Movie Review – “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)

 

 

“Do you remember how much fun we have when you poisoned me?”

 

This is the line that perfectly encapsulates the lunatic chaos of “House on Haunted Hill” and upgrades it from being just another B-movie with laughable special effects to a confident horror film about psychological warfare and greed.

 

The line of dialogue is spoken by Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) towards his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), both of whom clearly despise one another and what they’ve resorted to, just to get what they want. This quote, and the playful banter they have about their attempts at murder, makes it clear that they’ve tried to kill each other multiple times in the past and want nothing more than to be done with their spouse. Frederick, a wealthy playboy, has been married three times, with the fate of his previous wives being unclear. Annabelle only married Frederick for his money and thinks she’ll get a lot more if he dies unexpectedly.

 

The two share how they would go about killing the other in a kind yet off-putting demeanor, like how Frederick could accidently shoot and kill Annabelle with a champagene bottle cork and how that would make a great headline in the papers. These two get a sick enjoyment out of torturing the other, and it seems to have brought them closer than ever before, as they share a few intimate moments in the creepy, supposedly haunted, mansion they rented for the evening.

 

 

 

Annabelle wants to throw a party in this haunted mansion, but Frederick decides to spice things up. He invites five very different people to the mansion, all in desperate need of money, and tells them if they can spend one night in this mansion then he’ll give each of them $10,000. Once inside, Frederick locks the doors and gives the key to the servants, who at one point warns a guest to get out before “he kills you too.”

 

The guests are given “party favors” – a loaded gun, for protection of course. One of the guests reminds Frederick that these would not work on the dead, only the living, so the guns are just escalating the fear everyone is currently feeling. But is it fear of the ghosts or fear of each other?

 

“House on Haunted Hill” plays out like a cheaper version of “The Haunting,” with more emphasis on the thrilling moments instead of the psychological elements. Both films share the mentality that these mansions could be haunted by ghosts, and leave it up to the audience to decide if the ghosts are real or not. It is clear that this movie had a miniscule budget, due to its cheesy special effects that would make Ed Wood laugh out loud, but the film more than makes up for that with atmosphere, tension, and wonderfully creepy dialogue.

 

 

 

This movie is ultimately about the games that are being played by a handful of greedy, self-absorbed yet curious individuals. And when you have that many egos floating around, all of whom want something, the rules keep changing, especially for Annabelle who faines ignorance that this is not her party when Frederick corrupted her idea and turned it into a struggle for survival. Everyone in this situation is out for something, but only cares about themselves. It certainly does not help when one of the guests, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook), constantly talks about the seven other murders that occurred in this house, or the tank of acid in the basement, or how the house is coming to kill them all.

 

While corny at times, “House on Haunted Hill” is a great haunted house tale with loads of atmosphere and character dilemmas to keep the entire film fresh and exciting. The relationship between Frederick and Annabelle Loren is the best part of the movie, especially how much they love to hate each other. The mystery of the house is basic but well handled in its simplicity, and it compliments the strange greedy personalities inside the house playing their games. This is one of the cheap horror movies out there.

 

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “The Omen” (1976)

 

 

Imagine a sequel to “Rosemary’s Baby” if they decided to ramp up the violence and the idea of demons and satanic cults, and you would probably get something like “The Omen.”

While “Rosemary’s Baby” was more-so about the mystery of what was happening around Rosemary and the fate of her baby, “The Omen” is all-in on the fear and making you genuinely afraid that the Antichrist is coming and that the end of the world is upon us.

On the night that the son of American diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is born, Thorn is told the baby died moments after the birth. With his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) unaware that their child was stillborn, Robert is convinced by a priest to adopt another new born child whose mother died during birth. The two raise their adopted son, Damien, in the United Kingdom, though Robert never tells Katherine that Damien is adopted.

But on Damien’s fifth birthday, things take a turn for the hellish when his babysitter throws herself off their mansion’s balcony. After this, Robert is visited by an Italian priest, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), who warns Robert that Damien must die in order to save him, his wife and the world from the Antichrist.

 

 

What sold me on the terror of this situation was the prophecy of the Antichrist, in particular how he would take over the world, and how it matched up with the life Damien was leading. It was a simple yet effective technique, since a five-year old couldn’t show demonic powers and the apocalypse by himself.

There was also this constant ominous atmosphere to Robert’s search for the truth, like he was always being watched by this entity that could strike him down at any moment. By that entity holds back, letting Robert uncover so much before doing anything about it. Is it because of the importance Robert must play in Damien’s growth? Or maybe because this force just loves toying with people and showing their lack of control in the world? Either way, this force looms over the entire film like a stalker, waiting for just the right moment to sink his claws into his prey and getting the most enjoyment out of it.

