October 7, 2018

REVIEW: THE MONSTER CLUB (1981)


The Monster Club is a 1981 horror anthology film directed by Roy Ward Baker and starring two of the biggest titans of terror in film history, Vincent Price and John Carradine. It is based on the works of horror author R. Chetwynd-Hayes, whose works also served as the basis for the horror anthology From Beyond the Grave from Amicus Productions. In fact, the spirit of Amicus rings throughout the entire film; it was the final film of producer Milton Subotsky, who produced several horror anthology films for Amicus, and the film was a reunion of sorts for Amicus alums as actors Britt Ekland, Patrick Magee, and Geoffrey Bayldon all have supporting roles and were previously part of the cast of Amicus' horror anthology Asylum.

Vincent Price is well known to horror fans, an absolute legend whose career spanned fifty-eight years and over one hundred films. John Carradine, by comparison, had a similarly prolific career but is probably less well-known to many outside the horror genre, and is perhaps remembered best for his performances as Count Dracula in a few of Universal's later monster mash ups. Both are in fine form here and are easily the best part of the film, despite having little screen time.

The film opens with John Carradine, starring as a fictionalized version of author R. Chetwynd-Hayes, admiring several of his books in a storefront window. As he goes about his business, he is stopped by a weak-looking Vincent Price, who tells him that he hasn't eaten in weeks. Chetwynd-Hayes states that he'll do anything to help him, and the stranger thanks him, baring fangs and biting him in the neck.

Chetwynd-Hayes comes to and finds a much more satisfied Vincent Price looking over him fondly, having just realized that he'd supped from the great R. Chetwynd-Hayes, his favorite horror author. He assures Chetwynd-Hayes that he needn't worry; he didn't bite deep enough to make him become a creature of the night himself. Price introduces himself as Eramus, a vampire, a fact by which Chetwynd-Hayes seems barely bothered. Having provided sustenance for Eramus, Chetwynd-Hayes says that he must be on his way, but Eramus states that he wishes to repay him by helping Chetwynd-Hayes amass material for his next book. Thus, Eramus takes Chetwynd-Hayes to the Monster Club, a private disco for all the things that go bump in the night. While at the club, Eramus teaches Chetwynd-Hayes of monster genealogy, which segues into the first vignette of the anthology.

The Shadmock - A bit of a Beauty and the Beast tale with a horrific twist, the vignette opens with a catatonic man sitting in a padded room and wrapped in a straight jacket. Outside the room, two psychiatrists speculate about what kind of trauma could have led to his condition. A moment later, we are taken back in time to a conniving couple, played by Barbara Kellerman and Simon Ward (the man in the padded room in the earlier scene), are searching the newspaper classifieds for someone to swindle; Angela answers an ad for a secretary position at an antiquary owned by Raven (James Laurenson), who, unbeknownst to Angela, is a Shadmock, and leads a tortured, solitary existence.

Despite initially being afraid of Raven (who is definitely channeling a bit of Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera), Angela takes the job. She's obviously conflicted in her decision to go ahead with the plan, as she seems to feel some sympathy for Raven, but despite her protestations, her skeevy boyfriend urges her to try to find out where Raven keeps his safe, reckoning that this is where he keeps all his cash and most valuable artifacts.

We first get a glimpse of the Shadmock's power when Raven is out on the lawn of his estate feeding the birds, which he has told Angela are his only friends. Unbeknownst to him, a stray cat is prowling the grounds and makes a quick meal of one of the birds when his back is turned. Devastated by the loss, Raven turns to the cat, purses his lips, and whistles. The sound is powerful enough to reach Angela, who is working inside, and she heads to the door to investigate. She is met by a distraught Raven, who is too traumatized by the event to speak. As he shuffles upstairs, she steps outside to find a smoldering, cat-shaped smudge on the ground.

Some time later, Raven, who has become quite taken with Angela, asks her to marry him. Again, she is conflicted, but she agrees at the behest of her boyfriend, who sees this as the perfect opportunity to clean Raven out of his riches. A grand party is held at the estate with all of Raven's family in attendance--masked, of course, as they are all apparently even uglier than him. During a ballroom dance, Angela slips away to Raven's safe. Just as she opens it, she turns to find Raven there, who tells her that she can take all of the money because the only thing he cares about is whether or not she loves him. "You...could love me," he pleads. Angela breaks down, screaming that she could never love him. Overcome with grief, the Shadmock once again purses his lips and whistles. In the ballroom, the entire party is brought to a halt by the noise.

Later, the boyfriend hears Angela enter the apartment and asks her how it went. Angela turns slowly toward him, revealing that her face has been completely melted off. As she advances slowly, repeating Raven's words, "you could love me," the boyfriend backs away in horror, his sanity shredded by the terrifying sight.

The Vampires - This segment of the film, though fittingly demented, is mostly played for laughs. As Eramus and Chetwynd-Hayes are taking in the club scene, a werewolf (the club's secretary) introduces their honored guest for the evening, Lintom Busotsky (an anagram of Milton Subotsky, the film's producer), a vampire film producer who is on hand to show a clip of his next movie, a semi-autobiographical story depicting his life as a bullied child and his relationship with his vampire father (played by Richard Johnson) and human mother (played by Britt Ekland).

In this vignette, we learn that Lintom's father is a "night worker" who dresses in black evening attire and whose job "has somezink to do vith ze food trade," because he's a vampire, get it? Johnson's characterization of Lintom's father is every bit the absurd Bela Lugosi stereotype, complete with an awful Eastern European accent that occasionally and inexplicably lapses into an awful French accent, with a bit of gee-golly-gosh, Ward Cleaver charm thrown in for good measure (or whatever passes for that in England). Before heading out, he warns Lintom to always beware of men carrying violin cases, the B-Squad.

Later, Lintom is being bullied by his peers at school and is rescued by Pickering (played by Donald Pleasence), who questions Lintom about his father. Pickering learns that Lintom's father is a nobleman who sleeps during the day, and suggests to Lintom that he should go down to where his father sleeps while his mother is away to see if he will wake up early to play with him. As he says this, a group of men carrying violin cases is seen some distance away, watching. Pickering nods knowingly to them.

Lintom's mother heads out to the market for some groceries, leaving him alone in the house. Pickering and his men spy on her, and seeing that she is gone, head to Lintom's home. Meanwhile, thinking of Pickering's suggestion, Lintom heads down to the cellar and learns the awful truth about his father, seeing him lying in a coffin.

Afraid, Lintom rushes out of the house...and into the clutches of Pickering and the B-Squad. Pickering explains that Lintom's father has been his most difficult case, and intends to have Lintom witness his father's destruction. They enter the cellar and find Lintom's father, and it is here we learn the significance of the B-Squad's violin cases, as they open one and retrieve a sharp wooden stake and a mallet. With these, Pickering stakes Lintom's father just as his mother descends into the cellar and screams upon seeing the event.

Pickering smiles triumphantly, but his victory is soured at the last moment as Lintom's father, seemingly with his dying breath, reaches up and grabs Pickering by the head, savagely biting his neck. With that, Lintom's father closes his eyes while the B-Squad look on in shock. Lintom's mother gives off a haughty laugh, telling Pickering that her husband had bitten him deeply, making him a vampire, and now the B-Squad must kill him as well. At that moment, Pickering sprouts fangs. Fearing for his life, he attempts to flee but is caught by the B-Squad, who stake him. They then haul him out on a stretcher and leave.

Lintom and his mother head back down to the cellar to look at his father for one last time, and are surprised when Lintom's father abruptly sits up and yanks the stake from his chest. Cackling, he tells them, "eet's a good ting I alvays vear thees stake-proof vest feeled vith tomato ketchup!" Then they embrace, a happy, whole family once again.

The Ghouls - Sam (played by Stuart Whitman) is a film director looking for a remote village in which to film his next horror movie. This segment features him happening upon a decrepit, rural village named Loughville out in the English countryside, seemingly deserted and isolated from civilization by a dense fog bank as he crosses a bridge to enter the town proper.

After some searching around, he enters an empty inn where he happens upon a strange, old man and asks him who runs the place and how to contact them. The man responds that the Elders run the village, and that they'll soon arrive. Not wanting to wait around, Sam says that he'll just have his production office sort things out and tries to leave.

As he turns to do so, he is aghast to find that the whole room is filled with pale, emaciated people, silently staring at him. He pushes past them and gets into his car, which mysteriously won't start. He gets out to check the engine and finds that several wires have clearly been cut. The townsfolk blame the incident on vermin and force Sam back into the inn, up the stairs, and into a room.

A young woman named Luna (played by Leslie Dunlop) enters the room with some food for Sam. During their conversation, Sam learns that she is a "humegoo," and that her mother was like him, lost in the fog from the "outside." She tells Sam that her mother died giving birth to her, and on the Great Gathering Night, the villagers' custom of exhuming the graves in the nearby graveyard for clothing and food meant that her mother's corpse was eaten. This distresses Sam greatly and he demands to know what the villagers intend to do with him; she replies that the ghouls must have their food.

Sam pleads for Luna to help him. Being sensitive to his plight, she instructs him to hide in the abandoned church, where ghouls cannot enter. Since she is half-human, she is able to enter, and says she will come when she can to further assist him. Sam leaves the inn and is immediately beset by ghouls, but true to Luna's word, the stop short of the church grounds and cannot follow him in.

Inside the church, Sam happens upon the corpse of the church Parson, long-rotted and sitting at a desk with a book of parchment beneath its skeletal hand. Sam reads the parchment, the last testimony of the Parson, and learns the truth of what happened--many years ago, the townsfolk who once inhabited the village discovered a ghoul in the graveyard and sought to drive it out, but the Parson intervened and bathed it and clothed it in an attempt to be kind to the creature. Then, one night, the ghoul was discovered in the graveyard, having dug up a corpse and feasting on its flesh. This time, the townspeople drove it out, but more and more came, eventually overrunning the town and killing all except the Parson, who found safety in the church.

As Sam finishes reading the horrifying account, he hears Luna outside and sees through the window that she is being attacked by the ghouls for trying to join him. Sam rushes to her aid with a cross from the church. As the ghouls shrink back at the sight of the cross, Luna dashes into the church. Inside, Luna confesses that her father beat her for helping Sam, and laments that if Sam leaves, she will be left there alone. Sam promises her that he will take her with him when he escapes.

