Thursday, September 29, 2016

#996: Venus in Furs - How can you run from a dead person unless you're dead yourself?

After experiencing intense dreams of the goddess Venus appearing to him in a heavy coat of fur, arguing against the cold passionless bore of modern civilization in favor of the wild lustful pagan life, our nameless focus character turns to his friend Severin for advice.  Given a manuscript, the narrator reads of Severin's youth, and of the time he spent with the inhumanly beautiful Wanda, with whom he engaged in a most strange affair.  The pair chose to live as master and slave, with Severin as the property of whatever cruel desires crossed Wanda's mind.  Though she at first objected to the arrangement, due to the inherent dangers of its dichotomy, she eventually gives in and fulfill's Severin's desires for a wild pagan love life to a greater degree than he ever dreamed.  The question soon becomes how to escape the savage beast he turned his lover into, and the answer forms the basis for how the narrator ultimately resists the temptations of his dreams.

I gotta be honest, I really didn't like this one.  Not everything springs into the world fully formed, especially not ideas, which evolve and adapt over time to varying social norms; and I get that Venus in Furs is one of the very first explorations of masochism in a context we understand it today.  However, the march of time has not been kind to the story at all.  From a modern perspective, the conceptualization of masochism as a corruptive, unnatural urge destined to destroy all who practice it is just absurd, and the pitfalls the characters trip over in order to get them to the point of an unhealthy, actively destructive relationship traceable back to their masochistic ways is downright laughable.  There's so little communication about mutual desires, and a complete lack of acknowledgement of the possibility of safe words, or, y'know... not dedicating one's entire waking life to sexual fantasies, especially if they involve physical and verbal abuse.

But even if I try and strip away my more advanced perspective on the topic of sexual deviancy, and look at the work on purely the intended terms of engaging in a dialogue about the intellectual and philosophical implications of an atypical relationship, the work still fails.  It has a nasty tendency to take on an absolutist position on its ideas about how people connect with one another, the ultimate poison any storyteller can down to kill their credibility.  When you're not only asserting your way of characterizing the world is the ONLY way the world can be, but specifically claiming men and women can't truly love and respect one another, because you either have men in a submissive role loving a woman in a dominant role, or women in a submissive role respecting a man in a dominate role... I'm sorry, but your argument both reduces the complex network of human interaction down to too simple a level, AND is straight up backwards in the way it views gender roles to boot.  I don't care if this came out in 1870, it's...

...hold on...

...apologies are in order.  I appear to have been reviewing Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novella Venus in Furs, when I'm supposed to be reviewing Jess Franco's 1969 film Venus in Furs (also known as Paroxismus in the original Italian), which of course have nothing at all to do with one another.

Yeah, bit of a weird connection there, but as I understand it, Jess Franco had the idea to make a film a mixed-race love story, only for his production studio at the time to balk at the idea.  By the time the idea made its way to a full-scale release, the love story had become a sort of psychedelic thriller, and the title Venus in Furs, purely to boost interest in the film amongst the viewing public.  As noted, the film's title is completely non-indicative of its actual content, and there are no attempts at using masochistic indulgences as a lens through which to examine the basic nature of interpersonal relations.  There IS a single sequence that somewhat reflects the ideas present in Sacher-Masoch's original text, but otherwise the film is... well, I was about to say its own unique beast, but as with the last Franco film reviewed here, it doesn't really strike me as wholly original.

I'm getting ahead of myself here.  Let's talk about the film first before we get into dissecting its cinematic influences.

Jimmy Logan (James Darren of Deep Space Nine "fame") is a trumpeter wandering the world adrift after having seen the most terrible things.  Some time ago, while playing in Greece, Jimmy witnessed the murder of one Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm) by the playboy Ahmed (Klaus Kinski), the art dealer Kapp (Dennis Price), and the photographer Olga (Margaret Lee), only to find her body washed ashore in Istanbul years later.  Shaken, Jimmy retreats to Rio during Carnival and the arms of soul singer Rita (Barbara McNair), only to find Wanda has suddenly reentered his life, despite supposedly being dead.  As Jimmy attempts to navigate the crumbling psyche brought on by her appearance, Wanda sets about getting some of the strangest revengeance ever on those who brought about her murder.

Turning into your own corpse to inspire suicidal grief isn't what I'd call a typical vengeance technique.
I have to say, right off the bat, the movie doesn't have too much of a point to it.  While I'd be hard-pressed to call the process by which it navigates the narrative pedestrian, the basic beat-by-beat structure calls for nothing more demanding than a regular alteration between Jimmy's tormented puzzling out of his current situation, and Wanda's execution of her revenge.  By the time those who did the dirty deed have gotten what's coming to them, the film doesn't have much else to do, and answers the question of what exactly has been driving these events with a set of final twists I don't think quite mesh with one another at all.  The first one relating to Wanda is easy enough to swallow, and could potentially lead to some interesting interpretations, but the attempt at a shocker for Jimmy just doesn't gel right, and does nothing but confuse the movie's intent.  Was it about the inherent pointlessness and cyclical nature of revenge?  The experience of getting caught up in obsession?  Some statement on the details of our final resting places?  I could pull ideas out of thin air all day long, but I don't believe there's much in the actual text of the film to support any of them, and on top of muddling the message, the ending just isn't satisfying compared to what came before.

If you're wondering, so am I.
Whether or not the anti-climax ruins your enjoyment of Venus in Furs is largely dependent on whether or not you think the journey towards it is actually worth the 70 or so minutes it takes to get there.  Personally, while I wouldn't call it mind-blowing or revelatory, I think Franco manages to take us on a trip through uncertainty and revenge that's intriguing enough visually and musically to receive strong praise.

The score of this movie serves it incredibly well.  Developed by Manfred Mann (with uncredited assistance from Stu Phillips) during the period of his career between when everybody only cared about him for "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" and when everybody only cared about him for "Blinded By the Light," it alternates much like the plot between swinging jazz-rock for Jimmy's scenes, and eerie pianos and electronic noise for Wanda's.  The leitmotif for Wanda, especially when interrupting either segment of the score with its scintillating, otherworldly chimes, is quite something, and accentuates the otherworldly nature of the character and her revenge scheme quite well.  In addition, the theme of "Venus in Furs Will Be Smiling," which plays after every kill and over the closing credits of the film (make of that what you will) works as a capper to each segment of Wanda's story.  You can check out some examples of the score below to get a taste of what I mean (though as per usual with links to YouTube, expect it to be gone by this time next year).

