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Bloodlust: Subspecies III (1994)

Subspecies 3And so, the story of vampire bloodlust and creatures of the night lurking in shadowy Romanian locales from Full Moon Features continue!  As with all the sequels in this franchise, this film picks up exactly where the second one ended, and was designed that way with both the second and third films being shot back-to-back.  Bloodlust: Subspecies III continues to build upon its characters and arcs with fantastic success.  Where the second film had essentially all the setup, this film has a lot of pay-off, but does feel a little lacking since it is focused more on resolution than development.  Yet, it would not be the final sequel.

Radu (Anders Hove) has been destroyed, and Michelle (Denice Duff) has been captured by Radu’s vile mother, Mummy.  Mummy uses sorcery to bring Radu back to life, then magically transports them back to Castle Vladislas to escape their mortal pursuers: Michelle’s sister Rebecca (Melanie Shatner), Mel Thompson of the US Embassy (Kevin Blair), and Lt. Marin of the Bucharest police (Ion Haiduc).  Radu’s obsession with Michelle undermines his power over her.  She manipulates him into teaching her the secrets of vampire existence and how to harness her vampire powers.  Once she learns to survive on her own, she intends to destroy him, but Michelle’s plan is put into jeopardy when Rebecca and her allies plan to storm the castle to rescue her from Radu’s clutches.

This film definitely amps up the horror factor a little in interesting ways.  It mainly stems from Michelle’s further seduction to her vampire bloodlust which is beautifully orchestrated by Radu.  She begins to embrace being a vampire, but is unable to fully sever her humanity.  She feasts on the blood of the innocent, but cannot condemn her own sister to a similar gruesome fate.  Denice Duff beautifully portrays the painful inner turmoil of Michelle as her emotions are ripped and pulled in so many directions.  She looks gorgeous, sexy, and seductive as this femme fatale vampiress, but it’s that vulnerability which seeps through that makes her compelling and heartbreakingly sympathetic.  While she does seem like an inconsistent character going back and forth from subservient to adversarial, it sort of works with all that confusion and inner turmoil she’s dealing with.

Unexpectedly, the film gives us this peculiar moment of depth between Michelle and Radu.  Near the break of dawn, she wants to see the sunrise, and she inquires about what can kill a vampire.  She does so because she wants to die.  Radu then offers his creepy, undying love to her, but she scorns him with her eternal hatred.  She hates what he did to him, but there remains a constant struggle within her.  She hunts and quenches her thirst for blood, but she loathes what she has become.  Some of this sounds kind of odd because Radu is the furthest thing from a romanticized vampire.  That role was more akin to his now dead brother Stefan, but in the context of the film and series, this is a surprisingly ambitious moment.  The film could exist without such a scene, but it adds extra layers of depth and emotion to both characters that I really admire.

And Anders Hove is given even more depth and material to expand Radu with.  There’s this almost tragic quality to him by now in what he’s done to his entire family, and Michelle is now all that he has left to claim as his own.  Yet, Hove still delivers the ghastly horror and nightmarish creep factor superbly.  I just love how he continually tempts Michelle with indulging her vampire urges and desires.  Despite showing more emotional qualities, he is still a ferocious, bonafide evil vampire which is the core of his appeal.

I think Kevin Blair gets a little stronger material to work with this time out.  He gets to be more physically involved in the action, and be more assertive and proactive in the plot.  It’s still not a great performance by any means, but Mel becomes a more purposeful character in this film than the last one.  And of course, Melanie Shatner continues on in a nicely solid performance as Rebecca Morgan.  She was such a strong and enjoyable part of these two films that it is a terrible shame that both hers and Kevin Blair’s characters were unceremoniously written out of the fourth film.

However, in this film, I really came to enjoy Lieutenant Marin.  Regardless of any ADR work done on him, Ion Haiduc does a very entertaining and quirky job with the police investigator.  He’s got some light-hearted chemistry with Blair and Shatner.  Marin is a bit of a pesky detective keeping a tight watch on Becky and Mel throughout the film, and having some lightly humorous interactions.  It’s not one of those performances that takes you out of the seriousness of the film.  Marin isn’t quite convinced that vampires are prowling Romania, and so, he has a bit of a preposterous perspective on the events that are unfolding.  Yet, he is persistent in his investigation if only due to the peculiar nature of everything that’s occurring.

Now, with these two sequels being shot back-to-back we get a very consistent technical quality with make-up effects, cinematography, and production values overall.  So, it would be a little redundant to discuss them here, but in short, it’s all very solid stuff.  This sequel seems to be even visually darker with more heavy shadows, and fewer daylight scenes.  That is further enhanced by the great remastering job on the new DVD and Blu Ray releases.  And in the effects department, we are treated to the most elaborate and pleasing “demise” of Radu yet as our heroes attempt an escape at dawn, but of course, a resurrection is hinted at before the end with the appearance of the Subspecies themselves.

Writer and director Ted Nicolaou did a very fine job helming this franchise and steering it into a fascinating and entertaining direction.  These could’ve easily just been dry, low grade fare, but genuine effort was put into these films to make them enjoyable, creepy, and interesting.  The crux of it all really is the evolving dynamic between Michelle and Radu.  It is what drives the stories forward, and the actors in both roles put their all into it.  While the supporting cast is not all as great as Duff and Hove, there’s still decent qualities in the stories and characters to keep the movie entertaining.  Full Moon really loved their franchises, and were always leaving enough of a door open for another direct-to-video sequel.  Michelle’s story is not fully resolved in this film, but it would take a few extra years before we were treated to another sequel.

Watching these films again makes me realize that while there is bloodletting and ghoulish, artistic visuals, the Subspecies movies aren’t designed for high fright factor, but more for entertainment value and atmospheric, moody creepiness.  They are fun vampire films with some well executed emotional depth and interesting vampire lore that are beautifully shot and set in the heart of Romania.  The addition of a slightly humorous CIA specialist helping Becky and Mel storm the castle ended up being less than important to the plot, and more of a facilitating element to get Mel inside Castle Vladislas as Radu’s captive.  So, it has throwaway elements here and there, but in general, Bloodlust: Subspecies III really pays off everything pertinent that the series has built up at this point.  I will get around to a review of Subspecies IV: Bloodstorm, but that is quite an unusual film with peculiar quirks to it.


Bloodstone: Subspecies II (1993)

Subspecies 2The advantage of a sequel, sometimes, is to take what you did the first time and refine it.  You can build upon the ideas and story you established in the first outing.  That is the case with the Subspecies franchise.  The first film was good, but fairly basic in its story, technical quality, and ideas.  Starting with this first sequel, we have a wider expansion on all of this with superior production values, and a building of characters and storylines that make this a far more fascinating world to explore.

The centuries old conflict that has plagued the villages of Transylvania explodes into bloodshed. The mad vampire Radu (Anders Hove) becomes obsessed with Michelle (Denice Duff), who loves his half-mortal brother Stefan. In his quest to possess Michelle and the sacred relic, the Bloodstone, Radu destroys Stefan as he sleeps.  Michelle steals the Bloodstone and escapes from Radu’s castle. She finds a lair beneath a theatre in Bucharest and stalks the streets in torment, torn between her fading humanity and her growing thirst for blood.  She phones her sister Rebecca (Melanie Shatner) and begs her to come to Bucharest to help her. With the aid of Mel Thompson (Kevin Blair) of the US Embassy and Romanian policeman Lt. Marin (Ion Haiduc) she hunts for Michelle in the shadows of the sinister city.  Radu, desperate to regain the Bloodstone, seeks help from his monstrous mother, the ageless sorceress Mummy, who demands that he destroy Michelle before she destroys him.  Rebecca becomes Radu’s unwitting pawn in the race to find Michelle and the Bloodstone.

The superior quality of Bloodstone: Subspecies II over its predecessor is obvious right from the opening scene.  What were low quality video composite effects before are vastly superior visual effects that integrate much smoother with the live action elements.  The Bloodstone itself is also given a higher grade revamp.  The make-up effects are more refined giving extra texture and detail to Radu’s ghastly visage.  And we get Radu’s severely decayed witch mother that creates a very creepy visual that nicely complements Radu himself.  These are a gruesome pair that reek horror throughout the film.  While I don’t have facts to reference, it would seem that Full Moon put some extra money behind this sequel to give it a little more polish and technical enhancement. Even the score is more impressive.  It has more haunting qualities that forge a mysterious atmosphere.  The use of synthesizers feels more natural and high quality compared to the first film.  Overall, it’s just a more lush, richer score that really envelopes the film nicely.

The cinematography of Vlad Paunescu is a marked improvement here with many more camera moves adding to the film’s dramatic quality.  He still uses the Nosferatu-esque silhouette of Radu stretching across buildings to great effect.  There’s plenty of creepy, moody, atmospheric lighting in abundance here as Radu lurks in the shadows.  They highlight such an excellent, chilling presentation for these creatures of the night.  Plus, there’s just great use of subtle angles to give a sense of scale to the Romanian landmarks and practical locations.  Instead of being confined to a small, quaint eastern European town, Subspecies II delves us into Bucharest with a lot of gorgeous scenery to envelope the film in, and the visuals take advantage of that substantially.

In the role of Michelle, there was a casting change to Denice Duff, and I feel she was a very good fit for where these sequels took the character.  She’s a much more vulnerable, troubled, and emotionally shaken character after having been turned into a vampire.  This creates a compelling weakness in contrast to Radu’s bold, frightening, and powerful presence.  She might seem like the token cowering female in a horror movie, but the dynamic we get between Michelle and Radu becomes very interesting.  This character we care so much for is pulled into the sway of the villain, and is unable to break free of it.  While Laura Tate’s Michelle was portrayed as a much stronger woman, I don’t have a problem where Ted Nicolaou took her here.  As the film progresses, Duff’s Michelle Morgan succumbs to her vampire nature more making it increasingly difficult to resist the bloodlust.  And of course, as she descends into the sway of the vampire, she becomes a very beautiful, alluring sight.

In turn, the role of a stronger female is given to Michelle’s sister Becky, portrayed by Melanie Shatner who is indeed the daughter of William Shatner.  She has confidence, spirit, and courage which allows her to become a solid, assertive protagonist.  While Michelle struggles with her own vampiric compulsions and temptations, Becky attempts to find a way to save her alongside a small group of characters.  Kevin Blair, who was Nick in Friday The 13th, Part VII: The New Blood, does a fairly solid job as Mel.  He holds his own just fine, but doesn’t have an opportunity to standout amongst the crowd.

And again, Anders Hove delivers a wickedly excellent performance as Radu.  He seemed to up his game a little bit here now that Radu had a stronger storyline to follow.  He’s still as skin crawlingly creepy as ever, but seems more forceful, more powerful than before.  The presentation of Radu from a cinematography standpoint is far more stunning and ghoulish than before, and its only further aided by the improvements in his make-up design.

Now, this sequel is not heavy on the horror and bloodletting, but instead, focuses more on the mood and atmosphere while building up its story.  We do get some moments of horror and gore sprinkled throughout, and there is a very prominent air of mystique and lurking horror through most of the film.  However, Bloodstone: Subspecies II was designed to be one half of a whole as it was shot back-to-back with Bloodlust: Subspecies III.  I think the story and script Nicolaou put together is very good giving us enough emotional investment to carry us forward on both Michelle’s and Becky’s journeys.  It has a bit tighter pace than the first film, and more plot elements to propel the 87 minute film forward.

Following suit with their twentieth anniversary release of Subspecies, Full Moon has done a high definition remastering on the first two sequels, and the improvements are immediately noticeable.  This is a beautiful widescreen presentation where the heavy shadows are now deep blacks with solid contrast that still allows for a lot of detail to show through.  While the film has a limited and grounded color palette, the amber glows of daylight and fire are rich and strong.  I have the DVD release, and this is a very clean print that still looks like 35mm film.  I’ve read that the Blu Ray releases for both sequels are even superior to that of the first film, likely much to do the higher production values of both movies.

Director Ted Nicolaou also took over screenwriting duties for the sequels, and did take things in a bit different direction with characters and plot.  While it required a little bit of a concept change here and there, I think it was for the better.  Bloodstone: Subspecies II feels like the overall strongest film of the franchise.  While it doesn’t have the pay-off that the next film will have, by design, the building of plot and character elements make this more interesting than the first film, and that allows for more to be going on in the film than we get in the third movie.  The fourth movie, which I will review once that gets its remastered home video release, has many peculiar qualities to it, and so, if asked which Subspecies film appeals to me the most, it’s likely Bloodstone: Subspecies II.


