Monday, May 30, 2011

Beautiful Screamers


I'm pleased to announce the launch of the Weird Movie Village Tumblr! Be sure to visit every day for your dose of strange pics, videos and sounds.

And now on with the show...

Last year I wrote a post entitled "Smashing Birds." Even though I said at the outset that it wasn't about avian abuse, I still get an amusing—and annoying—number of visitors to the page whose average zero seconds of reading time tells me they're Googling for bird torture and are sorely disappointed when they find that my post is about British starlets. I'm going to play it safe this time and give this post, which is similarly-themed, a different title.

Here's a look at a few of the most intriguing and memorable actresses who've played parts in the realm of horror and fantasy over the last 50 years. The list is not in any particular order...they're all great.

1. Barbara Shelley. Dubbed "The First Lady of British Horror," this elegant actress is considered to be one of Hammer Studios' greatest assets, and indeed she appeared in some of its most memorable offerings, including Quatermass and the Pit, The Gorgon, Rasputin, the Mad Monk and—my favorite performance—as Helen Kent in Dracula, Prince of Darkness.

After his appearance in the legendary Hammer Dracula (1958), Christopher Lee refused to play the part for nearly eight years, but was finally persuaded to come back for this film. However, he considered the dialogue that was written for him to be so poor that he refused to speak it, so he plays the part mute. Not to worry...Ms. Shelley picks up the slack as Helen, an extremely uptight and paranoid English matron who is traveling through the Carpathians with her husband and another couple when they have the bad luck to be ditched by their superstitious coachmen and are forced to spend the night at Castle Dracula.

Although Drac had disintegrated to dust in the first film, his faithful servant, Clove, has been hanging onto his remains, waiting for an opportunity like this. Helen's husband is strung over the vampire's coffin and exsanguinated, and soon the monster is bubbling back to life. Revived and hungry, he turns to Helen for refreshment, and she transforms from an almost Mary Poppins type into a sensuous, scary creature of the night.

Her attempted seduction of her sister-in-law (Suzan Farmer) is erotically twisted, and her snarling viciousness as she is restrained by priests in preparation for her staking by Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) is just terrific. The staking scene itself still resonates. Dressed in a flowing gown and being restrained by numerous male arms, even though she's become a monstrous creature who needs to be destroyed, it still plays as a kind of rape, especially when the blood gushes out around the stake.

Another memorable role for Shelley was Anthea, birth mother of one of the creepy alien kids in the original Village of the Damned, whose fear of the little monster was tempered by her natural built-in maternal love. And who could forget her Sonia, the poor lady-in-waiting who is the recipient of the manipulative Rasputin's lustful advances...until he doesn't need her anymore, and then she snuffs it?

Shelley's captivating beauty and rich, modulated voice enabled her to play a variety of roles and ages. After the Hammer films she did a lot of television, but it was good television: "Dr. Who," "EastEnders," "Maigret"—even a recurring role in a 1981 miniseries version of The Borgias. Although a recent stroke has slowed her down a bit, Shelley still makes appearances at fan shows when she can. I'd like to get the chance to meet her.

2. Ingrid Pitt. Another face of the "new Hammer," Pitt was never a blushing flower. She is best remembered for two films: The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Countess Dracula (1971). The former is an important film, as it was released at a crucial time when the studio was trying to reposition itself to appeal to adult audiences.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Hammer had always been reliable for delivering more extreme Technicolor violence, earning it the slogan "the studio that dripped blood," but the liberated sixties, with films like Bonnie and Clyde, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Midnight Cowboy, showed the heads of Hammer that they were losing touch with their core audience, and they realized that they would have to reinvent Hammer as—to put it crudely—"the studio that showed tits."

The Vampire Lovers is based on Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 novel "Carmilla," about a lesbian vampire, and indeed Pitt, playing the mysterious houseguest Carmilla/Mircalla, arrives at a small village and wastes no time putting the bite on the resident virgins. The always-reliable Peter Cushing plays the General who is unwittingly playing host to the vampiress until he figures out what's going on and brings a halt to the proceedings with a well-aimed stake. This was the first Hammer film released with an "R" rating in the States, and it's the first from the studio to have nudity and sex. Pitt has no problem taking her kit off and does so in several scenes.

