The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Joe May

Cedric Hardwicke - Richard Cobb
Vincent Price - Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe
Nan Grey - Helen Manson
John Sutton - Dr. Frank Griffin
Cecil Kellaway - Inspector Sampson
Alan Napier - Willie Spears

Genre - Horror/Mystery/Science Fiction

Running Time - 81 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
Framed for the murder of his brother, Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) is scheduled to hang. After a visit from his friend Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), he vanishes mysteriously from prison. Police Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) realizes that Griffin is the brother of the original Invisible Man and has given Geoffrey the formula to aid his escape. Can Geoffrey elude the police dragnet and track down the real murderer? More importantly, can Griffin discover an antidote before the invisibility formula drives Geoffrey insane?

With the new adaptation of THE INVISIBLE MAN out in theaters by the time you read this, I figured it would be cool to go back and watch some of the original Universal Studios films that popularized the H.G. Wells character on the silver screen. Since I already reviewed the first 1933 adaptation of THE INVISIBLE MAN directed by James Whale and starring the incredible Claude Rains, I figured I would take another look at the first sequel to that film - 1940’s THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS. It’s a film I hadn’t seen in many years and I was curious to see how it held up after all of these years. While not as iconic or as good as the first film, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS is a sequel that’s probably better than it has any right to be. It’s no surprise this film made a decent profit at the box office, which led to a few more sequels and spinoffs down the line.

THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS is not as much of a sequel, as it is a sort of reboot of the first film. It follows many of the same beats - Invisible Man running from the law while growing mad from the invisible serum, has a beautiful fiancee who supports him despite his condition, and he has to deal with a rival of sorts that’s doing him wrong. Unlike the first film though, the characters are a bit more grounded and developed despite a slightly lesser story holding everything together. THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS is not really a horror film beyond the title character’s condition, but rather a revenge story and melodrama about an innocent man using his condition to find the real person who murdered his brother [a crime he’s framed for] while struggling with the invisible power that’s corrupting him and driving him insane. It’s pretty much an 80-minute soap opera in a lot of ways, focusing more on romance, friendship, and righting wrongs through violent means. It’s told well enough to remain engaging throughout, but it lacks the power of the original’s storytelling. There was a mood, an atmosphere, and even an obvious attitude in the first film that created this magical energy the old Universal Films had no trouble in creating. The fun factor of being sort of terrified by the Invisible Man is now gone, as we’re now meant to sympathize with his plight.

That’s not to say that the sympathy angle is a bad thing. In fact, I respect the writers of this sequel for taking a different avenue with THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, making it stand out from the first film in a natural and refreshing way. The character of Geoffrey Radcliffe isn’t like the original’s Jack Griffin, who was unlikable from the start and reveled in causing fear for those around him. Radcliffe is a good person, framed for a crime he didn’t commit, yet he has no proof right before he’s executed. However Griffin’s brother, Dr. Frank Griffin, gives Radcliffe the formula to escape and find the real killer out of friendship. In a strange way, Radcliffe becomes a detective, haunting those who have wronged him while searching for answers as to who really murdered his brother. The insanity only comes when he’s under the serum for much longer than necessary, turning him into what Jack Griffin had become throughout the first film. Radcliffe doesn’t have a ton of development, but it’s obvious he has a sense for justice and loves his fiancee Helen and supports Frank when it comes to his scientific discoveries. You’re allowed, as the audience, to rightfully support Radcliffe and feel bad for the guy when the serum starts taking over.

It helps when the supporting characters are well defined in their roles. Helen is the typical token girlfriend who worries about Radcliffe. But she believes in his innocence and is willing to participate in helping him solve the case, even when the solution shocks her and tries to deny it. But she always has his back through thick and thin. Frank tries to make up for what his brother had done in the first film by giving the serum to Radcliffe to turn the wrong into a right. He’s also hard at working at an antidote that only half works when it brings the subject back to the visible spectrum before killing them accidentally. He tries to keep Radcliffe’s eyes on the mission, struggling to ground him when his friend slowly goes mad and paranoid. On the other side of things, Radcliffe’s cousin Richard Cobb doesn’t seem all that concerned that a family member is about to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit. In fact, he seems to be trying to worm his way into Helen’s life as a replacement, which she’s blind to. And of course, you have the obvious police officers who are in disbelief that they’re dealing with an invisible man while doing the best to do their jobs. They use clues from the previous encounter with Griffin to expose Radcliffe and put him back in custody. All the characters have a distinct role that all flesh out the film’s narrative in a natural way, creating a world that’s easy to invest oneself into.

Probably the biggest flaw of the story is figuring out who the real murderer is. If you read the character descriptions above, it’s easy to see who the villain of the film is. And we learn who it is during the film’s second act, pretty much taking away any sort of suspense or tension from the story. The rest of the film after that seems to be Radcliffe messing with the culprit to get him to confess, or just getting revenge by killing him. It takes away a bit of steam as the detective aspect is pretty fun, turning the film into your typical revenge flick without much revenge going for it. In fact, things get a bit slapstick which takes away something from it all. It’s still fun to watch, but you can just feel the inferiority compared to the original movie.

