Friday, October 31, 2014

Island of Lost Souls (1932) review



Charles Laughton (Dr. Moreau), Richard Arlen (Edward Parker), Leila Hyams (Ruth Thomas), Bela Lugosi (Sayer of the Law), Kathleen Burke (The Panther Woman), Arthur Hohl (Montgomery)

Directed by Erle C. Kenton

The Short Version: The inflicting of pain and its resultant suffering are running themes on this island run by the mad, Hitlerian, whip-wielding scientist Dr. Moreau. He even runs an institution built on it, and one bearing the cheery moniker, the House of Pain. In this clinic of torment, Moreau creates a menagerie of manimals more out of his sadistic nature than the misguided betterment of mankind. A shocker in its day, these LOST SOULS maintains a gorilla-like grip on its ability to jangle nerves, and get skin to crawling. Horror fans will find this ISLAND worth visiting multiple times over.

"Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?" 

Shipwrecked on an uncharted South Pacific island, Edward Parker meets the eccentric Dr. Moreau and his assistant, Montgomery. Curious of the strange looking inhabitants, Parker accidentally discovers Moreau is conducting obscene experiments turning animals into humans using torturous methods. Hitting upon the idea of using Parker for mating with his crowning achievement, the Panther Woman, Moreau has no intentions of allowing him to leave. Meanwhile, Parker's fiance charts a boat to track him to the dangerous, fog-enshrouded island of lost souls.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) was yet another groundbreaking example of Pre-code Hollywood shockers that left theater patrons aghast when they laid eyes upon it at the tail end of 1932. Having already been shook senseless by the visual assault of Tod Browning's unsettling FREAKS (1932) released earlier in the year, it was the tone of LOST SOULS, and the sound of taboos shattering that got people fidgety. The end of the pre-code era came mainly as a result of movies with more overt, less subtle instances of sexual deviancy; but it's virtually impossible to watch LOST SOULS (or FREAKS for that matter) and not think these genre shockers didn't have a hand in the censorship crackdown. With these early pictures, you'll notice major differences in comparison to horror films made post 1934 when the Hays Code was more strictly enforced. A correlation to the emotional shock wave felt by audiences might be the receptions to both THE EXORCIST (1973) and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), both controversial films in their own right.

It's worth pondering what would have happened had the code not been implemented so stringently; what sort of effect it would have had on the industry if filmmakers continued to push the envelope as they did during the infancy of cinema. If you place director Kenton's movie next to his later genre work in the 40s -- THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942), HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) -- the differences are night and day.

Kenton's movie is something of a reflection on the nature of man, and the inner turmoil between the civilized human and innate savage in us all; and how, despite technological advances, we've not progressed much past the species of animals in the film that are tortured, prodded, experimented on in an attempt to make them something they are not.

Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau has a Frankenstein complex; but unlike the mad man-builder, Dr. Moreau is a mad modification specialist. Instead of stitching a thing using spare parts, he transforms members of the animal world into human-like creatures in crude, torturous fashion without anesthetic! 

Moreau, for all his scientific methodology, is little more than a demented masochist; even less sane than his fellow sanguinary surgeon, Dr. Frankenstein. His aim is to push along the evolutionary process within animals; and through painful vivisections, make them more human. The irony is that Moreau himself is a beast -- a human beast. He beats and whips his experiments into submission -- seemingly taking care of them -- but keeping them all in line with a whip and a gun. His so-called experiments take place in the self-descriptive 'House of Pain'. Most medical procedures are conducted in a hospital, with care for the patients. That Moreau himself refers to his own facility as the House of Pain is telling in that he's less interested in scientific exploration than he is in blatant torture; and getting pleasure from administering it.

His prized creation, Lota the Panther Woman, looks like a human female. Later in the film, her feline origins resurface leading Moreau to proclaim he'll have to burn the animal out of her. Judging by his gleefully sadistic laughter and Lota cowering in fear, this will not be a pleasant experience; at least not for her.  

