Classic Movie Review: Freaks

Title: Freaks
Release Date: February 12, 1932
Director: Tod Browning
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Freaks is a movie that straddles a line between an exploitation movie and a film that provides a compassionate depiction of people with disabilities and little people. That the movie was promoted as “horror” makes it lean towards exploitation since there is no horror in this film beyond what viewers bring with themselves when they see people with atypical bodies as monsters.  I think more accurately this movie is a slice-of-life drama set among the performers of a traveling circus, that’s built around a love triangle, that eventually becomes a revenge story.

I like the slice-of-life parts best where we see people with dwarfism, conjoined twin sisters (Daisy and Violet Hilton), a man with microcephaly (Schlitzie) as well as the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) and the sea lion trainer Venus (Leila Hyams) go about their day. Much of the cast were actual circus performers. The main plot involves the trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) wooing the little person Hans (Harry Earles), breaking the heart of his betrothed, Frieda (Daisy Earles).  Cleopatra is really scheming because she knows that Hans has inherited great wealth. The final part of the film depicts the family of “freaks” teaming up to avenge Hans when Cleopatra tries to kill him for his money.  This could be seen as the scary party of the movie, but in reality, Cleopatra is the only monster in this film.

This movie was different and better than I expected, but I still felt weird about watching it.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020)

Title: Vampires vs. the Bronx
Release Date: October 2, 2020
Director: Oz Rodriguez
Production Company: Broadway Video | Caviar

Vampires vs. the Bronx uses the invasion of vampires into a Bronx neighborhood as a metaphor for gentrification, and not at all in a subtle manner. The movie blends horror and social satire with humor and a lot of heart. It’s very 80s Spielberg-ian in the way that kids must team up to fight the evil threatening their community. In this case the threat is a real estate company buying up local businesses and buildings, not to make luxury condos, but to make a nest for vampires. The most chilling line in the film is when a vampire states that they want to be in a neighborhood where no one cares if people go missing.

A team of young teenagers are the lead vampire fighters. Their leader is Miguel (Jaden Michael), a young activist known as Lil Mayor. His nerdy friend Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) has the knowledge of vampire lore. The wild card is Bobby (Gerald W. Jones III) who is being recruited to join the local street gang. Their hangout is the local bodega run by Tony (a great performance by Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez). A late addition to the team is Rita (Coco Jones) an older girl who is Miguel’s crush. All the young actors are great and seem like real kids.

The movie is not a groundbreaking in horror and/or social messaging, but it’s also not overly scary or gory like, say, Get Out. So a family could potentially watch it together. It is also is feel-good movie depicting a community coming together to save their neighborhood.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: The Exorcist (1973)

Title: The Exorcist
Release Date: December 26, 1973
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Hoya Production

I hadn’t planned on watching The Exorcist, but I added it at the last minute to my scary movie lineup. I can’t remember the first time I watched this movie, but I know I was definitely too young. I saw it several more times over the years – in whole or part – and then in the summer of 1990 I attended a five-week program for high school students at Georgetown University. That summer I became intimately acquainted with the setting of the movie, and of course watched the movie as a group. By that point, as a jaded 16-year-old, I found the movie more funny than scary. At any rate, I don’t know if I’ve seen it again in the past 30 years so it was worth revisiting.

Me, circa 1994, recreating a cinematic moment at the Exorcist Steps in Georgetown.

There’s something about the blockbusters of the 1970s where the way they are remembered in the popular imagination is not quite what the movies were about. Jaws was not about a shark eating people, but about three men of different backgrounds learning to work together on a boat and forming a bond. Rocky was not about boxing but about a man who happened to be a boxer learning to believe in himself. The Exorcist is not about a girl possessed by demons but about a priest going through a crisis of faith.

I’d forgotten how much of the movie does not deal with possession or the exorcism and the slow build it takes to get to that point. The ten minute prologue set in Iraq completely escaped my mind. Can you think of any other movie that introduces a character, as they do with Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), and then not have him return for 90 minutes. The connection of the Iraq scenes with the rest of the movie are never made obvious but I do appreciate that they were beautifully shot and like how there’s always sound in the background (picks and shovels, blacksmiths, dogs, etc.) that are discordant but musical.

I also didn’t really remember much of the main part of the film in Georgetown, such as Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) filming on the university campus or Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) travelling to New York to see his ailing mother. There are also a lot more scenes of Regan (Linda Blair) undergoing medical procedures. I was surprised to learn that Regan getting cerebral angiography freaked out a lot of people in the audiences back in the 70s, because I don’t medical procedures disturbing for the most part. (Two movies that I’ve watched this month, Frankenstein and The Exorcist, were both said to cause extreme horror and revulsion to audiences of the time although I’d consider them tame compared with some mainstream horror that’s been released in the past four decades).

