Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Oh, the Horror: Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

The next horror movie on my quest is Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, a low budget Hammer film from 1974. Like a lot of old movies like this, I remember it well, but I am not sure if I ever actually saw it. I watched a lot of these Hammer films as a kid at midnight on WOR, channel 9 in New York. So I’d often fall asleep or only see bits and pieces of the movies because I was switching back and forth from Saturday NIght Live. And flipping channels back then required more work since you had to walk up to the TV and turn a knob. So you tended to stay with a show longer than you might these days.

But even if I never actually saw Captain Kronos, I was fully aware of him. Pictures from this film were a staple in the movie monster books that I so loved.

A friend, and fellow horror fan, lent me the DVD recently and I finally got around to watching it. Wow, I just watched The NIght Stalker, which is a bit dated, but still holds up and seems practically new in comparison. Captain Kronos, is an absolute blast into the 70’s horror past. It’s got it all; buxom maidens in the old English countryside being victimized by a youth stealing vampire, cheesy, technicolor special effects and a swashbuckling swordsman for a hero. There’s even an angry mob.

The plot revolves around the home village of Dr. Marcus, that seems to have a slight vampire problem. Luckily, Marcus has a buddy named Captain Kronos (Horst Janson), who happens to be a professional vampire hunter. (I wonder if Kronos ended up in that vocation as a result of a Myers Briggs test.)

Captain Kronos is a former soldier and still wears some sort of hybrid calvary/pirate outfit. With his lovely, flowing blonde hair, could double for a member of ABBA. He pals around with his sidekick, Professor Grost (John Cater), a hunchbacked combination of Professor Van Helsing and Marty Feldman’s Igor. And with his whiskers and top hat, he has a striking resemblance to Mr. Barnaby, the villain from March of the Wooden Soldiers.

I am glad I chose this movie right after The Night Stalker, because as I mentioned in that write up, one of the things I liked about that movie was that the vampire had no power of hypnosis. In this movie, the vampire’s primary weapon is it’s ability to mesmerize people. And you know when it’s happening because you hear that classic “hypnotizing” music whenever it’s happening.

Captain Kronos himself is quite the stud and manages to pick up a hot chick from the town’s stockades in the first few minutes of the movie. Carla, the gypsy girl, is played by Caroline Munro. She is one of the classic beauties from the Hammer era and is simply drop dead gorgeous. (Pardon the expression.) You may remember her from The Spy Who Loved Me, among other films.

Captain Kronos is the absolute opposite of The NIght Stalker’s bumbling Carl Kolchak. He’s a swashbuckling, puffy shirt wearing warrior with a personal vendetta against fanged bloodsuckers. And he’s so “randy” that at one point he actually gets distracted from hunting the vampire by his hot cohort long enough to allow another villager to get attacked and killed by a vampire bat. Hey.. a man has to have priorities.

The climax of the movie involves a sword fight in a room full of statue-like, hypnotized people... in fact, Kronos even manages to turn the head vampire’s beguiling power against itself thanks to his reflective sword.

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter is quite dated, and downright funny in places, as many movies from this era tend to be. But it’s exactly the kind of movie I want to see as I explore the horror landscape throughout the years. But probably the most important lesson I learned from this experience is this: Puffy pirate shirts allow for a lot of flexibility in a sword fight... and the village maidens really dig 'em.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Oh, the Horror: The Night Stalker

This morning I decided that the next horror movie I’d watch would be one of my favorites and one that helped mold me as a fan of the genre; The Night Stalker, starring Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, an investigative reporter in Las Vegas who comes to realize that the killer that is eluding them is actually a vampire. I’ve seen this one a bunch of times and own it on DVD. But It’s been a couple of years since I’ve watched it, so I popped it in. (If you have not seen it and don’t want to read spoilers, turn back now.)

I am a huge Kolchak fan. I was first exposed to him when the TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, debuted when I was a kid. It was the show that inspired the X Files and my favorite show growing up. It all started with this 1972 made for TV movie.

There is so much to love about this movie. First of all, Darren McGavin’s portrayal of Kolchak is the foundation on which everything else is built. With his trademark straw hat, seersucker suit, quick wit and disregard for authority, the bumbling Kolchak was the opposite of the prototypical alpha-male you’d expect in the hero's role.

Another fun thing about this movie is the parade of stars from the era. The beautiful Carol Lynley, Kolchak’s only serious love interest in the character’s screen history, whom you probably remember from The Poseidon Adventure. Claude Akins, TV’s Sheriff Lobo and Larry Linville, Frank Burns from MASH. And of course, the other actor who completes the Kolchak picture, Simon Oakland, who plays Carl’s volatile boss, Tony Vincenzo.

Upon this viewing, a few things struck me. The villain of this movie is the vampire Janos Skorzeny, but like in JAWS or The Silence of the Lambs, the protagonist also has to wrestle against the establishment. In this case it’s the local police and government who will do anything to keep the truth from being revealed.

Let’s talk about Janos Skorzeny, the vampire. He’s played by Barry Atwater, and he does not say a word throughout the entire movie. Although, one witness does describe his unpleasant voice, so we know he can actually talk. When we do see Skorzeny, he is usually killing another victim, on the run, stealing blood from the hospital or tossing cops around like rag dolls. It’s a far cry from the gothic, brooding, romantic vampires that litter the genre, particularly now in the Twilight era. Skorzeny is one of the coolest vampires ever because he truly acts like a vile creature who must drink blood to live. He does not have chiseled good looks nor the power to hypnotize his victims. He brutally overpowers them and then tosses their husks aside when he is done. It’s a fascinating concept. I’d love to see a movie of how Skorzeny first became a vampire and how he managed to survive throughout the years. It is alluded to in the movie and also revealed in his modus operandi. He kills some victims but eventually captures one and keeps her bound and alive with blood transfusions. It’s not pretty, which an existence of drinking human blood certainly wouldn't be.

