Film Review: Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)

Also known as: Gamera daikaijû kuchu kessen (original Japanese title), Gamera: Giant Monster Midair Showdown (Japanese English title)
Release Date: March 11th, 1995 (Japan)
Directed by: Shusuke Kaneko
Written by: Kazunori Ito
Music by: Kow Otani
Cast: Shinobu Nakayama, Ayako Fujitani, Yukijiro Hotaru

Daiei Studios, Hakuhodo, NTV Network, Toho Co. Ltd., 96 Minutes

Review:

Gamera movies are a lot of fun for hardcore fans of kaiju and tokusatsu flicks that want to go deeper than just the regular Godzilla films.

However, they were always sort of shit. That is, until this movie came out in 1995 and gave the world a Gamera picture that was taken really seriously and may actually be as good as the ’90s Godzilla movies. Hell, I’d say this is even better than some of them.

This has a darker tone than the jovial kids movies of the original run of films. Also, this has a harder edge and the monsters are more played up for scares than slapstick comic relief.

I like that the studio stuck to using actors in monster suits, as well as great miniature sets for them to wreck while duking it out over the course of the story.

In fact, the special effects for the time and budget are exceptionally good. Quality-wise, this is one of the best looking kaiju movies of the Heisei era.

Plus, I like the cast in this a lot more than what’s typical in these sort of films. The core characters stand out, have purpose and make the human part of the story a worthwhile one, which can often times just get in the way of what audiences really want to see, which is giant monster mayhem. 

This also sets up future films, which for this era in the Gamera franchise led to a pretty impressive trilogy.

From memory, I feel like each sequel improved upon its predecessor but since it’s been so long since I’ve watched these, I’ll refrain from actually stating that until I revisit and review them in the coming weeks.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: the other Gamera films of the Heisei era.

Film Review: A Blade in the Dark (1983)

Also known as: House of the Dark Stairway (alternative English title)
Release Date: 1983 (Italy – Mystfest)
Directed by: Lamberto Bava
Written by: Elisa Briganti, Dardano Sacchetti
Music by: Guido & Maurizio De Angelis
Cast: Andrea Occhipinti, Anny Papa, Fabiola Toledo, Michele Soavi, Valeria Cavalli, Giovanni Frezza, Lamberto Bava (cameo)

National Cinematografica, Nuova Dania Cinematografica, 110 Minutes

Review:

“Tennis balls?” – Bruno

This was an early film for director, Lamberto Bava. While it’s a giallo picture, it has a real grittiness to it and isn’t as stylized as other pictures of that distinctly Italian horror subgenre. In fact, it looks more like an American slasher flick than something with a strong Italian flavor.

Having his father, Mario Bava, and giallo maestro, Dario Argento, as mentors, the younger Bava was savvy enough to put together a better than decent picture, even early in his career. Sure, he had some missteps like the Jaws wannabe, Monster Shark, but he usually proved he was a capable horror director.

A Blade In the Dark is a fairly strange film that deals with a transvestite serial killer, slashing beautiful women to ribbons. By 1983, this wasn’t anything new and I think that Bava may have been directly influenced by Brian De Palma’s neo-noir serial killer thriller, Dressed to Kill. However, Bava went the hardcore horror route and turned up the gore quite a bit.

The earliest encounters with the killer had him using an old fashioned box cutter, which I thought was visually cool, as those things just have a gnarly look to them. Those old school blades break really easily though, so it was probably a poor choice for a murder instrument but the killer does graduate to more practical and bigger tools, as the film progresses.

The kills are generally pretty good and Bava did a stellar job in building suspense in these scenes. The bathroom murder around the midpoint of the movie was exceptionally well-crafted and executed.

For the most part, the characters in this are all pretty likable. Even the ones that pop in just to get killed fairly quickly.

Now I can’t say that the twist ending was unpredictable or shocking, as I figured it out almost immediately with the movie’s opening scene. Maybe it was a surprise for viewers in 1983 but frankly, it’s nothing new, even by 1983. Still, it doesn’t in anyway wreck the story or the film, overall.