Like the first film, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS has a huge focus on its special effects, which probably impressed a lot of people in 1940. In fact, this film was nominated at the Academy Awards for that very category. And like the first film, they look pretty damn great for its time. We get the classic full-body bandage and all, creating an invisible illusion when they start to unravel from Radcliffe’s body. We get actors interacting with nothing or nobody, selling the dialogue or physical interactions with the Invisible Man. There is some green screen that works - in particular a scene where Frank takes Radcliffe’s blood from an invisible arm - while others are pretty bad, especially during the film’s final act. The newest aspect of the effects here involve when subjects become visible again. Unlike the first film, we get dissolves of the invisible subject displaying their bones first, then their veins, and then they’re visible form. It’s actually pretty damn cool to see, considering the film is 80 years old. It also reminded me of 2000’s HOLLOW MAN, which was obviously inspired by this film for that special effect alone. I do feel the special effects were used more creatively in the 1933 film, especially when it came to objects hovering on screen and just the action choreography of other actors reacting to something that wasn’t there. But the sequel is no slouch and still impresses for the most part today.

While he’s no James Whale, Joe May does a commendable job continuing what he had started. Like I mentioned, the use of the special effects is well done for its time, continuing the great visuals that the first film had presented. May also directs a well paced film with some decent action and good dramatic moments that keep you engaged throughout. I do feel that May plays things a bit safe, considering how far Whale pushed the use of special effects and the direction of the actors to interact with someone who wasn’t onscreen with them. There is also a sly wit and charm from the first film that doesn’t really exist in this sequel. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen most of this done slightly better before and expect the film to expand on those previous ideas. The dissolve into visibility is a great touch, but the film needed more than that. Even by 1940, the visual presentation feels old hat. May also has issues with tone, never sure whether to take things seriously or play them for laughs. That’s not to say that Joe May doesn’t do a good job, as THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS is still well made and does what it needs to justify its existence.

The acting is also pretty solid here. It’s weird seeing Cedric Hardwicke get first billing here in hindsight, considering who else is in the cast that became a major star later on in his career. But Hardwicke is really good as Cobb, playing the antagonistic side of things and being a thorn in Radcliffe’s side. He plays smarmy and conniving very well, playing off of the rest of the cast entertainingly. Nan Grey is good as Helen, Radcliffe’s loyal girlfriend. She doesn’t really play a damsel-in-distress, helping Radcliffe prove his innocence while dealing with the surreal events around her. John Sutton keeps things grounded as Dr. Frank Griffin, taking the entire story seriously and bringing some gravitas to what should be a silly concept. But the real star here is a young Vincent Price as Radcliffe, showing early on why he continued to shine bright in the genre throughout his iconic career until his unfortunate passing almost 30 years ago. You don’t really see his face until the very end, as he’s covered in bandages or is invisible for the rest of the film. But his voice is so strong that it expresses a lot of what he’s feeling, even when you can’t see him. Price isn’t the Vincent Price the legend at this point, as his voice doesn’t carry that charming menace we’re used to - even though some of that does come out when he plays up the madness near the end. But the man is so good, even in his earlier films, truly carrying this sequel and making it worthwhile on all fronts. I’ve always been a huge fan of Price and this film is a good reason why.

While not up to the level of the 1933 film, 1940’s THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS still manages to be a good time. The sequel’s story follows similar beats, yet changes it up by having a protagonist who is sympathetic and is made invisible to solve a murder he’s been framed for. This is a positive, as it makes the sequel stand out as a revenge and love story rather than one meant to scare audiences. The special effects are just as good here as they were in the original film, with an added bonus of dissolves revealing veins, bones and an epidermis prior to turning fully visible that inspired later films like 2000’s HOLLOW MAN. And the acting, led by a young but still magnetic Vincent Price, carry the film well and keep you invested in the story. However, the film has competent, yet really safe, direction by Joe May who tries to be James Whale but doesn’t quite reach that bar with his inability to maintain a single tone, as well as not being able to charm and excite the audience like Whale had done with the first film. Plus, the mystery of the person who framed the lead character is easy to figure out and takes away a lot of the tension and suspense a film like this should be able to maintain until the film’s climax. Still, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS is a worthy sequel that has something different to offer if you’re a fan of the original film and its concept.

3 Howls Outta 4


Torso (1973)

Sergio Martino

Suzy Kendall - Jane
Tina Aumont - Daniela
Luc Merenda - Roberto
John Richardson - Franz
Roberto Bisacco - Stefano Vanzi
Ernesto Colli - Gianni Tomasso
Carlo Alighiero - Uncle Nino
Luciano De Ambrosis - Inspector Martino

Genre - Horror/Mystery/Slasher/Giallo

Running Time - 89 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
Someone is strangling coeds in Perugia. The only clue is that the killer owns a red and black scarf, and police are stumped. American exchange student Jane (Suzy Kendall) and her friends decide to take a break from classes by going up to Daniela’s (Tina Aumont) uncle’s (Carlo Alighiero) villa in the country. Unfortunately the killer decides to follow, and the women begin suffering a rapid attrition problem.

When people bring up the film term giallo, one of the first films that will probably be mentioned is Sergio Martino’s 1973 film, TORSO. While it’s not as visually stylish as his 1972 film ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, or as memorably titled as his other 1972 film YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY [probably the best film title ever], TORSO is certainly Martino’s most popular and possibly most influential in his filmography. This is probably mainly due to TORSO being presented as a porto-slasher at times, clearly showing how later films like 1974’s BLACK CHRISTMAS and 1978’s HALLOWEEN may have been inspired in terms of presenting certain tropes and visual effects. But for the most part, TORSO clearly follows more of a giallo outline, crafting a mystery around the identity of a masked killer who is murdering female college students for reasons unknown until the end. There have been much better giallo films made prior and since TORSO’s release, but the film is still a solid watch for both good and bad reasons.

