Archive for the Witchcraft Category

THE LORDS OF SALEM (2013)

Posted in 2013, Demons, Devil Movies, Indie Horror, Intense Movies, LL Soares Reviews, Monster Babies, Nightmares, Rob Zombie Films, Strange Cinema, Witchcraft, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2013 by knifefighter

THE LORDS OF SALEM (2013)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

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I’ve been a fan of Rob Zombie’s for quite a long time now. First his music, then his movies when he started directing, beginning with HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES (2003), which I liked a lot, and then THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), which I pretty much loved. Then he made his two movies in the HALLOWEEN franchise (2007 and 2009), and while they had some good moments, they were disappointments over all. So I’ve been really itching to see him back to making low budget films based on his own characters. The HALLOWEEN stuff just wasn’t a good fit.

His new movie, THE LORDS OF SALEM, is a step in the right direction.

Gone is the studio oppression. And a lower budget means Rob can stay true to his vision. So just what is his vision for LORDS OF SALEM? Well, I better add a disclaimer. Not everyone is going to dig this movie. But I had a lot of fun with it.

It begins in 1692 Salem, Mass. with the coven of Margaret Morgan (an almost unrecognizable Meg Foster, who was also in John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE, 1988, and a lot more movies and TV series). Margaret is a genuine Satan-worshipping, baby killing monster of a witch. No Mother-Earth loving Wiccan is she. When she cuts open a pregnant woman, in order to sacrifice her child to Satan, Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne (Andrew Prine, star of lots of cool 70s flicks like SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES, 1971) has her and her coven rounded up and executed for their crimes. But, of course, Margaret curses Hawthorne and his bloodline before she dies.

Skip to modern-day Salem, Mass., where the Reverend’s descendent, Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), is a recovering drug addict and a DJ at a local radio station, along with Herman Jackson (Ken Foree, who you’ve got to remember from Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, 1978) and Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips, looking a lot like a stand-in for Rob Zombie, he was most recently in the above-average revenge movie FASTER, 2010). The three of them do a “morning zoo” type show during the late night hours, and things get weird when they get a visit from a death metal singer named Count Gorgann (Torsten Voges), who goes on a blasphemous rant about his philosophy of life. Things get even weirder when a mysterious vinyl record shows up for Heidi in an antique wooden box, addressed simply from “The Lords.” The music it plays has a very strange effect on Heidi and some of the women of Salem who hear it.

The-Lords-of-Salem-poster #2There’s also Heidi’s deceptively friendly landlady, Lacy (Judy Geeson, TO SIR WITH LOVE, 1967) and her “sisters” Sonny (Dee Wallace, whose resume includes such classic films as the original HILLS HAVE EYES, 1977, E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, 1982, CUJO, 1983, and more recently in Chris Sivertson’s adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s THE LOST, 2006) and Megan (Patricia Quinn, Magenta herself from THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, 1975). These three ladies would fit in just fine in a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, if you know what I mean. They set Margaret Morgan’s curse into modern-day action.

The curse manifests itself in Room # 5 of the house where Heidi lives – an apartment long empty (and presumably un-rentable) that has now become some kind of portal into Hell, complete with a very strange-looking dwarf monster in a rubber suit at one point (the scenes with this dwarf demon are equally funny—because of the low-budget look of the monster —and weird, but actually work in a bizarre way). As Whitey slowly becomes aware of his true feelings for Heidi, he tries to save her. Also in heroic mode is Bruce Davison (WILLARD, 1971 and THE CRUCIBLE, 1996), as a writer and expert on historical witchcraft who is a guest on Heidi’s radio show, and figures out what is going on. But they’re up against some particularly formidable nasties.

There’s a scene towards the end that is pure Rob Zombie, a series of images that play out as a prolonged acid trip, and it’s stuff like this that makes THE LORDS OF SALEM so enjoyable. Yesterday, Michael Arruda and I reviewed the new Tom Cruise movie, OBLIVION, and opined that, despite the huge budget, the movie was kind of hollow because of a weak story, and a sanitized feel. THE LORDS OF SALEM is the exact opposite of something like OBLIVION. With a very low budget, Rob has to be more creative in putting his vision onscreen (thus that funny-looking demon) , and yet, because it is such a personal vision—and he has such a unique style—LORDS just seems more satisfying. Where OBLIVION is sterile and perfectly manicured, LORDS is dirty and depraved— coming at us warts-and-all—but that’s fine, because this is a horror movie after all.