Dracula (1979)

Dracula.  The name is legendary in the world of horror.  There have been countless portrayals of the infamous Count throughout the decades.  In the late 1970s, a stage play was produced with a unique take on the original novel focusing more on a seductive Dracula than the gory, fearsome one.  In both the stage production and this film adaptation, the iconic role was portrayed by the excellent Frank Langella.  Directed by John Badham, this is a very interesting presentation of this story that I feel is very successful, even if the horror factor does not rival its brethren.

When a ship is wrecked off Whitby, the only survivor, Count Dracula (Frank Langella), is discovered lying on the beach by the sickly young Mina (Jan Francis), who is visiting her dear friend Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan).  Lucy, her fiancé Johnathan Harker (Trevor Eve), and her father Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance), who runs the local asylum, try to make the Count feel welcome to England.  The Count quickly takes the life of Mina, and proceeds to romance Lucy, with the intention of making her his greatest bride.  Soon after the death of Mina, the Sewards call her father, Dr. Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) to come to their home.  As Lucy falls deeper under the spell of the Count, Dr. Van Helsing almost immediately comes to understand that his daughter fell prey to a vampire and discovers the culprit to be none other than the Count himself.  Dr. Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, and Johnathan Harker work together to foil the Count’s plans to take Lucy away to his native Transylvania.

I feel this really is more of a performance-driven film as the plot doesn’t captivate very much.  It’s quite standard for a adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel.  Thankfully, the cast is especially exceptional.  Frank Langella is undoubtedly the most seductive and sensual Count Dracula ever committed to film.  With every glance of his eyes, every graceful movement, every soothing, hypnotic word he speaks, it fully enraptures an audience into the Count’s spell.  Langella has been told by many fans how their wives were so greatly turned on by his performance, and the husband’s benefitted nicely from it.  The wardrobe was meticulously assembled to give him the right flowing and iconic quality, and Langella envelopes that ideal beautifully.  He has such a striking presence from his first entrance to the end.  He truly commands a scene bringing a shadowy majesty to all he does.  The performance is captivating reflecting the centuries old wisdom and power Dracula has gained, making him a dangerous and fearsome evil to combat.  The character himself is depicted as a more lonely individual who feels a sadness being isolated from the world.  Words spoken with great zeal by Bela Lugosi about the creatures of the night are turned around with a sorrowful tone by Langella.  It makes Dracula a more sympathetic figure who yearns for an eternal love to end his pain of loneliness.  He doesn’t wish to damn Lucy, he wants to be with her for all time, to love her in the darkness.

Sir Laurence Olivier is also a sympathetic figure as Abraham Van Helsing.  He inhabits the intellect of the Professor well, but since the story makes it that Mina is his daughter, there is an added depth of emotion here.  As anyone should expect from this magnificent actor, Olivier brings great theatricality and soulful breadth to this portrayal.  Despite his grief for Mina, Van Helsing has a solid strength and conviction which makes him a formidable adversary for the Count.  Olivier puts on a peculiar accent as Van Helsing which is further unique since all other actors in the role have just used their native English accent.  It’s just one more thing that helps him make this role his own.

Lucy Seward is wonderfully portrayed by Kate Nelligan.  She has an elegant, soft beauty about her that is perfect.  She brings forth a great depth of love and pain just in her eyes alone.  How Lucy is mesmerized and caught up in Dracula’s power is realized with a dynamic expression of soul and heartache.  You can feel the connection between Lucy and Dracula so deeply throughout the film, and is never anything but powerful and beautiful.

The rest of the cast is remarkably solid.  Donald Pleasance is great as Dr. Jack Seward smartly keeping up with Olivier, and never faltering in anything he does.  Trevor Eve is quite distinct as Jonathan Harker, but spends most of the film in contempt of Dracula to really breakout into showing his love for Lucy.  There are a few moments where he has the opportunity, but they don’t last long enough to be fleshed out.  While all other roles are rather small, the actors in those roles maintain the level of quality and commitment as the leads.

Now, there are moments of fearsome horror, but it’s more suspenseful than frightening.  There’s enough dramatic conflict and ghastly encounters to maintain this in the realm of horror.  When Van Helsing enters the underground cave, and is confronted by his now undead daughter, the make-up upon her is very ghoulish.  While its not played for startling scares, the suspense and emotion of the scene is strong.  It’s clear that John Badham wanted to make an elegant horror film instead of a shocking one, and I can respect that.  The atmosphere created around Dracula in certain scenes make him both enrapturing and chilling.  Ultimately, this is tragic vampire love story that has sophistication and grace in addition to its fair share of creepy imagery.  I think the ambiguous ending is rightly appropriate to the mysterious qualities of the Count.

The visual effects are very impressive, and handled by the legendary Albert Whitlock.  He’s done amazing work on numerous productions over his sixty year career, and this is no exception.  Dracula’s transformations into bats and wolves are done very artistically using some beautiful techniques which add to the elegance of the film.  It’s rarely anything noticeably elaborate, but these effects are no less impressive because of that.

The masterful John Williams did the score for Dracula, and it is grandiose and sweeping.  The main theme is both haunting and romantic, a perfect encapsulation for this story.  As always, Williams did a marvelous job creating something unique and operatic for a film that deserved a rich musical experience.

The film is brilliantly shot by veteran cinematographer Gilbert Taylor.  In his more than fifty year career, he most notably shot Dr. Strangelove, Frenzy, The Omen, and Star Wars.  Dracula is simply a gorgeous film through and through with mystifying atmosphere, alluring lighting, and artistic and competent compositions.  It masterfully showcases the amazing production designs in great breadth and detail.  Said production designs are exquisite with elaborate, theatrical scope to them, especially in Carfax Abbey.  While some are divided on the expressionistic love scene with the red laser light and all, it really didn’t elicit a generally strong emotion from me either way.  I surely advocate that it is outside of the style of the film, but one could make the case for Dracula and Lucy’s sexual encounter needing to be a heightened sensual experience.  Of course, there are other ways to do that which don’t date the film in the late 1970s.  The filmmakers actually borrowed the laser lights from the rock band The Who on a day off from their concert tour.  That aside, there’s really not a single technical that fails to impress in this film.  It truly is gorgeous.

However, I have to take issue with director John Badham’s alterations to the color timing of the film.  He originally wanted to make this as a black & white film, but Universal Pictures vetoed that idea.  Thus, when the film was given the widescreen laserdisc treatment in 1991, Badham de-saturated much of the color from the film leaving it with a flat color palette.  This mostly affects the darker or exterior scenes giving the picture a rather bleek, muggy look.  Knowing that he had done this, I did boost the color setting on my television to partially compensate, but much was still left to be desired.  It’s simply the fact that a film needs to be shot and lit as a black & white film for it to work in that sort of presentation.  Dracula was not shot in that way.  Regardless of this fact, the 2004 DVD does look quite good with good picture quality, if it is a tad dim, but I can see the potentially vibrant film that this once was.

Regardless of this, there is still an excellent motion picture to be had here.  Again, granted, there’s not much in the way of true horror that will affect a modern audience, but if you’re looking for a romantic vampire film done right, you would be hard pressed to find one better than this.  It is interesting to note that, as a stipulation, Frank Langella did not don any fangs at any point during the movie, and specifically did not want blood on his face.  He wanted to maintain a certain level of integrity, and avoid the clichés that other Draculas had indulged in.  I think it generally works for a film of this style and tone.  It helps maintain a level of humanity in Count Dracula which enhances the heart and soul of his tragic character.  This iteration of Dracula might not be for everyone, but I truly like the change of approach here.  I can watch a gory Dracula film at anytime in a dozen or more different versions, but this gave me something different with the talent and artistic quality to make it very successful.


‘Salem’s Lot (2004)

I watched the original telemovie of Salem’s Lot from director Tobe Hooper a long time ago, but for whatever reason it never made a lasting impression upon me.  In 2004, the TNT cable network produced and aired this re-adaptation of Stephen King’s popular novel, and it has been an October favorite of mine ever since.  That is, when I can find three hours to sit and watch this mini-series telemovie.  Most of the Stephen King film adaptations I’ve seen have not fared very well, but this one really hit the right tone and consistency to be successful, in my view.

Writer Ben Mears (Rob Lowe), returns to his childhood home of the small Maine town of Jerusalem’s Lot (also known as ‘Salem’s Lot), to research his new book, and to confront his haunted past.  As a child, inside the ominous Marsden House, he witnessed a horrific crime and a chilling, evil presence.  Little does he or the townsfolk realize that a couple of other new residents have just settled in that house.  They are Richard Straker (Donald Sutherland), a kindly, if slightly unsettling antiques dealer, and his partner and master Kurt Barlow (Rutger Hauer), a ancient and malevolent vampire bent on making Salem’s Lot his new home.  The story wraps around many of the town’s residents showing that dark secrets are abound even in the quaintest of towns, but for as much bad, there is a measure of good that can win out.  Ben Mears fights against his fears and skepticism as he and some of the locals battle to eradicate this heart-stopping force of evil that is destroying ‘Salem’s Lot.

What shines the brightest here is Rob Lowe.  He carries the film so very well, and inhabits the Ben Mears character comfortably.  Firstly, his voice over narrations have a perfect foreboding tone that demystifies the innocent charm of small town America.  It starts off the film reflecting on Mears’ nostalgia for things both pleasant and fearsome.  Lowe has enough subtle charm to bring levity to the right moments, but also, a haunted quality which casts a somber aura around him.  He does a fine job exploring Mears’ underlying fears.  That aspect brings more dimension to the character if he had just been a fearless, courageous protagonist.  He’s a very real person who has his demons to confront and overcome, and the journey to defeating them is a painful one.  By the end, you see Ben Mears’ soul break through in its purest form, and it can be heartbreaking.  Rob Lowe is a remarkable leading man in this mini-series.

Donald Sutherland is excellently creepy as Straker.  He walks the line between sweet, gentle old man, and shady, dangerous stranger.  The character makes me think back to Max von Sydow in Needful Things, but Sutherland puts his own unsettling mark on this style of character.  Rutger Hauer has played quite a few vampires in films on drastically varying tone.  As Barlow, he has an understated chilling quality.  He is a tempter of desires drawing people into the darkness by offering them what they most want, but repaying their surrender with blood.  He’s not there to scare you outright for the sake of scaring, but wishes to spread his brand of darkness into the very soul of this small town.  Straker insidiously works into that agenda with vile glee.  Hauer’s portrayed some amazing psychological characters from Blade Runner to The Hitcher, and while he has limited screentime here, he makes a striking impression as Barlow.

The supporting cast is very strong as well.  I’ve regularly enjoyed Andre Braugher since first witnessing his Homicide: Life On The Street character of Frank Pembleton.  That was a very intense role.  Matt Burke brings out a more vulnerable, yet sharply intelligent and perceptive performance.  Samantha Mathis is particularly strong willed and bright in the Susan Norton role, the aspiring writer that Ben connects with.  James Cromwell does a fine job as faith-filled Father Callahan who has a problem with alcohol.  Sheriff Parkins is given a strong depth of somber sadness later in the film by Steven Vidler.  He grapples with his ability and commitment to protecting this town until he feels it has slipped away from him.  Every cast member inhabits their roles with a lot of depth and strength making each character’s story evenly compelling.

I really, deeply love the look of ‘Salem’s Lot.  It has rich darkness and a strong contrast of shadows which create a beautiful atmosphere.  The blue tones and overcast skies create a cold wintry visual that compliments the story’s slightly grim tone.  A snowy landscape has its wonderful beauty that I very much appreciate, and that adds to the appeal of this movie for me.  There is also plenty of warmly lit scenes which accentuate the heart and humanity of these characters.  Overall, this is just a gorgeously shot mini-series that puts a lot of production value on screen.

