All posts by Old Manster

The Incredible Melting Man (1977) – Retro Review

Genre film fans, particularly old genre film fans, tend to be very forgiving when discussing terrible films of yesteryear. Most old-timers, including myself, can always find redeeming values that overcome problems of writing, directing, acting, or budget to create an entertaining experience. Of course, there are exceptions, such as Birdemic!, where there are no redeeming values to be found. A review of which would require only one or two sentences if that much. Not worth the effort.

Don’t misunderstand — The Incredible Melting Man is a very bad movie. It is also approaching cult status, if it hasn’t already reached that objective. Part of the rationale for this phenomenon lies with the delay in transition from VHS to DVD, which created a small-but-vocal demand from people like me who saw the film first-run at drive-in theaters in 1977, and have time-weakened memories. VHS print quality varied, probably due to generational duping, indicating that the film wasn’t taken very seriously by the distribution industry, and that lack of attention continued with a few DVD releases. But the main reason for its growing popularity is the special effects provided by a young Rick Baker (1950 – 2015) whose stature as a makeup artist was beginning to emerge out of low-budget genre films (John Landis’s first film Schlock, 1973; Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive, 1974; Jeff Lieberman’s Squirm, 1976; Batman artist/writer Bill Finger’s Track of the Moon Beast, 1976). This film was also the second (uncredited) appearance of special makeup superstar Greg Cannom (The Howling, 1981; Dreamscape, 1984; Dick Tracy, 1990; Mrs. Doubtfire, 1993). Together, these two practical effects experts were responsible for lifting The Incredible Melting Man out of obscurity and into genre film semi-stardom.

This new release, viewed for the first time over a period of three decades, is unintentionally hilarious all by itself. It needed absolutely no help from the egregious Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) that targeted the film for derision in 1996. As if it isn’t obvious, I am no fan of any production that takes older genre films, edits them down to smaller chunks for the benefit of idiots who toss off one-liners to make themselves look good. Viewers can, and should, make their own humorous comments from the comfort of their own couches – and true entertainment is derived from a complete, uncut film released in excellent Blu-ray format by Shout! Factory. Visually, the film is a crisp and clear 1080p HD delight that amplifies the extreme close-up photography used (or misused) throughout.

The story is linear and simplistic – the sole survivor of America’s first trip to the rings of Saturn (Alex Rebar in his only screen credit) is pulled from (unseen) wreckage and isolated in a nearby warehouse… er, hospital, cared for by one doctor and one nurse. He’s suffering from the effects of watching our sun through Saturn’s rings. How the sun and its flares got so big from that distance is not something to dwell upon. But his eyes bleed while out in space, and back on Earth he begins to melt. He kills the overweight nurse because somehow the only doctor around reached a diagnosis that the astronaut needs blood to survive. The now-monster escapes the conveniently- unguarded “hospital.” The rest of the 84-minute film is a chase through a lightly-wooded area populated by cannon fodder, one hilarious encounter after another (I have to reference the “fisherman.” I just have to.) But it will be more fun for viewers if I don’t provide details. Strangely, though, the film concludes with a confrontation that generates a modicum of suspense, and a final scene that’s successful in portraying black, bittersweet humor.

In addition to Baker and Cannom, above, there are a few recognizable names involved with the film. In the acting department, veteran TV personality Burr DeBenning (1936 – 2003) sleepwalks through the lead role of Dr. Ted Nelson, former friend of the afflicted monster, and enemy of extreme close-ups designed to minimize low-budget background exposure. Another veteran familiar to fans of 50s and 60s genre features ( a very late serial, Panther Girl of the Kongo, 1955; Jungle Moon Men, 1955; The Unearthly 1957) and virtually every TV series up through the 70s, is Myron Healy as General Perry. Of those two, Healy fares just a bit better as far as dialog is concerned, throwing orders around in his trademark deep, booming voice.

But the true villain of this piece – if you don’t include the mindless melting creature – is Writer/Director William Sachs. Responsible for story logic (there is none), dialog that is painful to hear, and direction that displays his limited range (and fondness for extreme close-ups) unless you’re a fan of his only other genre credit (Galaxina, 1980). Included in the DVD extras is an interview with Sachs in which he blames the producers for all of the budget constraints that destroyed an otherwise viable film. Take him at his word if you will, but I have difficulty putting responsibility on a group of producers that include an uncredited Max Rosenberg of Hammer Films and Amicus Productions, and production manager Peter Cornberg (first assistant director, Blade Runner, 1982; production manager, Testament, 1983).

