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Review of CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C+/B-
Western-horror
Not rated (would be PG)

A week ago, if you had asked me to name a Western that bridged genres and included vampires, I would have said, “I know, I know: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula!” That 1966 movie is famous for being so absolutely awful that it’s not even laughably bad—an insipid film that’s only known for the blending of genres that everyone thought unique. But a few days ago I became aware of another vampire Western—Curse of the Undead—and it turns out that this black-and-white 1959 film was really the first vampire Western.

What’s more—and here’s the shocker—it’s not a silly movie that takes itself seriously, thereby setting itself up for an audience that likes campy films, films that are wink-wink so bad that they’re kinda good. You need to know this, so you won’t look at the cover art and think, Oh, we’re going to have so much fun making fun of this rotten film. It’s not rotten and it’s not campy. Writer-director Edward Dein, who would go on to direct Robert Conrad in three TV series (Hawaiian Eye, The Wild Wild West, The Black Sheep Squadron), plays this absolutely straight. It’s a surprisingly good drama that treats vampires a little less like Universal monsters and more like what legend says they were. If it were shorter, it might pass for an episode of The Twilight Zone, and tonally it’s very much like the classic monster movies that Universal cranked out in previous decades.

To make the Western aspect work, it helps that one of the stars is Eric Fleming, who played Gil Favor on the highly respected Rawhide (think Blues Brothers!) TV series and also appeared in several episodes of Bonanza, that other long-running TV Western. In this vampire Western, Fleming plays Preacher Dan. Somebody has to have a cross, right?

One of the other stars is John Hoyt, who appeared in such TV Westerns as The Virginian, The Big Valley, Laredo, Wagon Train, Have Gun – Will Travel, Maverick, Laramie, The Rifleman, Death Valley Days, and Union Pacific. All of those Westerns were popular because they were aimed at adults. They were serious dramas and not just Saturday morning formulaic shoot-‘em-ups.

In this film, even the vampire—Michael Pate—worked in TV Westerns that were played for drama, not laughs, including shows like Zane Grey Theater, Maverick, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Sugarfoot, and Broken Arrow. These guys knew how to play cowboys, and it’s both surprising and refreshing that the vampire in Curse of the Undead doesn’t transform into a bat, doesn’t say “I vant to suck your blood,” and doesn’t behave like he just got in from Transylvania. He looks and acts like the kind of gunslinger you’d encounter in the Old West: dark and menacing as a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike.

There’s always a ranch or town boss in a Western who’s the villain, but when there’s a vampire gunman in town any villain is going to seem soft by comparison—even someone like Bruce Gordon, who played Frank Nitti in the old Untouchables TV series and also appeared with Vincent Price in Tower of London. And there’s always a damsel in distress, a delectable morsel-in-waiting in every vampire movie. Here, the part is played by Kathleen Crowley, who was in her fair share of B movies and Westerns, including The Rebel Set, Target Earth, Female Jungle, and Maverick. More

Review of THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Comedy-Horror-Mystery
Not rated (would be PG)

If your family enjoyed Knives Out, you also might be entertained by an early entry in the self-conscious light mystery genre.

In The Cat and the Canary (1939)—based on a 1921 stage play by the same name—comedian Bob Hope plays it mostly straight, an actor without the ham in this tongue-in-cheek whodunit with a dash of horror. A year later, hitting the road with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, Hope would develop his famous persona as a bumbling coward of a second banana to Crosby’s straight man, but in this one he’s less goofy and more believable as a love interest for Paulette Goddard. Hope is a considerably more suave and in control than later characters he’ll play, and as a result viewers find themselves focused more on the atmosphere and plot.

The Cat and the Canary was so popular that Hope and Goddard would team up for a second haunted house picture in 1940—The Ghost Breakers, which isn’t recommended for family viewing because of offensive outdated cultural stereotypes. The sets and gimmicks from both films would provide the inspiration for Disney’s popular Haunted Mansion theme park attraction.

There are revolving bookcases, secret panels, and a Louisiana bayou mansion that wasn’t exactly prime real estate even before it fell into decrepit disrepair. Why would anyone visit now, especially when you have to be paddled there by various canoeists? As it turns out, all are relatives and named parties to attend the ceremonial reading of the will, according to instructions left by a reclusive millionaire who died 10 years ago. The deceased specified that his will must be read exactly at midnight, of course. One more thing: worried that insanity might run in the family, the eccentric recluse specified that the one bearing his surname (Norman) will inherit everything. But there’s a catch. If the named heir, Joyce Norman (Goddard), goes crazy before 30 days have passed, then a second replacement heir will be read from a second sealed envelope.

