Film Review: House On Haunted Hill (1999)

Release Date: October 27th, 1999 (premiere)
Directed by: William Malone
Written by: Dick Beebe, Robb White
Based on: House On Haunted Hill by Robb White, William Castle
Music by: Don Davis
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Chris Kattan, Peter Gallagher, Bridgette Wilson, Max Perlich, Jeffrey Combs, Slavitza Jovan, Lisa Loeb, Peter Graves (cameo), Greg Nicotero (uncredited)

Dark Castle Entertainment, Warner Bros. Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Dr. Richard Benjamin Vannacutt. He out-butchered Bundy, made Manson look meek.” – Peter Graves

Man, it’s been a really long time since I’ve watched this but for some odd reason, it holds a special place in my dark heart. I’m not sure if it is due to when it came out and the effect of nostalgia or because I actually consider it to be better than the film it is a remake of, which almost feels sacrilegious to type because Vincent Price, that film’s star, is why I fell in love with horror to begin with.

Generally, I’m not a fan of remakes in the same way I’m not a fan of cover songs. I really feel as if these things should only exist if they can justify themselves by being better or at the very least, being an interesting new take on the source material they are borrowing from.

1999’s House On Haunted Hill is a really good example of a film that takes its inspiration from its predecessor and makes it something else without sacrificing what the original vision was. It’s not an easy task to achieve but Dark Castle really started out on a good foot with this, their first of a few classic horror remakes.

Ultimately, this takes the formula from William Castle’s classic haunted house tale and ups the ante in a way that is very ’90s. It’s more extreme, has a fair bit of good gore and it updates the concept into something contemporary for the time. It’s also more of a psychological horror film and goes places that the original one couldn’t. The scene in the hallucination chamber is well done and actually kind of terrifying, even for a horror aficionado like myself.

That being said, there are three key things that make this remake a solid one.

The first is the ensemble cast. For a horror film with slightly more than a half dozen main players, we have an assemblage of some really good talent. Everyone sort of plays a typical horror archetype but they are all really good at it. I like everyone in this, top to bottom, regardless of whether or not they’re playing the innocent and good character thrown into a literal hell or they’re playing the evil, conniving bastard with some sort of dastardly trick up their sleeve.

Frankly, as good as everyone is in their roles, Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen steal every single scene they’re in. I can’t say that they outclass and out act every other actor here but they just rise to a different level and they seriously look like they are enjoying hamming it up in this twisted movie.

The second thing that makes this film work is the atmosphere. This isn’t the house from the original film. Instead, we’re trapped with these characters in a burned out art deco styled fortress of the 1930s, which was used as an insane asylum ran by an evil and sadistic doctor that used to butcher his patients.

Beyond that, the sets are incredible and the art direction in this film was magnificent. I really dig the lighting, the visual effects, the general cinematography and just about everything visual. The practical effects are great and even if the CGI feels dated now, it works for what this is and it doesn’t take you out of the picture like some of the CGI you’d see from this era. The Lovecraftian inspired blob of spirits is actually kind of cool and it works tremendously well with the tone of the film.

The third thing that works wonders is the score. The music is a great mix of a classic horror movie soundtrack and ’90s era industrial styled instrumentals. The film even features Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams”, which adds another level of dread and atmosphere to the already effective presentation of the picture.

I’d like to give credit to the director, William Malone. He managed this project well and I have to give credit where it’s due, especially since I don’t like the other films that I’ve seen of his: Creature, FeardotCom and Parasomnia. But maybe I will give those movies a re-watch soon, as it’s been a long time.

When this came out, it was a film that critics hated but I remember most people enjoying it. It’s got a ’90s campiness to it but it’s far from comedy and I’d say that it’s aged well. It’s certainly better than what the modern standard seems to be in the horror genre.

I think that I’ll revisit Dark Castle’s Thirteen Ghosts remake soon, as it has been a long time since I’ve seen it but I had a good experience with it, back in the day. I may also finally watch the sequel to this film. I heard it’s nowhere near as good but with this fresh in my mind, I’d like to take another trip to the haunted asylum.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: the other Dark Castle remakes of classic horror films, as well as other late ’90s and early ’00s ghost movies.

Film Review: Beginning of the End (1957)

Release Date: June 28th, 1957
Directed by: Bert I. Gordon
Written by: Fred Freiberger, Lester Gorn
Music by: Albert Glasser
Cast: Peter Graves, Peggie Castle, Morris Ankrum

AB-PT Pictures Corp., Republic Pictures, 76 Minutes

Review:

“Where do I get off asking the Regular Army for help with a bunch of oversize grasshoppers?” – Col. Tom Sturgeon

Since I only have two more Mystery Science Theater 3000 movies to review after this one, I guess it is safe to assume that this is the last of the Bert I. Gordon films that I have to suffer through. But since I’ve already reviewed roughly a dozen Bert I. Gordon schlocksterpieces, maybe there is still one I missed.