There are parts of this movie that reminded me of Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968, an inevitable comparison), and some of the flashbacks from the 1600s had a slightly BLACK SUNDAY (1960) feel to them; there’s also a bit of the insanity from something like Andzej Zulawksi’s 1981 film, POSSESSION (that crazy dwarf demon) and the films of Alejandro Jodorowksy. The acting is mostly right on, especially Sheri Moon Zombie, who is becoming quite an effective leading lady for this kind of thing. There are some scenes that have her doing very bizarre things, but she’s a trooper, and you truly care about her character (frankly, I wanted an even deeper look at her life before the curse kicks in). I found myself wishing that more directors would use her in their movies (although Mr. Zombie has been giving her some plum roles over the years, it’s not just because she’s his wife –  she has actually done a good job with them).

I would have had liked to see more of Ken Foree’s character (we only get a taste of what he can do as an actor here), and Jeff Daniel Phillips and Bruce Davison are good as the forces of good (I’m actually a big fan of Davison, and have been since the original WILLARD, and was happy to see him here, as well as the great Andrew Prine in what is, unfortunately, little more than a cameo). And the witches—well, they’re just terrific here, and probably the main reason to see the movie (aside from Sheri).

There’s also a very strong 70s feel to the movie, starting with the opening credits-on, which should come as no surprise to fans of his films. Zombie has been strongly influenced by the horror films of the 1970s, which is just fine with me. I consider the 70s to be one of the two main golden ages of cinema, the other being the 1930s. And, like some of the witch films from the 70s, there are some clichés of the genre here, but there’s also enough originality to keep things fresh.

THE LORDS OF SALEM is in limited release right now (only one theater in my area was showing it, so it’s not going to be easy for some people to find), but it deserves a wider audience. Also, before the movie was released, a book came out by Rob Zombie (with B.K. Evenson), which is a novelization of the film. Or rather, it is based on the first version of the script, before budgetary constraints forced Zombie to change a lot to save money. Reading the novel, which is presumably what he originally intended to do on film, it’s fun to compare this to what actually got made. I’m about 100 pages into the book, and already there are some interesting changes between his original concept and the finished film.

The novel version of THE LORDS OF SALEM is also available now.

The novel version of THE LORDS OF SALEM is also available now.

Since the HALLOWEEN films, I have been eager to see Rob Zombie go back to his roots and give us something that was truly his own. He really should try to avoid directing remakes of other people’s films. His style is just too idiosyncratic to be used to present other people’s ideas. Like a Jodorowsky or a David Lynch, his best work is that which originates with him.

As I said before, a lot of people might not enjoy this movie as much as I did. The attempts at characterization might be a little slow for some people, and Zombie’s style during the weird stuff might be too bizarre for them. But for me, everything kind of clicked, and I was really pulled into this film. I loved the feel of it, the strong sense of atmosphere, and the imagery here. I do not think it is Rob Zombie’s best work (that remains THE DEVIL’S REJECTS), but after two steps back, this is a big step forward toward getting him back on track in making the kinds of movies only he can make, and I hope he gives us many more films in the future.

Welcome back, Rob. I give this one three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives THE LORDS OF SALEM ~three and a half knives.

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OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)

Posted in 2013, 3-D, Adult Fairy Tales, Based on Classic Films, CGI, Cinema Knife Fights, Exotic Locales, Fantasy Films, Highly Stylized Films, Prequels, Sam Raimi, Witchcraft, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2013 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)
By Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares

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(THE SCENE: A circus, filmed in black and white.  L.L. SOARES, dressed in a magician’s costume, stands on a stage in front of a sparse crowd.)

L.L. SOARES:  For my next astonishing trick, I’ll need a volunteer from the audience.  You, there!  The silly-looking gentleman standing in the back.

(Spotlight lands on MICHAEL ARRUDA, standing in back of audience.)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Are you talking to me? (points to his chest.)

LS (under his breath):  Yeah, you, you Travis Bickle wannabe.  (louder to audience) Yes, young man. Come up here. Don’t be afraid.

(MA approaches stage to mild applause.)

LS: For this amazing feat of magic, I shall require the services of my magic wand.  (Lifts magic wand, dripping with blood.)

MA (now standing next to LS):  Are you sure that’s not your magic knife? You haven’t been drinking and mixed them up again, have you?

LS:  Silence!  For this trick, I shall make him disappear.  Hocus frigging Pocus!  (taps MA on the shoulder with bloody wand.  There is a great puff of white smoke, and when it clears, MA has disappeared.)

I like this gig!

(MA finds himself back in the audience)

MA:  Not so fast!  (Rushes back on stage).  We have a movie to review, and you’re not getting rid of me so easily!

