3-minute Blu-ray review: The Old Dark House (1932) NEW

Released on Blu-ray by Cohen Media Group, October 24, 2017

Specs: 1080p, PSM 2.0 audio. No region code or aspect ratio is stated on the packaging, but Amazon reports them as Region 1 and 137:1 respectively.

Running time: 72 minutes

Genre: High-Classic Karloff (Frankenstein, The Mummy)

Concept: After a landslide blocks a neglected country road, five storm-drenched travelers seek refuge in an austere old house populated by a monstrous butler and a pair of eccentric siblings harboring a secret that will soon endanger them all.

The Movie: It’s true that not a whole lot happens in The Old Dark House. James Whale fans expecting the grim horror of Frankenstein, the fantastical wonder of The Invisible Man, or the epic fairytale quality of Bride of Frankenstein may be disappointed at first. The film consists mostly of characters skulking around shadowy hallways, running through the rain, sneaking up creaky stairs, and complaining about the weather.

It sounds dreary on paper, but that’s why we watch the movie!

Under the visionary guidance of Whale, the mundane becomes frightening and the banal turns razor-sharp. Each character (and there are quite a few for a film restricted to one setting) is distinct and layered, and their collective interplay is a master class in sardonic humor. Some label The Old Dark House a comedy, but don’t imagine outdated jokes and corny comic relief. It’s a horror film that drips wit just as it pours rain and rattles thunder.

The cast might be the best ensemble of any horror film from the 1930s: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Eva Moore, Lilian Bond, Gloria Stuart, Raymond Massey, and the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, whose every line is a quotable delight.

My only real criticism is the abrupt ending, though that hardly makes it different from other genre films of the time. So sit back, fire up the Blu-ray player, and have yourself a potato.

[review continues below]

Video: The transfer is super clean. While a bit of grain should be expected from an 85-year-old movie, the print itself is in excellent shape. The contrast is quite good for the most part, though lowering the brightness on your TV a notch or two might darken a few shots that bear too much middle gray. Don’t dim too much, however, or you’ll miss out on the beautiful textures revealed by the new 4k scan. Yes, this release is far superior to any version previously on the market. That’s what you really want to know, right?

Late in the film, there appear to be a few missing frames, once at about 57:30 and again a few minutes later. Probably less than a half-second in total. I’m not sure if previous versions have this glitch, but I there’s no obvious splice or auditory pop, so it’s a minimal distraction.

Audio: There’s not much to report about a dialog-heavy movie with no music score that takes place in one setting. Overall, the actors’ voices come across clear and full and the sound effects are mixed well without overpowering the conversation. The thunder cracks are appropriately loud where intended to startle or punctuate the action.

Extras: Two audio commentaries; featurette; Sarah Karloff interview; trailer.

Verdict: Seek some much-needed shelter from the stresses of modern life at The Old Dark House.

Advertisements

GENERATION 0 arrives in paperback on November 7, 2017!

Follow the lives of fours strangers into a global apocalypse:

Josie, a social misfit whose best friend is a switchblade knife.

Shawnika, a bookworm with a dark side that erupts when threatened.

Grace, a tomboy with a special skill that gets her into trouble as often as out of it.

Zane, a psychopath amused by suffering and murder.

As the world descends into gang warfare and the dead rot in the streets, their every moment becomes life or death. Every choice blurs the line between good and evil. Every action chips away at their humanity. And when a maelstrom of events forces their paths to cross, they’ll each will discover what they’re really made of.

Generation 0: Are they the end of mankind, or a new beginning?

Amazon paperback pre-order

Barnes & Noble paperback pre-order

Kindle e-book (available now)

3-minute Blu-ray review: The Dead Next Door (1989)

Released on Blu-ray & DVD by Tempe Digital, September 26, 2017

Specs: All Region, 1080p HD, DTS 5.1

Running Time: 78 minutes

Genre: Classic American Zombie (Dawn of the Dead, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things)

The Concept: A small band of soldiers travels from Virginia to Ohio in search of an antidote to a zombie plague, but they must first face off against an armed and hostile religious cult determined to stop them.

The Movie: DIY horror films are fairly commonplace today, thanks to the relative availability of HD cameras and editing software, the ease of sharing/streaming content online, and the rise of the found-footage genre, which eliminates the need for polished cinematography and time-consuming shot coverage.

Prior to those developments, however, making a film on your own was tough going. You needed expensive film stock, lighting rigs, and professional post-production equipment. You had to strike costly prints. Then you had to find a theater willing to show your film or a home video distributor able to mass produce it.

