Well, it is the last day of February and we are sitting here looking over all of the titles that Scream Factory has unveiled. It may be the shortest month of the year, but it was still one hell of a productive one for Scream. The “month of lovers,” February saw the release of two double features, featuring cult-classics like the Cage-crazed Vampire’s Kiss; an early appearance of Jim Carey in the very 80s Once Bitten; post-Company of Wolves, pre-Crying Game/Interview with the Vampire Neil Jordan’s ghost spoof High Spirits; and the utterly bizarre take of Dracula in the 1970s Love at First Bite. In addition to these four titles, Scream Factory still had the time to release Brett Simmons’s latest work, Animal, and Dwight H. Little’s gory take on the Gaston Leroux classic, Phantom of the Opera. [New Year’s Evil was also released but will be featured in a standalone review later this week]. Yes, it certainly was a month for Scream. While each of these titles is vastly different — whether intentional or not —, each of these titles is united by the theme of love, passion, obsession, and of course…the lure of death. The only surprise is that Blacula/Scream Blacula Scream was not included in this month’s catalog (stay tuned for coverage).
First up, Vampire’s Kiss/High Spirits. It is actually way to easier to talk about everything that makes Vampire’s Kiss a work of absolute abnormality than it is to address the fact that it is a surprisingly good movie. It has become a somewhat defining feature in the Nicolas Cage gone crazy canon — a canon that grows with each year. But, while Cage’s insanity is an essential aspect of the film, treating the movie as a throwaway title, only worthwhile for a few laughs, misses the point. In fact, I would go as far as to say that hidden beneath the manic façade is a surprisingly clever film. While I am certainly not the first to make this point and at the risk of wading in heavily treaded water, the film’s obvious reference point is American Psycho. In fact, because the film predates Ellis’s novel by two years, it seems entirely possible that Ellis, who is very tapped in to pop-culture, may have inadvertently borrowed ideas and/or found influence for Patrick Bateman in Peter Loew. What is so clever about Vampire’s Kiss is how self-reflexive it is. Like American Psycho with the slasher genre, Vampire’s Kiss turns all of the conventions of the vampire genre inward. By doing this, the film weaves an interesting, even poignant, comment on Reagan-era America. At the risk of spoiling the film, I will only say that in blurring the lines between psychosis and vampirism, the film works as a strong commentary on the nature of isolation and stress in the pursuit of wealth and power.
The supporting feature, High Spirits, directed by Neil Jordan in 1989 is neither as talked about — or perhaps I should say meme’d — nor as thought-provoking as Vampire’s Kiss, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t a fine film. It is, however, a sort of paint-by-the-numbers 80s comedy. Taking some of the trappings of Hammer horror and various other Haunted House films, High Spirits is made entertaining by a set of fine performances. In particular, the legendary Peter O’Toole, as a mumbling and failed hotel proprietor, is both charming and funny. While he eventually takes the backseat to Steve Guttenberg (who coming off of Three Men and a Baby was a huge star at the time), his performance still shines the strongest. While some of the humor is dated, and the principle love story comes off a bit sappy for my standards, it is a fun watch.
For the second double, a stronger thematic connection is formed, with both Once Bitten and Love at First Bite linked by the respective vampire genre. For a meager budget of 3 million dollars, Love at First Bite was a smashing success earning a profit of 41 million dollars upon release. With this release, the film is finding its first ever Blu-Ray home. The glaring issue is that a lot of the humor just doesn’t translate over the years. This is not to say that the film is entirely dated but there is an absurdity that has a sort of give-and-take sensibility. Yet, this is kind of the running joke of the film itself, which takes the ancient Dracula and places him in disco-era Manhattan, a clash of eras that leads to a perpetual feeling of being outdated. Shortly after the death of disco, the birth of its sort-of sister-child in the new wave serves as the backdrop for the 1985 teen-vampire and Jim Carey vehicle, Once Bitten. By and large, enjoyment of Once Bitten is entirely predicated on your like/dislike of Jim Carey. For fans of Carey, the film has its charm in seeing the not-yet-fully formed Carey persona taking shape on screen. However, for those who are not in Carey’s camp, the film is probably not going to sit well.
Following the success of their release of Simmons’s earlier feature The Monkey’s Paw, Scream Factory are back, this time with a little help from Chiller, to present Simmons’s latest film, Animal. First, I’ll state the obvious. Animal is not, nor is it particularly trying to be, a revolution for the creature-feature subgenre. The film follows all of the familiar tropes, throwing in a few interesting aspects along the way. This is, however, far from a jab at the film. In fact, a lot of what is admirable about the film is how unpretentious it is. With the exception of what looks to be a little too much digital blood splatter, I will say that across the board the special effects in the film are outstanding. The creature design is what makes the film; a sort of hybrid between a rodent and a human. It’s effectively creepy, even if they aren’t featured quite as much as I may have hoped.
The final film in the series discussed here is the aforementioned Phantom of the Opera. There are so many things that could be said of this film, the only problem is choosing where to start. Notable for being the first title to be released by Menahem Golan’s post-Cannon label, 21st Century, Phantom of the Opera is a surprising feature. Somehow this title had slipped past me, so I was happy to sit down with it. Like a few of the Cannon titles, it manages to avert from the tried-and-true Cannon/ Menahem aesthetic. The result is a somewhat artsy but equally gory piece of 80s horror. Going in, I was a bit unnerved, expecting it to be a vehicle for Robert Englund to prove his “range.” Ironically, this proves to be true but in a vastly different manner than expected. It is not overly theatrical and downplays the musical aspects, which came as a surprise. In fact, it is safe to say that, in spite of being the umpteenth rehashing of this story, this movie is entirely unique. Yet for all his glory, Englund still cannot separate himself completely from the Freddy image that made his career. Here, as the phantom, he plays a sort of Freddy-esque version of the titular character. It is to the credit of Englund that he is able to breath life into the character despite this fact.
In all of these films the theme of love is important. The love of music, the love of a muse, the love of wealth and power, love gone astray, forbidden love, etc. In various different modes, linked only by this fact and their respective takes on horror conventions, these are all vastly unique films but all equally worthwhile. While January and December were a slow month for Scream, February kicks off what will surely be an impressive year with some great titles in store.