Monday, October 31, 2011

In Time

Andrew Niccol's In Time had to have been the easiest green light a movie has ever gotten. Imagine the pitch meeting: "I've got a high concept science fiction movie for you. It's in a future where aging has been cured, so everybody is sexy and young. Not a wrinkle or grey hair to be found! Hot young actors even play the old people!" "Stop right there. This is the easiest to market movie ever. You can start shooting next week." "Well, hold on, I might need a little time to polish the script--" "You. Can. Start. Shooting. Next. Week." "Off I go!"

I'm giving it a bit of a hard time. I actually had fun watching In Time, for all its flaws. Andrew Niccol wrote and directed Gattaca and wrote The Truman Show, which were two of my favorite science fiction films of the 1990's. Though he's never since reached the level of those first two movies, he's still quite good at high concepts and big ideas.

The idea behind In Time is that in a vague, distant future (no year is specified), genetic engineering has found a cure for aging. We are now programmed to stop aging on our 25th birthday, and then you get one year. That year isn't just the time you have left, though, it's also your currency. People buy and sell goods and services with their life. If for any reason, the ticker on your wrist runs out, you drop dead on the spot.

Niccol uses this conceit as a metaphor for the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Our hero is Will Salas, played by Justin Timberlake, who lives in the lower class district (Time Zone) of Dayton (get it? Date-on! HAHAHA). He lives quite literally day to day, and gets by working in a factory. While out drinking with his buddies, he comes across a guy with over 100 years left in his life, and saves him from the "Minute Men", who are kind of a time mafia? They steal people's time. The guy is from the land of the rich, where people can afford to live forever (New Greenwich, which is a ton more clever than Dayton). While hiding from the Minute Men, the guy tells Will all about how there's no reason everybody can't live forever, and the rich just keep raising taxes and the cost of living in order to control the population. Then, while Will is sleeping, he gives him the remainder of his life.

When Will wakes up, his first plan is to take his mom and head up to Greenwich, but when his mom dies on the way to meet him because bus prices just went up, it becomes... personal. He heads to Greenwich on his own, wins another millenium in a poker game, gets chased by Time Keepers (the time police, led by Cillian Murphy), falls in love with and kidnaps a rich man's daughter (Amanda Seyfried). Together they become Chronobonnie and Time Clyde, sort of Robin Hood figures who steal time from the rich and give to the poor.

The story is pretty fun. It lifts elements from a lot of different sources, which is OK if they are put to good use. I personally enjoy movies set in elaborate sci-fi worlds with their own sets of rules, so that aspect was fun for me. In Time's weakness is in the script itself. The dialogue is often pretty bad. Every bad play on words and pun involving time is used. The characters mostly feel pretty stock. They feel more like they're there to serve their purpose in the story than be real people. The class metaphor is forced on us pretty hard and often feels belabored and obvious.

The cast is actually pretty good. I actually like all the young-ish actors in it, and think they all could have done better if their characters had a little more depth. Andrew Niccol wisely put his best actors in the roles of older characters. Cillian Murphy and Vincent Kartheiser give the best performances. Kartheiser does a variation on his Mad Men character when playing Sylvia's father. He definitely sells the weight of old age better than I think Timberlake would have done (and Olivia Wilde, who I never bought as Timberlake's mom). There's one guy I want to point out, one of the Minute Men, who doesn't even have much of a speaking part, but decided it would be awesome if he wore a fedora slightly tilted. I have nothing to say about his performance, I just thought he looked ridiculous. He could be one of Timberlake's backup dancers.

Overall, In Time was a decent piece of cheesy entertainment. I'm not sure if it was worth a trip to the theater for, but we only paid matinee prices, so I can't complain. The fun of the movie is largely in the details of its well-realized world. I just wish they took a couple more passes on that screenplay to make the characters and dialogue a little more well-realized too.

Carnival of Souls

I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie quite like Carnival of Souls. At least, I've never seen a movie from this time period that feels like Carnival of Souls. Made independently by director Herk Harvey (his only feature), the movie feels nothing like your typical early 1960's horror fare. It forgoes traditional shocks and gimmickry many of the B-Movies of the time rely on. Instead, it tells a different kind of ghost story, mournful, elegiac, and all too human.

Carnival of Souls is the story of Mary, a young woman who, at the start of the movie, hurtles off a bridge in a car with her friends, an accident in a drag race. While the police are trawling the river for the car, she mysteriously comes ashore, dazed but seemingly unhurt. We learn that she is a professional organ player and is soon going to move to Utah to play at a church. On her way there, she drives by a creepy abandoned amusement park, and then out of nowhere, sees a ghoulish figure (played by Herk himself).

Mary moves into a boarding house and begins her job, but still something feels off about her. She is cold and distant, and has no interest whatsoever in associating with other people. This is much to the only other boarder's chagrin, because let me tell you, he is interested. Over the course of the movie, things escalate. Mary continues to see the ghoul. At times, she herself seems to fade out of existence, all sound drains from the world and nobody hears or reacts to her. She is still drawn by the memory of the old amusement park.

I think what most struck me about Carnival of Souls was the truly independent feel of the whole thing. Most movies in the late 50's and early 60's were brimming with glamor and artifice. Everybody was beautiful and wore only the most fashionable of clothing, all the locations were phony and perfect looking. Besides the actress who played Mary, who was making a real go at the acting thing, the cast is made up of amateur local actors. The acting for the most part isn't top notch, but there's something that just feels real about these people. They look normal. They dress in clothes that normal people wore in 1961. The locations aren't sets and sound stages, they're real locations. You get to see what a department store in Salt Lake City must have really looked like 50 years ago. That kind of stuff fascinates me.

In some ways, Carnival of Souls feels a few years ahead of its time. It feels much closer to a movie from the late 60's or the 70's even, than it does to its early 60's brethren. The dialogue is more natural and less stylized. The camerawork, editing and sound design have a bit of an experimental vibe to it. There's a beautiful and mesmerizing sequence where Mary is playing the church organ in a very sensual manner while the ghosts and ghouls in the amusement park waltz.

It's too bad Carnival of Souls failed to perform in its initial release. I'm not sure if this was just a one-off for him, or if Herk Harvey had aspirations of making more films. I wonder what else he would have done, if he had been given the opportunity.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

I would stay the night at a haunted house for $10,000.  The trick is this: Stay in one place for the whole night, and never separate from the group.  Why doesn't anybody ever do this?  Come on, losers!

