The Monster (1925) Review

Director: Roland West

Genre(s): Comedy, Horror

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite getting top billing, Lon Chaney doesn’t appear in The Monster until about half-of-an-hour into the runtime. The plot here is about mad scientist Dr. Ziska (Lon Chaney) luring victims into a remote sanitarium, until one night where three guests – amateur detective Johnny Goodlittle (Johnny Arthur), town dandy Amos Rugg (Hallam Cooley), and damsel-in-distress Betty Watson (Gertrude Olmstead) – threaten his party. This silent movie proves that they were making horror-comedies all the way back in the 1920s.

The Monster has some interesting ideas (it was possibly the first mad scientist film to depict the doctor having various deranged henchmen, for example), but it’s just too slowly paced for its own good. Some early scenes, showing small-town life, seem to move at a lethargic speed, but the sequences in the haunted asylum don’t fare any better. It may be a very early “dark, old house” flick, but the pacing here is slow by the standards of any cinematic time period.

Perhaps the nicest thing that can be said about this feature is that the horror and comedy elements don’t overshadow each other. While there are some cheap “scares” (an unexplained skeleton in a closet?) and cheap “laughs” (a teetotaler getting drunk off his ass?), this picture knows to not let the scary and humorous stuff negate one another. The finale is at least sort of chilling, with Lon Chaney’s character threatening to conduct a bizarre experiment.

One of the first words that springs to mind to describe The Monster is “slow.” Ouch. The characters aren’t too memorable and Chaney should’ve been in it more. It does hold a somewhat interesting place in the history of horror movies, but is that enough to recommend it? I’m going to say “no,” but you certainly could do a lot worse.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The War of the Worlds (1953) Review

Director: Byron Haskin

Genre(s): Action, Drama, Horror, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Decades before director Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), there was a similarly-titled sci-fi picture that covered the same ground. Martians have invaded Earth, and humanity finds itself waging a seemingly losing battle against the extraterrestrial invaders. Largely set in the 1950s United States, this one feels like a bunch of aliens crashed into a Norman Rockwell painting.

Elements of this science-fiction-horror feature may seem hokey by today’s standards, but I think that it’s got it where it counts. The lead character, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), may not be the kind of hero you’d expect from a 1950s film, but it totally works in the context of the movie. There’s a fair amount of action once things get rolling, and the flick is bleaker and darker than one might anticipate from an American production of this time period (although it’s certainly not as moody as it could’ve been).

The most notable hit-or-miss aspects of The War of the Worlds are the special effects. They won an Oscar, with some of the destruction looking quite impressive for a 1953 movie. However, not every effect is flawless, and some of the visuals have definitely dated…if they ever looked good at all (during the scene where human artillery is firing at the Martian war machines, it looks like someone tossing fire-crackers at miniatures). The aliens themselves also present a problem, since they look more cute than terrifying.

This sci-fi-thriller, which may reflect the Cold War paranoia of the time, runs a brisk eighty-five minutes, so time is rarely wasted. Modern audiences will find some parts of the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds to be cheesy or quaint, but I think that the picture’s desperate tone and focus on physical mayhem save it from being a useless 1950s relic. To be honest, I prefer the 2005 film directed by Spielberg, but this one is still worth watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) Review

Director: Rob Cohen

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Horror

Runtime: 112 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The third film in The Mummy franchise, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, generally received negative reviews from critics, but I think it holds up a notch better than the first sequel, The Mummy Returns (2001), as this one doesn’t recycle the Ancient Egyptian motif. It’s not a great movie, but it’s watchable fare. The plot, set in the 1940s, concerns the globetrotting O’Connell family fighting to prevent the reanimated corpse of an Ancient Chinese emperor (Jet Li) from taking over the world. I think that you know the drill.

This is an action-adventure picture, obviously, so there’s lots and lots of danger, fighting, heroics, and physical mayhem. I admit that it’s a pretty juvenile work (you won’t believe the surprise in store for the audience during the action scene at the Himalayan monastery!), but it has a certain appeal. The action sequences are generally competently pulled off, although the camera is occasionally too close to the goings-on.

It’s important to note that Rachel Weisz, who played Evelyn in the previous two flicks in the series, does not return here, and is instead replaced by Maria Bello. Brendan Fraser does, however, come back as Rick O’Connell, continuing to be a surprisingly charismatic action star. The movie also benefits from the inclusion of the Chinese actors Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh (who plays Zi Yuan). Liam Cunningham makes a positive impression as “Mad Dog” Maguire, a reckless pilot.

Okay, this isn’t exactly a prestigious motion picture (although Roger Ebert did give it three out of four stars), but it’s pretty cool in an I’m-thirteen-and-this-is-badass sort of way. I wasn’t actually a teenager when I first saw it, unfortunately, but it does a satisfactory job of bringing out the inner kid in the viewer. Its blend of action, humor, horror, and characters we’ve come to enjoy seeing on the big screen make it passable entertainment.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Mummy Returns (2001) Review

Director: Stephen Sommers

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Horror

Runtime: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The Mummy Returns is a sequel to The Mummy (1999) that continues on in the pulpy, over-the-top, Indiana Jones-ish style. To be frank, it’s really just a whole lot more of the same. Set mostly in the 1930s, a mummy brought to London comes to life and threatens to bring on an apocalypse with its curses and all that spooky stuff.

