THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 3 hours 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille

Written by: Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss & Fredric M. Frank

Starring: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Martha Scott & Vincent Price

Whether through acclaimed animation (PRINCE OF EGYPT) or a recently panned epic by a big name director (EXODUS), the story of Moses has potential to be entertaining for believers and non-believers alike. The most famous cinematic telling of the well-known tale is Cecil B. DeMille’s remake of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (his 1923 silent film). This biblical epic is notable for being the most expensive movie of its time (13 million) and being the second-highest grossing film of the 1950’s. While the lengthy running time might test bladders (there is a welcome intermission halfway through), THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is worth watching for its sheer spectacle alone.

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In ancient Egypt, there are rumblings of a Deliverer who will free the Hebrew slaves. Upset by this news, the Pharaoh orders all firstborn Hebrew infants to be killed…but a young baby secretly floats down the Nile. Rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter, this Hebrew is named Moses and grows up alongside Ramses as Egyptian. When the truth comes out about Moses’s real heritage, he is banished to the brutal wilderness. Years pass and after an enlightening conversation with God, Moses returns as a Deliverer to free his people from bondage. As you might imagine, Ramses isn’t exactly thrilled to oblige.

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THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is set on a huge scale and still holds up as an impressive feat today. Cecil B. DeMille certainly had a vision and executed it in grand fashion. The more elaborate effects are obviously animation mixed in with the live-action footage (though the parting of the Red Sea was executed fantastically through other practical means and layering). The animated effects make for a few unintentional chuckles today, but look great for their time period. The sheer practical nature of this production is awe-inspiring as the sets are massive and extras are everywhere, along with lots of real animals caught in the chaotic fray.

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My one complaint with THE TEN COMMANDMENTS comes in the screenplay skipping over a majority of the Ten Plagues. When watching a Moses story, this is usually the most intense and effects heavy part. While three plagues are kept very much intact on-screen (water into blood, thunderstorm of hail and fire, and the death of the firstborn), the rest are vaguely mentioned in throwaway exposition dialogue. Color me a spoiled brat, but I really was looking forward to seeing these plagues in this film (especially with the massive production values). Instead, the script makes the most of the tenth plague and Passover (also an essential, important part of the story). The death gas hovering through Egypt is a legitimately creepy sequence, with stellar sound design adding the pain and sorrow of the whole situation.

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While I’ve been going on and on about the effects and scale of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, I have yet to mention the performances. Charlton Heston is well cast as Moses. Heston’s performance has an instant charisma that would make the character likable…even if he wasn’t the biblical savior towards thousands of slaves. However, some of his dialogue can be a bit too melodramatic and cheesy (there are many blatantly over-the-top speeches about injustice). As Ramses, Yul Brynner is a blast. He’s cold and calculating from the get-go, constantly delivering the iconic line “So let it be written. So let it be done.”

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As evil as Ramses is, I actually found the bigger antagonist to be his wife: Nefretiri (played wonderfully by Anne Baxter). This character was once deeply in love with Moses and displays a darker side early on, but commits her villainy in roundabout disguised ways. I truly enjoyed Baxter’s performance as the equivalent of a biblical femme fatale for Ramses (this description is especially accurate during last hour). Seeing as there’s so much going on, Yvonne De Carlo isn’t given much to do as Moses’s wife, Sephora. It also bears mentioning that Vincent Price makes a memorable appearance as a sinister master builder (or as Moses calls him: the master butcher).

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I really appreciated that TEN COMMANDMENTS took creative liberties with its old-as-time material and managed to bring even more emotion to the familiar narrative. A sub-plot involving the strained relationship between a stonecutter, named Joshua, and a water giver, named Lilia, is especially well-done. Their story occasionally pops in and out as the bigger narrative moves forward. Also, moments between the Pharaoh and Moses are believable as a loving father and son. The scene in which the heartbroken Pharaoh learns the truth is very emotional to watch as the sadness between the characters feels genuine.

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You don’t necessarily need to be a believer to appreciate and enjoy THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. The film is epic in size and scale, making it something truly special to behold. There was plenty of care and detail put into the sets, costumes, effects, and writing. I appreciated that the film wasn’t just a retelling of the well-known Bible story and took creative liberties as a Hollywood blockbuster too. Though Heston’s dialogue can be cheesy and I really wish that more time had been spent on the plagues, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is a classic that has held up and easily stands as one of the best biblical epics of all-time!

