Thursday, April 21, 2011

An American Werewolf In London (1981) review


David Naughton (David Kessler), Jenny Agutter (Alex Price), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman)

Directed by John Landis

The Short Version: Unique to the 1980s were two werewolf movies of significance and distinction. Both were loving homages to the horror genre and both were compiled by brilliant directors with passion for their work. While both films attained classic status, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON generally nudges out THE HOWLING by the narrowest of margins. Containing some wholly terrifying moments coupled with comical lewdness, I prefer THE HOWLING, but it's no denying the genius of this signature horror/comedy work from John Landis; a film that is far more scary than other pictures that are labeled among the horror genre.

Two friends, David and Jack are on vacation in England. Enjoying the rural countryside of Yorkshire, the two happen upon a pub called 'The Slaughtered Lamb'. Having failed to ingratiate themselves on the regulars, the two friends make their exit, but are warned to stay off the moors and beware the moon. Disregarding these peculiar warnings, David and Jack are attacked by a wild beast. David survives and is later disturbed by violent visions and night time visits by his dead friend Jack, who claims he must take his own life, or else he will change into a werewolf on the next full moon.

John Landis, one of the best chuckle film directors of all time, mixed two of his passions, comedy and horror together for the first of two times in arguably the best example of the form--this major studio werewolf classic whose genesis had been in the making for over a decade prior. While the mention of a 'horror comedy' more often than not causes many horror fans to cringe, AMERICAN WEREWOLF is a successful melding of the two styles perfectly balancing the gore with the giggles. It's really a bizarre endeavor at first glance. There's bursts of jarring brutality that some may find out of place, but it works incredibly well riding the back of sometimes subtle comical outbursts. Some of this brutality stems from some curiously savage dream sequences. It's joked about that David is possibly Jewish and one of his nightmares apparently confirms this when his home is besieged by Nazi werewolves(!!) brandishing knives, machine guns and torches. They mow down his parents and his younger brother and sister before torching their home and slashing David's throat. Just this scene alone captures more horror than some movies that are supposed to be genre affairs from start to finish.

The opening of the film is extremely well done and the moments leading up to the initial attack on the moors maximize the suspense. Like most all the scare sequences, Landis possesses an uncanny ability to create a sudden and shocking jolt that makes the audience feel momentarily uncomfortable. This is frequently followed by a "release" through a spurt of laughter. The raw, overly adult approach the director exploited in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977) is evident here. This is overly apparent when David goes to meet up with his walking dead friend, Jack in a London porn theater along with several other victims of David's rampage. Incidentally, a porn theater was the setting during the opening of Joe Dante's superb THE HOWLING (1981).

In keeping with the playfully dangerous atmosphere, Landis even adorns the soundtrack with various "moon" songs including multiple renditions of 'Blue Moon' and CCR's great 'Bad Moon Rising'. In a bit of utter befuddlement, the exclusion of Warren Zevon's 'Werewolves of London' is inexcusable. If ever there was a perfect marriage between a song and a movie, this is it.

The characters present here are quite good and likable. Jenny Agutter is possibly the best character in the film in terms of her performance and her unmistakable ability to bring a great deal of pathos and believability to her role. The aborted sequel script originally had Agutter's character as the title werewolf. Her portrayal is surely one of the best and most warming roles in all of horror cinema.

David Naughton shines in the lead and should be commended also for his apparent comfortability in doing numerous scenes fully nude. This willingness to "bare all" allows for some of the funniest moments in the movie. Naughton will also be remembered as the 'Dr. Pepper guy' and his stint on the short lived disco TV show, MAKIN' IT (1979). Naughton also sang the hit theme song. Naughton also starred in the innocent, childishly funny comedy cult flick, MIDNIGHT MADNESS (1980). Rick Baker's award winning transformation effects are still astounding especially in light of how everything is done in a computer these days. Still, I much prefer the more grueling transformation sequence seen in THE HOWLING (1981).

