Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hemlock Grove

Netflix has made my life better.  Most of the movies and television I watch now come from that vendor.  I can’t complain about their latest foray into the media market, Hemlock Grove. 
HG is a series consisting of 13 episodes, all released at once.  That is very interesting.  I have watched Breaking Bad, the first two seasons of Dexter and Sons of Anarchy, the same way: each episode when I found time to set down and push play on the remote.  Netflix cut out the wait time. 
HG has received very mediocre reviews.  I dissent.  To be certain, it does not rank in the same category as the aforementioned series.  I have only seen the first three episodes, but so far the acting, dialogue, and story line fall well short of the Breaking Bad level of genius.  On the other hand, the cinematography is top shelf.  The scenes of the fictional Pennsylvania town in fall colors are breathtaking.  Every face and movement is alive with color and texture.  

I have thoroughly enjoyed each episode and I walk about craving for more.  I have not felt the slightest sense that the action is dragging, as many critics complain.  On the contrary, I find the pace exquisite.  Part of that is simply that I like the characters.  Landon Liboiron as Peter Rumancek, a gypsy lad who goes postal during each full moon is what I was in high school, except for the handsome, sexy, and werewolf things.  Bill SkarsgĂ„rd as Roman Godfrey is a sort of younger, handsomer Steve Buscemi.  It isn’t clear yet what Roman is, but he can do Jedi mind tricks at the expense of the occasional nose bleed.  He has a straight out of Stephen King mom (Famke Janssen as Olivia Godfrey) who seems to have her own pars, as we say down south.  She was Jean in the X Men. 
Meanwhile we have a couple of refugees from Battlestar Galatica: Aaron Douglas as Sheriff Tom Sworn and Kandyse McClure as Dr. Clementine Chausser.  What’s not to like? 
The first three episodes already have given me one of the best werewolf kills and transformation scenes that I can remember.  The plot is rich with promise, including a mad scientist and a possible alien connection.  Again, what’s not to like? 
I will post again when I have digested the whole series.  If you have Netflix, get this series.  You won’t be disappointed.  Here is one last image to draw you in. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

It! The Creature From Beyond Space

The 1950’s was a golden age for science fiction film making.  The Second World War had brought the world to America just at the same time as science brought the cosmos to the world.  A lot of seminal films (e.g., Invasion of the Body Snatchers & The Day the Earth Stood Still) mixed political paranoia with speculative fiction.  Some films explored the nature of the enlarged cosmos and our place in a more existentially open frame of mind. 
One of the movies that I loved as a kid was It! The Terror from Beyond Space.  My childhood favorite movies don’t usually stand up so well, but this is an exception.  I watched it again recently on Netflix.  It is superb. 
The film begins as the second expedition to Mars is about to blast off the red planet for earth.  They carry one lone survivor from the first expedition, Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson).  Carruthers provides narration.  Everyone on board the rescue ship believes that he killed some or all of his comrades on the first ship, in order to survive.  He expects to return to earth to face a court martial.  He claims that his comrades were slain by some terrible thing which he never saw in the Martian dust. 
As the ship is preparing to take off, a cargo door is left open and an ominous shadow crosses the threshold.  You guessed it.  The alien menace is on board.  In short order the monster reveals itself and the rest of the story is a struggle to kill It! before it kills them.  The drama is solid and it’s hard not to care about the characters as they come to shape. 
The screenplay, dialogue, and acting are all much better than one would have any right to expect.  The space ship is standard needle shape, with a single door between the vertical compartments, offering something for the monster to beat his way through.  We get frequent shops of it lumbering through space with eerie music punctuating these scenes.  The monster is a body builder in a quazi-reptilian rubber costume, with big claws and alligator feet.  What’s not to like! 
I can’t praise this one enough.  Don’t miss it.  

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Crawling Eye

Horror and science fiction films may be usefully divided into four periods.  The Classic Period begins in the 1930’s.  The Atomic period begins in the 40’s.  I’m not quite sure what to call the period that begins in the sixties.  It was largely dreadful.  I am not sure what to call the last period, which begins in the late seventies with Star Wars. 
Anyway, there were many fine films made in the Atomic period.  These are characterized by a growing global consciousness and a very vivid imagination about modern technology and science in general. 
One of the good ones is The Crawling Eye, originally entitled The Trollenberg Terror.  Forest Tucker plays Alan Brooks, a scientist who has been summoned to an Alpine observatory by a colleague Professor Crevett. (Warren Mitchell).  A strange cloud has appear on the mountain and something is tearing the heads off of climbers.  We learn that Brooks has seen something like this before.  Brooks arrives at a hotel that is suffering from some well-deserved bad publicity.  There are rumors!  He is accompanied by two women who do a psychic act.  Small spoiler: one of them is genuinely psychic. 
In short order we learn that the mysterious cloud conceals alien invaders.  The film marries geography and biology in its story.  The aliens arrive at high altitudes because they like the cold and the atmosphere.  Of course, that is the key to defeating them. 
There is a characteristic Atomic Period set.  The observatory has guys in white lab coats and lots of machines with dials.  The special effects are primitive, to be sure.  In one scene a man lifted by monstrous tentacles turns into a clay figure.  Still, the monsters once revealed are pretty good.  A cycloptic, octopoid creature is my idea of a hostile invader.  

There are some goofy moments, but overall it is an enjoyable film.  One of the best features of the movie is what it leaves out.  There is nothing about how the creatures came here or where they are from.  This is one of the cases where less is more.  If you want a spanking good Atomic Period experience, check this one out.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Frankenstein Theory

The Frankenstein Theory is a fine little piece of film making that shows the virtues of minimalism.  It is one more entry in the growing list of mockumentaries.  All the action is presented from the viewpoint of a camera held by one of the actors.  This technique, with all its obvious limitations, imposes a number of virtues on the film maker.  Story telling takes a back seat to action.  Everything has to be communicated by people in motion.  Almost all of the emotional weight is held just off camera. 
The footage begins with Professor John Venkenheim (Kris Lemche) getting used to the camera.  We soon learn that he believes himself to be the descendant of the real Dr. Frankenstein.  The novel, he emphatically insists, was based on letters from his ancestor.  The Frankenstein monster is very real and he believes that it still lives in Canada.  Dr. Venkenheim has just lost his position at a university due to his obsession with his theory.  He is desperate to prove that he is right.  The film crew is desperate to get something worth viewing.  So off they go to the north to find the monster. 
The portrait of an obsessed academic, who has spent nearly all his waking hours pouring over little bits of information, is dead spot on.  It mirrors the obsession of Baron Frankenstein in many of the films devoted to that story.  It becomes clear very early that he always imposes his theory on the evidence, rather than letting the evidence speak for itself.  He keeps telling the film crew where the monster is and what it is doing.  They keep asking “how do you know this?”  He always has an answer, but the answer only works if you fervently believe the story.  Unfortunately, he is quite right. 
Venkenheim believes that the monster has been living by following herds of caribou.  He correctly guesses where the monster will be and hires a guide to lead the crew to the location.  We get lots of gorgeous footage of the winter landscape and some marvelous scenes in tents and later in a yurt, while ominous howls break in from outside.  When the real horror begins, it is very sparsely presented.  The monster shows up, sure enough, but we get only glimpses of him.  The camera is generous only with the victims.  

This is a much better film than it has any right to be and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It is worth studying for the lessons it can teach aspiring horror directors and writers.  It is available on Netflix instant.