Kind of makes you want to run the other direction, right? Except that the canoe paddlers don’t operate late at night (they must have a strong union). But how else can you ensure that everyone has to spend the night in this spooky place? More

Review of BLOOD QUANTUM (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Horror-thriller
Not rated (would be R)

Blood Quantum isn’t a title that screams “family friendly”—just plain screams, is more like it, considering that this 2019 horror film finds a few inventive new ways to kill zombies. There’s blood and gore and f-bombs galore, but if we’re being honest it’s the kind of film that appeals to older teens and families that enjoy a good frightfest every now and then.

Plus, Blood Quantum deserves a shout-out because this 2019 Canadian film from Jeff Barnaby is that rare horror film made by a First Nations director. Barnaby, a Mi’gmaq, shot much of the film on the same reserve in Listuguj, Quebec where he was born and he spotlights a large cast of First Nations actors. The history of indigenous people in North America is a history of segregation and forced relocation, but this film gets its own symbolic revenge (a theme suggested by two animated segments) by having the reserve be a place where all of the whites now want to go. The film’s key concept is that indigenous people are immune to the zombie plague. While they can be killed, they can’t be turned into zombies themselves. That is, they are immune to whatever zombie virus is being transmitted through zombie bites. As a result, the reserve, ironically, has become the only safe haven in the world.

The title itself is also ironic, because “blood quantum” or “Indian blood” laws were enacted by the U.S. government as a way of legally defining racial groups—too often a first step toward isolation and persecution. Here, blood quantum is a saving grace, and the political statement that Barnaby makes in his second full-length feature (the politically charged Rhymes for Young Ghouls was his first) is unmistakable. More

Review of ANNABELLE COMES HOME (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No (way)
Horror, thriller
2019, 106 min., Color
Rated R for horror violence and terror
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: C+/B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

First there was The Conjuring (2013), then Annabelle (2014), The Conjuring 2 (2016), Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2019), and now Annabelle Comes Home (2019). The Conjuring Universe continues to expand, but this latest film isn’t as much of a big bang as it is a slow evolution from dark potentiality to a third act burst of relatively predictable action. That’s because it’s a Pandora’s box film, and even if you know nothing about Greek mythology you probably have heard that Pandora opened a box (well, jar, actually) and unwittingly unleashed sickness, plagues, death, and all manner of evils on humankind. With a Pandora’s box film, you know the plot will be about trying to re-contain those evils, and the protagonists either will succeed or not. You have a 50/50 chance of guessing the outcome.

That’s one thing that makes Annabelle Comes Home less energetic or surprising than some of the previous entries. Fans have been through this before and know what to expect. There aren’t as many scares as in previous films, but the ones that are here are high octane, and their intensity is boosted by the fact that much of the action takes place within the confines of the home. More

Review of US (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Heck no!
2019, 116 min., Color
Thriller-Horror
Universal
Rated R for violence, terror and language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

We need to talk. I’m not sure how I feel about Us.

I mean, a part of me feels that it’s another tense thriller from Jordan Peele, who first indulged his non-comedic side by writing and directing Get Out. But—and you might call this follow-up Just Try to Get Out—there’s a part of me, maybe my doppelganger, that thinks this latest “horror” film doesn’t make enough sense.

Then again, horror genre writers and directors have never excelled in logic. It was their worst subject in school. For them it’s all about putting the characters quickly in peril and keeping them there for 90 minutes. And Peele does that, right up until the big-twist ending that would have tied Chubby Checker into a pretzel, all the while leaning more in the direction of “thriller” than “horror” for much of the way.

We’re told in an epigraph that there are a bazillion tunnels under the continental U.S., suggesting that whatever horrors we’ll meet in this film will be subterranean denizens—hard to miss, especially since there are also images of rabbits, which evoke Alice’s plunge into Wonderland.