In Countess Dracula, Pitt plays an aristocrat who finds that bathing in the blood of virgins preserves her youth, so she must procure an endless supplies of nubile beauties to support her habit. It was directed by Peter Sasdy, who helmed a few of the "new Hammer" films, including the very good Hands of the Ripper (1971) and the interesting Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970).

Pitt worked regularly throughout the years in every genre, even appearing in several episodes of "Dr. Who." She was also an author and an early adapter of the Internet, launching her "Pitt of Horror" Web site back when it was rare for celebrities to do such a thing. She also loved her fans and was a tireless participant at conventions, giving autographs and talking about her career with eager fans. Sadly, she died last year at age 73. She is missed.

3. Caroline Munro. With her deliberate voluptuousness, Munro embodied the "new Hammer" starlet for the 1970s.

As Hammer moved into its R-rated decade, innocent-looking beauties like Yvonne Monlaur and Veronica Carlson were replaced by harder-edged actresses like Munro and Stephanie Beacham. Even Joanna Lumley ("Absolutely Fabulous") checked into Hammer for Dracula A.D. 1972!

I don't mean to suggest that Munro always essayed tough girls, however—she played her share of maidens in films like the odd Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974) and even Vincent Price's beautiful—but dead—wife in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971).

And what an incredible career she's had! She was a Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), she fought dinosaurs in At the Earth's Core (1976), and she even appeared in Jess Franco's trashy but fun Faceless (1987), starring an unhinged Helmut Berger.

Probably her most notorious film is William Lustig's sleazy, adults-only Maniac (1980), in which she plays New York photographer Anna who develops a hesitant romantic relationship with Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) who, unbeknownst to her, is a serial killer. It strains credulity that she would be attracted to this greasy, pockmarked guy, but the film is so awash in 42nd Street grime that it fits...somehow.

I remember seeing posters for it everywhere when I first moved to Los Angeles. The distribution company, Analysis, had gained notoriety with the hardcore Caligula the year before, and Maniac was also touted as an "adults only" release. With Tom Savini's over-the-top gore, it's a disgusting experience, but it also serves as a valuable time capsule of the era. Just as Last House on the Left killed the "flower power" sixties, Maniac disemboweled the disco 70s.

Munro is still working regularly, and when I met her at a "Monsters Among Us" convention in Los Angeles in 2003, I found her to be utterly charming.

4. Stephane Audran. A French actress with unusual beauty, Audran's career has spanned more than fifty years. Of course, my favorite Audran performance is as the titular character in Gabriel Axel's Academy Award-winning Babette's Feast (1987), but she also appeared in several genre films, including Le Boucher (1970) for her then-husband, the noted directed Claude Chabrol, known as the "French Hitchcock." In it she plays a schoolteacher who falls in love with a murderous butcher.

Also for Chabrol she played a dual role in The Champagne Murders (1966), a confusing psychological thriller starring a sexually ambivalent Anthony Perkins. In Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon (1981), she plays the wife of a cop-turned-serial killer. And in Franco's previously-mentioned Faceless, she plays a patient at a plastic surgery clinic who gets a hypodermic needle jammed into her eye!

She was also in a neglected giallo, The Spider Labyrinth (1988), and it sounds like a film I need to seek out. With special effects by Fulci favorite Sergio Stivaletti, it's been compared favorably to an Argento film by those who've seen it. Oh—and she was also in Luis Bunuel's classic The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and the Jean-Claude Van Damme starrer Maximum Risk (1996)! Now that's variety!

Still active, Audran's latest role is in 2008's The Girl from Monaco playing—you guessed it—a murderer!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

"Thor" Loser

Okay, perhaps the title of this post is not entirely accurate, but I can't resist a gag. Thor actually earned a 78% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and a lot of users have been pretty enthusiastic about the film. As a non-comic book reader myself, I've nevertheless enjoyed many of the movies adapted from them, including Spider-Man I and II, most of the X-Men sequels, and offbeat entries like The Losers and Watchmen, and I'd have to put Thor in the middle. Serviceable but not spectacular, and I don't think it's going to have very long legs, as I think seeing it once will be enough for most everybody.