(MA leaps at LS, the two wrestle, and fall out a back door onto an incredibly colorful path, as the scene is now in bright Technicolor.  They are on a hill, standing on a yellow brick road, looking down at the glittering Emerald City of Oz.)

MA:  We’re not in Kansas anymore.

LS:  When the hell were we ever in Kansas?

MA:  It’s a figure of speech.

Well, now that we’re here in Oz, let’s review today’s movie, OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013) Disney’s prequel to the classic THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939).

The story opens in a scene similar to the one we just left.  Young magician and con-man Oscar Diggs (James Franco), who goes by “Oz” for short, is struggling to make ends meet with his sideshow magic act.

LS: I have no idea if the Wizard has a regular name in L. Frank Baum’s OZ books, but do you think the fact that Franco’s character’s name is Oscar is a joke because he hosted the Oscars one year with Anne Hathaway? I remember they were pretty much pilloried for that gig.

MA: Who cares?

He’s helped by his assistant Frank (Zach Braff) and by clueless women who he charms and lies his way into getting them to be part of the act on stage.  When one such woman, Annie (Michelle Williams), tells him that someone has asked her to marry him, she professes her love for Oscar, but he tells her to go ahead and get married because he’s not a good man.  Their conversation is interrupted by the circus strong man, who is angry at Oscar for giving a gift to his woman—a music box, to be precise, which we learn Oscar gives to every woman he is romantically interested in— and so Oscar leaps into a hot air balloon and flees his former life, only to be caught up in a massive tornado which propels him of course to the Land of Oz.

LS: That’s the same way Dorothy got to Oz in the original movie! Hey, it was funny how there’s a scene with Franco, Williams and Braff, and I realized, there’s a whole new generation of actors whose careers started in television. Franco was on the short-lived, but revered cult TV show FREAKS AND GEEKS (which only lasted one season, from 1999 to 2000, yet almost everyone from that show has gone on to a bigger career, including Seth Rogan and Jason Segel); Williams, of course, became famous on DAWSON’S CREEK (1998 – 2003); and Braff first became a familiar face on SCRUBS (2001 – 2010). It was like a TV reunion! And yet, all three are really good here in a theatrical movie!

MA: I agree.  And I remember liking Braff a lot on SCRUBS.

In Oz, Oscar meets Theodora the Good Witch (Mila Kunis), who tells him of the prophecy that a wizard named Oz would arrive from the sky to free their people from the wicked witch of the land.

LS: And Kunis’s big break was also on television, on THAT ‘70S SHOW (1998 – 2006). Hey, don’t forget the part of the prophecy that says the wizard will have the same name as the land of Oz. I thought that was kind of goofy, but funny, too.

MA: Not to mention unbelievable, but since this is a fantasy, I let it slide.

Theodora falls for Oscar immediately and is convinced that he is the wizard from the prophecy, and that he will become king and she’ll be his queen.  She brings him to the Emerald City where she introduces him to her sister, another witch, Evanora (Rachel Weisz).

LS: Finally, someone who didn’t start their career on television! Well, American television. Weisz began her career in television in England, but became familiar to American audiences in movies like THE MUMMY (1999). I also thought she was kind of amazing in Neil LeBute’s 2003 film, THE SHAPE OF THINGS.

MA: On their way to the city, they meet up with and befriend a talking flying monkey, Finley (voiced by Zach Braff).  Oscar saves Finley from the clutches of a lion, and as result, Finley promises to be his faithful servant for life.

LS: Was it just me, or was Finley one of the best-looking CGI creations we have seen in a long time? The level of detail, and his facial expressions, were just terrific.

MA: No, it’s not just you.  I thought the same the thing, and I also thought the little China Doll was just as good.  Excellent special effects here!

The witch sisters show Oscar an enormous “treasure room” full of gold which will all be his once he has defeated the wicked witch, and all he needs do to accomplish this task is to destroy her magic wand.  Unable to resist the temptation of all that wealth, Oscar agrees to the task and sets out along with Finley to destroy the wicked witch.  Along the way, they rescue and repair a broken talking China doll (voiced by Joey King) who cries her way into becoming part of their team.

LS: Yeah, China is another amazing CGI creation. At least the effects in this movie are incredibly well done.

MA: Once in the dark forest, they attempt to destroy the wicked witch, but it turns out that this witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams), isn’t wicked at all, but a good witch.  The true wicked witch, according to Glinda, is really Evanora.

LS: Hey, wait a minute. We’ve been walking along as we talked, and we’re in a dark forest now as well.

