Saturday, October 29, 2016

Stubs – Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath aka I Tre volti Della Paura (1963) Starring: Boris Karloff, Mark Damon, Michèle Mercier, Susy Andersen, Lydia Alfonsi, Glauco Onorato,  Jacqueline Pierreux Directed by Mario Bava. Screenplay by Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Marcello Fondato. Based on the short stories "The Drop of Water" Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, "The Telephone" by F. G. Snyder and "The Wurdalak" by Leo Tolstoy. Produced by Salvatore Billitteri and Paolo Mercuri. Run time: 93 minuted. Italy/France. Horror, Foreign

Horror is not just an American genre, in fact, it’s worldwide. One example is Italy, which had its own “golden age” of horror, led in part by Mario Bava. While not a name that gets mentioned in most circles, Bava began his career as a cinematographer, working for the likes of Roberto Rossellini and helping to shape the screen presence of Gina Lollobrigida, Steve Reeves, and Aldo Fabrizi.

He started directing films in 1955 with Ulysses and I Vampiri (aka The Devil's Commandment or The Vampires or Lust of the Vampire). He began writing screenplays with Black Sunday (1960) (aka Mask of the Demon or La Maschera del demonio or Revenge of the Vampire or The Mask of Satan). Not all of his films are in the horror genre though, such as Erik the Conqueror (1961), a loose remake of the American film The Vikings (1958).

But it was another film that Bava worked on, Hercules (1958), which he worked on as a cinematographer, that brought AIP to Italy. Producer Joseph E. Levine had purchased the U.S. distribution rights to the film starring Steve Reeves and made it a box-office hit. Wanting to find similar properties, American International Pictures founders James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff hired European talent agent Flavio Lucisano to look for Italian commercial films for them.

In 1963, AIP struck a deal with Italian production company Galatea to co-produce nine films over the next eight years, one of which was Black Sabbath. Like many Italian films of the time, it had three to four short narratives that, when combined, would have a conventional film's run time. This was done to avoid high costs. The film also matched an up-and-coming actor or a much older actor with a European ingenue actress. This film would match both the up-and-coming with a European ingenue. And finally, the film was horror, which along with Westerns were a popular genre since they were cheaper than the sword and sandal fare Italian cinema had previously been famous for.

AIP secured the rights to Mark Damon and Boris Karloff, while the French co-production company Societé Cinématographique Lyre secured Michele Mercier and Jacqueline Pierreux, who appeared under the pseudonym Jacqueline Soussard. Galatea had Susy Andersen cast while retaining Mario Bava as the director.

Bava is credited with writing the screenplay and the film credits the following stories as the sources: "The Drop of Water" by Ivan Chekov, "The Telephone" by F.G. Snyder and "Sem'ya vurdalaka" by Aleksei Tolstoy, but these credits might be an attempt to make the film sound more literate than it really is.

The film was shot in an eight-week period between February and March 1963. Karloff was to not only star in one of the sequences, but also serve as a host to tie the three stories together. Since the film was to be dubbed in many different languages, including English, the actors could not phonetically pronounce the words and had to speak rhythmically so as to match many languages. AIP also had Salvatore Billitteri on set to not only supervise dubbing into English but also to make suggestions to Bava that would make the film more palatable to an American audience, which meant less violence than originally intended.

Still, in post-production, AIP made more cuts to the English-language version of the film. Not only did they re-order the segments, but they removed plot elements of prostitution and lesbianism from The Telephone.

As stated previously, the film is an anthology with three set scenes: The Drop of Water, The Telephone, and The Wurdalak. None of them sound especially scary and what the heck is a Wurdalak?

Boris Karloff uses his hosting skills, developed on his on anthology TV show, Thriller, which ran for two seasons on NBC 1960-62, and his gravitas as he introduces each segment.

Bors Karloff plays host for the film, introducing the three segments.

Drop of Water leads us off with the story of a nurse, Helen Corey (per AFI, Helen Chester by everyone else) (Jacqueline Pierreux), who is called to the house of Miss Perkins, a medium who has just recently died. It is a dark and stormy night to set the scene. Helen had been giving her shots to prolong her life and now that she’s dead, her maid (Milly Monti) has called her to dress the corpse for the morgue. Miss Perkins has a green-ish complexion and a hideous expression on her face when Helen arrives. Despite the maid’s warnings not to touch anything of Miss Perkins’, Helen cannot help herself when she sees a sapphire ring on the deceased’s finger.

Helen is called in to make Miss Perkins presentable.

But no sooner does she pull it off then it drops to the floor. While she’s looking for it, Helen accidentally knocks over a glass of water which drips down on the floor. Then she is attacked by a persistent fly which lands on the dead woman’s ring finger where the ring had been.

The deceased's ring proves too tempting for Helen (Jacqueline Pierreux).

When she gets back home, Helen puts the ring on her finger. No sooner does she do that then the fly attacks again and all throughout her meager apartment, Helen finds all the faucets dripping. Next, Helen finds the woman’s body lying in her bed and then the dead woman rises and stalks Helen throughout her apartment, which also loses electricity during the storm that is still raging outside.

Helen freaks out when she sees Miss Perkins standing in her apartment.

With the deceased woman standing over her, Helen begs for her life to be spared but ultimately ends up strangling herself with her own hands, if that’s really even possible. The next morning, the concierge of the apartment house (Harriet White Medin) finds the body and calls the police. When the body is found, there is an obvious wound on her ring finger, as if a ring had been torn off. The concierge acts suspicious and we hear the sound of dripping water.

Boris Karloff tries his hand at comedy when he introduces "The Telephone".