The acting performances in the movie are universally good with Miller, Burstyn, and Blair being particularly good. I’ve wondered why I never saw Miller in anything but I’ve learned that he was primarily a playwright and unfortunately also struggled with alcoholism. Still, if there’s one performance that you’re going to be remembered for, this one was excellent. The 44-year-old von Sydow, with the help of some terrific makeup, puts on a great performance as an old man and looks a lot like von Sydow would look when he actually reached that age.

Lest I go to far in my “it’s not about a girl possessed by demons” thought, this movie does have it’s fair share of horror and gross out moments, as well as disturbing behavior for a 12-year-old. But I wouldn’t let that dissuade you if you’ve never seen it, because it really does also contain a thoughtful and nuanced story as well. For me, the darkest part of The Exorcist is learning how cruel William Friedkin was on the set. He allowed stunts to get out of hand so that they caused injury to both Burstyn and Blair, and Blair was given no protection from the extreme cold on the set as well as deliberately trying to frighten or anger the actors on the set. That to me is more unsettling than anything in the movie which is beautifully made and has an underlying message of hope in humanity.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Title: The Silence of the Lambs
Release Date: February 14, 1991
Director: Jonathan Demme
Production Company: Strong Heart Productions

I watched this movie back when it was first released on video and I didn’t like it. For one thing, I don’t like movies that glamorize the villain. The other thing is that I remember it having lots of obvious and silly plot twists.

Since the movie is on the AFI 100 List and I’m doing a Scary Movies this week, I figured I could revisit this movie with an open mind. Unfortunately, this movie is actually worse than I remembered. For one thing, it is extremely 90s, with that era’s fear of widespread crime in the movie’s DNA, and thus naturally full of copaganda that practically serves as recruitment film for the FBI. Secondly, the plot twists are utterly ludicrous. Everything from the fact that an agent-in-training is given heavy responsibilities, to Clarice Sterling (Jodie Foster) revealing her most personal secrets to a psychopath, to the way in which Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) escapes his improvised prison is too ridiculous to take seriously. And while there’s dialogue stating something to the effect of “transexuals are peaceful,” the entire performance of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) is heavily coded with the hateful idea that transgender people are psychotic.

Foster is the strength of this movie and does put in a spectacular acting performance. Parts of the movie offer an excellent depiction of a woman working in a “man’s world” and how she is constantly operating under the male gaze. The interviews between Starling and Lector are also well-done, but as much as they loom large in the popular imagination, they are only a tiny portion of the film’s running time. This is really Foster’s movie and she carries it well. I know that there are several sequels and spinoff tv shows about Hannibal Lector, but for my money, I’d rather watch a sequel where Foster’s Clarice Starling works on another case.

As for Silence of the Lambs, it joins Taxi Driver in the category of Movies That Are Highly Regarded That I Don’t Like With The Exception Of Jodie Foster’s Performance.

Rating: **1/2

Scary Movie Review: House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Title: House on Haunted Hill
Release Date: February 17, 1959
Director: William Castle
Production Company: William Castle Productions

I somehow never watched a Vincent Price horror movie before and I wanted to address that in my Scary Movies series this year. House on Haunted Hill has a good reputation and even a remake but I wasn’t overly impressed. Price portrays an eccentric millionaire named Frederick Loren who invites five strangers to an allegedly haunted mansion, promising the reward of $10,000 for anyone who makes it through the night. Curiously the exterior of the building is Frank Lloyd Wright’s modernist, Mayan-inspired Ennis House in Los Feliz California, while the interiors are more of a late 19th-century Victorian more typical of haunted house stories.

The party plays against the marital tensions between Loren and his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), and they have several great scenes of exchanging catty dialogue. For a 75 minute movie, it takes a looooooooooong time to establish the premise. The “scary” parts of the movie are mostly focused on only two of the five guests: Nora Manning (a young employee of one of Loren’s companies, portrayed by Carolyn Craig) and the test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long). There are a couple of big twists to the story involving Annabelle that ground the story in human deceit rather than the supernatural. But overall the movie is uneven with a lot of unexplained loose ends. I feel it could’ve been tightened up to make an interesting television story on something like The Twilight Zone, but as a movie it’s a bit of a chore.

Rating: **1/2

Scary Movie Review: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Title: Bride of Frankenstein
Release Date: April 20, 1935
Director: James Whale
Production Company: Universal Pictures

This sequel is widely-regarded as better than the original, and I agree with the assessment. Some of the iconic moments of Hollywood Frankenstein lore originate in this movie rather than its predecessor. This includes the absolutely brilliant sequence where the monster (Boris Karloff) befriends a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) which is full of humanity. Of course, we also get to see the monster’s “bride” (Elsa Lanchester) with the famous streaked hair, but not until the very end of the film.