If it seems like I have less of an idea on how to write about music than I do on visuals or story, it's only because that's exactly the case.
 As to the visuals, I of course mean things like the montages of Rio during Carnival time used as transitions, the dark seedy clubs Jimmy and his backing band play, the striking use of red environments whenever someone's about to bite it, and of course the editing during Wanda's kills and Jimmy's moments of doubt, which features what I can only describe as psychic flashes of dread and slow dawning realization.  They seem to be her most powerful, effective weapon against those who betrayed her.  But most of all, I'm referring to Wanda herself.

Holy jaegerbombers.
You'll recall from my review of Miss Muerte how I praised Estella Blain's performance as Nadia, and how she managed to get quite a lot of milage out of a disaffected performance with nothing but her intense eyes.  Maria Rohm manages much the same, but with what feels like twice the intensity, and looking drop-dead gorgeous on top of it.  Normally I shy away from complimenting an actor's appearance in favor of more relevant aspects related to their performance techniques, but credit is due where credit is due - the costuming, make-up, Rohm's natural appearance (from what I can gather from what little photos there are), and the shooting style all make for a character who uses her seductive appearance and ways to just barely conceal the cold fire burning right behind her eyes.  As with the entire movie, I wouldn't call it one of the greats, and the frequent displays of nudity are a part of the whole package probably keep her out of the running for the goods, but she's quite something in the role.  And on top of all that, she's got someone doing her hair in a way I'd kill to know how to do myself.

Of course, the film falters in a few minor ways.  In spite of Rohm's great look and physical acting, her dialogue delivery isn't really up to snuff, and neither is anyone else's for that matter - Kinski's dialogue was even dubbed over with another actor.  Much of the film's strength comes from its visual style, and when we have to stop to listen to a conversation between Darren and McNair, it gets dreadfully dull dreadfully fast.  Additionally, though the editing on the whole is good, especially in the murder sequences, the film has a nasty habit of slipping up on the continuity editing in extremely obvious ways.  Prominent background elements and shot angles jump far more than acceptable in transitions from one take of a shot to another, and I find myself taken out of the film far more than I should be by changes in actor poses without a cut.  And for as good as the overall style of the editing is, there's no excusing some of the downright bizarre choices made towards the start and end that look like they come straight out of the Baywatch school of filming.

But then there's the big potential issue I cited at the beginning, and much the same issue I took with the last Franco film: the lack of originality.  Several other reviewers have noted this, but the overall idea, structure, and even elements of the attempted twist ending are cribbed straight from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.  While the changes made during production mean one can't really say for certain if any of this was intentional in the original conception or the result of changes made to the script during development, but the overall effect remains the same.  Hitchcock had a bigger budget, better actors, a more advanced grasp on cinematic language and how to advance it, and a MUCH deeper well of subtext and thematics to draw from than Franco does here.  As such, one can't shake the feeling of watching an inferior Vertigo during certain stretches of Venus in Furs.

I won't give specifics, but this scene in particular feels very much like the ending of Vertigo, in spite of the... subtle editing techniques.

This said, you probably expect me to not recommend this film on those particular lacking merits.  However, if you'll remember the Miss Muerte review, my specific issue was a lack of standout elements beyond the lingering feeling of having seen everything before.  Despite the obvious Hitchcock influence, I find myself thinking less about Vertigo or the disappointing finale, and more about the way the music compliments the action, or how incredibly striking Wanda's presence is when combined with her leitmotif, or the kill sequences.  In spite of coming off as an inferior film to its originator, Venus in Furs still stands out as a strong movie in my mind due to the unique twists it places on the structure it's built upon, and how markedly impressive the execution on those elements is.  In a word, Franco has something here he didn't have the last time we saw him - a stamp to place on the final product.

Venus in Furs likely isn't for everyone.  It contains too much borderline pornographic content and displays of nudity for me to say otherwise.  However, its well-executed music, strongly arresting female lead, and the uniqueness of the manner by which it presents the kills are all enough for me to say you should seek this film out if at all possible.  I had my doubts going in after the last Jess Franco picture, but having seen what he can do when working with stronger material makes me excited for the next time we bump into him here, however far down the road that may be.

Body Count: There's definitely at least three deaths in this movie.  However, depending on how you choose to view certain segments and interpret a few narrative twists, there's anywhere from four to six.

Franchise Potential: This is a one-off, plain and simple.  While I'd love to seek out more films with Maria Rohm looking like she does here, I don't think the things I liked here would gain much from sequelization.

That's all for this week.  Be sure to join me next time when we start to cut our teeth on the very first Stephen King film on the list, with 1992's Sleepwalkers.  Have a good night, and see you then.

Nobody will ever go harder than Manfred Mann in this movie.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

#997: Bloody Birthday - Just because all of you have the same birthday doesn't mean that you're special

You can really tell the people responsible for this movie cared way, way more about the poster than they did the final product.  It's not an all time great or anything, but the image of a cake with bloody finger stumps for candles is at least somewhat eye-catching.  I wouldn't watch it in the theater, but I might rent it if I saw it just sitting there on the shelf or in a Netflix queue.  Tagline's a bit iffy, but when your movie premise hinges on such a weak concept, you've really gotta go with everything you can get.

In case it's not obvious, I'm not too partial towards 1981's Bloody Birthday, a mashup of the killer child and slasher genres that doesn't really pack the full punch of either.  

Normally I wouldn't start things off with an openly negative opinion, since it's usually more interesting to get into the background details of production or some little quirk about alternate titles or something.  But honestly, the only notable thing about Bloody Birthday's production history is how terribly non-notable any of it is.  The director Ed Hunt - has exactly one credit to his name since 1995 (when he did an edutainment game for some live action Jungle Book TV show nobody remembers), and has a link on the Wikipedia page which goes to the wrong guy, as his page does not exist.  The producer, Gerald T. Olson - an assistant producer on Repo Man and a second unit director on Dumb and Dumber.  The actors - primarily TV actors or perennial background players.  The distribution company - folded after releasing exactly one film.  Absolutely nobody of any kind of note or significant value involved themselves with this product in any way, and yet enough lists aggregated to create TSZDT's top 1000 deemed this a worthwhile enough film to bring it up to the 997 spot in the first edition.  What's worse, the second edition bumped it all the way up to 945!

Were the movie to have any major redeeming qualities, I might feel inclined to say something along the lines of "well let's see if any of them have a point," but convinced as I am of living in a world of raving lunacy right now, I won't entertain the notion that whoever counted Bloody Birthday as one of the greats was doing anything but taking the piss.  That said, let's at least take a look at this thing and see if there's not at least some elements to scrape value from.

True terror, right there.

