Vampire Circus (1972)

directed by robert young
hammer film productions

“Better no mother than a mother that worships the devil!” proclaims a vindictive villager as this picture comes out with all guns blazing. (Torches, actually.) I immediately wondered if I needed to start watching everything with the Hammer name from this time period. Child slaughter, nudity, lust, arson, mayhem … and that was all in the first 15 minutes, before the credits ended. Things settle down after that, once the gypsies show up with the “Circus of Nights,” although a hearty massacre of three members of a family – by a panther – does find its way in there. (The panther is rather amusingly animated and exaggerated by the FX of the day.) Despite getting a bit bogged down in the villagers’ struggle to understand what has befallen them, however, enough eldritch touches recur to keep things moving along nicely toward the expected ending.

why did i watch this movie?

Look, I try my best to keep my motives pure and my intellectual pursuits respectable, but this damn flick is called “Vampire Circus.”

should you watch this movie?

terrifying muppet gore

If you don’t find the title “Vampire Circus” deliriously fetching, then probably not.

highlight and low point

The Circus has an attraction called “Mirror of Life,” and it is within this enclosed tent that nefarious truths are revealed, of course. One of the scenes that takes place in said location is pretty impressively intimidating. Some of the moments when the main vampiric henchman Emil brandishes his fangs verge on silly. Oh, and if you’re keeping track, herein it is once again revealed that removing the stake from the undead’s heart will allow it to return to its imitation of life. So apparently I forgot that bit of mythology somewhere along the way.

rating from outer space: B−

Stuart Gordon’s Castle Freak (1995)

directed by stuart gordon
full moon entertainment

The movie business is a cutthroat and fickle marketplace, of course, and that reality is exemplified in the fact that this entertaining little horror was consigned to the straight-to-video realm despite its director’s pedigree and track record. Or because of it, maybe. Whatever the case, this Italian production deserved at least a short run in the second-thought weekend theaters of Middle America. An outlandish tale of an inheritance gone terribly wrong due to an incredible oversight (or two), with comedic values so dark they border on sick, and some distinctive gore that yet manages to preserve an air of restraint, I could not locate whatever intrinsic flaw condemned it to its rental-store destiny. It even has random, unnecessary nudity, for crying out loud. Sure, it doesn’t really follow some of its convoluted plot points to any sort of conclusion, dodging an opportunity to make things really interesting, and ends abruptly without much of any resolution, but I rather doubt such a condition would negatively affect anybody’s overall opinion.

why did i watch this movie?

I think this one falls into the “why hadn’t I already seen this?” category … Combs! Crampton! Alleged H.P. Lovecraft inspiration!

should you watch this movie?

Why haven’t you already seen it?

highlight and low point

The sequence beginning with Jeffrey Combs’s John Reilly getting drunk and culminating in the polizia coming to talk to him about a missing woman features all of the little things that make this picture work: passion, pathos, subtle humor, grievous bodily harm. It takes kind of a long time for the action to start rolling, however, and maybe a little too long for any of the muddled family stories to begin to make sense.

rating from outer space: B+

Lake Placid (1999)

Directed by steve miner
phoenix pictures/fox 2000 pictures/rocking chair productions

Only tenuously a “horror” picture – and only because it features a monstrous crocodile in an otherwise tranquil rural setting – this thriller/comedy/slapstick mashup is simultaneously way better than it should have been and much less than it could have been. It starts out with a ton of promise, with a witty showcase of screenwriting that manages at first to tiptoe with aplomb the extremely fine line between playing dumb and exposing banal inanity. This can’t last, of course, but it never devolves into lowest-common-denominator stupidness, even as it invests Betty White with a foulmouthed gimmick that exemplifies the law of diminishing returns. Not unlike Airplane! or, say, The Naked Gun, what it does best is wink at the tropes of several film genres, but unlike those broad farces, it generally avoids beating them into the ground. Unfortunately, the overall effect is slight and forgettable … though it somehow spawned FOUR sequels and a reboot (!), trailing in its wake the absurdist fare of SyFy and its ilk.

why did i watch this movie?

I’ve wanted to see it for a long time, and following the new Pet Sematary, it seemed apt. Plus, I wasn’t in the mood for any of the other crap terrific offerings in the pipeline.

should you watch this movie?

Despite boasting top-shelf attributes almost across the board, in the end it’s a little too disposable, a little too redolent of the brainless summer cinema it’s presumably lampooning.

highlight and low point

Brendan Gleeson is splendid as the Sheriff and Bridget Fonda’s fish out of water (sorry) is disarmingly ingenuous, highlighting the clever wordplay by TV veteran David E. Kelley. (That the parodic elements never exceed homage is another testament.) Momentum lags at times, and a few moments of unwarranted crudity surface.

Rating: B+

Get Out (2017)

written and directed by jordan peele
blumhouse productions/qc entertainment

So, this movie is of course “about” racism – both overt and latent – and comprises an intriguing spin on the cannibalism of African American culture for pasteurized Anglo pastimes, along with a pointed recasting of some disgraceful historical practices. This is achieved without too often bashing the viewer over the head, and as a whole is a fine accomplishment. In these confrontational times of backlash against any and every real or imagined discriminatory slight, though, in an era when long-subjugated portions of the straight white male hegemony are claiming or reclaiming agency, how did it escape critical attention that the evillest characters in this film are the women? The two main female roles are imbued with a certain overwhelming rapacity and an equally manipulative bent, and hints of the same also affect more minor characters, portraying the fairer sex in a rather ugly light. This neither undermines the effectiveness of the film nor detracts from its observations and reflections, but seemingly highlights the fact that, well-intentioned or not, there are more than enough biases to be shared equally.

why did i watch this movie?

