Monday, October 31, 2011

October Horror Roundup

As a helpful aid to my month of watching horror movies, I thought I'd break things down into categories to help guide you if you're ever looking for something to watch. Plus, there are a lot of movies here and maybe you missed a write-up or two. Now it'll be easy to tell. Sadly, I didn't discover any new (to me) classics and I wouldn't say anything I watched is essential viewing, but that's OK. There was still plenty of good stuff. It's possible that my write-ups don't mesh with their category here. If that's the case, the movie has not sat well in my mind and I've grown hostile towards it since writing.

Highly Recommended
Lake Placid

The Beyond

Well Worth Your Time
Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural
Corridors of Blood
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Raw Meat

Flawed but Interesting
Deathdream (aka Dead of Night)

The Dunwich Horror

Dead Snow
Murders in the Rue Morgue

The Witch's Mirror

The Bad Seed
Sugar Hill

Better Than You'd Think
Uncle Sam

Wasted Concepts
Bloody Pit of Horror
The Keep
The Horde
100 Feet
The Prophecy

Some to Avoid
The Burrowers
The Gore Gore Girls
Seventh Moon
Island of the Fishmen
Special Effects

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Email of Doom: Arang

So, I went off a bit about ghost stories not long ago and feel the need to make amends because I actually do like the genre. Many have flawed endings, but few other horror subgenres can get under your skin like a ghost story. The one thing these stories do better than any other horror stories is play with the limitations of human vision. Because ghosts are supernatural and basically ephemeral, they can pop up at any moment in any degree. The classic trope is the bathroom mirror. Whether a character opens it for a moment or ducks down to spit water into the the sink, said character loses sight of what's in the mirror and  instantaneously a vision can appear in the reflection without a sound. The same holds true for a character who hears a noise and instinctively moves to search for it. Each turn of the head, each peak around a corner leaves open a whole world of unseen space in which the ghost could inhabit. Ghosts live in our periphery until they choose to be seen. It makes the viewing experience unpredictable, suspenseful, and best of all, scary.

Arang is a Korean horror movie that follows the "Asian-girls-are-terrifying-if-you-comb-their-long-hair-in-front-of-their-faces" guideline for effective ghosts (see this and this for more examples) and it's really hard to go wrong with that. Even the ghosts in the otherwise awful The Grudge 2 stayed with more for a few days. There's lots of creepy ghostly stalkings that stop short of being actually scary. The problem is that we know the ghost is getting revenge on a group of people that wronged her in some way, so the ghost isn't that threatening of a force since no one else feels at risk. Going back to The Grudge, just going into the house is enough to doom you to a terrifying existence no matter how good and innocent you are. There are some really cool devices used to spook the audience though many are slightly listless or the camera cuts away before tension builds to a breaking point. Director Sang-hoon Ahn clearly isn't in the same league as the big three of Korean filmmaking (Joon-ho Bong, Jee-woon Kim, and Chan-wook Park), But he's still able to ring some nice moments out of the movie which prevents it from being a waste of time.

Calling the rest of the film a waste of time may seem harsh, but the moment it tries to explain itself, the film falls to pieces. There's flashbacks and twists and plot points that don't make any sense. It's like they were just throwing in everything to see what would stick around the hauntings. Even the hauntings start off ridiculously with the victims getting an email about an old salt shack (the email of doom). That's when you know their time has come, because ghosts like to telegraph it through modern technology. In fact, Asians have a weird relationship with technology in their ghost films. Shutter features mysterious images in photographs. In One Missed Call, characters get phone calls of their deaths. The Ring has the video that starts the countdown to your demise. It's like they don't trust technology. I actually really like that they tie a lot of the supernatural folk tales in with these modern devices. It's a nice juxtaposition.

Still, this is one of the few horror movies that I watched with someone else this month and it was fun watching the other person (my fiancee) hiding her eyes and getting spooked. There's a lot we miss when we watch movies that are best served in a group by ourselves. In some ways, I'm sad that watching movies has changed to an individual/small group activity. I can't imagine what it must have been like to go to a movie with 1500 people (the old capacity of my theater before the balcony was turned into two smaller theaters) and experience the highs and lows collectively. I bet it was marvelous.

Netflix tangent: Once again, Netflix Instant View drops the ball. the subtitles for Arang are cut off at the bottom of the screen and there's no way to fix it. You can still read them all, but it shouldn't even be an issue. Just another example of why they should have waited to roll out their new pricing plan.

Whither Nick Cave?: The Bad Seed

Once again we enter into that unfortunate scenario where the reputation of a movie precedes it so much that it removes much of the suspense. In The Bad Seed, we're meant to wonder if a little girl is a killer or just a liar that no one believes when she actually tells the truth. Even the gardener never really believed that she killed a little boy for his writing award. But because it's infamous as one of the "evil child" movies, we never really doubt the truth. With that suspense removed, we have to fall back on performances and plotting. I'm not suggesting we shouldn't be paying attention to those anyway, but for me at least, if I'm tense during a suspenseful movie (or scared during a horror movie), then it's done half of its job right there, regardless of the quality of the rest.

Fortunately, Patty McCormick owns The Bad Seed as Rhoda, the child without a conscience. Every scene she's in is creepy and intense and she switches from sweet to rage in a heartbeat. It's a marvelous performance and her Oscar nomination was totally justified. The rest of the cast is rounded out by people reprising their roles from the Broadway show (much like McCormick) and they're all good, but they pale in comparison to the little girl. Nancy Kelly as the mom, Christine, is really the lead of the film and a lot of time is spent on her anguish a deteriorating mental state. Unfortunately, that sort of high melodrama is not my sort of thing and they really slow the film down. I got tired of hearing her worry and fret about Rhoda. However, I can just as easily see people digging the performance, so I won't be too hard on the film for it.