House on Haunted Hill is a fun little chiller brought to us by the great P.T. Barnum of B-Movies, William Castle.  He added another layer of fun to his movies with his love of twists, gimmicks, and trickery.  Even though these gimmicks were primarily to put butts in seats, there was a real sense of showmanship behind them too. 

The characters in this movie are a lot like the audience of a William Castle movie.  They have been issued a challenge by a millionaire to stay the night in a haunted house.  If they stay all night, they get $10,000, no ifs, ands or buts.    The millionaire is played by Vincent Price, a man who is on his 5th unhappy marriage.  The other four wives have met unfortunate ends. 

One of the guys staying in the house is played by the jittery dude from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing.  He's a bit of a drunk, but he knows the history of the house, and he explains to the others (and the audience) that there have been a lot of grisly goings on in there.  Bodies found with missing heads, a giant pit full of acid in the basement.  A question to all you homeowners: If you buy a house with a giant acid pit already installed in the dungeon, do you keep it?  Does that increase the property value? 

So the group gets locked in, and there are some ghost sightings, but to me they don't look like ghosts, they just look like an old lady on wheels.  But still, severed heads appear and disappear.  One particular lady appears to be seeing all these things.  Then somebody turns up dead, hanging from a rope.  Also, I don't know how far ahead Vincent Price planned for this, but he has a bunch of adorable little coffin shaped boxes containing a handgun for each of his guests, just in case.

Anyway, the plot makes little sense, and once the twists start adding up, one after the other, the house of haunted cards comes tumbling down with even a little bit of questioning.  Who is betraying who?  Is the house really haunted or not?  How long did they have that planned?  Not important.  What matters to Castle is that the shocks keep coming.  He surely knew if he kept surprising the audience, the logic of the surprises wouldn't really matter in the long run.

I've read that House on Haunted Hill played in theaters specially rigged to release skeletons upon the audience at certain times in the movie that might call for skeletons.  See?  That sounds like fun, doesn't it?  That's what William Castle's movies were all about.  Fun.  And as ridiculous and hilariously convoluted as House on Haunted Hill was, it was still a lot of fun.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

We all find the subject matter of kooky religious cults to be fascinating, don't we? I mean, as far as I can tell, that's pretty universal. The non-religious among us get to point at them and go, "SEE?" and the religious among us get to go, "at least that's not us, right guys?" Martha Marcy May Marlene is a tense, unsettling, and engrossing look at what it's like to be in such a fringe religion, and the psychological damage they can cause.

Martha Marcy May Marlene stars Melizabeth Molsen in the title role (just Martha, really), as a girl who, after two years of living on a farm with a tiny sect, sneaks away and finds refuge with her older sister and her husband. Unfortunately, though she could elude their physical grasp, it is much more difficult to escape the hold these people have on her psyche. She has become seriously warped by years of psychological battering.

The narrative unfolds in two timelines, with flashbacks covering her time with the cult alternating with the present scenes of Martha desperately struggling to adjust to her freedom. She's distant and uncommunicative with her sister (played by the always welcome Sarah Paulson). As far as the sister knows, she was off with a boy for two years and now she's back. Of course, as Martha's behavior gets more and more bizarre and downright scary, the sister figures out it goes much deeper than that.

In the flashbacks, we see Martha's initiation into the cult through her own eyes. Upon her first meeting with Patrick, the charismatic leader of this commune, played by a scary great John Hawkes, Martha loses her name and is rechristened Marcy May. Of course, that's the first step, taking away the identity. Over the course of the flashbacks, we see her shattered much further, until eventually, she is actively aiding in indoctrinating the newbies.

The acting is all around great, but this is Elizabeth Olsen's movie all the way. Your heart breaks after first witnessing the outcome of the poor decisionmaking of a wayward youth, and then seeing first hand the events that caused all that damage. She has some pretty tough scenes in the movie.

John Hawkes is also pretty amazing as Patrick. At first glance, he seems benevolent enough, though it quickly becomes clear that there's a sinister undercurrent to everything he's saying. He demonstrates in his performance that ability a cult leader has to get under a person's skin, pick away at their vulnerabilities, and bend them to his will. From the things he makes these people do, especially the women, you can tell that he gets off on the power. In the very first scene, we see that the men get to eat first, while the women wait in the next room until it's their turn to have a crack at what's left.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is written and directed by Sean Durkin. I believe it's his first film. I really liked a lot of the dialogue, I think he really nailed that brainwashed culty way of speaking. A great example is the speech Patrick gives when he teaches Marcy May to shoot a gun, before then trying to talk her into shooting a living thing. There's a single line of dialogue in the movie that creeped me out to the extreme. It implies something extremely disturbing, and then it is never elaborated upon, wisely leaving it to the audience's imaginations. I won't spoil the line, I'll let the reader see if they can figure out which one I'm referring to.

Visually, Durkin plays a lot with contrasting Martha's two homes. The farmhouse she lives in, though seemingly homey and welcoming, is crowded and claustrophobic. She sleeps in a cramped room with the rest of the girls, practically in a pile. Everything is shared, she has no possessions of her own. She's trapped in by the forest surrounding the farm. Conversely, her sister's summer home is large and open. The walls are white and pristine, and there are huge windows everywhere. She's not walled in by a forest, instead, there's a lake out front. But for some reason, the summer home never feels welcoming either. It's a rental, so none of the furniture is theirs. It feels too clean, almost alien. Adding to the discomfort is the fact that her sister's husband is openly resistant to even letting her stay, because he doesn't understand her and she's really ruining his vacation.

One going to see this movie should be warned of a couple things: 1: Not a first date movie. Some pretty disturbing sex scenes are within. And 2: Don't expect a clean resolution, or very much closure, even. This isn't that type of movie. You never know at the end of the movie if she is really free from Patrick's clutches or not. It's wide open for discussion. I know people who find movies like this infuriating, so if you think you are one of those people, this movie is probably not for you. Even I was shocked by how abrupt the ending was.

Martha Marcy May Marlene was, for me, a scarier movie than all of the horror movies I've watched in the last month. Knowing that similar things to this go on in the real world makes ghost movies feel utterly ridiculous by comparison.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Sentinel

Whew. I think I got in over my head with this one. But more on that later.

