Sunday, March 11, 2018

Visiting the "House on Haunted Hill"

Have you ever been invited to a (haunted) house party? That's the plot of House on Haunted Hill, a delightfully spooky fright fest from 1959. Produced and directed by William Castle, the movie stars Vincent Price as millionaire Frederick Loren, who invites five people to spend the night at a supposedly haunted house. If you survive the night in this terrifying place, you get $10,000. All of the attendees need the money Loren's offering for one reason or another. He hands out fun party favors such as handguns that are stored in little coffins! One of the guests is Watson Pritchard, who knows a great deal about the shall we say, colorful history of the house. He warns everyone that it's a very bad idea to stay the night. In addition to Price, the cast includes veteran character actor Elisha Cook, Jr. as Pritchard, Richard Long (of TV’s The Big Valley & Nanny and The Professor), and Julie Mitchum, sister of actor Robert Mitchum.

Director Castle was well known as a flamboyant showman who used unique gimmicks to sell his films. During screenings of The Tingler (1959), there were vibrators installed under the seats that induced shocks when the title creature was on screen; for 13 Ghosts (1960), patrons used special ghost viewers to see (or remove) the spirits from the screen. In House on Haunted Hill's theatrical showings, a skeleton seemed to float right out of the film at the audience in a process called Emergo. These ideas worked like a charm for Castle, who had a tremendous amount of financial success with his films. His movies were aimed primarily at teenagers, who ate them up like the candy from the theatre's concessions stand. His autobiography was called Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare The Pants Off America. 

A gathering of guests at the House on Haunted Hill
House on Haunted Hill is truly the kind of B film they don’t make anymore. The movie features ghosts, blood dripping from the ceiling, secret rooms, skeletons in the basement, and heads with no bodies as part of the scares and shocks. But is there a non- supernatural reason for some of the weird goings on in the house....could our suave host know more than he's telling? Price is at his witty, menacing best and gets most of the film’s choice dialogue, though Cook also gets to deliver some, like "Only the ghosts in this house are happy we're here" and the film’s memorable closing line. This is a matinee movie for the ten year old in all of us; it sounds kind of old fashioned and goofy in the age of "found footage" horror films and endless sequels to movies like Saw, but that's exactly why it's such great fun. 

The film was remade in gorier fashion in 1999 with Geoffrey Rush, but that version can’t hold a candle to the original. The movie is available in various DVD and Blu-ray editions (including a colorized version) and for digital download as well. So warm up the popcorn, and settle in for some silly, scary fun. And here’s another piece of suggested viewing: The 1993 Joe Dante (Gremlins) film Matinee is a story about a B movie producer (played by John Goodman) who premieres one of his monster films in a small Florida town during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Goodman's character is an affectionate homage to Castle. Matinee is also worth a look, especially for fans of classic 50s and 60s sci-fi, horror and fantasy films. Here’s a link to the trailer for House on Haunted Hill

Sunday, March 4, 2018

And the "Alternate Oscar" Goes to.....

Film fans, critics, and writers all have their opinions about the Oscars. In the days leading up to the Academy Awards ceremony, there are endless debates about who will win, and after the awards are handed out, there’s a lot more discussion about who did win, and who should have; it’s a favorite activity among movie lovers. There have been many books written about the Academy Awards, but one of the most unique is 1993’s Alternate Oscars, by veteran film scribe Danny Peary. The book details Peary’s choices for the categories of Best Picture, Actor and Actress from the years 1927 thru 1991. Peary also details his own list of “Award Worthy Runners Up” in place of the other nominees in each category. 

Sometimes, Peary agrees with the Academy’s choices, but more often than not he doesn’t. That’s where things get really interesting. For example, for the year 1958, the musical Gigi won Best Picture. Peary’s winner is Touch of Evil, the classic noir directed by Orson Welles. For the year 1977, he chooses Sissy Spacek for Best Actress in Carrie over the Academy’s choice, Faye Dunaway in Network. It’s no surprise that Peary celebrates a number of often neglected genre films among his Oscar picks, as he’s the author of the acclaimed Cult Movies books, which celebrate the weird, wild and wonderful world of genre cinema. Some of his choices even address infamous snubs by the Academy: the alternate Oscar for 1982's Best Picture goes to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. over director Richard Attenborough's epic biography Gandhi, which was the Academy's choice.

