TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980)

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BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980)

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Never one to pass up an opportunity to make a buck on a trend, Roger Corman put this space opera into production with the hopes of capturing a little of the Star Wars lightening in New World Pictures’ bottle. The story finds the inhabitants of the peaceful planet of Akir, under siege from Sador of the Malmori (John Saxon), a ruthless warlord who conquers worlds and uses spare body parts to keep himself young and tyrannical. Not able to defend themselves, village elder Zed (Jeff Corey) sends the rebellious young Shad (Richard Thomas) out to hire mercenaries to defend their planet against the invading army. Can Shad find warriors bad and brave enough to take on Sador and his planet-destroying Hammerhead starship?

As you can tell by the story description, this is more a take on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai than a retread of George Lucas’ box office titan, though Star Wars rip-off it shamelessly still is. No more obvious than the planet name Akir, which is a tribute to the legendary Japanese director, whose story is being appropriated here. The fun script is by John Sayles (Piranha, The Howling) and it’s directed with a comic book flare by Jimmy T. Murakami, who previously had experience in animation. The film never makes a joke out of the proceedings, but is loaded with humor and plenty of innovative SPFX on a small budget, as designed by James (Terminator, Aliens, Avatar) Cameron. The action is fast and furious, there is a variety of ships to go along with the motley group of mercenaries and it’s all a good time as intended. Sure it’s only got about a fifth of Star Wars’ budget, but the film has loads of heart and the hard work and imagination of everyone that worked on it shows through. The FX can be cheesy and there are a few spots where things slow down a bit, but otherwise it is a cult classic in it’s own right and how can you not like a movie that has a spaceship with a set of boobs…only in a Roger Corman flick, folks!

The cast really make this work especially well. All the actors get the tone and none of them treat the material like a joke, yet still have a good time with their roles. Richard Thomas makes a noble hero as Shad. A young man willing to risk all to save his world and people. Darlanne Fluegel is pretty and resilient as Nanelia, who joins Shad on his quest and becomes his first love interest. John Saxon is simply on target with his portrayal of Sador. He gives him a sense of malice and villainy, yet is careful to never carry him too far into over-the-top territory, so he stays threatening. As our warriors, we have George Peppard as “Space Cowboy” a space trucker caught up in the fight, Robert Vaughn as Gelt, an outlaw on the run, Sybil Danning as the beautiful but arrogant warrior woman Saint-Exmin, Morgan Woodward as the reptilian Cayman, who has a personal grudge against Sador, as well as, a heat communicating duo called The Kelvin and a group of five clones, who act and think as one, called The Nestor. And let’s not forget Sador’s army of patchwork mutants, too. A colorful and diverse group of characters if there ever was.

A cult classic in itself, this is a fun low budget space epic with loads of heart. Sure, the sets are cheesy, as are some of the SPFX, the dialogue corny and the pacing a little erratic, but this movie is a lot of fun. The cast all get the material and give it their all. The imagination of James Cameron and his FX crew is up on screen and it has one of James Horner’s best scores. A Roger Corman cult classic that may have been inspired by George Lucas’ surprise blockbuster, but has earned an identity and place in B-movie history all it’s own.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 (out of 4) Sadors.

 

 

 

 

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THE HOWLING and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON: A COMPARISON IN HORROR!

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THE HOWLING and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON: A COMPARISON IN HORROR!

MAJOR SPOILER WARNING! In order to properly compare these two films, I have to give DETAILED SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen The Howling or An American Werewolf In London, there are MASSIVE SPOILERS BELOW for each film. You have been warned!

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Previously, I’ve made such comparisons such as David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows and John Carpenter’s Halloween (link here), the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic Predator with the B-movie sci-fi/horror Without Warning (link here)and the classic Evil Dead and it’s 2013 remake (link here). Now I’d like to compare two classic 80s horror tales of lycanthropy with a look at Joe Dante’s The Howling alongside John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London. These two films were released in the same year, just six months apart and both have revolutionary transformation sequences that changed the world of SPFX make-up at the time. So, let’s take a look…

(Click on the highlighted movie titles to go to the full length reviews and on the photos to enlarge them!)

THE STORY

The Howling opened on March 13, 1981 and tells the tale of intrepid reporter Karen White (the legendary Dee Wallace) who is meeting notorious serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). Karen is traumatized by their encounter, one which ends in a hail of police bullets. She is sent by psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) to his remote retreat in the Northern California woods for treatment, but unknown to Karen, Eddie Quist was a werewolf and that Waggner’s retreat is where he and his pack preside.