The best thing TORSO has going for it is Sergio Martino’s direction. Like I mentioned before, TORSO isn’t as stylish or as visually interesting as ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. But visually, TORSO does what a giallo needs to do. Martino keeps the killer out of the frame for majority of the film, just showing his feet as he stalks, or using a first person perspective as he targets his unsuspecting victims. We also see the killer, wearing his ski mask and black gloves a couple of times, briefly, making his rare appearances creepier than they probably ought to be. Martino also builds a lot of tension and suspense during the stalk sequences, building up the anticipation for when he strikes as the killer’s mystery grows until it’s revelation at the end. TORSO definitely has a mood and an atmosphere only Italian horror films capture really well.

You’d expect a giallo to have some gory sequences, but TORSO lacks in that department unfortunately. Still, there are a couple of graphic moments that occur - one scene where someone is rammed repeatedly against a wall with a car, crushing their torso and skull; and the killer using a bone saw to dispose the bodies of his victims. But usually, the death sequences take place offscreen, or just involve a person getting strangled by a scarf and then getting their torso sliced by a knife. Considering that most giallo films go for really memorable death moments, TORSO was kind of disappointing in that department.

But it seems the violence has been replaced by sex and nudity, because you get a whole lot of that in TORSO. At times, I was wondering if I was watching a soft-core porno - with random lesbians seducing each other naked, a nude photography session gone awry, and your typical outdoor college sex orgy that all the cool students attend. In fact, most of the women in this film get nude at one point, as all the male characters in the film pretty much ogle them without shame. There’s one hilarious moment where a female character is just relaxing on a car in the middle of a town square, as all the men there form a circle around her and just stare lustfully at her. Probably misogynistic since women are treated as objects and the killer has issues with only women and murders them in a brutal way if looked in today’s eye, but I just found it unintentionally funny since Martino doesn’t shy away from his intentions at all.

The story for TORSO plays out as any typical giallo film would, focusing on the mystery of the killer’s identity with the use of multiple red herrings to fill up its runtime. It actually helps the film since there are a lot of candidates for who the killer could possibly be. Some are pretty obvious, while others just appear from time to time, but seem to have some sort of lasting impression on the female characters. I do think the killer’s reasoning for his actions is really dumb, but at least we get a kick ass fight scene afterwards that was obviously inspired by a martial arts film [this would make for a great companion movie along with 1982’s PIECES in that regard]. But while the resolution was a bit silly, I did enjoy that the characters caught certain hints about the killer’s modus operandi and tried to decipher who he could or couldn’t be. Sometimes, the survivors and the murders don’t always connect throughout the film until the final act. But TORSO tries to make the killer seem like it mattered to these characters somewhat as they tried to live their lives as safely as possible.

Speaking of the characters, TORSO falls apart when it comes to their development. Or should I say, lack thereof? Gialli and slasher films should have at least several colorful characters that one could relate to. Besides maybe Jane and Daniela, none of the other female characters have much personality and just feel as if they are there for a body count. Even Jane and Daniela aren’t the most fleshed out people, but at least we follow them enough to get a sense of who they are. Their scenes are the strongest because of that aspect, while the other moments either live or die by their direction and overall atmosphere of the sequence. I will say that when it comes to Jane and Daniela, the twist that the film presents with the two respective characters is pretty neat and catches you off guard when it does present itself. That misdirection makes TORSO stand out a bit, making you think the film is focused on a particular person, when it’s really focused on the other. This leads to an awesome final act where the killer and final girl have their cat-and-mouse chase that’s super tense and suspenseful, making you wish the rest of the film was as exciting throughout.

The acting is also pretty solid in TORSO. I watched the dubbed version, but it’s one of the better dubbed Italian giallo films I’ve seen, as the characters don’t sound silly. The voices match the characters pretty well, making me not notice the dubbing for much of the film. Of the actors who stand out, both Suzy Kendall and Tina Aumont have some good moments as Jane and Daniela respectively. Both convinced me that their characters had been long time friends, as Aumont played a more damsel-in-distress role while Kendall was a bit tougher and more clever when it came to eliminating suspects for the killer. I also liked Roberto Bisacco as Stefano a lot as well, as he played the creepy college student with a crush on Aumont very believably. He had these intense stare downs with her, and even an explosive moment where a hooker mocks him for not being able to get aroused, which doesn’t end too well. Everyone played their parts well, but I felt these three had the most to work with and carried the film as well as possible.

TORSO may not be the best giallo film ever, as it has some flaws you can’t really overlook. But it still manages to be an easy and fun enough watch to be worthy of a recommendation for any fans of the sub-genre to see where some later slasher films would get their inspiration from. Sergio Martino’s direction is very strong, bringing a ton of suspense to the stalk and slash sequences. Also, Martino’s final act of the film is really well-executed in terms of atmosphere and tension, making it one of the more memorable conclusions to a giallo film. The acting, mainly by Suzy Kendall, Tina Aumont and Roberto Bisacco as creepy Stefano is pretty solid. And while the film isn’t as gory as one would expect, the kills we do see are quite decent. At least you’ll get a ton of female nudity and sex to distract from the lack of violence. The characters could have used more development and it’s hard to care for them, but at least the build up to the killer’s identity is nicely done, providing the audience with many suspects that are all believable in terms of their relationships to the survivors, or how Martino presents them onscreen. I think Martino has done better work as a director, but TORSO is still entertaining enough to slice through 90 minutes of your time.