“Overkill” is the word of the day here. This film takes what made the first one good and amplifies it. More action, more curses, more special effects, more artifacts, more villains, more locations and lost cities, more humor, more combatants in the battle scenes, and more mummies are the name of the game. More! More! More! Sometimes this approach works for sequels, but I felt that it came close to being tiring in the case of The Mummy Returns.

The movie in question feels like a product of its time. It’s a good-natured action-adventure blockbuster with some special effects that have aged poorly (if they ever looked good at all). The action scenes are of a reasonably high quality, but there is the CGI (computer-generated imagery) overkill factor. Personally, there was also a bit too much fantasy mumbo-jumbo for my tastes. It gets a bit on the complicated side.

I’m usually a big fan of this sort of motion picture. You know, unpretentious, pulpy, action-packed, and fun. However, despite its likeable heroes, a cool musical score from Alan Silvestri, and entertaining action sequences, The Mummy Returns may throw a bit too much at the audience. This feature certainly has its fans, and that’s okay, but I think that I’ll largely stick with the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises for my action-adventure thrills.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Eraserhead (1977) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Horror, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 89 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Eraserhead‘s tagline is “A dream of dark and troubling things.” Yep, that’s sounds about right. In director David Lynch’s debut feature film, wimpy Henry Spencer’s (Jack Nance) girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), gives birth to a mutant, alien-looking baby (that sort of resembles one of the Mon Calamari from the Star Wars franchise). Set against the backdrop of an industrial, dystopian Hellhole, this black-and-white surrealist horror classic has been mesmerizing audiences since 1977.

Several years in the making, this anxiety-ridden and deeply neurotic movie feels like a twisted nightmare set to film. In this regard, it could be considered the United States’ answer to Un Chien Andalou (1929). With its bizarre dream logic, it’s more about making you feel things, rather than provoking coherent thoughts. Well, it does appear to be about the fears of parenthood (being borderline antinatalistic) and spousal abandonment, but it often lets the surrealism do the talking.

No review of Eraserhead would be complete without mentioning its demented, droning sound design. The hum of Henry Spencer’s industrialized world is pervasive and unnerving. The special effects are equally astounding, and the picture’s oneiric feel has rarely been matched. Like dreams an actual human being might have, Eraserhead is mostly terrifying, but it also has occasional moments of offbeat humor.

Yes, this feature is undeniably a bit on the “artsy-fartsy” side, but it still manages to be insanely effective at what it does. It’s a strange, for-adults-only sci-fi-horror package that will surely leave no one feeling cold or indifferent. It’s a movie that demands a strong reaction of some sort. If you know what you’re getting into, you might fall under its spell.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Mummy (1999) Review

Director: Stephen Sommers

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Horror

Runtime: 124 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 1999 film The Mummy feels like an attempt to recapture the magic of the original Indiana Jones trilogy. The movie is about a group of adventurers who unleash an ancient Egyptian curse while searching for a lost city. On IMDb’s “Connections” page for this picture, it is considered a version of the The Mummy (1932), but this flick is far more action-adventure-oriented than that oldie.

I can’t say that this feature completely succeeds in its aping of the Indiana Jones series, but it’s still a worthy piece of cinema. There are some lively, rousing action scenes (especially in the first half), and the interwar setting is pulpy and exciting. While he’s no Harrison Ford, Brendan Fraser (as Rick O’Connell) is a surprisingly able action hero. Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score makes its presence known (in a good sort of way).

Perhaps the biggest downside to The Mummy is that it goes a bit too heavy on the fantasy elements early on. The aforementioned Indiana Jones films generally slowly built up to supernatural happenings, while this movie frequently tosses that sort of stuff at the audience throughout the runtime. This means that there’s notably less mystery and awe in the picture.

The first half of The Mummy is probably superior to the back half, but I’d still recommend this flick to people looking for a pulp fiction fix. The action-adventure content is the star of the show here, but there’s also a sizeable quantity of light horror to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. I’m not as enchanted with it as some viewers are, but I still enjoy the ride.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Devil (2010) Review

Director: John Erick Dowdle

Genre(s): Horror, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 80 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

M. Night Shyamalan, known for his twisty thrillers, didn’t direct Devil, but he did come up with the story and also co-produced it. The movie’s story is about five strangers who find themselves trapped together on an elevator in a Philadelphia skyscraper…and somebody’s killing them off one-by-one. This flick gets figurative points for its interesting premise, but its execution is only so-so.

Devil largely revolves around the five distinct characters in the broken elevator, which makes the film feel appropriately claustrophobic. That being said, a significant part of the runtime takes place outside of the lift, with security guards and first responders trying to unjam the elevator and figure out just who the murderer is. This gives the feature a light whodunnit quality, even if the focus is primarily on the scares.