After a little comedic introduction by Karloff, we’re introduced to The Telephone. In this story, a French call girl, Rosy (Michèle Mercier), returns to her apartment one night and begins to receive several phone calls which suggest the caller is not only familiar with Rosy, but is observing her now, knowing as an example, that she is dressed in a scanty dressing gown when she answers the phone.

Rosy (Michèle Mercier) receives several disturbing phone calls when she gets home.

Freaked out, Rosy calls her friend Mary (Lydia Alfonsi), who looks a lot like her. While the story supposedly calls for them to not only be prostitutes and lovers, there is really nothing in the film to suggest either. Mary agrees to come over that night. But the next time the caller phones, he promises Rosy that no matter what she does, he will get his revenge.

Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) comes over to keep Rosy company.

Mary arrives and calms Rosy down and sends her to bed, giving her a large knife she can use for protection. But soon after she’s asleep, a man enters Rosy’s apartment and strangles Mary in a case of mistaken identity.

Frank (Milo Quesada) strangles Mary, thinking she's Rosy.

When he approaches her, Rosy realizes that it’s Frank (Milo Quesada), a man who has been dead for years. He tries to attack her, but Rosy pulls out her knife and kills the dead guy. (Other recounts state that Frank was her pimp that her testimony had sent away to prison, but again, none of that is revealed in the American version of the film).

Finally, Karloff introduces us to The Wurdalak, in which he has a starring role. It is 19th century Russia and the young nobleman, Vladimir Durfe (Mark Damon), comes across a decapitated body with a knife through its chest. He removes the blade and, seeing as it’s getting late, seeks shelter in the first real house he comes to. The people living there aren’t particularly gracious at first, with Vladimir being held at sword point by Giorgio (Glauco Onorato). He sees the knife and tells Vladimir that it belongs to his father, Gorca, who has been gone for five days hunting and killing Alibeck, a bandit and vampire.

Vladimir is introduced by Giorgio to the other members of the family: his wife Maria (Rika Dialina), their young son Ivan, Giorgio's younger brother Pietro (Massimo Righi), and sister Sdenka (Susy Andersen). Vladimir develops one of those instant and deep loves for Sdenka. The family warns Vladimir that they are waiting for their father’s return. When he left he had warned them if he hadn’t returned in five days to consider him a wurdalak, or a Russian version of a vampire that only drinks the blood of close friends and loved ones. 

Vladimir (Mark Damon) has it bad for Sdenka (Susy Andersen).

They are told to kill him as soon as they see him. The five days expire at 10 that night and warn Vladimir that he should leave, but he insists on staying.

Boris Karloff plays Gorca, the patriarch of the family and now a Wurdalak.

Gorca (Boris Karloff) doesn’t return until after 10, but his family doesn’t kill him, though they are certainly scared of him and with good reason. When everyone is in bed, Gorca attacks Pietro and flees with Ivan. Giorgio takes chase, but is too late, returning to the cottage with Ivan’s corpse. He wants to behead his son to prevent him from returning as a Wurdalak, but Maria prevents him. As a compromise, they agree to bury their son’s body. But when Ivan shows up at the door, saying he’s cold, Maria’s maternal feelings go into high gear. When Giorgio tries to stop her, she stabs and kills him, but when she opens the door, it is Gorca at the door and he attacks her.

You only hurt the ones you love; Gorca kills his own grandson, turning him into a Wurdalak.

Meanwhile, Vladimir and Sdenka have fled the cottage and taken refuge in the ruins of a nearby cathedral. As Vladimir sleeps, Sdenka rises from the bed and goes outside. There she sees Gorca and is surrounded by her family members, who have all been turned into wurdalaks.

Sdenka wanders out into the ruins where her family, now all wurdalaks, wait for her.

When Vladimir finally awakes, Sdenka is nowhere to be found. Going back to the cottage, he finds her lying motionless in her bed. When she awakens, she accepts Vladimir’s embrace and then bites him on the neck, turning him into a wurdalak.

The film was released in two versions. First came the Italian which opened on August 17, 1963. Though I haven’t seen this version, it is my understanding it is somewhat more explicit than the American version, no doubt revealing more about Rosy and Mary's relationship and profession. The Wurdalak is also supposedly more violent than the American version.

Despite AIP’s edits to make the film more palatable to American audiences, the film was, for the most part, panned when it was released on May 6, 1964. The Boston Globe's review referred to the film as "three short films botched together". More recent reviews have been more complimentary with one by Entertainment Weekly referring to The Telephone story as "Bava's most simply frightening work.” They must have seen a different movie than I had.

Perhaps the film’s most long-lasting legacy is that it inspired a rock band in England named Earth to change their name. With another group already with that name, the band was looking for a new name and persona. With the theater near their studio playing the film and noticing the long lines of people waiting to be frightened, Earth became Black Sabbath. The band recently called it quits and, as of this writing, is on its final tour, The End.

The metal band Black Sabbath actually took its name from this movie.

The rock band aside, Black Sabbath is more a study in melodrama than real horror. The opening story, Drop of Water, is sort of obvious. You know as soon as she’s told not to touch anything that the nurse will. While it may be hard or impossible to strangle yourself to death, I’ll let others work that out for themselves, when the ring is missing from the nurse’s finger, you also know the pattern will continue with the concierge who has obviously taken the ring. A better twist would have been the ring to be back on the corpse’s finger.

The Telephone is rendered almost unfathomable by the edits. Not sure why I’m supposed to care about Rosy or why Frank is out for revenge; sort of crucial for the story to succeed. We’re left with a mess of a story that no one cares about.

