Friday, September 29, 2017

Just Who Is "That Guy Dick Miller?"

Dick Miller is one of the most recognizable character actors of the last 50 years. Even if you don’t recall his name, you definitely know his face. He played the curmudgeonly Mr. Futterman in Gremlins and the gun shop clerk in The Terminator, among a host of other scene-stealing supporting roles. If you’re a fan of 1950s and 60s sci-fi and horror films, I’m sure you remember his many appearances in the movies of writer-director Roger Corman, including It Conquered The WorldNot Of This Earth and the original Little Shop of Horrors. The 2014 documentary That Guy Dick Miller is an enjoyable look at the career of this talented performer. The film features interviews with Miller, his wife Lainie and a host of fans, friends and collaborators, including Corman, film critic Leonard Maltin, actors Robert Forster, Jonathan Haze, Belinda Belaski, Mary Woronov, and directors Fred Dekker, Allan Arkush and Joe Dante.

Dick Miller in The Howling
It’s an engaging story, which charts Miller's journey from his days as a working actor (and a member of Corman’s stock company) to finding fame as one of the most in demand character actors of the 70s and 80s. The portion of the film that recalls his early work is fascinating. It’s an affectionate look at how a loyal cadre of casts and crews quickly and efficiently completed low budget movies back in the 1950s and 60s. No one thought these "B" films and genre pictures would be remembered and celebrated by fans decades later. A generation of filmmakers was influenced by these sci-fi, fantasy and horror movies, including Dante, Arkush, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. All of these artists worked for Corman in their younger days. Many of them later cast Miller in their films; in fact, Joe Dante has featured Miller in all of his movies, and is one of his most ardent fans.

Lainie acted as a producer on the film, which was written and directed by Elijah Drenner. This is a marvelous look at the career of a wonderful actor who’s given us a lot of memorable performances over the years. Whether the film he's acting in is good, bad or mediocre, Miller is always excellent. I think you’ll really enjoy this well produced, loving tribute to this iconic actor. If you don't know who Dick Miller is now, you certainly will after watching this entertaining documentary. It might even inspire you to watch (or re-visit) one of the many films he's brightened up with his presence, like the Boris Karloff thriller The Terror, which also featured a young Jack Nicholson. That Guy Dick Miller is available for online viewing at Amazon, and the movie can also be purchased at the film's website: http://www.thatguydickmiller.com. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSKTIe-HRG8.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Fab Faux Sgt. Pepper-ize New Haven

The Fab Faux - photo by Colleen Ellis
The Beatles are part of a select group of artists whose music can truly be called timeless. Their songs continue to resonate across multiple generations. A perfect example of this was found in the audience for The Fab Faux’s show at New Haven’s College Street Music Hall on September 22. Fans of all ages were in attendance, ranging from parents and grandparents well versed in the music, to children getting their first taste of Beatles tunes in a live setting, and of course, just plain old loyal fans. If you want to see the music of The Beatles performed live, nobody does it better than The Fab Faux. The group regularly tackles music from a specific period of The Beatles career, or plays an entire album from beginning to end.  For this show, the first part of the night was a mix of Beatles favorites, followed by a second set featuring Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band performed in its entirety. It was a magnificent night, filled with extraordianry musical performances that electrified and enraptured the audience.

Things kicked off with a rock steady version of “Back in the USSR.” The rest of the initial set ranged from expert renditions of  “Ticket To Ride” to audience sing-alongs on classics such as “Yellow Submarine” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” In fact, the audience was singing and dancing along on every song. How many current groups can say that about their music? As always, the band was at the top of their form, with the marvelous Will Lee on bass, the fantastic Jimmy Vivino on guitar, the sensational Jack Petruzzelli on keyboards and guitar, the wonderful Frank Agnello on guitar and the incredible Rich Pagano on drums. Of course, the whole band takes turns on lead vocals (and plays other instruments) depending on the needs of the song. One of the highlights in a set loaded with them was the spirited percussion duet between Lee and Pagano, which finished out the band’s astonishing version of  “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Will Lee of The Fab Faux - photo by John V
After a short break, it was on to the second set, during which The Hogshead Horns and The Creme Tangerine Strings joined the group for an amazing performance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That iconic album is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year. It’s not an easy record to play live, with it’s challenging sounds and intricate arrangements, but The Fab Faux knocked this one out of the park, and then some. It was a masterful set, featuring excellent versions of every track, including “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” and one of my favorites, “Lovely Rita.” It all climaxed with a stunning rendition of “A Day In The Life.” But things didn’t end there, as the band returned for an encore featuring the Rubber Soul cut “Wait,” followed by a bring everyone to their feet finale of the ever-popular “Twist & Shout.” A splendid time was most definitely had by all.

