Masque of the Red Death (1964) – A Retrospective

This film features Vincent Price (the Merchant of Menace) in one of his finest roles—as Prince Prospero. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, producer-director Roger Corman’s film mostly eschews shock tactics and formulaic suspense, instead emphasizing the moral aspect of horror, as the Devil-worshipping Prince tries to win over an innocent Christian (Jane Asher) to his satanic beliefs. Prospero’s efforts are interrupted, however, by the intrusion of a titular plague, embodied in the form of a red-cloaked reaper who intones philosophic aphorisms like “Each man creates his own Gods from within himself—his own Heaven, and his own Hell.” In one of his best villainous performances, Price displays admirable restraint, avoiding the over-the-top ham that typified his horror roles at this time, instead putting his tongue-in-cheek style in the service of his bemused character (instead of using it as a sarcastic comment on the character), and the script is sophisticated in a way that few horror films are. Corman does the best work of his career, aided by the wonderful cinematography of Nicolas Roeg. Read More

Dawn of the Dead (1979) – A Retrospective

[EDITOR’S NOTE: DAWN OF THE DEAD makes another appearance on home video today, this time in the Blu-ray format, so we took this opportunity to post a retrospective-review of the film, including an interview with writer-director George Romero.]
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) billed itself as “the most intensely shocking motion picture experience for all times,” and this was a rare instance of a film that lived up to its advertising hyperbole. This sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) abandoned the shadowy black-and-white creepiness of its progenitor in favor of a brightly lit color canvas that was bigger, broader, and bloodier. The film established a new record for explicit on-screen carnage, but it also extended the scope of the original film, taking the living dead phenomenon out of the farmhouse and unleashing it upon the world at large. This time out, the production values are superior; the acting performances are uniformly strong; and the script develops its themes more explicitly, with obvious satirical jabs at modern consumer society, as epitomized by the indoor shopping mall where a small band of human survivors take shelter from the zombie plague sweeping the country.
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Evil Dead 2 (1987) – Film & DVD Review

[EDITOR’S NOTE: EVIL DEAD 2 makes another appearance on home video today, this time in the Blu-ray format, so we took this opportunity to post a retrospective-review of the film, including an interview with director Sam Raimi.
Hands down absolutely one of the greatest achievements in the horror genre—ever. This is literally one of those films that have to be seen to be believed—it’s outrageous, over-the-top, and beyond what you could possibly imagine, if you haven’t already seen it. It’s a high-octane visual assault on the senses that starts fast and keeps accelerating, slowing down only enough to change gears from scene to scene. If you’re one of those people hung up on literary values like characterization and narrative coherence (and by the way, why are you even reading this?), then this film is not for you; if, however, you really appreciate good cinema—filmmaking pushed to the limits of what can be achieved with camera techniques and editing—then you’re guaranteed to enjoy this mind-blowing roller-coaster ride. Read More

Witchfinder General (1968) – A Retrospective

Director Michael Reeves’ historical horror film features Vincent Price in one of the most grim and serious of his many performances, as Matthew Hopkins, a real-life figure who earned the title “Witchfinder General” for his efforts during the Cromwell era. Reeves threw out historical accuracy and turned the plot into a revenge story that is all the more powerful for not condoning vengeance. Despite a misleading title (THE CONQUEROR WORM) grafted on for American distribution, WITCHFINDER GENERAL is a mini-masterpiece of the horror genre—albeit a much more grim and realistic kind of horror than that seen in most films of the era—and the film stands up well when seen today at revival screenings or on television and home video.

Read below the fold for an in-depth retrospective on the film. Read More

The Sixth Sense (1999) – Film & DVD Review

1999 was the year that the horror seemed to rise from the dead, thanks to the success of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT; unfortunately, that film was more box office phenomenon than a good movie. Thankfully, THE SIXTH SENSE came along to offer ample evidence that the genre’s resurrection was more than just a fluke. This film proved that a supernatural spook show, combined with solid drama, could appeal to a broad, mainstream audience, without downplaying the horror. The film benefits from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s low-key, realistic approach, which mixes the supernatural with sentimentality. Yet, it is much more than a mere manipulative crowd pleaser that struck box office gold by combining guaranteed commercial elements; it is actually a thoughtful, expertly crafted piece of entertainment. The film achieves both sophistication and scariness, without short-circuiting on its own ambitions. Best of all, the thrills are of the creep-up-the-back-of-your neck variety that work on the individual psyche, as opposed to the simple shock sort (which is Shyamalan would descend to in later work, such as LADY IN THE WATER), which really only works a receptive audience eager for cheap thrills.
Shyamalan achieves a brilliant sense of dread by completely convincing us of the everyday believability of his situations — and then, in the great tradition of ghost stories by M.R. James, allowing the supernatural to intrude gradually, thus creating a sense of the uncanny that had been long absent from the genre. Neither a self-reflexive comedy like SCREAM nor a contrived gimmick film like BLAIR WITCH, this is a film as strong in the characterization, dialogue and acting department as any mainstream drama from its year, including the Best Picture Oscar-winners AMERICAN BEAUTY.