For everything the The Bad Seed does well, there's an equal but opposite scene of annoyance. I really dig Christine's husband, is away for everything that happens here. He still thinks the same of Rhoda and it puts added pressure on the mom. However, there's a ridiculous adoption subplot that is wholly unnecessary except to offer some kind of explanation for Rhoda. Then there's an amazing interrogation scene between mother and daughter, but that's off-set by the false endings and then the absurd (and altered due to the Hays Code) ending. Additionally, people in the movie talk about how sweet Rhoda is a few too many times for it to have any meaning. We get it, she's got everyone fooled. You don't need to keep telling us.

But like I said, this movie is about McCormick and worth watching for her blazing performance. I kind of wish that McCormick had gone on to play Lolita in Kubrick's film. She is only a year older than Sue Lyons and I think it's a fun world where "Rhoda" grew up to be "Lolita." There's a similar sort of pathology going on there.

Finally, The Bad Seed ends with a narrator reading out the cast as they appear in a doorway of the house featured. It makes sense that they'd be announced this way since it's the Broadway cast getting a curtain call. But then it ends with Kelly grabbing McCormick and jokingly spanking the bejesus out of her, which doesn't fit the tone of the film at all. Very bizarre. The narrator also tells us not to reveal the ending, but the ending isn't a shock like the one in Psycho. There's no twist. It's just a bit silly. But what are you going to do?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

In the Mood for Some Raw Meat

Raw Meat has been sitting on my Netflix queue for a while now but it took Edgar Wright to inspire me to finally watch it (because, let's face it, I'd do anything Edgar Wright told me to do). I've got sort of a psychological aversion to movies about cannibalism which is weird because isn't that essentially what zombie movies are? My mind creates this absolute and grotesque image of the most real special effects you can possibly imagine. Every cannibalism movie I see I build up to a documentary-like vision where I'm going to get sick watching it even if the film shows nothing or is highly stylized. Of course, like with any other movie, the build up is never as bad as I expected it to be, but this particular genre gives me more anticipatory creeps than any other. So thank you, Mr. Wright, for pushing me to watching Raw Meat.

And the Trailers from Hell version:

The trailer actually gives more backstory to the subterranean flesh eaters (can we call them C.H.U.D.s?) than actually exists in the movie, though some of it is implied. The "Man" (Hugh Armstrong), as he's billed, doesn't make an appearance for quite a ways into Raw Meat. Unfortunately, since all advertising about the movie talks about the family of cannibals in the subway, there's not much surprise when the first victim is taken even though it should be shrouded in mystery. Alex and Patricia (David Ladd and Sharon Gurney, respectively) find a man passed out in the subway station and go to find the police. When they return, the man is gone and an investigation is started except the viewer already knows what took them man. It's an issue with hooking the audience with cannibalism at the sacrifice of the film and may have been unavoidable in this case (though I can certainly think of some approaches).

Donald Pleasance plays Inspector Calhoun who has the lead on the case. He plays the part with an amazing dark, dry humor and it's great to see him in a role that isn't too serious (like Sam Loomis in Halloween who is always running around warning and lecturing people about Michael Myers). He has a knack for it and if anyone has any other recommendations for great Donald Pleasance roles, please tell me.  Christopher Lee pops up randomly in a scene that may be essential for the film, but is certainly not in need of Lee. He basically stands in one place with an umbrella and he and Pleasance argue over who should have the case. I like Lee, but this feels like a gimmick to get a few more butts in the seats.

In Edgar Wright's 24-hour horror marathon write-up linked above, he mentions that Raw Meat feels like they ran out of footage and were padding the running time. I agree with that to an extent, but I really like the way that the pacing of the movie changes every time we go underground. There are long, deliberate takes that track around to give the viewer a sense of the space and just a general sense of lingering. It's much like I would expect having to live in an abandoned subway stop would feel like. Slow and dark.

Something I find very admirable about Raw Meat is that it doesn't vilify the cannibals. They are essentially feral humans who know little of etiquette or even malice. They kill to survive, sure, but the "man" clearly loves the "woman" and is heartbroken when she dies. Later, when he gets a hold of Patricia, he really tries to make a connection to her, but can't speak more than just a single phrase (Armstrong does remarkable work conveying meaning with various tones of that phrase). He's a sick (as in ill), inbred cannibal, but he's no monster.

There's not a ton of focus on the cannibalism aspects, even though the title conjured horrific images in my mind, and it's a lot talkier than I expected it to be, but Raw Meat is a solid movie with good acting and direction. It won't explode you mind with terror and gore, but it's got a lot to offer, including a subway line that will take you all the way to "Cockfosters." And, once again, being an American International release, it's got an amazing (if misleading) poster:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Stuff of My Little Sister's Nightmares: Squirm

Great poster or greatest poster?

There was a time, not so long ago, that my family was sitting around the dinner table having a nice conversation when it came out that my little sister has an irrational fear of worms. Much gentle prodding and needling of this revelation commenced and while the rest of us were having a grand old time, my sister was getting increasingly anxious and unhappy. This wasn't like the time we found out she didn't like the sound of coughing and everyone (including my young niece) started consciously coughing. No. That ended up in laughter. The worm fun ended with me joking about what would happen if I went out into the yard and dug up some worms and brought them inside. My sister, clearly nervous and touchy, proclaimed in all earnestness that she would leave immediately and get a hotel for the night. It would have been funny if she wasn't so adamant (OK, it's still funny because she's afraid of worms!).