This was a horror movie from 1977, notable for featuring young Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum in small parts. It stars Woody Allen as Alvy Singer, and follows the various pitfalls in his relationship with Diane Keaton... oh wait, that's Annie Hall. What, were Goldblum and Walken a package deal in 1977? Oh, man, they should have been a comedy team, that would have been amazing. Sorry, that was stupid.

Starting over, The Sentinel was a horror movie from 1977 by director Michael Winner, the guy who made the Death Wish movies. It's one of those Catholic horror movies that were so popular in the 1970's after the success of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist.

It's about a model named Alison (Cristina Raines) who moves into a new apartment because she wants to live on her own for a while before hooking up with her boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon). The place is beautiful, and the real estate agent seems suspiciously eager to rent it to her, dropping the price like crazy. Not long after moving there, Alison starts feeling weird, having flashbacks to her youthful suicide attempt (she walked in on her dad having an orgy). She has all sorts of weird neighbors that creep her out, including an old blind priest upstairs and an old man with a bird on his shoulder and a cat that he makes cakes for, not unlike Danny McBride in Pineapple Express (ok, pretty unlike that). When she mentions them, she is told that the only other tenant is the priest. So, her boyfriend sees something wrong and he sets out to get to the bottom of all this.

Turns out that the building is the gateway to hell and all these weird people that only Alison can see are damned. Also, Michael has a secret of his own, and also also, the church has plans of their own for Alison.

I've got to say, The Sentinel was pretty watchable. My favorite stuff was the more subtle horror, but it goes all out around halfway in. There's a pretty freaky sequence in the middle where Alison is attacked by her dead orgy dad.

I didn't like Cristina Raines' acting at first, but I have to say she grew on me over the course of the movie. Chris Sarandon holds a place in my heart as Jerry the Vampire in the original Fright Night, so I'm happy to see him in stuff. For much of the movie, I thought it was a good guy role, but ultimately, I guess his character was more in line with what you would expect Chris Sarandon to play. I should have known better, he even had a mustache. There are other name actors in the movie, including Burgess Meredith, Eli Wallach, and Beverly D'Angelo, and that old vaudeville duo, Goldblum and Walken, who, joking aside, actually share no screentime with each other.

The ending was way too much for me and kind of soured the entire experience. See, Michael Winner decided that when the gates of hell bust open and its denizens come out to take Alison away, they should be twisted and disfigured. So he hired a bunch of actually twisted and disfigured people to play the parts. I couldn't look, it was too heartbreaking and made me feel guilty and gross. So I basically sat with my head down for the last 10 minutes trying to work out what was going on just by listening.

I probably just shouldn't have watched the movie. I knew going into it about that stuff, I just thought maybe I could handle it. Anyway, as far as horror goes, the movie is pretty effective, and the story is interesting. I just could have really done without the exploitative stuff at the end. I guess, watch The Sentinel if you think you can handle it, but if you're sensitive to that kind of thing like I am, you should probably skip it and watch the Exorcist again, because it was a much better movie, anyway.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Old Dark House

I'm back, everybody! Sorry I haven't been updating as frequently lately. I plan on having a whole bunch done over the weekend. I hope nobody is getting tired of my Universal horror movie reviews, because I have another one here.

After seeing Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Bride of Frankenstein, I became very interested in director James Whale. In research mode, I looked to see if he did any other horror movies in his career. Turns out he did another one in between, and it's really not much like the other three. I mean that in a complimentary way, of course. Not only does it demonstrate his versatility as a storyteller and director, it's also a cracking good time.

The movie I'm referring to is The Old Dark House, made in between Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, and starring several of the same actors, including the great Boris Karloff. James Whale's moody, expressionistic horror style is still in full effect, but is tempered by a good deal of comedy. I wouldn't say the movie is a straight up comedy, per se, but it's one of those movies where a group of funny characters are put in the middle of a very serious situation. The balance is struck quite well.

The story follows a married couple, the Wavertons, and their wisecracking friend, as they get caught driving in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. After nearly getting buried in a mudslide, they're forced to stop for the night at the only house around. Now you might be asking is the house old? Is the house dark?

Highlight below for SPOILERS:

It IS.

The house belongs to the Femms, an old brother and sister. The brother is old and suspicious, the sister is super religious, deaf, and mean. And old. They have a scary giant drunken mute named Morgan (Karloff) in their employ, as their butler. They also have some secrets in the house. The cranky sister especially doesn't want the Wavertons and their bro to stay, but are persuaded to let them. The Wavertons do their best to be charming and polite but still seem unwelcome, so if that isn't enough, another stranded couple find their way to the house and, being a care free widowed nobleman and his showgirl companion, completely impose themselves upon the Femms. Once all the players are in place, a sometimes comedic, sometimes menacing narrative unfolds as the skeletons in the Femm family closet are set free upon our group of travelers.

The characters are all around great. The cast is such a fun and versatile array of character types, and they have great chemistry with each other. The movie has kind of an episodic feel to it where the cast splits up and we get to see how they each interact with different characters. Karloff gets the short end of the straw this time, though. Not that he isn't great, just that he is still stuck playing a hulking, non-communicative monster. What a role to get typecast as! The movie actually opens with a card assuring the audience that this is, indeed, the same Karloff that played Frankenstein. He's just that versatile, everyone. This time, he has a beard!

I especially liked Melvyn Douglas as the Waverton's easygoing friend character. He starts off the movie seemingly as a sidekick and ends up sort of being the hero and the romantic lead. Charles Laughton is both likeable and sympathetic as the widower who wants the world to think he's a hard partying socialite, but is inwardly sad and lonely. Gloria Stuart is quite good as Margaret Waverton, too. One of the best moments involves her playing with her shadow on a wall. Also, hey, she was pretty hot. What? She's the old lady from Titanic? Shut up, that's weird to think of. I'm leaving people out, but everyone is good, really. There is one more player that I'm not mentioning because I don't want to spoil it, but let's just say the Femm siblings aren't the only family members in the Old Dark House. Wait until you meet this guy, even by today's standards, he's a pretty freaky character.

I liked that there was nothing supernatural in the movie, just a messed up family in a house in the middle of nowhere. I know there are more movies that are like this, but they seem to be pretty rare nowadays. I also like a lot of the stylistic choices James Whale made. I think I mentioned in my Bride of Frankenstein review that I thought the comedic stuff was weird or something. Well, I take that back now, he handles it wonderfully. Also, the ending is quite intense and pretty brutal. Not, like, gory, or anything, but it's easy to forget that before the Hayes code got in the way, old movies could have some surprisingly jarring material in them.

