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20.12.14

Night of the Living Dead (1968)


Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Judith O'Dea, Duane Jones, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Judith Riley, Keith Wayne
Not rated, 90 minutes

In the late 1960's, a small, Pittsburgh-based production company named The Latent Image decided to make the jump from commercials and industrial films to feature-length movies. Their first project would be a low-budget, black-and-white horror film intended to make a decent profit and hopefully lead to bigger things. To their shock, their little movie went on to become one of the most successful and influential independent films of all time, and would introduce a young director named George A. Romero to the world.

In the Pennsylvania countryside, a disparate group of people seek refuge in an abandoned farmhouse, while a growing horde of cannibalistic ghouls amass outside. News reports tell of an almost unfathomable horror: the bodies of the recently deceased are returning to life and feasting on the flesh of the living. As the night goes on, tensions amongst the survivors grow as their hopes and options for a safe escape diminish.

The film's grainy black-and-white photography and documentary-like approach, combined with an odd soundtrack consisting of public domain monster movie music and electronic sound effects gives the movie a genuinely nightmarish quality that holds up nearly five decades later. The scene in which the dead snack on the remains of two ill-fated characters while a low pulsating tone growls on the soundtrack has undoubtedly fueled many bad dreams over the years. Same goes for the basement scene, in which a woman's screams are looped and echoed over the sound of a trowel puncturing her flesh, over and over again.  Romero would certainly make gorier films, he would never again make one as frightening and unnerving as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

The scenes inside the farmhouse fuel an unbearable, and rapidly intensifying, atmosphere of hopelessness and dread. Coolheaded Ben (Duane Jones) begins clashing with the abrasive Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), while our heroine Barbara (Judith O'Dea), lingers on the edges of catatonia. Meanwhile, the news reports coming in over the television tell of a situation that is well out-of-control and certain to get much worse. Romero does a remarkable job of setting a tone that feels as the world as you know it is quickly coming to a horrifying end. While Romero's subsequent DEAD films would continue to use the "siege" narrative, none of them are as claustrophobic and nerve-racking as it is here.

Five decades since its release, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD continues to spawn tributes, remakes, and ripoffs. The film casts a long shadow that nearly every "zombie" film made since must reside under. Most remarkable of all is that the film has lost none of its power to shock and unnerve, and its apocalyptic tone has never been rivaled. Simply put, this is one of the greatest horror films ever made.

5 out of 5.


18.12.14

The Man in the Attic (1953)


Director: Hugo Fregonese
Starring: Jack Palance, Constance Smith, Byron Palmer, Rhys Williams, Frances Bavier
Not rated, 82 minutes

This was the fourth time Marie Belloc Lowndes' 1913 novel THE LODGER was made into a movie. Helen (Frances Bavier) and William Harley (Rhys Williams) are an older couple renting out rooms in their home for extra cash. One day a man (Jack Palance) arrives to inquire about a room. Carrying only a black briefcase, the man introduces himself as Slade, a pathologist who works at the university. Explaining that he works late at night and often conducts research in his downtime, he asks if he can rent out the couple's attic and adjoining rooms. An intrigued Helen agrees and accepts him as a tenant. Her intrigues slowly begins to turn into suspicion, as Slade wastes no time in revealing some very odd behaviors. Helen catches Slade turning several paintings of actresses around on his bedroom wall, because he says their eyes were following him around the room. He shows himself to extremely secretive, twitchy, and awkward in conversation. While Helen expresses concern over Slade's unusual personality, husband William dismisses her concern. After all, he says, the family dog likes him, which means he can't be that bad. Slade soon learns that he isn't the only tenant in the Harley home: the Harley's gorgeous niece, a professional dancer named Lily (Constance Smith), is back from France and is staying there, as well. Sparks fly when the two meet, with Lily intrigued by the mysterious Slade, and Slade showing a very intense interest in Lily. A romantic triangle forms when a police inspector investigating the Jack the Ripper case finds himself under the pretty dancer's spell. However, his romantic gestures are thwarted by several new Ripper killings. While Lily becomes more and more enamored with the mysterious Slade, all signs begin to indicate that he may not be the sensitive and misunderstood soul she thinks him to be.

MAN IN THE ATTIC doesn't try very hard to establish the setting of Victorian London during the Jack the Ripper killings. Some characters have English accents, some don't. We're also treated to several time-padding musical sequences that have a distinctly America-in-the-50's feeling, with Constance Smith doing her showgirl thing amid a assortment of tastefully clothed dancing ladies. Without a few shots of cobblestone streets and the occasional bobby, you might forget this is a Jack the Ripper movie, though one that plays fast and loose with the details of the case.

It isn't a total loss, however, as the film moves at a good pace and is full of some very engaging performances. Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee from "The Andy Griffith Show") and Rhys Williams are fun  as the bickering landlords, supplying a humorous tone to an otherwise serious film. The dramatic weight rests on the shoulders of Jack Palance as the strange, and possibly dangerous, Slade. From the moment he appears onscreen, Palance exhudes a tense and unpredictable energy that is mesmerizing. Even when he's being polite, he seems to be masking something intense and unpleasant. I won't say much more about his performance, as the film does make a half-assed attempt at mystery and I don't want to spoil anything. In any case, Palance is the primary reason to watch MAN IN THE ATTIC, if for no other reason than to see any early performance from one of the most unique and mesmerizing actors of his generation.

This movie is also notable for being one of the last big roles for actress Constance Smith. Smith was on her way to making a name for herself when she ran into a series of tragic events that would ruin her career. The Irish-born Smith had a somewhat of a reputation for being difficult, meaning that she wasn't willing to conform to studio authority.  As the story goes, she was pressured into having an abortion by studio heavies, and would soon spiral into a nightmare of substance abuse, mental illness, and violence. She died, homeless and forgotten, in 2003.

3 out of 5.