Enter J.R. Bookwalter, ambitious youth. In the mid-1980s, armed with a Super 8 camera, then 19-year-old Bookwalter spent four years shooting a surprisingly epic zombie-splatter adventure that was eventually released on VHS as The Dead Next Door. The film plays like an expanded universe entry in George A.Romero’s living dead franchise (imagine a Star Wars-type standalone that takes place between Dawn and Day of the Dead).

The Dead Next Door looks like what it is: a remarkable achievement in home moviemaking, replete with amateurish acting and inconsistent cinematography. The Evil Dead, the greatest DIY success of that decade, is far more polished and spectacular in comparison. Alas, while Bookwalter has carved out a niche career in the horror genre, his talents didn’t translate to the big leagues the way Sam Raimi’s did.*

[On the other hand, I’ll bet Bookwalter’s Robot Ninja is more fun to watch than Oz, The Great and Powerful.]

Video: The transfer is as good as the source allows. That is, the outdoor, wide-angle daytime shots look generally clean and bright. The close-ups are rather grainy, owing to the film being shot on Super 8, a poor format for subjects closer than three feet from the lens.

On the plus side, the color temperature is accurate and naturalistic. Conversely, there’s a fair amount of flutter present in some shots. It’s not easy to pull focus on an 8mm camera, either, and it shows at times. Ultimately, there’s only so much you can do about picture quality when reproducing 8mm film in HD.

Audio: It’s difficult to evaluate sound quality when the audio track is patchwork (some ambient, some looped). The volume is uneven, but I suspect adding compression to flatten it out would introduce a considerable amount of hiss.

Extras: Audio commentary, featurettes, outtakes (oddly, the DVD offers three commentaries, the Blu-ray only one)

Verdict: The film is intermittently effective but, overall, doesn’t hold up that well. While the gore FX are well done, it’s too ambitious for its limitations. I quite enjoyed the Romero-esque “American heartland” setting and sensibility, though, and the filmmaker’s swing-for-the-fences approach is admirable.

*Raimi ended up serving as executive producer on The Dead Next Door, perhaps seeing something of himself in Bookwalter.

Boris Karloff – The Top 10 Films

For generations of horror fans, Boris Karloff is one of the most beloved figures in the genre. The combination of his gaunt appearance, menacing glare, and musically sinister voice made him an iconic movie villain, but it was his ability to find the soul of every character that rendered his performances  timeless.

Karloff elevated every movie he in which he appeared, from mundane B programmers to yesterday’s five honorable mentions. Today, we look at the ten films that, in my opinion, represent the best.

 

My Top 10 films of Boris Karloff

 

  1. The Ghoul (1933)

Karloff plays a professor of Egyptology who appears to have more than simply an intellectual curiosity for his subject, returning from the grave like a mummy to seek revenge on those who stole a jewel he believes is imbued with the power of the ancient gods.

If not marred by a terrible, banal ending, The Ghoul would be higher on this list. The film is among the most eerie and atmospheric of the era, and it benefits from a delightful cast (including Ernest Thesiger and Cedric Hardwicke), grim humor, and well-paced direction from T. Hayes Hunter.

 

  1. Targets (1968)

In one of his most nuanced performances, Karloff plays a fading horror star who finds his talents are now lost on a society where real-life horrors like the Vietnam War, political assassinations, and rapid cultural upheaval have made the gothic films on which he built his reputation seem quaint and anachronistic.

Targets is an astute, smartly self-aware film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who went on to earn acclaim for 1971’s The Last Picture Show.

 

  1. The Body Snatcher (1945)

Producer Val Lewton is legendary for his nourish psychological horrors of the 1940s. With future A-list director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still) at the helm and a multi-dimensional performance from Karloff as the grave robber implied in the title, viewers are treated to a superior film.

Like most Lewton films, The Body Snatcher isn’t exactly action packed, but it boasts one of the eeriest climaxes in the classic age of horror cinema.

 

  1. The Old Dark House (1932)

Part comedy and part horror film, The Old Dark House is a grim delight from the pre-code era. The plot, concerning a group of stranded travelers who must shelter in a scary old mansion, is merely a set up for darkly humorous interplay between a smart cast that includes Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, and Gloria Stuart. Not a whole lot happens, but James Whale’s stylish and atmospheric direction somehow ladles on the suspense anyway.

 

  1. The Black Cat (1934)

Once again, stranded travelers find themselves seeking refuge at a home inhabited by Boris Karloff. This home isn’t some gothic fairy-tale mansion, however, but a sleek, art-deco chamber of horrors. And Karloff isn’t a hairy brute this time but a war criminal with some rather disturbing hobbies. Among the visitors happens to be Bela Lugosi, who would love nothing more than to seek brutal revenge on the host for his wartime transgressions.