I was really hoping I'd be able to sit her down to watch Squirm (or at least try to trick her into watching it) had it been a good movie, but it's just not. I admire the filmmakers for trying a slow burn approach and letting the characters and town establish themselves. The pacing reminded me a lot of Tremors, actually, just without the charismatic performances. Weird stuff is happening, people are discovered missing, the odd worm pops up now an then and does something unusual like biting an arm. I wouldn't be entirely surprised if Ron Underwood and his Tremor team used this film a bit for inspiration.

There's a giant red flag that writer/director Jeff Lieberman isn't very confident in his threat and that is the presence of a human danger. Clearly Lieberman doesn't trust that the audience will be sufficiently creeped out by the crawling menace so he added something that can deliver faster, more "exciting" scares. The threat's presence doesn't really make sense, either. Did the worms take him over? Why didn't they eat him like the rest? In the end, it's exactly the type of movie that makes a better trailer than a film. At least I won't have to sit my sister down for an hour and a half to terrify her.

This Sugar Hill Gang Is Made Up of Zombies

I don't have a ton of experience with the Blaxploitation genre. A Rudy Ray Moore movie here, Pam Grier movies there, and Superfly. I'm slowly trying to remedy this, but it takes time and other movies keep taking precedence. Perhaps most surprising is that I haven't even seen Blacula! I love horror, so even though I'm not well versed in Blaxploitation, I should have at least seen that, right? In time, friends. In time.

So it was by divine willing that the theater in which I work was screening a pristine (seriously, it looked amazing) 35mm print of Sugar Hill, a film of which I'd never heard but sounded amazing. Sugar Hill (Marki Bey) takes revenge against a group of toughs and their employer for killing her man. But it's not ordinary revenge. It's voodoo style. The dead are risen and sent to do her dirty work.

Sadly, the film is rated PG so the kills are all pretty tame and the zombies aren't the "hungry-for-flesh" kind, so there wasn't much need for the kills to be that visceral. Still, it's hard not to be disappointed when confronted with those realisations during the movie. Even though there's only four men responsible for killing Sugar's man, she decides to off a few more henchmen which is a few too many. The set pieces all have the same structure and without any fun or interesting gore, it feels redundant.

Sugar Hill is still pretty fun, though. I amused myself wondering how her hair got so different from day to night. Sugar has a killing costume complete with afro that there is no possibility her daytime hair could achieve. It got to the point where I suspected that maybe these killings were all in her head or just a dream fantasy she was having believing she was some kind of superhero. Then I started wondering if it was a wig or if they shot all of her 'fro scenes first then cut it. Don't mistake these thoughts for boredom. I just found it amusing. It's also funny that Sugar becomes pretty witty once she decides on vengeance. It's like everyone needs a zinger if they're going to kill.

Then there is Sir Laughs-a-Lot, Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) who, you guessed it, laughs. A lot. And smiles big, toothy, gold smiles. He's amusing to watch, but upon his first entrance, I wished Isaac Hayes had been cast instead and the feeling never left. It's not that Colley is bad. Just that Hayes could have been epic.

I would be remiss if I didn't bring up Robert Quarry, as this is an American International picture (who also did Madhouse, which also features Quarry) and is Quarry's last film with the company. He is a great bad guy, but mostly the way he treats his "girlfriend." He shows her no respect at all while becoming infatuated with Sugar. His girlfriend is nothing to him and even though I should probably feel bad about the way he treats her, I can't help but laugh (and neither could the audience). It's just a great way to make your villain that much more heinous (even though his girlfriend is a full-blooded racist thus making it OK for the viewer to laugh at her treatment [right?]).

Sugar Hill isn't a great movie and it's got some pacing issues, but it's pretty fun over all. I really like the idea of someone controlling a heard of the undead to do their bidding and the zombies are simple, but highly effective.

This Is One Prophecy You Can't Count On

I feel like I've been cautioning against a lot of movies lately. It's to be expected that most of the movies one watches will be subpar, especially when veering from the "classic movies" path. But I was hoping the bad would be spread out a bit more. I've really hit the doldrums. Looking back, I had quite a streak of good to great movies, so it's only fitting to hit a slump. Such is the case and I've got to power through and (hopefully) finish out this month on a high note.

Of all the movies I've watched recently, my hopes were the highest for The Prophecy. Christopher Walken plays Gabriel who is looking to fuck shit up. He's unhappy with God's favor of humans and refers to the species as "talking monkeys."

If it was just about Walken (and hey, we'll through in his "I want to be dead" sidekick Jerry [Adam Goldberg]), the movie would rule. Instead we spend most of our time with a cop who was going to be a priest but had a little incident at his priest-ening (whatever it's called when someone graduates to priesthood). Thomas Dagget (Elias Koteas) is looking to solve a bizarre murder of a man with no eye, the body chemistry of an aborted fetus, and male and female sex organs. Dagget's search gets him wrapped up in Gabriel's quest for a particular soul and Simon's (Eric Stoltz, and sorry for the next word) quest to hide it. I generally like Koteas and generally dislike Stoltz, so I'm sad the while the status quo remains for the latter, Koteas just isn't very good in The Prophecy. The problem is that he isn't much of a character. He lost his faith and, aside from the police work, that's about all that happens to him until the very end. I guess he's rediscovering his faith throughout, but it's not that interesting.

My biggest issue with The Prophecy is that, like many movies before and since, a child gets caught in the middle. I think people like going the easy route for drama by ensnaring innocence or something, but unless the kid is going to kick some ass or fuck shit up (or have that stuff happen to them), I'm not interested. At least not in my R-rated horror movies. This goes beyond being a lame plot device. Most of these kids can't act worth a damn. They kill any momentum the movie has. And featuring little Mary (Moriah Shining Dove Snyder) makes it necessary to bring in other mostly pointless people and plots. Virginia Madsen may as well not exist and I don't really get the Native American mysticism aspect since we're clearly in a world where the Catholic belief is the correct one.

