Planet of the Vampires, directed by Mario Bava
One of the illustrious MGM Midnite Movies, Planet of the Vampires promises greatness with its title and its director. I am a big fan of Italian horror and more specifically the holy triumvirate of Bava, Argento, and Fulci, so the opportunity to see Bava direct science-fiction-based horror is more than a little intriguing. The story involves two deep-space vessels forced to land on a deserted planet harboring an unspeakable evil. Again, it demonstrates a great deal of potential early on but its dull characters and molasses-like pacing are enough to effectively rename it Planet of the Boredom.
The biggest problem, as I see it, beyond the tedium is the fact that at no point is there a single vampire on this planet. It would have been more apt to title the film Planet of the Demons as the antagonists inhabit the various crew members and use their bodies as vessels for carrying out their nefarious deeds. But it wouldn't be my beloved Italian horror if you didn't feel at least marginally ripped-off at the end. The only evidence of vampire influence is the costuming. The crew members wear black leather suits with gold trim leading to pointed, up-turned, collars reminiscent of Dracula's cape. Even the helmets they wear make it look like they have black, slicked-back hair and a widow's peak. What was funny to me, as my friend and colleague John Gholson pointed out, was that the uniforms also looked strikingly similar to Bryan Singer's X-Men uniforms.
Popcorn, directed by Mark Herrier
When examining a film like Popcorn (alias Phantom of the Cinema) first impressions will lean toward assignment of trashy, bargain-basement 80's horror. This would be correct except that it was made in 1991 and while execution is imperfect, Popcorn has a very clever concept. The plot revolves around a group of film students who are putting together a horror movie marathon to be shown at a local, old-school movie palace. They carefully select schlocky films from the 1950's that all utilize outlandish marketing gimmicks. The intent is to remind jaded horror audiences that, given the right application of supplementary theatrics, these old films are still effective. But someone has decided to make the bloodletting far more real than anything the crowd can see through their 3-D glasses.
I love that someone in the early 90's decided to make a slasher film that paid adequate tribute to a personal hero of mine: William Castle. Some of the references to him are nearly imperceptible, but by the time we get to the gimmick of electrified seats, an actual gimmick he used for The Tingler, his presence is undeniable. It's obvious that the people who wrote the film are big fans of classic, scifi/horror films and their geek passion shines through the dingy grain of this movie. I also really enjoyed the Phantom of the Opera elements with a mysterious killer hoisting his victims upon their own gimmicky petards. But then the film starts chasing its own tail with a backstory for the unmasked killer that fails to find a foothold. The killer monologues repeatedly, often communicating points he's already made, which grinds the film to a halt. The ending is somewhat satisfying, but the film the final product belies the depth of potential it had.
Prince of Darkness, directed by John Carpenter
In my experience, with the cacophony of chuckleheads with whom I associate, this tends to be a divisive Carpenter flick. The detractors rally behind the claim that it is boring and hokey. These among my circle are completely wrong! If you haven't seen it, the story revolves around a group of scientists called to investigate a bizarre discovery in the basement of a dilapidated church. One tertiary glance at the title of the film and I bet you can guess the nature of the phenomenon. One by one, very bad things begin to happen to all parties involved until Donald Pleasence, who should always be tasked with saving the world if you ask me, must equip these men (and women) of science with the spiritual tools they need to beat back the devil.
Prince of Darkness is fascinating and demonstrates Carpenter returning to old-school suspense and stationary creepiness. In defiance of the the otherwise palpable boredom theme of this article (by the way, the alliterative titles were actually a complete accident), I find even the slower parts of this movie interesting as it is clear that each unsettling nuance is building toward an apex of evil. The dream broadcasts of the shadowy figure in the doorway are brilliantly haunting in their simplicity; another Carpenter signature. It may not be Carpenter's most exciting film, but I would argue it is one of his absolute scariest. There are definitely images that will burn themselves into your consciousness.