In the year of our Lord, 1980, something is wrong in the town of Meadowvale, California.  Ten years prior, when a solar eclipse blocked Saturn from the sky, three children were born without any capacity for emotion or compassion.  As they near their tenth birthday, a string of murders start up about town, sending the townsfolk into a completely tame and not at all panicked panic, sparking a nonexistent search for the murderer and totally not just sitting around going about their lives as per usual.  Yessiree, they're definitely gonna DO something about this and not just blithely continue about their daily lives.  And in the midst of all this 100% most surely not inactivity we're-actually-doing-something-ing, Timmy and Joyce Russel (KC Martel and Lori Lethin) are the only ones who remotely suspect the town's three little angelfaces of any wrongdoing.  It's only a matter of time before their luck runs out, and the constant attempts of the brats from hell to off them finally amount to something...

This is not a movie for anyone looking for any sense of progression or tension.  Aside from some half-hearted dialogue about how the stars plan out our entire lives before we're even born, there's never any reason given for why the three children suddenly decide to start murdering (unless you count the usual underlying assumption of "they're mentally ill, so of COURSE they kill people!" but that makes me want to put my head through the TV set, so I shan't count it), and there's never any real chance of them getting caught over it.  Oh, there's plenty of occasions where someone walks in on them doing what is obviously the set-up for a murder, but as mentioned, everyone just seems to blithely brush it off.  The murders only really take place whenever the filmmakers decide the movie's gone a little slack, and lack any kind of suspense as to who's gonna get it or how.  They telegraph it all from a mile away, and after a while it just kind of gets tedious.

Even the one part of the film you'd expect to come to life and give a little bit of excitement or tension, the titular birthday, doesn't really have much going for it.  It takes place around two-thirds into the movie, and nothing much of note happens aside from one of the kids PRETENDING to poison the icing so he can make everyone think Joyce is crazy.  Beyond that, it's the exact same song and dance of the three kids standing around acting generically menacing, adults milling around talking about how hard they're working to solve the murders they are definitely investigating and not letting slide so they can sit around drinking more beer, and generally flat camerawork.  The party being Mighty Mouse themed and some random clown who's on-screen for four seconds are the only interesting things about the entire sequence.

Hold the phone, boys, I think we've found the real killer here...

Of course, credit's due where credit's due - for as meandering, boring, and pointless as the film's plot can get, it isn't exposition heavy.  Certain character relations and reactions are left unexplained, but the actors and writing at least pull enough of their weight for you to understand what's going on without needing an open, direct explanation.  The evil children in particular are pretty good in this department, communicating their intent and thoughts on a wide variety of matters without needing to outright say, "I don't like you and want to murder you."  Granted, the way the film plays out, that's practically the only reaction they have to anything, but given how difficult children reportedly are to coax good performances out of, I'll still congratulate the filmmakers for getting anything worthwhile out of them.

Actually, let's talk about the children for a moment, since I've gotten this far into the review without once mentioning their names or personalities.

You'll forgive me for not noticing there's a difference on those counts.

For this evening's entertainment, our murderers are as follows:
  • Curtis (Billy Jayne), the brown-haired, glasses-wearing boy.  Seems the de facto leader of the group, organizing most of their murders and directly causing the lion's share.  Is a bit nerdy, but still manages to be quite popular with the kids in school.  A genius at electrical engineering, and has a great fondness for pistols.  Also a massive pervert for a ten-year old.
  • Debbie (Elizabeth Hoy), the blonde girl of the group.  Quiet and reserved.  Most obsessed with death.  Likes using a jumping rope to strangle her victims.
  • Third child (Andy Freeman), who has no name or personality.
You can easily tell based on those descriptions who the best actors of the group were, and subsequently who gets the most screen time.  I highly suspect the original draft of the script called for all three children to have roles of equal importance, but deep into production Hunt realized Andy Freeman wasn't very good and wasn't gonna pick up any acting skills any time soon, and so opted to just reduce his character's part as much as possible.  Jayne as Curtis is clearly the standout of the film, with his huge shit-eating grin every time he levels a pistol at someone, and having the time of his life as he looks through a peephole at whatever the child labor law-friendly version of the strip-down his character watches.  Hoy's Debbie best manages to embody the kind of emotionless, remorseless child the script constantly tells us these characters are, even if it means she comes off more than a little stiff; and Freeman is (to crib a phrase from Unshaved Mouse) a fine young gentleman who does the best he can.  Seriously, his character could've been cut entirely, and the movie wouldn't have suffered one little bit.

Beyond them, the only really noteworthy thing to talk about is the murders, and it's here we come to the issue dragging Bloody Birthday down the most.  As with pretty much everything in the movie (and, from what I've seen and absorbed through a decade of pop culture osmosis, everything in the genre), Bloody Birthday and slashers in general are very workmanlike.

See, as I understand them, slashers are pretty much custom-built to do one thing: draw teenagers and young adults to the theaters in droves with the promise of tits and blood, and absolutely nothing else.  Even the greats of the genre, for all their name recognition and success in earlier installments, couldn't avoid falling victim to the same fate as time went on.  And since generally speaking blood and tits are easy to spend money on than stunning special effects, a high-quality script, or seasoned actors, they were super easy to crank out too.  However, since even blood and tits can get expensive if you throw them around too much (especially tits once you've chopped them off, cause you've only got a limited time to use them before they start rotting), and since a movie made of nothing BUT blood and tits would never see the light of day in any respectable theater the average teenager or young adult is likely to frequent, a crew making a slasher would have to show some restraint, usually in the form of suturing their selling points onto a conventional story.

As mentioned, strong plots aren't the kind of thing a slasher production can really afford if they want to turn a profit, doubly so when there are hundreds of other slashers coming out the same week vying for the same audience.  And for as low as the bar for quality could get with the slasher, you don't want to go too low with it - otherwise, nobody would see your movie, and you'd be stuck with a loss of profits.  So, in order to make a film worth seeing without spending too much on it and still turn a profit, you approach your work in a workmanlike fashion.  You set a standard of quality that's just good enough, and make sure everything hits the standard.  Even if the acting is tepid and the camerawork uninteresting and the plot as generic and pointless as it can get, so long as it's not actively offensive to the senses and displays the ever important blood and tits often enough, you can get away with being just barely good enough.

To this end, Bloody Birthday only shows off its scenes involving sex and death frequently enough to keep the average teenage audience from walking out in boredom.  For this is the single most important consideration when making a slasher - never aim for a standard of quality anybody above the age of twenty-five would call good (he typed, currently age 22).  It doesn't matter if the kills are uncreative (hit with a shovel, hit with a baseball bat, shot, shot, shot, shot with an arrow), or if the sex scenes barely show much, or even if the story of three children going around killing people and not getting caught only exists so we can see the (not so terribly) grisly results of their actions.  So long as you show off the blood and tits, and dutifully churned out a product that's just good enough, you'll turn a profit.