I'm glad that seeing the other Universal movies led the way to this one. I know this could be sacrilege, but I might even have liked The Old Dark House better than the monster movies. I mean, I understand why the monster movies are great and impactful and iconic, but the juxtaposition of comedy and horror, as well as the strong characterization and ensemble feel of the cast really spoke to me. I think I need to dig even deeper sometime and see what some of James Whale's non-horror pictures are like. Just not the Showboat movie because I saw the play in 8th grade and haaaaated it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Wolf Man (1941)

Here we are, edging our way towards Halloween, and here I am with another classic horror film to review. Over the last year, I've been catching up on the classic Universal monster movies. It seems to me that they are required watching that I've somehow managed to miss out on all this time. Now that I've seen the first three Frankenstein movies (2)(3), The Invisible Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon, I finally feel like I'm getting somewhere. I've been meaning to get to The Wolf Man for a while.

The Wolf Man, directed by George Waggner, stars Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, a man who is returning home to his family estate in Universal's Old-Timey Village Set, after the death of his older brother. While there, he meets Gwen, a local who works at the antiques shop across the way. In the shop he finds and purchases an interesting old cane with a silver wolf's head for a handle, and in so doing learns of the town's rich mythology around lycanthropy.

Through persistence and creepiness (always works in old movies), Larry also manages to land a date. A band of gypsies are in town so he takes her and one of her friends to see a fortune teller (Bela Lugosi). The seer reads Gwen's friend's palm, seeing a pentagram on it, meaning she is the next victim of the werewolf. He freaks and tells her to go while she still can and takes off himself. Moments later, she is indeed attacked by a wolf. Talbot attempts to rescue her, beating the wolf to death with his cane, and gets bitten in the process.

The next morning, Talbot wakes up to find the bite healed completely. The police are also visiting. They're investigating the murder of the fortune teller, who they found beaten to death with Larry's cane. By this point, Talbot has put two and two together, whether he wants to admit it or not: The wolf that bit him was the fortune teller, and it is only a matter of time before he, too, will become a monster.

I was quite surprised how completely character-driven The Wolf Man was. The Wolf Man himself only has five minutes of screen time, tops. The movie is more about Larry Talbot dealing with the dread and inevitability of becoming a monster. Lon Chaney Jr. is really great at this. He has extremely expressive eyes. Even when he is outwardly denying that something is wrong, you can read on his face that he knows the truth.

I don't really understand why he never becomes a full wolf, even though Bela Lugosi did. Instead he becomes the hairy dog man we all know and love today. I suppose you could rationalize it by saying he's still early in his transitioning and that were he to make it further along in his transformation he will eventually become a full wolf. The truth is surely that Universal simply wanted Chaney to play the monster, not just hand those duties off to a trained dog.

The make-up effects and transformation were groundbreaking for their time, though they were still early days for these things. As I said above, the Wolf Man has very little screen time. It must have taken forever to transform him. The first time it happens we only see his legs change. We don't get the famous series-of-dissolves on Chaney's face until the very end.

The direction by George Waggner is decent, though I thought James Whale's work in the Frankenstein, Bride, and Invisible Man was far better. Still, Waggner got some great performances out of his cast, and obviously, he helped Chaney to create a truly iconic monster, who would have been nothing if the man behind him weren't so well fleshed out.

Another thing that struck me that I'm guessing people nowadays don't really consider is that the Universal movies weren't just done one after another. I think we tend to sort of clump them all together that way when we think of them. You just associate Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon as one big group. The fact is, these movies were all made over the course of several decades. I honestly don't know why that's important. I just found it interesting, I guess.

The Wolfman, while not my favorite of the Universal monster movies, was still 100% worth seeing. Lon Chaney Jr. steals the whole show, though, surprisingly, it was his performance as the man that carries the movie, adding more weight and underlying humanity to the tragic circumstances he must endure as the wolf.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tales that Witness Madness

In my last review, for The Innocents, I mentioned cinematographer Freddie Francis, who has a memorable and respectable filmography, having won much acclaim shooting movies for directors like David Lynch, Jack Clayton, and Martin Scorsese. But for me, the fascinating side of Freddie Francis was his career as a director. Through the 60's, 70's, and 80's, he made many low budget horror films for smaller studios such as Amicus and Hammer. I doubt it was the career he imagined for himself, but from the few of his directorial efforts that I've seen, I'd say he at least did his best to have a good time with it.

Tales that Witness Madness is one of several horror anthology films that Francis directed. At least four that I know of, including the cult classic Tales from the Crypt. They all have a pretty similar structure: four or five short horror stories, usually with an ironic twist ending, bookended by a character telling the stories, or something similar. In the end, there's one last ironic twist that ties it all together.

In Tales that Witness Madness, the framing device is a psychiatrist (played by Donald Pleasance) showing off his patients at a mental asylum to another psychiatrist. Each patient has a story of the supernatural that brought them there.

One story follows a boy who escapes from his constantly arguing parents by having an imaginary friend. His friend happens to be a tiger. As he begins to grow closer and closer to his imaginary friend (sneaking large slabs of meat into the bedroom and such), his parents begin to get concerned. Unfortunately, that just leads to more arguing. Whatever is a boy and his imaginary tiger to do?

Next, we have a man who owns an antique store. He puts a weird old portrait and an old timey bicycle out for sale. These items draw him in, and give him the ability to travel back in time to the subject of the portrait's past.

The third story is about a man who brings home a weird tree to display as art. His wife doesn't like the tree, as it looks oddly human and creeps her out. As the man's affection towards the tree grows, so does the woman's jealousy of it, until the tree itself takes on a life of its own...

And finally, we have a tale of human sacrifice as Kim Novak plays a literary agent trying to land a client by throwing him a grand luau, traditional of his people. Little does she realize she is aiding him in a cannibalistic ritual, with her own daughter as the main course.

Whoops, that last one was kind of a spoiler. But you know what? It doesn't matter. If you can't figure out where this thing is leading well in advance of it happening, you must be 8 years old. Which is probably the best age to watch this movie. Just like Francis did with Tales from the Crypt, Tales that Witness Madness is infused with a sense of good-natured, self-aware fun. These are the kind of R-Rated movies that a kid can watch and feel like they got away with something, and a parent (well, depending on the parent) doesn't have to be too concerned.

