The Abominable Dr. Phibes (movie review)

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Goofiest corpse ever

Notable actors:

Vincent Price: Phibes     Joseph Cotten: Dr. Vesalius     Terry-Thomas: Dr. Longstreet

Anton Phibes is a man so rocked by the death of his wife on the operating table (his being horribly disfigured in a car wreck doesn’t help matters) he decides to kill the eight doctors and one nurse that couldn’t save her, with nine of the ten Biblical plagues: boils, bats, frogs, blood, hail, rats, beasts, locusts, and death of the first-born. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Trout is on his heels. The race is on to stop Phibes before all nine plagues are reenacted.

This film is just a delight. It’s terribly corny and riddled with plot holes (most of which spring from trying to create deaths from plagues that are more bothersome than deadly), but it’s darn entertaining and funny, too. One of my favorite scenes is when Dr. Longstreet is watching what appears to be an ancient porno. His maid comes in and scolds him—for missing his dinner. I was also amused by the unlikeliness of the scene when Nurse Allen meets her doom. While she sleeps, Phibes covers her face completely with a viscous green goo (which she sleeps through), then releases locusts in her room.

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Nurse Allen was tired…dead tired

When the detectives find her, sans face, she’s lying in the exact same position we saw her in last, which leaves us to assume that she also slept while the bugs ate her—I guess she pulled a double shift that day.

It has creepy moments on occasion, for example the scene when a doctor is sleeping soundly while Phibes lowers a mysterious cage into his room. But then the cage is revealed to be full of fruit bats. Fruit bats? Really? What are they going to do, lick him to death? Never mind the technical aspects, fruit bats are the cutest breed of bats—they look like little foxes. Vampire bats at least have sparse fur, puggy upturned noses, and visible fangs, making them suitable as horror movie villains. Thus, even the eerie moments are upstaged by cheese.

There are some heartstrings-tugging moments, like when Phibes holds up a necklace to his wife’s portrait; in silhouette, it looks like she’s wearing it, emphasizing his inability to be with her. Those few seconds are more effective than his multiple speeches to her promising revenge, that all seem to start with, “My love, my queen…”

rice gives his usual hammy but stellar performance. My brother Jeremy, who watched this with me, said, “There was only one Vincent Price.” Indeed, and I miss him. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something lighthearted but gory.

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Aberration (movie review)

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Amy has just stolen fifty thousand dollars from her ex-boyfriend Uri and needs to hole up for a while, so she heads to a secluded cabin. Unfortunately there’s a bunch of green goo around, which spawns lizards that are “evolving into a more efficient predator.” They have teeth, spit poison, grow gills, and quickly become immune to pesticides. Amy teams up with Marshall, a biologist investigating the disappearance of wildlife in the area. When a blizzard and a lizard-chewed car strand them in the cabin, their only hope is a shotgun and their wits.

I first watched Aberration as a teenager with my sister Leslie; our plan was to review every horror movie from the (now defunct) Hollywood Video. We didn’t make it past the A’s, probably because we watched stuff like this. At that time, I hated the movie, and I’m still not crazy about it. The characters are often annoying, the lizards are painfully unrealistic, and it feels much longer than its 92-minute running time. It starts out slow, and though the action eventually picks up, I was still bored and didn’t really care if the characters made it or not. In addition, there’s a lot of reveling in the blood of dead animals, mostly the creatures, but there are also dog and cat corpses. In addition, for the last twenty minutes or so, Marshall starts manically shooting his gun and spouting one-liners. They’re not even particularly good ones, for example when the lizards kill shopkeeper Mrs. Miller: “She…was a nice…lady!”

To be fair, I didn’t hate it as much this time. There’s even a brief period in the movie when I enjoyed it: Amy and Marshall work together to find and kill the lizards in her cabin (contrasting with the rest of the movie—you’d be surprised at how much screen time is spent on them getting into a car, driving a ways away, discovering lizards have damaged the car, then having to walk. You‘d think after the first time it happens, they‘d check under the hood).

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Hmm, should I check for lizards? Nah, they couldn’t possibly disable a second car.

While Aberration owes a lot to action movies (particularly since its budget seems to be spent entirely on explosions and fires), and those films tend to focus on a powerful male and his arm candy, Amy and Marshall are equals. They’re both clever and resourceful, and while he’s the scientist, she’s far better with a gun. (Until the aforementioned last segment, when Amy is unconscious and Marshall becomes Rambo.) While I don’t always like Amy and Marshall, I appreciate that they don’t bemoan their situation—they crack jokes and take care of business. And unlike typical horror movie heroines, Amy doesn’t cry once; she’s tough, assertive, and though she has a short hissy fit, it’s angry rather than whiny. And finally, it’s a pretty clever premise; the lizards aren’t scary, but they’re menacing because they’re hard to catch.