While the film is mostly a character driven story establishing tone and atmosphere from their inner fears, it does have its fair share of creepy, scary, and suspenseful segments.  About halfway through it has a good series of such moments.  I particularly like Floyd Tibbits squeezing through the air vent trying to reach Ben Mears in the adjoining jail cell.  Maybe it’s just because it reminds me of an early episode or two of The X Files, but it’s sufficiently creepy and nightmarish.  Of course, since this was a basic cable network production there is not much gore to speak of, and while that certainly could’ve improved the film, it does artistically work around those constraints.  What make-up effects we do get from the vampires are very good.  It’s nothing elaborate like the Barlow of the original mini-series, instead holding more to Stephen King’s more subtle ideas.  However, the creepy yellow eyes gleam in the darkness, and the pale make-up on the vampires turned by Rutger Hauer’s Barlow is decently effective.  It certainly lacks a more ghastly quality that would have been more impactful.  I’ve praised the very original and striking vampire make-up designs all through this Vampire Week, and so, this vampire appearance hits a little lukewarm.  They just look more like walking corpses than fearsome creatures of the night, aside from the creepy eyes.  The digital effects are few, and are decent as well.  Not bad at all for a 2004 television movie budget, and I’ve certainly seen far worse from large budget theatrical release films.

Of course, I like the story very much.  It shows how the good and evil is tested in everyone, and how this darkness pushes them further towards one or the other.  Many succumb or embrace this darkness, but the few that fight to hold onto their humanity stand strong in the light.  How the town is slowly infested with vampires, turning the population into a band of bloodsuckers, is truly terrifying.  It’s like a sickness that swallows them whole.  The film starts out very domestic establishing these characters, their lives, and their little dark secrets.  It builds relationships, attitudes, and an emotional landscape for them to trudge through.  Jerusalem’s Lot has always had the dark looming presence of the Marsden house peering down upon them.  It’s a constant reminder that this town is not safe from evil, and that it lurks in every direction.  While some are skeptical about vampires stalking them, they all know something just as evil has been in their town for a long time.  It’s an underlying knowledge that they have put out of their minds, but it lingers in their thoughts.

The framing scenes for the flashbacks in the hospital are very good.  They create an unsettling, sad weight to the story knowing that things do not end well for Jerusalem’s Lot.  It’s just a matter of how this grim, frightening series of events affected these people, and what damage it inflicted upon their souls.  The ending surely has its hefty dose of pathos.  Peter Filardi put together a hell of a teleplay based off of Stephen King’s novel.  The characters are strongly fleshed out, and the various subplots are well balanced before converging into a singular main plot.  Everything flows together very evenly for a consistent, steady pace that is just right for a three hour mini-series telemovie.  Much praise to director Mikael Salomon for maintaining a solid atmosphere and elicit some equally strong performances from this cast.

‘Salem’s Lot is not a film that will jump out and scare the living hell out of you, but I feel it is an effectively suspenseful, atmospheric movie that invests you in the heart and soul of its characters above all else.  It’s shot as a high grade feature with the acting talent and production values to back it up.  With so many King film adaptations being horrendous failures, it’s special to find one that is a competent and artistically successful outing, and they didn’t need John Carpenter or David Cronenberg to do so.  I’ve seen that this is generally regarded as faithful adaptation with only a few liberties taken, but of course, opinions can vary on whether those liberties are favorable or not.  I know the Tobe Hooper original has its legion of fans, and I do not know what their general feelings are on this version.  Thus, on its own merits, I believe this is a very worthwhile watch when you have a good three hours set aside for a moody, horror movie afternoon.


Vampires (1998)

I have seen many favorite directors of mine fall into a decline over a period of time.  They used to be great, but time has done something to change their ability to output work that rivals their best.  John Carpenter is one of those directors.  The 1980s were his glory years.  In the 1990s, his work started getting spotty with some hard misses such as Village of the Damned, but for me, this 1998 action horror film is still on the better side of his filmography.  It does have some problems, but the stellar performance by James Woods elevates this to a far higher level than it would’ve had otherwise.

Jack Crow (James Woods) is a professional and Vatican-funded vampire slayer.  He and his team of slayers have just cleared out a nest of vampires in the New Mexico desert, but, disappointingly, the master vampire was not there.  That night, the team is partying at the Sun God Motel, rejoicing in their victory when the master, Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), arrives to slaughter them after seducing and biting Katrina (Sheryl Lee), a hooker hired for the party.  Crow is surprised when Valek happens to know his name, but he soon retreats with fellow slayer Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and Katrina.  They soon have the young and timid priest Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee) forced upon them by Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) as a replacement for their slain Father Giovanni (Gregory Sierra).  Thus, this new team heads out to find Valek with the help of Katrina’s psychic link with him, and stop him from completing a ritual which will allow vampires to walk in daylight.

This was based on the novel VAMPIRE$ by John Steakley, and while I have never read it, I’ve been told that the book has a far superior story.  Steakley himself said that the film contains much of his dialogue, but none of his plot.  Reading just the quick summation of the novel, there are heavy deviations following the motel massacre.  So, anyone familiar with the book should not expect more than a basic adaptation of it in the film, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some very worthwhile content in John Carpenter’s Vampires.

As I said, this entire movie belongs to James Woods.  Without someone of his caliber inhabiting this hard edged, charismatic character, this film would inevitably falter.  He truly commands the screen with power and authority.  Jack Crow is a rugged man with an intense physical presence that takes nothing from no one.  He knows nothing of subtlety.  You feel his electric energy pulsate off the screen.  The back story of Crow is very painful and traumatic, but he’s not a sympathetic hero.  He doesn’t have the time or mentality of sympathy.  He’s the flipside of another Carpenter bad ass – “Snake” Plissken.  Where Plissken was pretty soft-spoken and forced to trust in unsavory people in bad situations, Crow is a hard ass that doesn’t much give a damn about the odds.  He’s got a vendetta to settle with Valek now, and there is nothing that will stop him until he gets some blood spilled.  Still, he’s keen and focused.  Crow doesn’t get blinded by rage or vengeance.  He’s a hunter, and that’s the instinct he follows the most.  James Woods has great scenes with everyone in the film as his charisma energizes every scene.  Crow really shows no fear even in the face of apparent death.  The guy’s got attitude to spare, and I couldn’t think of anyone but James Woods tackling this character.  He’s got such an energy, intensity, and authority that allows him to easily carry the entire film.  The late film critic Gene Siskel believed that Woods deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance here, and I could stand behind that statement as well.  Carpenter’s worked with some great actors before, but Woods is just another breed of animal altogether.

Another strong performer is Thomas Ian Griffith as Valek.  Griffith’s career has been mostly relegated to mediocre B grade action movies, but here, he shows that he can envelop himself in a very imposing and alluring character.  He gives us a savage, confident, creepy, and sadistic style.  Valek does have a rage, but it is controlled.  He knows what he wants, and goes about it with lustful passion.  He really holds his own against Woods, and makes Valek a very powerful and memorable villain.  Valek follows in that more romanticized style of vampire, but has more than enough gruesome ferocity to balance that out to maintain himself as a serious threat.

Daniel Baldwin plays Montoya with a lot of different tones.  He’s a bit cynical and vulgar at first, switches over into a real mean streak, but also shows us some hurt at the end.  It’s very solid performance by him.  Sheryl Lee is not only very talented, but she is sizzling hot!  We see some very nice bare skin, but nothing frontal.  She has some very intense stuff to tackle here, and does so superbly.  Tim Guinee plays the timid and inexperienced Father Adam with an endearing quality.  You feel sorry for the guy when Jack Crow is smacking him around and literally ripping on him.  There are answers that Jack needs, and he has to physically force Father Adam’s reluctant cooperation.  And of course, Maximilian Schell brings his fine Shakespearian acting talents to grace this film with a wonderful performance.  He brings a nice sense of culture wrapped in a little bit of shadiness.

John Carpenter has always been a big fan of the westerns, and that is never more apparent than in this film.  Vampires has distinct elements of those great old Spaghetti westerns.  Jack Crow truly feels like an old style gunslinger or bounty hunter.  A man hardened by life who doesn’t live by laws.  He takes what he wants when he needs it.  He’s a man who doesn’t require comforts in life.  He’s on a mission, and nothing’s going to stop him.  The southwestern American landscape is used to strikingly stunning degrees, and provides a unique backdrop for a vampire film.  The cinematography from Gary B. Kibbe really brings an amazing beauty to this classic old west style environment.  Kibbe also lensed Prince of Darkness and In The Mouth of Madness which both also had fantastic and dramatic cinematography.  Carpenter and Kibbe have worked on other pictures as well, and they seem to really mesh nicely as a team.

This western motif is further enhanced by John Carpenter’s amazing score.  The main theme has a heavy blues emphasis.  It sounds like a modern electric guitar version of an Ennio Morricone / Sergio Leone film score.  However, the more general score is very haunting and foreboding.  It creates a great atmosphere for the horror elements of the film while the theme more pops up to enhance the presence of Jack Crow.  It’s an incredible piece of work all around with a very chilling and intense orchestration.  I’ve been a proud owner of the soundtrack CD since the film’s release.

Vampires is also a great film for gore fans.  KNB EFX Group delivers again with some elaborate, blood soaked gruesomeness.   They got better with every film they worked on, and their work here is amazing.  Bodies ripped in half, throats slashes wide open, blood everywhere, and creepy vampire makeup really brought this film a major shock splatter factor.  Where John Carpenter has mainly been a suspense driven horror director, this film plunges headlong into a large vat of blood.  It flows and splatters everywhere making Valek even more of a violent, powerful threat to show he can produce this much carnage alone.

One of the detractors to this film back in 1998 was with the marketing.  The trailer actually spoils what is meant to be a startling revelation in the film.  I have refrained from spoiling that here for the sake of those who don’t already know it.  However, as I said, there are a few problems with the movie.  The plotting of the movie is pretty good, but it seems like there are some plot threads that are trimmed out.  As if there is some connective tissue that could have strengthened a few plot twists and character motivations in the third act.  That’s mainly where the problems arise is in the final act.  The climax has many good elements to it, but when it comes down to the final confrontation between Jack Crow and Valek, it couldn’t end more anti-climactically.  It does fit the attitude and personality of Jack Crow to end it how he does, but the dramatic pay-off of the story suffers for it.  Valek has viciously slaughtered Crow’s entire team and worse.  He’s a massive threat with a integral, important back story.  The dramatic storytelling really demands a fight fueled by fiery vengeance.  Something that truly has them ripping at each other with brute force, but we are not given that.  This ending does have a John Carpenter style and sensibility to it, but lacks the big punchy quality he usually gives us.

At the time of its theatrical release, this was the start of horror films getting gory again.  The genre had gotten mainly watered down throughout the 90s, and coupled with Blade, this was bringing back the violent and bad ass vampires to theatres.  John Carpenter’s Vampires delivers a lot of action, brutality, plenty of gore, and a nice dash of appropriate cynical humor.  There’s also some suspense mixed in at times to keep the nerves tingling a little.  So, on a pure horror front, the film essentially succeeds, and it has been one that I’ve enjoyed over the years.  I just think that the script could’ve used some stronger through lines with a few characters and certain aspects of the plot to give more purpose and build up to some of the reveals during the third act.  Ultimately, the film is mainly concerned with Jack Crow.  While that is the film’s true strength with James Woods’ incredible performance, there was enough room to flesh out other aspects of the story to make it feel more satisfying on a storytelling level.  There are those that put John Carpenter’s Vampires in the bad category of his career, and while I can see there was room for definite enhancement, this is far from being a bad movie.  Carpenter did produce a good film here which does have much going for it.  As it is, this is a hell of a fun ride that I find quite entertaining and thrilling.  It is absolutely worth your time to watch this intense, haunting, and grisly horror movie.  It’s also probably the closest we’ll ever get to having John Carpenter direct a western, and he couldn’t have gotten a better old west style anti-hero than James Woods.


Subspecies (1991)

Talk about old favorites from the VHS era of direct-to-video movies.  Subspecies came to us from Full Moon Entertainment which was all about that market with franchises like Trancers and The Puppet Master.  However, this was my taste with a Romanian shot vampire film.  I think I was mainly exposed to this franchise when they used to air on the Sci-Fi Channel back in the late 90s.  Those were my early days of horror, and thus, Subspecies remains a sentimental favorite.  Full Moon produced four films in this franchise over seven years, and in 2011, they re-released the first film in a Digitally Remastered 20th Anniversary Edition DVD and Blu-Ray.  Previous DVD releases were from the original VHS masters, and so, it’s nice to finally watch the film in a generally more appropriate widescreen presentation.  I will say that this is not a film for just anyone due to a few reasons which I will get to after the synopsis.