The Wurdalak runs too long. It’s one of those stories that if the family had just done as they were told, then none of this would have happened. Also note, when you’re fleeing a vampire, don’t stop for the night at the first place you come to. Keep riding. Oh, lessons that are learned too late.

But to keep riding, you'll need a real horse, which this film apparently lacks.

The acting is rather blah, not helped by the fact that everything appears to be dubbed. Even Boris Karloff can only carry the film so far. Too bad he’s not a better actor, but even then I doubt anyone could have really saved the film. While Karloff had considerable gravitas with horror films thanks to his starring roles in Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932), it is sadly wasted here. Perhaps the Italian is better, but like self-strangulation, I’ll leave that for others to discover.

Most of the women in the film seem to have one thing in common, they are well endowed, which has nothing to do with their acting skills. Michèle Mercier, who had previously appeared in Francois Truffaut's’ Don’t Shoot The Piano Player (1960), is perhaps best known as Angelique in Angelique, Marquise des Anges (1964). It’s really hard to judge her acting skills from The Telephone, but surely she is better in other films, she has to be.

Jacqueline Pierreux had been appearing in Italian films since the early 1940s. Sadly, Black Sabbath is her best-known role, so it’s really hard to judge her acting. Suzy Andersen, despite the Americanized sounding name, is really an Italian actress born Maria Antonietta Golgi. She had a very short film career, which included the role of Tamar in Thor and the Amazon Women (1963) (original title: Le Gladiatrici aka Women Gladiators), a sword and sandal film Italian cinema had been known for prior to the early 1960s. Nothing in her filmography to really brag about either.

If you’re looking to be bored this Halloween, I could definitely recommend this film. It is sadly like the other AIP horror films, and I’ve seen a few, more costume drama than real shake in your boots horror. And the films' budgets make them feel more claustrophobic than anything else, which for some, I suppose, can be scary. Trying to appeal to American sensibilities is a difficult thing to do, as standards do change over time. But it’s hard to imagine a time when this mess would have really appealed to anyone.

Be sure to check out other Horror films in our Horror Films Review Hub.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix

[Note: This review was written in August 2015]

Since Christmas of last year, I had spent a lot of time playing through the second HD collection of Kingdom Hearts games, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix. Going to the launch event at Disney Studios definitely piqued my interest in the collection, though of course I would’ve tried to get my hands on it anyway (I got the Limited Edtion with the pin). Since finishing it, I’ve had some time to collect my thoughts on it and while it’s not perfect, it’s certainly worth the purchase. As an additional note, this playthrough was done entirely on Critical Mode.

The first game in the collection is an HD version of Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix. This version of the game came out in Japan many years ago, but only now came to American shores, fulfilling the dreams of many Kingdom Hearts fans. Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix not only features new cutscenes, tying it in better with the events of other installments, it also comes with new features and improvements. It is now possible to access a new Drive Form, Limit Form, which resembles Sora’s costume from the original Kingdom Hearts and allows the player to tap into some of his best abilities from that game, including Dodge Roll as its Growth ability. It’s also possible to fight all of the members from Organization XIII from Chain of Memories, but with new moves and gimmicks to keep players on their toes. Also new is a secret area in Hollow Bastion which allows players to fight all 13 members of Organization XIII again, but with more aggressive moves, as well as the ability to fight Lingering Will, a boss originally introduced as further foreshadowing to Birth by Sleep. Apart from collecting puzzle pieces which are now scattered across the worlds, one can also find and satisfy a new Heartless group known as the Mushroom XIII. Completing three tasks in this version, satisfying the Mushroom XIII and defeating both the Data Organization XIII and Lingering Will, not only gives you special bonuses, but also a visual reward in the form of a crown that Sora permanently wears on his head (colored Copper, Silver or Gold depending on how many of these tasks are completed).

While the game does look a bit better and the combat system is just as good as ever, there are a couple of issues. One minor issue is that one of the Heartless, the Rapid Thruster, now drops HP balls instead of MP balls. While this doesn’t affect regular gameplay all that much, it does prevent one from level grinding in the Pride Lands as easily, so one must find another route. The other issue is a little more major, as it does affect the gameplay more greatly. During the final battle with Xehanort, one of his moves fires a series of black thorns at Sora and Riku, requiring one to use a Reaction Command to dodge them and land a blow. However, there is a small glitch where the final use of the command may not work correctly, resulting in damage. Since I played on Critical Mode (it grants the player 30 AP and AP is gained in intervals of 3, but EXP gains and HP/MP increases are halved), it resulted in me dying more often than necessary, so I was forced to work Riku’s Limit into my strategy more liberally.

The next game is an HD remaster of Birth by Sleep Final Mix. While this version is largely unchanged, the enhanced visuals are much more appealing to look at and there are more noticeable improvements than Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix. For one thing, the camera is now mapped to the right analog stick, which makes looking around the battlefield much easier. In addition, Shotlock commands now only require one shoulder button and one can now more easily lock onto Unversed enemies. There are also Unversed challenges placed around the worlds, which can award the player special bonuses as they are ranked. The biggest changes, however, are in the Mirage Arena and story. The Mirage Arena is no longer able to do multiplayer, but it has been rebalanced somewhat to better accommodate a single player, which is a very valuable trade-off. As for the story, Americans can now access a Secret Episode, unlocked after beating the Final Episode. This Secret Episode continues directly from where the Final Episode left off and is fully playable, also including a new array of chests to find and a unique and difficult boss to defeat at the end. Finishing this leads to new footage related to the main storyline of the franchise, although the final message is unnecessarily cryptic. Still, it’s good to finally be able to see it away from the internet.