3 Howls Outta 4


Lunar Cycle - January 2020

Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month.

INTO THE DARK: NEW YEAR, NEW YOU (2018) - *** out of ****

Directed By: Sophia Takal

Starring: Suki Waterhouse, Carly Chalkin, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Melissa Bergland, Isabella Acres, Michelle Haro, Bianca Lopez, Mia Ella Clyburn

Genre: Horror/Drama/Slasher

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Plot: A group of old friends gather for a girl’s night on New Years Eve. But as they begin to rehash old memories, many of the gripes they’ve been harboring manifest in murderous ways.

Continuing my look into Hulu’s Into the Dark series, I decided to watch the series’ first New Year’s episode - NEW YEAR, NEW YOU. Directed by Sophia Takal - who has now gained notoriety for her reinterpretation of 1974’s slasher classic BLACK CHRISTMAS last month, as well as her feminist defense of the film that didn’t sit well with audiences of all genders - NEW YEAR, NEW YOU proves that sometimes High School is hell and that the friendships that last long after that probably weren’t as real as you had remembered them to be. The film also focuses on the falsity that is celebrity culture, especially when it comes to social media influencers who make their money telling people how to live their lives - making you wonder how their past contributed to their lifestyle and how many people they had to stomp on to become this hugely popular figure. Even though NEW YEAR, NEW YOU is a revenge film on the surface, the film does have something to say about we view people differently when their lives are perceived better than ours.

NEW YEAR, NEW YOU is a bit of a slow-burn psychological drama at first. We're first introduced to Danielle, who is a popular social media influencer who gives self-help tips when it comes to life, love, health and etc. Her high school friends admire her for achieving a huge level of fame, while also gaining new fans who want to be just like her. The only one with an issue is Danielle’s former best friend Alexis, who is traumatized by something from her high school past that changed her relationship with Danielle, while also gaining a facial scar from this incident that shattered her self-esteem. She’s also dealing with her parents’ sudden death, bringing out dark feelings that she’s dying to let go. Wanting to have a final New Year’s party with her high school friends before selling her parents’ house, Alexis invites Danielle and two others [Kayla and Chloe] as well to celebrate. It’s here where we watch tension play out between Alexis and Danielle that makes us question what happened between them. Alexis accuses Danielle of stepping over people, including their friends, to become this internet sensation - being a hypocrite since she’s really the opposite of who she’s presenting herself as. Alexis also believes that Danielle had bullied a mutual friend so badly that this friend ended up killing herself because of it. Danielle, noticing how angry and weird she’s acting, believes Alexis is jealous and is maybe projecting certain truths onto Danielle to shift blame for things she may have done in their past. After all, Alexis is the one having dark flashbacks and looking at herself strangely in random mirrors. Who is really the monster here?

The way the script makes you wonder who the real protagonists and antagonists are is done really well, showcasing both Alexis and Danielle in both positive and negative lights. Alexis hates Danielle, but invited to celebrate the new year with her under questionable motives. Danielle is extremely self absorbed and wants to document her life so she can gain gratification from people online, but seems willing to watch to better those around her in her strange way. While things are revealed pretty predictably before the final act, the slow burn getting there is quite good, making you wonder what’s really going on. Alexis seems unhinged, while Danielle keeps her cool. But when it comes to social media, looks are mostly deceiving, which makes NEW YEAR, NEW YOU fun to watch. It’s a great look at how delicate friendships are and how one event can change everything. It’s also a nice character study on how two different people have dealt with this very event differently and how it either elevated them or pushed them back down. It also gives us a decent look at how perception can twist the beliefs of others, even when the truth is in front of their face. I thought the script - at least the first two-thirds- was really good.

Unfortunately, NEW YEAR, NEW YOU doesn’t really stick the landing. The final act is where the horror really takes place, but it’s so derivative and predictable that it feels like a total different film from what came before it. Once the truth of the situation is revealed, the film plays out like a slasher film where the villain stalks the others to keep them quiet about what really happened. Other characters appear that could have been left out, but are here because the film needed a higher body count. The last ten to fifteen minutes also seem a bit rushed and it all ends pretty anticlimactically, which is a shame. I liked the last stinger, but the minutes leading to it didn’t leave much of an impression honestly.

Sophia Takal’s direction is pretty straightforward, but competently well handled visually. The film flows well and I enjoyed the edits involving the suicide and how these flashbacks would reveal more and more each time they were shown. For a film taking place in a house, the use of the location is really well done, making it feel large, yet claustrophobic at the same time. The social media segments look like something you’d see on YouTube or Instagram, making it extremely reliable to anyone who has used any of those platforms. And I think the best thing Takal does visually involves mirrors. Alexis, in particular, constantly looks and/or stops in front of them, seeing a somewhat distorted or twisted reflection staring back at her. The best examples of this involve a cracked mirror that Alexis punches, creating multiple reflections from different angles, visually describing her current emotion. And there’s another moment where a display of smaller mirrors designed into a larger design stares back at Alexis, showing a distorted reflection of her. Even Danielle stares at mirrors, almost as if she sees something she wants no one else to see. Takal is a good director and it’s easy to see why Blumhouse saw her as the right fit for the recent BLACK CHRISTMAS. I’m sure the direction wasn’t the reason why that film flopped so hard.