If you’re in the mood for watching critters get blowed up and lots of purty fires, this one’s for you.

Arachnophobia (movie review)

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Notable cast:

Jeff Daniels: Ross     Harley Jane Kozak: Molly     John Goodman: Delbert     Julian Sands: Dr. Atherton

While on a job in Venezuela, a photographer is killed by a very poisonous and very bitey new breed of spider. The little bugger happily rides home with the corpse to a small town in America. Ross, the town’s new doctor, is unfortunately quite afraid of spiders, but now has to deal with an army of deadly hybrids that are every bit as aggressive as their father. With the help of spider experts Dr. Atherton and Chris, as well as exterminator Delbert, he has to kill the queen and big bad Dad.

I saw Arachnophobia as a child with my uncle (who also introduced me to the Poltergeist movies, bless him). I found it more entertaining than scary. Despite the serious subject matter, there’s a goodish amount of jokes too, for example wacky Delbert, who loves his job just a little too much. It’s PG-13, so there’s not a tremendous amount of gore (though there are a few painful close-ups of fangs piercing skin). However, I wouldn’t recommend it to people who have arachnophobia, despite the major plot point of Ross overcoming his; I think it would only inspire paranoia. Speaking as someone who won’t go into her backyard at night without a flashlight and a can of spider spray because of black widows, I can attest the movie makes spiders scarier. It emphasizes their aggression, ruthlessness, and also their ability to lay hundreds of eggs at a time. Not to mention disgusting scenes such as Delbert savoring the crunch of a spider under his boot, a pulsating egg sac, and an exploding spider.

 

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I want a huggie!

Aside from being gross and sometimes creepy, the film has other good qualities. It builds suspense while still utilizing the humor used throughout the movie, like when town residents narrowly avoid being bitten without even realizing it. In addition, the characters are likable, my favorite being Ross’s wife Molly. I find it amusing that she’s the spider-killer for the house, defying gender stereotypes. She’s completely fearless, and tries to encourage Ross to enjoy the beauty of spiders. She’s an interesting character—it’s too bad she gets phased out in the last half of the movie. In addition, the spiders look real; there are only a few scenes (like when a spider is on fire) that it’s obviously a fake.

Maybe it’s the childhood nostalgia talking, but to me the film is charming and amusing; it’s the kind of movie I can watch repeatedly. Give it a look if you’re neutral about spiders or will enjoy being freaked out by them.

April Fool’s Day (movie review)

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Oh the wacky hairstyles of the ’80s!

Notable crew:

Director: Fred Walton (When a Stranger CallsWhen a Stranger Calls Back)

A group of twenty-something friends and acquaintances are heading to an island to celebrate their friend Muffy’s birthday. Once there, they run into trouble when they discover there’s a killer among them and no way off the island. Meanwhile Muffy’s behavior is becoming increasingly erratic. It seems everyone present has “little secrets” they’d like to stay hidden but are revealed with his or her death. Could it be that Muffy has gathered them all for some elaborate revenge scheme? Or is it an April Fool’s Day prank they’ll never forget?

It’s your basic slasher movie: a large cast getting killed off one by one in an increasingly predictable fashion. Except that the characters, rather than being naughty teens, are naughty college students, so in between having sex and drinking they’re reading Paradise Lost and reciting poetry. But higher education doesn’t save them from having dumb moments, my favorite being when Rob tells Kit shortly after she finds one of their friends dead in a well, “You gotta look at the bright side of things.”

I liked the characters, but I had genuine difficulty telling them apart.

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Each as forgettable as the last

Slasher movies generally have all-white casts, give or take a token black guy or couple, and the characters are somewhat hard to distinguish between at first. Usually types are established: the practical joker, the nerd, the athletic guy, the final girl, etc. In this movie there were only four women, so I could classify them as the bookworm, the sex kitten, the unremarkable blond girl, and Muffy. But there were five guys, who all seemed to be the athletic practical joker. They eventually became the guy with the southern accent, the guy who might be gay (wait, which one was he?), and the other blond guys. Even by the end of the movie I was still confused. In addition to my befuddlement at the many many blonds, I spent most of the movie waiting for Muffy to reveal herself as a guy. Apparently I got my endings mixed up.