The evil vampire villain Radu (Anders Hove) returns to his hometown Prejnar, after spending years in exile. He confronts and murders his father, the King (Angus Scrimm), and steals the precious Bloodstone which is said to be bleeding from all saints.  It gives whoever drinks from it greater vampire power.  Meanwhile, two American schoolgirls team up with a local girl for work on Romanian culture. Radu becomes attracted to them and begins to stalk them through the shadowy town.  However, he runs into trouble when his half-brother Stefan (Michael Watson) helps and protects the girls from Radu’s grisly intentions.

Okay, first off, I do have to address the glaring blotch on the quality of the film.  You have to remember that this was a low budget direct-to-video movie from the early 1990s.  You’re going to get some bad visual effects, and I couldn’t help but laugh in enjoyment of this.  The good is that they are brief, and mostly at the very start of the picture.  These involve the Subspecies themselves, the little creatures that are spawned from Radu’s own self.  It’s probably stop motion animation coupled with a low grade video composite shot.  However, most subsequent shots of the Subspecies are far, far better with a proper optical film composite process, but there are still a few of those ugly ones later in the movie.  Those bad shots are cringe inducing, and really require you to have an acquired taste for this sort of thing.  As much as I wish they had been, the digitally remastered DVD doesn’t fix any of this.  They just restored the original film print for a digital video presentation, and it does look vastly better than it ever has before.  If you can sidestep these brief moments of low grade effects shots, you’ll find a rather enjoyable vampire film fronted by one of the best vampires ever committed to cinema.

The whole cast feels very authentic.  This is both due to the straight forward writing and fine casting.  The regular cast doesn’t have any true standouts, but they do all add to the flavor of the film.  Since this was all filmed in Romania, director Ted Nicolaou cast some local talent that is exceptional.  It might be low budget, but the acting is truly not low quality.  Laura Tate does a nice, solid job as Michelle, but the sequels would recast the role with Denise Duff who seemed to be better suited for where the sequels took the character.  Michael Watson is very good as Stefan.  He is the tall dark stranger that is able to capture the ladies’ hearts.  Watson makes Stefan charming but mysterious.  He has his secrets to keep, but is not an evil individual.  He shows grief for his now dead father, and fears his treacherous brother Radu.  Watson has fine low key chemistry and presence which serves the character very well.  Of course, we get a solid cameo appearance by Angus Scrimm as King Vladislav.  There was no better choice of who to play opposite Anders Hove at the beginning of the picture than Phantasm’s own Tall Man.

For my money, there is hardly a more vile, vicious, horrific, or creepy vampire in all of cinema than Radu Vladislav.  The make-up design is astounding creating a pale, nightmarish visage that actor Anders Hove sinks deeply into, and there are definite elements of Nosferatu in here with his elongated fingers and the more uncommon fang design.  These make Radu’s shadowy figure unmistakable, and that silhouette is used to excellent effect throughout the movie.  Also, that scratchy, strained, lusting voice sends chills up one’s spine.  Hove plunges himself fully into this role with a sadistic, salacious, and deliciously evil performance.  Radu is a creature with no conscience or morality.  He is consumed by his lust for power via the Bloodstone, and gains so much vile pleasure in everything he does.  His presence alone captivates an audience’s attention.  I like that he’s not romantic, but carries that aura of vampiric bloodlust seduction.  He’s not the handsome mysterious stranger that one would fall in love with, like Stefan.  It’s purely that enthralling vampire bloodlust which draws his victims in.  Radu is such a rich character that there was obvious fertile ground still left to explore with him, and so, intentionally leaving the ending open for the sequels was a fine choice.  He is truly one of the best vampires in cinematic history that most people have never known about.

The film is very nicely shot especially with the Castle Vladislav interiors.  Amidst the perfectly shadowy interiors, fiery torches accent each scene there.  The cinematography of Vlad Paunescu shows off the Romanian setting very well with some very nice wide shots of landscape and the castle itself.  We get a strong sense of its size and imposing nature.  Obviously, with a film of this level there aren’t many fancy or elaborate shots, but what we are given services the overall tone very well.  It’s very competently shot presenting some atmospheric and frightening visuals that effectively tell the story.  There were several composers who worked on the film, and I’m not sure why.  It is all a generally synthesizer based score that is not elaborate, but generally good and nicely conceived.  I’m sure, had the budget allowed for it, a full orchestral based score would’ve elevated the atmospheric quality of the film exponentially.

The story itself is quite simple and straight forward.  Screenwriters Jackson Barr and David Pabian gave us something that didn’t try to be more than what it could be.  Ted Nicolaou maintains a steady pace for a decently satisfying 80 minute film.  As is usual, the sequels would get more ambitious with their stories and plots, and delve us further into the mythology of the characters.  For this first outing, I think everyone did a good job.  There are some scares in the film, but by today’s standards, they’re fairly tame.  Such moments are certainly your standard vampire fare, but they are well executed never going for cheapness or silliness.  Nicolaou keeps a consistent dramatic tone throughout the film, and treats the horror aspects with respect.  Considering the marvelous age of computer generated digital effects we have now, it’s hard to look back to such a low budget film from the early 90s, and say Nicolaou probably made the best quality film he could with what he had.  However, I think that’s just about the truth.  I have no reference for what exactly the budget was on this film, but I think it’s very safe to say it didn’t exceed six figures.  Usually with effects films of this time I compare them to Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Jurassic Park, but there is no way anyone could rationally make such comparisons between a low budget direct-to-video movie and two multi-million dollar summer blockbusters.  Full Moon used what they could afford, but I’m sure some of the results probably left something to be desired even in 1991.

I would never say that Subspecies is a great film or a perfect franchise, but it’s vastly enjoyable.  It has its high marks, especially with Anders Hove’s amazing and consistent work as Radu, but it’s surely restricted by its direct-to-video budget.  A fifth film in the series has been prevented from happening due to Full Moon’s decline in budgetary resources.  Nicolaou and Hove are game for another sequel, but want to have the proper budget to do justice for the script they have.  Normally, one would say that making another sequel fourteen years after the last sequel would seem unlikely, but with a company such as Full Moon where all they really do are cult movies and direct-to-video features, anything is possible.  Their niche audience is there for the long haul.  Again, this is not a film for just anyone.  I strongly believe you would have had to have grown up in this era of low budget VHS movies to endure those low grade video effects.  I know everyone’s seen bad digital effects, but this is a whole different type of experience.  I’m sure the gradual pace of the film would not appeal to many modern audiences, either.  However, if you are a fan of these kinds of films, Subspecies is definitely worth checking out.  I genuinely think experiencing some of Anders Hove’s Radu is greatly worthwhile.  Even if the movie itself holds no weight with you, I believe this horrific and stunning character certainly has that potential.


The Monster Squad (1987)

You know, the video rental store was a glorious thing growing up in the 1980s and 90s.  It was better than any other place around.  Especially in the 80s, I believe I discovered more great films from VHS rentals and cable television than actually going to the theatre.  While the vast majority of my horror movie fandom was sparked off in the late 90s, I’ve been a fan of The Monster Squad since it came to home video.  It was always a rare treat either renting it or finding it airing on television some afternoon.  This was a greatly fun and frightening movie.

In the late nineteenth century, legendary vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim) led a siege upon the castle of Count Dracula (Duncan Regehr) with an amulet of concentrated good in an attempt to cast all monsters into Limbo.  They blew it.  One hundred years later, his diary comes into the possession of Sean Crenshaw (Andre Gower) who leads a group of pre-teens who idolize classic movie monsters.  They call themselves The Monster Squad.  Sean and his friends workup the courage to visit the “Scary German Guy” (Leonardo Cimino), who turns out to be a kindly gentleman, to translate the German text in Van Helsing’s diary.  They learn of the amulet and its power, and that they only have a few days before it becomes vulnerable to destruction.  However, danger approaches as Dracula reawakens joined by the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Gill-Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster to help the Count take control of the amulet and plunge the world into darkness.  Now, the Monster Squad are the only ones who can stand in his way, and save the world from his impending reign of evil.

I find it immensely pleasing that Fred Dekker, director and co-writer, created a film that fully delivers on high quality horror while still incorporating adventurous fun.  There is such a deep, rich respect for these icons of classic horror that it shows through in every frame of film.  The entire film is given fine dramatic integrity.  Nothing is ever farcical.  It follows in the style of a film like The Goonies which has very fleshed out, dimensional, and relatable young characters put into very dangerous and exciting scenarios.  There’s a fine balance between the serious story and the charming fun.  The characters nor actors ever treat their situation as ridiculous.  They hold up the dramatic weight of the story very well.  The film never descends into cheap silliness like I imagine a modern remake would.  It sets everything up as a very honest threat that our heroes take with earnestness, but the film is still able to inject smart humor at just the right moments.  It is a brilliant mix and balance that is not easy to pull off.

The entire child cast is absolutely excellent.  André Gower leads the group with a lot of conviction and emotional determination.  He naturally fits the role of a confident, inspiring leader as Sean.  I love that Sean feels he has sort of inherited the mantle of Abraham Van Helsing.  He is inspired by Van Helsing’s journal, and wants to fulfill that failed mission.  Ryan Lambert does a great job as Rudy, the older, tougher, cooler kid of the group.  His leather jacket rebel style attitude adds a nice sense of edginess and credibility to the team.  Rudy’s also given a fine action hero moment when he starts slinging arrows in the climax.  You’ve also got to love how Horace is used in the film paying off some smart and hilarious jokes.  He’s the one that gets picked on at school, but ultimately, gets his hard edged action hero moment by the end.  This entire youthful cast is as solid as it gets.  They endear themselves to an audience, and all have their own qualities that make them distinct amongst the group.  They all bring something fun and unique to the cast’s dynamics.

Stephen Macht and Mary Ellen Trainor turn in very solid and well-rounded performances as Sean & Pheobe’s parents.  While the strained marriage aspect wasn’t all that necessary, it added to the emotional dimension of these characters, and it resonated well where it needed to.  The relationship between Sean and his father is very strongly handled with subtle moments that go a long way.  Macht and Gower have a very heartfelt bond that penetrates the screen, and builds a depth with Sean that an audience can connect with.  It surely solidifies Sean’s stature as the lead protagonist.

The film’s Dracula is brilliantly portrayed by Duncan Regehr.  His is seriously one of my favorite interpretations of Count Dracula.  He has such an intimidating and theatrical presence which saturates the screen.  The cold blooded, violent aspects of his performance are very chilling.  He has absolutely no hesitation to kill, and you never doubt how genuinely threatening or dangerous he is.  However, he can also demonstrate a passionate desire at times when on the hunt.  The film doesn’t give him a lot of scenes to establish much character, but you can feel this is a fleshed out villain from this rich performance alone.  I have seen Regehr in a few other roles, and he has brought this same level of passion to them as well.  As Dracula, he never ceases to be terrifying and compelling. He is an immensely strong lead villain that I think should never be forgotten in the annals of great Dracula portrayals.

I know the amazing talent of Tom Noonan from Manhunter, and as Frankenstein’s Monster, he continues to amaze.  The touching, tragic humanity he pours into this role is heartbreaking.  He can truly capture an audience’s heart as he does with the Monster Squad kids themselves.  Noonan deserves special recognition for his work here.  I also love the portrayal of the Wolfman by Jonathan Gries.  He’s a guy frightened to death of what the full moon turns him into so much he goes crazy on the police to force them to lock him up.  However, as the wolf, he is Dracula’s willing ally who is entirely ferocious and terrifying.  The transformation effects from man into werewolf are some of the best ever committed to film.  You definitely get the sense of a violent metamorphosis into this vicious beast, and that is no surprise consider the brilliance behind these effects.