The plot is quickly laid out: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are Norse Gods, the sons of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and they all live in Asgard, one of nine worlds in the Norse universe also inhabited by Jotunheim, land of the Frost Giants, ancient enemies of Asgard. The film kicks off with an almost incomprehensible battle between Odin and the Giants, and I started to wonder if this was a Michael Bay film. But Odin defeats the Frost Giants, losing an eye in the process, and we're onto some expository scenes. Odin is back home with his two young sons, telling them that soon one of them will inherit his kingdom, but it's clear that he favors Thor. Hilariously, this scene reminded me of the prologue of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?: Dad dotes on the blond-haired, blue-eyed boy while dark-haired Loki stands on the sidelines, fuming with jealousy.

Suddenly they're grown up, and Odin is in the process of transferring his kingdom to Thor, but the ceremony is interrupted by a surprise attack from the Frost Giants. Thor takes his valiant team of soldiers to Jotunheim to retaliate, infuriating Odin, who takes away his son's legendary hammer and banishes him into exile, hurling him into present-day New Mexico without his godly powers. The hammer also comes to earth, but it is lodged "Sword In the Stone"-style into a rock, and no one, not even Thor, can pry it out.

Enter Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, trying to shrug off her string of post-Oscar stinkers), an astrophysicist who has a habit of smashing into Thor with her RV. Her associates are Dr. Erik Sevig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy (Kat Dennings). They've witnessed Thor's explosive appearance on earth, and Jane wants to know everything about it. They're bemused by Thor's grandiose proclamations, and Sevig, who is of Swedish descent, tries to persuade Jane that Thor is insane, describing worlds and myths he remembers from his childhood as though they were real.

Of course, Thor proves him wrong, and they become his allies, especially when the government agency from Iron Man, S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), pops up and confiscates all of Jane's research and equipment. Oh, and Loki takes the throne for himself and sets a villainous plot in motion involving the Frost Giants, and he comes to town to tell Thor that Dad is dead (he's not, just in Odinsleep) and that Mom (Renee Russo) doesn't ever want him to come back to Asgard (she does).

Then Thor's gang of warriors arrive (like the villains in Superman II, except they're the good guys) and they face off against a robotic creature controlled by Loki that looks like Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still and can shoot flames out of its helmet. After some mayhem involving lots of cars blowing up really good, Thor speaks directly to Loki through the robot, offering himself as a sacrifice if his brother will spare everyone else.

His earnest plea cuts through the veil of Odin's sleep, and his powers, his hammer and his cool costume are restored to him. The battle commences, and that's pretty much what happens for the rest of the film, both on earth and back on Asgard.

I never thought I'd put Kenneth Branagh, Marvel Comics and 3D together in the same sentence, but there you have it. Branagh handles the action sequences pretty well, although the opening battle is shot so tight that you often can't tell what's going on. But it's the familial confrontations that allow him to bring his Shakespearean background to bear: Dad confronting Thor; Thor confronting Loki; broken-hearted Mother weeping over them all. The New Mexico sequences are less successful.

My audience was quite amused by Thor's "fish out of water" experiences in the small town, but I thought it was pretty cliched. And I didn't understand S.H.I.E.L.D.'s purpose, except to get in everyone's way. And they give up pretty easily, too—after Thor smashes up a bunch of doctors at a hospital and they take him prisoner, Sevig arrives at their compound with a phony story that Thor is an associate of his, showing them a mocked-up driver's license as proof, and they let him take Thor away!

Hemsworth (Star Trek) is suitably blond and athletic to portray Thor, and he brings some nice charm to the character. Hiddleston brings a dissolute impulsiveness to Loki's character, and Hopkins gives Odin a nice, bombastic energy, which makes for a refreshing change to the variations of Hannibal Lecter he's been doing for the past 20 years. Portman's performance is best described as "eager," while Skarsgard fulfills his perfunctory role effectively—no more, no less. Denning is the hip, wisecracking sidekick who makes a few jokes and then fades into the background.