Of the four, my favorite was the first, with the kid and the tiger. It was like a demented prototype for Calvin and Hobbes. The one with the old-timey bike and the painting was really good, too. The painting always changed expressions, and was hilarious.

The twists are usually pretty obvious, but the fun of the movie is really in watching the stories unfold. You get to watch these oblivious characters stumble into their horrible fates, knowing you would never make the same mistakes they did, because you are smart.

Tales that Witness Madness, along with Crypt, and surely other Freddie Francis anthologies, would make for a fun night. The stories are short, usually enjoyable, fun to laugh with and at. The camera work and direction are ably done, and the actors seem to be enjoying their roles. Though Freddie Francis the director never had the opportunities that Freddie Francis the cinematographer had, I have the same amount of respect for him. He took the chances he was given, kept on making movies at the edge of the system, and he always gave us a little twist at the end.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Innocents

Haunted House movies have seen better days. The trends in horror are ever shifting, but right now we're getting all these shoddy, handheld, "realistic" ghost movies which we're supposed to believe is found footage even though the people in them are clearly acting. Fifty years ago, however, we were getting some quality ghost movies, atmospheric, unsettling, with rich visuals, and loaded with depth and subtext. Movies like Robert Wise's The Haunting, one of my all-time favorites, and this movie, Jack Clayton's The Innocents, which I think just might give The Haunting a run for it's money.

The Innocents is a 1961 adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, with a screenplay by Truman Capote. It stars Deborah Kerr as a woman hired to look over a rich guy's country estate and in particular his niece and nephew. He's too busy living it up in London and enjoying his "bachelorhood" and can't be bothered. On the surface these children seem alright, but she begins to suspect something is amiss with them. When she uncovers some unsavory secrets of the history of the estate, she comes to believe that the children are possessed by two former tenants and the only way to save these children is to force them to confront the ghosts.

The movie sets itself apart at the very beginning, by opening with just a black screen with the little girl singing a haunting song (which recurs throughout the rest of the movie). We all know that little girls singing is instant creepiness. Then as the credits roll on the right, a pair of hands fade in on the left, looking as though they're furiously praying. As the credits end, the owner of the hands is revealed to be Deborah Kerr. Really artfully done.

The two children in the movie are great. They don't feel like kids acting like adults, they really do feel like adults acting like children. When they think nobody is watching they slip back into adult mode. The boy gets especially creepy when he gets the hots for Deborah Kerr.

The screenplay, direction, and cinematography are all top notch, too. The cinematography is by the great Freddie Francis, a guy whose career I find fascinating. I love that he did such beautiful camerawork as a cinematographer with films like The Innocents and Glory, and made fun, goofy horror films, like Tales from the Crypt and Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly as a director. There's some incredible cinematography in The Innocents, including a memorable montage of overlaying images.

There's a fascinating sexual subtext through the movie. They, of course, dance around it for the most part, but we learn that that the people that may be haunting this place may have performed sexual acts in front of these kids. We also are treated to a very unsettling kiss or two. I would, in fact, say that the mature subject matter in this 50-year-old movie and the 100-year-old story it's adapted from would hold up as shocking to many people even today. I couldn't help but wonder after watching The Innocents if Henry James was perhaps sexually abused as a child. I'm sure that has at least been theorized by others, I don't know much about the guy.

The Innocents is a classic ghost movie, certainly one of the best I've seen. It would be great to watch it as a double feature with The Haunting on a stormy October night (hey, like tonight!). I know that the themes and styles of horror are cyclical, and I know that ghost movies will pendulum back in the direction of films such as this sooner or later. We had a decent run of them 10 or 15 years ago. But while we're waiting for that, we'll always be able to fall back on the classics.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro)

Hey, everybody! Sorry I haven't updated with any reviews in almost a week! But there's a reason for that. It's because this one is sort of special.
That's right, this is the 100th review that I've posted on I Probably Liked It since I began on January 1st. Up there is my deformed, lumpy, MS Paint counterpart. I call him Jalm. I don't have a mouse, so this was the best I could manage on one of those laptop touchpads. Believe it or not, the pictures actually do get a little better.

So, a couple weeks ago, I was following a thread on Twitter where director Edgar Wright was discussing important or awesome films he hasn't seen yet. In that discussion, he mentioned such classics as Gone with the Wind, which I also haven't seen yet. But another title grabbed my eye: Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell. Unlike "Gone with the Wind", that title just screams out "WATCH ME". I did a little research and found out that Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell is kind of hard to come by, but I eventually found an affordable copy on eBay, and here we are.

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, or Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro, is a Japanese horror film directed by Hajime Soto, and it is completely awesome. I can't believe this movie doesn't have a bigger cult. It is not only one of the craziest vampire movies I've ever seen, but also one of the best alien invasion movies I've ever seen. That's right, folks, alien vampires!

No, not like that! You'll see. It's also loaded with a strong anti-war message and social commentary. Yayy, substance!

Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro opens up on a plane in transit to Japan. We meet some of the passengers, the pilots and the stewardess (it's the 60's so she's not a flight attendant, duh!). Everyone is unsettled by a strange ominous phenomena: the sky has inexplicably turned blood red.

That sky might be familiar to you: Quentin Tarantino used it on The Bride's flight to Japan in Kill Bill Vol. 1. To add to the apocalyptic portent, birds keep splattering onto the windows of the plane, as though they've lost all sense of direction in their need to escape from something.
To add to this doom and gloom, the pilot gets word on his radio that there's a bomb on his plane. He must go down the aisle and search everyone's luggage to find it. Though a bomb doesn't turn up, the pilot does find a sniper rifle hidden in a secret compartment in one of the suitcases. Turns out that the owner of the luggage is a political assassin who just killed the Prime Minister of England or an Ambassador, someone important, I'm tired. He hijacks the plane, but before he can do anything about it, an object glowing with a blinding light shoots by overhead and malfunctions the plane, causing it to crash.

Now, stranded in the middle of nowhere, the survivors of this plane must deal with each other until they're rescued. The immediately clash. The survivors are as such: the level-headed copilot, the stewardess, an American woman whose husband just died in Vietnam, a corrupt senator, an arms dealer and his wife, who he treats like property, a detached psychiatrist, the suspected bomber, the assassin, and, incidentally, a space biologist (what luck!).