The ghouls hurl stones at the church, breaking the windows. Sam uses the cross to buy them some time, propping it in the window and causing the ghouls to shrink back in fear once again. Luna tells Sam that the Elders are due to arrive that night for the Great Eating. They are not like other ghouls, but are very smart, and there will be no escape for them if they do not leave before nightfall. Taking up the cross, Sam tells Luna to run with him.

They rush from the church with the ghouls in hot pursuit. They make it to the mist wall, which Luna says was made by the elders and acts as a barrier to prevent the ghouls from leaving. They cross through, but Luna is struck by a rock hurled through the mist and is killed. Sam makes it to the highway and is able to flag down a police car, and asks the officers to take him to the police station. He gets in the car and they set off, but to his dismay, they drive him right back into the village.

A car appears behind them, and the officers state that they always give the Elders a police escort when they return to Loughville. As they pull to a stop in the village, the ghouls crowd around the car, and the two officers turn around, grinning at Sam with rows of fangs in their mouths. Sam screams.

After the vignette has ended, we rejoin Eramus and Chetwynd-Hayes in the Monster Club, where Eramus states that he has taken a liking to Chetwynd-Hayes and wants to make him a member. At first, the other monsters balk at the idea since Chetwynd-Hayes is only a "hume," but Eramus cites the countless ways in which humans have proven themselves to be the best monsters of all, killing each other throughout the whole of history in brutal and ingenuitive ways. This wins over the monsters, who have never realized that humans were capable of such horror, and the film ends with Chetwynd-Hayes becoming an honorary member of the Monster Club and dancing the night away with Eramus and the monsters.

Overall, this is a fun little flick that signals the end of an era and heralds the beginning of a new one, serving as a sort of transition from the heyday of  horror production houses like Hammer and Amicus to the horror films of the eighties. Production value notwithstanding (all of the monsters in the Monster Club are barely more than people wearing extremely cheap, goofy-looking Halloween masks, and the musical interludes between the stories are very much a product of their time), it features some memorable tales and relies more on that ol' tried and true Amicus method of building a palpable sense of horror and dread (for the first and third vignettes, anyway) rather than falling back on cheap gross-out horror the way so many modern films tend to do. As it is not that well-remembered today, I highly suggest seeking out a copy and giving it a watch. Thankfully, it is available on Blu-ray for a decent price, depending where you look, and it is also available for home streaming through Amazon Prime. Be sure to drop us a line and let us know what you think of The Monster Club!

October 19, 2016

REVIEW: THE BRAINIAC (1962)


Today’s film is a fun little oddity coming all the way from Mexico. I haven’t been able to find much information regarding The Brainiac, or as it is known in its home country, El Barón del Terror (The Baron of Terror), but the movie shares several major plot points with 1960’s Black Sunday, directed by Mario Bava (featured in a previous review here). Just as in Black Sunday, the film’s opening scene takes place in the past as the antagonist is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death. Before being executed, he calls down a curse upon the people responsible for his death, saying he will one day return to exact his revenge on them by murdering their descendants. Black Sunday predates The Brainiac by two years, so it is entirely possible that it found inspiration in Bava’s inaugural masterpiece, but for the most part, the similarities end there. Whereas Black Sunday is a legitimately terrifying gothic horror film, The Brainiac stands on its own two (wobbly) legs as a prime example of purely cheesy Mexican horror cinema, or as I like to call it, “Cine Queso.” Let’s delve into it, shall we?

The Brainiac is directed by Chano Urueta, written by Federico Curiel, Antonio Orellana, and Adolfo López Portillo, and features a wonderful, almost kitschy musical score by Gustavo César Carrión which is easily the highlight of the whole movie. The film stars Abel Salazar, Ruben Rojo, Rosa Maria Gallardo, Luis Aragón, Germán Robles, and René Cardona in the principal roles. Sharp-eyed readers may remember Germán Robles for his various roles in Mexican horror cinema as the vampire Count Karol de Lavud from 1957’s El Vampiro (The Vampire) and 1958’s El ataúd del Vampiro (The Vampire’s Coffin). Abel Salazar, the villain of The Brainiac, also starred in these films as the protagonist.

We open in the year 1661 as a man, Baron Vitelius d’Estera (Salazar), is standing trial in the chambers of the Inquisition for the crimes of heresy, witchcraft, necromancy, and the seduction of married women and maidens, among a host of other accusations. In a classic case of “Tell, Don’t Show,” the Inquisitors read aloud the various torture methods that have been used on d’Estera prior to the movie’s opening, all of which have had virtually no effect. In fact, d’Estera is thoroughly enjoying their consternation, smiling smugly as each charge and torture method is recalled. Effectively, the movie has already gone out of its way to establish that the Baron is a complete jerk, and we’re not even three minutes into the runtime.

Much to the surprise of the members of the Inquisition, who, by the way, are all dressed in black robes with black hoods to obscure their faces, a supporter of the Baron has arrived to plead in his defense. This is Marcos Miranda (Rojo), who is given absolutely no backstory or purpose in the film other than to defend the accused, stating that he has known the Baron to be a respectable man of high virtue and intelligence, and a dedicated apostle to the sciences. Really, he just sort of shows up and says, “hey, this guy is A-OK to me.” The members of the Inquisition, of course, believe none of this, and sentence Miranda to two hundred lashes for his insolence. As Miranda is taken away, the Inquisition makes its final decision with the Baron...he will be relieved of all of his personal property and burned alive. Smiling, the Baron states, “that sounds fine...but not with chains.” Suddenly, the balls and chains binding him disappear and he casually walks out of the room. The two tribunal members closest to him attempt to give chase...but the balls and chains have somehow materialized around their hands and feet, giving them some difficulty as they struggle to capture him.

Wait...why on earth would he let them burn him alive if he had the power to escape the whole time? And why would he place a curse on them for killing him after he went along with the whole thing of his own accord? Man, this guy really is a jerk. Amusingly, this is the first of many, many inconsistencies within the story, but we’ll get to more of that later.

A bit later, while the members of the tribunal and Miranda watch, the Baron is tied up and set ablaze in what has to be one of the most laughable special effects shots I’ve ever seen, even for a movie from the 60’s. Basically, they just superimpose footage of fire over him in the shot, but it’s plainly obvious that it’s a small fire filmed at close range, because the tongues of flames are FAR too big to be convincing, given that this is a wide shot and the Baron is very tiny in the center of the screen. As if that wasn’t bad enough, both the Baron and Miranda look up to see a comet passing overhead...an unmoving, very still image of a comet, superimposed over a fairly obvious painting of stars which is being moved from left to right to insinuate the comet flying through the sky. Seriously, I have no words for how bad this looks, again, even for what was possible with 60’s era SFX.

Adding to the ridiculousness of this scene is the fact that both Miranda and the Baron take turns looking at the comet, then looking to each other, then back to the comet, then back to each other… And they do this a total of five times! The filmmakers could have established...whatever this was supposed to be...with a total of two cuts, max. Why on earth does it go on for so long? It’s so awkward!

Anyway, the Baron, who even though engulfed in flame seems to be completely unaffected as he is barely breaking a sweat, takes the opportunity to bring down the curse. Even though the members of the tribunal are wearing hoods to protect their identities, he uses his magic to see through the hoods and calls each of them out by name...Baltasar de Meneses, Álvaro Contreras, Sebastián de Pantoja, and Herlindo del Vivar...stating that he will return in three hundred years time, when this comet again passes by the earth, to exact his revenge on their descendants. They don’t seem too broken up about it, though, because the scene just lingers on with the Baron on fire for a few moments longer before we suddenly experience a time jump to the present day (1961 in this film), to a posh nightclub where several people are dancing and enjoying drinks.

It is here that we meet Reynaldo Miranda, a descendant of Marcos Miranda (played by the same actor, Rojo) and his girlfriend Victoria Contreras (Gallardo). They are both astronomers under the tutelage of Professor Saturnino Millán (Aragón), who is expecting them. When they realize they are about to be late, the excuse themselves from the club and head over to the observatory, which is merely a huge picture of an observatory plastered on the wall just behind their car as they pull into the scene. This effect is used a ludicrous amount of times for the rest of the film, as absolutely nothing was ever filmed outside (everything was apparently filmed on a sound stage), and there are even some scenes where the lighting is calibrated so badly that you can see their shadows on the backgrounds as they pass too closely to the wall. After the professor quizzes them and spouts a bunch of techno-babble about comets, he comes down to the reason he called them there—while poring over old manuscripts, he discovered that a comet which passes by Earth every three hundred years is scheduled to make an appearance any minute now. When they find it in the telescope, the Professor hogs it all to himself, forcing the other two to head to the roof and watch it from a much, much smaller telescope. Reynaldo and Victoria realize that the comet has mysteriously changed its trajectory and will fall to the earth, so they set out in their car to find it.

Yet another terrible special effect is in store for us as the comet, which is obviously made of a wooden framework and covered in cloth painted to look like rock, descends on wires and thumps clumsily to the ground. A man who just happens to be driving by sees the action and decides to investigate. Much to his chagrin, the comet disappears, revealing a strange, hairy beast with weird pincer hands, a weirdly pulsating face, and a long, forked tongue. The creature attacks the man and kills him by awkwardly poking him in the base of his skull with its forked tongue, which apparently is more akin to a pointy straw as it penetrates the man’s skull and sucks out his brain (lovingly referred to in this film as encephalic mass). Suddenly the man’s clothes disappear from the corpse, leaving him there in his underwear, and reappear on the creature, whose features have also now changed to reveal...dun dun dun!!! Baron Vitelius d’Estera, back from the dead...uh...or, comet, I guess. It doesn’t really make any sense, but let’s just go along with it. If I think about it too much, I may start foaming at the mouth.

Reynaldo and Victoria arrive on the scene and meet the Baron, who feigns that he saw the meteor himself, and the three strike up a conversation about their mutual love for astronomy, blah blah blah. Reynaldo gives the Baron his card, and he and Victoria leave. Even though the Baron has barely moved from the area where the passerby was killed, no one seems to notice a dead body lying on the ground in his underwear. Go figure.