The acting is good as well, especially by Carly Chalkin as Danielle and Suki Waterhouse. Chalkin plays the self-absorbed social media guru well, revealing emotional layers throughout the film that make her both likable and unlikable as the film nears the finish line. Waterhouse also has her emotional moments as a traumatized woman wanting some sort of revenge against a former best friend. She plays slightly unhinged well, yet her performances makes you sympathize with why that is. I thought both actresses played off well against each other and I wish they had more interaction during the film’s last thirty minutes.

Overall, NEW YEAR, NEW YOU is a solid entry in Hulu’s Into the Dark series. Even though the slasheriffic third act of the film could have been executed better as it feels a bit rushed, the character study and drama filled atmosphere of the film’s first two acts are well written and invite the audience into questioning which characters are really being themselves. The commentary on social media and its influencers is also pretty strong, as we perceive their lives to be so great because that’s what they want us to believe. But then again, you should never judge a book by its cover. Even though her BLACK CHRISTMAS bombed, it’s easy to see why Blumhouse chose Sophia Takal to direct it. While not a stylish director, she knows how to use certain shots and objects within a scene to convey what a character is feeling at the moment. Both Carly Chalkin and Suki Waterhouse do a solid job giving us characters who are both sympathetic and unsympathetic throughout the film, making us question which one is really the villain of this story. Although it only uses the New Year’s Eve holiday sparingly, NEW YEAR, NEW YOU is still a worthy watch if you need an end of the year horror-drama with a relevant commentary and good performances.

INTO THE DARK: MIDNIGHT KISS (2019) -  ** out of ****

Directed By: Carter Smith

Starring: Scott Evans, Adam Faison, Lukas Cage, Ayden Mayeri, Augustus Prew, Chester Lockhart, Will Westwater, Colin McCalla

Genre: Horror/Slasher

Running Time: 89 Minutes

Plot: A group of gay friends head to Palm Springs to ring in the New Year. Things take a terrifying turn as the friends all search for someone to kiss at midnight, and invite a killer into their midst.

The latest entry of Hulu’s Into the Dark series had gotten a lot of buzz prior to its release in late-December, due to the fact that it was the franchise’s first major LGBTQ+ horror film. Hell, the genre in general rarely delves into the lives of the LGBTQ+ community a whole lot. And usually when it happens, the characters are either too camp or pushed into the background so they won’t offend those who disagree with what should be considered normal at this day and age. MIDNIGHT KISS is Into the Dark’s first foray into gay horror in the form of a slasher film, where a killer dressed in leather BDSM attire targets a group of gay friends and their straight female friend over some game called “Midnight Kiss” - where each member needs to find a stranger to kiss when the clock strikes midnight, deciding whether to spend the night with them until sunrise. The concept is there, the characters are all fitting archetypes, you have a director who has done horror before, and you have the backing of a production company that has done some good slasher films [including HAPPY DEATH DAY and the latest HALLOWEEN]. So why doesn’t MIDNIGHT KISS work all that well, personally making this my least favorite installment of Into the Dark?

Let me just get the positives out of the way first. For one, I have a ton of respect for Hulu, Blumhouse, and whoever else was part of this project for making a film starring mostly gay actors playing gay characters in a slasher film without catering too much to stereotypes. MIDNIGHT KISS could have been a whole lot worse if this was made in 1989 than 2019. Yes, we have flamboyant characters. Yes, the characters use dating apps to hook up, with some even criticizing the culture for making those apps as big as they are. And visually, the film definitely caters to a gay audience. But I think for a slasher film, the characters are actually written in a way that they come off as people first who just happen to be gay. They act human, with issues of jealousy, anger and control issues, and unrequited love coming into the forefront. These things tear the close friends apart, as well as give some motivation for the killer in his or her actions. I’m not saying the characters are extremely well developed or even likable for the most part, which is an issue for MIDNIGHT KISS. But at least their sexuality isn’t the focus, which is refreshing.

I also thought the film looked really polished, with some of the locations being used to great effect. The large house seemed almost claustrophobic due to the building tension between all of the characters. And the night clubs had nice atmosphere and probably reflected some of that culture in the gay community. 

And the acting was more than passable, being good at times. Scott Evans, Chris Evans’ younger brother, played a convincing asshole and creeper. I thought Augustus Prew as main character Cam was really good, having to play off different people and convey multiple emotions that hit the mark each time. He had believable tension with Evans and had great friendship chemistry with sole female Ayden Mayeri - who I felt was a lot of fun to watch and brought a lot of energy to the movie. I thought the cast was solid and did what they needed to do.

Unfortunately what brings MIDNIGHT KISS down is that it’s just a generic slasher film with not much mystery, rare kills, and not much tension or suspense when it comes to the horror aspect. The killer’s look is great, but the look is revealed right from the start instead of building up to what he or she looks like. And when you realized who was missing when the murders started, it wasn’t too hard to figure out who the person behind the costume was. And if there was an element of camp that could have been exploited, it was with the killer’s murder sequences. In the first one, he kills someone in a shower and then blows glitter on them like some sort of calling card. But the killer never does anything like that for the rest of the murders, making me wonder what the point of that opening was. If he or she’s going to use stereotypical tropes that most people think of when it comes to gay people as some sort of “F” you, then go for broke. Taking some risks like that would have made MIDNIGHT KISS stand out more from the rest. Felt like a wasted opportunity. 