The resolution of the mystery at the heart of Devil is perhaps the weakest part of the picture. I wouldn’t really describe it as “unsatisfying,” but it does come across as a bit hokey. The movie veers a little out of control at times, and you may need to stifle a laugh or two at something that wasn’t intended to be comical. However, I do enjoy unintentional humor, so I suppose I can’t complain too much.

Devil wraps up in less than an hour-and-a-half, so, even if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t be out too many minutes of your time. I’ll give the flick credit for its creative ideas and fine pacing, but it does feel borderline-tacky at times. In the end, I don’t really say “watch it” or “avoid it;” just know that it can be a little silly.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Shutter Island (2010) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 138 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

With 2010’s Shutter Island, director Martin Scorsese waded into the world of the psychological horror-thriller film…and he did so quite effectively, in my opinion. Set in the 1950s, this movie is about two American federal agents – Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) – who’re sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate from an offshore asylum for the criminally insane. Despite a somewhat mixed reception from critics, many moviegoers have latched onto this menacing mind-bender.

Professional film reviewers are generally quick to compare this picture to the works of director Alfred Hitchcock, but there are also notable elements of noir and pulp here, too. I can’t help but feel that the aforementioned pulpy aspects threw some critics, who may have expected something a bit more grounded, for a loop. Anyway, this flick’s paranoid thriller style is supremely foreboding and sinister.

With its high-impact imagery and tense musical choices (collected by Robbie Robertson of The Band fame), Shutter Island is gripping from the start and never lets up. It starts off mysterious and uneasy before building up to fever dream-like ferocity. Some audience members have found some of the production’s plot points to be predictable, but I think that it’s just as much about the journey as it is about the destination in this case.

This feature got a divisive reaction, and I happen to fall on the side believing that it’s a superb piece of suspense and psychological terror. Its plot is alluring and the pacing is swift enough to keep the viewer from questioning some of its potential excesses. For fans of trippy cinema that messes with your head while remaining somewhat mainstream (we’re not talking Un Chien Andalou [1929] levels of nuttiness here), this is an easy one to recommend.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Murders in the Zoo (1933) Review

Director: A. Edward Sutherland

Genre(s): Crime, Horror, Thriller

Runtime: 62 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Murders in the Zoo is a short and sweet horror-thriller from the Pre-Code days of Hollywood, before the Production Code was enforced. Its plot concerns a big-game hunter named Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) who uses animals to kill the men who have affairs with his wife, Evelyn (Kathleen Burke). It’s not quite up there with the very best of the Pre-Code era, but it’s still worth checking out for horror fans.

There are a few familiar faces in Murders in the Zoo, including Randolph Scott as Dr. Jack Woodford, the zoo’s lab technician, and the aforementioned Kathleen Burke, who played Lota in the horror masterpiece Island of Lost Souls (1932). The actor who gets top billing, though, is actually Charles Ruggles, who plays the zoo’s new publicity agent, Peter Yates. He’s the film’s comic relief character, and focusing on him so much may have been a minor misstep on the movie’s part.

Another little error is that its most shocking act of violence is the very first one to take place in the runtime. Still, there’s some good stuff later on in the flick. The fights between the zoo animals towards the end are pretty disturbing, as it looks like the action wasn’t overseen by anybody who had the creatures’ well-being in mind. When the inhabitants of the zoo aren’t brawling, though, there’s some good footage of them.

Murders in the Zoo isn’t as out of control as some viewers may hope. It might not live up to its full potential, but this is still a fun, nifty, little horror picture (it’s not a mystery movie, as the bad guy’s identity is revealed in the opening sequence). It’s really, really short as well – running only about an hour – so, if you see that it’s on television or something, you should watch it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) Review

Director: Charles Laughton

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Horror, Thriller

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Charles Laughton only directed one film in his career (well, IMDb does have him listed as an uncredited co-director for The Man on the Eiffel Tower [1949]), and that picture is the masterpiece The Night of the Hunter. Set during the Great Depression, serial-killing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) stalks two children – John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl Harper (Sally Jane Bruce) – who’re hiding a small fortune that their late father – Ben Harper (Peter Graves) – stole for them. Often considered a film-noir, I feel that this horror-thriller classic is better classified as some sort of dark fairy tale.

Influenced by German Expressionism, this movie’s shadowy cinematography is some of the very best of all time. Robert Mitchum’s fanatical, murderous holy man is one of the greatest villains to ever grace the silver screen. There are several intentionally uncomfortable moments involving his character that’ll have you squirming in your chair. He’s a vicious, greedy wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing that the audience will love to hate.

The third act of The Night of the Hunter is decidedly less intense than the first two-thirds. It’s certainly not bad…far from it. It just lacks some of the menace that the opening and middle sequences had. There are also some touches towards the end that feel like they were mandated by the Production Code of the time. However, not even a saccharine ending can sink this ship.

The Night of the Hunter is a must-watch for people wanting to learn more about the art of cinema. It’s artistically distinguished, but can also be easily enjoyed by any type of viewer. This highly relevant story is full of suspense and drama, with a gripping, superb visual style. It has an easy-to-manage runtime of 92 minutes and one of the best baddies in the medium, so why not watch it today?

My rating is 9 outta 10.