The Baron then goes to a bar. When he arrives, he sees a lady sitting alone and starts walking in...and disappears! He then rematerializes standing directly behind her. What was the point of this little supernatural display? I mean, other than establishing the fact that he can make himself disappear? Who knows. It doesn’t matter. The lady turns to him and starts putting on the moves, but the Baron simply stares at her. She seems to take no offense to this, however, and we’re left wondering if this is just another of his many previously unestablished powers—the power to be a jerk and still have a woman fawning over him. It’s closing time and the manager tries to run him off, but the lady insists that he is an old friend, and asks the manager to pour him a brandy. The manager obliges, then leaves to put the cash from the day’s transactions into the safe in the next room. The lady continues trying to make conversation with the Baron, who remains mute, save for an odd light flashing across his face. Again, we are left to wonder if this is indeed a power of his...it appears that he can mentally control people, and the flashing light across his face is an indication of this power in practice...but since he does nothing to control the woman in this scene, there’s really no point for it to be there except to making him somewhat more menacing. Anyway, the lady gets “frustrated” and “pretends to leave,” meaning that she takes a whole two steps away from him and then waits with a smile on her face for him to respond. (To my female readers I ask, has this tactic ever worked for you?) While she has her back to him, he turns into the ghoulish, hairy demon monster with weirdo pincers for hands. She hears the growls behind her, turns, and screams as he attacks her and sucks her brain out. Meanwhile, in the next room, the manager is still putting money in the safe and looks up for a moment, wondering if he might have heard something before going back to counting his money.

Later, a forensic surgeon is spewing exposition on the condition of the two bodies found the previous night (the passerby and the woman from the bar) to a Police Inspector (David Silva) and his partner (Federico Curiel, one of the writers of the film), detailing in gruesome fashion how something sharp, possibly a drill, was used with surgical precision to remove the victims’ encephalic masses. The Inspector and his partner deliberate, stating that they believe the killer was the one who made the perforations. Duh! You think?! They also state that a bank on the same street as the bar was robbed on the same night of lots of cash and jewels. I had no idea that banks kept jewels in their vaults, but oh well.

The Baron, meanwhile, is out making the rounds, and comes across a prostitute who asks him to light her cigarette. They then kiss passionately. Dang, this woman gets down to brass tacks with a quickness. Unfortunately for her, the Baron starts the whole flashing-light-across-the-face routine before turning into the hair demon monster thingy, and sucks out her brain as well.

Back at the observatory, Reynaldo, Victoria, and the Professor are trying to figure what on earth happened to the comet (I thought it fell to the earth?) and Reynaldo states that it may have been some kind of hallucination, which the Professor vehemently rejects. All three admit to seeing the comet, but correspondence with other astronomers the world over show no evidence of a comet passing by the Earth at that time. Victoria notices an invitation from the Baron mixed in with the mail; it seems he has purchased a new house and is throwing a party. They all decide to attend, if anything, to save their sanity since no one seems to know what happened to the comet.

At the Baron’s party, there are several people of prominence in attendance, including (you guessed it!) all the descendants of the Inquisition members. These are, in no particular order, Indalecio Pantoja (Robles); Luis Meneses (Cardona) and his fiancée; Ana Luisa del Vivar (Magda Urvizu); and, of course, if you haven’t figured it out by now...Victoria, who is attending along with Reynaldo and the Professor. As with the first scene in the film, the faces of the original Inquisitors is superimposed over each of the descendants’ faces, just so we’re clear on who’s who and how they’re connected in this elaborate web of revenge. Also in attendance are the Inspector and his partner, who have been assigned to watch over the party and prevent any thieves from stealing any of the Baron’s precious jewels, yet it never occurs to them that these may be the very same jewels which were stolen from the bank...oy! The Baron offers the Professor, Reynaldo, and Victoria a drink, but when asked if he too will join them with a drink, the Baron responds that, due to an old ailment, he cannot have any liquor. Nevermind that he at least took a sip of the brandy ordered for him by the woman at the bar earlier in the film. The Baron then excuses himself to a corner of the room, which, mind you, is full of people, not to mention two police officers, all of whom fail to notice him open a wooden cabinet and pull out a huge, ornate silver bowl full of brains, and eat some. Nevermind that, where did he get these brains?! Are these the brains he sucked out from his victims earlier? If so, how are they still whole? Sucking them out of their heads with a relatively thin, hollow tongue should mean that they are in bits and pieces, but these are in such pristine condition that Victor Frankenstein would be proud. Does he go out and just remove brains from people with a mallet and chisel? It’s never established that there are any other victims aside from the ones in the morgue, so your guess is as good as mine.

Apparently, all of the guests at the party have had such a good time that all of the Inquisitors’ descendants invite the Baron to various events, weddings, homes, etc., which he happily obliges. The first he decides to meet with is Indalecio Pantoja, who along with his beautiful daughter Maria, presents the Baron with texts from the Inquisition days. And wouldn’t you know it, there just happens to be a passage about the execution of a convicted criminal with the name Baron Vitelius d’Estera! At first, Pantoja thinks this is merely a remarkable coincidence, but the Baron reveals that he is indeed the Vitelius d’Estera mentioned in the texts. He then uses his hypnotic powers (read: light flashing across his face) to render Pantoja immobile, and the poor man is forced to watch as the Baron compels Maria to make out with him before turning into the hairy demon beast, who then sucks their brains out. Adding insult to injury, the Baron-Monster then sets fire to their home, burning the corpses along with the Inquisition’s texts. Why does he do this? To cover his tracks by making it look like a tragic accident? Maybe throw off the police, who are looking for a killer who drills into the base of people’s skulls and suck out their brains? Well, it doesn’t matter, as even though the bodies are charred to a crisp by the next day when the Inspector and his partner arrive on the scene, it is still plainly obvious that both bodies have two perforations at the base of their skulls, so they know that it’s still the same killer.

Meanwhile, back at the observatory, the Professor, Reynaldo, and Victoria are feverishly searching for any sign of the comet. At this point, I don’t know why they bother, but in the old text from which the Professor first learned of the comet, he does come across a passage linking the comet with a sorcerer who was condemned to death three hundred years ago. Apparently, he never noticed that earlier.

The Baron is busy visiting Luis Meneses and his wife at a foundry. The Baron feigns interest in using the foundry to create a new type of metal, which sounds very interesting, but this is all quickly discarded as the Baron once again turns into the hairy demon thingy and sucks out the brain of Meneses’s wife. Using his hypnotic power to control Meneses, the Baron compels him to open the door to the foundry, which causes the man to quickly become engulfed in flames.

Well, at this point, the police are beginning to notice that the deaths are connected to the Baron’s party, which they were in attendance, as well, so that’s got to be pretty embarrassing. Nevertheless, the Inspector and his partner (the two forever remaining nameless in this film, as I might point out) decide to pay a visit to the Baron and question him. The Baron states that he couldn’t have been the killer, as he has only been in town for a couple of weeks. Why he thinks this will remove him from suspicion is anyone’s guess, but apparently it works, as the two cops accept that as a perfectly logical alibi and leave. Seemingly unnerved by being questioned by the police, the Baron then retreats to his Brain Corner, and removes the bowl of brains from the locked wooden cabinet, then takes them a few steps further away to a large wooden box, locking them inside. What purpose does this serve? “Oh no, someone may find my brains in the locked box...Ooh, I know, I’ll put them in another locked box!” (“And then I’ll put that box inside another box, and then I’ll smash it with a hammer!”)

The Baron attends the wedding of Ana Luisa del Vivar and her fiancée, Francisco Coria, wishing them much happiness. Or, at least, he would have attended had it not been for the fact that he is egregiously late, the wedding is over, and the bride and groom are on the way out of the church. They forgive him, however, and state that they will contact him later. After they leave, the Baron runs into Reynaldo and Victoria, who were also attending the wedding, the former reminding everyone that they’re still trying to locate that pesky comet because that part of the storyline just doesn’t know when to die.

Later that night, Ana Luisa is brushing her hair at a vanity in their honeymoon suite when the Baron suddenly walks in unannounced. Even with the hypnotic light flashing across his face, Ana Luisa starts to freak out when the Baron does not respond to her, and she begins to call for her husband, who is in the bathroom. She opens the door to find him hanging upside down in the shower, drowned in the bath water. How the Baron managed this little feat without entering the bathroom previously (there are no windows or doors in there) is beyond me. Maybe he can use his telepathic powers on people when they’re not even around him? Just how powerful is this dude, anyway?

Of course, he proceeds to make a quick meal out of Ana Luisa’s delicious encephalic mass, and just like that, we’re down to one descendant remaining.

The police, still feverishly putting clues together, decide to visit the tomb wherein lie the remains of the members of the Inquisition, and realize that the people being murdered are related to the members of the tribunal which sentenced the Baron to death three hundred years ago. Whoa, movie, calm down! How in the world did they arrive to the conclusion that all their questions could be answered by visiting the tomb? The world will never know. Realizing that Victoria is the final victim, they rush to the observatory and question the Professor, who states that Reynaldo and Victoria have been invited to the Baron’s house, and left about an hour ago. Does he know that the reason they’ve been summoned to the Baron’s is because the Baron has told Reynaldo and Victoria that he knows when the comet will pass over again that evening? I mean, to the audience, that’s obviously bull-honkey, but with the Professor being the most upset over not being able to find the comet, you’d think he’d jump at the chance to view it again, so why he’s at the observatory is a complete mystery to me. And Reynaldo must be one terrible astronomer to actually believe the comet would be passing over again after just a few weeks, when it’s already been established that the blasted thing only passes over once every three hundred years. But whatever.

At the Baron’s house, the Baron excuses himself to take some “medication” for his previously established “condition,” which still doesn’t make sense to me given that the dude already drank brandy earlier in the movie. Reynaldo spies the Baron opening a large wooden box and doing...something. When he returns, he offers to take Victoria...just Victoria...to another part of the house to pick out a jewel of her choosing as an early wedding gift (I think maybe somewhere down the line, it was established that Reynaldo and Victoria are getting married, but it’s mentioned so briefly I forgot to write anything about it), which instantly sets Reynaldo on edge. He reluctantly agrees to let her go with the Baron, deciding to use his alone time to inspect the Baron’s big wooden box.

The Baron takes Victoria to a room and presents her a box full of jewels, and then proceeds to tell her how conflicted he is because he’s in love with her, but he has vowed to kill her.

MOVIE. SLOW DOWN.

No matter...his hatred trumps his love for her, whatever that means, and he turns into the hairy demon beast thing.