Despite its myriad flaws, however, The Incredible Melting Man has survived time and troubles, hanging around for a decent treatment that presents its positive aspects in hi-def glory. While the film still generates loud guffaws (as it absolutely should), both old and new viewers will experience a highly entertaining piece of genre history.

The Black Scorpion (1957) – Retro Review

Over the last decade or so, Baby-Boomer genre fans and collectors have welcomed a resurgence of science fiction and horror films of the 1950s in the form of standard and blu-ray DVD releases. The packaging and availability, however, differs wildly. There are some incredible bargains, such as the four-pack Icons of Horror: Sam Katzman boxset that collects The Giant Claw, Creature with the Atom Brain, Zombies of Mora Tau, and The Werewolf for the price of a single blu-ray disk. We’re not talking low-quality public domain films here, shoddily transferred from a blurry VHS tape recorded off television; these are crisp black-and-white prints as watchable now as when the viewer was 10- or 12-years old.

A number of until-recently-inaccessible films have received a (theoretical) upgrade to blu-ray format in either single or double-feature releases. Among those are some classics – Forbidden Planet and Them!, for example – and some less-than classic, such as The Neanderthal Man. And last, and not quite least, are the few titles held closely by production companies and released only in DVR format. The Black Scorpion, available on-demand from the Warner Bros. Archive Collection, is one of those titles. It is very doubtful that we’ll ever see a blu-ray version of this fun little picture, but… never say never.

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The Black Scorpion carries a serious pedigree – it is the last feature film associated with the legendary Willis H. O’Brien, or OBie in genre vernacular. O’Brien is arguably the most famous of stop-motion film effect creators, at least until the emergence of Ray Harryhausen, and Harryhausen was O’Brien’s protégé. O’Brien developed the technology behind King Kong (1933), Son of Kong (1933; uncredited), and the original Mighty Joe Young (1949). The mantle of superior  achievement in stop-motion technology passed on to Harryhausen in 1958, with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Received industry knowledge indicates that The Black Scorpion film emerged from test footage of a stop-motion scorpion created by O’Brien and his assistant, Pete Peterson. Warner Bros. producers, intrigued by the possibility of a money-making successor to Them! (1954), hired O’Brien and Peterson to follow-up and expand the test footage into a marketable film. As it turned out, The Black Scorpion was released with a simplistic story and a weak script, but the effects are so diverse and bizarre they carry the film.

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The Black Scorpion is somewhat of a rarity among the Big Critter films of the 1950s in that the titular monster derives from volcanic activity rather than the common radiation mutation. Principal location cinematography in Mexico adds additional verisimilitude to the story – the terrain is sufficiently rugged, remote, and an active volcano is certainly not out of the question. The volcano opens a cavern from which several giant scorpions emerge to terrorize the rural countryside. But the special effects team serves up additional visual treats – in addition to the “regular” giant scorpions, there is a gigantic scorpion that preys on its own, and anything else that gets in the way, and assorted large insects lurking in the cavern.

Richard Denning plays Hank Scott, an American geologist sent to Mexico to do science on the volcano, but also help authorities with relocation of villagers cut off by earthquakes and landslides. And there he meets wealthy rancher, Teresa Alvarez, as played by the gorgeous Mara Corday, just as the scorpions begin their ravaging. Both actors were not strangers to genre films in 1957. Denning was a very visible semi-heavy in the widely acclaimed Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and lesser vehicles such as Target: Earth (1954), Roger Corman’s post-apocalyptic “thriller” Day the World Ended (1955), and Creature with the Atom Brain (1955). He also was a TV stalwart both before and after this particular film, probably most widely known as Governor Paul Jameson in the long-running Hawaii Five-O (1968 – 1980). Mara Corday was a B-movie star with just a few TV credits. The Black Scorpion was the last of her three genre films, but the other two are memorable for different reasons – Tarantula (1955) is a highly-regarded Big Bug films, while The Giant Claw (1957) is considered to be one of the silliest of 50s black-white monster movies. Arguably, Corday was at the peak of her profession when The Black Scorpion was released. In January of that year, she married TV personality Richard Long, a union that lasted 17 years until his death in 1974. In October, 1958, she was Playboy’s co-Playmate of the Month. And a friendship kindled with Clint Eastwood on the set of Tarantula led to appearances in four of his films.