The action begins with a family’s 1986 trip to Santa Cruz beach and boardwalk, where a young girl named Adelaide wanders off from her dad and is drawn to a “Find Yourself” fun-house of mirrors on the beach. Before she enters she passes a guy who’s a cross between a creepy carney and a doomsayer with the sign that reads “Jeremiah 11:11”— which quickly became a popular Internet search. I’ll save you the trouble: “Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto Me, I will not hearken unto them.” Yeah, well, she sees her double inside and whatever else happened when she’s recovered by her parents she’s so traumatized she can’t even tell them (or the audience) what happened.

Flash forward to the present and we see an adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) reluctantly agreeing to return to Santa Cruz for a family outing with her husband (Gabe Wilson) and their two children: Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), whom her father thinks could be an Olympic track star if she applied herself, and Jason (Evan Alex), an odd withdrawn kid who tends to wear a mask up on his head like flip-up sunglasses, ready to put it over his face whenever he wants anonymity. If you’re thinking of Friday the 13th’s Jason and his lake antics, that’s what Peele wants. Throughout the film there are numerous allusions to classic campy horror films, which, of course, means that the hope was for Us to be seen as equally classic and campy. More

Review of THE NUN (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No
2018, 96 min., Color
Horror
Warner Bros.
Rated R for terror, violence, and disturbing/bloody images
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

The Nun ends right before The Conjuring begins, but you don’t have to have seen that film, The Conjuring 2, or the related Anabelle and Anabelle: Creation to understand what’s going on. This horror prequel is a stand-alone film set decades before the hauntings from the other films in the popular franchise.

Eighty percent of the scenes in The Nun are dark and/or dreary, and location filming in Romanian Transylvania castles and manors adds to the atmosphere, creating a look and feel that will remind horrorphiles of the old Hammer gothic horror flicks from the late ‘50s and 1960’s. In those B movies, atmosphere was everything, and the mood was so thick you could cut it with a scream. Light on plot and characterization, those old films were also dependent upon the occasional jump-scare—a trick that Nun director Corin Hardy relies on a bit too much. It’s like walking through a Jaycees Haunted House and having something pop out at you every 10 minutes. But that’s what appeals to young horror fans today, and it’s also why my teenage daughter gave this one a higher grade than I did. She gave it a B; I gave it a C+, with B- the compromise grade. More

Review of ALL THE CREATURES WERE STIRRING (DVD)

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Grade: C-
Entire family: No (13 and older)
2018, 80 min., Color
Horror
RLJE Films
Unrated (would be PG-13)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo
Bonus features: C-
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

This Christmas horror anthology touts Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh off the Boat) and Jonathan Kite (2 Broke Girls) as headliners of an ensemble cast that’s composed of unfamiliar faces except for Maria Olsen, whom movie-lovers may recognize from her appearances in Paranormal Activity 3, Reunion, and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.

People wanting to see Wu and Kite will have to be patient, though, because their sketch is the last of five in All the Creatures Were Stirring. Connecting them is the clever device of a man and woman on what appears to be a first date (“Is this a date? Should I even ask that?”) who decide to ease the tension by going into a small theater to take in a live show on Christmas Eve. Onstage are three performers who, it’s implied, act out each of the sketches that are introduced by a stone-faced director (Olsen) whose hair and attire can best be described as clown-like. The exaggerated seriousness and the performances all scream “hipster,” but instead of watching the actors do their thing, once their performance begins the camera fades them out and a filmed segment featuring totally different actors fades in.

There’s an admirable self-consciousness at work here, because after watching the first sketch—“The Gift”—the man tries to stifle his laughter, while the woman says, “What the hell was that?” He responds, still trying to control himself, “I have no idea.” There’s also playful confirmation that the material might not exactly be high drama because a few more people in an already small audience leave the theater after each sketch, until there’s just three left in the audience at the end: the awkward daters and a man who keeps staring at them.

But the sketches themselves are a mixed bag. Not surprisingly, the one with Wu and Kite is the best of the bunch, while others showed some promise and still others were dull, strained, or lacking in something—originality, quality of acting, etc. More

Review of THE MEG (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (10 and up?)
Action thriller
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Trailers for The Meg made it look like another nature’s monsters film of the exploitative Gila! or Lake Placid sort, so our family was pleasantly surprised that it played out more like a less sophisticated cousin of Jaws. It was a much higher quality film than we expected in terms of production values, screenplay, acting, and special effects.