The art direction and CG are effective and atmospheric, particularly during the sequences in Asgard and Jotunheim, but the filmmakers didn't seem as interested in the earthbound scenes. The New Mexico town looks like it's about a block and a half long, with a few storefronts and a drive-in restaurant that has been converted into Jane's lab, and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s makeshift compound looks like it was assembled from a bunch of Slip 'N' Slides. I saw Thor in 2D and I certainly didn't miss seeing the dark 3D conversion. The battle scenes in Jotunheim in particular would probably have been really hard to watch.

All in all, it's a moderately entertaining live-action adaptation of one of Marvel's lesser superheroes. It could even be considered to be a super-long trailer for the upcoming The Avengers, scheduled for a May 2012 release, which brings back most of the cast, throwing in Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) for good measure. It'll be interesting to see how they handle all of those superheroes and villains jostling for screen time.

Maybe The Avengers will be the first Marvel adaptation approaching the length of one of Peter Jackson's Ring epics.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Upcoming Horror and Sci-Fi Movies

The coming months are looking kind of so-so in the fantasy film department, but some of them sound relatively interesting.

I'm sure people are expecting J.J. Abrams' Super 8, produced by Steven Spielberg, to be the breakout hit of the summer in the genre. For me, it could go one of two ways: it'll either be an exciting nostalgia piece (complete with super 8mm cameras!) or it'll be an over-the-top, saccharine Spielbergian type of movie where the kids call each other penis breath and everyone stands around staring at the alien creature in wide-eyed, open-mouthed wonder. I really hope it's the former.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Cloverfield, which Abrams produced, but I didn't watch any of the shows he earned his reputation with. Sorry—Lost just seemed like a dull proposition to me. And the photo from the film at the top of this page shows...that's right, a kid staring in wonder with his mouth open. Sigh. Plus I just know I'll be watching intently to see that those little bastards use the super 8 equipment correctly!

The website Bloody Disgusting is doing an interesting distribution experiment with AMC Theatres this summer, branded Bloody Disgusting Selects. YellowBrickRoad arrives June 1st, and it's a Blair Witch-sounding thriller about a 2009 expedition to try to find out why the population of the entire town of Friar, New Hampshire, walked into the wilderness to face certain doom. In July, cult director Sion Soro's latest film, Cold Fish, about a serial killer, hits the screens. And August brings Fernando Barreda Luna's Atrocious, a "found footage" film (a genre that dates all the way back to Cannibal Holocaust!) Good on Bloody Disgusting and AMC for trying this out, especially in the lucrative summer months when the (yawn) blockbusters are battling for screens.

Jeez, I wish I could build an audience big enough for Weird Movie Village Selects. Just think—we could do big-screen re-releases of films like The Terror of Dr. Hichcock, Schizo and—perhaps most terrifying of them all—Roller Boogie.

20th Century-Fox is hoping that the memory of Tim Burton's awful 2001 Planet of the Apes remake has faded away, so in August they're offering Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a "prequel" that posits how genetic engineering made the monkeys so smart they were able to take over the world. It's sure to be CG-licious, and James Franco took time from his busy college schedule to play the lead. I don't think this is going to do a lot of business. The Boomers were burned by the last sequel of the original series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and the younger generation are probably not aware of its historical significance at all. Back in the day, the monkey makeup in the first film was truly innovative.

Also arriving in August is Final Destination 5 3D with a brand-new writer and director. Fine with me...I don't mind putting my brain to sleep for a while and enjoying some splattery destruction. But I guess The Final Destination (2009) wasn't the final destination because there's another destination! I enjoyed the fourth installment in 3D in the theatre, but more impressive for me was my enjoyment level when I watched it flat on cable at home. The scene with the douchebag getting his guts sucked out by the swimming pool pump still packs a punch!

One of the more bizarre entries of the summer is Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a remake of a 1973 TV movie (!) starring Kim Darby. The original was about a young couple who inherit an old mansion, only to discover that it's inhabited by tiny demonic creatures. Now, I remember it was a cult favorite back in the day, but where in the hell can you see it now? There are dozens of retro cable channels (and digital channels), but I've never seen it on anyone's playlist. Plus, the remake stars Tom Cruise's personal robot, Katie Holmes. My prediction—kids won't know what the hell it is and adults won't care. Miramax's best hope is to pump up Guillermo Del Toro as co-scripter.