All of the monsters are magnificently brought to life by Stan Winston Studios.  In the same year he brought us the iconic Predator, Winston brings that same level of realistic, textured detail to the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and the Gill-Man.  There are even impressive moments of seeing Dracula in mid-bat transformation.  This is a benchmark of quality realizing these classic icons of horror with stellar modern practical effects work, and giving them a very tangible and textured quality.  Stan created the absolute highest standards for creature effects that continue to be shining standard bearers to this day, and likely for all cinematic time.  It’s tragic to see a movie like Van Helsing, which contained many of the same classic horror monsters and had more than ten times the budget of The Monster Squad, indulged in horrendous looking computer generated effects.  It goes to show that a bigger budget doesn’t always equal a technically superior film.  Talent is what counts, and Stan Winston clearly provided that and injected a vast amount of quality with these iconic movie monsters.  He did them justice, and paid great respect to their legacies, as did Fred Dekker.

Considering all the amazing known talents behind this film, it’s no surprise how damn good it is.  Fred Dekker co-wrote the screenplay with the excellent Shane Black who has written Lethal Weapon, Lethal Weapon 2, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which he also directed).  The film was also executive produced by Peter Hyams, a great director and amazing cinematographer on films such as 2010, Running Scared, Timecop, Sudden Death, and End of Days.  It’s just enough talent to keep the quality at a high level in every aspect of the film.  The Monster Squad is genuinely very frightening because of that talent and quality standards.  Plenty of imposing atmosphere with beautiful cinematography that showcases integrity and great production values make for a highly effective and fun horror movie.  This might’ve only had an estimated budget of $12 million, but it sure doesn’t look like it.  This looks big budget all the way.

If there’s any negative mark to leverage against the film it would be the brisk 82 minute runtime.  The positive side of that is it moves at a very consistent, steady pace.  There are no lulls in the film.  It just keeps rolling forward, and flows exceptionally well.  Still, that 82 minutes hits you pretty hard making you wish there was a little more going on in that second act because you’re into the third act of the movie before you know it.  As I said, not much time is devoted to developing Dracula, and that’s certainly one area where they could’ve added in more content.  They quickly touch on an existing strong friendship between him and Frankenstein’s Monster, and that’s something which would’ve been interesting to see developed so to create more of an arc for Frank.  See him go from this brutish pawn of the villain to an ally of the heroes would be ripe for an extended setup and pay-off.

The Monster Squad seems to be a cult classic movie, and it’s sad and surprising that something of such high quality and solid entertainment value bombed hard at the box office.  Considering it opened two weeks after the vastly successful and more broadly appealing The Lost Boys, one could see it not having as much impact at the box office as Tri Star Pictures likely desired.  Still, making less than $4 million at the domestic box office is very harsh even for 1987’s standards.  Thankfully, time has been kind to this film, and it eventually got the treatment it deserved on DVD and Blu ray with a features loaded two-disc set that would satisfy any fan.  If you’ve never seen this movie, I give it an extremely solid recommendation.  You get a fine dose of adventure and fun with some solid, serious horror elements.  It is a PG-13 rated movie, but that is only because it lacks any serious gore or pervasive language.  It has plenty of suspense and unsettling moments that are greatly handled to where the rating is inconsequential.  It’s an exceptionally fun ride that shows deep respect to the icons of horror it showcases.


The Lost Boys (1987)

The Lost Boys is an excellent vampire film that perfectly reflects the time it was made in.  The witty humor, the fearsome horror, and the amazing pop soundtrack create a purely 1980s vampire film with a lot of style.  Director Joel Schumacher and executive producer Richard Donner hit it big with this film.  It had everything going for it including a solid cast of amazing young talent, and has been a classic of the genre for a quarter of a century.  Sleep all day.  Party all night.  Never grow old.  Never die.  It’s fun to be a vampire.

After a divorce, Lucy Emerson (Dianne Wiest) moves her two sons, Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim), from Arizona to Santa Carla, California.  They move into Grandpa’s place (Barnard Hughes), which is somewhat removed from the lively beachside town.  The small family is trying to fit in with their new surroundings, but they’re a little put off considering that Santa Carla is dubbed “the murder capital of the world”.  Lucy gets a job at the boardwalk video rental store owned by the kindly Max (Edward Herrmann), Sam meets Edgar (Corey Feldman) & Allen (Jamison Newlander), the Frog Brothers, at the comic book store, and Michael runs into a dangerous pack while chasing after the beautiful Star (Jami Gertz).  The pack is led by David (Kiefer Sutherland) who takes Michael on a wild ride into a weird world.  What both brothers will gradually come to realized that this boardwalk town is, to quote the Frog Brothers, “a haven for the undead.”  Fangs, blood, and creatures of the night come out of the woodwork, and Michael and Sam are directly caught up in it.

This could’ve easily become a cheesy 80s vampire film, but with the brightly shining talent involved, it became a fantastic, fun vampire-filled thrill ride.  Kiefer Sutherland’s name speaks for itself.  He makes for a charismatic, dangerous, and enthralling villain that easily lures Michael deeper into the darkness.  Jason Patric also demonstrates a great, gradual evolution for his character, and shows a very brotherly relationship with Corey Haim.  You can definitely see the potential Patric had for later in his career for more dramatically challenging roles with a wide depth of emotion.  He plays well off of everyone especially Kiefer and Jami Gertz.  She demonstrates a wonderful vulnerability as Star trapped between the vampire world and her love for Michael.  Gertz sells the threat of David very well through Star’s own fear, and has seductive chemistry with Jason Patric that is strong and passionate.

Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, and Jamison Newlander bring a sense of fun to the film that gives an extra dynamic to the film.  Without them, it’s more a straight vampire horror-love story film, but with them, you get a younger adventurous Goonies type dynamic that brings in a wider audience.  Each young actor puts a lot of heart and enthusiasm into their roles.  Haim is very light-hearted and easily likable.  Feldman and Newlander intentionally play up a gritty Clint Eastwood style archetype which, when put into a pair of young teens who run a comic book store and hunt vampires, it becomes delightfully humorous.  The Frog Brothers are a smart highlight in the film which only complement and never dominate this fine ensemble cast.

Dianne Wiest plays a perfect mother to two teenage boys, and an endearing daughter to old Grandpa – which Barnard Hughes plays with a lot of comedic enthusiasm.  Edward Herrmann also plays his part very well in an assuming fashion, and is very convincing at the film’s conclusion.  As far as the other vamps – they add a lot of life to Kiefer’s gang.  They all have the 1980s hair metal look going on which couldn’t be more dead-on perfect for 1987.  It’s also cool to see Alex Winter here prior to his Bill & Ted films.

Cinematographer Michael Chapman crafted some awesome imagery throughout the film, but my favorite sequence is definitely the motorcycle chase scene.  Beyond just the energizing action aspects of the sequence, it has amazing atmosphere through shadowy lighting and dynamic angles.  This makes me wish the sequence lasted longer as well as allowing Lou Gramm’s awesome “Lost in the Shadows” to play longer. Chapman has shot many great films from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to The Fugitive.  He’s proven his talent for powerful imagery time and time again, and there’s no shortage of visual artistry in The Lost Boys.

The soundtrack is flat out amazing.  You have excellent tracks from INXS, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Who’s Roger Daltrey, Foreigner’s Lou Gramm, Tina Turner’s saxophonist Tim Cappello, and the haunting theme of “Cry Little Sister” from Gerard McMann.  While they are not all original tracks, they do all come together as a cohesive sound that reflects the best qualities of 1987’s popular music.  These songs nicely highlight and punctuate numerous scenes in the film greatly, and create a dense, awesome atmosphere for this film.  There are so many pop songs in the film that, frankly, they overshadow what fine and ominous work composer Thomas Newman did for The Lost Boys.  While there are sequences with full, gorgeous score, his music mainly fills in the blanks as more transitional music or an accompaniment to the lyrical tracks.  I definitely do not view that as a negative mark.  Mainly utilizing these songs over a score resulted in a great filmmaking style that only makes the film far more entertaining and colorful.

Joel Schumacher shows he has a great depth of talent here despite some of his later critical failures.  He balances out the characters and their stories very well as no single story dominates over another.  This also results in a very well balance tone between the lighter fare with Sam and the Frog Brothers, and the heavier toned horror and love aspects of Michael’s side of the film.  Schumacher really brought out some wonderful performances from a lot of young, eager talent, same he did in the brilliant St. Elmo’s Fire.  This is definitely a film one could grow up with from childhood into teenage years to adulthood, and constantly find something that appealed to them.  In my late teens, I probably loved the lighter toned material and the straight horror stuff best, but now, many years later, I definitely have a deep appreciation for the sexy and seductive aspects of the film.  They are beautifully executed from the acting to the cinematography and editing to the perfect choice of music.  It has such a wealth of depth and sensuality that I don’t get enough of in cinema.

Schumacher never allows the horror or dramatic aspects to fall behind the humorous adventure.  When all storylines converge, this becomes a very strong horror film with plenty of frights, action, and intense special effects.  The showdown between Michael and David is powerfully done in every aspect.  The ferocity of their clash is perfect, and is given a very dark and ominous lighting scheme.  While the visual effects were quite limited in allowing vampire flight, Schumacher wisely limits the screentime of those effects.  They are there only to service their moments in the film, and instead, the scene focuses in on Sutherland and Patric closely.  However, the special make-up effects are flat out amazing.  The striking and rather iconic vampire designs are realized with great detail and skill.  When David reveals that vampiric visage, it is frightening.  They look like fierce, vicious creatures that will feast with a smile on their fanged faces.  One could definitely see an inspiration here for the vampires of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel with the pronounced, thick foreheads, yellow eyes, and long fangs.  It truly is a masterful job that I think is one of the best, most fearsome vampire designs ever put to film.

The only aspect of the movie that maybe a little ill-taken is the very end.  The ultimate master vampire is dispatched with in a way that works for the quirky, humorous tone of the film, but many are likely to desire a more dramatic conclusion especially after the Michael and David throwdown being so climactic.  It’s a hair splitter.  Repeat viewings allow for a fan to enjoy it more, but a first time viewer might be left somewhat unsatisfied.  This ending does pay-off something established earlier in the film, but it’s a very subtle setup that one would likely not take lasting notice of if not for this ending.  Obviously, I have no desire to spoil anything for those who have not seen the film, and I don’t think this aspect of the film should at all deter you from experiencing an excellent, vibrant, and entertaining vampire flick!

While Joel Schumacher has made some severely maligned films in his career, he has also had a number of incredible films to his credit, and The Lost Boys is absolutely ranked among them.  For most anyone, if you say “1980s vampire film,” The Lost Boys is what jumps into their minds, and for exceptionally good reasons.  It’s perfectly stylish in all the right ways with excellent performances, a killer soundtrack, and a solid script that balances all its varies tones just right.  This film is designed to please on multiple levels, and does so immensely well.  This is definitely a classic of the vampire genre that will frighten and amuse you in a very satisfying film experience.


Fright Night, Part II (1989)

Sequels are a tricky business.  In horror, they tend to be rather formulaic.  However, there’s a big difference between a formulaic slasher film that follows a loose stalk and slash concept, and a sequel that just carbon copies every plot point and story turn from the first film.  If you’ve seen the original Fright Night, you’ve already seen a better version of this movie.

It’s a few years later, and Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) has been in therapy, attempting to recover from the incidents of the original film.  Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) is still the host of “Fright Night”, and an adamant believer in the undead since the vanquishing of Jerry Dandridge.  Charley is attending college and has new girlfriend in the beautiful and attractive Alex (Tracy Lin).  Charley has attempted to put the events of four years ago far behind him, but the past has just caught up to our two heroes.  Meet Regine Dandridge (Julie Carmen).  Sexy, seductive, alluring, just like her brother Jerry.  Regine has come to avenge her brother’s death upon Charley and “the Great Vampire Killer”, Mr. Vincent.  Regine ensnares Charley with her blindingly seductive aura, and good old Charley can’t resist her mesmerizing beauty.  Brewster tries to deny what’s happening around him, but Regine wishes to make Charley into one of the undead to eternally torture him.

From here the movie takes beat-for-beat reprises from the first film.  Peter Vincent, despite his true believer status, is still somewhat cowardly and skeptical as to Charley’s eventual claims.  The tables turn quickly as Charley is truly dissuaded in those claims only for Mr. Vincent to peer into his pocket mirror once again to reveal the non-reflection of their vampiric adversaries.  Some things vary from the original’s plot path, but there are numerous parallels such as Peter Vincent getting fired as host of Fright Night.  Then, there’s essentially a replication of the first film’s climax.

