Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cushing rules 'From Beyond the Grave'

From Beyond the Grave (aka "Creatures" and "Tales from the Beyond") (1975)
Starring: Peter Cushing, David Warner, Donald Pleasence, Ian Bannen, Angela Pleasence, Nyree Dawn Porter, Ian Ogilvy, Lesley-Ann Down, Ian Carmichael, Margaret Leighton and Jack Watson
Director: Kevin Connor
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Deep within the back alleys of London is a little hole-in-the-wall antique shop that is crammed with the strangest and most wondrous things. It is run by a kind, elderly man with a thick Northlands accent (Cushing). He can find just the thing you're looking for, he is always helpful, and his prices are very, very fair. But a bad end will come to those who deal with him unfairly, or who outright steal from him.

"From Beyond the Grave" is a misnamed movie if there ever was one. This anthology film which features three stories about three customers to the antique shop run by Cushing's character, and the fates they suffer after they respectively cheat him, steal from him, and deal fairly with him. If *I* were King of the World (or if I'd been the one assigning alternate titles to this one, I would have chosen "Curious Goods", "Final Sale", "Deals to Die For", or something along those lines. Yes, this is a cheesy horror movie--where curses on antiques manifest themselves to punish those who do wrong--but it is nowhere near as awful as its title implies.

All four stories in this one are good, creepy fun. They are all paced just right, and they all sharp dialogue, well-balanced mixes of humor and horror, and a couple of startling moments just to add a little extra zest. The featured actors all give top-notch performances as well, with Cushing, Warner, Bannen, and Angela Pleasence being particularly excellent in their parts. (Of course, Cushing is pretty much always excellent, so I suppose I didn't even need to praise him. I don't think I've seen Ms. Pleasence in anything before or since, but she gives a performance that rivals anything her famous father has ever put forth.)

The first story sees David Warner stiffing Cushing for quite a bit of money when he switches the price-tag on a mirror he desperately wants. Well, said mirror is possessed, and soon Warner's character is killing hookers for fun and eternal life.

The second story has Ian Bannen, a spineless and henpecked husband, attempting to buy a war medal from Cushing so he can artifcially boost his self-esteem. When Cushing refuses to sell the medal to him without proof of actual war-time heroism, Bannen steals it. A chance encounter with a real war-hero and his strange daughter subsequently goes from friendship to horror. (This segment is scariest in the film, and it's final scene is one that will stay with you for a while.)

The third story is mostly comedic in nature, and it starts with a business man cheating Cushing on the purchase of an antique snuffbox (to which Cushing, upon noticing the swindle, comments, "I hope you enjoy snuffing it). Turns out, the cheapskate ends up with a demon on his shoulder, and when he turns to a befuddled medium for help (hilariously played by Margaret Leighton), things end up going from bad to worse. (The finale to this one is as creepy as it is funny.)

Finally, an honest customer comes into Cushing's shop. He's looking for a little something to liven up his study, and he purchases an old door... without stealing, cheating, or lying. The item still turns out to be cursed (we wouldn't have a story otherwise!), and it turns a closet into a room that houses an ancient evil. This final story isn't as strong as the first three, but it's still pretty good. And the fate of the characters are in line with everything that's happened to the cheaters.

"From Beyond the Grave" is definitely one of the better anthology horror films that has been made. If you like your horror with a side of class and thoughtfulness, this is a film for you. I recommend it highly, and I assure you that it's better than the title suggests.

Cushing and Price clash in 'Madhouse'

Madhouse (aka "The Revenge of Dr. Death") (1974)
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry, and Natasha Pyne
Director: James Clark
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Famed horror ham Paul Toombes (Price) suffers a total breakdown after his fiance is brutally murdered. After more than a decade in an insane asylum, he is released, and his long-time friend, collaborator, and co-creator of Dr. Death, the character that made Toombes a star, Herbert Flay (Cushing) presents him with the comeback opportunity of a lifetime: The starring role in a television series based on their signature character. Toombes reclutantly agrees, but his reluctance soon turns to horror as someone starts murdering young women and castmembers in ways that reflect the methods of Dr. Death. Is Toombes a homicidal maniac, or is someone else committing the murders and trying to frame Toombes?

"Madhouse" is part murder-mystery, part mad-stalker flick. The truth behind the Dr. Death killings is one that an attentive viewer could have figured out (and it speaks rather poorly of Scotland Yard's finest that they didn't follow that avenue... but if they had, there wouldn't have been a movie). The film sees Price do what he's done in several movies before--he teeters on the edge of madness and he runs around terror-struck, with interludes of expressions of regret and self-doubt. But, it's what Vincent Price was most famous for, and he does it very well in this film.

