29 October 2013

The Vincent Price Collection: The Fall of the House of Usher

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)
Directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay by Richard Matheson. Starring Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey, Harry Ellerbe.

Shout! Factory has delivered some wonderful treats on Blu-ray in time for the Halloween season: Psycho II, Prince of Darkness, and a six-movie set of Vincent Price classics, The Vincent Price Collection. The set includes four entries from the Edgar Allan Poe/Roger Corman/AIP series (actually, The Haunted Palace comes from an H. P. Lovecraft story, but AIP slapped the title of an obscure Poe poem onto it to make it another entry in the cycle) as two later films, The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Witchfinder General, which I consider the best film in Mr. Price’s prodigious filmography.

But where to start watching? Chronologically, of course. That tends to be my answer for ordering anything. Shout! Factory has the films somewhat out of order, probably to best fit the six movies across four discs, and so the first film in the set is the second of the AIP/Corman/Poe series, Pit and the Pendulum. But you can’t fool me, I know The Fall of the House of Usher comes first, so into the Blu-ray tray it goes!

The Fall of the House of Usher (first released as House of Usher, but the print on the Blu-ray uses the longer title so I’ll go with that) represents a major moment for U.S. horror, as well as for director Roger Corman, production company American International Pictures, and star Vincent Price. None of these entities were strangers to macabre cinema, but Usher brought on a new era of popularity and high production values for all of them. The AIP series essentially became the stateside version of Britain’s burgeoning Hammer horrors: colorful, Gothic, lurid. It broke from the 1950s modern, SF-based approach to horror, and would remain the dominant style of horror movies until the next shift in fear occurred with Night of the Living Dead at the close of the decade.

28 October 2013

In the Mouth of Madness on Blu-ray and Other Reasons to Go Stark Raving Mad

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, David Warner, Bernie Casey, John Glover, Peter Jason, Charlton Heston.

“Believe me, the sooner we’re off the planet, the better.”
—John Trent (Sam Neill) in In the Mouth of Madness

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

John Carpenter is a master filmmaker, one of the most influential genre directors to emerge from the cloudburst of creativity of the 1970s. You’d be hard-pressed to find a science-fiction or horror fan who doesn’t have one of Carpenter’s movies in his or her list of Top [Fill in Number] Films list.

But Carpenter’s popularity has created the illusion that his films achieved greater financial success when first released than they did. The unfortunate truth is Carpenter has had only a few outright hits: Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, and Halloween are the most notable. Halloween throws off the curve: Carpenter’s third feature, it grossed $65 million during its initial domestic run against a budget of $325,000—and it continues to generate revenue to this day. Halloween also influenced genre movies immediately, igniting the massive “slasher boom.”

But many of Carpenter’s finest and most beloved movies did middling-to-flop business when they premiered. The Thing, rightfully considered his masterpiece, was a financial disappointment for Universal in the summer of 1982. Big Trouble in Little China was an outright box-office disaster. And through the ‘90s, Carpenter could not catch a break with anything. After 2001’s Ghosts of Mars did a spectacular belly flop (a worldwide—yes, worldwide—gross of $14 million against a $28 million budget), Carpenter went into semi-retirement to play videogames and watch the Lakers. He has only returned to directing for two episodes of Masters of Horror on Showtime and the barely released and very uninteresting feature The Ward in 2011.

However, the march of appreciation for his movies in their post-premiere years continues. I believe we can now safely deposit one of his 1990s movies in the vault of John Carpenter Classics: In the Mouth of Madness, which debuted on Blu-ray last week. Carpenter fans have often dubbed it the director’s last great movie, and although I hope that’s incorrect and he still has a surprise waiting for us, the title seems apt. I certainly haven’t seen anything Carpenter has done since that remotely approaches it in quality.

21 October 2013

I’ve Got a Message for You, And You’re Going to Like It: John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness on Blu-ray

Prince of Darkness (1987)
Written and Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun, Alice Cooper.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

“Are you asking me about the backstory of the movie? I have no idea.”
—John Carpenter on the commentary track for Prince of Darkness

This week, with the release of In the Mouth of Madness, all of director John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” movies will have reached Blu-ray. The Thing came out a few years ago (from Universal Home Video, doing a better-than-average job), and at the end of September, right in time for the crisp joys of October, Shout! Factory released 1987’s Prince of Darkness—one of Carpenter’s most underrated films.

(His most underrated film? In the Mouth of Madness. More on that in a week or so.)