Fright Night, Part II is directed and co-written by Tommy Lee Wallace.  I don’t believe he is a particularly bad director, but he hardly ever seems to get films that have good enough or original enough content to really breakout as anything special.  His scripts vary in originality.  With Halloween III: Season of the Witch, he did a fairly good job with the concept, but it lacked enough compelling content to maintain dramatic momentum.  With Vampires: Los Muertos, he has better luck with a more polished production and decent ideas, but with a direct-to-video budget and the cast to go with it, he just fell too short of reaching the quality of Carpenter’s 1998 original.  Fright Night, Part II simply has a severe lack of creativity as it more tries to remake the first film instead of attempting to be a smart, natural continuation of it.  It’s as if Wallace didn’t know what to do with the characters as they were left at the end of the first film, and just tries to reset everything so he can have them do it all again.

Visually, the movie certainly looks a great deal better if you can locate a widescreen version of it, but it’s not an easy find since the only North American DVD released for it is in pan-and-scan.  I’ve only seen a few clips from the widescreen version, and it was a vast improvement in appreciating the visual quality of the movie.  Regardless, this sequel focuses more on gore and being more outlandish in its concepts, which is a poor replacement for innovative creativity.

Regine Dandridge is joined by an extremely offbeat band of creatures of the night that are easily more badly comical than scary.  The male vampire seems more werewolf like, but it’s quite implied that he is a long-toothed bloodsucker.  There is another vampire who is portrayed by a man, and certainly looks like it, yet dresses in drag throughout the entire film, gliding around in roller-skates.  It’s utterly ridiculous and an ugly sight to behold.  Then, there’s Brian Thompson who is some bug eating brawn of the bunch.  He never happens to be anything of note as he hasn’t anything more to do than to say “You’re supposed to bite her on the neck,” and munch on an array of bugs.  This group never adds anything particularly positive to the movie.  There might be people who enjoy some of their humor, but it just left a terrible impression upon me rather quickly.  In the first film, Jerry Dandridge made every attempt to blend in, to be inconspicuous so to not attract undo attention to his horrific nocturnal activities.  This group does everything possible to attract as much attention to themselves as possible.  Not to mention, the film tries to feed us the weakest of excuses for Charley Brewster to dismiss the obvious truth about them.

Julie Carmen is quite beautiful and seductive.  She fills her part well, but doesn’t reach the levels of Chris Sarandon’s Jerry Dandridge.  Sarandon just oozed a sexy and seductive charisma, not to mention, a fine level of sophisticated charm.  Carmen doesn’t have a rich enough charisma or presence to rival him.  The dynamic between Regine and Charley also never really clicked for me.  Charley’s characteristically a little awkward and comical, and him being under her trance is played more silly than sensual.  Thankfully, both Ragsdale and the late Roddy McDowall maintain great consistency with their return performances.  They had their characters locked in for the first film, and four years later, they easily slipped right back into them.  It’s a fine thing to witness, but the level of fun cannot measure up to Tom Holland’s Fright Night.

The script has some definite flaws in logic.  First off, there’s no way Regine could know who it was that killed her brother.  She wasn’t there when it happened, and there was no one left alive to tell her who did it.  A revenge plot certainly works fine, but this plot hole is never addressed.  Charley seeing a psychiatrist doesn’t make any rational sense, either.  He was perfectly fine at the end of the first film, and it was blatantly obvious that Jerry Dandridge was a vampire.  There is no disputing that, and there were eye witnesses in Peter Vincent and Charley’s now ex-girlfriend Amy to confirm that.  This idea seems to be in the film only for the filmmakers to reset everything so that they can retread the same plot progression as the first movie, which is lazy and sloppy screenwriting.  Also, Regine’s revenge plot doesn’t really sell.  She’s going to seduce Charley in order to turn him into a vampire – an immortal being of great supernatural power.  Revenge plots aren’t usually designed to make your adversary stronger and more capable of defeating you.  I get that it’s a turnaround from Jerry seducing and turning Amy in the first movie, but it’s not the most clever scheme for exacting revenge on the person who killed your brother.  It lacks innovation and smart screenwriting.

Again, the film doesn’t end in a much different way than the first.  In fact, the ending may leave you a bit unsatisfied.  It’s slightly clever, but doesn’t equal the dramatic build up in the basement of Jerry Dandridge’s house from the first film.  Director Tommy Lee Wallace just isn’t very innovative, and that becomes worse when he’s directing sequels to films helmed by great filmmakers.  The makeup effects certainly don’t rival those of the original’s.  They look rather hokey and lack either an artistic beauty or solid terrifying quality.  Fright Night, Part II only made a few small million at the box office in ’89, and it doesn’t surprise me at all given the time it was released and the quality of the film.  It provides some extra gore, but lacks in the fun factor that the original was so rich with.  Surely waiting four years to do a sequel didn’t help either.  Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers all suffered bad box office in this year with their respective critically panned sequels, and so, why should this late arriving sequel have been any different?

The film’s stars, McDowall & Ragsdale don’t lose anything from part one to part two, but everything else falls down, at least, big one notch.  The effects, the direction, the script, the fun / humor factor, and certainly the villains fall well below the quality of Tom Holland’s original Fright Night.  It is worth, at least, a rent, but the first Fright Night is where all the gold lies.  Part II simply isn’t as fun, fresh, or nearly as satisfying as its predecessor.  There’s far too much bizarre and corny quality throw into this one to really feel polished and smart.  Even if I judged this as a standalone film, I still wouldn’t like it based on those qualities alone.  I don’t know if I’ll ever fully watch the 2011 remake of Fright Night basically because I’ve already seen one grossly lacking and disappointing remake of the movie, and it was called Fright Night, Part II.  I don’t think I have the desire to see another one.


Fright Night (1985)

In 2011, they remade this movie.  I have not seen it, and I don’t need to.  The original Fright Night from director Tom Holland needed no improvement or reinvention.  It’s an excellent and immensely entertaining vampire film that mixes enough horror with humor.  It has a wonderfully seductive vampire in Chris Sarandon and a wonderful lead in William Ragsdale.  As many of the best 1980s vampire films did, it delivers on both solid horror and fun humor in a well balanced blend.

For young Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), nothing could be better than an old horror movie late at night.  However, when he sees the new neighbors bringing a coffin into the house next door, Charley starts to believe his handsome and charming neighbor Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire.  Unfortunately, Dandridge knows that Charley is aware of his secret, and attempts to kill him.  Charley then becomes deadest to destroy the monster,  Of course, nobody believes his wild claims – not the police, not his weird friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), and not his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse).  Ultimately, Charley turns to his beloved horror television show host and cinematic vampire killer Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) who is also skeptical, but as the terrifying events unfold, he and Charley must stand side-by-side to battle the fanged undead for their own survival.

Fright Night is such a strong movie.  Every artistic element really forges together solidly.  Most importantly, the cast is brilliantly put together.  Writer / director Tom Holland really grabbed up some amazing talents.  Firstly, William Ragsdale has so much enthusiasm for the role of Charley Brewster.  He really sells every passionate, manic, and heartfelt aspect of the character.  Right from the start, he’s purely relatable as this loveable, scared teenager.  While playing Charley as an entirely straight, panicked character, Ragsdale is able to illicit so much humor amongst his co-stars.  His intensely fearful behavior purely feeds into Ed & Amy’s perspective that he’s gone right out of his mind, and makes for a wonderfully funny juxtaposition.  Anyone going to see this movie could easily put themselves in Charley’s place, and that’s really the perfection of this movie.  Anyone else in Charley’s position would likely be frightened out of their mind, and look for desperate solutions to this lethal supernatural threat.  Still, it’s Ragsdale’s sweetness, heart, and innocent charm that really drive home the likeability of Charley.

The late and very great Roddy McDowall clearly was having major amounts of fun on this movie.  His performance as Peter Vincent is greatly charismatic and smart.  He brings such jovial, witty quality that required a charming sweetness.  The moments where he plays up the corny aspects of the character are very entertaining and brilliant.  McDowall also adds subtle touches of depth to this lowly washed up horror legend of Peter Vincent, respectfully named after horror greats Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.  As Peter Vincent becomes aware of the horrifying reality at hand, McDowall richly portrays the character’s shaken, fearful state of mind.  One of the film’s most intense scenes is after Peter Vincent violently slays a creature of the night, and he witnesses the tragic, nightmarish reversion he takes from wolf back to human form.  McDowall gives the scenes such emotional substance with an amazingly deep expression of humanity and sympathy.  Most other horror films wouldn’t think to incorporate such a powerful moment, but it deeply motivates Peter Vincent to confront Dandridge once again into the film’s climax.  It gives him the strength of will and faith to combat this powerful enemy.  It’s a great piece of acting by Roddy, and a brilliant piece of screenwriting and directing by Tom Holland.

I absolutely love Chris Sarandon’s work.  I think he is a remarkable actor able to bring a unique and entertaining quality to everything he does.  He can do great, straight dramatic acting, or as in The Princess Bride, can play a truly despicable villain while still making him deeply comedic.  As Jerry Dandridge, Sarandon oozes seductive sexuality which saturates the screen.  He has a hypnotic allure that leaves no doubt in his ability to sway Amy’s desires.  Sarandon always brings an elegant sophistication to his performances that really penetrates and creates a very theatrical quality.  That is vibrantly on display with Jerry Dandridge.  He can be nicely charming as the friendly neighbor, but then, turn on the imposing, frightening qualities which electrifies the screen.  In the dance club scene, he completely captivates and enthralls with sensual, erotic physicality in conjunction with Amanda Bearse.  It’s a great dynamic that Dandridge is both deeply seductive and romantic as well as fiercely violent.  Dandridge is very full of life and compelling charisma that would be a chore for most any other actor, but for Sarandon, it seems to come very naturally.

The supporting cast is just as solid and enjoyable.  Jonathan Stark does a very intriguing job as Billy Cole.  When things get weird, the character just gets weirder.  What sort of creature he is, I’m still uncertain about, but that’s good.  It shows that there are things that not even all of the horror movie knowledge in the world can explain in this film.  Most would know Amanda Bearse from her years on Married With Children, but she shows a whole different side of her talent here.  She demonstrates an impressive range starting out as the wholesome, sweet girlfriend Amy who gradually succumbs to Dandridge’s seduction to become an alluring vixen.  It’s quite amazing how sexy and attractive she is late in the film.  She plays off of Ragsdale very well with both comedic and heartfelt moments, and later, is very in sync with Chris Sarandon’s sensual vibe.  It’s solid work.  Stephen Geoffreys is great as the quirky, nutty “Evil” Ed.  He’s so much the comic life of the film, and it’s not one of those instances where he’s the lone character off-setting the tone.  He entirely fits into the tone and style Tom Holland sets with this film, and Ed just pushes the crazy, hyperactive aspect of it all.  He’s the clown of the group, and Geoffreys just goes full boar in the latter half of the film.  It’s immensely entertaining and well-rounded, as are all of the performances.

Fright Night is amazingly well shot and edited.  Pacing is very tight and consistent.  There never feels to be a lull as the momentum constantly builds as the plot progresses and the horror intensifies.  Mood and atmosphere are smartly maintained through very good, realistic lighting and strategically used haze.  The aforementioned club scene is very 80s with vibrant colors and a lively visual style.  There’s nothing low grade in this film.  The production values are consistently very high.  Sets are perfectly realized, and the effects are flat out excellent.  Instead of straining the budget with another series of optical composites or wire work, the filmmakers chose some great camera work to avoid showing Jerry Dandridge flying around early on.  This adds to the film, oddly.  Fright Night is subtle in what it does early on only giving you a taste of who and what Jerry Dandridge is.  It’s not gratuitous or flaunting his abilities.  It’s saving that for much later when it has more impact.  Of course, the special make-up effects are absolutely phenomenal, and on fully ghastly display.  The vampire make-up has multiple phases that all work to striking effect, and there is no shortage of genuine, strong scares or vampire gore.  We get a couple of chilling, unsettling sights in this film which proves that Fright Night truly lives up to its title by giving the audience a gruesome, frightening thrill ride.  In that final act, Charley and Peter aren’t just dealing with Jerry Dandridge, they have multiple fearsome adversaries to battle through in order to survive.