Peary’s insightful commentary regarding the performers and the films he’s selected as the winners makes for fascinating reading. Many of his choices may open your eyes to some excellent films and performances you haven’t seen, or remind you of old favorites that you’ll want to rediscover. I do wish Peary would publish an updated edition of the book, as it would be wonderful to see his own choices for some of the more recent Oscar winners. One thing’s for sure, after you finish reading Alternate Oscars, it will probably open up a whole new series of discussions with your fellow movie fans. The book is currently out of print, but affordable used copies can easily be found at online retailers such as Amazon. Seek out Danny Peary’s Alternate Oscars, and let the debates and discourses begin!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Retro Movie: Ray Milland in Corman's "X"

Diana Van der Vlis & Ray Milland
Filmmaker Roger Corman made a name for himself as a producer and director with a host of successful low budget genre films in the 1950s and 60s, and also helped start the careers of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and many others, by giving them work on his movies. His series of influential Edgar Allen Poe adaptations (most of which starred Vincent Price) are now regarded as classics. Another interesting Corman project from this period is the 1963 tale, X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, simply titled “X” onscreen. The movie tells the story of Dr. James Xavier, who is experimenting with moving beyond the limits of vision in humans. Xavier develops a serum that will expand what we can see. After briefly testing it on animals, Xavier decides to uses the eye drop serum on himself, and his visual capacity does increase. At first, he can see through clothing and solid objects. He is startled by, and elated with, the results.

But that’s not enough for the scientist, and as he continues to use the serum, Xavier begins to see much more than he bargained for: it’s a textbook example of the old science-fiction theme, “there are some things man was not meant to know.” Xavier’s research partners drop his funding, and even though his increased visual capacity helps save a young girl’s life at the hospital where he works, no one supports him. He ends up working at a carnival sideshow as a mentalist, and later as a faith healer. Xavier continues to see deeper into the world than any man ever has; will he see beyond this dimension, or even this universe, and will it drive him insane?

The movie is well cast; Milland (who had worked with Corman previously on the Poe film, The Premature Burial) is excellent in the title role. He perfectly conveys the elation, and later dread, that Xavier feels as he sees shapes, colors and things that he eventually can’t (or won't) comprehend. Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone and John Hoyt are all effective in supporting roles, and Don Rickles (yes, that Don Rickles) is quite good as a carnival barker who wants to cash in on Xavier’s visionary powers. Corman regulars Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze have cameos as customers at the carnival sideshow. The effects are well done for the period, and eerily convey the odd & mind-bending things that Dr. Xavier sees, which are beyond the veil of normal human perception.

X is a solid bet for fans of the sci-fi & horror genre; it definitely transcends its B-movie origins to tell a unique story. There are some nice touches from director Corman (who was several films into his excellent work on the Poe cycle at this point) and it strives to deliver a bit more than the typical genre films of the period. Many reviewers & writers (including Stephen King in Danse Macabre, his landmark study of the horror genre) have noted the almost Lovecraftian themes that pop up late in the movie. It’s a well-crafted chiller, however you interpret it. The film often airs on Turner Classic Movies and other cable channels, and is also available in a nifty Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber, which includes commentaries from Corman and writer-director Joe Dante, among other extras. Here’s a link to the trailer: the way, it's interesting to note that Dr. Xavier coincidentally shares his last name with the telekinetic Dr. Charles Xavier, the leader of Marvel Comics mutant heroes, the X-Men, who also debuted in 1963.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jim West Faces a "Night of the Puppeteer"

The Wild Wild West was one of the most entertaining television shows of the mid to late 60s. Creator and producer Michael Garrison conceived the series as a sort of “James Bond in the Old West” which cleverly combined elements of the hugely popular spy genre with the traditional Western. The show followed the adventures of Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), who battled all kinds of outlandish and colorful villains in the 1800s. West was the two-fisted man of action, and Gordon was a master of disguise, as well as the provider of unique gadgets the duo used to escape the deathtraps devised by evil criminal masterminds such as their frequent foe, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, masterfully played by Michael Dunn. Like the Batman series, the show featured a variety of famous guest stars portraying the villains, including Boris Karloff, Ida Lupino, Burgess Meredith, Ricardo Montalban, and Agnes Moorehead.