There are a few saving graces to keep The Prophecy from being a complete waste of time. It may take 22 minutes to introduce Walken, but the man owns the screen. He just can't be awesome. Steve Hytner (better known as Kenny Bania from Seinfeld) has a good role as the guy doing the autopsy of the first angel (what is the word for that job?). It's funny in a very naturalistic way. Not over-the-top with dialogue that's too clever for the movie. Just breezy and organic (unlike Masuka in Dexter). Even though the movie has that weird '90s sheen to it, it also has some cool '90s special effects that mix awesome matte's with models in a way that looks fake, but awesome and a million times better than crappy CG. Finally, I kind of dig that The Prophecy is essentially a crime movie with souls at stake instead of a large some of money. You've got the cop chasing down the criminal, the shakedowns, the hiding of the "treasure" in an unknown location, etc. It's pretty nifty couching that in a religious thriller kind of movie.

Dogma feels like it took quite a great deal from The Prophecy even if it plays the material differently. There are several sequels and even though I didn't care for this movie, I'm intrigued by the others with Walken. Maybe they'll feature him more. I'm definitely curious as to how he is in them since he meets a fairly definitive end. I somehow doubt they can be much worse, but don't know if they'll be much better either. Finally, it's weird seeing Viggo Mortensen in movies before The Lord of the Rings films. It always seemed like he sprouted up just for those movies and just kept on acting when they ended. Who knew he'd been working so long before them?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

As Exciting As Watching Someone Fish: Island of the Fishmen

I was planning on writing a big introduction about how through the '60s and '70s, classic actors were taking roles in genre movies that at an earlier point in their career would seem beneath them. But the research aspect of the project was becoming daunting. Certainly for something relatively few will read. Sure, Donald Pleasance was in The Great Escape, but he'd also been playing genre roles for much of his career. Bela Legosi started in the classic Universal world and ended his career with Ed Wood. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford seemed to discover that the only place aging actresses fit in anymore was in horror movies. There are the types like Betsy Russell who dismissed the horror movies they were in, but needed the paycheck. But the problem I faced was that I couldn't think of that many movies that reflected Island of the Fishmen, and Italian production, that featured Joseph Cotten even though I know the scenario was common (Cotten, if you'll remember, stars in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons as well as Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt). I know there were loads of these type of actors who were in some of the all-time classics popping up in relative schlock but I just can't think of any off the top of my head. Please enlighten me in the comments if you have more examples (I also wanted to draw parallels to the way so many actors today got their starts in horror movies from the '70s and '80s, but this whole project was way to ambitious for a simple horror write-up).

My main reason for wanting to do all that here is that I don't have much to say about Island of the Fishmen. It's a pretty unremarkable movie with little style or interest. The main influence appears to be The Island of Dr. Moreau but without the interest. There's some bullshit about Atlantis and gold. A blandly villainous bad guy who is basically a caricature of wealthy bad guys (though the part is acted pretty well by Richard Johnson). Barbara Bach looks nice with little to do and Joseph Cotten looks old with even less to do. There's a volcano erupting, voodoo rituals, some fun miniatures and a cool cave set, and men in fish-like costumes. I wish there was more to discuss, but Island of the Fishmen is basically a bland genre outing.

Here's the Italian trailer:

And the American release featuring zero footage from the actual movie:

Monday, October 24, 2011

Stay 100 Feet Away From This Movie

There's plenty of people who think it's silly to over-think entertainment based around the supernatural. To them, it's ridiculous to argue say, why slow zombies are more realistic than fast zombies since both are made up and can react however their creator wants them to. The rules for entirely fictional creatures, planets, characters, etc. don't have to be set in stone from one narrative to the next. I'm not one of these people. I believe that rules should be created for fictional things and followed. It enhances the realism and the tension. If you know that their are no boundaries to what something can do, then there is really no surprise when it does anything.

I've been thinking about these supernatural "rules" a lot lately because, starting with the House series, I've been watching my share of ghost/haunting movies. The more I watch, the less I understand about how ghosts work and the more unrealistic the scenarios become. I'll try my best to explain, but there are many different kinds of hauntings, so I hope this doesn't all become confused.

The first issue is do the deceased get to decide to come back as a ghost? There are enough horror movies that have someone vowing revenge as their executed (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Shocker, The Horror Show) that it seems willful. And if they are allowed to come back, what does that say about the afterlife? Surely God wouldn't allow these criminals (and they're always criminals) to kill innocent people or even the people responsible for there demise. The first time I heard about "unfinished business" was from the movie adaptation of Caspar, but I hardly think this falls under that category. It's just vengeance against the people who most recently did them "wrong." The inference of this type of haunting is that they decided to forego that afterlife to kill (generally), but what happens to them when they are vanquished (if they are vanquished)? Limbo? Hell? Heaven? God did let them go back, after all.

As far as "unfinished business" goes, what happens if they can't finish their business? Can they decide to give up and return to heaven or wherever they go or are the doomed to haunt the earth just because they never told their sweetheart that they love her? Being a ghost is forever, in theory, so time will pass and the ability to complete the unfinished business is gone. What then? Is there a degree of importance to unfinished business? Is never learning to play guitar enough to come back or does it have to be something big and "meaningful."

And I really don't like the idea of people being haunted and the spirit follows them around. First, it ties in with my first concern where it was a conscious decision to be a ghost, but doesn't make much sense, either. Haunting a place where you were murdered or abused makes sense to me because that was a severe trauma and maybe you can't help but relive it. But following someone around indicates decision and basically everything above I already spoke of.

Finally, what are the rules of touching? If a ghost can move furniture around, what doesn't it just grab the person it's pissed at? Why do they spend so much time screwing with the haunted and not just finish the job right there? Do they get off on being a ghost (well... I guess the spirit in The Entity does)? This is a bigger problem for the ghosts seeking revenge because they must be filled with rage to seek it so badly they become a ghost.

