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“Rogue One”a step in the right direction

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Last year, Disney reintroduced the Star Wars franchise to a new generation with “Force Awakens.” The positive of that was to see a new story on the big screen from the galaxy far, far away. However, my greatest disappointment was how so much time was spent rehashing material from the first movie instead of being its own thing. “Rogue One” has the upper hand because its a true prequel. This one has the advantage to expand on the universe while being a true link to “Star Wars.”

The main center of the story is a heroin named Jyn (Felicity Jones) who reluctantly assists a group of rebels to find out what the evil Imperial army is up to. I like how at first she doesn’t show interest but suddenly shows a sign of care once faced with what’s to come. Although she has little to no appeal in the space battles, her curiosity peaks when she learns how her father is in the mix of this. She is rebellious yet cunning. Honestly, I can’t think of a female character in the Star Wars universe that wasn’t highly determined.

Joining for the trip is an officer named Cassian (Diego Luna) whose only there to do his job. Tasked with the mission at hand, Cassian shares the same instincts but knows his limits. In one crucial moment, he’s told to assassinate someone vital to bringing down the Rebellion. Once in the moment, he hesitates questioning what value it would bring.  I like how he’s not stubborn to a new idea and at least there is no romantic pairing with Jyn. He’s an honest companion that questions his rights as a fighter.

Other rebels on the way range from a blind man who believes in the Jedi ways and his friend who is more militant. There’s sort of a ying and yang idea going on here as the two have different fighting methods. One is more resourceful on spiritual belief while the other is more into physical action. Its elements like these that make me wonder why “Force Awakens” wasn’t this clever with ideas like this. Sure it had Finn questioning if he’s a human or a fighting machine, but “Rouge One” was built around a fresh story.

To be fair, this one doesn’t shy away from reheating leftover elements. Case and point is an android named K-2SO. He’s obviously the C-3PO type who is very knowledgeable despite being the comic relief. Thankfully, Alan Tudyk’s performance saves the character from being a predictable variation making K more open to fighting when needed and hilariously pessimistic. In a way, this bot reminded me of Marvin the Depressed Robot or some kind of creation that only Douglas Adams would delight in.

Like I said, “Rogue One” doesn’t shy away from the bin of “oh, look its this from the other films” or “wow, that answers this.” I can’t begin to describe the amount of Easter eggs and things I’m sure Star Wars fans of old will be overjoyed in. The one I’m most surprised is a CGI recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. I guess now in days you don’t need to hire a new actor with heavy make-up and I should be too shocked considering this same method was done in Tron Legacy to Jeff Bridges. Still, I liked how limitless this movie went when it came to linking itself to the older entry.

When you boil it down, “Rouge One” is hard to talk about without giving away most of the plot details. For fans of old and new, this will certainly be a nice Christmas treat. I know considering how much of a kick I got out of seeing real sets instead of CGI crafted ones, actual planet environments instead of studio built ones and intense battle scenes that challenge or match the charm of the original trilogy. I can’t tell you how much I smiled to see the AT-TA walkers during the big finale. This is a fun ball of nostalgia while also delivering a complex movie about power and fighting back.

Though parents, be fair warned. “Rouge One” is highly recommended not for smaller fans. This is a radically different movie as director Gareth Edwards wanted this to be more like a  war movie and I feel he succeeded. Despite the PG-13 rating, this is packed with many intense battle scenes and shootouts that parents might want to reconsider this as a Christmas gift for their kids. Even bigger of a debate is the ending (which I will try to avoid ruining) as key characters get killed off to which I’m certain will upset some viewers. For alternatives, I suggest taking them to either “Moana” or “Fantastic Beasts.” Both films have a kind charm that are better suited for the holiday. “Rogue One” is a good entry and an improvement over last year’s entry. But what irks me is how it won’t be canon with the new trilogy. Apparently, the idea is to make a series of Star Wars anthology movies that are more in line with the original films. Honestly, I’d more inclined to see them than watch the continuing retreaded adventures of Kylo Ren.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Island of Terror

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This is no ordinary B-movie

This is no ordinary B-movie

Island of Terror sets a couple of “landmarks” in place despite being small on horror history. Despite being a British production, it was the first science fiction horror film Universal distributed in a long time by as a double feature with another British sci-fi called The Projected Man. Released in 1966 (but distributed to US soil nearly a year after), it was one of the last films to have a terror made by science but to be resolved by “scientific” measures. I do hope I’m not spoiling anything there but this was part of a long run of 1950s B-movies where a scientist would create something and try to destroy with a “cure” in the lab motif. Despite being cheap looking by today’s standards, surprisingly its one of the few movies where its cheesy gets really effected depending on the viewer. But I should warn right now that if you are eating or feel easy stomached, turn away now because this one is a doozy to discuss.