When the assassin, thought dead, comes to, he takes the stewardess hostage and leaves the plane. The copilot runs after them to save her. Little does he know what the assassin is going to find.
That's right, a spaceship. What you can't tell? Sorry, yeah, that's an orange, glowing spaceship. He falls into a trance and walks toward it like a moth to a flame, silhouetted and shimmering by the light. When he gets up to it he sees something approach. An oozing, pulsating blob. It's exerting its mind control on him.
The Space Turd throbs and then something crazy happens!
His forehead pops open! The Slime Monster disgustingly squiggles its way into the hole in his head. Then, as the assassin struggles to fight it, balls of light flash all over half of his face, and the Space Turd takes control, turning the assassin into a Space Vampire. YEAH!

The movie gets even cooler from there. The survivors argue and backstab each other and wish harm upon each other and just generally act like jerks, as the copilot and the stewardess try to keep them in line. And then we get to watch them get picked off one by one by this creepy monster with a hole in his head.

The filmmaking and effects are really cool. Hajime Soto uses all sorts of neat tricks with lighting and colors to draw us in. As you see above, he flashed a kaleidoscope of little circular lights on the assassin's face as he was being taken over by the alien. Another really cool little lighting trick happens when the Space Vampires drink people's blood.

He changes the lighting in the shot to a blue light, making it look like all life and color has been drained from the passengers' skin.

The monster, specifically the Assassin as possessed by the Alien, is truly iconic and badass. As if that gross, bright red hole in his forehead wasn't enough, he is clad all in white; turtleneck, jacket, pants, shoes, even white gloves. And not a speck of dirt of blood gets on him. This guy is good.
I'm not going to tell you who lives or who dies, and I'm not going to tell you the awesome, awesome ending, but I will leave you off with one more tantalizing glimpse into Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell.
So, this is a pretty amazing movie. I recommend you hunt down a copy and check it out. I can't believe it doesn't have a bigger cult following in America. Let's do something about that, shall we?

So, that's all, folks! Thanks to everyone who has been reading my dumb little reviews for the last 10 months. Thanks to everyone who just read it once, too. I hope you liked my drawings, it was super fun to do. I definitely want to do more in the future, but this was insanely time consuming for such crude pictures. No, I'm not much better with pen and paper. And hey, I'd love to hear what you think, so feel free to leave comments on this or any of my other entries.


Monday, October 10, 2011

The Last Man on Earth

Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend is one of the great sci-fi/horror stories. That I am aware of, it was the first time vampirism was established as a medical condition rather than a supernatural one, a concept that has been used many times since. Sydney Salkow's The Last Man on Earth is the first of three adaptation, of I Am Legend, and it is probably the best.

Vincent Price stars as Robert Morgan, the seemingly lone human survivor of a global outbreak. He spends his days maintaining his sanity and humanity through a strict routine: Checking the radio for survivors, carving wooden stakes, going out for supplies, hunting and destroying vampires, disposing of the bodies, making repairs to his heavily barricaded home. At night, the vampires come to him. Led by Morgan's old colleague, Cortman, they gather outside his house and call him out, taunting him, and trying to break their way in. All Morgan can do is try to ignore it until daylight comes and he can begin his routine again.

A break in his routine occurs when Morgan finds a dog. The dog leads him to more signs of human life. Everything he is and believes himself to be is thrown into question when he finds a woman and takes her to his home.

The movie, written by but not credited to Matheson, keeps very close to the novel. There are a couple of pretty big changes, but this is the most faithful version of the three (the other two being The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, and of course, I Am Legend with Will Smith).

The first act is largely without dialogue, driven by Morgan's narration as he drives around the empty streets and hunts and scavenges his way through the wasteland. It's all very starkly shot and well executed, and is probably the best section of the movie. There's an extended flashback showing the beginnings of the outbreak and how Morgan lost his family and so on. Then, after he learns the intentions of Ruth, the woman he finds, the movie concludes with a chase sequence and finally a faceoff between Morgan and the creatures.

One thing I didn't like is that the vampires are not very strong. They seem to have pretty terrible coordination and they amble around like zombies. They also really have no distinctive features that set them apart from any other human. They just wear clothes that are too big.

Vincent Price is fun to watch, though he is not really a good fit for the role. In the first third when he is alone, going about his business, he's pretty good, but when it gets to the flashbacks that show him as your average family man, the illusion is shattered. His very distinctive voice and inflections don't really sell that. Same with when he's playing opposite Ruth.

The story of I Am Legend has a timeless quality and a true resonance. The fact that Hollywood keeps returning to it is proof of that. There has yet to be a perfect adaptation, but it's fun to watch how the story has evolved with each incarnation. It seems to get farther from the source material each time. They should do a new version every decade or so, just for the fun of it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Real Steel

If there's one thing I strive to avoid in my life, it's cynicism. I don't always win, but I do my best. That's probably why about 95% of the reviews I write are positive. I tend to look for the good qualities in things, and it's generally pretty easy for me to overlook the bad.

When the first trailers came out for Shawn Levy's Real Steel, I thought it looked ridiculous. I never really stopped thinking that, but reviews started coming in that were saying it's better than it should be. And since I have a hard time saying no to robots, I decided to go check it out and hope for a fun movie.

Real Steel is in the near future where Robot Boxing is the sport of kings. Seriously, the near future. Like 8 years from now, human boxing is gone and Robot Boxing has taken over. Hugh Jackman is Charlie, a former boxer, now down-on-his- luck robot boxer, who, after an old flame dies, is saddled with her son. They find a robot in a junk yard and fix him up and take him to fights. The robot, Atom, rises through the ranks and eventually faces the world champion, who is, of course controlled by a couple of rich, corporate people who have lost touch with the more personal, home grown side of Robot Boxing(?). Do they win? Does it matter, as long as they all learn?

I didn't expect the story to be original, and I don't mind a formulaic story if it's well told. Real Steel takes a few elements from Rocky, a few from Over the Top. The antagonistic dynamic between Jackman and the kid is surely lifted from Paper Moon. Whatever, I didn't mind. What I did mind, however, was the fact that I did not like either of the lead characters one bit.

Jackman lost me in the first scene and never won me back. When we meet him, he's taking his old robot to a state fair or possibly a rodeo or something in Texas, where he's being paid to fight a bull. He's told it's an 800-pounder, but he's disappointed to find a much larger one in its place. So he fights the bull anyway. First it charges the robot and the robot flips it over. It gets back up and the robot socks the bull in the face. I don't care that the bull won the fight. When you introduce your hero by having him perform acts of animal cruelty with a 1000lb hunk of remote controlled steel, you lose me. I'm not a vegetarian or anything, but come on.