To compare the two films is a bit unfair considering the difference in budgets as one was a major studio production and the other was an independent. Both films bring something different to the table and both were hits at the box office. A third werewolf picture, WOLFEN, was released around the same time that also took a unique approach to the material, even more daring, I'd say. That film died a quick death and has remained a minor footnote while both Landis's and Dante's films have survived the decades. My preference leans towards Dante's more fanciful, atmospheric and loving tribute to the genre. Landis's movie is vastly different as it should be. There's an aura of dread in the scenes out in the British countryside. Even the daytime shots contain an atmosphere of evil. The attack scenes are nicely edited and filmed and a graphically violent assault in Piccadilly Circus closes the film on a horrifically downbeat note.

Whereas THE HOWLING aborts the classical werewolf lore that a man bitten will turn by the light of the full moon (but keeps the silver bullet method of destruction), AMERICAN WEREWOLF embraces the lunar aspect (but abandons silver as lethal to the werewolf!) with the addition that all those killed by the beast will forever walk in limbo until the bloodline of the wolf is severed. The scenes of a rapidly and continuously decomposing Griffin Dunne offer up some of the more ghastly humorous moments. The werewolf itself is a bit different design from those seen in THE HOWLING and other lycanthrope themed pictures. The beast seen here is a quadruped and more dog like in appearance, but bearing a far more fearsome visage. Fans of CHEERS will no doubt have a smile brought to their face upon seeing Lila Kaye as a barmaid in the 'Slaughtered Lamb'. Kaye played essentially the same role in season three's 'The Bartender's Tale' episode.

Easily a quintessential 80s movie, and, like THE HOWLING (1981), one of the best horror films of all time. John Landis attempted a similar success with the vampire flick, INNOCENT BLOOD (1992), but that film was far from the ingenious melding of guffaws and gore that this much earlier, and far more memorable movie emblazoned. Of the few genre pictures from Landis, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) is inarguably his best and will no doubt continue to stand the test of time remaining a favorite among many fans.

This review is representative of the Universal special edition.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bitter Feast (2010) review


James LeGros (Peter Gray), Joshua Leonard (JT Franks), Megan Hilty (Peg), Larry Fessenden (William Coley)

Directed by Joe Maggio

The Short Version: Undercooked horror about an arrogant, but dedicated chef who loses his show due to a single review from an equally unlikable food blogger critic. Said chef decides to take revenge on this critic who can seemingly ruin restaurants and television programs with but a single negative write up.

Not long after starting up this DVD, I had made an early assumption that this was yet another 'Tie'em Up & Torture'em' movie with victims written ass backwards so that we, the viewer, hate them instead of hope they survive. BITTER FEAST upholds that new millennium tradition, but later on the film does some mild attempts at pathos for both adversaries. By the end, though, this flirtation with building a better character is undercooked resulting in an arc that falls apart during the final moments.

The plot of a mad chef avenging himself on a soulless, arrogant food critic brought to mind Douglas Hickox's THEATER OF BLOOD, the classic British horror film from 1973; a film that swaps stuffy stage play critics for the gleeful beratement of internet food critics. While Maggio's movie has little of the prime ingredients that made that earlier film such a feast for the eyes and ears, the director also sprinkles a few tablespoons too many from SAW (2004) and just a dash of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) to add some additional flavor.

Director Joe Maggio said in an interview he got the idea for his script after reading a review from noted food critic Frank Bruni who somewhat slammed world reknowned chef Gordon Ramsay's first New York City restaurant, London Hotel. That is basically the catalyst for what follows in this picture. Sadly, there's no real build up to Gray's meltdown. No sooner than one bad review and rumors of his shows cancellation causing his career to spiral downward, and Gray has went over the deep end (a bizarre opening sequence and flashbacks reveal Gray as unexplainably unhinged from a young age). He kidnaps the complaining culinary critic, chains him up and puts him through some food challenges designed to force him to appreciate what it takes to make a mouthwatering meal.

EVOO anyone? Yummo!

Both men play a game of verbal back and forth till this modest little black pseudo satire takes up 'Stalk & Kill' motifs abandoning the 'Cooks & Critics' war of wits it tinkered with the prior 90 minutes. Speaking of chefs, Gray is saddled with a co-host, a jokey polar opposite to his persona named Peg who looks remarkably like popular TV cook, Rachel Ray. The dialog is occasionally stilted and judiciously marinated with a lot of 'F' bombs. Still, it's the best dialog Rob Zombie never wrote.