On a remote island off the east coast of Ireland, a group of scientists try to find a cute for cancer. A heavy idea for the time and even then still deep for today’s standards. Most scientists in movies at that age would try things like trying to read a book with their mind but here, its a bit realistic and welcome. Well, something goes wrong and all sorts of horror is unleashed as bodies are discovered but with their bones sucked out leaving behind skin, blood and flesh. A creepy concept enough and keeps you guessing up until the monster(s) show up. Even the make-up job on the squishy corpses are enough to send chills. It looks hokey but effective.

Peter Cushing in action!

Peter Cushing in action!

Peter Cushing plays a pathologist named Dr. Brian Stanley, he’s the typical scientist that looks at the clues and tries to piece them together. Upon arriving to the island to investigate, he takes things to a detective level examining the strange bodies and trying to make sense of the situation. I find it strange how Cushing is playing another doctor after his potrayle of The Doctor in 1965’s Doctor Who and the Daleks. In a sense, this does feel like a Doctor Who episode considering the amount of build up and where it leads. And to see Peter Cushing in a doctor role is ironic and interesting. On the other hand, he was with Hammer Films playing Dr. Frankenstein and Van Helsing so its no coincidence or guess to how good of a performance he gives.

Now let’s talk about the monsters in this movie. And right now if you do have a weak stomach, turn back now because there is no way I can talk about the movie without this. Do you really want to know what’s been making those boneless bodies? Are you really sure? Get a barf bag now because this gets heavy and spoiler-filled. Ready? Here we go.

The deadly Sillicant in all its glory

The deadly Sillicant in all its glory

It gets revealed that what the scientists created on accident was a strange set of creature called Sillicates. Giant blobs that suck the bones out of human being dry. To describe the appearance, picture a mutated ravioli with a single tentacle wagging about. It doesn’t get anymore simple or cheesy than that. Silly as that description sounds on paper, its executed very creepy. The sounds of the bones getting sucked out is really horrifying to listen to. But it pushes the gross factor more when we see these giant amoebas can multiply by mitosis. You heard me right! Monsters that can reproduce by the rate of a scientific germ. But they don’t just separate by any common way. When they split apart, they leave being a mass of strange goo that has stuff like looks like a mix of chicken noodle soup and maggots. Its really nasty.

The infamous hand amputation scene...less said, the better...

The infamous hand amputation scene…less said, the better…

As stated before, the creatures may look and sound goofy but the added sound effects really amps the fear. This is thanks to Barry Gray who did a lot of sound work for Gerry Anderson’s puppet shows like Stingray. When you hear that strange humming sound the sillicates make, you know trouble is coming. It’s very reminiscent of the sounds the spaceships make in George Pal’s War of the Worlds adaption. For a cheaply made movie, it knows when to be frightening and build terror in the right spots. Sometimes it can be questionable goofy but for 1966 this was really shocking. A good example is a really horrifying scene when one of the characters as a sillicant’s tentacle wrapped around his left hand. And in order to save his life, his partner has to lob off the poor guy’s hand at the wrist. Its a gruesome idea and surprisingly we the gory impact as blood spurts out. Even more shocking is how this movie aired on Svengoolie and showed this scene intact minus the blood spurt. And its not like they do a cutaway or anything. We actually see the ax come down on the hand and cut it off. And again, I do apologize for describing this scene in deep detail as I can. But this very much sums up the whole movie.

No bones about it! This one is a screamer

No bones about it! This one is a screamer

In fact, for most of the horror films of the time, I’m surprised to see Island of Terror never got that fame or infamy it deserves. Its a suspenseful feature that relies on sound and visuals to achieve its horror. Maybe it did seeing it does have a small cult following but I feel its not very big. Or perhaps it doesn’t much talk because of the horrific material despite how small it is in does. Or gets shrugged off seeing it came form a time when B-movies of the 1960s would craft this kind of schlock. I plead in defense that is a very different movie than what would one would expect. It doesn’t sugar coat anything which I’m glad it does and seems to be very bold for the time. The only drawback is that it falls into the category of “science gone wrong” which was a popular story trope of the time making it a tad predicable. But it can be clever with its choice of monster and the performances are very good, so my recommendation is very high for this one. Again for sensitive viewers, if you made it past this point and curious enough to see this movie, I won’t stop you. Just make sure your very close to the bathroom for this one or else you will see something far more gross on your living room rug by the end of the movie…know what I mean?

 

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Horror of Dracula

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Of the many incarnations of Dracula, this one can't be missed!

Of the many incarnations of Dracula, this one can’t be missed!

Across the pond lies another movie studio that made an impact on the horror industry. They were known as the Hammer Horror Films. Unlike Universal where the shock was in black and white, theses movies from the UK didn’t hold back. They were in color, increased the violence, cranked up the sex appeal and not to mention adding an element the Universal Monster franchise was missing; blood. And each film relished in showing it. Back then, this was fairly new and shocking to see such edgy material for the late 1950s.