Aside from motifs of inflicting pain, themes of bestiality and rape run rampant in Philip Wylie's and Waldemar Young's adaptation of H.G. Wells's original story. Moreau's insidious plan to push Parker into a mating ritual with Lota is blatant, not to mention appalling. Making the whole idea even more difficult is Kathleen Burke's sensitive, curious portrayal of Lota. The audience derives a great deal of sympathy for her. With very little dialog, Burke resorts to body language to sell the performance. Much like a family pet, her inquisitiveness is evident without having to utter a word.

While the presence of a dark romance between man and cat is in the air, something more sinister awaits Parker's fiance. When she has the misfortune of ending up on this nightmarish isle, Moreau's chief hairy hitman, Ouran has a literal animal attraction to her. This minor plot point isn't the sort of infatuation akin to Kong and Fay Wray. With the most searing bedroom eyes, the hunched-over, gorilla-like man-thing leaves little to the imagination of his intentions with Ruth (Hyams).

The assorted creatures of Moreau's morbid museum range from disturbing to frightening. Paired with the taboo thrashing themes, it's easy to see why ISLAND OF LOST SOULS raised so many eyebrows in its time. Wally Westmore, the real creator of Moreau's mistakes, devised a bounty of revolting and pitiable visages that, despite being over 80 years old, are still impressive today. Compared to the makeup jobs in the 1977 remake, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, the meticulous monsters designed by Westmore are a Rembrandt to the '77 versions paint splotches. An even more inferior remake followed in 1996.

Bela Lugosi plays the Sayer of the Law, a very hairy, werewolf-like creature who keeps the creatures in line when Moreau's whip isn't doing the talking. Lugosi was hot at this time, yet he isn't a headliner as he was in DRACULA (1931), WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), and MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932). Still, he gets many of the best lines in the movie, some of which have been spoofed in other movies. Lugosi was often characteristically over the top, always giving his villains something extra with his delivery and mannerisms, and he doesn't disappoint here at all. His impassioned, boisterous "Are we not men" speech reveals the monsters to possess an emotional capacity that is irrefutably absent in their creator.

The Darwinian nature tampering was another topic that had audience members squirming; especially with this rotund Dr. Demented proudly proclaiming he was playing God by building new, living beings with the use of existing parts. FRANKENSTEIN (1931) raised similar issues, yet Colin Clive's mad scientist seemed to genuinely believe he was doing good for civilization. Moreau, while operating with the same mission statement, seems more interested in playing with a beasts insides than playing a superior being.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) was highly influential on a number of filmmakers from around the world. The monster makeup was imitated in foreign films from the Philippines and Mexico, for example. Films like Eddie Romero's THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE (1972) and Alfonso Carona Blake's SANTO EN EL MUSEO DE CERA (1963) feature mad scientists creating manimals for reasons suitable only for genre fare. The former turns the Wells story into an action-adventure film with monsters. The premise feels slapped together, but there's fun to be had. The latter is a unique spin on the material in that it's a concentration camp survivor who is tinkering with nature using human guinea pigs. It's one of the best examples of the Mexican wrestling movie genre, a filmic style that often mixed horror and the supernatural with wrestling.

Controversial in its day, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) remains a provocative piece of genre filmmaking. One of the most important, topically persuasive movies of its kind, it took James Whales's nightmare of Franken-science and transformed it into a deranged chiaroscuro wasteland. Nearly perfect from start to finish, a few modern viewers might actually find themselves mortified by the films subject matter, in addition to its gallery of grotesque monster makeup designs. Essential viewing for any serious horror aficionado.

This review is representative of the Criterion DVD.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Basket Case (1982) review


Kevin Van Hentenryck (Duane Bradley), Terri Susan Smith (Sharon), Beverly Bonner (Casey), Robert Vogel (Hotel Manager), Diana Brown (Dr. Kutter), Lloyd Pace (Dr. Needleman), Bill Freeman (Dr. Lifflander), Joe Clark (O'Donovan)

Directed by Frank Henenlotter

The Short Version: Possibly the ultimate 42nd Street exploitation movie experience, Henenlotter's BASKET CASE, a film made for the cost of a car, captures all that scuzzy NYC ambiance that's as extinct as the dinosaurs these days. Two Siamese twin brothers -- one human and the other looking like a mound of pizza dough with teeth -- look up the doctors that literally separated them for some messy surgery of their own. The pinnacle of this bygone era, the filmmakers use New York's once vibrant city sleaze to create a modern Gothic in the sickest sense of the word.