Another bizarre remake is Straw Dogs, with James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and everyone's favorite blond vamp, Alexander Skarsgard. Like the original, it's about a married couple being tormented by the locals when they move to a small Southern town. Hubby is meek and mousy, but when his wife is raped by the thugs, he girds his loins and sets out for revenge.

Unlike the original, it doesn't have Sam Peckinpah's eye for violence or Susan George's enormous teeth. Rod Lurie, a former film critic for Los Angeles Magazine, is the writer-director, and he's a flaming liberal, so there'll probably be a lot of messaging going on during the carnage. Dustin Hoffman played the husband in the original, which is the reason for the iconic image to your right.

I'm really interested in Kevin Smith's Red State, a beatdown of Christian fundamentalism in middle America. Ironically, reviewers have said it's too "preachy," but I enjoyed Smith's anti-organized religion Dogma, and I'm looking forward to seeing him take on the same subject in a horror setting. At least I don't have to see him try to get on an airplane! HA!

Okay, being a product of the 80s, I have to admit that the remake I'm looking forward to the most (wait a minute—"the remake I'm looking forward to the most"?)—is Fright Night. Seeing a "sneak preview" of the original is one of my happiest memories, and I think the reboot could be worthwhile (unlike Rob Zombie's ungodly Halloween "revisualizations").

Things they can improve: Chris Sarandon was fun as Jerry Dandridge, but he's just not a sexy actor. Farrell, on the other hand, with his bad boy image, just exudes sex, and from what I can tell from the trailer, the filmmakers exploit it. I'm sure Yelchin will be fine as Charlie, but it looks like they already need to torture the kid's hairline forward. At least he's not getting ridiculous plugs like Nic Cage. Drive Angry? Me too, if I had to deal with that hair.

Amanda Bearse was too old for her part in the original, although she acquitted herself admirably when she transformed into a bloodsucker. Who can forget the scene where Amy confronts Charley with her vampire version of vagina dentata?

But Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Evil Ed? Jury's still out on that one. And the 3D is really not necessary unless they do something super amazing with it.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Adventures in Home Entertainment

I've always been fascinated by home entertainment media. When I was about six years old, I noticed that the rotating nail buffing wheel on my Mom's hair dryer could double as a record turntable, so with the aid of a sewing needle and a piece of notebook paper rolled up into the shape of a gramophone horn, I converted it. I taped the needle to the bottom of the cone, centered a record on the wheel and—hey presto—I got sound! Of course, it was playing at the wrong speed, but it worked. Thus began a lifelong fascination with these devices.

My parents indulged my obsession, so my childhood was filled with a variety of entertainment formats—record players, tape recorders, movie projectors—all of which held an endless fascination for me. When my sisters and I would accompany our parents on a visit to their friends' homes, I'd always make a beeline to whatever type of home entertainment item they might possess. Not a regular old television, of course. It had to be something more exotic—a Gramophone with a horn, for example, a wire recorder or a really tricked-out console stereo (one of those models with a turntable, a radio and a reel-to-reel tape deck built in). One of my Dad's friends even had a 16mm projector, and he showed us a Boston Blackie movie. And at school there were educational films and filmstrips to examine, although I never became an A/V geek (surprise!).

My best friend Mark got a Show 'N Tell machine one Christmas. It looked like a TV set with a record player on top. You'd push a cardboard stick containing about 15 slide frames into the viewer and start playing the record, and the filmstrip would advance automatically to keep the visuals going with the story.

My Christmas gift was better—a Kenner Easy Show 8mm projector, which thrilled me to no end. I could go into the bathroom (the darkest room in the house) and hand-crank the little catridges containing two-minute films onto the shower tiles! I loved it—Mighty Mouse flying...Popeye eating Spinach. I especially liked the Popeye film because I could run it in reverse and make it look like he was vomiting. Hey, kids are easily entertained.

Not a real home entertainment format, but fascinating nevertheless was the Gray Audograph dictation machine Dad brought home from work for me. I guess they were phasing them out, because this was a real old-timer even back then. It was a huge metal machine with a giant microphone and flexible blue blank records.