Meanwhile, Reynaldo has pried open the box with a letter opener and is horrified to discover a big bowl of brains. At that moment, Victoria, who has somehow escaped the Baron, comes screaming into the room, followed by this weird monster thing wearing the Baron’s clothes. Confronting the monster, the Baron telepathically communicates with Reynaldo, warning him not to interfere as his ancestor defended the Baron during the tribunal three hundred years ago, and he has not forgotten that.

Now, I feel for Reynaldo at this point in the film...he has no intimate knowledge of what’s going on. All the guy knows is that there’s a big bowl of brains in a box, the Baron has turned into some kind of freaky, pincer-handed monster with a crazy tongue and a pulsating face, and now he’s being told that his ancestor was even stupider than he is. Nevertheless, he decides to face off against the creature, telling Victoria to run.

This is to no avail, however, as the Baron simply uses his disappearing powers to phase right through Reynaldo...and then re-materialize so he has to run around the furniture in order to get to Victoria. For all his previously established, albeit inconsistent powers, this guy is an idiot.

Fear not, though! The police have arrived with flamethrowers!

Wait, what?!

Nevermind! Too much going on! It’s the climax! They distract the Baron, giving Victoria a chance to get away from the creature, and then let the fire loose. Will the Baron use his evil mind control powers to make the police turn the flamethrowers on themselves?

No?

Oh. Yeah, they just burn him. And he dies. And then re-materializes his clothing from three hundred years ago. And then dissolves into a skeleton with no hands or feet.

Roll credits!

Well, that's The Brainiac. For all of its idiosyncrasies, this flick is totally fun to watch. It’s quintessential viewing for anyone who enjoys cheesy horror/sci-fi cinema from the 50’s and 60’s; I’m fairly certain one could even dream up a drinking game for it based on how many times the word “comet” is used or how many times the Baron’s powers make no sense, etc. In the end, if you’re looking for a great little gem of a black and white film to enjoy laughing at this Halloween season with some friends, look no further than this one. The Brainiac is currently streaming on Netflix, so what are you waiting for?

I hope you enjoyed this review. I had a blast writing it. Remember, if you have any suggestions for films that you’d like to see on this site, drop me a line in the contact form to the right. Until next time, readers!

October 12, 2016

REVIEW: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1989)


Phantom of the Opera is a 1989 horror film directed by Dwight H. Little, written by Gerry O’Hara, and features Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, Alex Hyde-White, Bill Nighy, Terence Harvey, Stephanie Lawrence, Emma Rawson, and Molly Shannon. Today, the film seems to be best remembered for its haunting orchestral soundtrack, composed by Misha Segal, which is still highly sought after by fans of obscure film scores. Loosely based on the 1910 novel of the same name written by Gaston Leroux, it bears a passing resemblance to the original story, with many changes made to both characters and setting.

The film opens in present-day New York (circa 1989, of course), where a young aspiring opera singer and student, Christine Day (Schoelen), is hunkered down in the basement of a music library, thumbing through mounds of old, dusty music in search of a unique piece to sing for her upcoming audition. Her friend, Meg (Shannon, later of Saturday Night Live fame), comes across a single page of a piece titled “Don Juan Triumphant,” written by a mysterious composer named Erik Destler. Upon researching, the two find little info about Destler but do discover a footnote which posits that he might have been responsible for a string of murders and the disappearance of a young opera singer. With her impeccable sight-reading skills, Christine hums the tune from page, remarking that the music is too gentle to have been written by a man guilty of such atrocities. Having decided that this is the piece she will sing, the two split up to search for the rest of the music, and Christine eventually finds a leather-bound book in the ‘rare and out of print’ section containing the rest of the music. As she looks, the notes on the page begin to drip blood, and she closes the book in shock.

Later at her audition, Christine takes the stage, introducing her self as a second-year student at Julliard, and begins to sing the piece. Above her, a careless stage technician accidentally releases a sand bag which plummets down, smashing a nearby mirror and knocking Christine out. As this transitions the film to the London Opera House in 1881, we hear a mysterious voice chanting, “Christine, Christine, come back to me!” Christine awakens to her friend, Meg (this incarnation from 1881 portrayed by Emma Rawson), helping her up after an accident which mirrors what just transpired on screen in New York, 1989. Here, Christine is the understudy of the diva, La Carlotta, the London Opera’s star singer, and was rehearsing on stage when accident occurred. Meg tells her to get some rest since Carlotta has been stressing her voice, and Christine may have to go on in her stead later.

Far below the London Opera, a mysterious figure sits in darkness, using a rather menacing looking needle and thread and some theater makeup to apply fresh pieces of human skin to his scarred visage. Before him is a picture of Christine, as well as several pages of music. Though we are not privy to the entirety of his scarred face sans “surgery,” we do see his face after he’s finished: the Phantom, a.k.a. Erik Destler (Englund), looking a bit rough even after applying the theater makeup to cover the scars and stitches, albeit normal enough to go out in public at night.

A scene shifter by the name of Joseph, who is at fault for the accident, is talking and drinking with his friends, stating that “the Opera Ghost” is what actually caused the accident. His friends ridicule him, stating that he probably had his eye on the pretty opera singer, and he goes off by himself where he is stalked and eventually confronted on a catwalk by the Phantom. It seems old Erik is none too pleased with being blamed for the accident. Afraid for his life, Joseph states that it won’t happen again, but the Phantom kicks him from the catwalk. Joseph’s foot is caught in one of the sand bag ropes, which breaks his fall before he can hit the ground, but the Phantom, now brandishing a knife, pulls a lever which brings Joseph shooting back upward. As Joseph rockets past the catwalk, the Phantom plunges the knife into him, slicing him open from groin to sternum, killing him.

Later, in Christine’s room, Christine is visited by the Phantom, though indirectly (suggestive camera tricks imply he may be behind the mirror, but it’s never clear where he is actually hiding). It turns out she believes he’s an angel sent to her by her deceased father, and he’s been giving her voice lessons to help her achieve greatness in the opera. He asks her to sing for him, and she obliges, singing the part assigned to her. The Phantom shouts “No!” and commands her to sing the lead part...Carlotta’s part. Christine sings the role of Marguerite from Faust, much to the Phantom’s delight, who says that only she can sing the role as it was meant to be sung.

That evening, Carlotta (Lawrence), who is jealous of Christine’s skill and has done everything in her power to keep her away from the limelight for fear of losing her status to her, is bathing in her private quarters. After finishing, she stands before the mirror of her wardrobe, admiring herself, when she suddenly slips. Looking down, she is horrified to find a large puddle of blood on the floor, and opens the wardrobe to find the skinned body of Joseph. Suddenly, Joseph’s eyes open and he claws out to her, ripping the towel from her body and gurgling “help me!” Carlotta dashes away, screaming so hard she renders her own voice hoarse.

In the wake of the tragedy, the role of Marguerite is assigned to Christine, much to the chagrin of one of the new opera owners, Martin Barton (Nighy). He believes Christine is not remotely the box office draw that Carlotta is, and fears a major financial backlash. To make matters worse, he is also incensed to discover that a monthly is reserved for the alleged “opera ghost,” as well as Box 5, one of their most prime house seats. His partner, Richard Dutton (Hyde-White), dismisses the notion as mere superstition among long-time employees of the theater, and assures Barton that everyone will fall in love with Christine once they hear her sing.

Before the opera begins, the audience is told that La Carlotta has suddenly taken ill and will be unable to perform. Many of the patrons groan and begin to leave, which causes Barton to panic. Dutton tells him that he’ll have a word with Carlotta and leaves, eventually running into and conversing with Inspector Hawkins (Harvey), who has been inspecting the crime scene and shockingly seems to know who is to blame for the murder, stating, “I have seen this work before. It isn’t the work of any phantom or ghost, it is the work of an artist who works in flesh.”

Back at the opera, the Phantom takes his seat in Box 5. He has arrived in time to experience the scene in the opera during which Mephistopheles appears to Faust, and we flash back to the Phantom’s origin. Many years ago, he was once Erik Destler, a struggling composer playing his music on the piano. A small, misshapen man, presumably an incarnation of the Devil, descends the stairs along with two beautiful women, and asks Destler who’s music it is. Destler relates that it is his own composition, and the little man proceeds to ask what Destler would give for people to love his music. Destler states that he would give anything, even his soul, for people to love his music. The small man smiles and places his hand over Destler’s face, resulting in the hideous scarring he has had ever since, stating that people will indeed love his music...but that is all they will ever love him for.

The Phantom stirs from his reverie in time to behold Christine taking the stage, and to his sheer delight, absolutely nailing the part of Marguerite. She receives a standing ovation from the ecstatic crowd, and an immensely pleased Phantom vacates the box, leaving behind a gold coin and a rose. Later, as he is walking among the filthy streets of a seedy part of London, the Phantom is propositioned by several prostitutes and nearly passes them all by until he finds one that reminds him of Christine. He pays her in gold and instructs her to leave the room in darkness, telling her that her name is “Christine” for the evening.

Celebrating Christine’s triumph at a restaurant later, Christine excitedly relates to Dutton how her father’s “angel” comes to her and teaches her. He asks her to marry him, but she replies that she cannot, at least, not right now. Meanwhile, Barton conspires with a newspaper opera critic to give Christine a scathing review, believing she will never be able to attain Carlotta’s status as the opera’s diva.

Back at the inn, the Phantom sits composing at a table in the corner, eyed by a trio of thugs sitting elsewhere. They remark to the bar maid that the man in the corner must be rich to pay her in gold, but she instructs them to leave him alone. One of the men goes over to meet the Phantom, who tells them in no uncertain terms that he wishes to remain left alone. As the Phantom leaves, the three men follow after him, intent on robbing him. As they confront him in a deserted alley, they quickly come to regret their decision as the Phantom, with almost supernatural ability, dispatches each of them easily in gruesome fashion without losing a breath.

The next morning, Meg arrives in Christine’s room with a copy of the newspaper, which contains a review of the opera. At first, Christine is excited, but she is horrified to find that the review speaks very ill of her performance. Meg attempts to comfort Christine, but Christine is now resigned to the idea that she has failed.

Meanwhile, at a local bath house, the man who wrote the scathing review heads into the steam room, where the Phantom awaits, his face covered by a towel so as to conceal his scarred visage. The two strike up a conversation which leads to the Phantom asking the reviewer to consider “revising” his opinion, which the reviewer indignantly refuses, stating that he would rather die than listen to that girl attempt to sing again. Angered, the Phantom states, “as you wish,” and wraps the towel around the reviewer’s head, tightening it until the man’s skull is crushed, then smashing his head into the tiled wall for good measure.