As it stands, I can only really get behind the "unfinished business" ghosts (to an extent) or the "reliving past trauma" ghosts. There's at least some semblance of logic based around their existence and that suits me fine. All of which brings me to 100 Feet.

The premise is pretty amazing. A woman is under house arrest in a haunted house. That takes care of the "why don't they just leave the house" crowd as the alternative is going back to jail. The rest of the movie is crap. Eric Red wrote and directed 100 Feet and I had high expectations. This is the man responsible for writing The Hitcher! But instead of playing the movie for suspense, he plays it for "scares." The ghost is shown very early in a "boo" scare so there's not mystery as to what's happening. Red doesn't even try to infer that Marnie (Famke Janssen) is going insane being trapped inside all the time.

Of course, if the ghost wasn't shown so early, then we wouldn't have as much of that ghost-kicking-the-shit-out-of-a-woman action. You see, the ghost is Marnie's abusive husband who she killed in self-defense. Her husband was a cop and none of her abuse complaints were taken seriously leaving her no recourse and apparently a very bad lawyer. For some reason, he gets to come back to her and abuse her even in death and there's nothing she can do about it (except one thing, but that's the climax and I won't spoil it for you in all of it's terrible ridiculous-ity).

100 Feet is guilty of nearly all of my complaints above and it's incredibly frustrating to watch. The clear answer to many of my issues is "there would be no movie," but is there anything more frustrating that a movie that exists just because? I there isn't a convincing reason for making something and hour and a half, don't do it! Maybe it wouldn't be as big of a deal if every character wasn't so obnoxious and Janssen didn't speak with a terrible New York accent, but we'll never know.

There is some affective action if you can fight off the voice in your head saying, "this is stupid." and Red plays with the mirror trope (though not as well as House). There's also a neat parallel between no one believing that she was being abused by her husband to the fact that no one would ever believe she was being believe by the ghost of her husband, either. Other than that, 100 Feet is a hunk of disposable garbage. A massive

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Beautiful Naked Woman Only Gets You So Far: Lifeforce

I never think much about what goes in to casting a movie. Usually one only notices the stars and the bit players all fade to the background (by design, I guess). It's easy to forget that there are rounds and rounds of auditions that people have to go through just to get considered seriously for a role and even then they might not get it (Samm Levine comes to mind simply due to his stories from Sad Sad Conversation). I bring this up now because a beautiful woman walks around nearly all of her scenes stark naked. All I could think about was how many women had to go into the casting office and get naked (and subsequently get rejected because their bodies weren't quite right. And it was their bodies because there is very little acting involved in the role). IMDB tells us that over 1000 actresses were considered for the role. That's a whole lot of naked ladies for one movie. I'd imagine the only other person who looks at that many naked people for one movie is Tinto Brass.

There's a lot going for Lifeforce. Directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist). Written by Dan O'Bannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead), though apparently Hooper made changes that O'Bannon didn't approve. An awesome score by Henry Mancini. But after a stellar first act (pun slightly intended), Lifeforce falls apart.

The film opens in space with a crew investigating Halley's Comet and the come across desiccated bat corpses and three humanoid bodies in clear coffins made of an unknown substance. They bring the space coffins on board and we flash to thirty days later and contact is lost with the space ship. Another is sent up to find out what happens. The whole scene plays out much like the similar scene in Sunshine where the crew enters the other ship only to find everyone dead and burnt to death except without the crazy burned man fucking things up. I can't help but think Danny Boyle was a little inspired by Lifeforce. While the space scenes (and those soon after) are the best in Lifeforce, the special effects in space are pretty shoddy, though I do like the matte paintings. 

The coffined bodies are brought back to earth and we get some fun nakedness, soul sucking, and pretty cool animatronics. For a while, Lifeforce feels like it's going to be a perfect melding of O'Bannon's Alien and Return of the Living Dead. But once Space Girl (Mathilda May) gets loose from the compound, the movie becomes weird, confusing, and complicated.

Apparently, not everyone on the first space ship died. Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback, who I'm not really familiar with but is horrible in this) found his way to an escape pod and was recovered on earth. Now he's connected to Space Girl and she can get in his thoughts and he can see hers. It's a cheap gimmick gets even worse when hypnotism is also thrown in their. Now they can know where Space Girl is at all times even though she can change bodies. I'm not going to go much further into detail because it would be a garbled mess of words. Even though the space humanoids are referred to as vampires, somehow everyone gets turned into zombies. Patrick Stewart pops up and disappears without having done much. I don't even know what to make of the climax.

There are several key issues that prevent Lifeforce from being anything more than a mildly entertaining movie. First, we spend a lot of time with the first crew without getting to know any of them, then they are all killed. We enter act two by getting introduced to new characters. This approach leaves the viewer with no stake in what happens because we don't give a rat's ass what happens to these people and don't even know what it is they want (except maybe to get the naked woman back). Then there's the fact that the first act features a lot of nudity and cool special effects that disappear for a large part of the rest of Lifeforce. Just like the head explosions, you don't want to shoot your wad early. Additionally, the movie needed a better lead. I couldn't help but picture Jeffrey Combs owning as the lead in Lifeforce. He can play slightly insane better than anyone I've ever seen (and we'll throw insane in there, too).

Lifeforce crumbles when it introduces hypnotism and mind-connections as major plot points and never recovers. I'd like to read O'Bannon's original script just to see how much was his story. I like his work so much I struggle believing he crafted something so absurd. One thing I'll say for Lifeforce, though, is that I didn't see the ending coming at all.

