Movies Till Dawn: The World is a Monster (Halloween 2020, Part 1)

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Season 1” (Showtime/Paramount/CBS, 2020) Detectives in Los Angeles circa 1938 discover that a malevolent supernatural entity from Mexican folklore may be responsible for not only a grisly murder, but also rising social and political unrest in the city. Spin-off of Showtime’s cult Gothic horror series “Penny Dreadful” has an intriguing premise and a compelling actress (Natalie Dormer from “Game of Thrones”) as its primary antagonist, but using the creepshow framework as a filter to address a large and diverse (and disparate) number of topics (Nazis, urban sprawl, systemic racism, police brutality, evangelicals) only waters down the whole concoction – an assessment apparently shared by Showtime, which canceled “City” after this season. Still, the period production design is spectacular, there’s excellent use of LA locations (Angelus Rosedale Cemetery, MacArthur Park, DTLA, Big Tujunga Canyon Bridge) and an impressive cast (including Nathan Lane, Amy Madigan, Brad Garrett, Kerry Bishe, and Rory Kinnear, returning from the original “Penny Dreadful”) to hold interest. The four-DVD Season 1 set includes multiple making-of featurettes.

“Let’s Scare Julie” (2020, Shout! Studios) They’ve never seen Julie, and know nothing about her, save that she lives in a supposedly haunted house, but that’s all the ammunition needed for four teenage girls at a sleepover to target her for a prank. But when only two terror-stricken girls return, it turns out that Julie has some scares of her own to sow. First feature from writer-director Jud Cremata unfolds in one unbroken take, which works best in early scenes, which capture the unbridled energy and emotional brinkmanship of sleepovers (helped immeasurably by the cast of unknowns), and later, when Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, as the one girl who abstained from the prank, prowls her darkened house. Cremata can’t quite carry the premise over the finish line, but “Julie” is still an impressive debut. Available now via digital and on demand.

Curse of the Undead” (1959, Kino Lorber) A rash of mysterious deaths in a dusty corner of the Old West (played by the Universal backlot) leads preacher Eric Fleming to black-clad gunslinger Michael Pate, whose suicide decades prior transformed him into a vampire. Horror-Western hybrid avoids the junkfilm label (see: “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula”) with a modest amount of Gothic-on-the-range atmosphere from DP Ellis Carter and some novel touches (the saturnine Pate wins every showdown, since only silver bullets can kill him) that should please the creature feature faithful and skeptical vampire movie devotees alike. Kino’s Blu-ray offers a remastered presentation with commentary by historian Tom Weaver and soundtrack specialist David Schecter.

The Owners” (2020, RLJE Films) A trio of British thugs – each a variation on young, dumb, and desperate – and tagalong Maisie Williams discover that the elderly couple (Sylvester McCoy and Rita Tushingham) that they have planned to rob are, in fact, anything but harmless pensioners. “Don’t Breathe” (and to a lesser extent, “Bad Samaritan”) handled the victims-are-really-the-villains premise with more style and suspense, but this loose adaptation of the French graphic novel “Une Nuit de Pleine Lune” by TV director Julius Berg hammers on the nerves with buckets of grisly violence, and some (literally) breathless moments of claustrophobia. The cast is more than up to the challenge, especially Williams (“Game of Thrones”) and McCoy (“Doctor Who,” “The Hobbit”), though former Mod icon Tushingham steals most scenes as a sweet old gran with a very dark side. RLJE’s DVD includes a making-of doc.

Dahmer” (2002, MVD Marquee Collection) Mournful biopic, ostensibly about Jeffrey Dahmer (played by then-newcomer Jeremy Renner), but focused more on the external and internal conditions that made him a monster. Writer-director David Jacobson adopts a fever-dream structure to recount Dahmer’s life, flitting between something resembling influence and motive (loneliness, alienation, stern father Bruce Davison) and snapshots of his crimes, represented here by three murders, which focus more on the victims than Dahmer’s actions. What results, thanks to Jacobson and Renner, is the notion that Dahmer was a malfunctioning cipher that seemed barely aware of his behavior or its consequences; that portrait (apparently an accurate one, given what we know about Dahmer) is more horrifying and heartbreaking (especially in regard to his final victims, played memorably here by Artel Kayaru and Dion Basco) than any slaughterhouse depiction of his crimes. MVD’s Marquee Blu-ray includes commentary by Jacobson, Renner, and Kayaru, and several making-of featurettes.

Mondo Balordo” (1964, Severin Films) Boris Karloff lends his grandfatherly tones to a catalog of scenes – some staged, others culled from stock footage – detailing the oddest (by 1964 standards) examples of humanity’s most primal urges – sex and drugs – as well as an array of eccentric international customs ranging from the production of an Italian muscleman epic to a performance by Franz Drago, a little person with Godfather of Soul moves. One of the dozens of shockumentary-style “mondo” exposes released by Italian producers in the wake of “Mondo Cane” (1960), “Mondo Balordo” – which translates roughly as “a fool’s world” – operates along the usual lines for mondo productions, feigning amazement at while also leering or laughing at its subjects. It’s crass, to be sure, and images of animal slaughter are repulsive, but on the whole, it’s not as misanthropic as later efforts like “Africa Addio” or direct ancestors like “Faces of Death” (or, let’s be honest, the reality show subgenre). Severin’s Blu-ray, culled from the vast Something Weird film archives, is letterboxed and bundles the film with “The Orientals” (1960), a proto-mondo with a stance on Asia that’s as outdated as its title.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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