Siamese Twins, Duane Bradley and his malformed brother Belial seek revenge on the three doctors that separated them as children. Tracing them all to their practices in NYC, Duane carries his disturbed, deformed, and telekinetic half around in a wicker basket wherever he goes. Meanwhile, the troubled young man attempts to lead a normal life on the side, but his psychotic sibling becomes increasingly jealous.

What's in the basket? That is the question asked with frequency in this cult favorite from director Frank Henenlotter -- a filmmaker with a distinct sense of the macabre. The theater of the grotesque lives in his movies -- and at the top of the heap rests the bizarre BASKET CASE (1982). Shot for an incredibly paltry $35,000 (seen via the wad of cash Duane flashes upon renting a room at the Hotel Broslin) on weekends over the course of a year, it's a testament to this lovably sick group of people pooling together to make an hysterical piece of morbid magic for the Silver Screen and midnight movie scene. 

The original script was much more ambitious (such as the further adventures of Belial on the streets of New York), but had to be stripped down due to budgetary constraints. Nonetheless the barren financing works in its favor, accentuating that seedy atmosphere Henenlotter uses to his advantage. For anyone that had never been to NYC at that time, you were either repulsed, or entranced by this unsavory wonderland offered on this particular strip of the city.

That's director Henenlotter in the back watching THE BODYGUARD (1973) with Duane and Belial.

Those trash-encrusted streets of New York with their peepshows, porn shops, and light-bulb filled marquees transform BASKET CASE into a modern era Gothic horror that's the flip side of the atmospheric, period set Hammer Films of old. Whereas those British classics used fog, oldeworld iconography, and matte paintings to create a unique milieu, BASKET CASE uses the all too real grimy settings of New York's infamous, and lamented 42nd Street to create a similar, if opposing mood; and as much as the streets and their rows of trash-laden, fleapit movie houses exude a particular tone (watch for a clip of Sonny Chiba's THE BODYGUARD!), there are other details that greatly contribute to this vibe.

Henenlotter's movie is rife with abnormalities that aren't limited to the Bradley brothers. His script is populated with wonderfully quirky characters that, despite their eccentricities, could have easily been picked right off the street. The residents of the Hotel Broslin are so diverse in their off-kilter personalities, you could make a spin-off film built around the glut of nosy neighbors, sentimental hookers, drunken Irish occupants, and peculiar-acting gossip-mongers. Robert Vogel as the Hotel Manager is the most amusing as he's driven nuts from rushing up the stairs to repeated ruckus taking place in the Bradley room. 

The idiosyncrasies of the people Duane meets outside of the Broslin are just as special. Everyone has this off-beat quality to them that comes off in the acting -- good and bad. Through behavior and mannerisms, there's this feeling that everybody is a freak of some sort; not just the basket dwelling Belial. 

Kevin Van Hentenryck is the most believable as the intermittently sane half of this dysfunctional family unit. His progressive lunacy is noticeable in virtually every line of dialog he speaks; yet slivers of his humanity shine through in what is an exceptional performance. He has genuine affection for Belial, as well as frustration for sacrificing his chance at normality. This negativity comes to the surface in a big way towards the end once Belial has managed to messily ruin his brothers burgeoning romance with a bubbly secretary. Duane catches brother Belial engaged in a round of necrophilic nookie. This last straw climaxes in a tragic example of sibling rivalry.

The title of the movie has a double meaning in relation to the two brothers. Duane's crumbling sanity and outcast status is the very definition of a 'basket case'; Belial, the pile of mashed potatoes with claws and teeth, is itself an outcast, whose only solace is inside a wicker basket. The name of this monster -- Belial -- has biblical connotations, too. In Hebrew it means 'worthless', and that's the way Duane's twin is treated -- severed from his side and tossed into the garbage. It's a memorable creation with its twisted, clawed appendages attached to a lump of flesh with eyeballs -- orbs that occasionally glow red. 