This is a pretty decent film for its type and while it’s not Lamberto Bava’s best, it really displayed his talent and prowess pretty early into his directorial career.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: other Italian giallo and slasher pictures, as well as other films by Lamberto Bava.

Film Review: Hannibal (2001)

Also known as: The Silence of the Lambs 2 (working title)
Release Date: February 9th, 2001
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: David Mamet, Steven Zaillian
Based on: Hannibal by Thomas Harris
Music by: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Ray Liotta, Frankie R. Faison, Giancarlo Giannini, Francesca Neri, Gary Oldman, Željko Ivanek, Mark Margolis, Ajay Naidu

Dino De Laurentiis Company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Universal Pictures, 131 Minutes

Review:

“People don’t always tell you what they are thinking. They just see to it that you don’t advance in life.” – Hannibal Lecter

As much as I just came off of loving Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs in their reviews, a part of me was dreading having to sit through Hannibal again, as my original assessment of it was pretty poor. Granted, that assessment came in 2001, the last time I saw the film, which was on the big screen, opening night.

I have never had much urge to go back and revisit this and honestly, it kind of soured me on the franchise, including the masterpiece that is this movie’s direct predecessor, The Silence of the Lambs.

Watching this, almost exactly twenty years later, didn’t help the film.

Sometimes, I don’t like a movie but when I give it another shot, years later, I find things in it worth appreciating. This especially happens nowadays when modern movies are mostly just corporate, unartistic shit. Hannibal still failed and the only real positive is the performances from the core cast members.

Julianne Moore was fine but it’s still odd watching this and seeing someone else as Clarice when Anthony Hopkins is still playing Hannibal Lecter. Frankie Faison even returns in his smaller role but Jodie Foster wanted nothing to do with this. I know that she hated how this story ended but they changed the ending in the script and the final film to appease her. Still, she couldn’t be lured back. If she actually read the script, I can understand why.

Reason being, the script is terrible but then, so is the story. Granted, I haven’t read the book, so I’m not sure if that was bad too or if the script was just a really poor adaptation of it. Either way, this was predictable as hell for the most part and it was also incredibly dull.

I just didn’t care about the story, the people in it and the big changes to the ending felt off. Honestly, though, I know how the novel ends and I’ve always thought of its ending as really uncharacteristic of the Clarice character. But then who am I to argue with the author that created the characters in the first place.

Anyway, this also had some intense gross out moments. There’s one where a character uses a piece of a broken mirror to skin his own face. There’s another scene where Hannibal is cutting morsels out of the exposed brain of a human man and then feeding it to him.

The thing is, these moments were pretty gratuitous for cheap shock value. While The Silence of the Lambs was dark as fuck and had some gross out parts, it wasn’t done for shock and it wasn’t over the top schlock like it was in this film. The brains scene actually wrecks this movie more than it already was by that point. I don’t know why a well-versed director like Ridley Scott thought to go that route, creatively, but it felt cheap and made me roll my eyes so hard I pulled a muscle in my face.

Sure, the scene could’ve been in the film and worked but the problem was with how it was shot. Sometimes it’s better to imply something horrific without showing it in frame. This would’ve worked much better if they let the viewer’s mind fill-in the blanks.

The cinematography was good and I thought the music in the film worked. But other than that and the actors making the absolute best out of a shit script, this is just a really, really meh movie.

Rating: 5/10
Pairs well with: the other Hannibal Lecter films.

Film Review: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Also known as: Tea-Time of the Dead (working title), Zombies Party – Uma Noite… de Morte (Portugal), Zombies Party – Una Noche… de Muerte (Spain)
Release Date: March 29th, 2004 (London premiere)
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Written by: Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg
Music by: Pete Woodhead, Daniel Mudford
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Jessica Stevenson, Peter Serafinowicz, Rafe Spall, Martin Freeman, Tamsin Greig, Matt Lucas, Julia Deakin, Michael Smiley (uncredited)

Working Title Films, StudioCanal, Rogue Pictures, Universal Pictures, 99 Minutes

Review:

“As Mr. Sloan always says, there is no “I” in team, but there is an “I” in pie. And there’s an “I” in meat pie. Anagram of meat is team… I don’t know what he’s talking about.” – Shaun

The first time that I watched Shaun of the Dead, I knew that it would not only be a cult classic, right out of the gate, but I knew it would go down as a comedy classic and one of the best of its era. I wasn’t wrong and it helped Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost carve out really nice careers for themselves.