Later, Dutton arrives looking for Christine but just misses her as she sets out to visit her father’s grave. He follows after her. At the graveyard, Christine speaks to her father’s grave, stating that she felt his presence at the opera the other night but she doesn’t know if she can go on singing. As if on queue, the Phantom appears, playing the melody from “Don Juan Triumphant” on a violin, and beckons Christine to enter his coach. Dutton arrives at the cemetery but is unable to enter as the gates have mysteriously locked themselves. As he shouts for Christine, who can’t seem to hear him (or she may be in a trance, it’s hard to tell), the Phantom plays a high note on the violin which is so piercingly loud that it causes Dutton to drop to his knees, clutching his ears in pain. The coach rides off, leaving Dutton alone.

Back at the Phantom’s lair, Christine is reassured of her greatness by the Phantom, who tells her that in her dressing room, he was only able to teach her the words, but here in his home, he can teach her the real meaning of music. Christine comes across the book of music (the very same one we saw in the basement of the music library at the beginning of the film), and the film suddenly becomes a bit confusing, as for the first time, it is hinted that she displays memories of his music and his true identity as she learned from the beginning of the film, in 1989. She asks him to play. He refuses, stating that it is not finished yet, but she persists, and he gives in and is immediately both fascinated and distraught when she begins singing the words to his composition. He asks her how she knows his music, stating that no one has ever heard it before, and she states that she has sung them before. The Phantom appears to take this as a sign that they are fated to be together, and forces a wedding ring on her finger, telling her that she is now married to the music and that she cannot serve two masters. He then warns her to never see another.

Dutton meets with Inspector Hawkins in a church, where Hawkins tells Dutton the story of the Phantom, recapping what we’ve already seen previously. Dutton fills us in on a part of the legend we have not yet heard, however, that in order to kill the Phantom, one must destroy his music. We are then treated to the film’s “unmasking” sequence, in which the Phantom, now alone in his lair, uses a variety of surgical equipment to remove the pieces of flesh he steals from his victims, revealing his scarred face in full for the first time.

Back in her dressing room, Christine is trying to remove the ring to no avail when Meg arrives, confusing the ring for a wedding proposal from Dutton. Christine learns from Meg that the reviewer from the newspaper has been murdered, and she finally begins to realize how dire the situation is. They hear the front doorbell ring and Meg looks out the window, telling Christine that it is Dutton. She begs her to tell him that she is not there. Before leaving, Dutton tells Meg that Christine is in grave danger.

Later that evening, Christine attends a masked ball at the opera with several people of prominence in attendance, including Dutton, Barton, and Carlotta. Dutton, wanting to alert Christine to the danger posed by the Phantom, approaches Christine, who is afraid they will be seen together. Dutton tells her he will go get a coach immediately, and by tomorrow, this will all be behind them. She leaves with him, but unknown to them, the Phantom has been eavesdropping, attending the ball himself dressed in full Masque of the Red Death regalia. Carlotta spies him and, intrigued, dances with him when he makes his way to her. The two of them go off together to a secluded place, where smiling, she asks, “what will I think when I see your face?” The Phantom responds with, “you’ll just...die.” He allows her to remove the skull mask, but her terrified scream is cut off as he clamps his hand over her mouth.

Meanwhile, Inspector Hawkins is in attendance as well, though he is not dressed for the party. He is confronted by an old, wheezing man, who tells him that the thing he is searching for has already come and gone under his nose. It turns out that this man is the one the Phantom pays to clear out the rats in the catacombs beneath the opera. Hawkins demands that the man help him find the Phantom’s lair. As they leave, caterers begin to set up the food presentation for the evening. As one of the caterers prepares to ladle soup into individual bowls, Carlotta’s severed head bobs up in the pot, causing a mass panic as everyone screams and attempts to flee the ball. Amid the confusion, the Phantom appears and whisks Christine away while Dutton helplessly watches.

Dutton meets up with Inspector Hawkins and his team of officers, and together with the rat catcher, they give chase, descending into the catacombs. The rat catcher states that they will be overwhelmed by rats if he does not go on ahead to clear them out, and as he sets out on his own, he comes across the Phantom. As retribution for his betrayal, the Phantom kills him. The Phantom then stalks the catacombs, picking off the other officers one by one, using his superior knowledge of the labyrinthine tunnels to draw them apart from one another.

Dutton and Hawkins reach the Phantom’s lair and find a terrified Christine, but the Phantom appears. Dutton grapples with the Phantom. In the scuffle, Hawkins is pushed down a flight of stairs, appearing to have died. At this point, the Phantom has regained the upper hand, stabbing Dutton with a candle-lit spike and setting him on fire with the numerous candles. Christine takes this time to knock over more of the candelabras, setting the place ablaze. The Phantom then confronts Christine, but before he can grab her, Hawkins, who is revealed to still be barely alive, manages to shoot the Phantom multiple times.

Christine then rushes to knock one last candelabra into a mirror, shattering it in a moment that echoes the sand bag scene from the beginning of the film, and we are suddenly catapulted back to 1989, where Christine is lying on stage surrounded by a dozen people asking what happened. As she is coming to, someone is coming on stage and shouting for people to get back. A face appears, and Christine is shocked to see a man who looks just like Erik Destler looking down on her. It turns out this is Mr. Foster, the producer and major backer of the opera for which Christine was auditioning. Meg and Foster’s underling head off to haggle the terms of Christine’s contract while Foster invites Christine out for drinks.

Foster and Christine make a quick stop at Foster’s posh penthouse apartment for him to change, and he instructs her to make herself at home while she waits. When he gets to his dressing room, he notices a small puncture on his cheek in the mirror. Cursing, he opens a secret compartment, revealing...multiple elaborate masks of his face. He then picks up a scalpel, and with a grim look on his face, sets about removing his face.

Meanwhile, Christine is looking at Foster’s studio and accidentally switches on the computer, which immediately begins playing a MIDI version of “Don Juan Triumphant.” Horrified, Christine struggles to switch it off. When she finally finds the off switch, she hears Foster behind her, bearing a fresh face, and she confronts him, accusing him of being the Phantom. Foster (or Destler, as we have known for a few minutes now by this point), confirms it, stating that she has always been his inspiration and that she made it all possible. He again presents her with the choice...love or music. Lulling him into a false sense of security, she leans in as if to kiss him, then grabs a handful of flesh and rips his face off, revealing that the Phantom has become even more disfigured in the fire back in 1881. Christine grabs a nearby knife and stabs him in the stomach, then collects the sheet music and disks from the computer and dashes out of the apartment. Outside, she tears the music apart and tosses it all down the storm drain, and we hear the Phantom scream as he finally perishes.

A bit later, Christine is walking the streets alone and passes by a street performer playing a lively piece on the violin. As she passes by, he steps out onto the sidewalk and begins playing the refrain from “Don Juan Triumphant.” Christine looks back forlornly for a moment, then walks off into the night, intent to leave it all behind her. Here, the film ends, and credits roll.

Phantom of the Opera is a strange exercise in adapting a story for the screen; based purely on its own merits as a film, and not a derivative work, the film works in certain ways and fails miserably in some others. This is definitely a darker telling of the story we are all familiar with, portraying a truly sadistic Phantom who takes utter glee in gutting his victims; gore hound fans of 80’s slasher films are sure to get a kick out of the death scenes, but they feel shoehorned in to appeal to a very specific demographic when taken with the rest of the story. It’s nearly impossible to feel sympathetic for the Phantom, as the film tries so desperately to make us, when he’s such an evil, malicious creature. The decision to have part of the film set in modern day New York with ties to the supernatural and even time travel is an ambitious one, but ultimately fruitless as it really adds nothing to the story.

Thankfully, the film does not suffer too much for this, giving us respectable performances and a familiar plot. Kudos go especially to Robert Englund, who always pours himself into his roles 100%; this film obviously sought to capitalize on his fame as Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series and no doubt played a part in the decision to portray the Phantom’s scarred face as a pseudo burn victim, but at no point in the film does it ever feel like a rehash of the Freddy character, and for that, I’m grateful. Englund was contracted for a sequel to this film which was quickly abandoned upon the less-than-stellar response from critics. The sequel would have seen the Phantom prowling the sewers of modern-day New York. Englund has said that a script was indeed written, and he thought that it was superior to the first film, but rumor has it that the script for the film was re-written as 1992’s Danse Macabre, another starring vehicle for Englund. Any fans of this film interested in seeing how a sequel might have played out should queue that one up, but as recently as 2012, Englund stated that a true sequel is, by this point, “highly unlikely.”

I hope you enjoyed this review of 1989’s Phantom of the Opera. I definitely had a good time revisiting this fun, slightly cheesy, and oft-forgotten flick. If you have any suggestions for reviews, please feel free to utilize the contact form in the right column and send a message! Until next time, readers.

October 11, 2016

REVIEW: WOLFEN (1981)


The 80's were a wonderful time for movies. Some are timeless classics, while others are a direct product of their time, cramming in as much neon lighting and Aqua Net as one can possibly stomach. There was very little, if any, use of CGI (Young Sherlock Holmes has the distinction of featuring the very first CGI character committed to film, a knight made of broken pieces of stained glass); from the get-go the heat was on for special effects houses to come up with new and interesting ways to depict the impossible on screen in various horror films, from the very first real-time werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London and other innovative monster makeups, to more bombastic depictions of gore and viscera such as those seen in the Evil Dead series. For whatever reason (most likely budgetary constraints, or a direct decision made to maintain a sense of realism), today’s film features live wolves in the role of the antagonists, whereas in the original source material, they were actually the next step in wolf evolution, complete with different physical features including opposable thumbs with which they could open doors. Why this was not incorporated into the film, we may never know, but the end result is still a highly entertaining genre piece with laudable performances, set against the backdrop of total urban decay in early 80's New York City.

Wolfen is a 1981 horror-crime film directed by Michael Wadleigh and is written by Wadleigh, David M. Eyre, Jr., and Eric Roth, and features Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Gregory Hines, Tom Noonan, Edward James Olmos, and Dick O’Neill in the main roles. It is based on a novel, The Wolfen, written by Whitley Strieber, published in 1978 by William Morrow & Co. Though an adaptation of the book, the film only bears a passing resemblance to the original story. It is also notable for being the first to use a camera technique similar to thermography to convey the point of view of the Wolfen as they stalk their hunting grounds, which was later adapted for use in the Predator series. The film also features an impressive, pulse-pounding score by composer James Horner, which is still highly regarded as one of the film’s best aspects.