Ever the hands-on artist, Henenlotter not only wrote and directed, but he did the stop-motion animation; seen most prominently during one of the films funnier moments where Belial, sensing his brother enjoying a kiss with a woman, does his best impression of The Three Tenors while remodeling their hotel room. These animated shots of the monster are extremely crude, but effective.

The bulk of his screen time (and we see lots of him past the 30 minute mark), Belial is a puppet, resembling a pissed-off castaway from Jim Henson's Workshop. Much like Argento and his black gloved killers, Henenlotter's hands are inside the clawed rubber gloves that reap Belial's vengeance for close-ups.

Meanwhile, John Caglione, Jr's makeup effects are likewise unrefined, but are adequately gross in execution, and uniformly splat-tastic. For example, the literal separation of Duane and Belial is discomforting, if not wholly realistic; yet the loud sound effects of tendons and tissue tearing and ripping apart make a big difference. 

Gus Russo's music is as skid row as the production values, but it, too, is as intrinsic to the movie as the two twin brothers.

Frank Henenlotter made an intentionally ludicrous movie with very little money at his disposal. BASKET CASE, which gave birth to two sequels in 1990 and 1991, has maintained a healthy cult following; and deservedly so among exploitation and midnight movie fans. Henenlotter's 16mm wonder does everything right even when so much is wrong. The raw, DIY effects work; an undeniably queasy tone; the darkly comical touches; the squalid surroundings of the city; all these ingredients ensure exploitation fans one helluva tasty burger that may give you heartburn afterward, but that bloated, burpy feeling will be worth it.  BASKET CASE is freakishly good fun.

This review is representative of the Image/Something Weird Blu-ray.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Mother's Day (1980) review



Holden McGuire (Ike), Billy Ray McQuade (Addley), Rose Ross (Mother), Nancy Hendrickson (Abbey), Deborah Luce (Jackie), Tiana Pierce (Trina)

Directed by Charles Kaufman

The Short Version: Charles Kaufman's rape-revenge flick moonlights as a wittily well acted TEXAS CHAINSAW styled horror with a slash of jet black humor. The veritable cherry on top for this banana split of backwoods barbarity is a Romeroesque subtext and flurries of product placement for the feral family with everything. The plot of this Geek show spectacle is simple, yet the script is astonishingly rich in exposition. Essentially an old lady trains her neolithic sons to torture and kill anyone they can get their hands on. Two city women prove problematic when they turn the tables on their attackers leading to unique usage of a can of Drano, a TV set, and a conveniently placed booby balloon.

A trio of former college roommates get together annually for a weekend getaway; this particular year, a fateful camping trip in New Jersey's Deep Barons is chosen. What they don't know is that living within the woods is a demented elderly woman who trains her two sadistic sons to rape, assault, and kill anyone who stumbles into their isolated domain. 

The notorious I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) is the prime example of the rape-revenge movies, a genre style that is often viewed primarily as misogynist trash exploiting violence towards women; the argument usually being the revenge is never as thorough as the violence that leads to it. MOTHER'S DAY (1980) is of a similar vintage -- and the revenge is very sweet when it comes -- but it does quite a bit more with the material than mere exploitation. 

There are a number of disturbing sequences that rival the goriest violence seen today; and not because they're overly bloody, just the tone is particularly unwholesome. That some of these sequences are laced with black humor makes them even more unpleasant. In some instances (such as the brothers arguing over their musical styles), this humor is genuinely funny. But for those moments such as when they bicker over which mock stage play to perform that will end in violence and rape, the humor is a bit more uncomfortable to laugh at. However, the temptation to snigger at Ike's face lighting up when his murderous mama asks him to retrieve the camera responding with, "I'll get the Kodak!" is hard to contain.

Speaking of child-like wonder, after capturing the three women, the two mad brothers act like giddy children on Christmas morning, "Can we open'em now, Ma... can we open'em now?!" They treat the ladies like living toys; not just to be played with, but to be beaten, raped, and humiliated all for the enjoyment of their dementedly domineering mother who has a front row seat to the savagery.