Price is supported by a decent cast, with Cushing brightening every scene he's in as always (even if he doesn't have much to do until the very end). Quarry, as the obnoxious porn-film director turned TV producer, and Pyne as the perky, ever-helpful publicist, being particularly good in their parts. The one flub acting-wise are a pair of blackmailers who show up about 2/3rds of the way through the film--the actors are as lame as the plot thread they're part of.

What Price and none of the actors are supported by is the script. It only works if the viewer doesn't think about what he's just seen once the movie's over. The ending simply makes no sense whatsoever, not on any level. It's not a failed twist-ending... it's just a nonsensical one. (And this is a shame, because the climactic scene is actually pretty cool.)

Something that makes this movie great fun for fans of classic horror and sci-fi movies, is the opportunity to see icons like Price and Cushing together in the same scenes... but there is one scene where Price suffers by sharing the stage with Cushing. It's very clear in that scene (which it toward the end of the film) that Price's success was built on his amazing voice, and his ability to ham it up and still be lots of fun to watch, while Cushing was a truly Great Actor. I greatly enjoy Price when he cuts loose, but the differences in styles and levels of acting talent between the two men was clearly on display in that scene. (The speech about the Dr. Death character and superior acting talent was something I found mildly amusing, given my opinion above.)

"Madhouse" suffers from a weak script, but I still think it would be fun to watch for fans of Price and Cushing.

Cushing shines in excellent segment of anthology film 'Asylum'

Asylum (1972)
Starring: Robert Powell, Partrick Magee, Herbert Lom, Barry Morse, Barbara Parkins, Britt Ekland, Charlotte Rampling and Peter Cushing
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Dr. Martin (Powell) is charged with a most unusual final test before being hired for a position at an insane asylum: He must interview several inmates and deduce which of them is the former director of the facility.

"Asylum" is another of those very excellent horror anthology films from the '60s and '70s. This one uses Dr. Martin's final employment test as its framing story (although, in this film, the frame is itself a little twist-ending horror tale that) and the interviews with four of the inmates are the short horrors we are treated to.

First up, we have what is probably the weakest of the bunch... a story where a murdered wife who reanimates to take revenge on her husband and is lover (Parkins), despite having been dismembered and neatly wrapped in a number of individual packages. Athough predictable and goofy, the images of the writhing packages and the capper to the story as it ends and gives way to the frame more than make up for the weak story.

Second, there's the story of a desperately broke tailor (Morse) who receives a most unusual commission from a greiving father (Cushing), and in the end, we learn the lesson that tailor shops and occultism should be kept seperate. This tale is a bit slow-moving, but its beautifully shot, and Morse and Cushing both give excellent performances.

Third, we have the story of Barbara (Rampling) who, after being released from an insane asylum, promptly murders her brother and nurse. Barbara blames the evil Lucy (Ekland) for committing the crime and framing her, but is reality being filtered through the mind of a mad woman? This story is pretty basic and it works first and foremost due to the great performance of Ekland.

Finally, we have the tale of Dr. Byron (Lom), a medical man who has come to believe he can transfer his mind into dolls that he creates. Unlike the other three, this story is not a flashback, but instead takes place in the present and within the asylum walls. It is the most clever and surprising of the bunch, and the way it merges with the framing story is particularly horrific and grand. It's a great closer to a fine collection of stories.

To make this package even better, the film features some nice camera work and a great music score (that is especially effective in the Rampling/Ekland sequence).

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Peter Cushing goes in search of Yetis

The Abominable Snowman (aka The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas) (1954)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Forrest Tucker, and Maureen Connell
Director: Val Guest
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

English botanist John Rollson (Cushing) joins an expedition led by American explorer Tom Friend (Tucker) to find proof of the existence of Yeti, the Abominable Snowmen of the title. Once the expedition is deep within the frozen wastes of the Himalyas, Rollson and his fellow explorers learn that they aren't hunting some subhuman primate, but are instead tracking what seems to be highly intelligent creatures with supernatural abilities. What's worse... the hunters eventually become the hunted.

"The Abominable Snowman" is an average thriller with great sets, great performances from all the featured actors, and a tense, suspenseful finale. Unfortunately, it moves a bit too slowly, but when it does get to the action or the drama, the pay-off is worth it.

The greatest weakness of the movie is the fact that it doesn't just wear its message on its sleeve, it shoves it down the viewers throat with a number of long speeches delivered in turn by Tucker and Cushing. Yes... man is a destroyer, and man is but a guest on this planet, and life is precious and nature is precious.... The viewer gets the message just from the way the various characters behave, and the way the Yeti behave. The speechifying gets dull after the first run-through, despite the fact that the lines are delivered with great skill and fervor by the actors.

Despite this flaw, I enjoyed the film for the great performances by its actors and the sets. The story also has a numer of chilling moments. In balance, it's worth seeing.