Owing to its subject matter, The Black Cat is one of the tonally darkest films of the classic era.

 

  1. Isle of the Dead (1945)

In another pairing of Karloff and producer Val Lewton, the actor plays a Greek general quarantined on an Island with a group of strangers as a plague ravages the land. However, not everyone agrees it’s a plague. Some of the locals believe a soul-stealing vampire called a “Vorvolaka” is on the prowl.

It’s a toss-up where to put most of these films on a Top-10 list, but of one thing I’m sure: Karloff’s descent from the voice of reason to a violent paranoiac is conveyed through one of his very best performances.

 

  1. The Mummy (1932)

Universal was really hitting ‘em out of the park in the early 1930s, weren’t they? The Mummy may be the most subtle, elegant film of the studio’s major horror classics, and Karloff’s presence is felt throughout its entirety, despite his relatively limited screen time.

Honestly, there’s almost no action, yet viewers are left feeling they’ve seen the unforgettable. It might have something to do with that awakening scene.

 

  1. Black Sabbath (1963)

Perhaps it’s strange to place a film that came so late in Karloff’s career, when he was relegated to doing mostly B movies, among the top three. But these are horror films we’re talking about, and Black Sabbath is without a doubt the scariest he ever made. Not since his portrayal of Poelzig in The Black Cat had Karloff been so malevolent in a role.

This film terrified me so badly when I was a kid that … well, nothing, I loved every minute.

 

  1. Frankenstein (1931)

It’s not often a star is born while going unbilled and acting without dialog under 10 pounds of make-up. It’s also not often that Boris Karloff, James Whale, and make-up FX genius Jack Pierce collaborate on one of the best horror films ever made.

Although the plot veers widely from that of the book on which the movie was based, Frankenstein captures the two most important aspects of Mary Shelley‘s literary classic: the tortured relationship between the monster and his maker, and the sheer horror of the tragic events that unfold. Naturally, by today’s standards the film the film isn’t actually frightening, but Whale’s groundbreaking direction, Pierce’s creature design, and Karloff’s impassioned performance are nevertheless the makings of timeless cinema.

 

  1. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Trying to top an original cinematic masterpiece with a sequel is generally a hopeless endeavor. You’re working against everything that makes an original masterpiece what it is: something new that captivates and surprises audiences and ripples with influence and change across the entire film industry. You can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice.

Usually.

Usually you don’t have the boundless creativity of James Whale, Jack Pierce, and Boris Karloff to draw upon. usually you don’t add that one perfect element that wasn’t there before (Ernest Thesiger in the role he was born to play). You don’t dream up one of the most instantly iconic characters in movie history (The Bride). And no one says, “You know what we should do? We should do a sequel to a gruesome, bleak, pure horror movie, but make a dark fairy tale instead.”

The Bride of Frankenstein is arguably the greatest sequel in horror history and, therefore, takes its rightful place as Boris Karloff’s best film.

The Best of Boris Karloff – 5 Honorable Mentions

If you’re an actor, an artist, a musician, a writer, or even an over-age college student seeking inspiration amid the desperation, look no further than Boris Karloff.

Running away from the family business, so to speak, young William Henry Pratt left England for North America in 1909. He worked odd jobs while developing a taste for acting and eventually took the stage name “Boris Karloff.” Even the most casual of movie fans today recognize Karloff as a horror icon, but few realize he toiled for two decades in traveling theater and silent films, often in low-paying bit parts portraying thugs and swarthy-foreigner types.

Outside of producers and casting agents, hardly anyone knew who the heck Boris Karloff was in 1931 when the 44-year-old actor landed the part of “The Monster” in Frankenstein. The rest is legend, of course, but the takeaway is that he never quit. Karloff went on to amass over 200 film and TV credits.

Boris Karloff starred in some of the greatest films in horror history, and it wasn’t because he lucked into it. It’s because he believed in himself and never gave up. None of the honorable mentions below would be the films they are without him.

 

The Walking Dead (1936)

The Walking Dead, a film about an executed man who returns from the grave to seek revenge on the people who framed him, is not a masterpiece, but it may be the most underappreciated film in Karloff’s oeuvre. And that is largely thanks to its star (with an assist to director Michael Curtiz for some nicely atmospheric moments)

Karloff’s anguished, sympathetic portrayal of the undead killer elevates this movie well above its station. It’s a perfect example of how the actor was able to take what should have been a generic, foot-dragging zombie character and imbue it such humanity that viewers continue to feel for his plight long after the film ends.