The Black Scorpion certainly can’t be considered as a classic in its genre. Production problems led to some cutbacks on special effect expenses that are very evident in the film. When the scorpion of the title has (conveniently) eaten all of his brethren and set sights toward Mexico City, what viewers see are imposed negatives of the beast rather than the complete stop-motion critter. The Black Scorpion is very, very black. But given all the associated problems, The Black Scorpion remains one of the most enjoyable of genre films. Special effects carry it almost completely, at least up to the suburbs of Mexico City. 

Krampus (2015) – Raw Review

Now that Halloween is in the rear-view mirror, the number of legitimate horror films traditionally take a nose-dive in favor of holiday blockbusters of various genres. Thanksgiving and Christmas films have generally favored heartwarming family fare, or PG-13 action-driven adventures. And although holiday  horror lovers have occasionally been thrown a bone or two (pun intended) in the form of killer turkeys (Thankskilling, 2009) or holiday-themed slashers (Black Christmas, twice, 1974 and 2006; Silent Night, Deadly Night, 1984; Slayride, 2016), the fables and mythologies behind our end-of-year celebration has received little attention, particularly from the standpoint of budgetary consideration.

Until this year.

This Christmas season viewers have been… er, treated… to not one but two newly-released films centering on a very old, primarily European mythology that has several variants but targets Krampus, an evil counterpart to Santa Claus who punishes naughty children during the Christmas season.  Depending on your source of information, the origin of Krampus dates back long before Christ was attached to “mas.” Some experts on European fables cite Norse legends; others say this child-stealer comes from Teutonic folklore, and indeed, parades honoring Krampus are a big deal in Austria. Search YouTube for the Krampus celebration in Graz, Austria, and find the current celebration full of terrifying costumes that are very consistent and similar in their depiction. Other stories handed down through generations reveal Krampus to be the brother of Saint Nicholas, sometimes known as Black Peter in Denmark, who came into being when the dualism of the Catholic Church took hold in both Eastern and Western orthodoxies.

Very few films have dealt with this wealth of background information. In 2010, Netherlands director Dick Maas brought Sint (Saint) to the US, a mashup of mythological characterizations in which Saint Nicholas manifests on Krampus Day (December 5) if there is a full moon, to punish, steal, and/or kill children who haven’t been nice. Saint is a reasonably entertaining horror film, full of action, blood, and guts, although it is muddled in the telling. By far the best European import of this type to date is Rare Exports (Finland, 2010), wherein a small group of families on the Russian border, find the actual Santa Claus (buried? sleeping?) in the Korvatunturi  mountains, and this version of Santa doesn’t toast them with a grin and a bottle of Coca-Cola. The Finns capture him/it, put him/it in a cage in a misguided attempt to make money for the struggling local economy, and then suffer his/its wrath when a multitude of Black Peter acolytes attack the people in a rather harrowing rescue attempt. A fine, exciting genre film with a child’s sense of wonder, Rare Exports is yet another story that plays a bit fast and loose with the traditional dichotomy of Krampus and Saint Nicholas.

Writer/Director Michael Dougherty, seemingly joined at the hip with director Bryan Singer (X-Men 2, 2003; Superman Returns, 2006; the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse, 2016) established himself as an excellent purveyor of holiday horror with the now-cult classic Trick ‘r Treat (2007), a set of connected Halloween tales that introduced Sam Hain, a creepy child-like figure wearing a gunny-sack over his head.

 ** WARNING!  Possible spoilers from this point! **

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In Dougherty’s new production, the incarnation of Krampus follows a mix of original traditions including a very strong fairy tale vibe. Krampus arrives on the scene after young Max (Emjay Anthony) tears up his Christmas letter to Santa Clause in a fit of rage and frustration brought about from bickering and lack of holiday spirit in his parents (Adam Scott and Toni Collette). When equally-dysfunctional familial relations descend on the already-troubled family, the stage is set for both black comedy and eventual horror. Although Dougherty’s opening fifteen minutes conjures up strong similarities to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (including Conchata Ferrell in the role of sour, sarcastic Aunt Dorothy while channeling Berta from Two and a Half Men), he invests each character with a compassionate, loving core that shines through now and then. When Krampus finally arrives, the peril encompasses not only children but adults as well, and their argumentative and contentious natures are supplanted by strong emotional bonding. Viewers come to root for the families. This is not a film that follows a linear slasher, one death after another, story format.

