Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hair Of The Dog: Werewolves In Cinema

Werewolves have long been a favorite of mine in films. I like the other traditional monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula just fine but for some reason they just don't evoke the same dread in me like werewolves do. There have been, over the decades, some truly marvelous movies featuring these hairy monsters, often referred to as "lycanthropes" or even "wolfmen". The earliest movie I can recall that gave the werewolf a good treatment is Werewolf Of London(1935), starring Henry Hull as the man who would be wolf. Of course in 1941 Universal released The Wolfman, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. as "Larry Talbot", a man who is burdened with lycanthropy. Two films also stand out for me in the 1950's: The Werewolf(1956), starring a then unknown actor named Steven Ritch, who portrays "Duncan Marsh", a man who, through the actions of two nefarious scientists, becomes a werewolf. This film flies under the radar a good bit but is very good, I think, ably directed by Fred Sears, set in the rugged up country of northern California, and with makeup effects that make the lycanthrope in this movie look quite scary and malevolent. Another solid entry in this genre is I Was A Teenage Werewolf(1957), in which a mercurial high school student, played by Michale Landon, and given to frequent violent outbursts, is treated by a doctor(played by Whit Bissell), whose hypnosis causes the lad to begin having some seriously bad hair days. Admittedly, the plot is preposterous(even by the standards of these films) but the makeup effects are good and the film itself is campy fun. Hammer Films also contributed to the genre with a gem called The Curse Of The Werewolf(1961), in which a Spanish nobleman(played by Oliver Reed) succumbs to the curse.
I haven't seen 1973's The Boy Who Cried Werewolf, starring Kerwin Matthews but I hope it gets released to Region 1 DVD in the not too distant future.
Two more "werewolf" films would be released, both in 1981, that would revive and re-energize this particular horror movie monster: The Howling and An American Werewolf In London, directed by Joe Dante and John Landis, respectively. Both feature outstanding makeup effects, some surprisingly effective black humor, and scary beasts. I don't care much for most of The Howling's sequels with one exception: Howling V: The Rebirth(1989), set inside a creepy Hungarian castle and without too many shots of the beast early in the film(which kills the suspense). The monster picks off the group lured to the castle one by one.
Bad Moon(1996) has garnered poor reviews. Michael Pare is a lycanthrope who, in this film, meets his match in his sister's large police dog named "Thor". Not, I think, one of the better entries in the genre.
Another favorite is Dog Soldiers(2002), in which British commandos square off against a pack of werewolves in and around an isolated woodland cottage. A nice mix of action, gun play and genuine scares.

A promo clip for the 1956 film The Werewolf:

The trailer for one of my favorite "werewolf" films, Dog Soldiers(2002):

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Gorilla Warfare: King Kong Vs Godzilla(1962)

I can remember the first time I watched King Kong Vs Godzilla: it was 1987 and I was at a friends' apartment watching a giant monster double feature on TBS Superstation. I had heard and read many things about this movie, which was released in 1962 by Toho, but had never seen it before.
Watching two of the most recognizable and infamous movie monsters on the planet battle it out was great fun for me. I saw none of the film's flaws the first time I watched it and, though I'm keenly aware of all this film's shortcomings now, I still greatly enjoy watching King Kong Vs Godzilla once a year. A more reptilian looking 50 meter tall Godzilla squares off against a 45 meter tall King Kong. The special effects are somewhat uneven and the Kong suit, as most would probably agree, doesn't look too good. Still, there's a lot of entertainment value to go around, from both the monsters and the cast.
Not too long ago Universal released this film, paired with 1967's King Kong Escapes, as a R1 DVD two pack. This version of the film is the "Americanized" version, with the inclusion of American actors, including James Yagi, and with sequences that "borrow" from the score for 1954's Creature From The Black Lagoon. This version was what American audiences watched in theaters when the film was released in the United States in 1963. Thankfully, Universal's R1 DVD maintains the original aspect ratio for the movie, 2:35.1 widescreen.
The original Toho version, uncut and in 2:35.1 widescreen format, can be purchased on R3 or on R2 from sites like, CDJapan(R2), and eThaiCD(R3).