If I’m being honest, this wasn’t one I had to suffer through. In fact, it’s one of the more entertaining Gordon movies I’ve seen. This is, of course, due to its schlockiness but it’s definitely on a level that most of Gordon’s films aren’t.

The real highlight of this picture is the special effects where the giant killer locusts are concerned. The movie uses stock footage of grasshoppers and then superimposes humans and vehicles in front of them to give these tiny creatures a gigantic presence. The best shots, however, are where they took grasshoppers and filmed them crawling over photographs of buildings in an effort to generate the illusion that they are scaling massive structures. In reality, they look like they’re just chilling on a page from an oversized architecture book.

Apart from the awfully bad yet awesome effects, the film is littered with terrible acting, a wonky script and insane situations. They do kind of create a perfect storm of cheesiness that comes across as well aged with sharp, robust notes and a creamy, boldness most cheeses can’t achieve despite proper aging and temperature.

Beginning of the End is a weirdly wonderful piece of cinematic gimcrack that somehow comes across as fun and goofy while inadvertently seeing its faults turn into positives. Well, at least for those of us who love shoddy sci-fi pictures of the atomic age.

Rating: 4.25/10
Pairs well with: other Bert I. Gordon schlock, especially the stuff featured on MST3K.

Film Review: Parts: the Clonus Horror (1979)

Also known as: The Clonus Horror (original title), Artificial Humans: Clone Farm (Asia English video title), Clonus Horror (Spain), Alter Ego (UK video title), Clonus (alternate title)
Release Date: August, 1979
Directed by: Robert S. Fiveson
Written by: Bob Sullivan, Ron Smith, Myrl A. Schreibman, Robert S. Fiveson
Music by: Hod David Schudson
Cast: Tim Donnelly, Paulette Breen, Dick Sargent, Peter Graves, Keenan Wynn, Frank Ashmore

Clonus Associates, Group 1 International Distribution Organization Ltd., 90 Minutes

Review:

“I think it’s time I start paying back this country for some of the good things it’s given me.” – Jeff Knight

This is one of the few Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes that I had never seen. I missed it way back in the day and it’s just eluded me ever since. But I’ve seen it now! Not that that’s something to be excited about because this motion picture is pretty dreadful.

I guess I could say that the story had some ambition to it but the people that had to give life to this interesting premise, failed in every way imaginable.

This is categorized as a horror film and even has “horror” in its title. It’s not very horrific though, so buffs of the genre aren’t going to get much out of this.

The story is about cloning gone amok. Everything takes place at a desert compound where people are cloned just to be harvested for their parts. The clones are basically enslaved and forced to work within the colony until they need to be cut up for rich people. The clones are also isolated from the rest of the world. As I’m typing the plot details, I get kind of excited. This sounds really compelling but again, all the creative ambition is lost in the movie’s poor execution.

As is common with films like this one, the acting is way below average and the script is a mess. Everything is just lackluster.

Parts: The Clonus Horror is mostly a waste of time. Unless you’re going to watch the MST3K version of it.

Rating: 2.25/10
Pairs well with: other late ’70s/early ’80s sci-fi fare that was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Film Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Release Date: July 26th, 1955 (Des Moines premiere)
Directed by: Charles Laughton
Written by: James Agee
Based on: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb
Music by: Walter Schumann
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin

Paul Gregory Productions, United Artists, 92 Minutes

Review:

“There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair.” – Rev. Harry Powell

I hadn’t seen this since I was a kid but having revisited it now, I was torn as to which Robert Mitchum character was more evil, this one or his role as Max Cady in Cape Fear. Regardless of which you choose, there is no one from this era that quite stirs up the intimidating, creepy vibe like Robert Mitchum.

Mitchum is perfection in this film. Also, Shelley Winters was solid and just a heartbreaking character. The scenes the two shared were so uncomfortable that I’m sure it left the audiences of the 1950s pretty disturbed.

As unhinged and as crazy as Mitchum was in Cape Fear, I do think that his character here, the Reverend Harry Powell, gets the edge. For one, he always speaks about the word of God and God talking through him but he is an actual serial killer, driven by greed and willing to kill innocent women and children just to get a bag of money that his former cellmate hid before incarceration.

This is a truly chilling film and there are few scenes in motion picture history more effective than the moment where the runaway kids are hiding in the barn and see the silhouette of Mitchum on his horse, slowly trotting across the horizon line, singing his biblical songs while looking for them.

Additionally, the scene with Shelley Winters dead in the front seat of a car at the bottom of the river is shocking, even by today’s standards. At the same time, there is a real haunting beauty in that shot and it’s that moment that really takes this film from being a dark thriller to something a bit more enchanting and viciously surreal.

Another moment that really stuck out to me, visually, was when the kids escaped the basement with Mitchum running up the stairs, reaching out like a murderous madman trying to grab them. It’s a quick moment but I immediately equated Mitchum to a natural predator desperately lashing out with animal-like instinct.