As the story progresses, he ditches out on the guys he owes money to, and goes to court to sign the son he wants nothing to do with over to his dead mom's sister. When the aunt's husband comes to him and asks him to keep the kid for the summer, he agrees to do it for $100,000 dollars. He sold the kid to these people. He's a horrible guy. Of course he comes to love the kid by the end, and he learns all sorts of wonderful lessons, but in my eye, too little, way too late.

As for the kid, he's a cocky little shit. I just don't like cocky kids. I have nothing against the actor, who did fine, but I really hated the character. My wife says it's just me, maybe it is. There's this scene where he grabs a microphone at a match and starts trash-talking and stuff. And the way he and Jackman argue and fight through the first half of the movie is just awful. I don't mind a tough kid character, but this didn't work at all.

Another problem I had with him is he's too smart for a kid. He knows everything about Robot Boxing before we meet him. Admittedly, if Robot Boxing existed, I might have at 11 too. Additionally, he speaks Japanese (from playing bootleg video games???) and is also apparently a genius robot programmer.

I know it's a kids movie. I'm trying to turn off the cynicism. But remember all those great Spielberg movies about ordinary kids put into extraordinary situations? Hey, remember Super 8 like 4 months ago? Why couldn't this kid be more like that? Hell, Spielberg executive produced this movie!

Another thing that bugged me is the complete lack of safety procedures these robot boxing leagues seem to have. I mean, the underground fight clubs are one thing, but even the professional ones have wide open rings with just chains around them, and the audience and fighters standing right next to it. These are half ton monsters built to destroy each other! You're going to let a KID near them? There are scenes where these robots limbs and heads go flying into the audience.

Now let's take a second to do some calculating here: According to the movie these robots weigh 1,000 pounds. So that's proportionately about, say, 6 times the weight of a human. And if the kid in Jerry Maguire taught me anything it's that the human head weighs 8 pounds. That means these robots have heads that weigh 48 pounds. And they fly into the audience, presumably crushing all who stand in their way! People must die at these matches every day!

So I guess that about sums it up. I really hoped Real Steel would win me over. Instead it lost me in the first scene and never won me back. Just give me someone to latch onto other than these jerks. I'd overlook all the logic problems and cliches if only I liked the characters.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


The 1932 film Vampyr, by director Carl Theodor Dreyer, begins with a card that reads: "This story is about the strange adventures of young Allan Gray. His studies of devil worship and vampire terror of earlier centuries have made him a dreamer, for whom the boundary between the real and the unreal has become dim." It's a fitting way to start this film, which, like its hero, blurs the lines of reality and dream.

Vampyr follows Allan Gray, who stops at an inn to sleep. He is awakened by a strange old man in his room, who mysteriously tells him "you mustn't let her die", and leaves behind a package with instructions not to open it until the event of the man's death. Sensing the urgency in the old man's plea, Allan investigates, and is guided by shadows, independent of their owners, to the home of the old man, just in time to witness the man murdered by gunshot.

When Allan opens the package, he finds a book on vampires and demons. Upon reading this, he realizes that the old man's youngest daughter, who has taken ill, has been bitten, and he must find the vampire who has taken control of this family.

Vampyr is very dreamlike, with haunting and surreal imagery. There were times when I wasn't sure if Allan was supposed to be dreaming or not, because it felt like I myself was dreaming. The film was shot with blurry lines around the borders of the frame. It was made very early in the development of sound movies, so the talking is few and far between. It plays like a combination of a silent film and a talkie. When there is talking, it's in German and kind of muted and unclear. It almost sounds like English, but what it really sounds like to me is when someone is talking to you in a dream, and you can't quite make out what they're trying to tell you, but you sort of get their intent.

Though very short in length, the hazy, dreamlike quality had a bit of a soporific effect on me. I didn't fall asleep, but I could have laid down and took a nap as soon as the movie ended. I'm sure you're all happy to know that I stayed awake so I could bring you all this masterpiece of a review while the film was still fresh in my mind.

Some of the other great expressionistic horror films of the silent period, such as Der Golem, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Nosferatu, really have a way of staying with you. The lack of sound just adds to the power of the images. Vampyr is right on the tail end of that whole thing, though it does have some sound, it still feels very sparse, and the imagery still holds a lot of power. This is a great movie for a late October night.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Hey, show of hands: Who here is seriously creeped out by hospitals? I see a lot of hands coming up. Uh-huh, that's right. I'm inside the monitor, watching you all. If you don't like hospitals but you like a good horror movie, you should check out Patrick. You should also probably check it out if you do like hospitals, because it's set in a hospital, so you'll totally get to see it a lot.

Stupid intro paragraph aside (sorry, everyone), Patrick is a 1978 movie by Australian director Richard Franklin, about a young nurse who is terrorized by a comatose patient with psychokinetic powers. I first heard of it when it was featured on an excellent documentary called "Not Quite Hollywood", all about the lawless days of Australian exploitation movies in the 70's and 80's.

The movie opens with Patrick, a disturbed young man, who, after having to listen to his mom have sex with a guy in the next room, murders her and her lover. We don't see what happens next, though, it jumps forward in time after that. We'll get back to Patrick in a minute.

Three years later, a young nurse named Kathy is being hired at a hospital. The stern matron gives a long speech about all the weirdos and perverts they come across when hiring hospital orderlies. Kathy's main assignment will be tending to Patrick, who is now lying in a coma, completely brain dead. The one thing he can do is spit, as an involuntary response. The doctor in charge there is keeping his body alive basically to study him. The matron believes he should be allowed to die.

As Kathy spends time in Patrick's room, she begins to notice that he appears to be responding to her. She begins asking him questions and he responds, by spitting once for yes and twice for no. He then begins typing responses through her on the typewriter she fills out paperwork with. Of course, nobody believes Kathy.

Things get creepier when Patrick starts inserting himself in her home and social life. He can't stand to see her around other men, and jealously tries to drown Brian, a doctor she's talking to about his psychokinesis. He also ransacks her home to prevent her from sleeping with him. She thinks her husband (they're separated) is responsible. They start talking again, and Patrick doesn't like that either. Kathy only belongs to him.