Grade: A-

TALES OF TERROR (1962)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Roger Corman

Written by: Richard Matheson

(based on short stories by Edgar Allan Poe)

Starring: Vincent Price, Maggie Pierce, Leona Gage, Peter Lorre, Joyce Jameson, Basil Rathbone & Debra Paget

During the 1960’s it seemed like Roger Corman was filming every Edgar Allan Poe story he could get his hands on. His unfaithful, but mostly entertaining, Poe adaptations usually benefitted from classy horror veteran Vincent Price playing the lead role. With 1962’s TALES OF TERROR, it seemed like Corman was worried that he wouldn’t get to make feature films of every Poe story, so he just threw three into one movie. This anthology runs at under 90 minutes (leaving slightly over 20 minutes for each tale), so Corman doesn’t exactly have a ton of room to work with here. As a result, TALES OF TERROR isn’t quite as fun as Corman’s other Poe movies or most Vincent Price films of the time. That being said, there are merits to be found in this mixed bag anthology. Let’s get into the TALES themselves…

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MORELLA: Lenora Locke has traveled a great distance to meet her estranged father. What she didn’t expect was for her dear old daddy (played by Vincent Price) to be a drunk living in a decaying mansion. Cobwebs litter the dining room and a perfectly preserved corpse dwells in a room upstairs. Lenora’s return seems to have awakened a curse, much to her father’s dismay. This is the first and easily the worst tale of the three presented here. It seems like the story doesn’t even know what it wants to be or why. That being said, I don’t think Poe’s original version of this story was all that great either. Moody sets and costumes aside, there’s nothing remarkable about this dull opening story. D+

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THE BLACK CAT: Combining two of Poe’s stories (THE BLACK CAT and THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO), this second segment is the best of the bunch. Peter Lorre plays a drunk who is wasting away his wife’s funds at the local bar. He’s an abusive and intolerable man who happens to run across a dignified wine-taster (played to comedic perfection by Vincent Price). The wine-taster soon falls for the drunk’s wife and things take a deadly turn. All the while, a black cat occasionally pops up…because that’s the title of this story after all. This segment has a dark sense of humor that’s brought to life by Lorre’s wildly over-the-top performance and Price having a blast as the goofy wine-taster. Watching these two play off each other is a joy to behold. A nightmare sequence is also memorable, if only for one cheesy over-the-top special effect. Despite having a dark (true to the source material) ending, this tale balances the horror and humor quite well. B+

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THE FACTS IN THE CASE OF M. VALDEMAR: The terminally ill M. Valdemar (Vincent Price) enlists the help of a hypnotist (Basil Rathbone) to ease his suffering. The hypnotism seems to be a smashing success, but Valdemar soon passes away with an unforeseen side effect of the hypnotist’s experiments. While Valdemar’s body lies dead, his soul becomes trapped between the world of the living and the afterlife. What results is a struggle between Valdemar’s wife and the evil hypnotist that leads up to a grisly (for the early 1960’s) conclusion. This story is by-the-numbers. Even if you haven’t read Poe’s original work, you can easily guess where this one’s heading. Though Price and Rathbone are fun to watch, I think this segment might have benefitted from a feature-length running time. This might have left room for a grander conflict as well as a bigger finale to cap it all off. In its current (short) state, it doesn’t leave too much of an impression. B-

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TALES OF TERROR isn’t exactly one of Corman’s best, nor is it a shining star in Vincent Price’s vast filmography. In spite of its faults, it still remains an entertaining anthology for fans of Poe and old-school horror films. MORELLA is easily the worst story of the three. M. VALDEMAR is a decent segment that’s fun while it lasts. THE BLACK CAT is the best of the bunch. TALES OF TERROR is worth recommending, if only to watch Vincent Price and Peter Lorre act opposite one another. Even if you’re not necessarily inclined to watch the whole anthology, I recommend checking out THE BLACK CAT on its own.