The best part of The Night Stalker is the climax of the movie, when Kolchak discovers the house where Skorzeny lives. He instructs his source to notify his FBI friend Bernie Jenks, but only after 30 minutes, so he can sneak in and get the scoop. When Kolchak enters the dark, creaky house, you get a feeling of dread similar to when Clarice Starling heads down into the basement after Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. The suspense builds as Kolchak explores the house, finding the vampire’s stockpile of blood in the fridge along with the various disguises he uses to do his dirty work in the dresser. Then, he discovers one on the victims, still alive and tied to a bed. She weak, pale and her neck is ravaged. Skorzeny is using her as a personal blood bank. But just as Kolchak begins to untie her, Skorzeny comes home. Kolchak hides in the closet, but it’s not long before he is discovered and is being stalked around the house by the fang baring fiend. Kolchak is able to keep Skorzeny at bay with a cross... a concept that has sadly been abandoned by many modern incarnations of vampires.

Rent the movie to see how it all turns out and then go pick up the TV series and check out one of the most pivotal, albeit short-lived, franchises in horror history.

Re-watching The Night Stalker was a welcome walk down memory lane and a reminder of why I love this stuff so much.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Oh, the Horror: Drag Me to Hell

My horror movie odyssey begins with Drag Me to Hell, the 2009 film directed by Sam Raimi, the man who brought us the classic Evil Dead movies and also brought Spiderman to the big screen. It stars Alison Lohman, Justin Long (The I’m a Mac guy.) and Lorna Raver. It’s about a young, up and coming loan officer who evicts an old woman from her home in order to impress her boss and finds herself the recipient of a supernatural curse.

I had wanted to see this movie for a while now. After all, it was the return to the horror genre for Sam Raimi. Raimi is the man behind the beloved Evil Dead trilogy, the campy horror series that mixed cheesy, over the top effects with genuine shocks and lots of humor. And he made Bruce Campbell a hero to a whole generation of horror geeks.

Drag Me to Hell was pretty much what I expected it to be. And over the top, roller-coaster ride that is almost more of a live action cartoon. You could almost call it Evil Dead: The Next Generation. There were plenty of jump-out-of-your seat moments, but there are more gross-out moments involving old lady phlegm, slime, nose bleeds and bugs than anything else. The mix of classic Raimi cartoonish special effects, outrageous fight scenes between angry spirits and their intended victims and a scene stealing goat make this movie a fun ride.

It was also funny to see what Raimi would do with the improved technology for special effects. CGI did not exist when he made the Evil Dead movies, so I found myself wondering how he would have pulled off some of those shots back in the old days. Luckily, he also sticks to some old favorites, like puppets, white contact lenses and frenetic camera work.

While I got a kick out of Drag Me to Hell I was surprised it got 92% fresh tomatoes on RottenTomatoes.com. It’s a fun movie, and a welcome treat for the Evil Dead crowd, but I would expect the Average Joe on the street to dismiss it as a ridiculous and cheesy B movie. But maybe that’s its charm.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Oh, the Horror: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

Recently I watched an old favorite of mine, the 1948 classic Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein, pairing the famous, funny duo up with horror legends Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. as Dracula and the Wolfman. Also along for the ride is Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster. Oh man, was it great to see that movie again.

It had been more years than I care to admit since I had seen an Abbot and Costello movie and also quite a while since I had seen any of the classic Universal movie monsters. This experience made me want to go back and watch some of the old comedies like A&C, Laurel & Hardy and The Little Rascals. It also got me thinking about those old horror movies.

I grew up watching Chiller Theatre, Creature Feature and Monster Week on the 4:30 Movie. Those old Hammer horror films in particular, thrilled me and kept me awake many a night. But it occurred to me that although I was very familiar with the classic Universal Movie monsters, I really had discovered them more from the Abbott and Costello movie rather than the original films. They hardly ever showed Dracula, Frankenstein or the Wolf Man on TV, but Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was on several times a year, usually on a Sunday on channel 5 in New York. And when they did finally show them, as a kid, they were often too slow paced for me. I preferred things like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and the 1977 BBC version of Dracula with Louis Jourdan. And I knew more about Frankenstein from Mel Brooks than I did Boris Karloff.

I also realized that since they did not show many of the old, black & white horror movies when I was a kid, I often knew them more from the piles of monster books and magazines I constantly poured over. Eventually, I saw the classics, but a there are plenty I have not seen. (Like Bride of Frankenstein. Never seen it.)

As we head into the Halloween season, I have decided to start watching more horror movies… I’ll watch some of the oldies I may have missed and re-watch some others. I’m also going to run the gamut and watch whatever tickles my fancy. I’ll keep you posted as I make progress.

First up: Drag Me to Hell. I recorded it on DVR and it’s just waiting for me to watch it. I know it’s not an old movie or a classic, but as I said, I’m going to watch a wide variety of horror flicks between now and Halloween.

(And yes, I consider September the start of Halloween season. As soon as there is the slightest chill in the air, it’s time.)