 

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

The third film in Universal’s Frankenstein series can’t hope to exist on the same plane as the first two, though it’s quite a bit better than any of the sequels that came after it.

Son of Frankenstein might have squeaked onto tomorrow’s Top-10 list if Karloff had had a bigger role, but the monster is given too little to do. Rather, Bela Lugosi steals the movie with a brilliant performance as the vengeful Ygor. If I ever do a similar post for Mr. Lugosi, look for this one to make another appearance.

 

House of Frankenstein (1944)

By the mid-40s, Universal was cranking out these horror shows with minimal regard for story or art, notwithstanding the hard work of the actors and craftspeople involved. House of Frankenstein is unintentionally a metaphor for the monster himself, as it’s stitched together from ill-fitted story threads and disconnected characters. Still, Karloff’s early scenes with John Carradine and J. Carrol Naish are loads of fun and easily the best thing about the movie.

 

The Raven (1963)

American International Pictures took Edgar Allan Poe abuse to new heights of cruelty with this silly yet highly entertaining tale about rival wizards, talking birds, and magic spells.

The Raven is a charming movie with a great cast (which includes Jack Nicholson and Hazel Court), but the hilarious banter between Vincent Price and Peter Lorre is the main reason to watch it. Though Karloff is fine as Dr. Scarabus, it’s a relatively insubstantial role for him, thus relegating the film to honorable mention status.

 

The Sorcerers (1967)

Directed by cult filmmaker Michael Reeves of Witchfinder General fame, The Sorcerers is more grown-up than the most of Karloff post 1940s work. Karloff plays a variation of his mad doctor character, but this time laden with metaphor that can be read several ways. I view his Dr. Monserrat as a stand-in for old, corrupt politicians who profit from exploiting of the young and the poor, a not-uncommon representation amid the cynicism of the late 1960s and early 70s.

It’s a good film that, at the same time, I don’t find particularly entertaining to watch (in keeping with my ongoing struggle to get into Reeves’s films). I can’t deny it is a substantive movie and worthy of whatever critical analysis it receives.

Tomorrow: My Top 10 Boris Karloff Films!

2-minute Blu-Ray Review: THE SLAYER (1982)

Released on Blu-ray with DVD and booklet by Arrow Video, August 29, 2017

Specs: All Region, 1080p HD, mono

Genre: Unstable Female Protagonist Horror (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Rosemary’s Baby)

Story: Kay (Sarah Kendall), a painter haunted by harrowing nightmares and exhibiting neurotic behavior, is dragged by her husband and another couple to a beach house on a scenic but lonely island so she can clear her head. But once a storm hits and the murders start, it becomes clear their plan is backfiring.

The movie: The Slayer plays like a slasher flick until we realize Kay’s nightmares may be more than simply the product of anxiety. There are a couple of realistic kills, but the appeal of the film for me is the sense of desolation, both in the stark island setting and in Kay’s increasing paranoia.

The somber music score is unobtrusive but eerie, and the lack of dopey teen characters is a welcome change from other early ‘80s horror entries. If you’re looking for a polished, action-packed Hollywood production, this is not your film. If you dig the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic of micro-budget horror like I do and value creeping unease over spectacle, you may discover yourself a hidden gem.

Video: Not surprisingly, there’s a fair amount of grain, especially in the indoor scenes. Unless JJ Abrams wants to come along and restore each frame like he did with Phantasm, this is as good as it gets for independent productions shot on location without digital cameras or the controlled lighting of soundstages.

That said, there’s no apparent degradation of the original negative or print damage. As with other Arrow Blu-rays, you’ll discover all kinds of details and textures you never noticed before (like how hideous the characters’ sweaters are). The color EQ leans slightly toward pinks and oranges, but not in a way that’s distracting. Overall, this Blu is a vast improvement over any previous version.

Audio: What do you think this is, one of them fancy websites where they talk about compression and comb filtering and shit? The disk sounds fine. [disclaimer: my hearing is shot]

Extras: 2 commentaries, a documentary, interviews, a location visit, and the other fun stuff you always get with an Arrow release.

Verdict: Exactly what I expected

Giallo for Beginners

For curious movie buffs and budding cinephiles, discovering the wonders of global cinema can be an awakening. Other people are content to catch the latest superhero blockbuster or sci-fi/action franchise film at the local multiplex, and there’s nothing wrong with that (if one desires a banal, meaningless existence). But some of us are driven by a craving for the strange and exotic.

If you’re in the early stages of your world-cinema adventure, perhaps the term giallo has piqued your interest. Giallo refers to a genre of film—largely produced in Italy but sometimes elsewhere in Europe—that is superficially similar to but predates North American slasher movies.