Grade: B-

My 10 Favorite Cinematic Villains

List by Derrick Carter

There are tons and tons of great villains in film. In fact, this year alone I can already think of ten off the top of my head that stood out. What makes an awesome bad guy? Is it something that plays to our personal preferences, like many different qualities in cinema? Are there always universal themes in each great bad guy that are just so damned believable and (sometimes) relatable that we almost fall in love with watching their evil deeds? When is it okay to root for the villain, be terrified of them or a little of both? I decided since All Hallows Eve is only a few hours away, I would ponder over my 10 personal favorite baddies.

Now, I must get this out-of-the-way. This is ALL OPINION. I’m not claiming these are the best bad guys out there, far from it. You probably already know fantastic antagonists that range from Heath Ledger’s Joker to Hopkins’ Hannibal to the well-known classics. I’m just counting down my favorite bad guys and listing the reasons why I love to hate them so much or just plain enjoy watching them. Without further ado…

10. Ratigan

10. RATIGAN (from THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE)

Nothing kicks off a villains list better than an animated rat from Disney. GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE is a take on Sherlock Holmes with mice, rats, and other talking animals filling in as characters. It’s actually a really solid movie and one I plan on reviewing in the future. However, the best part of the film is the nefarious Ratigan! Voiced by the always-great Vincent Price, Ratigan is a sort of Moriarty figure with a tail. He tries to act civilized and uses his pet cat (how’s that for a unique weapon?) to cover his vicious side, which does come out in the film’s intense finale. Want another justification of why he’s on this list? Did I mention he sings too? Good luck trying to get his two ultra-catchy tunes out of your head.

9. Drexl Spivey

9. DREXL SPIVEY (from TRUE ROMANCE)

Gary Oldman can do bad so good! Leave it to this chameleon to turn a laughable stereotype into something out of a nightmare. Drexl Spivey is a pimp and also a “wigger.” Whereas this sounds funny and possibly comedic, it’s not at all. Drexl is the best part of TRUE ROMANCE and he’s only in for a short time of the film. After he’s gone, the story goes down a couple of notches. The stand-out scene is in an intense conversation with Christian Slater. Having already seen Drexl go friggin’ crazy on two people and brutally murder them up to this point, it makes the tension that much scarier. Also this isn’t the last time you’ll be seeing Oldman on this list.

8. Aaron The Moor

8. AARON THE MOOR (from TITUS)

Shakespeare writes fantastic villains who delight in their evil ways. It was a tough choice between Aaron The Moor and Ian McKellen’s Richard III. Seeing as Richard isn’t exactly as chilling as Aaron is, this choice was decided on that factor. Aaron (played by Harry Lennix in this version) is purely and simply bad-to-the-bone. He absolutely loves corrupting those around him and has no real friends to speak of. Even his so-called accomplices vicariously become his victims by the play/film’s end. Adding a slightly comical tone to the role too is how Aaron will occasionally turn to the camera and directly address the viewer, thus letting them in on how much fun he’s having committing horrible sins. It should say enough that his only dying regret is that he didn’t do more evil.

7. Dino Velvet

7. DINO VELVET, EDDIE POOLE, & MACHINE (from 8MM)

Another underrated flick has a three-way-tie between some of the nastiest deviants you’ll come across on-screen. 8MM is a thriller about a detective (played by an unusually good Nicolas Cage) trying to prove a supposed snuff film is authentic. We’d have a pretty boring and underwhelming movie if said snuff film was a fake, so Cage does indeed come across the creators (and a surviving star) of the small reel of murder footage. Eddie Poole (a scummy James Gandolfini) proves to get the most satisfying comeuppance of the trio. Dino Velvet (an awesome Peter Stormare) is the flamboyant “director” who has chilling pieces of dialogue. It’s the bondage-masked Machine who delivers one of the bleakest explanations of why there are evil people in the world in a haunting scene near the end. 8MM contains a three-for-one delivery of memorable baddies.

6. Dr Josef

6. DR. JOSEF MENGELE (from THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL)

Let’s face it. It’s really not that difficult to make anyone hate a Nazi. All you have to do is throw the swastika on their shoulder and you’ve got yourself instant bad guy. In this fantastic 1978 thriller, a group of war criminals are trying to clone a new Hitler (it’s not remotely as silly as it sounds). As if that wasn’t interesting enough already, the leader of the group is played by the one and only Gregory Peck (that’s right, Atticus Finch). Peck pretty much plays the Fuhrer without actually being called the Fuhrer. Adopting a flawless German accent, a vicious temper, and a nasty talent for deforming people with science, Peck gives what I’d argue is the most creative Nazi ever shown on-screen (I’m counting zombies, Fiennes, and Hans Landau). If you haven’t seen this flick, then strap yourself in and give it a watch. This is another one that’s definitely getting a review from me down the line.