The apocalypse trilogy films have no connection to each other aside from Carpenter’s interest in events that might bring about the end of the world, a hangover from his childhood fascination with the wild n’ wooly contents of the biblical Book of Revelation. The Thing threatened the globe with a shape-changing alien nasty capable a rapidly assimilating the human race. In the Mouth of Madness brought the Great Old Ones back in full Lovecraftian form, but also undermined all of reality through the power of fiction.

In Prince of Darkness, it would seem that Old Scratch himself is the force preparing to annihilate humanity. After all, what else to make of the title? But Prince of Darkness ends up confronting Earth with a destroyer as much imbedded in science fiction as The Thing. Carpenter combines Catholic-themed religious horror with, of all things, quantum mechanics. The resulting film frequently makes little sense—even John Carpenter acknowledges that—but when viewed as a deep well of bizarre ideas and unnerving atmosphere, it stands as one of the most creative horror films of its decade. I now rank it among Carpenter’s best movies, although it took me a few years to grasp its achievements and shrug off its faults.

Q: The Winged Serpent on Blu-ray

Q (1982)
Written, Produced, and Directed by Larry Cohen. Starring Michael Moriarty, David Carradine, Candy Clark, Richard Roundtree.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

You want to know something that rocks? Actually, two things that rock, at least in my little world:

1. The Chrysler Building

2. Giant Monsters

So when you have a movie about a giant flying monster nesting in the Chrysler Building, you have something that rocks so hard it makes Van Halen sound like One Direction. Again, at least in my little world.

Video distributor Shout! Factory continued its stellar series of classic B-movie releases on Blu-ray in September with the HD debut of Q. This 1982 sleeper hit, concerning the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl (or a non-god of the same name) appearing in New York City as a humungous flying snake that likes to snap the heads off window washers and topless sunbathers, was always crying out for Shout! Factory to pluck it up.

The company has packaged the film with its alternate marketing title, Q: The Winged Serpent, and repeated the original tagline over the Boris Vallejo artwork: “It’s name is Quetzalcoatl… Just call it ‘Q’… that’s all you’ll have time to say before it tears you apart!” However, Shout! Factory fixed the original poster’s grammatical error, correcting It’s to Its. That is one of the few disappointments I have with their presentation of this nifty low budget flick; I know Shout! Factory doesn’t want to seem careless on the cover for their product, but that grammatical glitch adds charm to the story of a clueless low-life criminal/jazz pianist who holds New York hostage with a winged snake.

17 October 2013

I Gave in and Got a tumblr. It’s about Movies

I now have my own tumblr, something I thought I would never do. But I wanted to keep track of all the movies I see—whether in a theater, on video, or through streaming—so I put together a simple tumblr blog where I’ll put up posters and Blu-ray covers and off a few comments. I’d love to review every movie I see on my website, but I don’t have the time.

So if you’re interested in what I’m watching and reading a few of my thoughts about it, check out The Shapers Watch Movies.

The Blog Silence—It Was a Good Thing

Hey everybody, I’m back from my blogging vacation. I have an explanation, and it’s a positive one.

I got a new job. And for the first time in fifteen years, I moved.

It wasn’t an enormous geographical re-location: I moved from West Los Angeles to Costa Mesa in Orange County. There’s a fifty-minute drive between the two (in good traffic). Nonetheless, it was still a major operation, and since I’ve lived in Los Angeles since I was four years old, it was a significant mental shift. Orange County isn’t much like Los Angeles County, even though they’re side-by-side.

Despite the difficulties I had with moving out of my long-time hometown, I’ve benefited tremendously in other ways. I now have a steady job with regular hours and good pay—and it’s a writing job. Yes, I nailed down a day job where I spend all day doing nothing but writing. It isn’t fiction, unfortunately; I haven’t struck that gold vein yet. The work is for a marketing company. I handle writing the web content for our clients, along with three other writers. The company’s offices are located in the middle of Irvine’s commercial district, two blocks from the massive Irvine Spectrum Center. It’s not a dream job, but it’s better than any day job I’ve held in the last ten years.

I’ve also moved into an apartment far nicer than my Century City digs. I have actual space now—and I didn’t realize how much I mentally needed it. My former apartment was located in a great location, but the apartment itself was cramped, ancient, and horribly insulated. My copious piles of books crawled across the floor to find room, and the air conditioner wheezed and huffed to cool the space down to “barely tolerable.” The new apartment doesn’t feel oppressive, so even in the less engaging environs (how many Subway sandwich places can congregate in one neighborhood?) I have a much sunnier attitude. And the apartment complex has a pool!

Now that things have settled down after a month and a half of adjustments and shifting and heavy boxes sagging from the weight of tomes of knowledge and schlocky adventure, I hope to get the blog active once more. I enjoy writing my posts, and didn’t like that keeping the blog updated had to drop to such a low priority during the last two months.