Lastly, the collection includes HD cutscenes from Re:coded, a DS remaster of coded, originally released as a cell phone game in Japan. Watching it all takes over two hours, but while I’m satisfied in my knowledge of what it is, it doesn’t seem to have any real connection to the rest of the games. The plot renders itself nearly pointless by the end and the only purpose it seems to serve is to address one minor plot point in Kingdom Hearts II, wherein Jiminy’s Journal (post-Chain of Memories) simply says “Thank Naminé.” In the end, you could probably just skip it and not miss anything, but watching it will also give you trophies and an unlockable PS3 wallpaper, so there’s that.

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix is worth playing. The graphical improvements are one thing, but accessing content previously exclusive to Japanese players, as well as various improvements to both gameplay and replay value, really help it stand out. While there are some small hiccups here and there, people who’ve been waiting to play the games on a single system, or fans who just want more out of the games that they love, should definitely buy this collection.

Stubs - ParaNorman

ParaNorman (2012) Voices by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jodelle Ferland, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein and John Goodman. Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler. Screenplay by Chris Butler. Produced by Travis Knight and Arianne Sutner. Color. USA Run time: 92 minutes. Animated, Horror, Fantasy, 3D.

Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is your normal 11-year-old living in small town, U.S.A.; Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts. He is the youngest in a family of four, with a mother, Sandra (Leslie Mann), a father, Perry (Jeff Garlin), and an older sister, 17-year-old Courtney (Anna Kendrick). He goes to school and even has a best friend, Neil Downe (Tucker Albrizzi). The one thing that sets Norman apart from pretty much everyone else in Blithe Hollow, is that he can see and speak to the dead.

Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the only one in his family
that can see and speak with his Grandma (Elaine Stritch).

The first time we see this is when Norman is watching a horror movie on TV and talking with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch), his late grandmother, something which his parents don’t believe. Neither does his big sis. The kids at school, with the exception of Neil, who has his own issues with weight, bully him, even going so far as to write “Freak” on his locker.

The other kids don't particularly embrace Norman's differences.

During rehearsal for the school play, which commemorates the town's execution of a witch three centuries ago, Norman is overtaken by a vision of the town's past and finds himself pursued through the woods by townsfolk on a witch hunt.

The only person who understands him is his slightly deranged Uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman). While his parents discourage contact between Norman and his uncle, and despite Norman’s best efforts to avoid him, Prenderghast is a force to be reckoned with and won’t be denied. After rehearsal, Prenderghast runs into Norman and manages to tell him about the regular ritual that he will have to soon takeover in order to protect the town. Soon after he delivers his message, Prenderghast dies alone in his room.

Norman's Uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) is the only one in town who understands him.

During the performance of the school play, Norman has another vision, this time creating a public spectacle of himself. Father Perry grounds him as a result. His mother tells him that his father's stern manner is because he is actually afraid for him.

Norman's father, Perry (Jeff Garlin), and his mother, Sandra (Leslie Mann), are both concerned and scared.

But the next day, Prenderghast's spirit comes to Norman and tells him that the ritual he spoke about must be performed with a certain book before sundown that day. After making him swear to complete the task, Prenderghast's spirit is set free and crosses over. Norman is scared and reluctant to go, but his grandmother tells him it is all right to be scared. Norman then sets off to retrieve the book from 
Prenderghast's house and ends up having to take it from his Uncle’s cold dead hands.

Norman needs a certain book from his Uncle to complete the ritual.

Norman then goes to the graves of the seven (five men and two women), who were cursed by the witch. Only then does he find out that the book is merely fairy tales. But despite his determination, Norman is stopped by the school bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). After sundown, even though Norman reads the stories, it is too late. A ghostly storm resembling the witch appears and the cursed dead rise from their graves. The zombies chase the boys along with Courtney and Neil’s older brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), down the hill and into town.

Having realized the witch is not buried in the graveyard, Norman contacts the smart girl from his class, Salma (Hannah Noyes), who directs them to the Town Hall archives for the location of the witch’s unmarked grave. As the kids make their way to the archive, the Zombies come into town and are attacked by the citizenry. Norman and his companions break into the archive and are overwhelmed by the task and are unable to find the reference they seek.

Norman and friends enter the archives at Town Hall.

In a last ditch effort to finish the ritual, Norman climbs to the top of the tower, intent on reading from the book. But the witch storm strikes the book with lightning, knocking Norman from his perch and back into the archives.

In his unconscious state, Norman dreams about the witch and learns that she is Agatha Prenderghast (Jodelle Ferland), a little girl, whom like Norman is a medium. Norman watches helplessly while Agatha was wrongly accused when the town council from her time mistakes her powers for witchcraft. After their sentence, she puts a curse on them and Norman wakes up.

The town council passes judgment on Agatha Prenderghast.

Later, when Norman encounters the zombies, he recognizes them as the members of the council that convicted Agatha. The zombies, for their part, admit that they’re interested in talking to him, not in eating brains as everyone assumes. They want him to take up the ritual as a way to minimize the damage of their mistake. Norman tries to help the zombies take him to Agatha’s grave, but they’re cornered by the mob.

The other kids, led by Courtney, confront the townsfolk and convince them to back off, arguing their reactions are no different than the cursed townsfolk from Agatha’s time.