The Fab Faux, like the rest of us, are clearly ardent fans of the music of The Beatles. Their sheer joy and passion in playing these memorable songs is contagious. Every member of the group is supremely talented, and performs in various other bands as well as doing session work with many top-level artists. But when they come together to pay tribute to the music of The Fab Four, it’s really something special. College Street Music Hall is a terrific venue for the band; an intimate space that allows you to really feel the music. Wherever you can get out to see this superb group, I urge you to do so.  I’ve seen them several times now, and each time has surpassed the last. This music is part of our collective memory now, and you simply won’t see it performed any better than by these brilliant musicians. If you can get out to see one of their concerts while they're on the road, I highly recommend it. Here’s a link to The Fab Faux’s website: http://www.thefabfaux.com.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Stephen King's IT: Facing Your Demons

The Losers Club searches for IT
I’ve been a Stephen King fan since I first started reading his work in my younger years. Novels like Salem's Lot and The Shining, and short story collections such as Night Shift, were some of the most frightening horror fiction I have ever read. But King’s stories have never been just about the things that go bump in the night. He has a knack for creating well-rounded and believable characters that you care about, ones who talk and act like everyday people, the kind you’ve known in your own life. That these strange and supernatural things were happening to these types of characters made his stories that much more believable, and much more horrifying. King's best stories are as much about dealing with your own inner demons as they are about dealing with the actual vampires, ghosts and monsters.

There have been many big-screen and television adaptations of King’s work over the years. Some have been successful, such as Carrie and The Dead Zone, and some less so, like The Mangler and Dreamcatcher. One of the most memorable for many fans was the 1990 mini-series version of IT, King’s 1986 novel about a group of kids terrorized by an evil being who often appears as a creepy clown named Pennywise. The epic novel (the book runs about 1,100 pages) is a favorite among long-time King readers. The TV version starred John Ritter, Richard Thomas and Annette O’Toole. The production was somewhat limited by budgetary constraints and the limitations of special effects technology at the time, but it still managed to be one of the scariest TV films ever made. The miniseries is most fondly recalled for Tim Curry’s chilling portrayal of Pennywise; he managed to steal the movie out from under the rest of the cast. That film's success led to a host of other TV versions of King's work, including The Tommyknockers, The Langoliers and The Stand.

Pennywise surfaces in IT
A new big-screen version of the story, entitled IT, has recently been released, directed by Andy Muschietti, the Argentine filmmaker who also helmed the 2013 horror film Mama. The movie is set in Derry, Maine, where Bill Denbrough sends his younger brother Georgie out to play with a new paper sailboat he’s made for him. A creature that looks like a clown startles Georgie, and pulls him down into the sewers. It’s the latest in a long series of disappearances and deaths that have occurred in the town, but no one seems to be doing much about these tragic occurrences. Bill never gives up on finding his brother, and recruits his friends Richie, Eddie and Stan to investigate what really happened. The group, nicknamed “The Losers Club,” gains several new members as the story continues, and our young heroes eventually discover the truth about the  evil that lurks in Derry. The seven friends unite to defeat this monstrous entity, but the task won’t be easy an easy one. This malevolent creature wants to destroy them first. IT knows exactly what scares each of them the most.

The cast of young performers is excellent; standouts include Jaden Lieberher as Will, Finn Wolfhard (from Stranger Things) as Richie and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, the lone female member of The Losers Club. These talented actors convince you of the strong bond that exists between these friends, as they stand together to face the horrifying entity they know as Pennywise. These talented actors generate some moments of real emotion and pathos amid all the scary moments. The group will need all of their strength, as Pennywise plans to use their own worst fears against them. Speaking of the creepy clown, let’s talk about the actor who plays him: Bill Skarsgard takes the horror to a whole new level, in a truly terrifying performance. Combining his sinuous body movements with off-kilter facial expressions, some very effective makeup and costuming, and capped off with an eerie voice, he is the embodiment of evil that King originally wrote about. You won’t soon forget him, or this frightening film, which has a truly eerie atmosphere thanks to the solid direction by Muschietti. It's one of the best King adaptations in recent years.

King stories like IT and The Body (the basis for the film Stand by Me) were certainly part of the inspiration for last year’s hit Netflix series Stranger Things, so its nice to see things come full circle with this excellent new version of one of his best novels. The movie is not quite the letter of the book (nor should it be, as novels and films are two separate entities) but it stands on its own as a solid adaptation, which captures the authentic feeling of King’s book. The novel’s first half was set in the 1950s, but the film moves the action forward to the late 1980s. A sequel, which will be set in the present day, covering the second half of the book, is already planned. It’ll be interesting to see who gets cast as the adult versions of the characters, and how they will fare when they unite once again to face the terror of IT. Here’s a link to the trailer for the current film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKJmEC5ieOk.

