting character who functions fairly well; not just as that link but also for needed expository information.

This is also the first of two consecutive films in the series that will feature Lon Chaney, Jr. However, true to the form of the series, and of Chaney’s career; he will not be Dracula in the next one.

As third installments in series go this is a pretty darn good one overall and has quite a bit of intrigue to it.

61 Days of Halloween: Dracula (1931 – Spanish Version)

One odd fact about the Pre-Code Era (and I believe this may have continued into the dawn of the Golden Age), that I was only vaguely aware of until I was reminded of it in the brilliant overview of Poverty Row I read; was that studios large and small would film foreign-language versions of their own titles for foreign markets. A majority of these films were in Spanish and German.

Subsequently when I went to try and find films for my Poverty Row April theme, I wanted to find some of these films but they were not readily available on the internet. So fascinated by this concept was I that I was ready to write a post about it and how some studio, if they have them in good shape, should dig these titles for a box set presentation.

I still may do that, but by chance I discovered that the Dracula Legacy Collections, which like all these sets is out-of-print but frequently available for resale, contained the Spanish version of Dracula. So I had to get it, and get it I did.

Standard operating procedure for these films was that they would use the same sets that the English-language film was using but shoot overnight while that crew was on break.

If you happen to view this film I strongly suggest that you watch the intro interview with Lupita Tovat Kuchar (confirm) where she goes into the detail. Now, when dealing with a film like Dracula the inherent fear of the foreign-language version is that it’s going to serve merely as a diversion, and be a curiosity but not have any merit of its own. This is not dissimilar to the fear about many modern day remakes; if this version isn’t offering something slightly different why have it at all.

Following that train of thought this Dracula is to the English one what Let Me In is to Let the Right One In; it gives its own spin to the tale. To be quite frank there are things about the Spanish version that I absolutely adore and think work better than the standard-bearing classic. Blasphemy I know, and many of them are film-nerdy kind of things, but I think the overall influence will be felt.

There are some shots, and edits executed differently than in Browning’s. The overall edit is quite different because I couldn’t peg an entire scene as being new but they evolved slower. Whereas, the English version has a lot breaks within lines, this film seemed to have more breaks between them, thus, more silence and added a bit to the foreboding. The lack of scoring is somewhat similar but there are some spots where a score comes in that are different, that and the music itself is a different composition.

When it comes to performance, I cannot say that someone tops Lugosi as Dracula. However, (name) does do very well. (name) as Renfield is a standout. There’s a certain raw, honesty to his persona that make his over-the-top version of the madness ring truer. Perhaps, it has something to do with the fact that there’s a less presentational, theatrical cast surrounding him so his madness, loudness rings truer. It’s funny that the Spanish-language telenovela many years would become shorthand for hammy acting, yet this cast (with some Dracula facial expressions notwithstanding) is a bit more natural.

The more deliberate pacing which allows this film to clock in at 104 minutes as opposed to 75 minutes, allows for a properly timed, more well-executed finale in my estimation. Essentially, this film under the steady hand of (name) working with his cast through an interpreted, corrected most of the things I thought needed a tweak in the other Dracula. Now, granted there are trade-offs to each, but this version is very good indeed and worthy of viewership.

61 Days of Halloween: Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

One thing that’s a bit strange about Dracula as a property at Universal, at least through a modern person’s eyes, is that after the first film Dracula was done. Frankenstein was indestructible; The Wolf Man perpetually had his struggle between his two natures; the Creature is a victim always and The Mummy, is, of course, a mummy. So this is the one where it instantly deviated from its central figure once the first film was over. It had to because of its own pre-established rules about the nature of the vampire. However, many modern franchises have rewritten and retconned such things down the line.

With the fact that the original Count Dracula was out of the equation that would mean a new way to tell a vampire tale would have to be found, and naturally new descendants, similarly cursed would need to be found. Choosing a daughter first is an interesting choice for the time, however, the resourcefulness of the film doesn’t stop there.