Wolfen opens with a ground breaking ceremony in South Bronx, where urban decay has run rampant and all of the buildings are condemned shells of their former selves. Christopher Van der Veer (portrayed by Max M. Brown), a rich developer and magnate, digs the first shovel-full of dirt from the site of a new construction project which will raze the area to make way for a series of new apartment complexes. Unknown to Van der Veer, something is watching intently from afar.

Later that night, Van der Veer is enjoying a car ride with his wife, Pauline (portrayed by Anne Marie Pohtamo), and their driver/bodyguard, a large, powerful Haitian man with voodoo ties, when they make the decision to stop at Battery Park to take in the view of the many art sculptures. As they walk through the park, something vicious (clearly the same thing that was observing Van der Veer earlier at the ground breaking ceremony) attacks and kills them in grisly fashion.

The next morning, we are introduced to the story’s protagonist, NYPD Captain Dewey Wilson (Finney), who is on an early morning jog. As he stops at a convenience shop to buy some groceries and a newspaper, he receives a call on his pager. He calls his NYPD superior, Warren (O’Neill), and learns of the deaths, and heads to the crime scene. There, he meets with Warren, the mayor, and Jonathan Ross (portrayed by Peter Michael Goetz), the Bureau Chief of Van der Veer’s personal security client, Executive Security, who suspects the Van der Veers were murdered by terrorists. Also at the scene examining the bodies is Wilson’s buddy Whittington (Hines), who fills Wilson in on the details of the attack; Van der Veer’s brain is missing, and his wife’s head has nearly been severed clean off. Later, Wilson arrives at the morgue where he learns from Whittington that no metal objects were used in the killings, as any metal object, no matter how sharp, would have left a residue that would be picked up on soft x-ray.

Ross is conducting his own investigation at the Executive Security home base and discovers that a niece of Van der Veer’s happens to be a prominent member of a terrorist cell known as the Götterdämmerung, and commands to have her picked up by the police for questioning. Ross also decides to bring in a criminal psychologist, Rebecca Neff (Venora), who teams up with Wilson to work on the case. Together, they examine thermal imaging and voice analysis of Van der Veer’s niece and determine that she knows nothing about the murders. There investigation takes them to Van der Veer’s penthouse office to search for more clues. Wilson receives a call from Whittington and meets with him to discuss that the hairs found at the scene of the murders is definitely not human. Meanwhile, back in South Bronx, a homeless man is killed by an unseen creature in the same fashion as the Van der Veers. His body is later discovered by construction workers, who contact the police.

Wilson and Neff head to South Bronx to investigate the scene of the latest murder. Their search takes them to the abandoned church in Charlotte Street, where Neff is distracted by the sound of a baby crying in the bell tower, but Wilson states that he doesn’t hear anything. As she goes to investigate, Wilson realizes they are being lured apart, and sensing danger, hurries to rescue Neff, dragging her out of the church. As they leave, a pair of reflective eyes watches from the dark staircase in the bell tower. As night begins to descend, the creature rushes out under cover of darkness to track them. While crossing a bridge, it kills an unsuspecting construction worker who is unlucky enough to see it. The creature resumes tracking, eventually discovering where Neff is staying in town.

Later, Wilson and Neff visit a local zoologist named Ferguson (Noonan), who confirms that the hairs found at the scene of the crime are those of a wolf, although the subspecies is unknown. Ferguson states that wolves would never hunt man, likening them to Native Americans. This causes Wilson to think of Eddie Holt (Olmos), a local Indian who Wilson arrested for killing an “apple” (a conservative Indian—red on the outside, white on the inside), and he decides to question him. Holt insists that he has nothing to do with the murders, but their conversation turns tense as Holt chides Wilson with thinly veiled threats and admits that he can “shift,” or turn into an animal, including a wolf. A later meeting with Neff reveals that Holt was not present during the murders, but after their conversation, Wilson has his doubts.

After ruminating on the facts of the case as they stand, as well as the bizarre scene with Neff at the abandoned church, Wilson pays Whittington a visit at the morgue and learns that the injuries on the homeless man, as well as other bodies of homeless and drug-addled people that have been brought in, matches those on the Van der Veers. Whatever has been killing people appears smart enough to know when organs are diseased, and discards them, while other organs are missing completely, presumably consumed. Ferguson also arrives and takes a look at the bodies, and offers that while he still does not believe wolves are the culprits, it does appear that some sort of animal is to blame.

That night, Wilson follows Holt by a deserted pier and observes him removing his clothes, seemingly reduced to an animalistic state as he dashes around naked and howls at the moon. Holt then spots Wilson watching him and confronts him, growling. Wilson tries to walk away, but he is blocked by an increasingly agitated Holt until he finally resumes his normal state of mind, telling Wilson cryptically that “it’s all in the head.”

Meanwhile, Ferguson is back at the zoo recording some notes about wolves when he hears the animals crying out in agitation, and suddenly realizes he is being watched. Deciding to test a theory, he places a fake call for help to the fire department, then heads out on his motorcycle to an empty underpass. As the sirens from the fire trucks sound in the distance, he hears multiple howls rise in the night and realizes that there really are wolves in New York. At first he is overjoyed to learn that it is true there are wolves in New York City, but then a growl emanates from the darkness behind him. Realizing he is in trouble, he starts up the motorcycle and tries to escape, but is knocked off the vehicle and killed.

Wilson goes to Neff’s apartment. While sitting in the car outside, he spies something watching him in the dark which appears to be a wolf, but by the time he can turn on his car lights to get a better look, the creature is gone. Fearing for Neff’s safety, he rushes into her apartment and learns that she is fine. At this point, the two acknowledge their feelings in each other and sleep together. The next morning, as Wilson is leaving Neff’s apartment, a man is seen trying to ride Ferguson’s stolen motorcycle, crashing it into a pile of garbage cans.

Whittington meets with Wilson at Ferguson’s office and confirms the presence of another wolf hair found on a diseased human liver. While realizing that Ferguson is strangely absent, the two talk about how many homeless people go missing every year with little to no investigation, and come to accept that something in South Bronx is preying on the dregs of society. At this time, Ross, who has been diligently conducting his own investigation at the Executive Security headquarters, runs across video footage of a known Götterdämmerung member who states that their group “harasses the boys who are calling the shots.” When asked if that includes people like the Van der Veers, and whether or not said harassment might include assassination, he concludes, “absolutely.” Ross then calls for the FBI and Warren to be notified.

Wilson and Warren disagree about the connection between the Van der Veers and the recent attacks on the homeless, but leaves Wilson to his investigation while he goes to work with Ross and the FBI. Wilson and Whittington set up a stake out in the abandoned buildings of Charlotte Street, where Whittington is soon brutally killed by a wolf-like creature before Wilson can rush to his aid. Wilson finds Whittington’s body with his throat torn open, and cries out in anger. Meanwhile, the security team at Executive Security are busy compiling evidence against the Götterdämmerung for the murder of the Van der Veers.

Seeking answers, Wilson enters a bar frequented by several Native Americans, where he finds Eddie Holt and his buddies drinking. They proceed to tell him about the legend of the Wolfen, explaining that the creatures were once prolific but nearly died out. Relegated from hunter status to scavengers, they hid from humans wherever they could, picking off the weak, infirm, and homeless so as to avoid detection. Holt realizes that Wilson has seen them, telling him, “you don’t have the eyes of a hunter. You have the eyes of the dead.”

Still trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, Wilson heads to Van der Veer’s office, where he sits in darkness thinking about all he’s seen and learned. While observing the model of the construction project and some films of the project’s proposal, he comes to realize that South Bronx, with its urban decay, abandoned buildings, and high rate of homeless people, is the perfect hunting ground for the Wolfen and that the construction project threatens their very existence. Before he can do anything, Neff and Warren arrive and state that the case is closed with the arrest of several Götterdämmerung insurgents. They head out into the street and are about to leave when they are all suddenly surrounded by the Wolfen pack. Warren panics and tries to shoot them, but one rushes forward and severs his hand before he can pull the trigger. He then tries to escape in his car, but unknown to him, one of the Wolfen has slipped into the back seat and decapitates him with a mighty bite.

Horrified, Wilson and Neff rush back inside the building and head up to Van der Veer’s office, where they are once again confronted by the Wolfen. Eyeing the pack leader, a huge, ghostly-white wolf, Wilson slowly lowers his gun and demolishes the model of the construction project, signifying to the Wolfen that the project is dead and won’t be a danger to them any longer. The almost preternaturally smart creatures appear to understand and withdraw, leaving a terrified Wilson and Neff alone in the office as police rush in. When questioned about what happened, Wilson states that it was the Götterdämmerung, so as to protect the secret of the Wolfen, and allows the terrorist cell to take the fall for the Van der Veer murders. The movie ends with a voice over from Wilson, who states that the Wolfen will continue to live in the shadows, feeding on the isolated members of society just as humans do on social and economic scales, as they are creatures higher on the food chain than us.

And that’s Wolfen, a fantastic little genre flick with great performances by the principle cast all around. There’s been a lot of confusion over the years about whether this movie qualifies as a werewolf film; in my opinion it doesn’t, although it does tread the line closely with a lot of the Native American lore and the concept of men “shifting” into animal forms. This highlights possibly the only beef I have with the film; the concept of the Wolfen as it stands in the novel is far more interesting to me, as I stated in the first paragraph of this article that they are supposed to represent the next step in the evolution of wolves, with differing features, opposable thumbs, and the ability to mimic human voices. While the latter is showcased to a degree in the film (particularly during the scene with Wilson and Neff in the abandoned church), there’s little to differentiate them from normal wolves, and it would have been nice to see some of the other concepts from the novel make their way into the movie, perhaps through the use of animatronics, while regular wolves could have been used more to fill out the background. The very idea of a wolf being able to open a door as it’s chasing someone through a building is a frightening one, and it’s a pity a scene like this did not make it into the film.

That gripe aside, I have to give credit where credit is due. This film is not particularly amazing by any standard, but what makes it memorable after all these years are the strong performances from the cast, coupled with strong writing, which elevate the material from what it could have ended up being had this film been in less capable hands. The relationships on display never feel wasted, even with the minor characters; each individual has a specific role in the story, and the actors do their due diligence in fleshing them all out in a way that feels organic and relatable.