It also kicked off the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, which included 2007’s Hot Fuzz and 2013’s The World’s End.

Out of those three films, this one sits in the middle for me, as I like Hot Fuzz more and thought that The World’s End was fairly underwhelming.

This movie is pretty simple and straightforward, though. It also came out before zombie movies and television shows really blew up and became oversaturated in entertainment. So when I saw this for the first time in 2004, it was pretty unique and immediately became one of my favorite horror comedies.

There have been a lot of horror comedies since, especially in the zombie subgenre. But this and the original Return of the Living Dead are the only two I’d consider true classics.

The cast in this had great chemistry but most of them are good friends and had worked together previously in the TV shows Spaced and Black Books.

Shaun of the Dead also feels like a natural extension of Spaced, even though it features familiar actors in different roles. The style of the comedy, the two main characters’ camaraderie and the film’s general tone match up with Spaced, though. That also probably has to do with Edgar Wright helming both.

The story sees a lovable and well-meaning loser have to step up to the plate when the zombie apocalypse kicks off in London. He needs to win back his girlfriend, save his mum and his friends and try to survive the undead outbreak with a pint in his hand.

This doesn’t need a complicated story and it’s better that it’s simple and allows the characters the time to develop and win you over. It’s funny though, as this was the first time I saw Dylan Moran and by the end, I thought he was the biggest prick in the world. And he was, in this film, but he’d actually become one of my favorite comedians and comedic actors after seeing a lot of his standup, as well as his roles in Black Books and a slew of other appearances over the years.

Shaun of the Dead was my introduction to a lot of actors I’ve grown to love over the years. Kate Ashfield, the female lead, is actually the only person in this who I haven’t seen in anything else. Still, she’s really enjoyable in this and added a lot to this group’s dynamic.

I’m glad that I revisited this again, as it’s been so long since I’ve watched any of the movies in this trilogy or Spaced. But after seeing this, I’m going to work through them all again for future reviews.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other Edgar Wright comedies, as well as his television show Spaced.

Film Review: The Old Dark House (1963)

Release Date: October 30th, 1963
Directed by: William Castle
Written by: Robert Dillon
Based on: Benighted by J. B. Priestley
Music by: Benjamin Frankel
Cast: Tom Poston, Robert Morley, Janette Scott, Joyce Grenfell

William Castle Productions, Hammer Films, 86 Minutes, 77 Minutes (original cinema cut)

Review:

“You see, it’s an old house. Old and dark.” – Potiphar Femm

William Castle has had many of his films remade in more modern times. But this film of his is actually a remake of an older film from 1932 that starred Boris Karloff.

This is also a really interesting production, as it was made by a legendary American horror director and the British horror studio powerhouse, Hammer. Also, the film is in color, which may be normal for Hammer but it isn’t for Castle.

Like Castle’s other movies, this one mixes comedy into the horror story. I feel like this is the most comedic of his films, though, as it really hams it up and also doesn’t deliver as many scares as The House On Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts or The Tingler.

This film also didn’t rely on elaborate gimmicks hidden throughout the theater in an effort to create a more “virtual” viewing experience.

With all these differences between this and Castle’s previous pictures, his quality and creativity still flourished. The finished product is a whimsical and amusing movie with a likable cast and a simple but entertaining plot.

I mostly know Tom Poston from seeing him on the ’80s sitcom Newhart when I was a kid. But he was also on a lot of other shows and worked the celebrity game show circuit constantly. The guy was always on my TV but I can’t recall seeing him in an actual motion picture other than this.