Lloyd Bochner
One of the more memorable episodes of the show’s first season (filmed in black & white) is “The Night of the Puppeteer,” which opens with Jim West visiting a Supreme Court Justice. Jim warns the man that two of his colleagues have been murdered, and they are concerned for his safety. During a puppet show being performed for the judge’s grandson, one of the puppets tries shoot the judge! Fortunately, West foils the attempt. Jim later examines the puppets, and finds a clue, which leads him to a bar called Triton’s Locker. While there, he gets into a fight with the patrons, and ends up in an elevator, which speeds him to an underground lair. There he meets Zachariah Skull, the mastermind behind the killings. It seems Skull has a bone (pun intended) to pick with the judges, and society in general. He intends to put Jim on trial for his life....though the final verdict has already been decided.

Skull is also a brilliant inventor, and has surrounded himself with life-size, steam-powered puppets that do his bidding, including a ballerina who dances with West. There are some nicely played scenes between Robert Conrad and character actor Lloyd Bochner, who imbues Skull with a subtly menacing quality. The sequences in Skull’s underground home are strikingly lit, and well staged by Irving J. Moore, who directed many episodes during the course of the series.  There’s a nice twist at the episode’s climax which recalls a classic horror film I won’t mention here, in order to avoid spoilers. Along with other eerie episodes of the series, like “The Night of the Druid’s Blood” and “The Night of the Man-Eating House” this entry veers into territory which might seem more at home on The Twilight Zone or Thriller, with some very effective results. The one drawback to the episode (written by frequent contributor Henry Sharp) is that the wonderful Ross Martin isn’t given much to do as Artemus Gordon.

The tone of The Wild Wild West shifted somewhat from darker episodes in the first year of its run to more outlandish adventures in subsequent seasons (and sometimes back again to more traditional, action-oriented Western tales) due to some behind the scenes shuffling of producers. But the series was always enjoyable, thanks to the chemistry between the two appealing leads, as well as the colorful villains, the lovely damsels in distress, and those amazing gadgets. And let’s not forget that wonderful train the duo used as their base of operations! The series ran for four seasons, and remains a fan favorite, thanks to syndicated reruns and DVD releases of the entire series. There were also two “reunion” telefilms produced, The Wild Wild West Revisited in 1979, and More Wild Wild West in 1980. Both featured Robert Conrad and Ross Martin reprising their roles. The Wild Wild West is a fanciful and delightful series combining elements of Westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, and action-adventure. It's well worth checking out.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

What is the Secret of "The Changeling?"

George C. Scott & Trish Van Devere
If you love ghost stories, you most certainly have several favorite films from the genre. Some fans gravitate to older films like The Uninvited, The Haunting, or The Innocents. Others favor modern tales like The Others or The Devil’s Backbone. But there’s one creepy thriller from 1980 that stands with the best of them. It’s the eerie haunted house tale, The Changeling, starring George C. Scott, and directed by Peter Medak. Scott plays a New York based composer named John Russell, who, after losing his wife and daughter in a car accident, relocates to Seattle. He moves into a Victorian era mansion, which has been vacant for some time. To say that the place has “issues” might be understating the case a little. John regularly hears loud banging noises in the house, and one night he sees the specter of a drowned boy in a bathtub.

He begins investigating the history of the house with the help of Claire, a member of the local historical society, who had rented him the house. Claire is played by Scott’s real life wife, Trish Van Devere. John discovers a hidden room in the attic, which contains a child’s wheelchair. John later holds a séance at the house (one of the film’s most effective sequences) and while listening to a recording of the event, can hear the voice of a young man named Joseph. As John and Claire dig deeper, they learn Joseph was a very sick child, who was not expected to live very long. His father murders him and replaces him with a similar looking child adopted from an orphanage. Why? That’s only the beginning of a twisted tale of murder, money and madness that will come to involve a Unites States Senator with a dark secret. Of course, if you know your mythology, you might just guess that secret before it is revealed later in the spoilers here.

While the bulk of The Changeling takes place in Seattle, it was mostly lensed in Vancouver and Victoria. The film is expertly crafted and well paced. The story is loosely based on some real life events that took place in Colorado. Writer Russell Hunter experienced some paranormal phenomena while staying at a hotel there, and ended up researching the hotel’s history. The screenplay by William Gray and Diana Maddox is loosely based on his experiences and the results of his research. The film was nominated for multiple Genie Awards in Canada and won several, including Best Film, Best Foreign Actor for Scott, Best Foreign Actress for Van Devere, as well as for John Coquillon’s wonderful cinematography. The first rate cast also includes movie veteran Melvyn Douglas, and familiar faces John Colicos and Jean Marsh in supporting roles.