While it's not a home run, Maggio's movie has some moments of interest--a nicely maddening lead performance from James LeGros, some minor, darkly comical laughs, some so-so suspense and a few good scenes. This dish isn't quite as good as the recipe suggests, but is a decent enough appetizer for hungry horror hounds while they wait around for a suitably tastier main course.

This review is representative of the Dark Sky DVD.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Shaw Brothers Cinema: Eight Gorgeous Ladies of Shaw


One of the Shaw's most wildly popular discoveries was Ivy Ling Po, a native of Amoy (Xiamen), China. She shot to overnight success with her role in the massive hit, THE LOVE ETERNE (1963). Many more roles followed in all genres. While she was most famous for her operas and dramas, Ivy likewise found a niche for her abilities in swordplay pictures such as DUEL FOR GOLD (1970), THE CRIMSON CHARM (1971) and THE 14 AMAZONS (1972).

Various photos of Ivy with her fans

Very much in demand, it wasn't unusual for Ivy to be working on as many as six movies at one time during the 1960s. Of her numerous awards, she won the Best Actress Award in 1964 at the 11th Asian Film Festival for her role in LADY GENERAL HUA MU-LAN.

Behind the scenes on THE CRIMSON CHARM (1971)

Her marriage to fellow Shaw actor, Chin Han was a bit of a shocker considering Ivy was already engaged to another Shaw star, Paul Chang Chung. The two are still married today and continued to maintain an 'on again, off again' relationship with the film industry over the years.


This Taiwanese sensation made her official debut in Shaw's SONG OF ORCHID ISLAND (1965) sharing the screen with Cheng Pei pei and Paul Chang Chung.

Possessing an innocence about her beauty, Lily Ho quickly made a name for herself in the Wuxia actioner, THE KNIGHT OF KNIGHTS (1966), a film that began production under the direction of the revered Chang Cheh, who also wrote the script. Showcasing her sensuality in the classic TILL THE END OF TIME (1966), Lily made a smooth transition into action films in both modern day and period piece fantasies.

She was an ace as a Bond style super spy in ANGEL WITH THE IRON FISTS (1966), its sequel THE ANGEL STRIKES AGAIN (1968) and the elusive THE BRAIN STEALERS (1968). Her Wuxia spectaculars include THE WATER MARGIN (1972), THE 14 AMAZONS (1972) and the risque taboo trashing INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF A CHINESE COURTESAN (1972).

Behind the scenes on THE SILVER FOX (1968); Note Lily gets injured attempting a stunt.

Unfortunately for her fans, and like many Asian film actresses, Lily Ho retired abruptly in 1974 to get married while her acting iron was still blazing hot.

Lily Ho in LOVE BLOSSOMS aka THE ORCHID (1970) also starring Tina Chin Fei.


This mesmerizing beauty was a popular Shaw Brothers starlet predominantly during the latter half of the 1960s where she wowed audiences in dramas, thrillers and comedy-musicals such as TILL THE END OF TIME (1966), TORRENT OF DESIRE (1969), GUESS WHO KILLED MY TWELVE LOVERS (1970) and LOVE WITHOUT END (1970).

A Cantonese speaker, Jenny Hu grew up in Taiwan, later joining her parents to live in West Germany in 1960. She returned to Taipei in 1965 and was eventually signed up for training in Shaw's Southern Drama Group before appearing in the studios TILL THE END OF TIME directed by Chin Chien (a popular director who was found dead in his quarters at Shaw studio June 15th, 1969).

She left Shaw Brothers in August of 1970 to take time off for her son and husband, Hong Wei. By 1971, she had returned to acting in independent features and even managed to participate in an action picture, or two.


Another strikingly attractive actress, Tina was a graduate of Shaw's Southern Drama Group. Signing with the studio in 1964, she went on to a successful career at Shaw's throughout the remainder of the 1960s and into the early part of the 1970s before leaving the company in 1972.