The kid actors in this, who take up most of the screen time, are actually pretty incredible. Most kid actors are annoying, especially in the 1950s, but these two felt like real frightened kids from any era. And the bravery of the boy was both uncanny and inspiring.

The Night of the Hunter is a bonafide classic and for good reason. If you love Robert Mitchum and have never seen this, you’re doing yourself a grave disservice.

It boasts some of the best cinematography and lighting I’ve ever seen, as well as perfect set design and a mesmerizing tone that feels a bit fantastical but also gritty and real.

Man, I just love this movie.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: the original Cape Fear, as well as some of Mitchum’s noir pictures: Out of the Past, Crossfire, Where Danger Lives, Angel Face and The Locket.

Film Review: SST Death Flight (1977)

Release Date: February 25th, 1977
Directed by: David Lowell Rich
Written by: Robert L. Joseph, Meyer Dolinsky, Guerdon Trueblood
Music by: John Cacavas
Cast: Lorne Greene, Peter Graves, Susan Strasberg, Doug McClure, Barbara Anderson, Bert Convy, Burgess Meredith, Tina Louise, Robert Reed, Billy Crystal, John de Lancie, Brock Peters, Regis Philbin

ABC Circle Films, American Broadcasting Company, 89 Minutes

sst-death-flightReview:

In the 1970s, America loved its disaster movies. They also loved TV movies with big ensemble casts made up of the stars from various television shows. So green lighting SST Death Flight was a no brainer, right?

A lot of the disaster films of that era didn’t hold up well at all. Now I am not sure what people thought about SST Death Flight when it aired on ABC in early 1977 but it is a friggin’ turd.

I almost feel bad for most of the cast that is in this. Burgess Meredith deserves better and Lorne Greene has done his fair share of cheese but both men are pretty accomplished and respected and have a certain gravitas that puts them above a picture like this. I can’t fault Billy Crystal, he’s pretty damn young here and was looking for that big break.

70s celebrities seemed to love being in these big disaster ensembles though, and to be honest, despite the movie being terrible, it was probably a hell of a lot of fun to make and to hang out on the set with a bunch of really cool colleagues. I wouldn’t have said “no” to it, if I was in the same position.

SST Death Flight is unexciting, uninteresting and is just a cookie cutter plane in danger picture. This formula has been done to death and this movie offers nothing really new or captivating. In fact, it plays like more of a parody but without the clever jokes.

Ultimately, a bunch of people die, some survive but no one really cares. It has the most predictable scenario, with the most predictable twists and turns all leading to the most predictable ending.

But you can watch it get riffed in the first pre-cable era season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. That version is currently streaming on YouTube.

Film Review: It Conquered the World (1956)

Release Date: July 15th, 1956
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Lou Rusoff, Charles B. Griffith
Music by: Ronald Stein
Cast: Peter Graves, Lee Van Cleef, Beverly Garland, Sally Fraser, Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze

American International Pictures, 71 Minutes 

it_conquered_the_worldReview:

In the early days of American International Pictures, they did some imaginative low-budget sci-fi and horror films. Roger Corman will always be known for being the king of the cheapo horror feature but that certainly isn’t a bad thing. He turned films out at a record pace and was more concerned with tight shooting schedules and doing things as cheaply as possible. His formula worked for a really long time and you have to kind of admire some of the films he was able to put together using this formula.

Most of Corman’s pictures turned a profit and he created a way of doing business that still exists in Hollywood today. Granted, now it just gives us unnecessary Saw and Paranormal Activity sequels, as well as “found footage” horror pictures but Corman was certainly onto something in his heyday.

It Conquered the World is one of these Corman classics. And no, it isn’t a particularly good film but it is still pretty enjoyable and it features a hokey yet really cool monster, a Corman staple.

The film stars Peter Graves, a beloved icon to Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s Crow T. Robot, and one of my personal favorites, Lee Van Cleef. We also get to enjoy the talents of one of Corman’s favorite actors, Dick Miller. Granted, Miller’s role here is really limited.

Van Cleef plays a scientist, Dr. Anderson. He has made radio contact with a creature from Venus. The alien monster claims it only wants peace but it actually wants to enslave humanity through mind control. The alien claims he can bring peace by eliminating human emotions, which is a ploy to administer the brainwashing technique. The alien disrupts all electric power on Earth, crippling the planet’s technology. The alien also releases bat-like creatures carrying mind control devices. Graves’ character, Dr. Nelson, finds his wife to be already assimilated and she attempts to use one of the bat-like creatures on him. The film then takes some dark turns until ultimately, there is a final showdown with the bizarre creature.

The acting isn’t great, the direction isn’t either but Roger Corman didn’t concern himself with these things. He had a monster movie to pump out and couldn’t waste time. It should go without saying that the special effects aren’t fantastic either.

It Conquered the World is one of those sort of films where you either love it or you hate it. It only works for a certain kind of audience: one that is familiar with Corman’s style and can look beyond the problems with the film and just enjoy it as a mindless creature feature that, at its high points, is a lot of fun.