Zombie Judge Hopkins (Bernard Hill) rides with Norman’s family, guiding them to Agatha’s grave in the forest. But before they reach the grave, Agatha uses her magical powers to separate Norman from his family. On his own, Norman finds her grave and interacts with Agatha. In the spirit dimension, she has become vengeful and is determined to stop the cataclysmic tantrum she has been having over the years. When she asks him to leave her be, Norman holds his ground and tells her he understands how she feels as an outcast. He endures her assault and eventually convinces her that vengeance is accomplishing nothing and persuades her to stop.

Zombie Judge Hopkins, voiced by Bernard Hill.

He tries to get Agatha to think of someone who was kind to her and she recalls happy memories with her mother. Finally, having met someone who understands her plight, Agatha is able to find a measure of peace and crosses over to the afterlife. The storm dissipates and she and the zombies all fade away.

Norman is able to stop Agatha's (Jodelle Ferland) attack on the city.

Later, the town cleans up and Norman is regarded as a hero. In the end, Norman watches a horror film with the ghost of his grandmother and his family, who now accept Norman for who he is.

In the end, Norman is accepted by everyone in his family.

While ParaNorman has all the earmarks of a modern horror film, zombies, witches and a near apocalyptic event, it is not your usual genre fare. While elements of the story have been done before, it is rare to see a horror film done in stop action animation. Laika, the studio behind the film, is known for their stop-action animation. They burst on the scene with Coraline (2009), which, like ParaNorman, has overtones of horror. When you consider the time, effort and meticulousness that goes into these films, each is a minor wonder to behold. They are managing to do things with this type of animation that others do with CGI. Both are very labor intensive, but end up with very different looks.

A lot of meticulous work and detail goes into making stop-motion films.

Voice work is always hard for me to judge, as the actor’s facial expressions are missing, but all of the actors appear to hit the right notes in their performances. There is not one that necessarily stands out, though Kodi Smit-McPhee does manage to carry the lead. And, of course, John Goodman, or at least his voice, makes an appearance. Somehow it doesn’t feel like a real movie unless Goodman is included somewhere in the cast. He has turned out to be a very versatile actor over the years.

It wouldn't be a movie without John Goodman somehow involved.

Laika’s films seem to hit common themes, especially when it comes to the main characters. So far in their films there has been a kid who is left pretty much on his or her own to complete their “hero’s journey.” In Coraline, the lead character has been neglected by her parents, who worry about their careers, leading her to seek solace with the family from another dimension. In The Boxtrolls, it’s Eggs, an orphaned human raised by trolls, and in Kubo and the Two Strings, Kubo is orphaned when his mother is seemingly killed. They are all, in some way, outcasts and different from everyone else.

Norman is no exception; set apart from his family and most of the rest of the village by his ability to speak with the dead. Even though he has a best friend, Neil, and his family does eventually come around to support him, Norman must go alone on his hero’s journey to confront the witch and save the town.

And like all of their films, there is real emotion on the audience’s part. While you might not be close to the tears you shed at Kubo, there is an empathy that goes out to Norman, as we have all felt at one time that we were outcasts and that no one understood us. You feel for the boy and want him to succeed not only on his quest but in the life still to be lived. That is the sign of a really well told story.

A bit of a warning: animated does not always mean children friendly when it comes to Laika’s films. These are not Disney films or even Pixar. Even though the hero may be a young boy, ParaNorman is more “adult” than those and while an older child could attend, these are definitely not aimed at the youngest among us. There is a certain amount of maturity required to truly enjoy this film.

While ParaNorman deals with elements of the horror genre, it is really not a frightening film, nor does it need to be to work. The film is quite enjoyable to watch and within the guidelines above, can be recommended at Halloween or anytime for that matter.

Be sure to check out other Horror films in our Horror Films Review Hub.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Yo-kai Watch: The Movie

In 2013, Japanese developer Level-5 released Yo-kai Watch, the first in a series of video games where players search for and befriend Yo-kai, mysterious spirits who are responsible for all of life’s problems, big or small. After obtaining a Yo-kai’s medal, players can use them in battle against other Yo-kai, keeping each Yo-kai’s unique ability and Soultimate in mind when forming their team. The original game proved popular enough in Japan to warrant an anime adaptation starting in 2014 and a sequel game later that year, Yo-kai Watch 2, after which its popularity skyrocketed and became a cultural phenomenon, spawning a number of spin-off games and further tie-in merchandise, as well a third game, Yo-kai Watch 3, in 2016. It is also notable that, in Japan, the second Yo-kai Watch movie outperformed Star Wars: The Force Awakens in opening weekend ticket sales.

While the success of Yo-kai Watch in the US has been nowhere near as big as in Japan, it does seem to at least be gaining some steam, enough to warrant the release of Yo-kai Watch 2: Bony Spirits and Yo-kai Watch 2: Fleshy Souls. Thanks to Fathom Events, the US also received an English dub of the first movie as Yo-kai Watch: The Movie, which I decided to go see as a recent convert to the series.

Attendees also got an exclusive Hovernyan medal.

The Yo-kai Watch allows Nate Adams (Johnny Yong Bosch), to see the Yo-kai inhabiting the world around him. One day, however, he mysteriously has no memory of the watch until he sees the Yo-kai Meganyan (Johnny Yong Bosch), causing him to regain his memory and summon Whisper (Joey D’Auria) and Jibanyan (Alicyn Packard) to his side. After defeating a wave of Wicked Yo-kai, the trio go to Harrisville and meet Hovernyan (Johnny Yong Bosch), who takes them back in time by 60 years. There, they must convince Nate’s grandfather, Nathaniel Adams (Johnny Yong Bosch) to finish creating the Yo-kai Watch so they can stop the evil Yo-kai Dame Dedtime (Alicyn Packard) from keeping the human and Yo-kai worlds forever separate.