Director Peter Medak does an excellent job creating an otherworldy mileu in the film, which doesn’t go for obvious scares. The Changeling doesn’t cop out on its supernatural elements, and has several very unsettling and creepy moments, some of which recall other chillers like Mario Bava’s Kill! Baby! Kill! The movie has a dedicated core of fans, and was a TV staple during the 80s, which is where I first saw it, and was intrigued by its compelling and offbeat story. In a genre cluttered with badly made and over plotted films, The Changeling is a terrific thriller, and a real gem. Watch out for that wheelchair! Here’s a link to the trailer:

This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon, hosted by my fellow bloggers at Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. I’d like to thank them for including me in the festivities! You can find out more by clicking the following link:

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Suzi Quatro: 5 Great Songs

This week, please check out another article I did for Culture Sonar, an excellent arts and entertainment website. This one is about rocker Suzi Quatro, a pioneering female rocker who was an inspiration for Joan Jett and many others; click on the link below to access the piece. You can also find my other work for the site by going to the main page ( and using the search function. Thanks for reading, both here at Eclectic Avenue and over at Culture Sonar.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

"The Shape of Water" is Amazing

Director Guillermo Del Toro has thrilled us with his visionary style and taken us to some incredible places in such acclaimed movies as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labryinth, as well as the underrated Crimson Peak. Now he takes his artistry to a new level with his latest release, The Shape of Water. It’s a masterfully realized fantasy and a touching love story, featuring excellent performances by a top-notch cast. The film takes place in Baltimore in the early 1960s, during the height of the Cold War. The story centers on Elisa Esposito, who works as a custodian at a government facility. Elisa is mute, and communicates using sign language. She lives above a movie theatre and has two loyal friends: her neighbor Giles (with whom she shares meals and watches classic movies on TV) and her co-worker Zelda.

One day, an aquatic creature, which was captured in South America, is brought to the facility. The personnel there are studying the “monster” in order to gain an advantage over the Russians in the space race. One staff member, Colonel Strickland, abuses the creature on a daily basis, and sees it only as a means to an end.  Elisa is intrigued by this “monster,” and feels a strong kinship with it. Elisa tries to communicate with the creature, and befriend it. She starts bringing it meals, playing music for it, and teaching it sign language. The two form a close bond, and Elise decides to help the creature escape. That decision will change both of their lives (and the lives of Elisa’s friends) forever.

The cast is excellent. Sally Hawkins is a standout as Elise. She communicates all of Elise’s emotions; loneliness, passion, pain and ultimately joy, using mostly her eyes and her hands. It’s a luminous performance. She’s matched by an excellent supporting cast, including the incredible Richard Jenkins as Giles, and the wonderful Octavia Spencer as Zelda. Michael Shannon expertly enacts the villainous Colonel Strickland. Michael Stuhlbarg does a nice turn as a compassionate scientist who helps our heroes free the creature. Doug Jones, who’s the man inside the monster suit, does a superlative job portraying the creature. He’s done a great job playing monsters in other Del Toro projects (like Hellboy) but in this film he does some magnificent work. He imbues the character with such dignity and humanity that you can’t help but feel empathy for him.

The film also features a subtle message about tolerance and the acceptance of people’s (and other species) differences: Giles is a closeted gay man, and Zelda is an African-American woman. They’re two of the most positive and fully realized characters in the film. Del Toro doesn’t hit us over the head with a “message,” but you can’t help thinking about the time period in which these characters are living (the 1960s) and the things they had to endure from people like the violent and abusive Strickland, who essentially sees everyone else as being beneath him. It’s also a nice touch that the Giles character is an illustrator (like Del Toro) allowing us to see some of the story through his eyes. Giles also opens and closes the film with some marvelous narration, that truly sets the tone for this lovely, powerful and enchanting film.

The Shape of Water is part fairy tale, part love story and part monster movie. Del Toro (who has always felt a kinship with the monsters in stories like this) has stated that he was partly inspired to write the film based on his experience seeing Creature From The Black Lagoon as a child. He wondered why the monster didn’t get the girl. The movie plays to all of Del Toro’s strengths as a filmmaker. He and his technical crew have created a truly original look for the film. Of course, the fact that Elisa lives above a movie theatre allows Del Toro to compare the fantasy of the world of movies with the fantastical events taking place within his story. The Shape of Water is a lovely, emotional and powerful film. If you are partial to love stories, lyrical fantasies, and/or are a fan of Del Toro’s work, this is a must see. It’s hands down one of the best films of 2017. The movie features some astonishing, beautiful and brilliantly realized images that will stay with you long after the movie is over. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: