Retrospective: Scanners (1981)

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It’s been 40 years since David Cronenberg’s visionary tale of telepathy, telekinesis and by now a recurring theme in the Canadian director’s work, espionage surrounded by political and government conspiracies embedded in a deeply psychoanalytical point of view. 

It’s hard to believe that this is Cronenberg’s seventh outing in the director’s chair, having already produced body horror films such as Shivers and Rabid, the latter of which had been reimagined by The Soska Sisters and is well worth your time. Scanners still has that low budget, earth feel to it that is often expected in the first few films in one’s career, and only two years later he would serve up a double hitter in the classics Videodrome and The Dead Zone.

Another theme that is prevalent throughout Cronenberg’s work is that of an uprising, often from an oppressed group or individual, but also that of misguided intentions that lead to their true calling.

In the case of Scanners, we are first introduced to Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), who is ostracized from society by appearance at first, being a homeless figure trying to survive on the streets, but we quickly learn that he harbours the ability to read people’s minds and inflict pain on those who torment or ridicule him through telekinesis. This ability comes attached to a group in society known as scanners and when he is detected in a shopping mall, he is soon hunted down and subjected to close scrutiny and rehabilitation by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan). 

Once he conforms to the will of Ruth and with it the Government agency that takes advantage of Ruth’s knowledge, Vale is then charged with hunting down a group of vigilantes led by Revok (Another fine turn from Michael Ironside). Can Revok be controlled? Or is there more to Revok’s revolution than meets the eye?

Scanners can be bookmarked as the film that changed Cronenberg’s career, moving away from the body horror image that had shaped his career at this point, and moving him into the mainstream playing field.
It still has some moments that reflect the style and substance that made Croeneberg’s name on screen, most notably this head explosion scene…

The prognosis:

Scanners does suffer a little in exposition and the lead performance from Stephen Lack, is somewhat stilted which detracts from engaging with the narrative. Whether this is down to the performance of the actor in question or the director’s choice in portrayal is hard to pin down, but it certainly curbs the film from being Cronenberg’s finest moment. It is still an enjoyable ride though and well worth your time to explore a master visionist honing his craft. 

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Promising Young Woman

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In some circles, there will be some grumblings about the current state of affairs when it comes to female empowerment on the screen and that perhaps that this film serves as a marker for this wave of change. To those people, I simply say, fuck you.

The pendulum is long overdue a swing towards a bevy of muliebral energy and with Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve)  at the helm in both writing and directing duties, we’re presented with a sharp, witty and intelligent film that heralds a prime position for tales led with the feminine gaze.

What struck me above the dialogue from this essentially dark comedy piece, was the casting of some of America’s wittiest comedians, ranging from Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Molly Shannon. The inclusion of stellar support actors in Clancy Brown, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton, and Alfred Molina further supports the strength of the script, showcasing just how strong Fennel’s writing is to lure in talent, but more importantly the talent that can deliver the narrative in a manner that it deserves. None more so than Carey Mulligan who leads as 30 year old Cassie, a lady who still lives with her parents, ‘a promising young woman’ who drops out of medical school following the rape of her best friend Nina. It is alluded that the trauma of this incident led to Nina taking her own life and charges Cassie with a lifelong mission to seek vengeance on those who wronged her. 

When we first meet Cassie, we quickly learn that she is both smart and calculating when she poses as drunk in order to lure men into taking them back home, proving that they generally only have one thing on their mind and to steer them into correcting their behaviour, changing their ways. 

This journey takes a more dark and twisted tale when Cassie further learns that Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) the man responsible for the rape of Nina, is due to marry, and propels Cassie down the rabbit hole of revenge that spirals into a climax that appears out of her control.

It is the final reveal however that truly displays the lengths and breadths that Cassie is willing to go to in order to ensure that justice is established. Not only is this a deeply dark view of her purpose, but also a harrowing reminder that despite the gender pendulum is swinging back, there’s still a long way to come when the course of action taking by Cassie seems to be the only one open for certain individuals to sit up and take notice of just how serious things have gone and how far we still need to go.

The Prognosis:

Fennell is more than accomplished in her first outing in the director’s chair. I can’t wait to see what she produces next.

The script is incredibly on point and projects a fine balance of humour, drama and tension with some powerful performances that bring the melody to the fore.
The message is clear and with it, Promising Young Woman delivers a promising start to 2021 genre based movies.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Countdown (2019)

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Initially when I heard about this movie, I couldn’t help but think of a sketch from popular British comedy series, The I.T. Crowd.

It did also smack of clutching at straws to try and get a horror vehicle out there that taps into the latest technology and social media trends and invokes the same sense of fear and dread that J Horror films such as The Ring or Kairo subjected into the mainstream.

With previous attempts such as Unfriended missing the mark, I went in with my expectations low. What I found was a film that was able to elevate those expectations, while admittedly it didn’t blow my mind, director Justin Dec manages to wrangle enough out of the plotline to make it both enjoyable and watchable.

We get the inevitable precursor explanation of the virus mobile app called Countdown, which correctly predicts the users time of death. A group of teenagers discuss this at a party where they provoke each other into downloading the app and participating in it as a sort of dare moment. The outcome. One of said teenagers is told she only has hours to live and tries to change her fate only for the app to prove true with its prediction.

The story then revolves further around Nurse Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail – Dead of Summer)  who has just finished up her internship at the hospital and been appointed to a full time position. Quinn learns about the app from a patient who was the boyfriend of our first victim. The app tells her that she only has 3 days left to live and with it opens up the labyrinth for Quinn to fall down in order to try and outlast and outwit this curse. 

Joining her on her voyage is Matt Monroe (Jordan Calloway – Riverdale) who is predicted to die a few hours before Quinn, and her sister, Jordan (Talitha Bateman – Annabelle: Creation) who also downloads the app. (Insert facepalm emoji). 

There’s a fairly decent supporting cast in Matt Letscher (Flash) as the single Dad, Peter Facinelli (The Twilight saga), but the stand out has to go to P.J. Byrne (The Gift) as Father John going against the religious, disciplined stereotype, busting out more as a fanboy of the occult if anything else, which felt refreshing.

The Prognosis:

So despite my predisposition that this film reached higher than my expectations, it still failed to deliver on the horror front and go beyond the realms of previous genre movies in the scare department. Nor did it offer anything too original.
It did entertain though, and I can’t help but feel this was down to its cast more than the plotline or directorial choices.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Pillow of Death (1945)

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Unfortunately for the sixth and final instalment of the Inner Sanctum Mystery feature films produced by Universal Pictures starring Lon Chaney Jr. I found that the delivery was incredibly formulaic and as such all I wanted to do was reach for the snooze button.
Upon reflection, my opinion may have been marred from watching each instalment within close succession and it may have warranted a little bit of space between each viewing to allow each film to strike up its own identity.
Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, the one strength that Pillow of Death has over its predecessors is the twist finale, going against the grain of our expectations.

This time around Chaney Jr. stars as an attorney, Wayne Fletcher, whose heart belongs to his secretary Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce – Strange Confession), who also happens to be from a fairly wealthy family.. Bound by wedlock, Fletcher is in the midst of filing for a divorce so that he can be with Donna when his wife is found murdered, suffocated by the titular weapon of choice.
This makes Fletcher prime suspect number one and must now fight to prove his innocence.

The one person standing in Fletcher’s way is a fraudulent medium, Julian Julian (J. Edward Bromberg) a man who despite his charlatan ways is intent on pointing the finger at Fletcher for his wife’s murder. What makes the task for both parties is the rise in the body count whilst staying at the family mansion one evening.

The film takes on a slightly lighter tone in comparison to the other Inner Sanctum Mysteries, much like other Universal outings such as The Mystery of Marie Roget. One can almost sense the doors opening for Abbott and Costello to march into the mansion and infuse it with satire at any given moment.
That direction was not long off for Universal and the tide is certainly changing away from that darker edge that they had been synonymous for over the past decade and a half. It’s a shame as I feel that if they were willing to push the boundaries of dread, their films would have marked an altogether different experience and been much more rewarding, but they were hindered by their times and one must remember that world was going through its own dark times, carrying the burden of a Global war on its back. The stark reality is that people were needing an escape from the world and a need for humour to step in and poke fun at the grim and dire circumstances that humanity had to endure. For Universal, Abbott and Costello would provide that alternate formula… but that’s for another retrospective.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Strange Confession (1945)

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By the time Universal were producing their fifth instalment of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries starring Lon Chaney Jr., the fizzle had run out in this writers’ mind.

Strange Confession sees Chaney Jr. as chemist Jeff Carter, who has been running tests to find a cure for influenza. 