An American Werewolf in London opened on August 21st, 1981 and tells the story of David Kessler (David Naughton) and his buddy Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), who are backpacking across the English countryside. Despite ominous warnings, they wander onto The Moors and are savaged by a wild beast. Jack is killed, but David survives and is brought to London to recuperate. As he recovers under the tender care of pretty nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter), he soon finds out from Jack’s none-too-happy spirit that he was bitten by a werewolf and will soon become one himself when the moon is full!

Except for both films being about werewolves, the stories are vastly different.

 

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THE WEREWOLVES

There seem to be two different kinds of werewolves in movies. One is the traditional cursed soul who passes the curse on to another through a bite. This type has heavy origins in the supernatural with it’s appearances sometimes heralded by a pentagram appearing on a potential victim. They transform only during the period of the full moon…depending on the film that may include the night before and night after, as well. Generally they can only be killed by silver, preferably a silver bullet.

The other kind of werewolf is a shape-shifter. These werewolves generally have an origin in Native American or old world European folklore and can change their form at will. They sometimes spread the ability through a bite, are born as such, or transformed through some ceremony or ritual. Their mode of being vanquished vary from conventional weapons to the traditional silver bullet.

The Howling’s werewolves are of the shape shifting variety. They can change at will, night or day, and without the need of the full moon. While they seem to be less supernatural in origin, they still can only be killed by silver bullets and pass the curse or condition on by a bite. They are bipedal creatures with both human and wolf characteristics. They obviously feed on meat, preferably humans, despite Waggner’s attempts at getting them to co-exist alongside mankind and feed on other meat sources.

An American Werewolf in London’s beast is of the more supernatural variety as, for example, the locals were using a pentagram as protection. David is told by Jack’s spirit that he is cursed by the bite of a werewolf and will transform into a ferocious beast when the moon is full. David’s victim’s are doomed to wander in limbo and haunt him, begging him to end his life, so their spirits can be free. David’s wolf is far more animal than human and is a massive beast that travels around on all fours. Oddly, despite being far more supernatural than The Howling’s werewolves, David and his predecessor can be killed simply by conventional weapons, such as guns with normal bullets.

 

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MAIN CHARACTERS

The Howling’s main character, Karen White is a news reporter being stalked by a pack of werewolves at a remote deep woods retreat. For a long time she is unaware of what she is up against and it is friends of hers, Chris and Terry ( Dennis Dugan and Belinda Balaski), who finally figure it out and attempt to warn/rescue her. Karen only becomes a werewolf at the film’s climax and is mercifully killed by Chris during a live news broadcast were she attempts to warn the world that these mythic predators are very real.

An American Werewolf in London’s David is an American tourist in Europe, who is bitten very early in the film and the rest of the movie follows his transformation into a lycanthrope. He is haunted by the spirits of his victims and is in denial at first, until he realizes he is responsible for a string of brutal deaths across London. The reluctant monster is finally put out of his misery by the guns of the London police after a bloody rampage through Piccadilly Circus.

Both characters are likable and sympathetic, suffer from horrific nightmares and at some point fall to the werewolf curse.

 

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THE SETTINGS

The settings for these two film’s are both urban and rural, yet totally opposite as to when those settings come into play.

The Howling opens in the urban jungle of Hollywood Blvd where Karen White is bravely going to meet serial killer Eddie Quist in a porn shop. It then switches to the coastal woodlands of Northern California, when Karen is sent to Waggner’s retreat, which is actually a sanctuary for werewolves. Here director Joe Dante is able to use shots of moonlit and fog-shrouded woods to keep the atmosphere spooky.

An American Werewolf in London opens in the rural marshlands of Yorkshire where David and Jack encounter the werewolf which curses David. It then switches to urban metropolis of London where David transforms into a beast and terrorizes the city. Ironically, at one point, he meets the spirits of Jack and some of his victims in a porno theater, echoing Karen’s meeting with Eddie. Unfortunately, 1981 London isn’t quite as spooky as The Moors of the opening, thus giving The Howling a distinct edge in the atmosphere department.

 

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THE OPENING SCENES

The Howling starts off with intrepid reporter Karen White meeting with serial killer Eddie Quist in a porn shop peep booth. The police are tracking her and only by chance arrive in time as he starts to transform. He is killed…or so we believe…and poor Karen is traumatized. She is then sent to a backwoods retreat run by Dr. George Waggner only to find out she’s been dropped in the wolves den, literally. The opening is creepy, disturbing and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

American Werewolf’s opening sequences are just as effective and probably the scariest part of the film. Here we meet American backpackers Jack and David who wonder into a local pub and get a very cold reception and some very ominous warnings. Despite what they are told, they wonder onto The Moors and are attacked by some form of savage beast. Jack is killed and David barely escapes with his life thanks to the arrival of those same locals, armed with guns. Before he passes out, David sees that their now dead attacker, is a bullet-ridden human. Once back in London, the real nightmare begins for the cursed young man.