Dr. Death Will See You Now: Madhouse

This may be old news as I've spoken to many friends about this, but I love Vincent Price. For basically my entire life up until about a year ago, he was a caricature. I knew him from Thriller:


Edward Scissorhands:

and The Simpsons:

After reading part one of a massive Orson Welles biography, I learned that Price was in the Mercury Theatre with Welles and it set me on a mission to discover the man for myself (that and Josh Becker speaks fairly highly of him when the subject comes up on his "Ask the Director" page). 

Over the past year I've been systematically watching as much Price as possible and I've learned that far from being a caricature, the man can flat out act! He brings sincerity, melancholy, menace, joy, and humor to his roles and always when necessary. I'd say I felt bad for him that he went from "serious" acting to starring in nothing but horror films, but genre cinema is all the better for it (and since I'm lauding a St. Louis boy at the same time the St. Louis Cardinals are in the World Series, I'll throw my hat in the ring for the Cards).

Madhouse gives Price quite a lot to do. He is at the center of a series of murders and his mental state is such that he may be committing the murders and not even know it.
OK, so Price gets a little cartoony with that scream at the beginning of the trailer. 

Price plays Paul Toombes, a man famous for playing the killer Dr. Death. The writer of these films is Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing). After an incident years before, Toombes spends some time in a mental institution but is now out and going to lay the part again for TV as a favor to Flay. That is, until everyone around him starts dying. There's kind of a lot going on around the heart of Madhouse and not all of it feels organic or even makes much sense, but it allows for bodies to pile up, so no complaints here!

Probably my favorite aspect of the film is that it shows a number of Toombes old films, some of which were made specifically for Madhouse and feature Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff, and some are old films or Vincent Price like The Pit and the Pendulum. That brings a level of authenticity to the film even if the latter of which suggests an alternate universes in which there is no Vincent Price, or no Paul Toombes, or they are the same person). There's also a lot of jabs at the filmmaking process and the nature of the industry. In regards to someone living a part, the response is "Actors don't get carried away like that." There really is no room for method in horror movies, anyway... And even though everyone around the TV show production is dying, the show must go on at all costs! There's plenty more, but I didn't start picking up on the mockery until about halfway through the movie.

The reveal can be seen coming a mile away and I was probably more surprised that it was that obvious. Dare I give Madhouse credit for trying to trick the viewer by not trying to trick the viewer? There are lots of scenes of people discovering bodies and screaming which is more amusing than anything else. Overall, though, I totally dig Madhouse. It's weird, but classy and offers a few surprises even if the ending isn't one of them. And the last line is pretty boss: "It's your favorite, Paul. Sour cream and red herrings."

Post-script: Madhouse is rated PG but is decidedly not a kids movie. This brings to light the relative pointlessness of the PG-13 rating. PG meant parental guidance suggested, but it doesn't mean that kids can't see the movie alone. By making a PG-13 rating, it's saying something that's already being said. The issue gets confused once one starts comparing movies released after PG-13 was instituted. PG came to mean kids films. But when you look at movies with PG ratings before 1984, you find Jaws, Poltergeist, and Barbarella in mix. By today's standards, there is no way they get a PG, but there is no retroactive rating. I don't really care about ratings much at all and plan on watching all sorts of movies with my kid(s?). After all, that's what PG stands for and even R requires a parent/guardian to be present. What a world...

Friday, October 21, 2011

How to Lose Good Will: The Horde

I'm not here to spark age old debates. I think we've all had enough of them. You haven't? Me either, but I'm not going to get into it again (but you can read someone else's zombie thoughts if you like). Just to acknowledge the fact: yes, The Horde features fast zombies and no, I'm not OK with that. So what else does The Horde have for us?

I am a huge fan of the idea that starts off The Horde that there is a narrative completely unrelated to the zombie genre (or horror at all) that gets disrupted by the outside undead force. I almost wish that I could experience a movie in which I didn't know it was a zombie movie until the first zombies showed up 20 minutes in. Can you imagine watching a heist movie where the crew has spent the entire movie planning the heist to the most minute detail only to have zombies screw everything up just as they crack the safe? It sounds amazing! So The Horde had a lot of good will early even in spite of the fact that the hints of the imminent zombie invasion pointed to fast zombies. There are a group of cops who are going to rescue a colleague/friend from the people who killed another one of their own. Opposing sides meet. Some people get killed. Zombies show up.

The plot isn't unlike John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13. The two sides must try to put aside their differences if they hope to survive. Through the first 30 minutes, I was totally on board. I loved the set up, had no idea where the movie was going, the movie was looking good, and I totally dug that the zombie menace was unexplained and that the recently killed were rising even though they weren't infected (something that I feel gets lost in some other zombie movies). Then the first zombie attack happens. It's like the directors, Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher, totally lost confidence in their abilities. It looks like they removed frames to make the action quicker and jerky but it looks terrible. Any time something exciting happens, this aesthetic returns to the point where I actively starting disliking the movie. I want my zombie carnage smooth, dammit!

Then there are the characters... I mostly like the lead criminal, Adewale (Eriq Ebouaney), and the lead cop, Ouessem (Jean-Pierre Martins). Actually, the criminals in general get on my nerves the least, but that's not to say I like them. But the female cop, Aurore (Claude Perron) is totally ridiculous. She's just there to be angry and contrary. And being basically the only female in the movie, she has to be pregnant (but not too pregnant so she's still super-thin). I get what they were trying to do, but I don't understand why she's only looking out for herself. The comic relief from Rene (Yves Pignot) starts as mildly amusing and becomes tiresome. Maybe you don't want likable characters in your zombie movie because inevitably, everyone is going to die (or if there is a hopeful ending, the zombie threat is rarely eradicated). Yeah. I don't buy that either.