While Curse of Frankenstein was the first one to kick off this wave of gruesome infamy, Horror of Dracula (or Dracula if you live in the UK) perfected this choice of entertaining terror. Even right from the opening shot with blood dripping on Dracula’s coffin, you know what your in for. These movies were free of censorship (sort of) and sought to make their own iconic footprints. Rather than clone the classic Jack Pierce make-up or follow the story, Hammer Films made their horror movies with fresh and different takes even if did mean sacrificing certain liberties.

A good example is the story and how it adapts the original Dracula story. Those who are huge on “sticking to the source” might be disappointed as it takes elements from the Bram Stoker novel while twisting them into a different story altogether. John Harker (John Van Eyssen) still visits the Count but this time ends up getting turned into a vampire and sending out notes of his demise to Van Helsing. To me, this follows something like Pyscho did where the main character gets killed off after the first half of the feature. It plays with your expectations but again, some can be sticklers on sticking to the source. And personally, I think veering from the novel works here.

Christopher Lee IS Dracula!

Christopher Lee IS Dracula!

I know I have been deep on how an adaptation should stick close to the source but there is a right way and wrong way to do that. In some cases, one can take elements or ideas while utilizing them into something completely new and fresh. Phantom of the Paradise is a great example taking the story of Phantom of the Opera and giving it a rock musical quality with some Faust tossed in. Why make another film adaptation of a story that we already know when you can play with expectations? Heck, the 1931 Dracula was actually sourced from a Broadway play and less of the Bram Stoker novel. The Dracula mythos is so embedded deep into the public conscious that changing up really works here.

While Bela Lugosi left an impact, so does Christopher Lee. When we see him as Dracula, Christopher channels a lot of the gentleman traits while feeling hypnotic. He’s very inviting and you almost want to take in his hospitality. But when the sun goes down, a different personality emerges. Now, Dracula becomes brutal and animalistic with blood dripping from his fangs and giving a predatory stare. Surprisingly, I found a lot more terror from Christopher Lee’s portrayal than I did with Lugosi’s take. On the downside, he doesn’t get much speaking parts and his appearance is downplayed. But his visual expression and appearance still leave a huge impact. When he kills his victims, he doesn’t say a word and jumps right to his satisfaction.

Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) questions the nature of his enemy

Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) questions the nature of his enemy

Peter Cushing also gives a great performance as Van Helsing who seeks to destroy Dracula while convincing Arthur Holmwood (Micheal Gough) that his sister and lover are the vampire’s next entrees. Peter will always be chilling and engaging no matter what role he will be in. His take of Helsing is intimidating and doesn’t mess about. He knows what monster he is going against and tries to remain one step ahead while remembering the fanged fiend’s weaknesses. Even more ironic how previously, Cushing was Dr. Frankenstein and yet Christopher Lee was his monstrous creation. Interesting to see how the roles are similar yet different.

Again, the positive is how faithful it remains to the novel while adding some new material to keep it fresh. Harker is very much a minor character that keeps the story going while Lucy gets the first to be a vampire. In the novel, her character as sweet tooth hunger for younger kids and the movie manages to keep it in without being blunt about it. Its creepy and unsettling while never forcing the aspect too much. Sadly, the only major cut is the character of Renfield, Dracula’s demented servant. It would have been nice to have at least a little nod to the crazy assistant but the movie still works fine without him. Its a deletion that I do miss but what can you do?

One of the many restored shots of Dracula decaying under the sunlight. These shots when missing until 2012 saw the release of a new cut with the missing bits restored...but only available in the UK.....lucky blighters

One of the many restored shots of Dracula decaying under the sunlight. These shots when missing until 2012 saw the release of a new cut with the missing bits restored…but only available in the UK…..lucky blighters

The ending is another huge highlight as it builds and builds. Even if its a short climax, it feels really engaging as Helsing and Dracula square off against each other. But perhaps iconic about this finale is that we get to see a vampire decay under the sunlight. And I mean really decay! No fades into a skeleton. Dracula decomposes and gets cooked to a cindering crisp. Its not nasty as you think but its a very cool yet haunting special effect and a testament to how great practical effects can be. But as it turns out, some extra limb decay and a shot of Dracula clawing at his rotted face was considered too gross for 1958 and was cut. These shots were deemed missing until 2012 when they were restored into the movie thanks to an uncut print found in Japan. The good news is that a copy of this cut exists but the bad news is that the Blu-Ray is Region B, meaning you have to live in the UK or own a universal Blu-ray player that can read international DVDs and Blu-Rays. Regardless, its nice to hear some lost history finally rediscovered.

British actor Christopher Lee plays the vampiric Count in 'Dracula', 1958. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

In Memory of Christopher Lee

Bottom line, Horror of Dracula doesn’t trump the power of any other incarnation but offers its own take. And that is a good thing. I would rather have another Dracula movie try new things out than rather be a straight telling of the novel. This is a perfect fit that not only respects the source but also gives a new representation of the Count that is new and scary. Its well shot, has great performances and grabs your attention from beginning to end. I do wish Christopher Lee was given a bit more to do or at least play around with his “gentleman” personality. But he still gives an edgy take that is iconic, memorable and its easy to see why.