5. Cesar

5. CESAR (from SLEEP TIGHT)

This is a fun entry. Unlike the majority of bad guys on this list, Cesar doesn’t have a body count to his name. This main character in the Jaume Balaguero’s Spanish thriller is a doorman who has made it his goal to cause misery to everyone around him. He cannot feel happiness, so why should anybody else? He mainly sets his sights on a young woman who isn’t cracking under his pressure. When the villain has keys to every apartment in the building and takes to poisoning your make-up, infesting your apartment with roaches, and escalating things from there, its safe to say that you might sleep with one eye open. Don’t worry, because that’s why Cesar keeps a bottle of chloroform handy. The dark sense of humor around this character is off the charts too. One of the best scenes is a conversation with an older apartment dweller who tries to be polite and gets owned in the most emotionally demolishing way possible. Cesar may not be a serial killer or a criminal mastermind, but he’s a dickhead. He also happens to be a dangerous dickhead with keys to your apartment and a whole lot of patience.

4. Leland Gaunt

4. LELAND GAUNT (from NEEDFUL THINGS)

There have been plenty of portrayals of Satan on the big screen, but Max Von Sydow’s performance in this Stephen King adaptation takes the cake. Armed with a slimy sense of humor (he claims he’s from Ohio), an upbeat attitude (offering people good things in return for small favors), and a kindly old grandfather demeanor, you’d never think this shop owner is actually the Devil incarnate. That’s exactly who he is though and he’s quite good at using people to destroy each other. How can you beat a Satan with the balls to say “You can’t win. I’ve got God on my side.” Enough said…

3. Dolores Umbridge

3. DOLORES UMBRIDGE (from the HARRY POTTER series)

Let me tell you why this bitch is on here instead of Voldemort. Not once during the entire HARRY POTTER saga did I ever want to jump through the screen and strangle Voldemort with my bare hands, no matter how many people he killed. The same cannot be said of this sickly sweet witch with a penchant for cats and truly nasty punishments. I think part of the reason I hate her so much is because I had a teacher in Junior High who was pretty much an exact doppelgänger of Umbridge. This educator emotionally battered the entire eighth grade class on a daily basis and acted like a sweet little lady at parent-teacher conference. We’ve all met people like Umbridge and we all hate them for obvious reasons. Props to J.K. Rowling for including such a despicable character in her series. Voldemort is a saint compared to her.

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2. NORMAN STANSFIELD (from LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL)

This pill-popping, gun-totting, certifiable nutjob is my favorite Oldman performance….ever! Stansfield is the best corrupt cop to grace cinema! He’ll make you laugh one minute and piss your pants out of sheer fear in the next. He can switch at the drop of a hat and is evil to his core. At one point, this villain corners a little girl in the restroom and asks her if she appreciates her life. When she answers yes, he calmly responds “Good, because I could never take a life from someone who didn’t appreciate it.” That’s straight-up cold! It’s also highly ironic that the movie featuring a hitman and an assassin-in-training as likable protagonists manages to show someone who’s even more of a lunatic than hired killers. Props to Oldman. This is the role that I’ll remember him for!

1. Milton Dammers

1. MILTON DAMMERS (from THE FRIGHTENERS)

My favorite villain of all-time. Jeffrey Combs absolutely cracks me up through this entire film. In a movie riddled with many threats from different sides (ghosts and serial killers), this drastically misguided FBI agent manages to be the stand-out baddie of the bunch. Sporting a slicked Hitler haircut, nervous mannerisms, and a side of crazy that keeps escalating as the film goes on, Jeffrey Combs is amazing in this role! He also has my favorite villain demise of all-time. His dialogue is absolutely hilarious too! Dammers is a self-described asshole, but he’s such an entertaining one! That’s why Milton Dammers is my favorite villain of all-time!

Have any personal favorite villains of your own that don’t get enough recognition? Leave them in the comments below!

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