Perhaps the story’s greatest coup is its amazing twist ending, which (like the ending of PSYCHO) turns out, in retrospect, to be no twist at all. In other words, the revelation makes sense of what preceded, without any cinematic cheats to keep you from guessing the truth; in fact, you realize that what appeared to be typical movie cheats are actually dramatically justified by what we learn at the end. The proof of this is that, like PSYCHO, the film works perfectly during a second viewing: you reinterpret events in light of what you didn’t know the first time through, and you realize that the story makes even more sense than you realized.
To list the film’s virtues would be to turn this review into a laundry list of almost every single element on view. Suffice to say that it well warranted its six Academy Award nominations. In addition, one should give credit to Bruce Willis for abandoning his movie-star action-hero persona in favor of giving a genuine acting performance. His scenes with Haley Joel Osment (which comprise most of the movie, you realize after the fact) feature some of the best screen chemistry every captured on film. And the cinematography of Tak Fujimoto, with its dark, imposing shadows and the recurring red motif, works to excellent effect.
It’s a shame that THE SIXTH SENSE walked away empty-handed on Oscar night, but don’t let that diminish your perceptions of the film’s excellence. THIS SIXTH SENSE ranks among the greatest ghost stories ever filmed.

DVD DETAILS

THE SIXTH SENSE is a movie that rewards multiple viewings. It’s very clear that a lot of thought went into the making of the film, and it is fun to be able to go back and observe details that fly by during a regular viewing, even if you’re not obsessive about picking the film apart. This makes THE SIXTH SENSE a perfect candidate for a film to own on DVD. It’s been released on disc in a few different versions; unfortunately, none of them includes a director’s audio commentary. On the plus side, the Collector’s Edition provides lots of interesting extras.
The picture is enhanced for widescreen TV sets. If you don’t have a widescreen television, you need to adult the aspect ratio on your DVD player to get a letterboxed image; otherwise, you will be seeing a squeezed image. The Dolby sound works wonders for the spookiness of effect, bringing out James Newton Howard’s score and the sound effects as well.

Bonus features include storyboard to film comparisons, deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer, two television spots, and several featurettes that cover topics like “Rules and Clues.” In this segment, the filmmakers discuss the rules of the afterlife, which had to be followed so that the film would make sense on a second viewing. These rules, along with clues dropped as to the truth about Dr. Malcolm Crow (Bruce Willis) set up the film’s surprise ending. (For instance, when Dr. Crow takes a seat with his wife at the restaurant, he does not pull the chair up to the table; the chair remains motionless.)
M. Night Shyamalan provides introductions to the deleted scenes, discussing what they were intended to achieve and why they were ultimately dropped. The deleted material is quite good when taken on its own, but its deletion clearly served the best interest of the movie.
Shyamalan also provides a brief interview to introduce a clip from a home movie he made when eleven years old. The writer-director expresses interest in making movies that enter into the cultural consciousness, becoming part of the shared experiences of millions of people around the world. (In retrospect, this sounds a bit like the first sign of the hubris that would lead him to cast himself in LADY IN THE WATER as a writer whose work will save the world.)
Despite the lack of audio commentary, the Collector’s DVD gives a good glimpse into the making of THE SIXTH SENSE. The chapter stops are very convenient when you want to pinpoint a particular scene or shot for close inspection. The interviews are entertaining, and the picture and sound quality make this film almost as frightening in your home as it was in the theatres.
NOTE: The subsequent Two-Disc Vista Series DVD includes all the bonus features from the Collector’s Edition plus several additional extras.

Mischa Barton as one of the film's troubled ghosts

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999). Written & directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg, Peter Anthony Tambakis.