Dame Dedtime (Alicyn Packard) wants a world where humans never interacted with Yo-kai.

First off, the animation is very good. The bright color palette fits with the tone of the franchise and the characters move in a very fluid way, which aids some of the slapstick humor. Both the human and Yo-kai characters feel more polished in their designs and the backgrounds are impressively well-drawn and detailed. Certain scenes also show off great lighting effects, including light coming through the trees, the glow of a city at night or the heat of a factory furnace. The quality of the animation also shows through in the major fight scene in the third act, featuring moves from multiple Yo-kai and some fairly decent CG.

The story, which seems to be based on Yo-kai Watch 2 from my understanding, may not be the best to ever grace a movie screen, but it’s not overly complicated and is actually pretty easy to follow along, even for viewers who aren’t very familiar with the series. What helps is that the first few seconds succinctly re-introduce the concept of the Yo-kai Watch and offer some background to the series, all without slowing down the pace. Nate and Nathaniel both go through some good character development in their interactions with each other, plus Nathaniel and Dame Dedtime have rather interesting backstories which help them feel more three-dimensional. It’s also fairly easy for viewers to understand who the previously existing characters are, as they are re-introduced to Nate and the dynamics they share quickly sink in. Additionally, it’s good that the plot doesn’t take itself too seriously, allowing a lot of room for levity.

This leads into another primary aspect of the movie: the humor. As previously mentioned, there’s a fair amount of slapstick, but most of the humor comes from the dialogue, made more effective by the way the jokes are delivered. The character interactions aid the movie’s generally light-hearted atmosphere, particularly those between characters with conflicting personalities. Admittedly, it’s difficult to mention specific instances without spoiling the plot. This can be extended to expressing that the story also has its more serious moments and, true to the premise of Yo-kai Watch, there is no effort to hide the concept of death.

Another high point is the voice acting. During the credits, it was interesting to see how a fairly small number of people can voice at least five or six characters at once, proving that they have good range. One stand-out is Johnny Yong Bosch, who is able to voice Nate, Hovernyan and Meganyan and have them all sound completely different from each other. Alicyn Packard, Melissa Hutchinson and Brent Pendergrass, among others, accomplish the same feat with a combination of human and Yo-kai characters in a wide age range.

Left to right: Hoverynyan (Johnny Yong Bosch), Nathaniel Adams (Meyer DeLeeuw),
Whisper (Joey D'Auria), Nate Adams (Johnny Yong Bosch) and Master Nyada (Joey D'Auria).

Oddly enough, the movie also promotes exercise, as during the credits, the Yo-kai Sargent Burly encourages viewers to follow along with the Yo-kai exercise. Additionally, viewers are encouraged to follow along with movements made by some of the characters during a rendition of Gero Gero Po which plays during a separate credits sequence. Apart from mentioning that I saw kids at my screening participating, it’s simply a unique element worth mentioning.

One last thing I want to talk about is the short which played after the movie called The Legendary Poofessor. This short is animated more in the style of the anime, giving it more of a TV broadcast quality. Although I’m not usually a fan of humor involving bodily functions, the delivery in this short is actually pretty funny since Poofessor is a Yo-kai who causes those he inspirits to spout out random trivia seemingly without end, aka “diarrhea of the brain.” The short covers a very relatable issue and, overall, was a good way to cap off the Fathom Event.

Yo-kai Watch: The Movie is an example of a video game adaptation done right. It manages to make a video game plot fairly compelling and accessible, has an effective balance of humorous and serious elements and has very good animation to boot. The characters are all varied in their personalities and motives, helped by a good selection of talented voice actors. While a movie based on an anime series popular among children may not appeal to everyone, it is enjoyable by both kids and adults alike. In the event of a home video release, TV broadcast or extended screening, I would easily recommend Yo-kai Watch: The Movie for people and families who simply want to have a good time. It’s not the best thing ever, but it’s good for what it is and, in the end, that’s all that really matters.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Stubs - The Angry Red Planet

The Angry Red Planet (1959) Starring: Gerald Mohr, Naura Hayden, Jack Kruschen, Les Tremayne. Director: Ib Melchior. Screenplay by Sidney W. Pink, Ib Melchior. Produced by Sidney W. Pink, Norman Maurer. Color. USA Run Time 83 minutes Science Fiction, Horror

Science Fiction and horror are two genres that often get mixed together. In the case of The Angry Red Planet, a trip to Mars is filled with horrific space monsters that endanger the lives of the four astronauts sent there to explore. Originally called Invasion of Mars, the film was given a low budget of $200,000 and a short shooting schedule, 10 days. To compensate, the film is the first to use a technique called CineMagic, but more on that later.

Space was not a new subject when this film was made. Films about traveling in outer space are as old as filmmaking, including Le Voyage Dans la Lun (A Trip to the Moon) Georges Méliès’ 1902 fantasy about what it would take to get to the moon and what it would be like once they were there. But there was a real sense of urgency in the late 1950s after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 and the U.S. found itself in a Space Race that would culminate with man landing on the moon in 1969.

The Angry Red Planet skips ahead to a still future time when man lands on the moon, but still retains its 1950s sensibilities. When the film opens, an experimental rocket ship MR-1, thought to have crashed on Mars moons before, is suddenly sending signals back to Earth. No one is sure if any of the four-person crew is still alive or not, but a special meeting is held in Washington, including Maj. Gen. George Treegar (Paul Hahn) to devise a plan to retrieve the ship, which includes flying to Nevada, the origination and landing point of the MR-1.

Maj. General George Treegar (Paul Hahn) is briefed about the MR-1.