Poston has stellar comedic timing, though, and it’s on full display here, as he carries the picture on his shoulders and is in every scene because he’s sort of the audience’s eyes and ears in this weird, haunted house with the crazy family that lives there.

The rest of the cast is very good too, though. I liked the love triangle story between Poston and the two females leads.

Additionally, this has Robert Morley in it and I’ve liked him ever since I first discovered him in Theatre of Blood alongside Vincent Price.

This 1963 version of The Old Dark House is just a great, goofy popcorn movie that’s horror themed but light on scares and heavy on hilarity.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other William Castle pictures, as well as Hammer films from the ’50s through the ’70s.

Film Review: Slaughter High (1985)

Also known as: April Fool’s Day (working title), The Last Laugh (alternative title)
Release Date: May 10th, 1985 (Cannes)
Directed by: Mark Ezra, Peter Litten, George Dugdale
Written by: Mark Ezra, Peter Litten, George Dugdale
Music by: Harry Manfredini
Cast: Simon Scudamore, Caroline Munro, Carmine Iannaconne, Gary Martin, Billy Hartman, Michael Saffran, Donna Yeager, Josephine Scandi, John Segal, Kelly Baker, Sally Cross

Spectacular Trading International, Vestron PIctures, 90 Minutes, 91 Minutes (uncut)

Review:

“We’ll take my car. It starts every time.” – Carol

The film’s tagline on its original poster boasts “From the makers of Friday the 13th” but honestly, I don’t know what the fuck the marketing department was talking about because the three writers/directors and the two producers don’t have that film listed under their credits.

One of the producers was known for working in exploitation films and porn, so maybe he was just using one of those old school tricks like flat out lying to get his film in theaters and then hoping he could sweep it under the rug if the big wigs at Paramount Pictures ever found out.

Whatever. This film came and went like the passing of the wind and nearly no one noticed it. I guess it developed a bit of a cult following over the years but having now seen it, I have no idea why. It’s absolute shit. And I don’t say that lightly, as the love of my life, Caroline Munro, is in this thing.

Granted, I’m not sure why Caroline Munro is playing a high school student when she was thirty-five at the time of filming. Still, she’s always been damn beautiful and I’m not going to nitpick about her being in a movie… ever.

Other than Munro, the film is a complete dud. It’s your standard slasher plot about a kid getting bullied, a prank gone wrong and then he puts on a mask and starts chopping up thirty year-old teens.

While I generally like slasher movies, even bad ones, this is just on another level of sucktitude. The story takes too long to get going, once it does, it’s just dull and pretty uneventful until the home stretch.

It’s also wrecked by one of the worst film scores that I’ve ever heard. Strangely, the score is done by Harry Manfredini, who made the iconic Jason Voorhees theme for the Friday the 13th films. Hey! Maybe he’s the “maker” of Friday the 13th that the poster touts.

Slaughter High is a waste of time. Sure, you could stare in awe at the natural beauty of Caroline Munro but you could also appreciate her in far better films than this one.

Rating: 2/10
Pairs well with: other really shitty slasher movies.

Film Review: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Release Date: January 30th, 1991 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Written by: Ted Tally
Based on: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Music by: Howard Shore
Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Kasi Lemmons, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Frankie Faison, Tracey Walter, Charles Napier, Roger Corman, Chris Isaak, Harry Northup, Daniel von Bargen, George A. Romero (uncredited)

Strong Heart/Demme Production, Orion Pictures, 118 Minutes, 138 Minutes (original cut)

Review:

“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” – Hannibal Lecter

My memories of this film are as great as they could possibly be but after seeing this again, the first time in many years, I was still surprised by just how perfect it is. There are very few motion pictures that deliver so much and at such a high level that seeing this was incredibly refreshing and left me smiling from ear-to-ear, regardless of the dark, fucked up story.

That being said, as great as both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins are as actors, I have a hard time thinking of anything else they were better in.

Sure, they’ve both had other legendary performances but man, they brought their best to this picture like their entire lives counted on it being a success. Plus, their chemistry is incredibly uncanny that in spite of knowing what Hannibal is, at his core, you almost kind of root for them in a sort of awkward, fucked up, romantic way.