Tom Holland wrote a very smart, clever, and sharp screenplay.  It’s a great premise in which one moment Charley’s watching corny old vampire movies on late night television, and the next he finds a vampire living next door to him.  Every element of plot and character is interwoven very tightly to allow for that consistent pace and flow I mentioned before.  The comedy in the film dynamically fits in very well with the startling horror aspects.  When the horror kicks in, it’s high gear all the way, and done with immense talent and skill.  He brings out amazing performances and chemistry amongst his actors to create a richly cohesive piece of cinema.  Holland really knew how to build suspense and tension to give the terror a strong pay-off.  Even the seductive, sexual aspects are given their due build-up to pay them off for the characters and audience.  I can’t comment much on Tom Holland’s filmography, but between Fright Night and Child’s Play, he has more than sold me on his talent for horror.

Overall, the original Fright Night is extremely hard to beat.  I’m not opposed to ever watching the remake, but I also have no desire to go out of my way to do so.  Tom Holland made a purely fun and excellent horror film here that is rich with character, style, terror, and a smart story.  Even the 1989 sequel Fright Night, Part II could not rival this film’s innovation and intelligence.  You surely cannot go wrong with this delightfully scary film.  The performances are amazing all around giving you several wonderfully conceived and executed characters to invest yourself in, and a marvelously realized vampire villain that will surely satisfy on multiple levels.  Fright Night is a bonafide classic of the genre in my eyes, and I am surely not alone in that sentiment.  If you’ve never seen the original, you will be doing yourself a great favor by doing so.  I’ll also clue you in on the two pirate audio commentaries that were recorded by Icons of Fright featuring, among others, Tom Holland, William Ragsdale, Stephen Geoffreys, Chris Sarandon, and Jonathan Stark.  They are great insightful listens, and they’re FREE to download!


Underworld: Evolution (2006)

For whatever reason, I chose to give this sequel a fair chance despite my very negative reaction to the first film.  It might’ve been my extreme absence from seeing new horror films in the last few years, or just that it may have seemed a bit more developed than the first (by way of trailers and such).  Whatever the case, on its opening theatrical weekend I caught a matinee showing of it, and yes, I actually garnered some enjoyment from it.  Before I get into the critique, let’s familiarize you with the premise of Underworld: Evolution.

Eight centuries ago
unknown to humanity, a blood feud raged
between a ruling class of vampires
and a rebellious legion of werewolves
known as lycans.

Legend tells that the war began with two brothers,
the immortal sons of Alexander Corvinus

Markus, bitten by bat,
became the blood leader of the vampires.

William, bitten by wolf,
became the first and most powerful lycan.

This sequel picks up just exactly where the first film ended.  The lies about the war between vampire and lycan have been uncovered, many former allies and enemies lie dead, and the vampire death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and the first hybrid of the two immortal species, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), are now on the run.  Meanwhile, vampire elder Markus (Tony Curran) has been revived.  He is the very first and most powerful vampire, and he shows it from the very first minute on screen following his resurrection.  He absorbs the blood memories of the lycan doctor that was slain in the crypt, and comes up to speed on all the recent betrayals and treachery.  He goes hunting down Selene to learn all she knows, more than even she is aware of.  Markus knows that Viktor deserved the end he got, as the pre-title flashback sequence shows, but the intentions of Markus are much more frightening, volatile, and lethal than those in the previous film.  As Markus tries to move his plans forward, Michael & Selene hideout wherever possible, and eventually become more intimate with one another.  More secrets and hidden truths begin to unfold, and Markus’ ultimate plan is unveiled as he wants to create a new race forged by the purest of both vampire and lycan.  Unknowingly, Selene holds one major key to Markus’ plans, but there is much vengeance for him to reap along the way.  Ultimately, our heroes must evolve to battle this new enemy or perish in its wake.

One of the things that I first enjoyed about this sequel were the more exciting and unique action sequences.  No more are we treated to shootout after shootout, but we have much more physical combat on top of some nice chase sequences.  Every action sequence is different from the last, whether in context or geography.  It made this film much more lively and intense.  Secondly, Scott Speedman really comes more into his “evolved” character of the vamp-lycan hybrid Michael Corvin.  He’s involved in more smash mouth brawls and chase scenes.  He’s a more active member in the story despite having much less pivotal importance to it instead of riding the wild wave carrying him along to unknown destinations.  Selene still does much to protect and guide him as he becomes more familiar with what he is, but he’s not helpless by a long shot.  Also, the design of the hybrid is more evolved as well, and yes, I am using the subtitle of this film a lot.  However, it is justified because there’s a lot of evolution with this sequel.  Anyway, with a bigger budget, but not an over inflated one, this film has some upgraded effects that truly benefit the characters and story.  Corvin’s hybrid creature design is more satisfying to me as it takes on a few more werewolf characteristics, and the creature itself tends to be more animalistic.

There are fewer characters this time around, but the depth of them is much improved.  There’s more emotion here, especially with Selene.  She’s no longer some cold killing machine, trying to fight back against everything and everyone.  She becomes intimate with Michael, opening her emotions to him, and there’s no denying their love for one another.  With no other allies, Michael is all she has, and Selene is the only one that Michael can latch onto.  Without each other, I doubt they could survive emotionally or psychologically for too long.  One of the new characters is Tanis (Steven Mackintosh), a vampire historian that has been exiled for about three centuries, or so it was believed.  He’s a weasel, a real piece of scum that shouts back to the majority of the cast of characters in the previous film, but is easily more enjoyable than despicable.  Not surprisingly, Tanis has interesting ties to Lucian .  Another new character is portrayed by Sir Dereck Jacobi, a revered British actor of stage and screen.  His character is wholly pivotal to absolutely everything, and is greatly responsible for cleaning up after the messes of both the vampires and lycans.  He helps keep their underworld as hidden as possible – mainly because he’s partly responsible for its existence – but none have been aware of his existence until now.

And the new villain, Markus, proves to be quite an adversary for all, especially Selene & Michael.  He certainly has a swirl of emotions being manipulated and opposed by Viktor for centuries.  He seeks to free his brother William, the most ravenous and powerful lycan ever, and together, no one will be able to survive them.  Markus is truly frightening and indiscriminately lethal.  He knows what he wants, and will tear through whomever he must to achieve his god-like goals.  He’s not as intriguing a villain as Lucian was (who actually proved to not be the villain at all in the first film), but he still does not disappoint.  While Lucian was someone with more carefully laid plans (one part revenge, one part survival for his species) who had patience to carry them out subversively and work with a higher level of honor than those around him, Markus is purely about revenge, and has no use for being subversive.  He’s very upfront and direct with his approach to achieving his goals.  Being as powerful as he is, he has no fear, and thus, destroys whatever he wishes.  Tony Curran portrays him fantastically through and through.  I so enjoyed his performance – the strength, the confidence, the anger, the defiance – it was powerhouse.  He easily makes the movie, and he is definitely a marvelous actor I intend to pay close attention to.

The effects in this film are even more impressive than the first film.  There are a lot of effects here that you would swear are practical, but don’t seem logistically possible.  The visual effects department deserves major credit for their amazing work here!  There’s not a bad or cheesy piece of CGI here, if you can even decipher what is CGI to begin with.  In any case, this is a major visual effects achievement, and everyone knows that bad CGI can completely kill any movie (especially one with such a serious tone as this one).  Yes, the dead serious tone persists here, but there’s a couple of smirks to be had here and there.  Frankly, there’s enough depth and variation of emotion throughout the film to make it more lively and entertaining than the original Underworld.

The music of Underworld remains the same with the industrial rock remixes and such.  The score is also fantastic, and possibly a bit more dynamic than before (mainly due to the demands of the story and action).  We get a lot more action early on, and I would have to say that there is a higher degree of gore here.  It’s not a massive amount of gore, but more gruesome since Markus is a far more violent character than any we saw in the original Underworld.  There’s also less “technobabble” this time around because there’s nothing new to describe in relation to it.  Simply put, all the medical jargon and related exposition more or less applies here as well.  It’s already been established in the first film, and so, there’s no need to say it all again.  There’s ultimately less exposition overall, but there’s still plenty of back story to explore.

Basically, I found this movie enjoyable.  The action is far fresher than that in the first movie.  There’s easily much more emotional depth, allowing you to really feel more for these characters, and to become closer to them.  There’s not as much mystery this time around, and the scope of it all might seem smaller.  This is partly due having fewer characters than before, and this film takes place more outside in mountainous regions than inside the mansion where there was a lot of production designs to show off (as well as extras).  Although, I believe Underworld: Evolution makes up for it on many levels.  Also, after viewing the extended cut of the original Underworld, I believe both films are equal, but on different levels.  What one lacks, the other makes up for.  One film’s weakness is the other’s strength, and so, they even out in the end.  I believe if you melded both films together into one, capitalizing on both of their strengths, you’d have one bad ass movie, but instead we get two that are pretty damn good in their own ways.


Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Where do I start in reviewing such a masterpiece?  Francis Ford Coppolla directed what is generally considered the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, and for most people’s money (including mine) Gary Oldman (JFK, Léon The Professional) delivers the most definitive and frightening incarnation of Count Dracula.  This all can easily be attributed to James V. Hart’s screenplay being so rich in character, dialogue, and respect to its source material.  Coppolla delivers quite the intriguing visual experience, and while many of the effects are dated by today’s standards, they fit in well with the style and tone of the film.

The tale of Dracula is one of love that endures through death.  Dracula (Gary Oldman) was once a soldier fighting the Turks in war, and was a man of faith.  Unfortunately, despite his victory over his foes, the Turks brought word of Dracula’s death at their hands, and his dearest love, Elizabeta (Winona Ryder) is stricken with such unbearable grief that she plunges to her death.  When Dracula returns to learn this, he is driven into a maddening rage.  He cannot understand how his God would allow this injustice to happen.  He renounces God, shuns him, and practically declares war against him.  Dracula vows that he will rise again from his own death to avenge the death of his beloved.

Flash forward to some centuries later, and Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent out to meet with a mysterious Count in Transylvania after one R.M. Reinfield has gone wholly mad.  The Count is set to move into a new estate in England, and Mr. Harker is there to deal with the final paperwork and such.  Jonathan must leave his beautiful wife-to-be Mina (Winona Ryder), but the Count becomes aware that his beloved has been reborn as Jonathan’s own.  Harker is very mystified and weary about the strange happenings at the castle all throughout this land of Transylvania, and soon, he falls prey to the Count’s evil.  Dracula soon begins his quest to reclaiming his eternal beloved, but as he moves in closer and closer, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is brought into the mix.  Dr. Jack Seward (who has been overseeing a clearly certifiable R.M. Reinfield) calls him in, being an old student of the Professor.  Soon, Van Helsing deduces the supernatural happenings, and concludes it is the work of the undead, a nosferatu, a vampire.  Soon, the hurt begins, and there is much carnage left on the path to the ultimate confrontation between the living and the undead.  The story comes together in a very unique way, and very fitting for this strange tale of love that will never die.

The creature effects here are outstanding!  The creatures of the night are given a massive life of their own, and will frighten you to a great extent.  The makeup effects on Oldman are stellar as well, making him look to be a very elderly Count, or the wonderfully young Prince Vlad.  The transformations the character goes through are simply amazing, and just on these levels, it beats out all other cinematic presentations of Dracula (or most any other vampire).  From wolves, to giant man-bats, to god knows what other unholy abomination.  Coppolla and Columbia definitely spent their money well on the makeup effects.  As stated earlier, the visual effects are rather dated, but they fit well into the overall look and style of the film.  However, they were all created practically, in-camera without any optical or digital composites.  Coppolla details this well in the special edition DVD release.