There are two basic rules:

  1. Gialli are murder mysteries. If there are no murders and no mystery to be solved, it’s not a giallo.
  2. Gialli are not supernatural tales. If the film features a ghost, demon, witch, or a zombie, it’s not a giallo. in a giallo, the killer is human.

Gialli and slasher films are similar in that they involve characters being picked off one by one, and both genres are intended to thrill and frighten by employing cinema’s traditional lurid elements: nudity and graphic violence.

However, gialli are typically richer in commentary on culture and society. They often satirize the decadence and corruption of the wealthy, the church, government, and other institutions, or they mock bourgeois hang-ups and indulgences and the seedier aspects of modern life.

Most importantly, Gialli are stylish, lurid, and sensual. That’s why we watch them.

Characteristics of giallo cinema:

  • They are as much crime dramas as horror movies
  • They tend to be suffused with eroticism
  • They often juxtapose modern lifestyle, music, and fashion with old-world European architecture (sometimes using the latter to symbolize hidden madness or decaying sanity)
  • Genre directors frequently use color and other visual cues to tie characters, scenes, objects, and events together
  • Many feature jazz, jazz fusion, or instrumental progressive-rock scores

Take an Agatha Christie mystery, imbue it with painterly visuals and a cosmopolitan air, and ladle on generous helpings of sex and violence. That’s a giallo.

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)

A not-too-boring history: The word “giallo” means “yellow” in Italian and refers to the color used for the covers of violent and sexy detective novels had been popular in that country since the 1930s.

Influential Italian director Mario Bava piggybacked on the popularity of these books, inventing the film version of genre either with 1963’s black-and-white thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much or his 1964 release, Blood and Black Lace, depending on whom you ask (I lean toward the latter because a giallo in black and white is film noir in my view, and Girl seems too naive and comedic to fit the genre proper).

Blood and Black Lace is a vivid, color-saturated body-count thriller set in a fashion house where beautiful models are being killed by a masked slasher. Not long after, director Umberto Lenzi (of Cannibal Ferox notoriety) delivered a string of gialli including Orgasmo and So Sweet … so Perverse. But it was auteur filmmaker Dario Argento’s global smash The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) that unleashed a title wave. As many as 200 gialli followed over the next decade and a half.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Every giallo fan has their favorites, but here are 15 I recommend:

Blood and Black Lace (1964): It’s the seminal film in the genre and a must see.

The Bird with Crystal Plumage (1970): Argento’s blockbuster debut is stylish and cosmopolitan, and it cemented the genre’s signature qualities.

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1970): The first of Sergio Martino’s five gialli is sexy and stylish, and it takes more turns than a Grand Prix driver. Featuring giallo cinema’s favorite star, Edwige Fenech.

Edwige Fenech

Bay of Blood (1971): Mario Bava’s grisly thriller is not only one of the bloodiest of all gialli, it’s also the launch pad for the slasher genre.

Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971): Director Paolo Cavara’s fan favorite features all the classic giallo elements and could serve as a starting point for those who want to discover what the scene is all about (see lead image above).

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971): Horror fans familiar with Lucio Fulci’s blood-drenched zombie classics may be surprised by this sexy and psychedelic murder mystery.

All the Colors of the Dark (1972): Martino’s third giallo, also starring Fenech, isn’t the most coherent story ever filmed, but visually it’s superb.

Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972): Fulci delivers another strong giallo, this time with the darker, gloomier mood we’re used to seeing in his splatter films.

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972): One of the prettier movies in the genre in terms of locations, deployment of color, and cast (led by the stunning Barbara Bouchet).

Barbara Bouchet

What Have You Done to Solange? (1972): Massimo Dallamano’s well-made thriller might be thought of as a “classy” giallo with its Hollywood-grade production values. If crotch stabbings can be considered classy.

Who Saw Her Die? (1972): A eerie and well-shot chiller directed by the underrated Aldo Lado, with an unnerving score by Ennio Morricone.

Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973): This lurid and entertaining Spanish giallo demonstrates the difference between the cosmopolitan Italian approach and the Spanish horror industry’s ingrained gothic tradition.

Torso (1973): Director Martino’s best-known giallo eschews the visual elegance of his previous efforts and delivers straight horror. The third act is a blueprint for slasher films, including the “final girl” scenario.

Deep Red (1975):  Dario Argento’s magnum opus is perhaps cinema’s best-known giallo. If you’re only going to watch one …

Tenebrae (1982): Once more, Dario Argento proves the master of the genre by delivering a late-cycle classic dripping with blood and packed with twists that play out with razzle-dazzle camerawork.

All the Colors of the Dark