 

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Production design and set decoration by veterans Jules Cook and Daniel Birt, respectively, is absolutely stunning. From the arrival of a massive blizzard that takes out neighborhood power, to the appearance of twisted, nasty-looking snowmen that multiply in front of the protagonist’s home, viewers are taken into an entirely different dimension. Krampus himself is doled out sparingly, with shadowy images of something jumping across neighborhood rooftops, to gigantic cloven hooves stomping through the snow-covered streets. It’s an intense, highly suspenseful tactic. Viewers looking for standard plotting tropes will be pleasantly surprised to find very few. Dougherty inserts a few twists that keep the action and mystery running at top speed. Special effects are numerous, mixing very good CGI where necessary with some excellent practical puppetry. Every effect from creature design to matte painting and more is supplied by a group of New Zealand-based companies headed by the well-known Weta Digital. There is a decent budget for this film, and it shows.

The most recent issue of Rue Morgue Magazine (December, #162) features cover art, production snapshots, and an interview with Dougherty in which he discusses his motivation and rationale for this film. Most of us already know that Michael Dougherty can write and direct appealing horror films – and for this reason, I am willing to forgive him for Superman Returns – but with Krampus, he’s set a higher bar for himself. Trick ‘r Treat 2 has been announced, which is indeed good news. But I would like to see Dougherty continue with solid one-offs. He has a talent and imagination that should not be confined to franchise film production.

The Girl From The Well – Rin Chupeco

Followers of Japanese horror, aka J-Horror, in both literary and film media are well-versed in the genre trope more-or-less made famous by Koji Suzuki’s novel, The Ring. Many sequels, spin-offs, and copycats have been generated in both Japan and the US. The ghostly, and deadly Samara, with her long, black hair and dirty white nightgown, has become a horror icon. Similarly, the Japanese manga created by Tsugumi Ohba, Death Note, has spawned an anime TV series, two live-action films to date, and numerous imitators. It’s therefore forgivable to brush off Rin Chupeco’s 2014 debut novel, The Girl from the Well, as just another in a long line of followers seeking to cash in on the popularity of the above-mentioned classics. But that would be an error in judgment.

Make no mistake – there is definitely a strong resonance to both benchmark creations. However, Chupeco offers a fresh interpretation that incorporates revenge from the grave, spiritual possession, and cultural history into the lives of a very well-drawn set of characters. The result is a story that is absolutely chilling in some scenes, very violent in others, but always stressing the loneliness and isolation of the outsider along with deep, familial love.

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Okiku, the girl from the well, was murdered 300 years ago. She is the most dangerous and horrific of ghosts: the mobile one, capable of moving across the world, reaching into our reality to exact a specific form of revenge associated with her death. She manifests in hideous ways – hanging from the ceiling, standing silently in a corner – and some special people, mainly children and young adults, can see her. One special child is fifteen-year-old Tarquin, covered in tattoos from his institutionalized Japanese mother at a very early age, and subject to attempted control by a very evil spirit. Tarquin, along with his older cousin, Callie, make the acquaintance of Okiku when Tarquin is abducted by a murderous pedophile. To say more would spoil the many genre pleasures found in this book.

The novel is not perfect by any means. The pace of the story is uneven, beginning fast and furiously, then slowing down through a process of info dump through lengthy dialog in the final third, before erupting once again in a nicely-realized and vicious battle. The story seems written for an eventual film franchise, with a sequel, The Suffering, released in August of this year. Regardless of motivation, the author’s prose is assured, precise and quite descriptive. Characterizations, including Okiku, are well-structured. While the book appears to be targeted for the YA market, it is a treat for adults as well. Emulation of classic tropes doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Rate it four out of five stars. Chupeco is an author to watch.

Stung (2015) – Raw Review

There is an understandable reluctance to give much print space to low-budget genre films, mainly due to the similarity of subject matter that inundates various forms of visual media. Zombies, vampires, slasher/torture porn, and found footage evil are themes that dominate the market, and act to dull viewer sensibilities to the point where new titles are generally avoided rather than sampled. The category dealing with large monsters/critters is particularly susceptible to cut-and-paste storylines using bad CGI (examples abound, but for the sake of verisimilitude, see any title involving a sharktopus, or a whalewolf, or a megapirahna). It takes a bit of skill, but mostly just dumb luck, to find a film of this type that makes even a token attempt to present a decent screenplay, good acting, competent directing, and professional production values. Fortunately, a new German-US film, Stung, which just popped up on Netflix streaming along with DVD and Blu-ray release, meets most of those criteria.