Oh no, you got a little lipstick on your face, oh nooooooooo...

(Course, given that Bloody Birthday's set-up sequel never manifested and its distribution company folded shortly after its limited release, the formula doesn't always guarantee success, but nothing in this world comes with perfect failure-proofing.)

The workmanlike mindset is probably what wound up killing off the slasher as a mainstream force as the internet came to prominence and fans of the genre grew up to make their own movies.  How in the world do you survive making bland, standard movies when people not only have far more passion and artistic ambition than you, but get to play around in a medium with far fewer restrictions on offensive content?  They still survive today, as we'll unfortunately see plenty of times before we hit #1, but they're definitely not the juggernaut force of "just good enough"s they were back in the 80s.

Discourse about the general traits and foibles of its genre aside, Bloody Birthday just isn't terribly good.  I don't know if I can say bad, seeing as its failings are those brought about by its very nature, but I CAN definitely call it boring, unengaging, and tepid.  Quite frankly, I'm surprised this one ever made it to theaters, and wasn't just a direct to video knockoff.  There MIGHT be enough life to it in some places that I can somewhat understand how someone who's really into horror might call it great, if I tilt my head and squint really hard, but otherwise it's just not something I'd recommend taking a look at, regardless of the poster.

Body Count: An even eight this time, none of which involve terribly memorable deaths.

Franchise Potential: Hell, I'm feeling generous.  Even if I didn't like the movie, I can still see some potential for a sequel to work if you got the same kids back and filmed it something like five years later.  Maybe dive head-first into the weirdo astrology junk they toss about.  They might not have put their heart and soul into it, but I'd be willing to let the people who made this try again, if only to let them have a steady paycheck for a little while longer.

Well, a slow weekend put this review out much quicker, so we'll see how long it takes me to get on over to film #996, Venus in Furs.  See you then!

Above: A better birthday themed horror movie than Bloody Birthday.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

#998: The Diabolical Doctor Z - The police don't believe in ghosts, even if policemen do.

First of all, let's talk about that title.  You'll notice the header image is for the original Spanish release of the film in 1965, under the title of Miss Muerte, while the title of the review (and subsequently the title of the English release) is The Diabolical Doctor Z.  (It also ran under Dans les griffes du maniaque (In the Grip of the Maniac) in France but I couldn't find any posters with that title, so it doesn't really count for our puposes here.)  The cut of the film I saw ran under the latter title, but I've opted to go with the Spanish poster for reasons largely pertaining to a disconnect between the American poster and the actual content of the film.  Miss Muerte reflects a central element of the film's story, and while The Diabolical Doctor Z could potentially refer to the actual main character of the film, the poster's tagline indicates quite the opposite:

See, despite the fact that the poster would rather like you to believe Doctor Zimmer the elder is the central figure of the film and the creator of Miss Death, the film ACTUALLY concerns itself with his daughter, Irma Zimmer.  The Doctor Z of the American title dies ten minutes into the film, serves as more of a motivating factor, and while he does in fact create the apparatus used to create Miss Death, it's actually Irma who does the dirty deed.  Though one could argue the title does still refer to Irma, as she's likely a doctor in her own right, the prominence of Mister Doctor Z on the American posters and taglines rather indicates the marketers of the film just didn't watch it.

Either way, Miss Muerte/The Diabolical Doctor Z comes to us courtesy of Jess Franco, a Spanish filmmaker who often did work out of France in order to avoid censorship and create more violent products.  We'll be seeing a little more of him as we go through the list, and a good thing too, as several of his films apparently contain rather oblique, easy-to-miss cross-references to one another.  Think of him like the Quentin Tarantino of semi-erotic Spanish-Franco horror films.  Even the film under review today contains references to his previous most notable film, The Awful Doctor Orloff.  He's apparently got a bit of a cult following, so let's not beat around the bush any longer, and see if he actually deserves it.

The primary plot of the film concerns the family of one Doctor Zimmer, who reports to his associates a fantastic discovery - using the previous work of Doctor Orloff as a basis, he has devised a surgical method of compelling anyone who undergoes it towards the extremes of good and evil.  What's more, he has already practiced the technique in secret, turning an unrepentant escaped death row inmate into a docile servant.  His colleagues, naturally horrified by this development, hound and harass him until he collapses to the floor, dead.  Several years later, his daughter Irma (played by Mabel Karr) fakes her death, and begins an elaborate revenge plot against the three men most responsible for her father's - Doctors Vicas (Howard Vernon), Moroni (Marcelo Arroita), and Kallman (Cris Huerta).  With the help of Nadia (Estella Blain), an erotic dancer by the name of Miss Death whom she surgically altered into a sensual assassin, the race is on for the police to stop the strange slew of deaths before all who brought Doctor Z to his death are corpses themselves.

Before digging into any of the actual merits and flaws of the film, I'd like to slow down a little to pick at a very particular nit.  The machine Irma uses to bring Nadia under her control functions by pinning the victim subject face down on a raised metal slab, drilling a hole through the side of their temple, and piercing a hole into the spinal cord right on the small of the back.  Her father claims the technique is capable of driving individuals towards moral extremes, but I'm personally convinced he didn't have the slightest idea what he was talking about.  Based on what the machine actually DOES, it seems less like Doctor Z found a way to compel goodness or evil, and more like he found a way to induce or subsume extreme violence through clever application of sharp pointy objects alone.  When we also consider that Nadia "comes out of" her surgically induced state several times during the film, I can only conclude the Orloffian technique is nothing more than stumbling across a means of sledgehammering people into submission for a few days, and declaring it a universally successful procedure without engaging in replication or even a validity check.

Then again, the death row servant from the beginning remains perfectly obedient and functional throughout the whole film, so it may just be that the science here is entirely bunk.  Whoda thunk it?

Of course, much as it might annoy me as a student of psychology, criticizing the scientific principles in a mad scientist movie is rather like bashing Frankenstein for not depicting a fully accurate means of reanimating dead flesh - which is to say, missing the point entirely.  What Franco really has to offer us here is a tight hour and a half of spine-tingling with a little erotic content thrown in for good measure, and on those merits, I'd say it succeeds - though not without some qualifiers.