Overall, “The Omen” feels like a middle ground between “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist,” filled with mystery and intrigue, but also with the fear of a parent helpless to stop unspeakable horrors and monstrosities. With the satanic chorus, gothic architecture and ever-present demonic atmosphere, this does feel like one of the most evil movies I have ever watched.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Imitation of Life” (1959)

It is funny that I mentioned Douglas Sirk in my “An Affair to Remember” review, and then I watch my first film by Douglas Sirk in years shortly after that review. Going into “Imitation of Life,” I had no idea that it was a movie by Sirk, a director who certainly left his mark on the romantic genre and the portrayal of strong women that didn’t follow the norms of society back then.

“Imitation of Life” follows widowed mother Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), who takes in Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black single mother, and her daughter, who has fair skin that passes for white and takes advantage of that at every opportunity. Both mothers do their best to make a living for their daughters and try to be someone that their daughters can look up to. As they grow older, their daughters drift away from them, especially Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who is tempted by the seedy side of town.

 

 

This is ultimately a film about motherhood, and all the triumphs and baggage that comes with it. The reason Lora and Annie work so well off each other is because of their determination to make the best possible lives for their daughters, but both eventually realize the insurmountable odds they have to face to get there; which is why they need each others strength. Lora’s devotion and patience combine with Annie’s kindness makes the pair the highlight of the movie.

To witness “Imitation of Life” is to appreciate all the effort and pains mothers must go through. To watch these women realize that they here, not just for themselves any longer, but to care and nurture another life.

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance” (1974)

 

 

If you didn’t get enough blood, gore, and samurai dismemberment in the first “Lady Snowblood,” get ready for even more in the sequel, plus nudity, long take fight sequences and very 1970s style filmmaking with “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance.”

Set after the events of the first film, Yuki (Meiko Kaji) has been sentenced to life in prison for the crimes she committed. But when the secret police learn of her talents, they reach out to and give her an ultimatum – Spend the rest of her life in prison, or work for them and have her sentenced reduced.

 

 

What stood out to me in this film, outside of the up’ed level of violence from the first film, was the cinematography and the style in which of the flashbacks are shown. There are lots of great uses of color here, including some beautiful shots of the bright red sun setting on the ocean, or the dark blue colors of night. The flashbacks reminded me of “Under the Flag of the Rising Sun” in how stylized and unique they got, with strange camera angles, even weirder editing styles and lack of color.

“Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance” offers exactly what we got in the first film, with plenty of rage and violence to go around, but presents it in a far more captivating style. Now there’s far more that catches the eye outside of the bright red blood splatter.

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “El Dorado” (1966)

 

 

John Wayne plays an aging gunman in the lawless west, who must aid a drunkard in the capture of an outlaw, as they capture their criminal in a jail cell and must protect him from his posse so that he can face justice, all while Wayne fights off a previous lover.

 

Oh wait, my bad. That’s the plot synopsis for Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo.” Here’s the details on Howard Hawks’ “El Dorado.”

 

John Wayne plays an aging gunman in the lawless west, who must aid a drunkard in the capture of an outlaw, as they capture their criminal in a jail cell and must protect him from his posse so that he can face justice, all while Wayne fights off a previous lover.

 

…Wait.

 

 

 

Yeah, right away I began to notice a lot of similarities between “El Dorado” and “Rio Bravo,” especially in terms of plot and story. Although “El Dorado” adds in new characters, including a family that is caught in the middle of this feud, and the outlaw being a business man planning to buy out all the water in the area, instead of a loose-cannon gunman.

 

But where the two differ is in their tone and atmosphere, as well as the acting. Outside of the comedic scenes between John Wayne and his ex-lover, “Rio Bravo” took itself very seriously, like the whole state of Texas was on the line if they failed their mission to bring this criminal in to face justice. The film reminded me a lot of another Howard Hawks western, “Red River,” with its somber yet meticulous pacing where dread and terror could be around any corner.

 

“El Dorado” on the other hand never takes itself too seriously, with Wayne having a lot more time for banter among his buddies, including the druken sherriff (Robert Mitchum) and a skilled knife marksman (James Caan). The pace is far more leisurely, taking its time to build things up and often going off to do things that don’t have an immediate payoff, like an injury that Wayne sustains early on, or the way that Wayne and Caan’s characters meet out of the blue. This makes “El Dorado” far more pleasant to sit through than “Rio Bravo” and offers a lot more that made me smile, especially through humor and simple conversations.