If you enjoyed this review of the film version of IT, I'm also writing about music and movies for the excellent arts and entertainment website Culture Sonar. The site can be found at www.culturesonar.com. I recently covered the John Logan created horror TV series Penny Dreadful. Here's a link to that piece: http://www.culturesonar.com/penny-dreadful/. You can also find my other articles by using the search function at the top right hand corner of the page. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Karloff & Lugosi Seek "The Invisible Ray"

Boris Karloff & Frances Drake
Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi made eight films together, several of which are considered essential viewing by classic horror fans. The third of these collaborations, The Invisible Ray (1936), is more of a science-fiction tale than a horror thriller. As the story begins, Dr. Janos Rukh (Karloff) a brilliant but eccentric scientist has made an incredible discovery. He invites several colleagues to his lab in the Carpathian Mountains to view his findings, including Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi), and Sir Francis Stevens. Rukh has found a way to send a beam of light to the Andromeda Galaxy, which reflects images of past events from space back to Earth. Rukh shows his guests evidence that a large meteorite fell somewhere on the African continent sometime in the distant past. He believes the meteor contains an undiscovered element that may have unique qualities. It just so happens that Benet and Stevens are mounting a research expedition to Africa, and they invite Rukh to join them.

Rukh’s mother, who was blinded while assisting her son in an earlier experiment, warns him not to go. She essentially gets to utter a version of the well-worn “there are some things man was not meant to know” line. Rukh decides to join the expedition, despite her warning. Also going along on the journey are Rukh’s wife, Diana, Sir Francis’ spouse, Lady Arabella, and her nephew, Ronald Drake. Rukh breaks off from the main group, and ends up locating the meteor’s crash site and discovering “Element X.” But there’s a catch; Rukh becomes infected by the substance, and learns his touch can kill. He also glows in the dark! Diana comes to visit him, but he won’t see her, and she returns to the main camp. Rukh later goes to Dr. Benet in secret, reveals his condition and appeals to him for help. Benet concocts a cure, but warns Rukh that it will only temporarily forestall his symptoms, and the continual use of it (along with Element X's stress on his system) may affect his brain.

Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff
Initially, the cure is a success, and Rukh decides to continue his work with Element X, believing it will give him great power. But Dr. Benet and Sir Francis decide it’s too important a find to keep secret, and reveal Rukh’s discovery to the world. He’s angered by this, and accuses Benet of stealing his work. Meanwhile, the lonely Diana has fallen for Ronald Drake, and decides to leave Rukh for the dashing young explorer. The young lovers plan to marry. Benet begins using what he now calls "Radium X" to treat patients and cure their illnesses, even restoring the sight of a young blind girl. The film moves into its final third, and Rukh (who’s starting to go insane due to over-using the cure, combined with the ongoing impact of Radium X on his mind and body) fakes his own death, and starts targeting his enemies. He uses his fatal touch to eliminate those he feels have done him wrong, starting with Sir Francis. Will Dr. Benet realize what’s going on, and stop him in time? Or will it take an intervention from someone else to halt Rukh’s series of revenge-fueled murders? 

The film offers Bela Lugosi the chance to play the hero and foil to Karloff’s more than slightly mad Dr. Rukh. This isn’t the vengeful, justice-seeking Dr. Verdegast that Lugosi played in The Black Cat or the egotistical Dr. Vollin he portrayed in The Raven. Dr. Benet is a conscientious man who just wants to do the right thing: to use Radium X for mankind’s benefit. Karloff’s character is the villain here, and he’s very convincing in the role. Rukh sees his discovery as a way to achieve more power for himself. His greed, pride and thirst for vengeance are his undoing. The two actors play off each other nicely in their scenes together in the film. The supporting cast is effective as well; Frances Drake (Mad Love) is good as Diana; Frank Lawton (The Devil-Doll) is appropriately dashing as Ronald Drake. Walter Kingsford is solid as Sir Francis and Beulah Bondi makes the most of her scenes as Lady Arabella. Violet Kemble Cooper, a British stage actress, plays Karloff’s mother, though she was only a year older than he was in real life! And look fast for Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn in 1933’s King Kong) as an ill-fated scientist killed by Dr. Rukh.

Lambert Hillyer, who was primarily known for his work on Westerns, directed the film. He also helmed another classic Universal chiller, Dracula’s Daughter, the same year he made this movie.  While it doesn’t quite reach the expressionistic heights of The Black Cat or The Raven, or the outright terror of The Body Snatcher, the film is atmospheric, and has some eerie moments, thanks to the cinematography by George Robinson and the impressive work by John P. Fulton, the special effects master behind The Invisible Man. The evocative score is by Franz Waxman, who also worked on The Bride of Frankenstein. You may notice that some of the sets, props and sound effects seem familiar: they were later used in Universal’s Flash Gordon serials. The Invisible Ray is an enjoyable tale of science (and the quest for knowledge) gone wrong. If you’re a fan of Karloff and Lugosi, or the classic Universal films, it’s worth seeing. It might not be the best of the duo's work together, but it's an entertaining tale with good performances from two of our favorite horror icons. The Invisible Ray is available on DVD as part of The Bela Lugosi Collection, and as a standalone disc. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_gsfQS7oxY.

This post is part of "The Movie Scientist Blogathon" hosted by my fellow bloggers Christina Wehner and Ruth at Silver Screenings. I'd like to thank them for having me as part of this celebration of "The Good, The Mad and The Lonely!" You can view the posts and get more info here: https://silverscreenings.org/2017/09/06/moviescientist-blogathon-starts-friday-2/.