Stung grabbed this viewer immediately with a nicely-shot pre-credit scene that follows a bumblebee as it meanders lazily over a beautiful, bucolic countryside. Ho-hum, you say, another killer bee film. Nope. Following the bee is a sinister black insect that attacks its prey in mid-air, driving both to the ground, where a nasty, retractable stinger dispatches the peaceful bumble. We are talking killer wasps here. But it gets even better. There are BIG killer wasps in the immediate future.

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The single setting for the film is an isolated summer mansion where the wealthy owners are throwing an outdoor celebration of… something or other. This kind of detail is really unimportant in an extremely simple story. Our protagonists are Julia and Paul, two young entrepreneurs who are struggling to keep her catering business afloat. Julia, in a fine, emotive performance by Jessica Cook in her first feature film, is a focused, frightened young woman who wants to make a good impression on her customers, and is oblivious to her mumbling, moon-struck helper/bartender Paul, played by veteran actor Matt O’Leary (Frailty, 2001; Brick, 2005). They arrive at the mansion, begin the outdoor setup, and a horde of wasps erupt from an underground nest. Chaos ensues. But the extra added attraction is that the wasps lay eggs in their hosts that grow into gigantic flying monsters complete with host characteristics. Thus, human wasps, dog wasps, and even bovine wasps. The beasties are presented in quite competent CGI forms, mostly when flying, and in excellent practical animatronics when on the ground. And that is the entire 82-minute (plus credits) film. It ain’t major award material by any means, but neither is it remotely akin to a sharktopus.

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What is most interesting to this reviewer, however, is that Stung is the offspring of rookies. Adam Aresty’s script is his first screen credit; while the story is linear and simplistic, the dialog is sharp, occasionally funny, and surprisingly emotional. Director Benni Diez does a very competent job in his first feature film. The fine photography and scene composition by Stephen Burchardt is the sophomore effort after a TV movie (sf/thriller Killing All the Flies, 2013). Acting is confined to four major characters, all of whom are fine to acceptable. And it appeared to this reviewer that the director allowed some ad-libbing by O’Leary and supporting cast member Lance Henriksen (genre credits too numerous to mention).

As a complete package, Stung turned out to be a very entertaining little genre film, never pretending to be something it’s not. The effort by all of the creative people listed above is greatly appreciated by those of us who fondly remember the low-budget, black-and-white Big Bug films of yesteryear. There is still some life in this old trope.

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The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) – Blu-ray Review

Several of the black-and-white Big Critter films of the 1950s have received recent blu-ray releases that may or may not be a marked improvement on the original print but certainly cost more than a standard DVD release. Titles include, but are not limited to, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them!, and this particular little gem starring a beefy former western star, Tim Holt, along with veteran actors Audrey Dalton and Hans Conried (of the Fractured Flickers segment of Rocky and Bullwinkle TV series).

Rather than true horror, this film should be classified as science fiction since it deals with the tried-and-true 50s theme of genetic mutation from radioactive material. In this case, the beastie(s) in question are mutated molluscs living in the Salton Sea. Although the title is more than a little hyperbolic (original title, The Kraken, was shelved), the storyline offers the possibility of a wide-spread infestation of the monsters through prolific egg-laying coupled with the inability of human ingenuity to come up with a way to contain them.

The movie benefits from a number of positive aspects. The screenplay is written by David Duncan, who went on to write scripts for big-budget productions such as The Time Machine (1960), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and many TV series. The actors take their roles quite seriously and professionally. The location filming at Catalina Island, the Salton Sea, and other California sites features crisp, clear cinematography. And the special effects are practical, including a life-sized monster that towers over its human prey.
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The quality of this first blu-ray release is not much better than other standard DVD recordings, if at all. Feature-wise, the disk is almost bare-bones, but does contain an informative commentary track by genre film historian, Tom Weaver. The age of the film (and others) does nothing to reduce the price point. It’s ultimately up to the viewer/collector to determine if this purchase is necessary. But the movie itself is worth collecting in any format. It’s one of the best of its kind.