By the time The Horde is ramping up to the climax, it's just an endless stream of people doing stupid things. A grenade is ignored, people struggle to close a door that zombies are blocking but don't think to shoot at them, unnecessary sacrifices are made, and NO ONE FIGURES OUT THAT HEAD SHOTS KILL THE ZOMBIES EVEN THOUGH THEY'VE ALREADY DETERMINED THAT THAT WORKS. Seriously. They don't even try to aim for the head in most cases. It's so aggravating to watch.

When I was still enjoying The Horde, I was going to talk about the themes running through it and examine if there was any commentary on violence or crime. Instead, I got angry. I thought the film was going to blow me away, fast zombies and everything, but it's a shit sandwich.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Kitchen Sink Approach: The Witch's Mirror

The Witch's Mirror hits about every horror bullet point established up to the time of it's release. I'm not sure that I've ever seen a movie that tries to cover the bases so fully. This is going to be spoiler heavy because The Witch's Mirror is ridiculous.

The movie starts off with narration about what it is to be a witch over images of witchy illustrations. We're really set up for a lot of classic, Halloween-style witchery. Instead, we get a mirror that predicts the future in and acts as a manner to speak to the dead (I always thought the witch's mirror was something concocted in Snow White and never really thought it might be a part of the folklore). Elena (Dina de Marco) learns that her husband is going to kill her and her witch friend/servant, Sara (Isabela Corona), asks Lucifer (Satan) for help but is told that she'd be punished for interfering with fate. I was actually really hoping for a Minority Report-esque plot point about preventing future crimes. Alas...

So the husband Eduardo (Armando Calvo) poisons Elena's milk because all castles have poison and Elena, even though she knows her husband is going to try to kill her drinks the milk with slight reluctance and dies. That's how fate works? She couldn't have "accidentally" dropped the glass to buy herself some time? Sara vows to avenge Elena's death, as one does.

Instead of immediately avenging Elena's death in a witch-like way, Sara waits for Eduardo to return home from a voyage with his former mistress/now wife, Deborah (Rosa Arenas) who (and this is important) didn't know that Eduardo was married to Elena at the time of their relationship and Sara knows this because the mirror told her. Instead of back at Eduardo, Sara's plan ends with Deborah horribly burned and considers this mission accomplished. However, Deborah is an innocent in all of this and is punished pretty horribly while Eduardo gets off pretty scott free. I almost thought the movie was going to end right there, but it didn't. Bizarrely, Sara's plan isn't so much witchy as it is a haunting. In fact, it feels more like Elena just came back from the dead on her own and started fucking with the lovebirds until they began yelling at each other (something about terror tears a couple apart) and freaking out.

But, what started as a witch movie and turned into a haunted house movie once again shifts into the mad scientist approach. Eduardo is obsessed with restoring his new brides skin to her so she doesn't have to be ashamed and embarks on a quest not unlike the one in Eyes Without a Face. Suddenly, Eduardo is a doctor (which has not been mentioned until now) and has a young man in his employ (whom we are just meeting) and there are police on the case (what case?). An entirely different movie starts halfway through The Witch's Mirror. Not only that, but they dig up a woman who is actually alive (a very common theme in the macabre) and has hands exactly like Elena's that Eduardo wants to put on Deborah. Why? Because... they're pretty? But he's tricked! And Sara hands removed from the still living corpse into the fire (because why save them to see if they can't be reattached to the original owner who could wake up at any moment with no hands) and has the undead Elena leave her hands instead. With these hands attached to Deborah, Elena can exact her own revenge. What the hell?

And you know, it's not a bad movie and not really confusing. But a million things happen in 75 minutes. I'm almost in awe of the accomplishments of director Chano Urueta. Anything related to witchery is totally superflous and it would take very little to have the film make sense just being a ghost story, but I kind of dug this little Mexican horror story.

Quivering Like a Shaky Cam: Seventh Moon

Apparently director Eduardo Sanchez only knows one way to shoot a movie. It worked out fine for him with The Blair Witch Project. Of course the found footage for that is going to be shaky and rough and hard to make out details. It's just a couple kids going into the woods getting freaked the fuck out. However, with a third person camera, there is no need for the entire film to be handheld. The constantly moving image makes it hard to focus on what's happening and it makes for really jarring editing since there is no flow between images. Any time I see a film shot entirely handheld, my reaction is that the filmmaker has no idea how to make a movie since there appears to be no grasp of the basics. Shaky cam is a tool and should be used appropriately, like filters, lenses, slow-motion, zooms, pans, and everything else that goes into making a movie. I often wonder if actors watch the completed movie and think about how terrible it all looks and are disappointed about how the final product doesn't meet what they read in the script.

Seventh Moon starts with a quote about the fifteenth day of the seventh moon the dead walk the earth. The quote is attributed to ancient Chinese wisdom and I have no reason to doubt it, but with stuff like that,  filmmakers could totally be fucking with me and I wouldn't know the difference (by the way... it checks out). The handheld photography actually works during the opening credits because it gives the film a documentary feel like we're following this newlywed couple (Amy Smart and Dennis Chan) around a Chinese city. There's also the suspicion that the shots were done without permits and that they were sneaking around with a camera (something I can't verify).

Then the aesthetic continues and I got the feeling that I wasn't going to be a fan of Seventh Moon. I wasn't wrong. The handheld camera isn't the only problem though I repeatedly noted that the cuts are jarring and how hard it is to see anything (also due to the near absence of light throughout the movie). Seventh Moon is simply rife with cliches and feels like it was culled from a million other movies. The honeymoon couple turn on each other the moment things start turning south (Amy Smart's anger about going to China for her honeymoon is one of the more absurd things I've heard), the car gets stuck in the mud, the tour guide goes missing after driving them out to the middle of nowhere, dreams that play as reality for no reason, and a deus ex machina ending.