You'd put a record on the turntable and speak into the microphone as the stylus cut a groove into its surface. Then, when you were done, you'd reset the machine and play it back. Man, I wish I'd saved it—or even a cassette from one of my tape recorders. There are plenty of pictures and silent movies of me as a kid, but no recording of my voice. That'd be a trip to hear.

My grandfather ("Boppy") was big on family photography, so he'd always have a show in his garage at the conclusion of one of our regular cookouts, when it got dark enough. The slide shows weren't so interesting to me, but then he'd set up the really magical device—the 8mm projector—and run home movies. Again, the footage of the family bored me, but he'd start each show with cartoons and other short films that he'd purchased at Kmart when he picked up his developed reels.

As I discussed in an earlier post, I was dying to get the new automatic version of the Give-A-Show projector and my Dad did it one better. In a true Red Ryder carbine action rifle moment, he gave me a real 8mm projector, complete with films that I could project to my heart's content.

I even remember the titles—Bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Return of Dracula. Of course, the excitement of watching three or twelve-minute silent, black-and-white movies got boring, and I lost interest in the format for a while until I discovered super 8mm sound. I begged my Dad to get me a sound projector, even though it was pretty pricey.

Sound films were expensive, too—about $30 for an eight-minute 200' reel and $60 for a 16-minute, 400' reel. Nevertheless, I scraped together the money I could get to buy the sound version of Bride of Frankenstein; 16-minute condensations of The Omen and The Birds; and public domain Warner Bros. cartoons, to name just a few. Of course, feature-length films were available in the format, too, but they were really expensive—up to $300. Undaunted, I managed to obtain a print of Night of the Living Dead when I was 18 years old. I still have it.

After I moved to Los Angeles (with my super 8mm equipment in tow), the home video revolution began. Shopping for home video formats at the May Company department store in the Sherman Oaks Galleria, I skipped past the VHS and Beta machines and headed straight for the RCA CED videodisc system.

The discs were literally vinyl records encased in caddies that the machine would literally play like a record. And yes, it would skip. Why, you may ask, would I choose a format that couldn't record, skipped, and had a chintzy loading system? Well, it was cheaper than videotape and some of the discs were available in stereo, and tape was still mono, unless you count the limited-availability VHS linear stereo, which sounded horrible. CEDs also offered a slightly better picture than VHS (but not as good as Beta, which I got into shortly thereafter). 8mm video, laserdisc and—finally—VHS followed.

Now that we're well and truly in the digital age, I still treasure and watch my super 8mm films. As a matter of fact, my collection has expanded considerably, thanks to eBay and distributors like Derann. I never got into super 8mm widescreen, but I do have a few stereo prints that sound great. I also have a Victrola, an old-school school record player and a laser videodisc player. Obsessed much? Ironically, although I utilize all the new technologies in my work and leisure, they're just not as interesting to me as the old analogue formats.

I'm not alone. Other Boomers (and their kids) are fascinated, too. You can find everything I've described on eBay. Hell, there's even an Audograph Facebook fan page!

Monday, May 2, 2011

More Great Performances

Before we begin, I have to report on a disturbing story I saw online this morning. The mummified remains of Yvette Vickers (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and Attack of the Giant Leeches) were discovered by police in her Los Angeles home last week after a neighbor reported seeing cobwebs in her mailbox. It's estimated that the body was laying undisturbed for anywhere from many months up to a year. Jesus! Cobwebs in the mailbox? Broken windows and piles of trash? And no one thought to look in on her?

So sad. She was 82 years old.

Now on with the show. It's been over a year since our first installment of Great Performances, so let's now take a look at some more actors who made an indelible impression in a particular horror/weird movie role.

1. Michael Rooker in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Rooker has worked steadily since his debut in this landmark 1986 chiller (including "The Walking Dead"), whose director, John McNaughton, hasn't really delivered on the promise he showed in this film. It's made on an extremely low budget, but that only adds to the disturbing realism McNaughton managed to attain.