One could argue that this film could be viewed with the lens of all the horrors that Capitalism can arise. Carter works for an egocentric tycoon, Roger Graham (J. Carroll Naish) who is always eager to gain a profit by any means even if that means cutting corners. When Carter grows wise to Graham’s ways he initially resigns, and works at a local store. Once married to  Mary (Brenda Joyce) and raising a son, their fiances take a strain and Carter finds that he has no choice but to work once more for Graham. It is here that he potentially finds the influenza cure and is encouraged by Graham to go to South America to perfect his findings.
Unbeknownst to Carter however, Graham has eyes on rolling out the formula despite not having a 100 percent success rate, and also to prize Mary away from Carter while he is away.

Tragedy inevitably strikes when Carter’s son is fatally struck down by the killer virus. Once Carter learns of this, he only has vengeance on his mind.

It takes the final reel before this film hits home and true, but the lead up to its conclusion is slow and cumbersome.
Stand out performance goes to Lloyd Bridges as the bright and cheery friend to Carter, Dave Curtis, and potentially the only real spark in the film.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: The Frozen Ghost (1945)

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When I came to casting a retrospective of the Universal Inner Sanctum Mystery movies, I decided to watch them all fairly close together. As such, due to the similarity in style and substance, combined with the fact that Lon Chaney Jr. starred in all sic of the, a blurring of the narratives came about. 

In the case of The Frozen Ghost, I found that I struggled to bring to mind what actually occurred without looking it back up again. This is surely an indicator that the movie had little or no impact on me, which says a lot about my connection to the movie.

When I did research back into it again, the visuals soon sprang to mind and I was left pondering about why it didn’t resonate so well.

My resolution comes down to that the film was just a bit messy in its delivery. 

The tale presents Chaney Jr as mentalist Alex Gregor, who is provoked by an intoxicated non-believer in his audience that he is a fake, so out of anger, hypnotizes the individual spurring a heart attack that leads to the man’s untimely death.

Gregor is now consumed with grief and then turns within himself, ending his relationship with assistant Maura (Evelyn Ankers in a subdued performance, albeit still a strong one) and runs away to work as a lecturer for an old friend, Mme Valerie Monet (Tala Birell).

Trouble creeps up once more however when Valerie also turns up dead and Gregor becomes prime suspect number one.

The continuing theme involved with the Inner Sanctum Mysteries centres around mystery, intrigue and in the case of the movies, a wronged man troubled with murder most foul.

The Frozen Ghost has to shift and change on numerous occasions to accommodate the plight of its lead protagonist, who tries to figure out if he truly is responsible for the death of these individuals through the use of paranormal abilities.

The road isn’t a straight one to the conclusion and the perpetrators are all too obvious, so the attempt at clever deception is lost much to the detriment of the film.

The performances are still strong regardless, but unfortunately the executions is just too weak. 

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Dead Man’s Eyes (1944)

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By the time Universal delivered their third Inner Sanctum feature starring Lon Chaney Jr., it felt like the production house had hit their stride. I for one, really enjoyed this entry and felt that Chaney Jr. was comfortable wearing the shoes of the troubled lead, artist David Stuart and really amplifies the plight of his character to the benefit of the viewer.

All appears to be well for Stuart, who is settled down with his fiance, Heather (Jean Parker) and is marrying into a fairly wealthy estate.
Tragedy strikes however when Stuart is blinded by his assistant, Tanya (Acquanetta – Captive Wild Woman) in a fit of jealousy. Believing his career as an artist to be over, Stuart is offered some salvation when his father-in-law, Capt. Drury agrees to donate his eyes in the vent of his death. Fate takes a wicked turn once more though when Drury is murdered and Stuart becomes the prime suspect as he benefits from the victims eyes. 

There are a number of twists and turns to this short running time which makes the film standout and is fuelled by a love quadrangle in Stuart, Heather, Tanya, and Stuart’s best friend Dr. Alan Bittaker (Paul Kelly), all of whom provide strong performances and add to the intrigue and mystery of the tale, keeping you guessing as to who the killer was until the final reel.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Weird Woman (1944)

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For their second outing under the Inner Sanctum Mysteries umbrella, Universal would turn their attention to a novel by Fritz Leiber called Conjure Wife.
The novel has since been adapted a further couple of times with Night of the Eagle (1962) an Witches Brew (1980) and tells the tale of Professor Norman Reed (Chaney Jr. once again taking lead duties) who falls in love and marries with a woman, Paula (Anne Gwynne) who he meets while abroad.
When they return to the Professor’s hometown, the couple receive a somewhat frosty response from the community, especially as Paula associates herself with the tribal beliefs and voodoo associations that she had been accustomed to during her time on the islands of the South Seas.