There isn’t the same level of character development as there was in Steven Spielberg’s original shark tale, nor were there as many iconic scenes, or those fabulously frightening John Williams musical cues. But The Meg delivers a plot that makes more sense than most disaster/monster flicks, and it doesn’t skimp on the outrageous action sequences that cause you to gasp or react with nervous laughter. CHOMP! There it is!!

Here’s how Warner Bros. describes the film: “Five years ago, expert sea diver and Naval Captain Jonas Taylor encountered an unknown danger in the unexplored recesses of the Mariana Trench that forced him to abort his mission and abandon half his crew. Though the tragic incident earned him a dishonorable discharge, what ultimately cost him his career, his marriage and any semblance of honor was his unsupported and incredulous claims of what caused it—an attack on his vessel by a mammoth, 70-foot sea creature, believed to be extinct for more than a million years. But when a submersible lies sunk and disabled at the bottom of the ocean—carrying his ex-wife among the team onboard—he is the one who gets the call. Whether a shot at redemption or a suicide mission, Jonas must confront his fears and risk his own life and the lives of everyone trapped below on a single question: Could the Carcharodon Megalodon—the largest marine predator that ever existed—still be alive … and on the hunt?” More

Review of IT (2017) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
2017, 135 min., Color
Horror-Thriller
Warner Bros.
Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+ (nice interview with King, great feature on the kids)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

The 2017 reincarnation of It might be rated R, but it was one of those exceptions that under-18s begged their parents to take them to see in theaters. Why? Because that young audience absolutely loves the hit TV series Stranger Things, which pays tribute to ‘80s movies and takes its central structure from It, the Stephen King novel that inspired a popular 1990 TV miniseries before it did this remake.

In It, as in Stranger Things, the plot revolves around a fantastic sci-fi/horror force that is somehow involved in the mysterious disappearances of local children. And in It, as in Stranger Things, a group of pre-teen friends defy parents and secretly try to solve the mystery and stop the disappearances. Not coincidentally, there is one girl and one black boy in this group of bullied kids who band together, just as there was in Stephen King’s novel and TV miniseries.

The book does a much better job of explaining how “It” came to Earth like an asteroid, crashing into the small Maine town of Derry, which King based on his experience living in Bangor. “It” is a shape-shifter who surfaces every 27 years and feeds on children after preying on their fears—one of those fears being clowns, a shape that Pennywise, as the character calls himself, relishes. If you weren’t afraid of clowns before the 2017 version of It, you might be. Bill Skarsgard plays the creepy character with the same kind of unpredictable, hypo-energetic madness that Heath Ledger brought to the role of The Joker in The Dark Knight.

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Review of SPLIT (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No, no, no
2016, 117 min., Color
Horror-thriller
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence, and some language
Universal Pictures
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is a solid thriller right up until the end, when the director decides to play to his fans and his own indulgences, rather than tying things up for viewers in a more satisfying way. But using the reverse situation of Panic Room, Shyamalan manages to put characters in jeopardy and keep them there for the duration of an otherwise tense and effective film.

Split is obviously inspired by the sordid news story out of Cleveland, where three young women were held captive in a basement by Ariel Castro. The bus driver had targeted two of them because they were friends with his daughter. The women were raped and tortured in captivity for more than a decade before their miraculous rescue.

Rather than tell that story, Shyamalan wisely chooses to stay clear of extremes and instead create a PG-13 thriller that teens can watch—a cautionary tale that reminds them it’s not just “stranger danger” that poses a problem. It can be something as innocent as a party, where the girl’s father offers to drive two of her friends and a “pity invite” home, with the girl’s approval. Instead of a sex-driven abductor, Shyamalan offers a less tawdry and more interesting alternative: a captor who has multiple personalities. The most sexual the film gets is when we learn that one personality “likes to watch young girls dance naked,” but in another wise move the director avoids nudity and instead has one of the girls spend part of the film without a top (wearing only a bra) and another without pants (wearing only panties).

If this 2016 film were a TV series it would probably be called The James McAvoy Show. The Golden Globe nominee (Atonement, 2007) gives a tour de force performance as Kevin Wendell Crumb . . . and Dennis, and Patricia, and Hedwig, and Barry, and Orwell, and Jade—seven of the 23 distinct personalities that share the same body. As he goes from character to character you can even see a believable transformation in his facial features—not just the expression, but the way his face looks.

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