Plus, the killer’s motivations for doing what they did felt a bit cliche and dumb. I won’t reveal the revelation, but it just made me question why this person would take their time and do the things they did in order to gain some silly revenge on an innocent person. It just felt like the writers had to give the killer some sort of justification, not considering how silly it turned out to be. I didn’t buy it fully. It also didn’t help that some of these characters were one-note or unlikable, so I didn’t feel bad for some of the victims.

And Carter Smith, who directed 2008’s extremely underrated horror adaptation of THE RUINS, really throws the gay aspect in the viewer’s face without considering that most people watching MIDNIGHT KISS probably aren’t gay and may or may not agree with the content. Honestly, films should try to cater to all demographics on some level, even if the subject matter will probably cater to a single demo. But Smith has no issue showing male nudity left and right when given the chance, probably going to turn off at least half of the movie’s audience. There’s nothing wrong presenting the culture and providing eye candy for those who want it. But it’s done so much, it’s as if the film is trying to remind me that it’s catering to the LGBTQ+ community with a hammer to my head. I’m happy the community is being represented in many film genres now, but do it in a subtle way that doesn’t make me lose sense of what I’m really here for is a slasher film and people getting slashed. Flash a naked man’s butt on the screen accordingly, not every five minutes.

Overall, MIDNIGHT KISS is the first Into the Dark installment I found just okay. The acting - especially by Augustus Prew, Ayden Mayeri, and Scott Evans - worked for me. The film looks nicely polished and it’s cool that the LGBTQ+ community is getting represented in a horror film on a major platform like Hulu. But the slasher tropes here are predictable and tired, especially when there’s no mystery as to who the killer is and his targets either have no depth or are just unlikable creeps. And I get that Carter Smith and his visuals are trying to provide some nice eye candy to the gay community, but it feels overdone and almost makes the film lose sense of the fact that it’s supposed to be a slasher film and not softcore porn at times. Gratuitous nudity is a slasher trope and I have no issue with it, but sometimes less is more - especially when it doesn’t add to the storytelling. MIDNIGHT KISS should feel like a bigger deal considering who the film is catering to, but it never feels risky enough to stand out from other slasher films. Slashers should never feel safe or tame, which unfortunately this Into the Dark segment does. MIDNIGHT KISS is worthy of a watch if you’re looking for a recent gay slasher. Otherwise, stick with HELLBENT, which is a film that actually takes risks and has a lot of fun and energy with a similar subject matter. Still, I’m hoping this is just a prelude of more diverse horror films in the near future because it’s damn sure refreshing.

BEVERLY HILLS VAMP (1989) - **1/2 out of ****

Directed By: Fred Olen Ray

Starring: Britt Ekland, Eddie Deezen, Tim Conway Jr., Tom Shell, Michelle Bauer, Jillian Kesner, Debra Lamb, Jay Richardson, Robert Quarry

Genre: Horror/Comedy/B-Movies

Running Time: 88 Minutes

Plot: Kyle, Brock and Russell are three aspiring filmmakers new in Hollywood. They phone up an escort ad and take a trip to a Beverly Hills mansion, but unfortunately for them the call girls turn out to be fiendish vixens of the undead.

When you sit down and watch a Fred Olen Ray flick, you’re not expecting Oscar-caliber filmmaking. But if you want cheesy and silly fun for 90 minutes, then Ray is your man. And while 1988’s HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS is probably his pinnacle as a B-movie schlockmeister, I think it’s safe to say that BEVERLY HILLS VAMP might be Ray’s runner up in terms of his filmography. 

I had never seen this film before, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Learning that Eddie Deezen, one of the 1980s quintessential nerd actors, was the main star left me with a bit of unease. Deezen could be a welcome comic addition to a project, or that annoying actor that brings a decent film down. But BEVERLY HILLS VAMP also has the always reliable Jay Richardson in a supporting role, plus hotties Michelle Bauer and Britt Ekland playing the seductive vampy villains. So I went into this hoping for an entertaining time and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s not the greatest B-movie in the world, but BEVERLY HILLS VAMP is a lot of fun if you don’t think too hard and let yourself be engrossed by this dumb flick.

BEVERLY HILLS VAMP isn’t about its story, since it’s your typical vampire flick where some characters get enchanted by vampires, leading to the main character figuring it out and finding help along the way to battle the bloodsucking undead. The film does make fun of some of the tropes and has fun along the ride, even getting COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE star Robert Quarry play a priest who is knowledgable in all things supernatural, goofing on vampires and how to take them out. The film also doesn’t try to be scary, making its placement in the horror genre questionable. Yes, vampires are horror characters. But these vampires are here for laughs rather than to scare audiences. And their presence in the film is pretty minimal, to be honest, as the film is more focus on having the main characters behave like idiots for chuckles.

