Cast: Anton Diffring, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence, Jane Hylton, Kenneth Griffith, Conrad Phillips, Jack Gwillim, Vanda Hudson, Colette Wilde, William Mervyn
Are you an insane plastic surgeon on the run for pursuing your unethical experiments? Have you directed your own facial reconstructive surgery in a mirror using only a local anesthesic? Do you enjoy dallying with the lovely ladies whose deformed features your skill has made whole again? Are you willing to cut down anyone in your path who dares defy your iron will? Well, have you ever considered running a circus?
Hawk-faced Anton Diffring (Fahrenheit 451, The Blue Max) excels as the cruel, oddly sympathetic and totally bonkers Dr. Schüler (or is it Rossiter?), mad doctor turned circus master, in this outrageous, non-supernatural, vibrantly technicolor horror film (from the producers of Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom). The ridiculousness of the scenario (Schüler collects scarred criminals—mostly women—heals them and binds them to perpetual service in his circus) is made compelling by its twisted character studies, particularly the doctor’s toady-like accomplices (Kenneth Griffith and Jane Hylton) who seethe with mixed worship and revulsion for their master. Hurried exposition (especially at the beginning) and laughable animal costumery detract only slightly from psychodrama, blood and intrigue. Great actual circus performances and a genuine pop hit (“Look for a Star”) round out the lurid entertainment.
Cast: Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Peter Bowles, Roddy McDowall, Roland Culver, Pamela Franklin
For this ludicrous-yet-effective haunted house film, Richard Matheson adapted his own down-and-dirty novel for the screen, somehow managing to create a reasonable PG version from the NC-17 source material. The scenario is very deliberately a sexed-up ’70s remix of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (not Hell House, got it?), itself filmed quite effectively in 1961 as The Haunting.
Some of that nice composition I was talking about.
The setup is archetypal. Four quirky characters investigate a haunted house: The physicist and his wife (Clive Revill and Gayle Hunnicutt), the touchy-feely medium (Pamela Franklin, formerly haunted as a child actress in The Innocents) and the sole survivor of a previous expedition (Roddy McDowall). The cast is great and utters potentially clunky lines about “ectoplasm” and “multiple hauntings” with so much in-character authority that they totally work.
My previous VHS viewing of this film did not include the pleasure of beholding the awesome wide-angle, widescreen frame composition employed throughout (and especially during the opening sequences). Creepy exterior shots of the fogbound house with datestamps presage each supernatural incident, creating both quickie verisimilitude and a rhythm of suspense. The general aura of competency and class—plus Delia Derbyshire/Brian Hodgson’s extra-delicious electronic score—makes Hell House an excellent Halloween A/V treat. (Well, aside from the overwrought ending.) I watched it twice.
Cast: John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Richard Backus, Henderson Forsythe
This low-budget riff on the W.W. Jacobs short story “The Monkey’s Paw” begins where the original ends: Instead of wishing the undead son away, his family invites him in. Sure, he seems a little weird, preferring to sit silently in his room all day and waiting for dark before he emerges with mod sunglasses and white turtleneck to prey upon the living. But that’s how it is when you’ve been dragged back from the grave by a mother’s love.
“Everything's fine, Bob.”
Director Bob Clark (himself now one of the undead) made a handful of notable indie horror films in the ’70s (not to mention an all-star Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper flick) before hitting box office paydirt with Porky’s and A Christmas Story. Much of the credit for Deathdream’s effectiveness must go to screenwriter (and monster-makeup artist) Alan Ormsby for creating a queasy sense of doom, Richard Backus who rocks it as the deadpan, unwillingly-revived son, as well as actors John Marley and Lynn Carlin for convincingly transplanting their troubled-married-couple routine from John Cassavetes’ 1968 film Faces into this weird little horror movie. How long can a family stay together under these conditions? Answer: not long. The downer ending manages to be both sad and horrifying, the lesson of the Monkey’s Paw learned the hard way.
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Andrea Rau, Danielle Ouimet, John Karlen, Fons Rademakers
This truly strange Belgian vampire film (original title Les Lèvres Rouges or The Red Lips) oozes style, dread and languid sensuality, not to mention an unhinged sense of humor. The dreamlike scenario: Newlywed innocents—or maybe not-so-innocents—Stefan (John Karlen, from TV’s then-smash-hit “Dark Shadows”) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) decide to linger in an opulent beachside hotel when their train is delayed. Too bad it’s the middle of winter and the only other guests are the glamorous Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig, The Day of the Jackal, Last Year at Marienbad) and her sultry personal assistant Ilona. Before you can say “Carmilla” the oh-so-charming Countess infiltrates herself into the lovers’ troubled honeymoon and encourages the emergence of Stefan’s barely-suppressed dark side. (Just what is he hiding about his mother, anyhow?) You know what happens next.
The Countess approaches.