Also, as mentioned before, James Horner’s score is urgent and terrifying, aptly conveying a sense of impending dread, and remains one of my personal favorites to listen to while writing. His use of certain queues and motifs pays off well here.

I hope you have enjoyed this review as much as I enjoyed writing it; it was a joy to revisit this film once again. If you have a suggestion for a review, I encourage you to use the contact form in the right column. Until next time, readers!

March 31, 2016

REVIEW: BLACK SUNDAY (1960)

I have a soft spot for classic black and white horror, but beyond Universal’s typical horror oeuvre from the 1930’s and 1940’s, I confess my knowledge is quite slim. In an effort to rectify this, I took it upon myself to lay my eyes on some of the great horror films of yesteryear from other countries. There is a lot to choose from, but for my inaugural post on delving into the world of classic foreign horror, I focused on a film that is somewhat familiar, the trailer of which I have seen over and over for several years in many of the awesome horror trailer compilation videos I had as a kid. Most of these VHS tapes came from sources like Goodtimes Home Video and others, companies that pioneered the business model of distributing iffy-at-best transfers of films that are in the public domain, like Nosferatu or Night of the Living Dead, and making them available to young, impressionable kids such as myself at the local video store.

Black Sunday is the directorial debut of one of the undisputed kings of Italian horror cinema, Mario Bava, and stars Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Arturo Dominici, and Ivo Garrani. Though the film was produced in a country some consider far freer than the United States in social standards, it garnered notice for certain depictions of violence and sensuality that made even the Italians squirm in their seats, and was actually banned in the UK until 1968. An extremely loose interpretation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1865 Russian horror story Viy, the film borrows certain elements but operates on an almost entirely original screenplay written by Ennio de Concini, Mario Serandrei, and Marcello Coscia, and goes by other names such as The Mask of Satan and Revenge of the Vampire.

The film opens in Moldavia in the year 1630 with the trial of a duo of witches, Asa Vajda (Steele) and her servant, Javuto (Dominici). The sentence of death is passed by her own brother, whom Asa fervently defies by promising that she will one day return to take her revenge on his descendants. A mask with huge spikes protruding from the inside is hammered to her face by a hulking man wearing an executioner’s hood with a huge mallet. Though the two are supposed to be burned at the stake, a sudden rainstorm causes the tribunal to change their plans, Javuto is buried in the graveyard with unconsecrated earth while Asa’s body is placed in the tomb of her ancestors.

Two hundred years later, Doctors Thomas Kruvajan (Checchi) and Andre Gorobec (Richardson) are on their way by means of horse-drawn carriage to a medical conference. They decide to have their driver divert through the woods to save time on their trip; the driver is reluctant to do so, as the woods are considered haunted by the locals since they are precisely the location where Asa and Javuto were put to death. Kruvajan and Gorobec laugh it off as ridiculous, and offer the driver a few coins more to make the trip. Naturally, the carriage suffers a broken wheel on the ill-kept dirt road, delaying their journey and spurring the two doctors to have a look at their surroundings while the driver frantically attempts to make the repair to the wheel.

It is not long before they come across the crumbling tomb of Asa and decide to investigate. Kruvajan is familiar with the legend of Asa and fills Gorobec in on the lore, noting that Asa’s coffin is outfitted with a glass window and a cross perched above it to keep her from rising from the dead. They hear the driver call for assistance with the broken wheel, and Gorobec heads out to assist, leaving Kruvajan in the tomb alone to continue looking around. Kruvajan is then attacked by a comically huge, bloodthirsty bat (probably the only scene in the film that killed my total suspension of disbelief), and in defending himself, accidentally knocks off the cross on top of Asa’s stone coffin and smashes the glass window, cutting himself on the glass. He then pulls out a pistol and shoots the bat, killing it.

Gorobec, hearing the commotion, races back into the tomb to help, and the two leave the tomb. On their way back to the carriage, they come face to face with Katia (Steele, in a dual role), the daughter of the nobleman (and descendant of Asa’s brother) who owns the land. Gorobec is instantly smitten with her. Although resolute in his duty to attend the medical conference with Kruvajan, he wishes he could stay and get to know Katia. The carriage beckons, now repaired, and the two doctors depart. Unbeknownst to them, the blood from Kruvajan has dripped off the shattered glass of Asa’s coffin and onto her corpse, and she begins to revive.

Later that evening, Katia is at home with her father, Prince Vajda, and her brother, Constantin. As wolves begin to howl outside, Vajda notices that the paintings of Asa and Javuto, which still hang in the great hall, have mysteriously changed in appearance. This inspires great fear in him, as he is intimately acquainted with the legend of Asa promising to return from the dead to wreak havoc on the family. He even notes that one hundred years ago, an earthquake struck the area, breaking open Asa’s tomb, as if she were trying to escape. Even worse, the princess of that time, who also bore more than a passing resemblance to Asa, died under mysterious circumstances. Vajda is told by the family’s head servant Ivan that there is protection in the cross of Christ, and that he must keep it with him at all times.

Asa, who is still reviving in her tomb, calls out to her servant Javuto, commanding him to rise from the grave. In one of the most chilling scenes of the film, Javuto slowly erupts from the ground in the graveyard and removes the mask which was nailed to his own face, and heads off into the night. He makes his way to Prince Vajda’s castle, where a terrified Vajda uses the cross to ward him off. Hearing the commotion, Constantin and Katia enter, and seeing their father in a mad fit of horror, immediately send another servant, Boris, for the doctors Katia met earlier that day. Javuto, meanwhile, finds Kruvajan, who has taken an evening stroll before turning in, and tells him that his services as a medical doctor are needed. Kruvajan leaves with Javuto. As they leave, they are witnessed by a local milk maid, the innkeeper’s daughter. Javuto takes Kruvajan to Asa’s tomb, and he is horrified to see that she is alive. As she hypnotizes him, she tells him that she needs the rest of his blood in order to continue rejuvenating. (As an aside, it should be noted here that the mythologies of witches and vampires is constantly blurred in this film from this point on; Asa is clearly a witch, but appears to have the power to drink blood and turn her victims into vampires. It is less clear if Javuto is a warlock himself, or simply some kind of vampire servant.) She then drinks his blood.

Later, Kruvajan is led to Vajda’s castle, and though Constantin and Katia are none the wiser, we (the viewers) know pretty much immediately that something is not right with him. He orders everyone to leave and get rest, saying he will stay the night with Vajda. As soon as they are gone, he moves in menacingly on the sleeping prince. The next morning, Constantin enters Katia’s room weeping, and she knows immediately that her father is dead. She rushes out to her father’s room against the bidding of her brother and finds her father’s corpse in bed, a look of terror frozen onto his dead face and two tiny puncture wounds in his neck. When the search the guest bedroom for Kruvajan, the doctor is nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, Gorobec is searching for Kruvajan back at the inn, but to no avail. He learns from the innkeeper that her daughter witnessed Kruvajan leaving late last night to tend to Prince Vajda, who had suddenly taken ill. Gorobec borrows a horse and races to the castle where he is met by Constantin and Katia, who explain the circumstances of their father’s death and Kruvajan’s strange disappearance. At the same time, a group of villagers washing their clothes in the river discover the body of Boris along the river’s bank, killed in exactly the same manner as Prince Vajda. This compels them to head to the castle, and once there the milk maid is able to identify the driver of the carriage as the man in the painting of the great hall, Javuto. Constantin invites Gorobec to stay at the castle until they solve this strange mystery. Gorobec then heads to the local parish priest, who is watching over the body of Boris, and explains everything that he has learned. While he doesn’t tell Gorobec anything just yet, it is plain from the look on his face that the priest is already beginning to piece together what is happening.

That evening, a secret passageway opens behind the fireplace and out step Javuto and Kruvajan. Javuto instructs Kruvajan to go and do Asa’s bidding, and Kruvajan stalks the castle, searching for Katia, whom Asa wants in order to attain immortality. He happens upon Gorobec, who questions him about his whereabouts for the last day. Kruvajan, seeming to have a bit of humanity left in him, pleads for Gorobec to leave so as to avoid danger. Gorobec shows Kruvajan a holy relic which causes him to retreat. Gorobec follows, but Kruvajan escapes. In front of the fire place in the great hall, Gorobec and Constantin find the two family hounds bleeding to death, their throats torn. Gorobec begins to suspect that something awful has happened to Kruvajan, and that he is responsible for the dogs’ deaths.

The next morning, Gorobec finds Katia walking the grounds of the castle alone and joins her. The two confess their love for one another. Meanwhile, Ivan heads into the great hall, he discovers that a draft from the fire place has caused the flame of a nearby candle to alight one of the tapestries now covering the paintings of Asa and Javuto on fire. He picks up a large candle extinguisher and begins beating at the tapestry to put out the flames, and in the process punches a hole through the canvas of Javuto’s painting, revealing a large wooden lever hidden within the wall of the castle. As Gorobec arrives in the great hall, he finds Ivan and Constantin examining the lever behind the painting. Constantin turns the lever, which activates the secret passageway behind the fire place, and he and Gorobec climb through to investigate, instructing Ivan to keep watch and make sure the door doesn’t close. As they investigate the secret passage, the door suddenly closes and Javuto appears, strangling Ivan with a rope.

Further into the passage, Gorobec and Constantin discover that it leads directly to Asa’s tomb. Upon viewing Asa’s body, they notice that she is breathing and recoil in fear. Gorobec proclaims that he must speak with the priest immediately, and instructs Constantin to go back to the castle and watch over Katia. Gorobec heads out of the tomb while Constantin races back through the secret passageway, only to discover that it has been sealed off. Javuto appears, frightening Constantin, while a trap door suddenly opens beneath his feet and he plummets down into the darkness with a scream.

Gorobec and the priest hurry to the graveyard and find Javuto’s grave, which they find freshly unearthed, and upon opening the coffin, find the body of Kruvajan. The priest proves that Kruvajan is now a vampire by placing a cross on Kruvajan’s forehead, which summarily burns the flesh. The priest then puts Kruvajan’s soul at peace by ramming a wooden stake through Kruvajan’s eye, breaking the evil spell and setting Kruvajan’s soul free. Armed with this new knowledge, Gorobec rushes back to the castle to protect Katia and put an end to the witch once and for all.