What does help elevate BEVERLY HILLS VAMP is that the actresses are willing to get nude for… well, reasons. Then again, what else would one expect from a Fred Olen Ray film? Michelle Bauer, in particular, has no issue taking her clothes off and simulating sexual scenes. This is the type of film you probably could have watched late nights on Cinemax back in the day, but only with bigger stars. While the nudity is indeed gratuitous, there almost seems like a purpose to it underneath the surface. The female characters in Ray’s films use their sexuality and bodies as a form of power over the weaker male sex, usually gaining the upper hand until the hero steps in and puts a stop to it. The vampires in this film use their feminine wiles to get what they want and become quite a force to deal with. While I’m sure today’s culture would just complain about the nudity and blame the film for exploiting the actresses’ bodies for cheap thrills, I sort of see as the women feeling empowered enough to not shy away from their physical attributes, using it to get ahead. Until the final act, the women clearly have the power in BEVERLY HILLS VAMP and never portray themselves as damsels in distress.

BEVERLY HILLS VAMP is also pretty funny for all the right reasons. The jokes and puns are pretty witty, the dialogue silly but in a humorous way, and the characters are all archetypes but play them up without shame. Fred Olen Ray directs the film pretty confidently considering the limit budget he had to use, maintaining a comedic and tongue-in-cheek tone throughout that keeps one amused from beginning to end. Everything about this film is cheesy, including the light show special effects every time a vampire got eliminated. But the script and well-paced visual presentation added a charm to BEVERLY HILLS VAMP that a lot of films like this lack.

The acting isn’t the greatest as one would expect, but it’s fun seeing the actors enjoy themselves. Eddie Deezen is clearly the star here and he’s the kind of actor you’ll either appreciate or not care for at all. Even though he borders on annoying at times, his manic performance and reciting of lines creates this quirky atmosphere that somehow helps the film. His reactions to certain sequences within the film’s story are pretty amusing and it’s kind of cool to see the geek be the hero instead of the sidekick for a change. Jay Richardson is pretty great as the sleazy movie producer who gets caught up in the vampire mess. His sarcasm and fourth-wall breaking added a lot of humor to the film that probably would have been lost with another actor. Richardson is clearly having a blast here. Michelle Bauer looks amazing and believably portrays a vampire who will seduce you into bed so she can feed on you. I always appreciate her presence in any B-movie. Britt Ekland doesn’t get to do a whole lot as the leader of the vampires, but she has some funny moments near the end. Robert Quarry is solid as Richardson’s priest friend who instructs Deezen on how to kill the vampires. The casting is pretty awesome and Quarry has this bit of dialogue while getting a massage that had me laughing out loud due to some misunderstandings from outside parties listening in. And special mention goes to Ralph Lucas as Balthazar, who plays a stereotypical gay butler and familiar for the vampires. His portrayal probably wouldn’t fly in today’s society, but it made me laugh so much because Lucas was so into the role. His flirting and lament for being shoved back into a literal closet had me tickled. I thought the cast made the film and helped elevate a silly story into something watchable.

Overall, BEVERLY HILLS VAMP is way more comedy than horror, but it still manages to be an easy watch and a good time for the most part. The actors seem to be having a lot of fun playing with and against typical vampire tropes while breaking the fourth wall at times to let the audience in on the joke. And since it’s a Fred Olen Ray B-movie, you won’t get much of a story but you’ll definitely get some female nudity, which BEVERLY HILLS VAMP has no shame in presenting [thank you, Michelle Bauer!]. This film isn’t for everyone and Eddie Deezen might either make you laugh or annoy you hardcore, but I had fun with it’s silly charm. It’s not HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS, but it’s probably a runner-up in Ray’s filmography.

THE ANTICHRIST (1974) - *** out of ****

Directed By: Alberto De Martino

Starring: Carla Gravina, Mel Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, George Coulouris, Alida Valli, Mario Scaccia

Genre: Horror/Drama/Supernatural/Possession

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Plot: An Italian nobleman seeks help after his paralyzed daughter becomes possessed by the spirit of a malevolent ancestress.

In 1973, William Friedkin’s adaptation of THE EXORCIST possessed both critics and movie audiences, leading to massive box office success for a horror film - as well as becoming an award season darling, which was extremely rare for the genre. Obviously, when something becomes super successful enough to join the pop culture lexicon, the imitators will step in and attempt at recreating what made the original so special. And no one does imitations as well as the Italians, who have never shied away from showing their inspirations on their sleeves. While more popular rip-offs like 1974’s THE SEXORCIST and BEYOND THE DOOR get more attention, I think one of the better imitation films is THE ANTICHRIST - or THE TEMPTER as it’s called in some circles.

Haven’t ever seen THE ANTICHRIST before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I figured the film would be some Z-grade Italian remake that copies most of the original film but in a cheaper and sloppier way. To my surprise, this film is actually quite good for the most part, taking obvious elements of THE EXORCIST but still managing to separate itself from that film, adding in different elements that give it a reason to exist and to be recommended for a watch if you like possession films.

The best part of the film for me is the visual presentation. If nothing else, THE ANTICHRIST is pretty gorgeous in terms of cinematography, mood, and atmosphere. I liked all the religious motifs implemented into the story, as they honestly never felt forced but all given a reason to appear. The locations and set pieces, especially the church locations, are quite exquisite and beautiful. I’m not sure if De Martino used actual churches or the sets were built for the film, but the interiors are nicely detailed, with paintings and busts that line up hallways being used to great effect. In fact, there’s a moment where things start going really bad that the heads of each of the busts are turned to the side in an evil way that’s pretty amazing. The interiors of the main house where the characters live are nicely done as well, presenting these large rooms while still managing to make them all feel claustrophobic at the same time. When Ippolita gets possessed, the wind blows in, windows open and shut by themselves, and the room starts coming to life in a believable way. There’s also some use of green screen - some of it looking very dated, but others looking quite beautiful and adding a lot to scenes, especially during a crazy one where Ippolita gets taken over by her past self in a very sexual way. As far as the picture looks, it definitely gets an amen from me.

