Quick Takes: Ganja & Hess, Fright Night, The House on Skull Mountain

ganjaandhessposterGanja & Hess (1973)
AKA
Blood Couple, Double Possession, Black Evil, Blackout: The Moment of Terror, Vampires of Harlem, Black Vampire

Starring Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn, Sam Waymon, Leonard Jackson, Candece Tarpley, Richard Harrow, John Hoffmeister
Directed by Bill Gunn

Tasked with creating a Blacula-type blaxploitation vampire movie, director Bill Gunn instead made an allegorical arthouse film that’s about as far from blaxploitation as possible; a bold move you just have to respect (although one look at those alternate titles above will show that the distributors definitely did not). But while I respect the balls that a move like that took, I can’t say that I liked Ganja & Hess much. It’s got an interesting vibe, and there are some real standout scenes (the ones featuring Bill Gunn himself in a supporting role, for instance), but for the most part I was bored. To be fair, though, I generally have this kind of reaction to arthouse movies, so I think it’s more my fault than Gunn’s. This is why I can’t bring myself to rate Ganja & Hess. Even though I didn’t really like it at all, it’s an incredible achievement of black cinema for the time. I simultaneously felt both impressed and bored. In this circumstance it would be wrong to assign a rating based on either of these feelings, and some arbitrary concoction of the two would only further obfuscate matters. So it’s just the kind of movie you’ll have to see on your own and decide for yourself. Just make sure you like arthouse-style movies. Oh, for those who care: Spike Lee’s Kickstarter film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, is a remake of this.

fright_nightFright Night (1985)
fourstar

Starring Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall, Stephen Geoffreys, Jonathan Stark, Dorothy Fielding, Art Evans
Directed by Tom Holland

Four stars, you say? Yeah, maybe I’m overrating it but — aw hell, no I’m not! Fright Night is the type of ’80s horror blast to the brain you crave if you’re one of those people, like myself, who’s lamented the painful death of the horror movie over the last 25 years. Hell, it’s such a great example of an ’80s horror movie that modern directors should examine it and learn the great and simple truths contained within. It’s rare that a film can effectively convey multiple tones, but Fright Night manages to be a truly funny comedy that builds from the ’50s paranoia genre format (while also parodying them), that then morphs as the film progresses into one hell of a gory and tense thrill ride. The FX work is exceptional, with Richard Edlund, fresh off of Ghostbusters, bringing out all the stops. Fright Night is an intensely fun vampire movie. I haven’t seen it since I was about seven or eight years old, and a movie this great really should be seen more than once every 25 years or so. Highly recommended.

houseonskullmountainThe House on Skull Mountain (1974)
threestar

Starring Victor French, Janee Michelle, Jean Durand, Mike Evans, Xernona Clayton, Lloyd Nelson, Ella Woods, Mary J. Todd McKenzie
Directed by Ron Honthaner

I sought out The House on Skull Mountain after I saw it on a blaxploitation horror list, but it’s not really a blaxploitation movie at all. Unless a predominant black cast and a production year in the ’70s is all that defines a blaxploitation movie. This movie actually had black characters from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, and the jive talkin’ guy is clearly the butt of the joke, not the ass-kickin’ hero. Anyway, The House on Skull Mountain is a fun “people going to an old house for the reading of a will” movie mixed with a lot of voodoo and dope African drums. Since I’m such a fan of black magic films, I suppose it stands to reason that I’d also greatly enjoy a good voodoo movie! It will definitely be too dated for some, but I was suitably unsettled by many of its tricks and treats. Unfortunately, the intriguing mystery it sets up never pays off in any satisfying way, but it’s far too enjoyable a film for even something like this to diminish the fun.

Weekend at Bernie’s II (1993)

Starring Andrew McCarthy, Jonathan Silverman, Terry Kiser, Troy Byer Bailey, Barry Bostwick, Tom Wright, Steve James, Novella Nelson

Directed by Robert Klane

Expectations: Seen it before, but I don’t remember anything about this one. Bernie’s a stiff from moment one, so this should be non-stop corpse-draggin’ fun, right?

On the general scale:

On the “People Pretending a Corpse is Still Alive” scale:


[Editor’s Note: One quick thing before I kick this one off: there will be massive spoilers. I’m just not able to do it justice without performing the full autopsy on Bernie’s rotting corpse. So be warned!]

In yesterday’s review of Weekend at Bernie’s, I called it a singular and unique film. The same can be said of Weekend at Bernie’s II, as it goes in a completely different direction than its predecessor while still exploring plot lines introduced in the original. After a strange animated intro sequence that plays up the kid-friendly aspects of this tale of the not-so-recently deceased Bernie, the film begins in the coroner’s office. Bernie has been turned in and locked away, and our heroes can finally get on with their lives without Bernie always hanging around. Wait, what? How are we supposed to have all the wild fun of the original now? I was hoping for a film filled with dead Bernie, but apparently that wasn’t meant to be. That being said, when Weekend at Bernie’s II is funny, it’s incredibly absurd and in certain cases it even rivals the original. The only problem is that these moments are so few and far between that most of the film is spent yawning and wishing Bernie would enter frame.

Before I go any further I have to make note of the film’s rating, as it is baffling me. I generally don’t pay attention to these things, but for whatever reason I had noticed that the original was PG-13, and the sequel was only PG. I thought, “Damn, so it’s gonna be tamer and more kid-friendly, huh?” I resigned myself to it, but to my surprise this is most likely the first and last PG movie to feature a main character yelling “Blow me!” to one of his co-workers, quick frontal female nudity and other assorted adult situations. If this came out at PG nowadays, the conservative Christian groups would tear down the local AMC, with burning effigies of Bernie littering the sidewalk.

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