Using remote control, a ground crew brings the ship back for a landing. After checking for radiation, the ground crew finds two survivors on board, Dr. Iris Ryan (Naura Hayden), who opens the hatch, and a gravely ill Col. Thomas “Tom” O’Bannion (Gerald Mohr) is removed on a stretcher.

The command center for the MR-1 mission wouldn't give Mission Control a run for its money.

Iris, exhausted and in shock, is taken to the Norwood Air Force Hospital where doctors are flummoxed by a green growth on Tom’s arm. When doctors go to her for an explanation, Iris is at first unable to remember anything. But Dr. Frank Gordon (Tom Daly), who fears the growth might prove not only fatal for Tom, but could present a danger to life on Earth, needs her help and helps her relive the mission.

Aboard the MR-1 are Iris, a scientist; Tom, the ship’s commander; Prof. Theodore Gettell (Les Tremayne), who designed the ship; and Chief Warrant Officer Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen), who is in charge of communications with mission control and recordings related to the mission. The first few days go easily. As the only woman on board, Iris gets attention from both Jacobs and Tom. While Jacobs is more caveman in his approach and easily turned down, there is a smarmy aspect to Tom, who often walks around with his shirt unbuttoned and acts like God’s gift to women.

The crew aboard the MR-1, from left to right, Chief Warrant Officer Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen),
Professor Theodore Gettell (Les Tremayne), Dr. Iris Ryan (Naura Hayden) and Col. Thomas O'Bannion (Gerald Mohr).

When Iris goes to get food for the crew, yes even in space a woman’s place is still apparently in the kitchen, Tom follows and asks for a rain-check to take her out when they arrive back on Earth. She accepts.

Provisions already seem to be running low only a few days out.

On the 47th day of the mission, the MR-1 finally lands on Mars and when it does, the crew is anxious for the next part of the voyage. But when they look out the ship’s portal, they don’t see any movement. That is until Iris sees a creature looking back and screams.

Iris screams and then faints after seeing the Martian looking in through the portal.

That recollection brings Iris back to the present of the story and she is so bothered by it that she can’t continue.

While she’s sleeping, Treeger informs Gordon that they have recovered the tape recordings made aboard the MR-1 but, so far, they appear to be blank. As the two ponder over whether Iris is recalling the events or only her fears, she awakens and asks Gordon to give her something to force her to remember what happened.

Back in the MR-1, Iris describes the horrible creature she’s seen and no one believes her, at least not at first. Tom decides they should go outside and the crew dons their protective clothing before the disembark. Tom has a sidearm and Sam grabs a freeze ray as they go out. Once outside on the very red planet, Tom orders everyone to stay within his sight as they venture further away from the ship.

The crew ventures out onto the surface of Mars.

Curious about a strange vine, Iris follows it to find the source and is suddenly grabbed by the octopus-like creature Martian Venus flytrap. The three men rush to her aide, and with machetes and Sam's ray gun, kill the creature.

Iris gets attached by a giant Martian Venus Flytrap-like creature.

Iris and Dr. Gettell conclude that the creature was a carnivore, beyond normal plant life, with a neuromuscular formation. The next morning, after studying samples from their previous walk, the group again leaves MR-1. When Iris cuts off a sample from one plant, it reveals itself to be a huge rat-like bat creature on stilt-like legs. But this time Sam's ray gun has little effect, until Tom tells Sam to aim at its eyes, thus immobilizing it, allowing Gettell, who has been trapped between boulders, to escape.

The most hideous creature they encounter on the planet,

Before returning to the ship, the group sees a large lake but decides to wait until the following day before exploring it. Back inside the ship, after discussing the great dangers they have encountered, Tom and Gettell agree that they have to abort the mission immediately. But while the rocket engines ignite, the ship cannot lift off. Tom orders the MR-1’s engines cut to save fuel and determines a powerful source is holding it down and preventing them from going back to Earth.

They decide to wait until the next day to explore the lake.

Tom calms the fears of the crew and wonders what “they” want. Later, the four return to the lake and start paddling across. In the distance, they see a huge, industrial city and as they contemplate the curious sight, a giant monster arises from the sea and comes towards them. The four paddle furiously to get away.

Paddling across the lake, their view is blocked by a huge monster rising out of the water.

The creature chases after them onto the shore and as they rush back to the ship. But just before they can close the hatch, Sam is enveloped by the amoeba-like beast and swallowed whole. The other three watch in horror as Sam is digested. Once they’re inside, they realize that Tom has been wounded and it begins to worsen.

The creature follows them back on shore.

Iris recalls from her previous experiments on Amoeba cells how electricity is the only thing that can stop the amoeba’s growth. At Tom’s request, Gettell figures out a way to electrify the outer skin of the rocket ship while not endangering their own lives. After rewiring the ship, the plan works, causing the creature to shrivel away. Just then the ship’s radio broadcasts a voice saying, “Red alert…we of the planet Mars give you this warning.”

Back on the ship, Iris is repulsed by the infection on Tom's arm.

A short time after liftoff, the stress and exertion cause Gettell’s heart to give out and on the flight back, he dies. With Sam and Gettell dead and Tom unconscious, Iris tries to determine what Gettell would have done with the ship’s wiring. When she looks out the window, she sees Mars in the rear getting smaller.

Gettell's heart gives out after launch from Mars.

Iris again awakens in her bed and cries. After saying she can’t remember any more of the Martian warning, she faints. But Dr. Gordon has gleamed enough from Iris’ story to figure out that Tom is suffering from an enzymatic infection.