She excelled in sexy roles which were put to good use in a string of spy pictures such as OPERATION: LIPSTICK (1967) and SUMMONS TO DEATH (1967). Her strong, yet sensual persona was typified in the James Bond styled, jewel heist actioner THE TEMPTRESS OF A THOUSAND FACES (1968).

Amidst some dramas, Tina also featured in martial arts adventures including the troubled, unfinished production THE DRINKING KNIGHT (a film that started over from scratch twice and changed its cast and crew as many times and was still never completed), THE 14 AMAZONS (1972) and THE FOUR RIDERS (1972) for Chang Cheh.

Tina Chin Fei and Lily Ho in LOVE BLOSSOMS aka THE ORCHID (1970)


Shen Yi (left)

Another discovery from Taiwan and a native of Peiping, Shen Yi came to Hong Kong to further her schooling, but changed her mind and joined Shaw Studio instead. While not as big a star as many of her colleagues, Shen Yi possessed a wide eyed allure that she brought to a number of movies including a few swordplay productions.

She made her big splash in PRINCESS IRON FAN in 1966 (the sequel to MONKEY GOES WEST from the same year) and followed that with CAVE OF THE SILKEN WEB (another MONKEY sequel, 1967), the modern actioner, GUN BROTHERS (1968) and Wuxia formula films like KILLER DARTS (1968) and SWORDSWOMEN THREE (1970).


Not to be confused with Shaw's exploitation Queen, Chen Ping, this fiesty young actress with the pouty face and powerful sword strike joined Shaw's in 1963, a short time before many of her more prolific and popular colleagues.

Behind the scenes in Korea shooting THE BLACK ENFORCER (1972) in 1969

Still, her brief career was populated with some choice productions such as THE MAGNIFICENT TRIO (1966), THE BELLS OF DEATH (1968), KILLER DARTS (1968), VENGEANCE IS A GOLDEN BLADE (1969), THE BLACK ENFORCER (1972; shooting started in 1969) and the top hit of 1970, THE TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS. She bowed out of the film industry that same year, not with a swordplay epic, but with a drama in THE PRICE OF LOVE (1970).


Another Taiwanese discovery, Chiao Chiao honed her acting chops in Chang Cheh he-man movies like ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) and THE ASSASSIN (1967). She married actor Huang Chung Shun in 1963, but by 1969, the couple was separated with Chiao then moving in with her brother.

Chiao Chiao briefly enjoys her birthday in a break of the shooting for HEADS FOR SALE (1970).

With her passive, but resolute stature in her early roles, Chiao turned some heads when she began cropping up as the lead in swordplay movies such as THE BLACK BUTTERFLY (1968) and HEADS FOR SALE (1970). She left Shaw Brothers in 1972.


This amazingly attractive and spunky woman from Beijing became one of the Shaw's biggest stars in the early 1960s. She was something of a pre 'Baby Queen', Li Ching in terms of popularity.

But by the late 1960s, Angela's roles turned to a more sex bomb, sensual and duplicitous persona. This was exemplified in her man-eater role in Lo Wei's DEATH VALLEY (1968). Her high sexuality quotient was clearly evident here and also in other movies such as TORRENT OF DESIRE (1969) and Chang Cheh's DEAD END (1969).

Some of her notable roles were in such films as THE BLUE & THE BLACK (1966), HONG KONG RHAPSODY (1968) and THE MILLIONAIRE CHASE (1969), the latter of which she shared the screen with the Shaw beauties Lily Ho, Chin Ping and a debuting Betty Ting Pei. Angela's 60s era pictures will undoubtedly be known as her most shining achievements.

Known to be an incredibly down to earth individual, Angela Yu Chien's popularity (like some of her colleagues) was far reaching, and not just in Asian territories; even as far as the United States. She was also an accomplished saxophone player. Sadly, Angela Yu Chien passed away in 2004 from cancer. Like most of those featured above, Angela has left behind a memorable, as well as indelible resume and screen persona that has survived decades, becoming an important and classic addition to Hong Kong's illustrious place in world cinema.

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