Both openings work in setting us up for what is to come, starting us off with an atmosphere of fear and foreboding. Howling does it by letting us know something is very wrong with Eddie Quist, aside from being a psychotic killer, but keeps exactly what a bit ambiguous. American Werewolf  utilizes the classic werewolf set-up with an American in a strange land getting bitten and being cursed.

 

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THE ENDINGS

The Howling’s Pretty heroine is finally bitten as she and Chris are the only ones left alive after a fiery confrontation with Waggner’s pack of lycanthrope. Karen uses this unfortunate turn of events to try to warn the rest of the world and makes a tearful plea to a live television audience. She presents the horrible truth by turning into a werewolf in front of the TV audience before being shot by Chris. The film ends with varying reactions to what happened and the frightening revelation that Eddie’s nymphomaniac, werewolf sister Marsha (Elizabeth Brooks) escaped the conflagration at the retreat and is now in L.A. The ending has some humor to it, but is still effective.

American Werewolf’s ending is a bit simpler. Transforming into a wolf in the middle of London’s, Piccadilly Circus, David goes on a bloody rampage, that causes complete chaos and bedlam. Alex arrives just at the time the London Police trap David in an alley and gun him down. The last shot is a tragic one of David’s bullet-ridden body and Alex’s tearful face as we cut to the credits. Director John Landis lightens up the somber mood by having the song Blue Moon playing on the soundtrack as the credits role. The ending is a bit abrupt and the song does neuter the power of the last shots, unfortunately.

 

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MISC

Both of these flicks are considered classics for many reasons. Both are gory and have a sense of humor and feature their own twists on the classic werewolf tale. The Howling was based loosely on a book by Gary Brandner, while American Werewolf seems to be more of a modern spin on the classic The Wolfman with Lon Chaney Jr. The soundtracks are both written by acclaimed composers, with The Howling’s by Pino Donaggio and American Werewolf’s by Elmer Bernstein. Robert Paynter did the impressive cinematography on Werewolf, while The Howling’s lush visuals were filmed by John Hora. As for the amazing transformations scenes, The Howling’s scenes was done by legendary FX man Rob Bottin and Werewolf’s by equally legendary Rick Baker. Both are impressive with Baker’s having the advantage of a larger budget, but is far shorter, where Rob Bottin’s is lengthy, a little more rubbery and goes over the top in many ways. They are both fun and were groundbreaking at the time and are still effective even today.

 

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IN CONCLUSION

In this case it’s up to the individual to choose a favorite. Both films have gained equal status as classic horrors and despite each having their own identity, they both feature sly senses of humor and great make-up FX work to enhance their classic werewolf tales. Personally, The Howling has always been my favorite and it’s only by personal taste that it is. I find it more atmospheric and I prefer the satirical sense of humor over the dryer humor of AWIL. I like Bottin’s over-the-top transformation better, prefer the bipedal werewolf to the four legged wolf beast and Dee Wallace made for a sexy girl-next-door heroine to howl over. The Howling is more in the Roger Corman style of film-making, including a cameo from the master producer, whereas American Werewolf is more of a mainstream studio flick. I also find The Howling simply to be spookier and more fun. Either way these are two classics that have earned their reputations equally.

-MonsterZero NJ

Check out more editions of A Comparison In Horror here!

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: ALLIGATOR (1980)

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ALLIGATOR (1980)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

What happens when you combine a baby alligator flushed down the toilet and the corpses of dogs who have been experimented on with growth hormones and dumped into the sewers?…a 1980 horror flick/Jaws rip-off called Alligator. This fun monster on the loose flick takes place in Chicago with exactly that premise as Detective David Madison (the underrated Robert Forster) is trying to solve the mystery of body parts showing up at the sewer treatment plant and soon comes to discover…through the gruesome loss of a rookie partner…that there is a massive reptilian predator stalking the sewers of the windy city. Now with pretty herpetologist Marisa Kendall (a smoking hot Robin Riker) in tow, Madison must hunt the massive beast and expose the Slade Corporation whose illegal experiments have inadvertently created a monster…with an accelerated metabolism and appetite!