A little later, Treeger asks Iris if there is anything in her previous research that might be helpful in treating Tom. They give her access to a lab and she gets to work. She knows that electricity must be the key and surmises that it can be used to shock the amoeba on his arm to a non-human host. The experiment, of course, works and while Tom is recovering, Iris comes to his bedside wanting to cash the raincheck for their overdue date.

While most of the tapes from the MR-1 were found to be blank, Treeger informs Tom and Iris that they were able to recover the entire Martian warning, which concludes with “Do not return to Mars. We can and will destroy you if you do not heed our warning.”

No doubt the intent of the film was to terrify its audience with the horrible creatures imagined to reside on the planet Mars. Sadly, they are either cringe worthy or laughable. For the most part the creatures look like Dali rejects or they’re cardboard cut outs. The CineMagic effect, which gives all of the Martian landscape a red overcoat, perhaps was an attempt to mask the poor special effects. The effect was achieved with a black and white film negative processed with solarization (a process that partially reverses the negative making some areas appear positive). The film was then tainted red and a film positive was not required. Using black and white film, which was less expensive to process and not having to make a film positive, also helped keep the costs of the production down. The cheapness shows on the screen, that is unless you're color-blind to red and then I don't know what you'd see.

The CineMagic effect baths everything Martian in a blood red tint.

Space travel was depicted sort of like it had been since Victorian times. The rooms are spacious and there appear to be no issues with the lack of gravity. While the set does attempt to be “computerized” for the time, occupants are free to walk around; nearly shirtless if your Tom. Professor Gettell even smokes a pipe on board, so relaxed are the circumstances.

No cramped quarters for the crew aboard the MR-1.

The protective suits worn on the planet would probably be good in a rainstorm, but useless on another planet. I’m not sure if it was a cost-effective measure or one that the actors wanted, but there are no protective shields over the faces of the actors.

Who needs protective masks to breathe while on Mars?

All films reflect the time they were made in and Angry Red Planet is no exception. While its viewpoints on space travel seem backward, so do its views on women. Even though Iris would have to be an accomplished scientist to be included on an interplanetary space trip, she seems very much stuck in stereotypes of women in the late 50s. Not only is she part sex object, but she is also expected to cook, as it were, for the rest of the crew. We’re not shown her making the beds or doing the laundry, but no doubt they would be a part of her duties aboard the MR-1.

The thin protective suits can't protect Iris from Tom's busy hands.
Low budgets usually accompany plot holes and Angry Red Planet does not tempt to upset the applecart here. When the film opens, MR-1 was thought lost for months. But the amoeba that is taking over Tom’s body never seems to progress past his arm in all that time. One plot device, the time since Earth had lost contact with the ship, doesn’t line up with the urgency to cure the enzymatic infection.

Also, Professor Gettell’s death seems more like a plot convenience than set up by the story. Yes, he’s older than the other actors, but his life seems superfluous. He was needed for the part of the story about getting and landing on Mars, but three’s a crowd when they get back to Earth, so he has to die on the way home.

The acting is somewhat along similar stereotype lines. Sam Jacobs would have worn a red-shirt if this had been Star Trek. Slower both physically and mentally, he reads comic books after all, it is no wonder that Sam is the first to bite it. Jack Kruschen, who the following year would play Dr. Dreyfus in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, seems right for the role, even though I’m sure he was not the low wattage bulb in real life as the character he plays here.

Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen), communications officer/comic book reader.

Les Tremayne plays Professor Gettell, who we’re supposed to believe is super smart and refined, hence the pipe. What’s missing are patches on the elbow of his protective suit. Tremayne is one of those actors that you see in a lot of movies, but usually in small roles, like the Auctioneer in North by Northwest, also released in 1959. For whatever reason, Tremayne’s filmography includes a lot of Sci-Fi films. For every Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and The Fortune Cookie (1966), there is The War of the Worlds (1953) and Forbidden Planet (1956). He’s good here, but there isn’t really that much for him to do but react and look smart.

Gerald Mohr as Tom O'Bannion and Les Tremayne as Professor Gettell.

Gerald Mohr, who plays Tom O’Bannion, began his career on stage working with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. He then appeared more than 500 times during the 30s, 40s and 50s on various shows from playing Phillip Marlowe from 1949 to 1951, to appearances on The Whistler, Our Miss Brooks and The Lone Ranger. He would later move into television, appearing in a number of Westerns, including Bonanza and The Rifleman, as well as comedies from Burns & Allen to the Smothers Brothers. Here he plays the equivalent to Hugh Hefner in space, all that he’s missing is his walking around in pajamas and a robe.

Iris (Naura Hayden) is both scientist and sex-object aboard the MR-1.

The object of Mohr’s stares is Naura Hayden, who was a model before she became an actress. Mostly known for her work in commercials, Hayden has the acting chops of a model to go along with the looks. Too bad there is more to good acting than screaming, which are the high points of her performance.

The Angry Red Planet is one of the best known films that Ib Melchior directed, which probably speaks volumes about his career. Melchior is known as a low-budget filmmaker, many of which were released through American International Pictures, a cinematic haven for bad sci-fi. He makes his reputation, what there is of it, with this film. He would later re-visit Mars with the screenplay, co-written by John C. Higgins, for Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

While Halloween presents the opportunity to view a variety of films to get your horror fix, sadly The Angry Red Planet doesn’t quite get you there. Rather it seems to be ready fodder for the MST3K treatment. Try as it might, the film isn’t really all that scary, even though it wants us to think it is; no doubt hindered by a weak story and a small budget.

Be sure to check out other Horror films in our Horror Films Review Hub.