I also really enjoyed Carla Gravina’s performance as Ippolita. While much older than Linda Blair was in the similar role, I think the age bump actually benefits the story. Gravina manages to garner sympathy from the audience, as she’s playing a paralyzed woman who is sick of being dependent on members of her family and just wants to walk again for the sake of freedom. Her desperation of seeking God’s healing and not receiving it, leading to a depression and downward spiral where she feels Satan is more real in his actions than God is feels believable. A lot of people seek God’s help when it comes to things science isn’t able to help with, turning cynical when it never comes. Gravina portrays the change convincingly, making us understand why she was so vulnerable to being possessed by an evil spirit that actually grants her the ability to watch and be attractive to men, which leads to dire results. Gravina’s transition from miserable woman to a demonic creature who thrives on making others suffer as much as she has felt pretty flawless. I thought she really conveyed all the emotional beats quite well and she seemed to be having a blast playing evil. I think without her strong performance, THE ANTICHRIST would have crumbled really quickly.

I also liked all the original elements at play before the film, unfortunately, copied much of THE EXORCIST for its third act. The ideas of Church vs Science is nothing new, but I always like when films have this debate because it’s something people still struggle with today. Is faith in someone or something intangible more powerful than scientific fact, or is it the other way around? The film obviously takes the side of religion here, as the psychology of Ippolita’s depression and behavior is the reason why this demonic force is able to possess her to begin with. The use of hypnosis makes her vulnerable, which I found a bit interesting. Especially visually, as the set-piece looked out of THE HERETIC: EXORCIST II, which had come out three years later. 

There are also issues with incest in THE ANTICHRIST, which manages to make one feel uncomfortable for many reasons. But the film never shies away from it, as if giving us a reason for why the evil was so attracted to Ippolina to begin with. Ippolina is extremely dependent on her father, but feels slighted and jealous when he becomes engaged to a very successful woman, feeling he’ll abandon her. Even he feels guilty about his love for her fiancee, knowing it would upset Ippolina. It gets even ickier when it’s implied that Ippolina and her brother Filippo had “relations” when both were younger, as she had never been with another man but her brother. Honestly when I started watching, I thought Filippo was her love interest since I didn’t connect the family relationships yet. But when I learned they were related and the actors portrayed this level of uncomfortable sexual tension, it just made things weird.

Unfortunately like I said, the film doesn’t hide the fact that it’s inspired by THE EXORCIST, pretty much taking the final act of that film and just recreating it for the most. This is where the film lost its luster for me, as I was just watching a lesser version of a well executed conclusion to a superior film. Ippolina becomes possessed, uttering disgusting things about the people around her. She grows scabs on her face. A powerful priest who is experienced in exorcisms tries to get the demon out. Holy water, green vomit, levitation, and even someone falling down a long set of stairs are presented. While it’s done as best as one would expect, there’s no taking away the power of THE EXORCIST when it came to moments like this. It’s scarier when the possessed victim is a child swearing like a sailor and acting sexual than when you see an adult do the exact same thing. Plus THE EXORCIST builds upon the possession more, while THE ANTICHRIST doesn’t really get there until the final 45 minutes. Like I said, Gravina’s performance is still great and makes it believable. But she’s no Linda Blair and just feels like cosplay at times. Everything before the demonic stuff feels grounded and interesting in a character study sort of way. But it just becomes a B-movie with laughable green screen effects when the horror aspect comes into play, which is a shame.

I also had issue with how the other actors were directed, especially near the end of the film. Much of the supporting cast, like Remo Girome as Filippo and Umberto Orsini as Dr. Sinibaldi, are very good in their performances. But Mel Ferrer as Ippolita’s father just seems to want to cash a paycheck with how flat he seems to be. And when strange things start to happen to or around Ippolita, the other actors are directed to look as uninterested as possible. There’s no sense of fear, or alarm, or even curiosity to what’s happening around them. It made me wonder if this is just a regular thing that happens to these people because they seemed more bored by it than anything. The entire exorcism deal made me laugh more than anything, which is a big problem. De Martino should have handled that better.

Overall, THE ANTICHRIST manages to be an EXORCIST rip-off that does more right than wrong. The visual presentation is stunning for its time, with a great use of set-pieces and locations to create a much needed brooding mood and atmosphere. And story elements that the original EXORCIST don’t really touch on add a freshness to a similar tale, giving this film a reason to exist on its own merits. However, re-doing much of the EXORCIST’s finale feels old hat and takes away from what the first two-thirds of the film brought to the table. And the direction of some of the supporting actors during the horror sequences creates a disconnect when a possessed person is creating chaos and the people around her don’t seem too concerned by it. But at least lead actress Carla Gravina makes it work for the film’s benefit, playing every single emotional beat and character change believably. She’s the best part of THE ANTICHRIST and this film wouldn’t be worth discussing without her great performance. Definitely one of the better Italian EXORCIST rip-offs I’ve seen and one worth seeking out.

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