MA: Funny how that happened.

LS: Hmmm, we’re surrounded by apple trees. I could go for an apple right about now.

(LS picks an apple off a tree, and the tree turns around and slaps him with one of its branches)

TREE: Do I go around picking things off you?

LS: One of those cool talking trees from THE WIZARD OF OZ!

TREE: I asked you a question.

MA: Sorry.  We don’t usually talk to trees. And where we come from, apples are food.

TREE: Food! How barbaric! I oughta knock your block off.

LS: Hey, how come you trees weren’t in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. I missed you guys when Oscar goes into the dark forest this time.

MA:  I never liked those trees, and so I’m glad they weren’t in this movie.  (An apple plunks him on the head.)

TREE: Maybe we were saplings back then and weren’t big enough to talk. How the hell do I know? Now give that apple back.

(LS hands over the apple he picked, and the TREE takes it)

TREE: Now hurry on off if you know what’s good for you!

LS: Okay, okay.

(LS and MA continue walking along the road)

MA: Anyway, Glinda introduces Oscar to the oppressed people of Oz and tells him that it’s up to him to free her people from the clutches of Evanora, and her unsuspecting sister Theodora, who it turns out, is about to undergo a dramatic personality shift, to say the least.

LS: Yeah, I have to admit, I didn’t see that coming. So let’s not spoil it further.

MA: OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL gets off to a slow and rather clunky start but ultimately improves to the point where it becomes a movie that I —surprisingly—- really liked a lot.

LS: I didn’t think the beginning was clunky at all.

MA: Well, not the very beginning, the black and white sequence where we see Oscar working as a sideshow magician with his assistant Frank, which I liked.  These scenes were humorous and shot in the tradition of the original movie, THE WIZARD OF OZ.  They also set the stage for the transformation to the colorful 3D extravaganza known as Oz.

LS: I also noticed that, during the black and white scenes, the screen we see is smaller. But when gets to Oz, it is not only more colorful, but the screen expands to widescreen perspective. A clever trick!

MA: But it’s in the early moments in Oz that I thought the film faltered.  I did not enjoy the early scenes between Oscar and Theodora.  I found Theodora to be incredibly naïve and as a result not very believable.

LS: There aren’t naïve people in real life? And wouldn’t it make sense if she never before saw a man fall out of the sky? It’s not something we see every day. And there is the prophecy!

MA: She falls in love with him in less than a minute.  Naïve.

I also thought the dialogue here, especially Theodora’s, was particularly bad, and the scenes inside the castle where Oscar meets Theodora’s sister Evanora aren’t much better.

Things pick up once Oscar sets out to destroy the wicked witch, along with his faithful monkey Finley and the little China Girl, two CGI creations who not only look terrific, but who are also two of the better characters in the movie. They’re better than most of the “real” people here.

LS: I’ll agree with you on that point.

MA: And then things really get moving once they confront Glinda and we learn that she’s not really a wicked witch.  When she explains to Oscar what his true mission must be, and he accepts, the movie takes on an entirely different and more rewarding emotional feel.   The scenes where Oscar must lead the various groups of Oz inhabitants, farmers, tinkers, and of course Munchkins, are light, funny, and ultimately gratifying.

LS: I actually had a mixed reaction to the scene where we first meet the Munchkins. They begin to sing, and Oscar discourages them. In a way it’s funny, and I’m not normally a fan of musicals, but at the same time, the music was one of the indelible stamps that made THE WIZARD OF OZ so unique. How there was music and singing, but it wasn’t really a musical per se. I think this new OZ could have let its hair down a little more.

MA: I’m glad Oscar told them to shut up.

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Of course, these scenes also coincide with Theodora’s transformation into the true threat of the movie, a transformation that I both bought and enjoyed.

LS: Enough of that!

(A MUNCHKIN suddenly walks by. He’s holding a stick over his shoulder with a knapsack on the end, like a hobo)

MA: Hey little guy, where are you headed?

MUNCHKIN: Far away from here. They won’t let us sing in this movie.

LS: Is that so bad?

MUNCHKIN: Don’t know a lot about Munchkins, do you? We were born to sing. It’s in our hearts, it’s in our souls. We live to sing! And this Oz character shows up and tells us to “Take 5.” The nerve of that guy!

MA: So where are you headed? Going to go to Middle Earth and hang out with the Hobbits?

MUNCHKIN:  Of course not, they don’t sing either!

LS: Going to go sit in a display case at Dunkin’ Donuts?

MUNCHKIN (sticks out his tongue): Very funny. That would be a big No.