As uncouth as they are, there's an attempt -- twisted though it may be -- to assimilate with normalcy by way of a heavily deformed nuclear family axiom. They may eat their breakfast from buckets (which consists of Trix cereal, Gerber baby food, cheese spread, and Quik chocolate powder!), and act with all the social graces of a razorback, but they believe themselves to be modernized; or "citified", as we're told by Ike in vehement response to Trina's reference to them as "Backwoods, perverted pieces of shit"

Submerged in television and mountains of product placement, this noxious family of sadists live their lives like a reverse MY THREE SONS; in this case it's two sons, and the matriarch is in charge. Much like those old TV shows, this fractured family unit live their lives like a situational comedy. But instead of teaching life lessons, these two mental midgets are taught violence, and implementing it in the most reprehensible ways imaginable. Victims are toyed with, ie tortured, chased, and hunted via an assortment of games derived from the twisted mind of Mother.

While we're on the subject of product placement, MOTHER'S DAY wallows in it. Once the action shifts to rural locales, virtually every scene has some sort of brand name, or household trinkets dressing up the scene in some way. There's an homage to DELIVERANCE (1972) when the girls pull up to a general store (doubling as a post office) a short distance before their final destination. The homage is two boys playing banjos (see pic above); but aside from that, there's both a Coke and Pepsi machine and a coat rack adorned with garden implements! The house of the killers is an all-out smorgasbord of advertising for any number of household items, edibles, and periodicals. Every celluloid nook and cranny is crammed with some type of scenic accouterments. Home Shopping Club was just around the corner so one can only imagine how these feral pack rats would have reacted. Further, this is probably the one time Steve Reeves and Deborah Harry of Blondie "appear" onscreen together.

Additionally, Kaufman's script does fantastic things with his female protagonists. For all the critical crap slung at this movie, there's more going on here than your average slasher opus. There are some striking role reversals that take place over the course of the film. Trina, the wealthy California girl has no qualms about getting her hands dirty; Chicago denizen Abbey is the bespectacled, meek girl dealing with mother issues of her own; New Yorker Jackie is a professional woman who's a magnet for scummy men who see her as a pushover. As MOTHER'S DAY progresses, Trina, who comes off the strongest, ultimately becomes weak; Abbey the meek inherits the strength Trina is drained of; and Jackie stays the same -- succumbing to the same fate out in the woods that she endured with regularity in the big city -- the difference being her treatment by these psychotic forest dwellers proves fatal.

On a side note concerning Abbey -- an early scene shows her to share a similar relationship with her own mother that parallels the one of the two maniacal sons. At the end of the film, she gets to release her own violent urges towards her mother -- transferring them to the predatory mama by way of a sex toy in the shape of a pair of breasts. Charles Kaufman left no sleazy stone unturned for this movie.

If MOTHER'S DAY can be condemned for anything at all, it's for being partially responsible for inspiring Rob Zombie to make movies; or more accurately, for RZ to make the same movie over and over again. Badly. TCM is an obvious inspiration for his two Firefly films, but his forceful intent to make us feel for his killers is more in line with the Deep Barons (really the Pine Barrens) dwelling miscreants of MOTHER'S DAY; only Kaufman's script handles his characters with far more professionalism, not to mention giving them better dialog. 

Regarding Hooper's classic, Mother and her two boys are a mirror image of the three brothers of TEXAS CHAINSAW. Both sets of feral families reside in playfully hostile environments located in rural isolation. Both the eldest brother in TCM, and the mother in MOTHER'S DAY are able to blend into normal society, using it as a means of luring victims to their doom -- the gas station in CHAINSAW and the mother's attendance of motivational classes!

Kaufman gives them a history, or at least enough of one for us to know there's an entire lineage to this sick, twisted bloodline. The one family member that's periodically teased (but not seen till the end) is Queenie; a character that, by dropping bits of information here and there builds a modicum of suspense that allows the movie to close out on a marvelous final shock moment before the end credits roll. Queenie is the animalistic sister of our title head of household. Banished to the wilderness for her inhuman characteristics, the sons believe Queenie to be dead as evidenced by a rotting severed ear they keep in a box! Queenie is very much alive, though, and possesses an even lower level of social mores to her deranged sibling and her two sons. Whether intentional, or inadvertently so, Queenie is this films Jersey Devil, a folkloric monster said to inhabit New Jersey's Pine Barrens.