Directed by Lewis Teague (Cujo) and written with loads of wit by John Sayles (Piranha, The Howling) and Frank Ray Perilli, Alligator has just the right mix of seriousness and sly humor to tell it’s tale of a 36 foot predator in the sewers of one of America’s most famous cities. On the outset, the film is all business, but there are a lot of unobtrusive playful moments to let us know it’s all in fun…like the local merchants taking full advantage of the news frenzy of a gator on the loose in their city, or, Great White Hunter Col. Brock’s (a perfectly cast Henry Silva) choice of ‘guides’ to accompany him on his hunt through the city back streets. Very politically incorrect, but very funny. The film is unapologetically R-rated and we get some nice gore and carnage as our reptilian eating machine eludes capture, but not his dinner, and the creature itself is portrayed by a real gator on miniature sets or a fairly convincing mechanical mock-up. Teague creates some fun sequences, some solid and bloody action and some genuine suspense despite the goofy premise. He mixes the subtle humor and drama perfectly, while never overdosing on either. He also gets good work from his cast whose serious approach to the material helps us go along with the preposterousness of it all.

And while on the subject of that cast…the always strong Robert Forester gives us an every-man hero to identify with. He’s very likable and believable as a street-smart cop with some inner turmoil of his own, that adds depth to the character. And Forester gives it his all despite being basically in a giant alligator movie. Pretty Robin Riker is also solid as the pretty reptile geek Dr. Kendall and she is sexy and smart without ever becoming a helpless damsel. She and Forester have good on-screen chemistry and I loved the added irony that it is her alligator ‘Ramon’ flushed down the toilet 12 years earlier that she and Madison are now hunting. She’s never aware of this fact, but we are and it adds something to her character and the film overall. Henry Silva is hilarious as the arrogant big game hunter called in to track down and destroy the big guy and his eccentric Col. Brock is a hoot. Rounding out is Michael V. Gazzo, who is slightly over-the-top as Madison’s commanding officer and Dean Jagger who is perfectly arrogant and slimy as Slade, whose company has inadvertently created a monster. A solid cast that helps make this flick work.

I like this film. It’s another of the flicks scene at my beloved Oritani Theater and it is a fun monster movie made at a time where monsters where portrayed with charming in-camera prosthetics. John Sayles gives us another witty script that perfectly balances the fun with the more serious nature of this horror tale. The film never makes a joke out of it’s story, as guided by Teague, but never takes itself too seriously either, so we don’t forget to have a good time. It’s got a good cast and a reptilian predator who we almost root for. A really fun flick that has far more charm than the CGI overloaded SYFY beast run amok movies today’s audiences seem to think are so clever.

3 alligators.

alligator rating

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: THE HOWLING (1981)

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THE HOWLING (1981)

The Howling is a true horror classic and ranks among one of the best werewolf movies ever made. Joe Dante, fresh off of Roger Corman’s Piranha, re-teams with writer John Sayles for a fun and spooky tale of lycanthrope loose in the California hills that was based on a book by Gary Brandner.

After a traumatic close call with a strangely animalistic serial killer named Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), a young newswoman, Karen (Dee Wallace) is sent to a holistic retreat by her therapist, Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee) for treatment. But unknown to Karen and her husband, Bill (Christopher Stone), The Colony is actually a haven for werewolves that the therapist is trying to civilize…and that a certain, Eddie Quist was one of his ‘patients’. Some of the pack have other ideas and are looking at Karen as their next meal.

Dante brings a very Roger Corman feel to the proceedings and gives the legendary producer a cameo as well. The film has some fun moments, but also some legitimate scares, too and Dante mixes fear and fun very well with one never overshadowing the other. Makeup FX master Rob Bottin provides the creature and gore FX and beat American Werewolf In London by a few months with the first on-camera werewolf transformation and it still impresses after all these years and got him the job on John Carpenter’s The Thing.

A great cast, including legends Slim Pickens, John Carradine and Dick Miller, that knows when to play it straight and when to camp it up, adds to the mix and makes this a very entertaining Halloween treat and a bonfire horror classic. Countless sequels followed that all sucked, but this one still holds up and is one of my personal viewing choices for the Halloween season. Also stars the smoking hot Elizabeth Brooks as sexy nymphomaniac werewolf, Marsha. The Howling was just re-released on a gorgeously remastered and extra filled blu-ray from Scream Factory that gives the flick new bite!

The Howling bites off a classic 3 and 1/2 menaced reporters!

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Monster Zero NJ Trivia: Also a poet and singer, Elizabeth Brooks became a cult figure after the film, but her movie career never really took off despite the attention the sexy role got her. Single mom Brooks kept busy as a producer and acting coach, but sadly passed away in 1997 after a battle with brain cancer. Genre fans though, will always remember her fondly for her sizzling performance as one of the sexiest werewolves of all time and she is immortalized as Marsha in this classic horror!

elisabeth-brooks-the-howlingElizabeth Brooks as sexy lycanthrope Marsha Quist.

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