MA: So where does a Munchkin go if he’s not allowed to sing?

MUNCHKIN: Why the show GLEE of course. I’m sure they’d invite me to join the cast.

LS: Good luck with that.

(MUNCHKIN walks away)

LS: Back to our regularly scheduled program.

MA: In spite of its slow start, I liked OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL a lot.  Sam Raimi has hit yet another home run with this colorful, agreeable, and highly entertaining fantasy tale that has a lot of things going for it.

LS: I agree with you. I liked it a lot, too. And I think a lot of the credit goes to director Raimi. This sure makes up for the awful SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)! Nice to see him back to full power again.

I went in wondering how it would compare to THE WIZARD OF OZ, because comparisons are inevitable. And it compares quiet well. The level of acting and the script are good, but do not seem to be as solid as the original film. And strangely, though technology is so advanced now, I think the original 1939 film still looks more amazing and the land of Oz looked more “real” back then.

MA:  James Franco is excellent as Oscar, “Oz,” and in a movie driven by special effects, he still manages to carry this movie and drive it along.  I bought into his character and accepted his flaws as genuine.  He basically plays Oscar as a guy who succeeds in spite of himself, and I liked this.

LS: Oscar isn’t the most likable character in the world, but that’s okay. He’s not supposed to be. He’s actually kind of a fool. But this is a tale of redemption, and Franco shines in the lead role here. I love that goofy grin of his. He’s making it up as he goes along, but he has no idea what the rules are in this new world, and so he’s going to get duped sometimes, as a lot of us would be.

MA: Michelle Williams makes a sincere and touching Glinda, and I’d have to say I thought she delivered the best performance in the movie, which is saying a lot because I didn’t expect much from this character, and yet she makes for such a strong and attractive presence, I found myself that much more interested in the story whenever she was on screen.

LS: You know, in our COMING ATTRACTIONS column earlier this month, we made a big deal of Mila Kunis being so beautiful in the trailer for this movie. But the truth is, Williams is just as beautiful (and Weisz is certainly no slouch, either) here. The thing is, you’re right—she does deliver the best performance in the movie. I thought she was perfectly cast here. It’s so easy for such a completely “good” character to be just plain boring. Usually the bad guys are the most exciting ones. But Williams makes Glinda believable. And I liked her character a lot—which amazed me, because I always root for the bad guys! She really has become an amazing actress over the years. I thought she was great as Lily in BLACK SWAN (2010).

MA:  I have to agree with everything you just said, and I think that’s why I liked her so much.  For once, the “good” character was just as interesting as the bad!

I did not enjoy Mila Kunis early on as Theodora, to the point where I was hoping she wasn’t going to be in the movie much.  But I really liked her dark side, so much so that it made me forget completely her lame interpretation of Theodora at the beginning of the movie.

LS: Oh give Mila a break! The way she plays Theodora early on is crucial to what happens later, and I think she does a good job.

MA:  Gag!

LS:  She is beautiful, and her character is supposed to be clueless and easily manipulated. That is vital to how she ultimately reacts to both her sister Evanor and Oscar. I will admit, there are some scenes where Kunis did seem a little stilted, and her performance isn’t the best one here, but she’s coming along nicely as an actress. Who knew, when she played a supporting character on THAT ‘70S SHOW, that her career would be so huge. I don’t think she’s an amazing actress, yet, but I think she’s getting better and better.

MA: Like we both said earlier, the two CGI creations, Finley the monkey and China Girl, voiced by Zach Braff and young Joey King, were two of the most captivating and enjoyable characters in the movie.  They’re on par with Yoda in the STAR WARS films and Gollum from the LORD OF THE RINGS movies.

And the 3D effects here are excellent, too. I’d have to say that this is the most visually satisfying movie I’ve seen since HUGO (2011).

LS: Yeah, I saw the 2D version. Maybe I should have seen it in 3D instead. But I will say that seeing the 2D version didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film at all.

As for the special effects, everyone who worked on them for this movie deserves heaps of praise. OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is way above average, which made it stand up much better in comparison to the 1939 movie, which set a high bar.

(A FLYING MONKEY from the original WIZARD OF OZ walks by, carrying a knapsack over his shoulder)

MA: Hey little guy, where are you headed?

LS: Is there an echo in here?

FLYING MONKEY: I thought the wicked witch’s flying monkeys were one of the coolest things about THE WIZARD OF OZ, and now I find I’m out of a job.

MA: There are flying monkeys in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL.