Overall, it’s decent for a slasher; the acting is acceptable and there’s a nifty twist ending. I enjoyed it. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something that’s a little bit—but not too much—out of the ordinary.

An American Haunting (movie review)

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Notable cast:

Sissy Spacek: Lucy     Donald Sutherland: John     James D’Arcy: Richard

It’s 1817, and Betsy Bell is a teenage girl who appears to be either possessed or haunted by an angry ghost who slaps her and pulls the blankets off of her bed, among other things. There are also weird noises and weird animals skulking about the family property. Betsy’s father John has angered Kate Batts, a woman rumored to be a witch—is it possible she’s the one behind the phenomenon? John is also being affected—what is his role in the haunting?

The movie is based on a book written by Betsy’s future husband Richard, which is supposedly a true story, but some say it’s a hoax. I read the book, and have difficulty buying that all that stuff actually happened. There are far more demonic happenings the filmmakers wisely left out, for example characters’ long conversations with the ghost about their personal lives. It’s basically a slightly friendlier version of Pazuzu in The Exorcist. Thankfully the movie pares down the creature’s dialogue, but the shots from the spirit’s point of view get old after a while.

The issue of the family owning slaves is acknowledged fairly tastefully (as tastefully as such a subject can be). While the slave characters are superstitious and fearful stereotypes straight out of the 1940s, they are at least treated politely by the Bells. For example Betsy’s mother Lucy says, “Anky, could you answer the door, please?”

One aspect of the film I appreciate is that because Betsy is portrayed as a childlike and innocent girl, she’s not parading around in her frilly underthings like most teenage girls in horror movies. And because I don’t agree with Hollywood that romances have to be shoehorned into every single movie, I am also thankful that although the romantic subplot is necessary to move the film along it is muted to a bearable amount (probably because the girl in question is a teenager, and her love interest is in his thirties).

The filmmakers decided to throw in a wraparound story of a teenage girl facing the same predicament as Betsy, which leads to a truly creepy ending. The rest of the film is hardly scary, but the shocking twist (for both girls) is grotesque and disturbing.

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This was my reaction, too

Check it out if you want a sincere tale with actors you’ve probably heard of.

Acacia (movie review)

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Notable crew:

Director: Ki-hyeong Park (Whispering Corridors)

Korean movie. Mi-sook and Do-il Kim are a married couple who have trouble conceiving a child. They adopt an artistic loner named Jin-sung. He adjusts fairly well, with the help of his loving adopted parents, Do-il’s father, and new friend Min-jee—though he seems to think the acacia tree in the backyard is his deceased mother.

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Don’t cry, don’t cry, it’s just a movie…

Suddenly Mi-sook finds she is pregnant, and though everyone still tries to pay attention to Jin-sung, things aren’t the same. Jin-sung is mean to baby Hae-sung, which exacerbates the situation. Mi-sook plans to send Jin-sung back, and he runs away. The Kim family begins violently falling apart.

I hadn’t seen this film in six years or so, and was happy to finally get to review it. “Excited!!!” reads my notes. On my first two viewings, I saw the Kims as a basically loving and kind family who had tragedy destined for them. On my most recent viewing (after becoming a parent), I feel a lot less sorry for them. Mi-sook flips out when Do-il even brings up the possibility of adopting a child. After she calms down and accepts the possibility, she picks a kid after a cursory introduction because he paints well. While they both make a valiant effort to welcome Jin-sung, they’re not the best parents. For example, Mi-sook has a hissy fit when Jin-sung has trouble adjusting to his new family name. Mi-sook and Do-il want to be parents mostly because they feel cultural pressure to do so, not because of any readiness or skill. They’re a bit cold and distant—the most endearing character is Do-il’s father, who’s wise and kind.

There are also many creepy moments; the viewer is unsure of what horrible things await, but the tension builds from the beginning, when Jin-sung recreates Munch’s creepy painting The Scream. Jin-sung has a creepy blank-eyed stare much of the time, and Mi-sook is a ticking time bomb, so even the happy moments feel uneasy. One of the eeriest scenes is when Do-il finds a needle in his bowl of rice, cutting his mouth. He blames Mi-sook, and turns on her. Compared to the previously stable man he is at the beginning, this Do-il is terrifying and unpredictable—he says things like, “Clean that up before I kill you.” Overall, the film is thought-provoking and a bit depressing—check it out if you’re in a serious mood.