The glorious, desolate backdrop of an off-season resort is almost a character in itself, swallowing up the machinations and psychodramas of the tiny cast of good-looking vampires and victims. Extra points also awarded for smashing ’70s fashions, slick editing, inspired location shooting (done entirely after dark or at dusk), letting the foreign actors dub their own lines, and a sinister-yet-groovy score from French soundtrack composer François de Roubaix. Unlike other lesbian vampire films from the same time period (cough Jess Francocough), Daughters of Darkness is an intelligent, warped pleasure, equal parts art and exploitation film. The HD version on Netflix is terrific, the very definition of eye candy.
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Lawrence Tierney, Edward Bunker, Quentin Tarantino, Randy Brooks, Kirk Baltz
Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut is a one-of-a-kind violent, profane, macho epic. When a discreetly-planned robbery gets botched, newcomer Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), professional Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), stern Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), dying Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), and vice-mastermind Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) agree that there is a mole in the group, and start a bloody guessing game to unveil who it might be. Reservoir Dogs, in all its filthy glory, is cleverly and humorously written. The cast, despite being a sausage-fest of an ensemble, delivers tough, believable, solid performances. The story, despite being slightly complicated, is unique, smart and innovative. And Tarantino, despite being renowned for having a fetish for brutality, brings a plentitude of class and thrill to the film—from the stylistic opening to the jaw-dropping ending. An almost—if not completely—perfect masterpiece. HD Available.
Cast: Romain Duris, Vanessa Paradis, Julie Ferrier, François Damiens, Helena Noguerra, Andrew Lincoln, Jacques Frantz, Amandine Dewasmes
Romain Duris (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and Vanessa Paradis (The Girl on the Bridge) star in director Pascal Chaumeil's feature directorial debut. Alex (Duris), an indebted con artist who breaks couples up for a living, is hired by a rich entrepreneur to prevent his daughter Juliette (Paradis) from marrying her fiance. The expert heartbreaker then struggles through the hardest challenge of his career, as he slowly realizes that he has already fallen in love with his subject. Not just your regular chick-flick, Heartbreaker features an original story and compelling performances from the leads. Duris' gentlemanly mojo perfectly complements Paradis' independent spirit. The scenes are also cleverly written and shot, with stylish lines and catchy sequencing. But most exceptionally, Heartbreaker isn't showered with generous amounts of cliché and cheesiness. That's like lifetime achievement for a rom-com. In French with English subtitles. HD Available.
Long before Brokeback Mountain, Chinese director Ang Lee was making films that explore traditional society's norms and depict how people break away from them. In Eat Drink Man Woman, Lee tells the story of a Taiwanese master chef and his three daughters, and how they transcend conventional Chinese thinking through their unusual love life’s. Using food as a metaphor, the movie excels in delivering a deeply philosophical message in a fairly simple manner. The script, with all its subtle humor and wit, develops the film's homey feel. The plot, although not the most elaborate element in the film, is unpredictable. The actors' standout performances catch the audience off-guard and can break the toughest of hearts. And the cameos of food, schools and streets give us a glimpse of the colorful Chinese culture. Overall, a film that would fill empty your stomach but fill your heart, and leave you feeling so damn good.
Cast: Martin Landau, Ellen Burstyn, Adam Scott, Elizabeth Banks, Mark Booker, Candice Rose, Har Mar Superstar
Lovely, Still follows the life of eighty-something grocery store employee Robert (Martin Landau) as he strives to get through another Christmas by himself. Luckily, he meets Mary (Ellen Burstyn), a white-haired woman of the same age, and as they embark on a bumpy relationship, Robert learns—or rather, remembers—secrets about his past.
The film has a genuinely touching vibe, and Landau and Burstyn produce performances that are both tear-jerking an believable. The script has a few moments of awkward misdirection, but the simplistic dialogue also adds a nice sentimental touch and transcends the thin line between drama and reality on which the film sits. Not to mention the must-see ending. Overall, a one-of-a-kind cinematic treat.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, John Heard, Jon Lovitz, Mercedes Ruehl, Jared Rushton, David Moscow, Josh Clark, Kimberlee M. Davis, Oliver Block
A less flabby Tom Hanks stars in this lighthearted comedy about Josh Baskin, an unappreciative teenager turned into a 30-year-old man by a devilish Zoltar machine in a carnival one night, and the misadventures that befall him in his newfound maturity. With no one believing his transformation and with nowhere else to go, Josh seeks help from his best friend Billy (Jared Rushton) to find the machine again and reclaim his body. Yet, it's not going to be easy. In his journey, Josh has to learn how to live alone, to find a job, to act like an adult and to fall in love. Overall, Big is a pure and sincere tale with a heartwarming feel, hilarious antics and, hard as it can be found in modern-day flicks, moral lessons. And as always, Hanks does a marvelous job of portraying his bizarre role, making this film a must-see for audiences, young and old alike.