FLYING MONKEY: Let’s be specific here, shall we? The flying monkeys in this movie are flying BABOONS. There’s no sign of the monkeys from THE WIZARD OF OZ this time around. We’ve been replaced.

LS: You mean you don’t want to put on a little bellhop’s outfit and pretend to be Finley?

FLYING MONKEY: That wimp? No way! If the only choices I have are dressing like a bellboy and being all cute, or being out of a job, then I’ll be on my way.

LS: I do agree this was a little annoying. As a kid, I always thought the flying monkeys were the best part of THE WIZARD OF OZ. They didn’t need to be improved, and they didn’t need to be changed into baboons. Hell, if you want scarier monkeys, why not go all out and hire some mandrills?

MA: I didn’t mind the baboons here, although I’ve always liked the flying monkeys from the original, so admittedly I did miss them a little bit.

LS: The CGI flying baboons were okay, but they were one of the things I liked least about OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL.

FLYING MONKEY: Well, unless you can hire me on as an evil henchman, I’ll be going.

LS: I’m tempted. Honest I am.

MA: It’s not in the budget!

LS: I know. Farewell, scary monkey.

(FLYING MONKEY continues walking down the yellow brick road)

MA: The screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire manages to tell a compelling story with lots of references to the original movie, from a lion in the woods, to scarecrows, to the poppy fields.  There are many moments that will indeed bring back memories from the 1939 classic.

LS: A movie you admit you don’t like.

MA:  Guilty as charged.

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LS:  As a fan of the 1939 film, I was surprised how good OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL was. I really thought it would look shallow in comparison, and it stands up quite nicely. The script is clever, and sticks to the story of THE WIZARD OF OZ pretty closely. It explains a lot of things in a smart way.

MA: One thing I didn’t like, or at least didn’t understand, was that in the 1939 film, the characters that Dorothy meets, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, Wicked Witch, and even the Wizard himself, all resemble people she knew in Kansas, which makes sense because at the end of the movie it’s revealed she was dreaming.  Here, characters Oscar meets also resemble people he knew back home, yet here it’s not inferred that he’s dreaming.

LS: Maybe he is. Then again, maybe he died in that tornado and Oz is the afterlife! The way I saw it, maybe it’s not inferred because maybe he wasn’t dreaming, and maybe Dorothy wasn’t either. Maybe she really visited this other dimension (or perhaps she had a near death experience and got a glimpse of the afterlife as well), too. You can debate it all you want, because it’s open to interpretation.

MA: But if we are to infer that it’s all a dream, then how does this tie in with Dorothy’s dream later?  Can they both have the same dream?  Or is Oz real?  No doubt, I’m overthinking this, but it was something that was definitely on my mind as I walked out of the theater.

LS: That’s a first. You can barely think and now you claim to be overthinking. I think poor Finley has more brains than you.

MA: Which goes to show just how clueless you can be sometimes!

LS: You know, one thing I was worried about was that Disney would make this story extra bland to appeal to the widest audience. They have a way of doing that sometimes, although I must admit, it wasn’t a problem with Andrew Stanton’s underrated JOHN CARTER (2012). Just last week you were complaining that JACK THE GIANT SLAYER was super homogenized and didn’t have any kind of edge to it. I was surprised that OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL has any kind of edge at all. But Franco’s Oscar is certainly a flawed character, the witches here can be kind of scary, and while it’s a great movie for the whole family, I didn’t think it was reduced to Disney-flavored pablum. What did you think about that, Michael?

MA: I agree.

It’s funny because JACK THE GIANT SLAYER was rated PG-13, and OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL was rated PG, yet OZ has more of an edge than JACK!  Now, there are more battle scenes in JACK than there are in OZ, but Oscar has more flaws than anyone in JACK, and the witches and even the baboons are scarier than the giants in JACK.

Nonetheless, to my surprise, since I hadn’t been looking forward to this one, I really enjoyed OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL.  Sam Raimi can add another notch to his belt because he’s made yet another classic movie.

I give it three and a half knives.

LS: Well, I have to admit, I’m amazed by your reaction, because you have gone on record as saying you don’t like THE WIZARD OF OZ.

MA:  I’m just as amazed.

LS:  And yet the reason why this new OZ is so good, is because it sticks to the original story so well. It makes a good companion piece to the 1939 film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if kids of the future get exposed to both films together, the way we got exposed to THE WIZARD OF OZ as children. Despite your dislike of the original, I remember it being a big deal as a kid. It was shown on television just once a year, and EVERYONE seemed to watch it, and make it a special occasion. Videotape wasn’t around yet, so you couldn’t watch the movie whenever you wanted.  You had to wait. And that created an anticipation around it that made it seem very special.