The American trailer for King Kong Vs Godzilla:

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Along Came A Spider: Arachnids In Horror Films

I have long been a fan of spiders in horror and sci-fi films. The fact I am something of an arachnophobe certainly makes watching spiders in cinema even more creepy for me. Over the decades there have been a bevy of horror/sci-fi movies featuring spiders, some good and some bad.
One of the first great "spider" themed horror movies was Tarantula(1955), starring Leo G. Carroll, John Agar and Mara Corday. The special effects in this film are surprisingly good and the disfigured scientists/comrades of Professor Deemer(played by Leo G. Carroll) add an extra element of horror to the already grim and creepy story of the film.

Though garnering less praise I am also quite of fond of The Spider(1958), whose alternate title is "Earth Vs The Spider"-this film continues to make the rounds on American Movie Classics(AMC), and stars (the late) Ed Kemmer. The effects are a bit more uneven in this film, and the shriek of the monster sized spider is, admittedly, laughably absurd.

In the 1970's two more movies entered the cinematic landscape of sci-fi: The Giant Spider Invasion(1975) and Kingdom Of The Spiders(1977), the latter starring William Shatner of "Star Trek" fame. Both are campy and a lot of fun if you don't take them too seriously.

In 1990 Arachnophobia hit theaters, a movie featuring a giant and poisonous South American spider that hitches a ride to a small California town where, mating with a common house spider, poisonous spiderlings are loosed on the town, the local doctor(played by Jeff Daniels) challenged to stop the creeping eight legged monsters, all while dealing with his severe arachnophobia.

More recent entries in this genre include Spiders(2000), which appears on The Sci-Fi Channel from time to time, along with its sequel Spiders 2: Breeding Ground. Another film of interest making appearances on The Sci-Fi Channel is Arachnid(2002).

Eight Legged Freaks
is also worth checking out, the spiders grown to enormous size through a local chemical spill and rendered fairly well by CGI and prominently featuring enlarged "jumping" spiders and one seriously bad ass, Airstream trailer sized tarantula.

Here's a trailer for 1958's "The Spider":

The trailer for Universal Picture's Tarantula(1955):

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Turtle Soup: Memories Of Gamera

Gamera. Mention that word to any self respecting fan of giant monster movies and you're likely to get a smile...or a roll of the eyes. Some of the first giant monster movies I watched on television as a kid were AIP Gamera films.
In 1965 Daiei released Giant Monster Gamera, a B&W film that featured a 200 foot tall flying and fire breathing turtle. This film was also "Americanized" and released under an alternate title, Gammera The Invincible, with the inclusion of American actors Albert Dekker and Brian Donlevy.

Gamera would go on to star in more of these films, including Gamera Vs Barugon(1966), Gamera Vs Gyaos(1967), Gamera Vs Viras(1968), Gamera Vs Guiron(1969), Gamera Vs Zigra(1971), & Gamera Super Monster(1980). I like these older Gamera movies. Admittedly there are many of them floating around in retailers and on the internet on DVD in pan ' scan and grainy prints. Some of these movies have been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. These classic Gamera films should be seen in their original aspect ratio(2:35.1 letterbox) in order to be fully appreciated.

Gamera has also starred in a trio of movies in the 90's: Gamera Guardian Of The Universe(1995), Gamera 2: Advent Of Legion(1996) & Gamera 3: The Incomplete Struggle(aka Gamera 3: The Revenge Of Irys)(1999). These "Gamera Trilogy" films are all marvelous and employ updated special effects. They are definitely worth checking out for any fan of giant monster movies who hasn't seen them.

In 2006 Gamera returned once more to the big screen in Gamera The Brave. This film prominently features children in the storyline and is, I think, a "children's" movie. That said the special effects are very good and the movie itself entertains fairly well.

I can't say I like Gamera as much as I do Godzilla but I do think the giant turtle has established his own place in the kaiju pantheon of movie monsters. I hope one day in the not too distant future we'll see quality R1 DVD releases of the older Gamera films.

The trailer for Gamera Vs Zigra(1971):