I’m really eager to speak about the acting in this film, but not for the reason you may think – Keanu Reeves.  Okay, I happen to be a Keanu fan.  I’ve seen many of his films from Bill & Ted to Point Break to The Matrix to Constantine to Street Kings, but frankly, hearing Keanu trying to pull off a genuine English accent is bad cinema, really bad.  And him working off of Gary Oldman for most of the film only makes him appear worse than he’s being.  Keanu can deliver a fun and/or interesting performance in the right film, but this just doesn’t play to his style.  Reportedly, Coppolla cast Reeves just so he’d have a “hot young star to appeal to teenage girls.”  Why he felt that was required, I don’t know, and again, I have nothing but respect for Keanu, but this just wasn’t his kind of role.  Anyway, onto the strong performances.  Gary Oldman is where it all lies here.  A Dracula film hinges on the power of the actor in the title role, and you couldn’t get any better than Oldman.  The man has proven his diversity in countless films, and is absolutely one of the greatest actors of our time.  He plays the infamous undead Count with such insidious charisma and lust.  As the elderly Dracula, he is very creepy, eerie, and devious.  He plays it up so well that it’ll make your skin crawl.  As the young Dracula who attempts to illicit the love of Mina (Winona Ryder), he’s very mysterious, seductive, and still rather creepy.  All in all, it’s a masterful performance, and it baffles me why Oldman wasn’t nominated for an Oscar or a Golden Globe.  He did win Best Actor at the Saturn Awards, though.  Joining him on the darker side of things is Tom Waits as the delusional and especially crazed Reinfield – a wonderfully satisfying performance.  He certainly brings a special flavor to his few scenes acting as a prophet of doom (kind of like Crazy Ralph in Friday The 13th, only completely out of his mind).

On the protagonists’ side, we have the ever impressive Sir Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, The Mask of Zorro) as the venerable Professor Abraham Van Helsing.  Hopkins’ performance is quite lively and jovial, but overall powerful.  It’s a clever and endearing performance, and despite the character’s unorthodox, verbose style, he really makes himself a favorite.  He portrays a very interesting adversary for the immortal undead Count of Transylvania.  While Hopkins easily has the hero lead, you also have great talents such as Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Saw), Richard E. Grant (Warlock), and the female lead in Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands, A Scanner Darkly).  Winona does a fine job in this role which requires strength, fear, vulnerability, and simple beauty.  She’s the object of obsession for Count Dracula, and she is the woman he has renounced God for, and has forced himself into eternal damnation over.  All of these marvelous talents are well handled by the very seasoned Coppolla who is no stranger to star studded cast overflowing with sharp talent.

The score from Wojciech Kilar is absolutely awesome.  It’s practically operatic, and very dramatic stuff.  It’s grand, it’s powerful, and scary all at the same time.  It’s an absolute wonder to experience, and makes the film even better than it was.  This music is so haunting at times, and frankly, this is how a classic horror film should sound.  I can’t say anything negative about it because it makes the film so much larger than life.  It enhances everything on screen.

The costume design is as intricate and detailed as you would imagine.  It has depth and character to it as well as grace, and in other parts, a very strange appeal.  Oldman’s wardrobe is especially impressive and has become iconic.  Every character is aided and enhanced by their wardrobe, and it helps breath further life into the picture.  In addition to the fantastically exhaustive production design work, it gives the picture a sense of texture, personality, and history.

All in all, every part of this film makes it live and pulsate with power.  Aside from Keanu, all the performances are masterful, the makeup effects are absolutely amazing, and I challenge you to find a more intense classic horror film score than this one!  Overall, this is one solid, taut, and frightening film from a master filmmaker in Francis Ford Coppolla.  If you’re looking for a genuinely scary, haunting, and chilling horror film – you absolutely cannot go wrong here.  Frankly, I do not have the knowledge to compare this to every other Dracula film that’s come around, but general consensus has left this fine film with a strong reputation that has endured.  I am glad to contribute to that with a solid endorsement for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.


Blade II (2002)

Blade II is a distinctively different animal than the original Blade.  This is practically all due to the change in directors from Stephen Norrington to Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy).  He brings a much more colorful canvas to the film, and a bit bigger sense of fun.  Cinematographer Gabriel Beristain helps del Toro achieve this to the fullest extent.  Also, as is another trademark of Guillermo’s films, he brings in the wonderful Ron Perlman to the main cast as a token bad ass.  The film definitely takes a lot of new turns and fleshes out established ideas.  Though, it lacks the dramatic weight and emotion that Stephen Norrington’s film was quite rich with.

The film picks up five years after the events of the first film.  In that time, Blade (Wesley Snipes) learned that his old friend and mentor Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) eventually did turn into a ‘suckhead,’ but the vampire nation has kept him hidden.  Though, Blade soon rescues him, and returns to his new lair in Prague.  A cure of some sort to administered to Whistler, and only time will tell if it takes fully.

Meanwhile, it isn’t long before the vampire nation comes looking for Blade with a unique offer of a truce.  A new mutated species of vampires, called reapers, have become a serious threat to them and potentially all of humanity.  They are overall a more advanced species with abilities and strengths beyond any other vampire, and a hunger that is like a drug addiction – they have to feed constantly.  Anyone bitten is immediately infected.  Also, Nomack (Luke Goss) is the original reaper who holds secrets that could bring down the vampire nation.  Thus, vampire princess Nyssa (Leonor Varela) has come to enlist the aid of the Daywalker to lead this hunt for them.  Blade teams up with a death squad named the Blood Pack that have been trained to kill Blade himself, but are focused on eliminating the reapers for the time being.  At the head of this group is Reinhardt (Ron Perlman) who shows immediate distaste and opposition to Blade, but he’s soon put in his place the way only Blade can do.  There is also pure blood elder Damaskinos (Thomas Kretschmann) who is Nyssa’s father, but also holds secrets of his own that he refuses to take responsibility for.  These sorts of things come into play later in the film.

The hunt for the reapers and Nomack is only half the story here, and thus, only lasts through about half the film.  Members of the Blood Pack are lost in the hunt, but the main characters survive it.  Along the way, a bond is formed between Blade and Princess Nyssa while the relationship between Blade and Whistler seems to fade deep into the background.  It almost seems like Whistler needs protecting, like he can no longer hold his own.  Though, the hunt to destroy the reapers is really only half of the film, and barely scratches the surface of the overall plot which Blade hardly sees coming when he and Whistler are taken captive and a traitor is revealed along with buried truths with threaten everyone.

I would like to say that I actually feel this is NOT a sequel that surpasses the original, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.  I enjoyed the more dramatic, serious tone of the original Blade with its balance of action, vampire lore, and interesting, entertaining characters.  Blade II offers up a more fun, multi-colored visual style with jacked up action sequences, but lighter on character depth and lacking a coherent plot progression.  The first half of the film sets up a really strong threat in the Reapers, but all the setup and very detailed exposition is dashed when all but Nomack are wiped out halfway through the film.  After that, it’s all personal agendas and vendettas to sustain the film from there.  A far less sympathetic Frankenstein’s Monster tale of a creation turning against its creator ensues, and Blade is just there to clean up the mess.  The final fight between Blade and Nomack, while intense and entertaining, is mostly a CGI affair like something out of The Matrix Trilogy forcing it, by default, to lack a needed visceral element.  The fight mainly happens because the film needs a climax.  The only real justification for it is a last minute act of violence that fires up Blade to throw down – an act that has no real purpose to have happened.  There’s no build up of personal disdain between the two as there was between Blade and Deacon Frost in the 1997 film.  Ultimately, Nomack is not the real villain of the film, but is left as the only remaining threat by the film’s end.

I also think Guillermo del Toro imbued this film with a bit too much cheesiness and levity.  While Snipes, Perlman, and the other actors pull it off well, I feel we lose the weight of the story overall.  First and foremost, Blade just doesn’t come off as imposing or as threatening as before.  While Blade was quite the antisocial, brooding, edgy, blunt, and internal personality before, here (amongst enemies no less) opens up his thoughts and sense of humor significantly more.  Snipes still plays the role exceptionally well, it just seems to go against Blade’s established personality – especially since he retains that cold, stone-faced facade when he’s amongst his established allies.

Speaking of which, Norman Reedus appears as Scud, a new ally of the Daywalker.  He essentially took over Whistler’s role in his absence, but now that he’s back, there is friction.  Though, where Whistler was allowed to be his own strong, solid character in the previous film, he becomes little more than an object of abuse by the Blood Pack here.  This is deeply unfortunate considering that Kristofferson is a spectacular actor, and Whistler had such a wealth of potential for serious exploration before.  Instead, he’s made into a weaker character overall that Blade has to protect whereas he could hold his own before.  I really liked his gruff cowboy style mentality from the first film, and to see it be depleted here throughout the film for no major reason is just sad.  You don’t get to see Whistler kick anyone’s ass, at all, ever in this whole film.  That’s a greatly negative mark against this film, in my eyes.

The special and visual effects are superior than those in the original film, but with a span of four years between films, it’s not surprising.  Guillermo does use a great deal more CGI than Norrington did, but it still works well for the film (even if it might be a slight bit obvious, at times).  While I believe del Toro makes very good films, and excels with the more fantastical material, I simply believe he veered certain aspects of this film into incorrect directions.  I like a good dash of humor in my films as much as anyone, but I don’t like it when the essence of an established character is lost within it.  That’s what I see happened here with Blade.  His character is too light, and loses some of his dark, mysterious edge.  Whistler is handled in a pretty pathetic fashion which doesn’t roll for me.  Anyone who casts Kris Kristofferson does so for his strength of character and natural presence of authority – that is totally wasted in this sequel.

Also, overall, I feel the vampire nation is presented in a very inconsequential light in this film.  Whereas in the first film, they seemed like a powerful underground global organization, here the vampire nation seems terribly smaller and less influential with the weak and cowardly Damaskinos heading everything.  He carries himself with no weight, and hardly seems like a threat to anyone.  The only thing that makes him powerful is his personal influence and armed guards.  When danger comes his way, he retreats like a little old lady – literally.  Nomack really is a greater threat (and proves it), but is terribly downplayed by the second half of the film.  This is all why del Toro’s film is marginally inferior to Norrington’s original film – mishandling of characters and plot.  This might be attributed to David Goyer’s writing (lord, I know what it’s like when there’s no around to fix it up), but it is the director’s job to balance these things out.  I simply feel like there was more consistent storytelling and character continuity with the original Blade.  I’ve seen Hellboy, and I feel it suffers from the exact same problems as Blade II.  It is a fine film, but could use some definite improvements as could this sequel.

And I just have to say the biggest mishandling of a talent in this film is in Donnie Yen.  I’ve only seen him in Highlander: Endgame, but DAMN, was I impressed by his talent and abilities.  The man is a premiere martial artist that rivals the likes of Jet Li and such.  He is simply an amazing athlete and martial artist.  The fact that he’s barely utilized in this film should be a crime.  Maybe the filmmakers were afraid he’d out-shine Wesley Snipes?  I don’t know, but it’s just wrong to have under-utilized him in this picture.  Honestly, if you cast a talent the caliber of Donnie Yen, it’s for a very specific reason, and that reason is blatantly obvious.  To not make use of his most prominent talents is simply stupid.  Of what I’ve seen of him, I’d definitely look forward to seeing more of his talents.

This film has new music composers in Marco Beltrami and Danny Saber, but the difference isn’t strikingly different.  In the least, the music fits well with del Toro’s tone and style.  The soundtrack still features some techno-style music, but also rap / hip-hop music is present with the likes of Cypress Hill.  Not at all my taste in music, but it’s good within the context of the film.  Simply put, I have no qualms about the musical score or soundtrack for the film.

The film does indeed look fantastic with a rich color scheme, and the stellar cinematography.  The camera moves and angles definitely lend a sense of scope and power to the images.  The production design is top-notch creating various distinct sets and locales with bring a European flavor to the film.  With all the more diverse settings in this film, it easily makes it look more elaborate than the American urban setting of the first film.  But whatever the case, it all looks amazing!

Overall, taking in all the good and not-so-good of the film, I would have to give Blade II a score slightly below that of the first film.  Guillermo del Toro is an awesome filmmaker, but with this film, I just don’t feel his style lent itself best to this film.  I would’ve preferred more dramatic and emotional weight overall, and a stronger consistency in the characters of Blade and Whistler.  They are the only franchise mainstays, and they’re the ones we follow from film-to-film.  I feel their characters were weakened, and their potential strength was drained by excessive levity in the film overall.  Also, the CGI is good, but during the action scenes, you know when it’s CGI, making it not all that great.  It certainly helped the filmmakers achieve things that they couldn’t do otherwise, but also took away from the effectiveness of the times it was used.  It becomes a toss up, but never the less, I count it as a mark against the film, to a small degree.  Simply put, I give Blade II an 8.5/10.  It’s a good film, but it could’ve been stronger and more coherent in its storytelling progression and character development.