First and foremost, I really have to admire the look of the movie.  Jess Franco apparently didn't do any work in black and white after this, but he evidently had a pretty good grasp on how to employ it here.  I'm no expert in black and white cinematography (or really any form of cinematography, come to think of it), but the way he employs shadowing and the contrast between lighting in various scenes makes it an interesting movie to look at during certain stretches.  It's not all dark and moody, though, with some sequences early on that remind me a little of Breathless, which work to good effect.  If it's not among the upper echelons of beautiful black and white films, it's at least well-styled enough to engage your attention for the entire runtime.

Expect quite a few shots like this.

I also feel the need to hand out praise to Blain as Nadia, and Karr as Irma.  Blain's character spends a lot of the movie either in a surgically-induced daze, or as a cold-blooded murder machine, so she doesn't have all that much range to play around with in terms of facial expressions or dialogue.  As such, the mileage she gets out of just the way she carries herself and her facial expressions is rather impressive, and she sells both the "hypnotized" assassin and repentant victim quite well.  As for Karr, she's given more opportunities to show off, but instead chooses to keep herself measured and refined for most of the running time, only giving little hints of the malice and venom running through her veins through sharp, cold delivery and some rather intense glares.  The overall effect becomes a 60s horror film with two female leads that treats them more as characters than helpless screaming fainters or sex objects.

...OK, that's not ENTIRELY fair.  I can't 100% praise a film for being progressive when one of its two principle characters is slinking around in this - 

- and other assorted outfits that cause her nipnops to pull through the top, but you really have to dole out praise for progressiveness in a measured manner when it comes to older films.  Nobody's going to look at Miss Muerte and claim it's some kind of lost feminist classic, but it is still nice to see the matter of murderous women in fiction treated as dangerous due to cunning and intelligence, rather than due to seductiveness or sex appeal.  Of course, Miss Death is chosen as Irma's assassin due to her background as an erotic dancer, but even that has some tinges of "I know my enemy and will destroy them without them seeing it coming" rather than the usual "women are hot and can ONLY get at men in this manner because otherwise they'd just be helpless" schtick.  Even if it's not the most forward-thinking film out there vis a vis gender roles, I can still admire it for what success it does achieve.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the film's primary subplot, concerning Nadia's lover, Philipe (Fernando Montes).  In the sections dedicated to him and the police investigations of the murders, the film stops feeling like a well-calculated chiller or a send up to Godard films, and more like a rather barebones, run of the mill Hitchcock ripoff murder mystery.  And when I say barebones, I really do mean absolute barebones.  No to spoil the ending or anything, but Philipe figures out how to solve the mystery and confront Irma through a line of logic that boils down to - and there is NO exaggeration here, I promise you - "I sat down, thought about it for a few minutes, and figured it out."  When you combine such stunning detective work with the nature of his role in the climax in contrast to how the rest of the film played out, and all the sections with the police start to feel a little on the useless side - even though I am pleased at the inclusion of a kitten in one of them.

You'll note the references to Godard and Hitchcock up there, as well as the one to Frankenstein a little higher up.  I believe those get at my biggest potential issue with the film, and the factor that may make or break my recommendation depending on how I choose to construe it - it feels like almost every element in the movie has been done before, and done better.  Saying this with the benefit of an additional fifty years to look back on may seem a little silly, but even chopping out everything that has become cliche and rote over the intervening time, Miss Muerte still feels like simply an OK example of what its predecessors and contemporaries did.  If pressed, I could probably identify superior versions of the frantic chase scene through the foggy French streets, the sensuous set-up and murder of the first colleague on the train, the mad science minutia talk, the police investigation scenes - hell, there's even a bit early on where Irma's face is damaged and she has to have it surgically removed that seems to come straight out of Eyes Without A Face.

Originality is not the undisputed king when it comes to judges of a work's quality.  One can easily get away with a lack of original ideas if one is capable of putting together time-tested (or even worn-down) tropes together in an interesting manner.  Some special stylistic flair or exceptional acting can make or break a film, and while Franco appears to coax effective enough examples of both out of his film, I don't believe I can claim there's anything particularly special here.  It is all competent enough, holding attention and intrigue throughout the runtime, but as soon as the curtain falls and The End flashes on screen, it doesn't take long before a feeling of "seen it all before" starts to wash over.  On that particular dimension, the film fails.

And yet, for its lack of standout elements, the film still managed to hold me under its spell for its entirety.  Whether this has more to do with its actual merit, or simply a lack of refined taste on my part, I really can't say, but the fact of my engagement remains.  To this end, I have to decide which criterion is more important when judging a work: it's ability to draw one in and remain in its grip, or its perceived quality once the illusion is over?

Quite personally, I believe longterm impact should apply more pertinently.  Should you ever wish to watch the film again, you'd naturally want it to have a similar effect to the first time, and if you find yourself thinking about how cliche and unoriginal the scenes are to the point of diminishing their hold... well, that's a flaw.  Without taking the time to sit down and watch again (something my time and the length of the list doesn't really allow in the immediate future), I have no means of saying if this actually holds true for Miss Muerte, but it certainly feels as if the magic would be lost.  However, another question follows: should ALL films be subject to the same criteria, if their intent is decidedly not to have a long term impact?

One of the taglines Franco's American publicity team (or whoever was responsible for the posters stateside) chose for the film was "The Last Word in Shock," implying an intent to hit hard once, and then never again.  By this standard of judgement, it shouldn't really matter whether or not Miss Muerte works in the long term, as it was never really designed to.  If we're feeling really pedantic, we might extend that same logic to pretty much all horror films, and claim that any criticism of flaws or shortcomings shouldn't matter so long as you were sufficiently spooked.  In all honesty, I don't like the implications there, as I firmly believe all works should strive to have some longterm value beyond the visceral emotions they elicit upon first exposure.

Ultimately, I have to say Miss Muerte may not be worth your time.  It's competently executed and has some enjoyable elements, but lacks a certain specialized oomph to give it a big enough push.  Still, it's free (I managed to dig it up on of all places, though I needed a transcript open in another window to understand, as it was in French and subtitled in Spanish), so if the above sounds at all worth an hour and a half to you, give it a go.  But personally, I'd say you can miss it without much regret.  Unfortunate, but one must maintain standards if one wishes to attain credibility.

Body Count: Nine - though it's only eight depending on whether or not you count dropping dead from stress a kill.

Franchise Potential:  I debated with myself on this one a little.  Miss Muerte is a standalone film for all intents and purposes, but its connections to The Awful Doctor Orloff and Franco's other filmography made me doubt whether or not I should introduce a category I was holding off on until we get something that's unabashedly a franchise.  Since the connections are minimal, though, I went with the usual question instead.  In this particular case, I have to say no.  There's only so much one can do to alter the premise of the film before getting too far away from its intent, and while some more scientifically accurate exploration of how the Doctor Orloff technique actually works would be nice, once again it should be noted that desiring such a thing is missing the point.