 

 

 

“El Dorado” also gets bonus points for having some better performances than “Rio Bravo,” namely from Robert Mitchum. His character goes through many different shades, from patient sherriff with wit, to a drunk man who has nothing to lose, to a old man looking to redeem himself, and Mitchum makes each of these sides feel like one whole man, filled to the brim with successes and failures. While “Rio Bravo” had Dean Martin as its drunk gunman, who nailed the humor and banter with Wayne, Mitchum nailed the tragedy of this character and poured on the sympathy.

 

But the biggest reason I take “El Dorado” is because there was no petty scuabbling between Wayne and his ex-lover like in “Rio Bravo,” which was so irritating and insufferable that it almost made me want to turn off the movie. Instead, “El Dorado” was a supportive, almost motherly figure with Maudie (Charlene Holt), who isn’t afraid to snap back at Wayne but knows that she cannot change his mind.

 

Overall, while “Rio Bravo” and “El Dorado” have their share of similarites, the two certainly set about it in different ways. One is a darker, tense tale of redemption and justice, while the other is a more pleasant, humorous romp about making things right. They’re both great movies in their own right, certainly worth checking out if you’re in the mood for a classic western. It is hard to go wrong with Howard Hawks directing John Wayne.

 

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Coraline” (2009)

 

 

While I certainly feel that “Kubo and the Two Strings” is Lakia’s most visually enthralling and captivating film, “Coraline” is Lakia’s most well-told story with mesmerizing visuals that both astound and terrify. It shows that Lakia isn’t just about making one-of-a-kind stop-motion movies, but can tell a tale that encases a multitude of emotions that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
The movie follows its titular character, Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), a young girl who just moved from the midwest to the west coast into a rundown boarding house. Her parents are far too focused on completing their gardening catalog to pay attention to her, and her new neighbors would rather talk about themselves instead of listen to what she has to say. But one day, Coraline discovers a secret door in her new house that ultimately leads to some sort of alternate world where everyone is nice, pleasant, and wants to make life exciting for Coraline. She is eventually presented with the possibility of staying in this world, but at the cost of having her eyes replaced with buttons.

 

 
Part of the reason “Coraline” is so enthralling is because of the pacing, which is just slow enough to cast doubt on this colorful world but to see why it is worth living in. Information about this “other world,” and especially Coraline’s “other mother” is slowly fed to us in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or forced, so we put the pieces together just as Coraline does. It also helps that she is a clever protagonist who just wants to belong in the world. She completes the well-rounded mystery by making you want to pursue the truth.
The animation style is far more like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” than any other Lakia picture, with lots of vibrant colors that often take disturbing shapes, especially with the puppet motif in “Coraline.” It helps that this movie had the same director as “Nightmare,” Henry Selick, as he adds his visual hellish landscape-vibe to this movie.
Add in the well-paced story, a well-written main character, plenty of mystery and horror, yet still making it enjoyable for both children and adults, and you get a smart, fulfilling experience. “Coraline” is one the better Lakia movies and is certainly worth checking out.
Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Lady Snowblood” (1973)

Meet the biggest inspiration for the “Kill Bill” saga – “Lady Snowblood.” And it is exactly what it sounds like.

Set in feudal Japan, at a time when thieves and mobsters ruled peasants through fear of samurais and warlords, a group of four criminals attack and kill a peaceful teacher in brutal fashion, in front of his wife and son. They proceed to kill the son and rape the wife, Sayo. One of the criminals takes Sayo for himself, hiding her away to work for him, while Sayo eventually kills this man but is sentenced to life in prison.

Sayo then realizes there is only one thing she can do – birth another child, and have that child carry on her plans of revenge and murder the other three criminals responsible for all this. She does eventually bring another child into this hateful world, a girl Yuki (Meiko Kaji). She is taught in the ways of sword fighting by a priest, who believes Yuki is a demon of vengeance, meant to bring order to a chaotic time.

 

 

The violence in “Lady Snowblood” is the over-the-top insanity you would expect from a 1970s Japanese movie, with vibrant colorful blood, and characters dying into the most exaggerated ways, especially with Yuki’s main weapon being an umbrella with a dagger inside the handle. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, you will get a kick out of this movie.

This one is a nice change-of-pace for a Japanese samurai tale, since I don’t recall many female sword users in Japanese cinema. That is a trend that comes up in other cultures, especially nowadays, but to see this happen in 1970s Japan is special. It could be that “Lady Snowblood” is based off a manga, but the movie rarely shows it with how authentic it feels to the samurai experience.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with “Lady Snowblood.” It is grotesque, over-the-top, yet fateful to the samurai lifestyle to make its quieter moments hit harder. It is not hard to see how this film influenced Quentin Tarantino with its violent style that is wholly unique.

Final Grade: B+