Hey, this movie is pretty great! It's unsettling and weird, and kind of gets under your skin. The spooky hospital setting certainly helps with that, with the disciplinarian matron, an old man with dementia walking around all the time, and this cynical doctor. The premise is pretty original, though similar to a ghost story. Director Richard Franklin has a great knack for building suspense. I would like to watch more of his movies, especially Road Games.

Though he doesn't utter a word, and seldom moves, Robert Thompson, who plays Patrick, steals the entire movie. His big creepy eyes just stare off into the distance, and as much as you look into them, you can't really tell if there's anything there or not. The spitting is a particularly weird touch. Quentin Tarantino actually took that little detail and used it in Kill Bill.

Patrick isn't a very well known horror movie stateside, but I gather it was very successful in Australia. I strongly recommend it for the Halloween season. Good stuff!

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Uninvited (1944)

A couple of years ago, around Halloween, I found a list of director Martin Scorsese's favorite horror movies. I didn't watch any of them that year, but I saved the list. If you can't trust Martin Scorsese's taste in movies, then who can you trust, right? The Uninvited, a haunted house film from 1944, directed by Lewis Allen, is the first of the movies from that list that I'll be reviewing this month.

The Uninvited stars Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey as Rick and Pamela, a brother and sister who stumble across a beautiful abandoned cliffside home. The first sign that something is weird about it is that their dog wouldn't come with them up the cliff. They had to carry him. But then the dog sees a squirrel and all is right with the world again. It chases the squirrel into the house and they follow. As Rick and Pamela explore, they fall in love with the beautiful house, and decide then and there (well, Pamela does) that they must buy it. Isn't it weird that this brother and sister are acting married? I thought so too, but be quiet, these were more innocent times.

Tracking down the owner in town, they negotiate a deal. He's willing to let it go for insanely cheap. They meet with some resistance from his 20-year-old granddaughter, Stella, whose mother used to live there, but they buy the house. After they move in, strange things start to happen. They discover a studio room in the house that gives them the willies. A bouquet of flowers wilts and dies in moments. Rick hears a woman crying at night. Their dog runs away.
Rick has become infatuated with Stella and they let her come visit. She becomes possessed by some force that makes her almost walk off a cliff. Luckily, Rick catches her.

These strange incidents cause them to do some digging around on the history of the house and Stella's family. What they find is a winding trail of secrets and intrigue, and the only way for them to unhaunt this house will be to sort it all out.

I've got to say, The Uninvited sounds a lot more fun on paper than I had watching it. It was definitely an interesting story and a well made movie, but I felt it moved too slowly and the creepy stuff happened far too infrequently to hold my attention. There are long gaps between the haunting events, and I just wasn't invested enough in the family intrigue.

But it's not all bad. It's actually a pretty important film, from what I've learned. It was apparently one of the first times in Hollywood history that ghosts were used as something unsettling and otherworldly as opposed to for comedy. The cinematography is excellent, really atmospheric and moody. There are some really interesting and effective haunting scenes, a highlight being a seance they conduct for Stella. They could have got away with not showing an apparition at all for the ghost, but they do show it, and it looks pretty cool, especially for its time.

So The Uninvited wasn't for me, but that doesn't mean it's not for anyone. I'm guessing people more interested in horror film history will appreciate it. Martin Scorsese did, so who am I to judge?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Bad Seed

It's October, everybody! I'm sure most of you know what that means. That's right, horror movies. I'll be watching as many as I possibly can over the next month, so keep checking back!

The first movie in my month-long celebration was the classic 1956 evil kid thriller, The Bad Seed, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and based on the play of the same name, which was based on the novel of the same name. Like all movies from the 1950's, it's about the Penmarks, a happy, loving family with the sweetest little girl in the world. For the first five seconds, anyway, because the very moment you meet little Rhoda, you can tell something's off with her. She's just a little too sweet. It's got to be an act.

It doesn't take long before her true colors are revealed. When the matter of a penmanship award she lost to another kid in class is brought up, she goes batshit. Then, when Leroy, the simple groundskeeper they employ sprays her feet with his hose, she flips again. Leroy isn't fooled by her act, though. He can see right through her with his powers of simplicity.

While Rhoda is away at a school picnic, her mother, Christine, while entertaining company, hears on the radio that a child has drowned at the park. Afraid at first that it was Rhoda, she is relieved to hear that it was another child. But when Rhoda comes skipping into the house like nothing has happened, Christine is more than a little bit unsettled. She talks to Rhoda about it and Rhoda doesn't seem phased by it in the least; she just wants a peanut butter sandwich.

Fuel is further added to Christine's suspicions when Rhoda's teacher comes to visit her, and she learns that the child that drowned was the little boy that Rhoda lost the penmanship award to. On top of that, Rhoda was seen fighting with the little boy on the dock that he fell off of. Aw, crap.

I won't go any further than that. The Bad Seed is meticulously and cleverly plotted, and I don't want to ruin too much, in case I've already convinced you to watch it. If you need more convincing, I'll say this: the little boy isn't the last person to kick the bucket.

The acting is really great, especially the little girl, who, along with Nancy Kelly as Christine, and the lady that played the grieving mother of the little drowned boy all got Oscar nominations. I honestly wasn't expecting the acting to be so good. I just expected a campy 50's B-movie. The screenplay based on the play based on the book is solid and entertaining. Whoever wrote it must have done their research on psychopathic behavior, because little Rhoda fits the description to a tee. The cinematography, also nominated for an Oscar, does something very difficult to pull off: keeps the storytelling fresh and interesting, even though the majority of the movie is confined to one small set.

The 1950's offered a particular challenge for filmmakers: finding ways to tackle mature subject matter, without falling under the scrutiny and censorship of the Hayes Code. There is a certain slyness in the best films of the period, like, say, how smartly Billy Wilder's The Apartment dealt with suicide. The Bad Seed is plenty subversive, but even it ran into some walls. The original, much darker, and more appropriate, ending had to be changed. I think they did a decent job with the new ending, but now knowing how it should have been, I have to say I would have preferred that.

After the movie is over, there are still a couple more surprises. First, a card comes up, entreating the audience not to spoil the ending for others. How cool is that? It would be pointless to even try to ask people not to ruin endings nowadays, since all the information is readily available before the movie even comes out. After the card, we're treated to a final curtain call of the cast, each taking their bows, smiling, and with good humor. It's really funny, especially the very end of it, with Rhoda. If you don't already know about the last shot in the credits, I won't ruin it here. Watch the movie!