As the fortunes of Hammer Films were beginning to wane, and their Gothic horror films were receiving strong competition from Amicus Productions and others, they rebooted their Dracula franchise and set their sixth and seventh Christopher Lee entries in swinging ‘70s London. Peter Cushing played his nemesis, a descendant of Lawrence Van Helsing who stands in the way of the immortal bloodsucker.
In Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), Dracula is resurrected through a black mass on unhallowed ground by a young British mod and his friends. With his granddaughter in danger, Van Helsing tries to convince a skeptical police detective that vampirism is responsible for a spate of new murders. Dracula must be stopped before his power grows. In The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), a Satanic coven of wealthy Brits bring Drac back again, unaware that he is going to unleash a diabolical plague on the world. The previous detective, Van Helsing, and his granddaughter are reunited again to stop the evil. (This time, the granddaughter is played by a young Joanna Lumley of Absolutely Fabulous fame.)
Finally getting their Blu-ray debuts — a good quality copy of the latter has been hard to find on DVD for years — these final two Dracula films with Lee are not considered as classic as his earlier appearances. In spite of mediocre plotting, they do possess their charms — striking set pieces, lively scores, and the engaged performances from Lee and Cushing, who always gave their all. Director Alan Gibson and writer Don Houghton at least tried something different: Dracula A.D. 1972 serves up some funny moments with its cheeky mod squad, while the darker, sexier Satanic Rites ties in the iconic vampire with a corporate power structure. I have a soft spot on my neck for these two movies. They are not amazing films, but I still dig their groovy, dark vibes. Sometimes that is enough.
James Wan has managed to turn his Conjuring franchise into its own universe. He figured if they can do it with superheroes, why not horror? The Annabelle spin-offs had one hit and one miss, and The Nun (2018), which features the ultra-creepy antagonist from The Conjuring 2, falls somewhere in the middle. In this origin story, set in an unholy Romanian monastery in 1952, the suicide of a nun attracts the attention of the Vatican. To investigate, they send a priest with experience in the supernatural (Demián Bichir) and an aspiring nun (Taissa Farmiga) who has yet to take her vows. The duo finds a tour guide in a womanizing local (Jonas Bloquet) who found the body. Their journey into darkness involves a sisterhood terrified of the cursed portal beneath their monastery and the demon Valak (Bonnie Aarons) who defiles the holy image of a habit. The Nun takes a little while to warm up, but the latter half unleashes the expected whirlwind of eerie encounters and violent paranormal activity. Director Corin Hardy shepherds things along at a good clip, and there are some wild set pieces dripping with Gothic atmosphere. Yet despite a plethora of deliciously phantasmagorical imagery and creepy conjurings, the film should have been scarier and more strongly fleshed out the characters. The Nun is a pretty good demon hunting adventure, but I expected a great one. Check out the deleted scenes — one includes a deadpan reference to the Night Ranger song “Sister Christian.” That might scare you for a different reason.
The Tom Hardy superhero vehicle Venom (2018) is one of these crowd-pleasing action flicks that irritated critics but scored high audience marks. It also takes liberties with its comic’s source material since the alien anti-hero was spawned as an antagonist to Spider-Man, and there is no web-slinger present here. This movie focuses on the conflict between investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Harding) and the scheming, Elon Musk-like tech billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) who quickly kills Brock’s career following a contentious interview. But when a shapeshifting symbiote (yes, Venom) that Drake has snuck in from space literally bonds with Brock, with the intent to bring more of his species to invade Earth, the reporter wages an interior war for control while Drake pursues him to get his “property” back. Venom is lightweight in plotting and character development; director Ruben Fleischer pushes the hyperkinetic action to steamroll over the flaws. A box office titan, Venomcertainly looks great thanks to dazzling visual effects, but the real reason to watch is Harding, who riffs off himself in an oddball variation of a buddy comedy since the quarreling Brock and Venom cohabit the same body. While this is a flawed effort, I found myself laughing and enjoying it more than I thought. Hopefully, the inevitable sequel will dig deeper into Brock and Venom’s world. There is more potential there.
Brian De Palma, the director and co-writer of Sisters (1973), has always liked to pay homage to the filmmakers he loves. Alfred Hitchcock is the chief influence on this psychological thriller (notably Psycho and Rear Window) in which a model (a pre-Superman Margot Kidder) and her possessive ex-husband cover up the murder of her latest lover after her psychotic twin sister kills him. But a determined reporter (Jennifer Salt) who witnessed the killing from afar teams up with a P.I. (Charles Durning) to prove to police that what she saw was real. The third act takes an interestingly bizarre twist with its surreal imagery. Not in the league of superior De Palma films like Carrie or Casualties Of War, Sisters will still be of interest to his longtime fans as it showcases his burgeoning craft even as the climax gets telegraphed early. The Criterion edition stocks up on bonus features to dissect the drama — a new interview with Salt, a 1973 Q&A with De Palma turned audio commentary, a 2004 interview with De Palma, Durning, and others, liner notes and a quirky, funny 1970 appearance by Margot Kidder on The Dick Cavett Show, joined by the late Gloria Swanson and Janis Joplin.
BREAKING THE CHAINS
I have to confess that mainstream radio has always pissed me off. Major stations both modern and classic play the same songs over and over. Which is why the documentary New Wave: Dare To Be Different (2018) is so fascinating to me. It chronicles the now defunct Long Island station WLIR, a floundering indie that reversed its fortunes in the early ’80s by challenging major label marketing plans, playing New Wave artists in America before competitors did, and becoming so influential that they became leaders in rock radio programming that everyone across America looked to. They also battled the FCC over a confusing legal challenge. Featuring interviews with founders and original members of the LIR crew along with the likes of Billy Idol, Joan Jett, and members of Duran Duran, Blondie, and The Cure, this film looks at why, for a glorious 5-year period, LIR threw out broadcasting norms and created a musical radio family the likes of which we’ll never see again. Nearly 20 minutes of outtakes from Ellen Goldfarb’s lovingly crafted film are included on the DVD release.
RUNNING HOT AND COLD
Whereas Michael Moore’s rousing Fahrenheit 9/11 emerged from a state of anger, the more somber follow-up Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018) was born from a state of mourning. The film chronicles the unlikely rise of Donald Trump and the warning signs many people ignored, and shows how he played media giants like CNN for suckers during the 2016 Presidential election cycle. As witty and cutting as his past works, the director’s latest documentary surprises in that it places equal blame on progressives and conservatives for America’s unfortunate seismic shift to the political far right. There is also a film within a film as Moore explores the continuing water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Footage of President Obama essentially helping to cover up that environmental catastrophe will be a bitter pill for many to swallow. Even though it is meant to provoke thought and inspire action, Fahrenheit 11/9 struggles between being a rallying cry for change and a depressed realization and acceptance of the profound existential crisis the country has sunk into. Perhaps that is why this sequel tanked at the box office whereas its predecessor was a massive hit. People are feeling beaten down by politics these days. Given its relevancy, it still makes for imperative viewing. Just don’t expect to feel uplifted by the end.