Join me back here next time, whenever my life allows for it (seriously, I watched this movie a week ago and only got around to writing out the review now), when we sit down to review 1981's Bloody Birthday.

Adieu, adieu...

Saturday, September 17, 2016

#999: Fiend Without A Face - It's as if some mental vampire were at work!

B-movies take a very particular sort of palate to enjoy.  You have to understand, by basic conception no B-movie is actually designed to come out as a world-class film.  The term, originating as a description for any picture a major studio didn't deem big enough to garner a large budget or wider release, typically refers to productions with low budgets, somewhat out there concepts, and the ever infamous bad acting.  Why hire Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart when you can just get some nobody who knows how to project exactly one emotion, and build a film around him instead?  They're not really good in the conventional sense of having deep, thought-provoking stories or stellar effects or Oscar-worthy performances, but the sort of cheap, gonzo aesthetic they project can and often does suit the tastebuds of a viewer seeking it.  All this is to say it's slightly unfair to criticize a movie with no grander aspirations than being a dinky little thrill-ride designed for quick consumption and easy disposability in the same way one would critique Citizen Kane.

Does this mean I'm gonna be nice to 1958's Fiend Without A Face (999th place in the original list, 959th in the second edition)?  Hell no.  Just because you don't have the budget to hire the big talents or make the fanciest effects doesn't mean you can't at least try a little.  An aesthetic born of shallow pockets is no excuse for laziness.

Before I go tearing the movie to shreds before I've even talked about it a little, I feel I should back up and state I don't HATE Fiend Without A Face.  In fact, there's a few elements I find worthy of praise for their uniqueness and execution.  But you have to understand, while I'm certainly guilty of liking more than my fair share of bad movies (the 2007 Ghost Rider wavers on and off my top five favorites depending on the day), there really has to be something I can latch onto if I'm going to give a movie a pass for having a multitude of weak elements.  Something really, truly outstanding has to leap right out of the screen and grab me by the throat in order to garner my praise - and while the one outstanding element of this movie certainly does manage that quite literally, it comes in far too late to help the overall product.

That said, let's talk story.  We're in Canada this time around, in a small backwoods town whose people have recently seen the installation of an American Air Force base.  The people of this little nowhere town don't trust the big bad military men, on account of their planes spooking all the cows, and this hubbub going around about atomic power and radiation.  There's enough distrust going around that when a local farmer shows up dead outside the base's gate, the townsfolk are quick to blame the military personnel, especially Marshall Thompson's Major Jeff Cummings, our focus character.  A few deaths later, and it becomes apparent the dead bodies are turning up with their brains missing.  As the local medical examiner puts it, some sort of mental vampire must be going around absorbing the townsfolk's minds.  The race is on to find out the exact cause of the deaths before the townsfolk turn against the Air Force entirely.

Or rather, that's how it plays out on paper.  During the course of the actual movie, none of the tension you'd expect from this kind of situation actually makes it onto the screen.  There's more than plenty lipservice paid to the ideas about nuclear radiation being a bad, scary thing (because this is a 50s monster movie, so of course we have to be afraid of radiation, even if it's being emitted by a radar system of all things), and the conflict between simple country folk and misunderstood military men, but all we really get is talk.  None of our principle actors - not Kynaston Reeves as Professor Walgate, nor Kim Parker as Barbara Griselle, nor Michael Balfour as the ostensibly important Sergeant Kasper - seem to have any idea how to emote or inflect beyond a single, predefined state of being, and they stay there for the entire running time regardless of what's happening in the story.  Lacking a good performance to ground itself on (or at the very least, by B-movie standards, a nice, big hammy performance), the movie has to sell itself on the story for an hour, and without the subtext which comes naturally to this narrative, it's just a bit dull.

The cheapness shows through pretty clearly when you don't have a strong story or performance going.  Ideally, one would be wrapped up in the twists and turns of the plot, or just how far this one supporting actor is going towards gnawing the set to pieces, which should keep you from noticing any areas where the budget isn't up to snuff.  Unfortunately, even if Fiend Without A Face had itself a Reb Brown or Tor Johnson, they wouldn't find much nourishment in the set design.  It's largely a barebones middle-sized room with a few props thrown around to turn it into whatever the scene calls for, and director Arthur Crabtree only seems to remember to position his actors in a manner that disguises this some of the time.  There's one or two locations with more detail, notably the professor's home during the climax, but one suspects the producers lucked out and rented it from another studio for filming - and even then, they seem to forget it's not a run-down shack in a few shots.

We also see failings in the music department here, and before I get into that, yes, I am picking some very fine nits here.  As mentioned, Fiend Without A Face isn't really the kind of movie deserving of a fine comb over every inch of its production, but I feel it important to note just how dull and lifeless it is for so much of the running time.  If there were something of substance to talk about in an area I'm familiar with, I totally would, but unless you want to hear my detailed analysis of scene #5151 where we explicitly state the themes again and accomplish nothing else, you're gonna listen to the music complaints.

Or rather, the lack thereof.  See, it seems as if Crabtree heard the idea somewhere about removing the soundtrack from scenes of heightened tension or horror, to heighten those feelings in the viewer far more than banging on the violin strings would.  While this IS indeed true, someone forgot to mention the parts about using your camera movements, lighting, and direction of the actors to compliment the lack of score.  Otherwise, you just wind up shooting exactly the same as always, and creating a scene that just feels awkward.  It works in one or two places, and I'm certainly glad it's not playing music and reminding me of the sorry excuse for a love theme this movie has, but...

...oh god, I haven't even mentioned the romance subplot.  It highlights every single weakness in Fiend, from the stiff acting (your brother just had his brain sucked out - show SOME emotion!), to the musical failings (even if I never have to hear that movement again, I'll still resent the composer for writing it), to the sloppy writing (but it's a forced romance subplot, so I repeat myself.)  Just... maybe it's just me, because I have a particular distaste for unnecessary love stories in media, but it doesn't play at all, and the movie has the gall to try and sexualize Parker by giving her a shower scene and having her tend towards tight chest-enhancing sweaters despite supposedly being a simple farmgirl while still trying to present her the perfect innocent non-sexual girl, and there's at least two separate "we kissed for the first time and it's awkward isn't it sweet" moments, and...

Blegh.  Blegh blegh blegh.  Burn it from my memory, it's just bad.