It sounded like something I’d enjoy, and with all the hubbub surrounding Us, I figured I’d better see it already.

should you watch this movie?

I guess it depends on your sensibilities. I myself thought it was excellent.

highlight and low point

Some foreshadowing is actually pretty funny, and is probably meant to parallel the audience-participation aspect of seeing horror flicks in the theater. The picture does contain some (pardon the multiple-entendre) black humor, but that doesn’t in any way suppress the creeping dread that develops throughout. The, uh, experiment at the root of the story is highly reminiscent of Blood Relations; other referents will no doubt occur to viewers at other times.

rating from outer space: A

The Road Builder aka The Night Digger (1971)

directed by alastair reid
yongestreet productions/tacitus productions

Based on a novel with the unwieldy and unpromising title of “Nest in a Fallen Tree,” with a screenplay by Roald Dahl and starring his wife, this tale of suspense is very British, a study of drawing-room manners for the most part. Oh, but there’s a twist! Here we have a festering sense of resentment within the familial relationship that anchors the picture, a kinship upset and altered by the arrival of a young stranger. Now, some of what then occurs is basic dark British fodder; murders are perpetrated, suspicions are raised, and the village folk get to enjoy more of their favorite pastime (gossip, of course). Later, though, a murkier and more disturbing subplot develops, emotions are exploded, and the setting abruptly shifts entirely. An ambiguous ending completes the affair, which manages to entertain despite its lack of sensationalism.

why did i watch this movie?

I needed to balance out the recent spate of ’90s flicks – and I’ve lately covered a bunch of modern productions as well – so I sought a picture from the seventies, and this was the one I found.

should you watch this movie?

This is the sort of film that TV stations used to show on lazy weekend afternoons, as very little of it is at all lurid. It’s good, if understated, and definitely of a different era.

highlight and low point

The action takes off when a mysterious young man named “Billy” enters the tale, and I think we can all agree that’s a momentous circumstance. Actually, though, some displays of splendid acting, mainly concerning liminal expressions of emotion, are what impress most. Oddly, it appears this was an edited version of the movie, but I’m not sure any other rendition is readily available.

rating from outer space: B

Night of the Scarecrow (1995)

directed by jeff burr
republic pictures/steve white entertainment

So, one of the actors in this picture was driving me nuts with his strained, nigh-unintelligible gibbering and his painfully restricted movements, and I just HAD to find out who he was … and it turned out to be Crispin Glover’s father, who purportedly is also an acting teacher. So I definitely learned something from this hokey, by-the-book bit of B-grade nonsense. Just about every cliché in the book is hauled out here – estranged daughter returns to small town! Her dad’s the mayor! She hooks up with the hot local guy! There’s trouble! And an ancient curse! Or something! – with the only novel touches being a few of the ways the, uh, demonic scarecrow kills or maims his victims. It’s entertaining, really, but man, is it ever generic. Which ceased to surprise me once I discovered that the director also was behind the camera for the equally uninspired Leatherface.

why did i watch this movie?

It sounded like a hell of an improvement over the previous strawman-themed picture I viewed. I thrilled to the prospect.

should you watch this movie?

It really isn’t the type of work one should watch on purpose, unless it involves nostalgia for the heartland fetish of decades long past. (Today’s politicized heartland fetish is different.)

highlight and low point

The evil possessed scarecrow is a kind of highlight, I guess, and the flashback scenes are endearingly slapdash. The ridiculous caricature of the extended family would have to be seen to be believed, and the backlot politics implicit in the details differentiating the women’s roles seemingly would’ve been intrigung. Overall, however, this one feels as though the script was churned out in little more time than it takes to watch the finished product.

rating from outer space: C−

Jack Be Nimble (1993)

written & directed by garth maxwell
essential productions limited/new zealand film commission

Wow, what a strange movie this is. Though one never expects an original take when dipping into genre offerings, this New Zealand picture is playing entirely on its own field. And what a field it is … the polar opposite of a “feel-good” film, this neverending litany of miseries only lets up at the very end, with a seemingly tacked-on segment that feels suspiciously like an afterthought, but which instead may not have been meant as a representation of reality. Sometimes it’s rewarding when you finish a viewing wondering what in the hell you just watched, and this feature manages to provoke that same sense of confusion and intrigue throughout its duration. I mean, I had no idea where this one was heading – and given its overall bleakness and the uncomfortably horrific final scenes, I’m fairly glad about that.

why did i watch this movie?

This is another product of the 1990s, and I was lured in by the odd name and convinced by its description as a unique, psychological offering.

should you watch this movie?

Powerful in several different ways, it’s quite an experience if you’re looking for a less typical horror picture, fraught with emotional turmoil. It is not an easy watch.

highlight and low point

Though obviously one must suspend one’s disbelief for certain elements of a picture steeped in the paranormal, the conflict in this flick relies on its grounding in related phenomena without an apparent link or any explanation whatsoever. It’s just sort of dropped in there: oh, by the way, this can happen, too. Since most of the variant otherworldly or mystical manifestations are given at least some backstory, that slight is troubling. Alexis Arquette and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy play long-separated orphaned siblings very believably.

rating from outer space: a−