These negative views turn sinister once stage things begin to occur, including the death of one of Professor Reed’s colleagues. 

All eyes are on Paula, the outsider, but is she really to blame or is there something else kicking the hornet’s nest?

Weird Woman doesn’t necessarily strike as strongly as the previous Inner Sanctum feature, Calling Dr. Death, playing a fairly simple plotline with some questionable choices under today’s standards, but the highlight for me was Evelyn Ankers who was often paired with Chaney Jr. in Universal films around this time including The Wolf Man and Ghost of Frankenstein.
Here she plays the jealous Ilona, infatuated with Professor Reed and longs to be by his side. Ankers taps into this character drive with such conviction that it elevates her amongst her costars and provides an enjoyable watch to a fairly mediocre movie.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Calling Dr. Death (1944)

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Launching off the success of the popular radio series, Universal scored the rights to produce a series of films based on The Inner Sanctum Mysteries, an anthology of mystery, terror, and suspense. Initially, the film series had been intended as a joint venture for stable actors Lon Chaney Jr., and Gale Sondergaard to be cast in the lead roles, but for reasons unknown to this writer, the latter didn’t end up being involved.
For Chaney Jr however, he felt that this would be the perfect vehicle to break his horror monster mould that he had been typecast in of late. 

The first in the film series, Calling Dr. Death casts Chaney Jr. as a neurologist, Dr Steele, who is also a dab hand at hypnosis. Unfortunately he is caught in a bitter marriage, where his wife, Maria (Ramsay Ames) displays no feelings towards him and clearly is only invested in his money and the status that comes with it.

So, when Maria turns up dead, Steele becomes the prime suspect, clouded all the more by his sudden amnesia with a lack of recollection for the last few days.

Steele decides to call upon his assistant, Stella (Patricia Morison) to put him under hypnosis and uncover the truth before Inspector Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) pins the murder on him. 

Could it be Maria’s lover Robert (David Bruce), Robert’s jealous wife (Fay Helm) or is he really responsible for wrongdoing?

Calling Dr. Death uses a fairly standard voiceover device, (apparently on the insistence of Chaney Jr. and used throughout the series, which sometimes works but often grates) to gain the insights of Dr. Steele. There is enough of a plot here to intrigue the viewer, with plenty of suspects to fuel the mystery and keep you guessing, marking the movie as a strong entry into the series and worth checking out to see Chaney Jr without getting his wolf on.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Host

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Straight off the bat, I have to proclaim that I am not a massive fan of the found footage genre. There have been some exceptions, primarily Spanish horror flick, [REC], and as much as it pains me, I’ve come to appreciate The Blair Witch Project over the years for how it’s simple storytelling and tapping into the wake of the internet boom. 

Check out the Surgeons team on the Found Footage genre here

Similarly, Host capitalises on the current social climate and the restrictions that COVID 19 has had on the Arts. Unlike the film Unfriended which tried to harness the ever-changing social media landscape to project fear onto the screens, but ultimately falling short of expectations, Director Rob Savage, crafts a clever and creative script using the minimal amount of tools to his advantage, shooting everything through Zoom links and relying heavy on his cast to create the lighting, stunts, and visual effects needed to pull off the story and make it seem believable.

The narrative takes place with a group of friends meeting together via Zoom to initiate a seance, conducted by a medium, Seylan. It all seems innocent with some of the group not entirely taking it seriously, but as events play out, it soon takes a sinister turn with the group unwittingly calling in a demonic entity into their fold. Can they ward off this evil presence, or will it slowly and violently take them out?

The Prognosis:

Don’t be turned off by the remarkably short running time, Host packs in a lot into the story with great performances and strong characters. Not all of them are likeable, but that’s the point. You have to have a few that you wish to get their comeuppance and those that you genuinely hope to survive their ordeal. Savage has proved himself a compelling storyteller as a result, while taking a simple enough premise and weaving a delightfully dark tale with minimal tools at hand. It goes to show that you don’t need a lot to create a little bit of magic and by tapping into the social mainstream, breathe life into the found footage genre once more.

  • Saul Muerte