So after all that, if you've got a short memory and can't remember the start of this review, you might be sitting around thinking, "Hey, Gilbert!  Isn't there ANYTHING you like about this movie?"  To which I say...

These lil' bastards.

Spoilers ahoy, if you actually care that much about spoilers for a B-movie, but the poster already showed 'em off anyways, so don't come complaining to me about it.  See, as it turns out, the titular fiend is actually a living brain and spinal column the professor brought to life while using a combination of electrical impulses straight to the head and siphoned atomic energy from the Air Force base's nuclear radar tests, as part of a series of experiments in telekinesis to bring one's thoughts into reality.  Ignoring for a moment how exactly teleKINESIS involves materializing matter, it's a silly 50s monster movie explanation for how you get little brains crawling around on the nerve endings jutting out of their spinal cords, and it just gets better when it turns out the fiends are invisible because they came from the realm of thought, need to suck the brains out of other living things to grow stronger and multiply, and can only become visible once they've absorbed enough radiation.

I won't call them perfect or anything, but they're certainly fun monsters, and add a much-needed spark to the movie once they actually show up.  Whatever budget the makers had clearly went into creating these little guys, who are animated through stop-motion, which I'm personally a big fan of, even when done badly.  Hell, ESPECIALLY when done badly, because the herkey-jerky look you get from poor stop-motion just adds to the otherworldliness of the creatures.  Not quite as over the moon about them as I was the skull of Marquis de Sade from last review, but they've got personality, and I can't help but like the little guys for livening things up.

Also of particular note is how bloody their deaths get.  This being 1958, audiences weren't quite used to seeing blood and gore on the big screen as we are nowadays.  Though it is somewhat lame to see the monsters built up over the entire film as unstoppable if they ever get ahold of enough radiation to suddenly gain the unfortunate vulnerability of being visible, and thus easily put down by bullets, the graphicness of the way they go down is rather interesting to see.  It's easy to forget, but when you see a guy get shot in the head, there's quite a lot standing between you and the organ getting messed up by a hail of lead blasting through it.  Given that we're seeing the effects of those slugs without a cranium to hide the gruesome details, it's no wonder this picture earned an X-rating in Britain back in the day.

But, as mentioned, they come into the picture far too late, and we learn their origins and basic function through a rather clunky exposition scene courtesy of the professor.  The fiends without faces might be somewhat interesting designs, and liven up a dull movie a little in the final act, but the lateness of the hour and particulars of the ending (I won't say exactly, but it's a 50s sci-fi horror movie, so how do you THINK it's gonna end?) mean they can only do so much to salvage it.

Is Fiend Without A Face a bad movie?  I've critiqued it quite a bit and said more negative than positive, but I really don't think I can go so far as to say BAD.  As mentioned at the start, this is a B-movie, and thus subject to different standards.  It fails to serve as an entertaining or worthwhile film for most of its running time, but we're clearly here for the fiends and the quote-unquote thrill of watching them encroach on the characters.  Everything before that point is just here to make sure they had a full movie's worth of material.  So if the meat of the movie is enjoyable, can I really say the film fails based on elements it doesn't care about?  Some might say yes, and I might feel inclined to agree, on the principle there's never any excuse to put in low effort on 80% of your running time, but the fiends are just endearing enough for me to give the film a pass.  Not a recommend, mind you, just a statement of it being alright.

I'll never understand how it managed a Criterion Collection release, though.

Body Count: A whopping thirteen this time around.  Granted, half of those are corpses only seen in the background and not given any focus, but a dead man is a dead man.

Franchise Potential: I wouldn't say so for this one. You'd need to contrive an explanation for why the fiends have come into being again, and I don't really see where you could go with the concept as established without having to do more groundwork than necessary to salvage it.  With a remake, you might have some potential, but beyond that...  I don't see it.

We're finished up with this one for now!  Be sure to come back for the next review, where we'll get into the 1965 Spanish-French horror, The Diabolical Doctor Z.  See you there!

He don't look none too good, does he?

Monday, September 12, 2016

#1000: The Skull - You really are superstitious, aren't you?

Personally, I'm glad that we're starting things off around here with a little bit of class.  Knowing from cursory glances of the bottom half of the list, I'm bound to find myself wading through schlock and B-movies for quite a long while, it's good to know this blog gets to start off on a positive note.  We've got the chiller stylings of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to keep us company in this, the inaugural review, and it's all thanks to Hammer Fil...

...err, sorry, that's Amicus Productions.  The mistake's easy enough to make, given that both production houses frequently used the same actors and had the same basic Gothic tone to their films.  The primary difference of note here is that while Hammer usually tended towards Victorian times with their bloodier and sexier updates of the Universal Monsters classics, Amicus typically adopted a more modern setting.  Of course, Hammer Horror is widely considered one of the defining highlights of 50s and 60s horror, as evidenced by their frequent inclusion later on down the line, while Amicus' best known films today would likely be Dr. Who and the Daleks and its sequel Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150, adaptations of the sci-fi program Doctor Who that made the alien Doctor a human actually named Doctor Who.  Unfortunately, while Peter Cushing starred as the Doctor in those flicks, Christopher Lee never managed to stop by, leaving the franchise off his resume until his death.  We'll just have to settle with ONLY seeing his turns in Dracula, James Bond, the Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars.

Anyways, I'm getting a bit off track here.  As I was saying, our first film in this long series of reviews is Amicus Productions' 1965 film, The Skull.  Ranking in at #1000 in the first edition, and falling off the list entirely in the second, this nice little chiller seems to me improperly represented by its position.  I can certainly understand why it's so low - I'd certainly never heard of it once before looking at the list, and I doubt many of the rankings compiled to create it featured it very highly, if they featured it at all.  It seems a bit of an unknown film, which I find to be a real shame.  Even though I throw up in my mouth a little every time I see someone use the word unknown, and go full-force projectile if the phrase "underrated gem" is tossed out, The Skull really does seem to me like a rather underrated movie.  Let's get into why.

First of all, before I get into anything else about this film, I just wanna say how great a prop the titular skull is in this film.  The teeth in particular jut out in a way that give it a little extra boost of personality, and in the right lighting, this thing has incredible screen presence.  Throughout the review, I'll be sprinkling in some of my favorite shots of it, and you'll likely notice how much such a little, simple thing manages to dominate the screen.  If the whole movie's going to revolve around a single prop, it might as well be something that looks like this.