Based on the real-life story of grotesque serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, this is an uncompromising look at a drifter/murderer (Rooker) who can barely summon human emotions when interacting with others and even seems bored with the whole killing game. The film opens with a series of clinical—yet horrifying—shots of his victims, photographed in such a way as to make the viewer feel what he feels...numbed weariness with an undercurrent of unspecified rage.

It's only when he meets Otis (Tom Towles) and his sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), that a feeble spark of life seems to rekindle inside him. Becky is so desperate to have a relationship that she immediately sets her sights on Henry. In Otis he can sense a kindred spirit, and soon he's tutoring him in the ways of murder.

The key to the film's effectiveness is Rooker's performance. He's stoic, but he's by no means a brick wall. Rooker gives us glimpses of the madness inside Henry, and his remorseless momentum as a killing machine is perfectly realized. He just exudes danger. The supremely nihilistic conclusion, which I won't reveal here, can't be bettered. According to IMDB, Rooker stayed in character for the entirety of the shoot and was the only cast member to have his own dressing room, reinforcing the sense of isolation he needed to portray Henry. It certainly worked!

2. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now. Christie, wasted in the execrable Red Riding Hood, was given a property far more deserving of her talent in Nicolas Roeg's 1973 mindf**k Don't Look Now, a Venice-set thriller that's equal parts Hitchcock and Argento, and a prime example of high art as entertainment. Christie and Sutherland star as Laura and John Baxter, a married couple mourning the recent accidental drowning of their daughter.

John works as an art restorer, and he is hired to renovate a decaying church in Venice. Laura joins him on the trip in an attempt to get over their loss. She is still very depressed, but when they meet a strange pair of sisters (Hilary Dwyer and Clelia Mantania), one of whom is blind but possessed of psychic abilities, she draws comfort from that sister's claim that she can "see" their daughter, laughing and happy, in the afterlife. John shrugs it off as nonsense even as he's having visions of his own. And when the sister claims that John is in danger himself, he really goes into denial, leading to tragedy.

The film is magnificent. Roeg, who began as a cinematographer, brings indelible imagery to the Chinese Box plot. Christie and Sutherland, for their part, bring naturalism to their roles. There's a lovemaking scene early in the film (controversial for the time) that alternates between the act itself and their fond recollections later as they dress for dinner. The sex is amusingly athletic and authentic at the same time. It's a memorably voyeuristic experience.

Their character arcs are terrific, too. Christie is the grieving mother who seems to be increasingly unglued as she becomes dependent on a strange woman for reassurance while John, determined to get their lives back on track, ignores his own tormenting visions. Meanwhile you, as the viewer, don't know what to believe. Check out the trailer:

3. Arnold Schwarzenegger in... (just kidding).

3. Christina Ricci in Addams Family Values (1993). Ricci has proven to be a fearless actor, appearing as Charlize Theron's lover in Monster and the white trash homewrecker in The Opposite of Sex, but one could see her unusual talent on display in The Addams Family (1991) and especially Addams Family Values (1993), made when she was twelve years old.

The first film, scripted by Tim Burton favorite Caroline Thompson, was too restrained for my taste, but the sequel, written by Paul Rudnick, really pushes the envelope, delivering a banquet of campy requotable lines, many of which were delivered by Ricci, whose Wednesday is hilariously grim. When she and Pugsley are sent to the horrible summer camp for privileged children and meet the obnoxiously perfect Amanda (Mercedes McNab), Amanda asks, "Why are you dressed like you're going to a funeral? Why do you look like somebody died?", Wednesday quietly responds, "Wait."

She even gets a taste of summer love with the terminally allergic Joel Glicker (David Krumholz) who tells her about all the ways he could easily die, which turns her on. And when he says, "I'll never forget you," she asks hopefully, "You won't?", to which he responds, "You're too weird."

The penultimate scene arrives when the horribly peppy counselors (Christine Baranski and Peter MacNicol) demand that Wednesday "fit in" with the rest of the children, and she attempts a smile that proves so horrifying that everyone recoils in horror. Just wonderful. Next time you watch it, look fast and you'll see an amazing array of cameos, including Nathan Lane, Charles Busch, David Hyde Pierce and Tony Shalhoub.


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