With this sort of subject matter, you'd think the crew would be hard pressed to find actors to participate; particularly to act for free, which some of them did! Unusual for this sort of low budget picture, the acting is fantastic for the main participants. Everyone gives it their all, and going overboard at all the right moments. They're so into it, and some of the situations so disturbing, a few of the actors didn't use their real names. Holden McGuire, the rotted-toothed, white-eyed crazy with the Warner Bros cartoon voice was really Frederick Coffin; Billy Ray McQuade, the muscular, weasel-like rapist is actually Michael McCleery; and most surprising of all is Rose Ross as Mother, who was Beatrice Pons, a familiar face from such well known television programs like THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (1956-1959) and CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? (1961-1963).

Pons apparently, and understandably took issue with some of the sequences (such as the rape scene), refusing to be present, despite her characters lingering desire to witness her sons destroy their victims. Obviously it's her during the opening, and thoroughly vicious attack on a couple of hippies. Seeing her cheering on her sons as they decapitate the man and mercilessly pound the woman's face into mush is extremely disturbing, successfully setting the proper mood for the slog ahead. For those with weak constitutions, this pre-credits sequence lets you know just what sort of film you're in for.


The first time I ever saw sight of MOTHER'S DAY was in Fangoria magazine. There was something about that morbid depiction of Americana (the Whistler's Mother painting) on the poster advertising that drew my young eyes to it. However, at that time there was a better chance of me seeing Hell freeze over than to ever see this movie. Around this time, I ran across a delightfully scathing review of the film in a Roger Ebert review book that only made me want to see it more. After years of searching all video stores within a 40 mile radius, the chance of finding my holy grail of horror (along with MOTEL HELL after becoming entranced with the chainsaw pig) drew dimmer and dimmer. There was this one video store in town -- The Video Station -- that specialized in virtually every weird movie made up to that time, and even they didn't have MOTHER'S DAY. Around 1986 another video store opened up (the third in town) named Adventure Video. Having had no luck anywhere else, I figured this fairly small rental store wedged between a hair salon and The Pizza Station wouldn't have what I was looking for, either. Still, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to go there. A year later, I talked my step-mother into taking me by there. To my amazement, not only did they have MOTHER'S DAY, but they had the other prize, MOTEL HELL as well! I had to watch MD in secret, and upon my grandmother quizzing me as to what it was about, I had to make up a story because I'd of gotten some "Peach Tree Tea"; which were self-picked switches from the Peach tree for wearing out your buttocks had she known what it was I was watching. Needless to say, Adventure Video became a hot spot for me, the impressionable 12 year old that I was. After school, I would often ride my bike up there and hang out having made friends with the few folks that ran the place. And over time, managed to score dozens of horror posters, a VHS of KRULL (1983), and some movie promotional materials including a Jason mask for FRIDAY 7 (1987), and a giant standee of Leatherface atop a mound of skulls for TCM 2 (1986).

United Film Distribution (UFD), the company that handled some of George Romero's movies, opened MOTHER'S DAY in 93 theaters beginning in New York where it reportedly became a quick crowd pleaser. The film eventually made enough money to find a spot on Variety's top independent grossers list. When UFD went out of business in the late 1980s, Kaufman's movie was picked up by Troma. Both Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz were Associate Producers on the picture, but it was not a Troma financed production.

Charles Kaufman's tale of motherly love has grown in appreciation over the years. It's gone from Geek show mentality to subversive horror with subtextual meaning. The film seems to have many fans, and enough to have warranted a remake in 2010. The updated MOTHER'S DAY transplanted the rural setting to a suburban one. Considering its pedigree, it was a reasonable assumption the new film would not be granted a wide release although it's saddening that it didn't. Surprisingly well made, it pays respectable tribute to the original while expanding on its themes. As for the original, it retains its quirkiness that has acted as a beacon in widening its fan base, as well as keeping itself a warm seat nestled within the cult film continuum. 

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay Blu-ray.

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