As to the plot of the film, that beaut of a human cranium you see up there is actually the skull of Marquis de Sade, noted French author, libertine, and all-around mortifier of common Parisian decency from the late 1700s.  According to the film's story, one can't just simply write extremely pornographic works like The 120 Days of Sodom as a means of experimenting with the boundaries of human decency or to satisfy one's own sexual needs - no, you see, the Marquis was possessed by an evil demon, and after his death, when a phrenologist robbed his head from the grave to see if his skull would indicate his true mental state, the demon lived on in his skull.  All who possess it have fallen victim to great misfortune, and wound up either locked away as murderers, or found dead after the night of the new moon.  Its history beyond these facts lie in shadowy mystery, but there is no doubt that it has a century-and-a-half long streak of terror, a streak that leads it to London, and into the world of Peter Cushing.

First of all, just want to say, the backstory of the skull is just a tad silly to me.  I fully understand that we're talking about mid-60s horror, when the occult and Satanism were all the rage, and some cursory googling tells me that some have speculated the Marquis dabbled in devil worship (though most of the sources seem to be either blind speculation or hardcore Christian right groups decrying Fifty Shades of Grey), but the pseudo-historical basis for this being a dangerous skull makes things that little bit more harder to swallow.  A skull with a demon inside of it that compels men to murder?  I'm right there with you, let's see what you've got to show!  A skull with a demon inside of it that compels men to murder because it used to belong to a noted aristocratic pornographer, and wouldn't you say that explains a few things hmmmmmm?  You're losing me a little.

Fortunately, as noted, this movie has some class to it, so we don't get the skull swinging around wildly praising Satan and quoting passages out of Justine to shock the audience.  There's a great deal of restraint to many aspects of the film, most notably the way it's shot and paced.  All the scenes in which someone falls victim to the skull's power play out in a slow, methodical manner, almost matter of factly.  You get very little tension out of the execution, and one could name that as a major flaw, but I find it works in a somewhat hypnotic way.  Just as the victim is compelled by the skull to slowly unfold the latest ritualistic murder without emotion or mercy, so too are we as the audience transfixed, and quickly desensitized by the slow, deliberate nature of every action, even the murders.  In that sense, I suppose having a noted sadist (and with good reason, as his title gives us the word "sadism") as the skull's origin point works - what better reason for this detached approach to homicide?

Also understated are the performances by Cushing and Lee as their characters, Christopher Maitland and Matthew Phillips.  Fellow researchers into the dark arts and occultism, they both find themselves in possession of the Marquis' skull, and must grapple against the temptations of the demons it brings.  Unfortunately, Lee isn't in the film much, and functions more as a side character than as a second lead role or even a supporting character.  But even without much screentime and with a measured performance, he still makes an impact, especially in an early auction scene where he and Cushing enter into a short bidding war over some items.  It's brief, but effectively establishes some subtle degree of rivalry between the two characters despite their general friendliness towards one another.  Though these are evidently two good friends, one can easily see why Maitland would opt to ignore Phillips' warning about the dangers of the skull.

Speaking of Peter Cushing, he does an admirable job in this film.  Being the skull's primary possession target, he has to carry the last half hour of the film out all on his lonesome with nothing but body language and facial expressions, and, well...

Damn if he doesn't pull it off.  Just check out the mix of terror and defiance.  He's rides that blend all the way through the final act, and while it's not what I'd call Oscar worthy or career defining or anything, it fits in with the casual, slow cruelty the skull exudes when exerting its power.  Even earlier in the movie when he's still in a right state of mind and not yet exposed to the skull, you get the sense there's something just a little bit off with Doctor Maitland, and Cushing's physical acting helps sell it.

(I'm not gonna give you the context of that scene, since I want to leave at least a few surprises for you guys in the movie, but I've gotta say, it's a real trip.)

I can't really sing the virtues of this movie TOO much without edging into gushing, and seeing as I'd like to avoid too much untempered praise, I will say it's not all chilling.  The side characters, including Patrick Wymark as the dealer who sells Maitland the skull, and cockney John Belushi Peter Woodthorpe as the dealer's landlord don't make any impact at all, and while their ultimate fates do play into the tone of the movie, I feel like they could have been established better to make us care a bit more about them to make the sudden yet serene nature of their fates stand out just a little more.  Maitland's wife, played by Jill Bennet, makes even less of a mark, and her role in the climax is subsequently lessened, marring an otherwise great scene...

...but oh man, that scene.  It may be far too strong a word, but I love the sequence wherein the skull finally takes possession of Maitland and compels him towards evil.  The way the camera casually slinks around the apartment as he sets things up in a haze, the nonchalant way the curtains burst open furniture is pushed aside as the spirit invisibly takes hold of him, all while the skull sits there with its unmoving, eternally patient grin.  The slow march towards the final destination.  And the way the skull finally gives us an overt display of its power, and Cushing's dawning realization of just what kind of forces he's messing with... it is a great example of how to make silent horror work.  The music might be a touch overbearing (I'd personally like to see how this plays out in silence), and the strings might be visible at the very end, but it's easily the highlight of the movie.

The Skull is ultimately a very basic "man should not meddle with ancient evil forces" story, and despite a quite nice looking set design and two high-profile actors, you can tell it's a budget pic from a budget studio by the simplicity of the story and the effects.  But for a movie that relies on a plot point that could have easily been "look at the scary flying skull, oooooh it's dripping blood!" the creators managed to get something pretty special out of it through a low-key tone, measured pacing, and a prop with one hell of a screen presence.  Though it means I'll have to clean this evening's dinner off the walls in a few minutes, I've no choice but to deem the Skull an underrated gem, and recommend you pick it up wherever you can.

Body count: We've got a total of six dead persons here.  Quite possibly a whole lot more between the time the skull began its demonic murder spree, but six bodies is what's on screen, so six is what I'll report.  Figured it'd be interesting to see who out of the 1000+ movies we'll be running through gets the highest corpse stack, and what the average winds up being.

Franchise potential: So I decided that for the one-off films on the list, I'd sit down and try to determine if the movie under review is deserving of more installments, just as a fun little exercise to engage in.  And in the case of this movie, I could totally see a series of Skull sequels popping up along the line.  Now that we know the basics of what this thing is and how it works, I'd love to see some more actors have it fall into their collection and have to struggle against the temptation.  Maybe you could have its legacy become well known, and have some corrupt priest steal it as a means to test their faith.  Or maybe a wife stuck in an failing marriage looking for that little extra push she needs to take the fastest route out.  There's all sorts of angles you could work on this one, and I for one would love to see what further explorations of man's vulnerability to temptation a sequel could wring out here.  Go back in time and grab Vincent Price for The SkuII.

That'll be all for now.  See y'all for the next review, covering 1958's Fiend Without A Face. 

(Seriously, he looks like John Belushi, doesn't he?)