The film introduces her as a woman, Countess Marya Zaleska, who seeks psychiatric consultation to free herself from an evil influence that she dances around explaining. So in this film there is a conscience and torn nature introduced to the equation. However, this is not the only duality introduced in this film. As I picked up on and this Sight on Sound piece elucidates:

You see while in Dracula the count preyed mostly on attractive members of the opposite sex, Countess Zaleska’s victims tend to be of the same sex. Dracula’s Daughter is in fact the first vampire film that shows any hint of fanged homosexual preference. This notion is perfectly illustrated in the pivotal scene where the Countess asks her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel) to fetch her a model to paint. In comes Lilli (Nan Grey), a slender beauty with jazz age hair. While the Countess tries to contain her urge to feed she begins to paint the comely model, who has propped herself against a wall. As Lilli tries various poses to find the right one that appeals to her painter’s liking she makes the mistake of lowering her conservative dress, nearly exposing her breasts in a scene that must have set the censors in a tizzy at the time. The Countess, seeing such delicate bare flesh, cannot contain herself any longer and approaches the young lady with a look of lust in her eye. After she hypnotizes Lilli with that giant ring of hers she begins to bite. While the scene’s subtext flew by audience’s heads at the time of release, the obvious underpinnings of Countess Zaleska’s lesbianism is blatantly obvious to modern viewers. Thus the Countess’ vain attempt to fight her urge for blood can be seen as a metaphor for what the Countess is truly trying to fight, her urge to be with other women, which, if you think is controversial now, just imagine what it must have been like seventy seven years ago.

Around the time the film was released Dr. Theodore Malkin (a professor) wrote and published an essay that equated the vampire from literature and cinema to the “predatory nature of homosexuals” (Poupard). While misguided in nature, the link between vampires and homosexuality has grown even more prominent. Hammer Studios even formed a niche in evocative and expertly made films that featured lesbian vampires (particularly The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire). The lesbian theme was the most overt until The Lost Boys and, more importantly, Neil Jordon’s Interview with the Vampire (based on Anne Rice’s erotic Vampire Chronicles series) came along that male homosexuality became more pronounced within the vampire mythos.

Now, at times, just the mere mention of subtext is enough to send some running for the hills. Don’t you worry about it none, this is most definitely not one of those films that you’d feel lost in without some kind of guide book. It actually starts just after the first one ends and introduces its character perfectly. The only thing it plays close-to-the-vest with the panache of figurative literalness (A phrase coined by the Hayes Committee for the implication, as opposed to statement of illicit details) is the aforementioned undertone.

As I recently mentioned, surprises are welcome in sequels and this one has a few of them which makes it worth checking out all by itself but they’re well-handled, too.

61 Days of Halloween: R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour- Don’t Think About It (2007)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween, as well as a list of previously featured titles, please go here.

R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour – Don’t Think About It (2007)

As I’ve reference a few times, in my youth I had an aversion to horror. I didn’t relish being scared back then. As someone who gravitated to the genre later in life, I take no umbrage with the idea of juvenile horror such as the likes that R.L. Stine creates. Yes, many kids (much younger than I when I was started to read Desperation), cut their teeth on Stephen King. However, not all kids are the same (which is a small part of why I avoid giving parental guidance advice). However, I can remember instances where a certain frightening tale did intrigue me; Poe would be an example. Had I at a young age know of Stine I may have gravitated to the genre earlier.

This year, having had a number of his books come to me secondhand, I’ve read quite a few before donating them to the local library; and as evidenced by the TV shows that bear his name, they are twisted tales that don’t always work out so great for the protagonist, which can really scare kids. (I hope to be able to prepare a post [or series of them] about The Haunting Hour, the series, before Halloween).

As for this film, it took me a while to get around to screening this one because the last film I’d seen based on one of his works was quite a bad miss. This one, however, thankfully, mostly works.

A lot of that has to do with the practical effects work by Gregory Nicotero, one of the best in the game right now, who created an awesome creature for this film.

The film works itself into its story slowly. It does follow its protagonist (Emily Osment) and builds her character, and motivations for all the characters involved, but it does so a bit languidly. When things do get going though they’re rather freaky and things resolve themselves nicely, with the characters growing and a well-earned horror-film end.

As this film felt a bit stretched, it will be interesting to see if the planned Goosebumps film, comes to fruition if the anthology-styling suits it better, which it should.