Back at the castle, Katia is searching or Constantin, Gorobec, and Ivan, unaware of what all has just transpired. She enters the room where her father’s body lies in an open coffin, and is horrified when he awakens and attacks her. Javuto appears and easily overpowers Vajda, shoving his body into the fireplace where it catches fire, killing him. Javuto then takes an unconscious Katia to Asa’s tomb. There, Asa grasps Katia’s wrist and begins drawing the life force out of Katia’s body and into her own, further reviving her.

Meanwhile, Gorobec returns and meets Javuto in the secret passageway in battle. As the two fight, a hand rises out of the trap door and grabs Javuto, yanking him down to his death. It is Constantin, who had but only enough life left after his fall to climb back up and kill Javuto; he dies immediately after. Gorobec then dashes into the tomb where he discovers Asa standing over the body of Katia. Asa lies to Gorobec, telling him that she is Katia and that Katia is Asa, and insists that he plunge the stake through her eye to finally kill her. Gorobec believes her and is about to do so…until he notices the cross hanging around Katia’s neck. When he places it on her flesh and it doesn’t burn, he reaches out and yanks open the robe covering Asa, revealing a putrid skeleton. Just then, the priest and the villages flood into the tomb, and Gorobec instructs them to burn the witch. They drag a screaming Asa out of the tomb while Gorobec laments over Katia’s body, thinking her dead. Asa is finally burned at the stake as she was supposed to have been two centuries earlier; as she dies, life returns to Katia, and an overjoyed Gorobec rushes to her side and kisses her passionately, the nightmare finally over for them both.

Black Sunday is a remarkable film, one that holds up even by today’s standards. Director Mario Bava pulled double-duty as the film’s cinematographer, and the end result is a striking masterpiece of horror that at once calls to mind the hallmark fog-swept crypts of classic Universal monster films while also managing to be a completely original and engaging tale for fans of classic black and white horror. It’s just visceral enough to be terrifying, yet doesn’t rely on heavy gore to pull the weight, instead opting for a fresh take on the classic themes of vampirism and witchcraft, something which many recent horror films seem to be revisiting in the past couple of years. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and find a copy of this gem, pop some popcorn, turn off the lights, and give it a watch! And don’t forget to come back and let me know what you think!

March 29, 2016

REVIEW: LORD OF TEARS (2013)

Every so often, a trailer for a new horror film materializes from the æther and whets my appetite for something a bit different than what you might consider ‘typical horror film fare.’ One such trailer appeared in my news feed circa early to mid-2013, a micro-budgeted flick called Lord of Tears. Everything about this trailer grabbed me: the frenetic camerawork, the dark visuals, and a mysterious figure known as the ‘Owlman’ lurking in the periphery. Needless to say, I was pumped to see the movie the first chance I got, and after a few years of searching for a viable copy, I finally laid eyes on it. Read on for my thoughts!

Lord of Tears is a 2013 Scottish horror movie directed by Lawrie Brewster, written by Sarah Daly, and stars Euan Douglas, Lexy Hulme, Jamie Scott Gordon, and David Schofield as the voice of “The Owlman.” The film is Brewster’s directorial debut and was funded mostly through a successful Kickstarter campaign. It has the distinction of winning two awards at the Bram Stoker International Horror Film Festival, the Audience Award and Best Female Lead for Lexy Hulme’s performance.

The film opens with James Findlay (Douglas), a school teacher who is attending the reading of his late mother’s will. Though they became estranged many years ago, he is bequeathed two properties; a small home in which his parents resided, and the abandoned mansion where he lived with them as a child, of which he has no memory. He also receives a letter which his mother wrote for him shortly before committing suicide, imploring him to understand that their estrangement was for his own protection, and that he must never enter the mansion. The letter states that, as a child, he was terrified by a mysterious figure, something which frightened him so badly that he attempted to drown himself.

Unable to recollect these events himself, and beginning to have strange nightmares that he can’t explain, James is understandably shaken. He goes to his mother’s house and begins sorting her possessions, and while sifting through a box, discovers a photograph of himself as a boy standing next to a woman, but her identity is unknown, as the photo has been torn down the middle, leaving only the woman’s legs visible. He also finds a drawing he made as a young boy depicting a terrifying creature with large eyes and long talons for fingers; the image frightens him half to death.

James decides to seek advice from his friend and colleague, Allen (Gordon), who we learn has a father that is in very ill health and may go at any time. After their discussion, James decides to move into the mansion to try and piece together his fractured memories. On his first day there, he meets a lovely American woman, Eve Turner, who lives in the revamped stables on the property; over the course of the film, their friendship blossoms into a sweet romance as she tries to help him solve the mysteries of his childhood. As this is all going on, James also experiences recurring visions of the terrifying figure from his drawing, a menacing figure dressed in a suit with an owl’s head and long, talon-like claws.

Together, James and Eve go through his father’s old journals and unearth vital clues as to what went on at the mansion when James was a child; they discover a map which details a series of underground catacombs beneath the house, leading to a secret pagan altar; they also discover several Biblical references to a pagan god named Moloch, who demanded the sacrifice of children in exchange for bestowing blessings. Through this, they ascertain that James’s parents practiced pagan worship, but the rest still remains enshrouded in mystery.

James happens to be looking out of the window one day when he sees the Owl Man standing next to a large tree near the house, pointing toward it. James rushes outside and, feeling compelled to dig at the foot of the tree, discovers a time capsule he buried there as a child. When he opens it, he is horrified to discover the other half of the photo from his mother’s house, showing that the woman standing next to him all those years ago was Eve, his nanny, unchanged in appearance over the decades. This causes his memories to come flooding back; it was he who was supposed to be the sacrifice for Moloch, who manifests himself as the Owl Man, but out of love for their son, his parents were unwilling to go through with the offering. Instead, they hired an orphaned American girl, Eve, as James’s nanny and then murdered her. Unfortunately James, who had loved the girl, walked in on his father committing the horrendous act and had a mental breakdown. This, along with frequent visitations from Moloch, lead to his hospitalization and his estrangement from his parents.

James confronts Eve and tells her what he knows, unable to believe what he has just learned; this causes Eve, or rather her ghost, to regain her own memories of being murdered by James’s parents and causes her to change into a malevolent spirit bent on making James suffer for what happened to her. He flees from the mansion but Moloch is waiting for him, causing him to mysteriously end back up at the dark house every time he tries to leave. Refusing to go in, James finally collapses in exhaustion against a tree in the yard, afraid for his life as he watches Eve’s ghost grin menacingly at him from an upper story window.

Left with no other choice, James enters the house. He is attacked by Eve again that night and flees from her, all the while taunted by Moloch, who explains that he must free Eve’s spirit if he wishes to live a little longer.

James flips through one of the many journals his father wrote, finds the map, and heads down into the catacombs with Eve in hot pursuit, and comes upon the pagan altar upon which his parents placed Eve’s skull. He takes the skull and gives it a proper burial on the grounds, apologizing for what Eve went through. The next morning, as he leaves a flower on the dirt mound where the skull was buried, he glimpses Eve leaving the property, bags packed and walking down the road. He calls to her and she looks back, regarding him with bitterness before walking on, leaving James to whatever his own fate may be.

Finally able to leave the mansion, James sets out for home, desperate to once again get away from the mansion and forget all the horrible things he’s experienced. As James awaits the train, he pulls the journal page with the map of the catacombs from his pocket and reads his father's writing on the reverse side, which states, “each one in time shall be replaced, for in the shrine, a skull must sit, lest Moloch’s wrath be felt.” As the train approaches, James throws the piece of paper into a trash bin and prepares to board.

Back at Allen’s, James regales the tale to his friend over drinks, and Allen is visibly troubled by the story. James states that his parents should have submitted themselves to their own fate rather than murder a poor, innocent girl with her whole life in front of her. Allen posits that James’s mother deserved a chance to live, but James counters that this should not be at the cost of another human life. Just as James finishes his drink, he remarks that he feels incredibly hot, and heads to the bathroom, intending to splash some water on himself to cool down.

As he walks down the hall, however, it is apparent that something is wrong with James; he is having more and more trouble staying on his feet, and by the time he enters the bathroom and collapses to the floor to see the tub slowly filling with water, it dawns on him only too late that Allen has drugged his drink. Allen enters, tears streaming down his face, and admits that Moloch visited him, promising his father’s full recovery in exchange for the sacrifice James’s parents promised to Moloch decades ago. He heaves James’s near-paralyzed body up into the tub, holding him under the water as James slowly drowns. Behind them, Moloch stands silently in the corner, watching.

The next day, Allen heads to the hospital to pick up his father, who has had a miraculous recovery. His joy is short-lived, however, as he ponders the consequences he must now live with. Meanwhile, back at the pagan altar in the catacombs beneath the mansion, James's skull is now prominently displayed, having taken the place of Eve's. Roll credits.

Lord of Tears is an impressive movie, given what it accomplishes on such a tiny budget; with the aid of an owl mask and a few cheap, in-camera effects, Lawrie Brewster is able to craft a film that is completely capable of causing a chill to run down the spine. It is fully reliant on story and character for the heavy lifting, blessedly limiting the jump scares to a few simple, effective ones. It succeeds tremendously at creating a palpable sense of dread that grows throughout the film. The musical score is the film’s greatest offering; the only way I can describe it is as a full, symphonic compendium to Henry Cowell’s The Banshee, one of the most unnerving and eerie pieces of music I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.

The film is not without its faults, though they are certainly minor in comparison. The interplay between Euan Douglas and Lexy Hulme feels forced at times, and serves to sway the atmosphere of the film too far in a direction that ultimately detracts from the mounting horror. There are scenes where the acting doesn’t feel quite as genuine as it could, resulting in what end up being slightly lackluster performances by almost all parties involved. Lastly, the scenes in which Eve becomes a vengeful ghost are drawn out far too long, and what starts out as genuinely frightening quickly dwindles into something that might elicit unintentional laughter. I have a feeling that these may be the issues to which Fearnet’s Scott Weinberg referred in his review of the film as “typical indie-style missteps.” In short, filming a few more takes with the actors and tightening the editing could have elevated this film to an even higher plateau, but what we got surely isn’t bad by a longshot!

And that’s my review of Lord of Tears. If you’ve been lucky enough to see this obscure little gem, be sure to tell us your thoughts in the comments below!