With a movie that is such an important part of a lot of people’s childhoods, it’s going to be very tough to make something new that can stand alongside it. And yet, I think Sam Raimi has done a terrific job here.

I don’t think OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is a perfect film. I don’t think everything works, and there are moments when it seems stilted or that it’s trying too hard to be clever. And not all of the characters are equally interesting. While I like Rachel Weisz a lot, I didn’t find her Evanora all that interesting, even though she was crucial to the storyline (and Weisz seems to do what she can with the role). I don’t think all of the special effects are equally good – but that only makes sense, because they’re so expensive to do. I think Finley the monkey is amazing, for example, but I was less impressed with the flying baboons that Evanor commands. And I still think that THE WIZARD OF OZ packs more of an emotional wallop. In comparison, the new OZ is a love tap, but a very good one.

I also give it three and a half out of five knives (and,just to put things in perspective, if I had to rate the original WIZARD OF OZ, it would get four and a half or maybe even five knives).

By the way, this isn’t Disney’s first trip to Oz since the 1939 original. In 1985, there was a sequel called RETURN TO OZ, with Fairuza Balk as Dorothy, It was rather dark and I liked it a lot. But it wasn’t an all-star blockbuster like this one. I think the world of Oz still has a lot of potential – there are so many stories and characters created by L. Frank Baun that haven’t been tapped into yet.

(They reach the gates of the Emerald City. A GUARD waits outside)

GUARD: Halt! Who goes there.

LS: Hey, wait a minute, you’re Bruce Campbell, right?

GUARD: Of course not, I’m Winkie the Gatekeeper!

LS: I saw Bruce Campbell’s name in the credits, but I didn’t see him anywhere. I was sure he was Winkie.

GUARD: You are sorely mistaken.

LS: Rats! I always wanted to meet Bruce Campbell. Speaking of Bruce and director Sam Raimi, I wonder if the remake of their classic EVIL DEAD (1981) will be any good.

MA: That doesn’t come out til next month!  (to GUARD) Hey, will you mind letting us in?  We’ve come a long way.

GUARD: Well, boo hoo for you. No one goes inside today! The Emerald City is under renovation.

LS: Double Rats!

MA: Oh well, I guess we’re headed back home.

LS: Can we at least take a hot-air balloon this time?

-END-

© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda & L.L Soares

Michael Arruda gives OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL ~ three and a half knives!

LL Soares gives OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL ~three and a half knives, as well.

SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES!

Posted in 1970s Movies, 70s Horror, LL Soares Reviews, Magic, Witchcraft with tags , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by knifefighter

Transmissions to Earth: SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES (1970)
DVD Review by L.L. Soares

This is an odd one.

Not to say that a lot of the movies reviewed for “Transmissions to Earth” aren’t odd, but SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES (1970) was marketed as a horror film, and yet it plays a lot more like a drama with comedic overtones. Oh yeah, and it’s just plain strange. But in the best possible way.

Seventies’ television and B-movie star Andrew Prine (think of a younger, more beefcake version of Vincent Price) is the lead in this one, as Simon Sinestari, a self-professed “magician and warlock” who lives in a storm drain (whenever it rains, he has to leave because o f the flooding). At the beginning of the movie, he’s arrested by some cops (for vagrancy) who go through his things (“What does this ancient amulet say?”) and then toss him in a cell with young hustler, Turk (George Paulsin).

Simon instantly takes a shine to Turk, and the kid becomes his apprentice of sorts and sidekick. Considering how he makes his cash, Turk happens to know a lot of wealthy older men, one of whom is a millionaire named Hercules Van Sant (Gerald York), who loves to throw lavish parties. When Turk introduces him to Simon, Hercules immediately sees a way to entertain his party guests and asks Simon to perform. But Simon is not that kind of “magician.” Instead he sells amulets and trinkets out of a bag, promising to get around to a “miracle” later on. People laugh and hand him dollar bills. At this point, Simon comes off as nothing more than a scam artist.

But Simon is the real deal. We find that out when he reads tarot cards to tell an obnoxious businessman his fortune. The guy pays Simon with a bad check (because he didn’t like his fortune), and when it bounces, the magician almost gets arrested again. When he tells Hercules about his deadbeat guest, Hercules suggests that if Simon is such a powerful magician, he should put a curse on the guy. So Simon does, but he promises that “We shall pay for it afterwards,” saying that each of them will carry 50 percent of the burden of putting the cosmic forces to work in exacting their revenge.