I can understand why Jodie Foster didn’t want to return to the role with Hannibal, a sequel that took too long to come out, but I really would’ve liked to see this version of the characters come together again because the strange connection that they share deserved more exploration.

It would’ve been hard to live up to this masterpiece of a film, though, but I’ll save my added thoughts on Hannibal for that review in about a week.

Anyway, it wasn’t just Foster and Hopkins that were great. This film’s entire cast was perfect and this enchanting nightmare just sucks you in and doesn’t release its grip till well after the credits are over. This movie just lingers with you and a big part of that was the performances of every actor.

Credit for that also has to go to Jonathan Demme, who, as director, was able to pull the best out of this stupendous cast from the smallest role to the most iconic and pivotal.

Additionally, he really displayed his mastery of his craft in this like no other movie he’s directed. The tone, the atmosphere and the sound were perfect. This boasts some incredible cinematography, masterful shot framing, exceptional lighting and Demme employs some really interesting and cool techniques. The best being used in the finale, which sees Foster’s Clarice, terrified out of her mind, as she hunts the film’s serial killer, seen through the point-of-view of his night vision goggles, as he carefully stalks her through a pitch black labyrinthine basement.

That finale sequence in the house is absolutely nerve-racking, even if you’ve seen this film a dozen times. The tension, the suspense, it’s almost too much to handle and that’s the point in the film where you really come to understand how perfect this carefully woven tapestry is.

Plus, it really shows how complex Clarice is as a character. She’s brave as fuck but alone, up against a monster like Buffalo Bill, her senses and her primal fear overwhelm her. However, she still snaps out of it just quick enough to put him down, perfectly and exactingly. Foster is so damn good in this sequence too, that you truly feel yourself in her shoes.

Speaking of Buffalo Bill, Ted Levine was amazing in this role. Man, that guy committed to the bit so much that it’s impossible not to appreciate what he brought to the film. It could’ve been really easy to have been overshadowed by Foster and Hopkins but this guy rose to the occasion with them and excelled in this performance.

My favorite sequence in the film, after the finale, is the one where Hannibal Lecter escapes imprisonment. This is where you finally see how cold and vile he can be. It also shows you how damn smart he is at outwitting those who tried to cage this lion but took that cage’s security for granted. He exposes the flaws in their overconfidence and careful planning and leaves this story a free man, out and about in the world.

The Silence of the Lambs was an unexpected runaway hit and it’s easy to see why. I always thought that it was funny that this was released on Valentine’s Day, as it must have shocked many casual moviegoers just looking for a film to see on a date where they just wanted to smooch their lover. It makes me wonder how many married couples saw this on their first date.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: the other Hannibal Lecter films.

Book Review: ‘The Conquering Sword of Conan (Book 3)’ by Robert E. Howard

This is the third and final installment of Robert E. Howard’s Conan collections in this series. It’s been a fun ride reading his Conan stuff in its entirety and this book didn’t disappoint.

After reading all three books, the quality between all these stories is pretty damn consistent and the ratings on these reviews only really reflect my own personal preferences of the stories collected in each one.

Out of the three, this one fits in the middle for me. It’s not full of just short stories and poems like the first volume or just collects a few novellas like the second, this book collects a handful of stories that fit somewhere in the middle.

The stories collected here are The Servants of Bit-Yakin, Beyond the Black River, The Black Stranger, The Man-Eaters of Zamboula and one of my favorites, Red Nails. There are some other miscellaneous things tacked on at the end.

With these stories you pretty much get what you’d expect. Conan kicks the crap out of monsters, goes on epic adventures, hunts treasure and wins over the women. Most of these, if not all of them, have been adapted into comic book stories. While I love both versions of these tales, there’s just something really cool reading them as Robert E. Howard originally wrote them.

Reading through all the Howard stories was a great experience and I’m glad that it’s a mountain I decided to finally climb in its entirety over the last few months.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other Robert E. Howard collections.