The movie does have some surprises though. It begins with a delightfully campy prologue in which Mary Shelley (Lanchester, again) tells her husband and Lord Byron that there is more to the story. I’m also pleased that Shelley gets credited under her own name this time. With Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) having regained his sensibilities, a new and madder scientist appears in the form of his mentor Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). In one of the weirdest and most unsettling moments of the movie, Pretorius shows off that he has created living humans, albeit tiny ones that live in jars. The movie also prominently features Una O’Connor as Minnie, because the one thing the Frankenstein franchise was lacking was a comical Irish maid.

The Bride of Frankenstein is a bit uneven, but better paced and more surprising than its predecessor. The pair of movies still make for an enjoyable evening of scary entertainment.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: Frankenstein (1931)

Title: Frankenstein
Release Date: November 21, 1931
Director: James Whale
Production Company: Universal Pictures

I’d never watched Frankenstein before, but it’s so full of iconic moments that it feels like I have. Think of the scenes and ideas that have permeated culture for the past 90 years:

  • a hunchback assistant (named Fritz, not Igor)
  • brains in jars, one brilliant, one criminal (and all the pop psychology that goes along with that)
  • a stormy night, a laboratory in a creepy castle, and a pulley system to raise a gurney
  • “It’s alive!”
  • the monster and a little girl (Marilyn Harris) throwing flowers in a lake
  • an angry mob bearing torches and pitchforks (this may be the first time I’ve seen this done non-ironically). I did wonder if the mill owner was upset that the mob just burned his mill down

The odd part is the non-iconic scenes that link this all together. Despite the prologue where the audience is given a trigger warning for the horror to come, the movie today is a bit slow and the acting is melodramatic and wooden (especially Mae Clarke as Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth). Colin Clive is suitably manic as Dr. Henry Frankenstein. But the acting star of the film is Boris Karloff as the creature. He brings real emotion and nuance to his grunts and movements, especially in the scene when he is exposed to the sun for the first time and the scene with the girl by the lake.

One summer when I was a teenager I read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (who is rather offensively credited as “Mrs. Percy Bysshe Shelley” in this movie). I stayed up late to finish the book and then had to wait in the dark alone until sunrise because I was too spooked to go to sleep. The movie didn’t have that affect on me, but I can appreciate it for the incredible influence it’s had on film and the great acting of Karloff.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: Dracula (1931)

Title: Dracula
Release Date: February 14, 1931
Director: Tod Browning
Production Company: Universal Pictures

This is the classic film that set the template for all Dracula stories to follow and kicked off the Universal Horror movies. The movie, especially the earlier parts, creates a great atmosphere with the camera work, sets, costumes, lighting and the charming but unnatural performance of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula. I particularly like how lights are used to illuminate Dracula’s unblinking eyes. The movie owes a lot to the weirdness of Nosferatu at first while moving it into more of a drawing-room drama in the later parts. Still, it has its own share of weirdness such as armadillos inhabiting the Dracula crypt in Romania or the movies lack of a musical soundtrack which lends it an eerie quietness. This movie is not likely to scare most viewers today, but it is worth watching for its influential role in horror movie history.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Title: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Release Date: 26 February 1920
Director: Robert Wiene
Production Company: Decla-Bioscop

A character named Francis (Friedrich Fehér) narrates a strange tale of of the sideshow impresario Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) who trains a “somnambulist” named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) to carry out murders. The movie’s frame story ends with a surprising twist. I didn’t find the movie all to scary or suspenseful or even unsettling, but I guess I’m jaded from watching it 100 years in the future. I did appreciate the “fun house” style sets and the scene where the name “Caligari” is superimposed on the the screen in multiple fonts. This movie is definitely worth watching as it is arguably the first horror form and had a great influence on German Expressionism and later Film Noir. I also think that directly or indirectly it must’ve been an influence on Robert Smith of The Cure (who resembles Cesare) and the entire oeuvre of Tim Burton.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Birds (1963)

Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: The Birds
Release Date: March 28, 1963
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions

This is the third film that Hitchcock adapted from the writings of Daphne du Maurier after Jamaica Inn  and Rebecca.  I remember reading the du Maurier story as a child and then not being impressed when I watched the film.  Unfortunately, I still have a low opinion of the film on this rewatch.

San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) makes a bold decision to follow a man she met in a pet shop to his family home in Bodega Bay, California.  She delivers a pair of lovebirds to Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) so he may give them as a birthday gift to his 11-year-old sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, whose name seemed so familiar until I found that she played Betty Grissom in The Right Stuff).  Before this odd meet-cute can blossom into a full-on romcom for Melanie and Mitch, seagulls, sparrows, crows, and more begin attacking humanity at regular intervals. The rest of the movie features these attacks and the tense moments in between them.

Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy also put in good performances as a local school teacher, respectively.  The movie is full of iconic shots and is definitely a forerunner to a generation of horror films such as Night of the Living Dead and Jaws. But the movie is also overlong and way to talky.  Hedren is not a compelling enough performer to carry the movie, and mostly seems to be there to fulfill Hitchcock’s sadistic desire to see a blond woman pecked by vicious birds.

Rating: **