About this time is when a glowing red ball that makes weird sonar noises shows up. Is it a demon? Some kind of elemental spirit? One of the ancient gods Simon is always talking about? We’re not sure, but we know when it appears, bad things happen. Like a flower pot falls from the roof of a building and kills poor Mr. Bad Check Guy. And the same ball later almost kills Hercules in his home.

Suddenly, Simon doesn’t seem like such a charlatan. But he really isn’t interested in such parlor tricks as curses and spells. What he’s really after is a chance to enter the realm of gods and become one of them – something he has attempted before (in other lives!), but never succeeded in pulling off.

In order to get into that other world, Simon has to perform a ritual involving a bar of metal and a magic mirror. The bar can only be charged with sexual energy, and at the right alignment of the planets (or something), a portal will open in the mirror. Simon keeps saying this will happen at 1:30, but he never says when (Night or day? Today or sometime next week?).

A petite rich girl named Linda (Prine’s ex-wife, Brenda Scott), who is a regular at Hercules’s parties, falls under Simon’s spell (he actually tries the sexual ritual with her the first time, but his “lust for her is too distracting”). This turns out to be bad news when her District Attorney father gets wind of who she’s hanging out with, and demands she stop seeing Simon. When she disobeys him, the D.A. has the cops crack down extra hard on the hippies and drug dealers who are Simon’s friends – and Simon himself is taken into custody and his herbs and talismans are confiscated by the cops (they don’t find anything illegal, though).

Meanwhile, while all this is going on, Simon one day asks Turk what time it is – out of the blue. When Turk says “It’s after two,” Simon immediately flies into a rage. He has missed his appointed time of ascension! You would think the guy would have set an alarm or something to remind himself – if this is the thing he’s been trying to achieve for eons. So much for his “1:30 appointment.”

To get revenge, Simon decides to put a curse on the D.A., the Mayor, and the entire hierarchy of the town. This is when things finally get a bit violent, because in order to perform the curse, a crooked cop gets ambushed and ritually sacrificed (the one act of violence Simon performs himself in the film), and the gods go about tearing the town’s hierarchy apart from within.

The last part of the movie gives us lots of strobing lights, moving colors, and hallucinogenic imagery (the effects were done by the same guys who gave us similar – and bigger budget – effects in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), according to director Bruce Kessler in an interview also on the DVD). This movie is clearly of its time (the hippie era) and takes full advantage of the trippy effects to show us Simon’s ultimate ritual to get to the other side.

There isn’t very much horrific about SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES, but it appears there wasn’t meant to be. Despite the way it was marketed, the people who made SIMON were trying to do something a bit different. Instead of showing us an evil (movie) Satanist intent on doing some horrific spell (like most of these movies do), Simon is pretty low-key. He babbles to himself and says deep-sounding philosophical comments a lot.  Nobody knows if he’s for real or just a nut (although he does prove he’s the real deal by the end). Prine, a very charismatic actor who deserved an even bigger career in his day, also makes plenty of funny quips throughout, as if to show us how silly he thinks most human beings are. Even as the people around him in this film seem to find him just as odd.

The great actor Andrew Prine is the main reason to see SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES

One particularly funny scene involves Simon and Turk sneaking into a pagan ritual, complete with lots of naked people (including a very old woman shaking her booty), a goat, and presided over by actress Ultra Violet (who had been a part of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” scene). At one point, Simon causes a disturbance at a particularly sensitive moment and has to flee an angry (and naked) crowd of worshippers.

According to the filmmakers, this was all in an attempt to show us someone who practices “white magic” rather than the darker arts, and screenwriter Robert Phipenny was supposedly a warlock in his real life as well (according to an interview with Prine on the disk). The fact that it tries to do something different, rather than the standard Hollywood version of witches and warlocks, makes it an offbeat and enjoyable little film.

Director Kessler is clear that he did not intend to make a horror film (the original title of the film was simply SIMON, the studio added the KING OF THE WITCHES part to sell tickets), and he had hoped the movie would have been discovered and embraced by the counterculture at the time. Unfortunately, due to the studio’s marketing campaign, it didn’t reach its intended audience, and the horror fans who did see it back then didn’t know what to make of it. It has, however, become somewhat of a cult film since, no doubt in large part to Prine’s wonderful lead performance, which includes scenes where he talks directly to the camera.

It’s not a perfect film by any means – there are things that don’t make sense– but  it’s definitely worth seeking out if you’re a fan of Prine’s or of weird 70s movies in general. There is nothing quite like SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES.

© Copyright 2011 by L.L. Soares