Truthfully, I wouldn't care so much about those if the movie was actually scary, but it's impossible to create tension with that damn camerawork! How am I supposed to sense these creatures creeping if the camera doesn't hold still long enough for me to focus on them? At least use a wider lens or a steadicam to help things out. Hell, I might have even started to get invested in the story of the doomed relationship and what it would be like to lose someone who you've just dedicated your life to. As it stands, Seventh Moon is a waste of time.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Top 12 Horror Films of the '90s

In light of the brief discussion from a previous post about horror in the '80s compared to the '90s and spurred on by comments from another post, I had to look deeper into horror films of the '90s to get a larger sense of the quality. Verdict: what a terrible decade for horror. My initial list of just "good" horror films came to about eighteen and I whittled it down to twelve that I would consider great. It's not even like every year is represented. From '96 to '99, horror was essentially a dead genre. Some things that surprised me or are at least of note:
-- Wes Craven had a pretty solid output through the decade. It's a shame that he's fallen apart in the aughts.
-- There were a ton of shitty remakes and sequels made in the decade. That's still the case now, but at least more people are able to make their own movies even if they're low-budget and direct-to-DVD (and generally not good).
-- With one or two exceptions, my list of films is dominated by well-established genre directors, either of the time or today.

The list is in no order except by release year. As always, if I miss any, let me know!

Gremlins 2: The New Batch -- Joe Dante
Everything is amped up in this sequel. I can see why some wouldn't like it because it's totally different from the original. It's as close to a live action cartoon as one is likely to see and the gremlins are the main attraction. They run amok in a skyscraper that houses seemingly everything imaginable. It's pure, unadulterated chaos that Dante has complete control over. I almost can't believe Gremlins 2 ever got made. It's totally meta (Leonard Maltin is attacked while reviewing the first film) and ridiculous and I love every second of it.

Tremors -- Ron Underwood
My dad is the biggest fan of this series I've ever met. I can't remember if I showed it to him or we rented it together, but he owns all four movies plus the TV series. I'm nowhere near his level of fandom, but the first Tremors is definitely worth it. Horror comedy is tough to pull off, especially when it's basically a special effects heavy monster movie in which realism is key to the success of the movie. Tremors gets great performances from Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon and their chemistry is so good that it's sad Bacon didn't come back at least for the second one. One would be remiss if Michael Gross isn't mentioned as he carries much of the remaining series. It's amazing how far away from Family Ties he is as gun nut Burt Gummer.

Dead/Alive (aka Braindead)
For the longest time, this was the only movie I would never force anyone to watch. Generally, I'd invite friends over to watch a certain horror movie or series of movies whether they are fans of the genre or not. They don't mind much because it's in a group and spirits are high. But Dead/Alive was a no go. It's incredibly gross and weird and I didn't think the novices would be able to take it. After seeing it playing on a TV in a bar recently, I've changed my mind. Everyone has to see it. In fact, it's impossible to look away from Dead/Alive. It's over-the-top and hilarious with great gore and puppeteering. I dare you to watch this movie and figure out how Peter Jackson went from this to being trusted with one of the biggest motion picture franchises ever (AND shooting all three of those movies back to back to back). It boggles the mind.

Army of Darkness -- Sam Raimi
I almost eliminated this from my list because I don't believe it's nearly as good as Evil Dead I or II and I've seen it so many times (and so many versions of it) that I feel like it's losing its luster (kind of like The Big Lebowski). However, it's brought me so much joy and I still find myself watching it even though I think I don't need to anymore. Great one-liners, tons of awesome gags, and it's nice to see so many old school effects even if many of them are terrible. The shoot may have been horrible, but it doesn't show on screen. As amazing as Bruce Campbell is in the first two, watching him in this is like watching an entirely different actor. The man commands the screen. It's like we watched him grow up and learn how to act through each film in the trilogy.

Cronos -- Guillermo del Toro
This has been covered in much more detail.

In the Mouth of Madness -- John Carpenter
The first time I watched In the Mouth of Madness, I didn't care much for it. I mean, I liked it enough to buy the DVD for $5, but it didn't impress me like The Thing did. However, it won out on the voting amongst friends for a movie to watch and I was blown away. I'm not sure what I missed out on the first time, but it's creepy and sinister and Sam Neill owns the screen. It's Carpenter's homage to the Lovecraft-ian world (the title is taken from two Lovecraft stories) and it packs an amazing, apocalyptic punch. And just to show that I'm not alone, a coworker went through the exact same experience as me. The movie is practically begging to be rewatched.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare -- Wes Craven
Before Craven would get really meta on us with Scream, he towed the water with New Nightmare. Freddy got a new look and lost the elaborate set pieces and quippiness that took over the series in the years since A Nightmare on Elm Street. There's a fair amount of bad acting as studio execs play themselves, but it's nice to see Heather Langenkamp back as well as Robert Englund out of the make-up. Much like In the Mouth of Madness, I only realized how good this film was upon rewatching it, which really makes me insecure about my opinions of things. Those who know me know that I'm not known for an unwillingness to share opinions, so this is potentially earth-shattering for me.

The Frighteners -- Peter Jackson
I'll always associate The Frighteners with Christmas because I saw it for the first time at a Christmas party I had with my friends. We rented it and though I probably a little young (I was terrified of utility knives for a while after), I still loved it. There were funny ghosts and Michael J. Fox was in it! What's not to like? Jeffrey Combs gives what might be his most unhinged performance in a career full of them. What's notable about this film on this list is that it's the first to feature CG heavily. It's almost amazing how great the movie looks given the year it was made (Toy Story was only released the year before) and it still holds up admirably. Given the leaps in technology that Weta had to make to get this movie made, you can draw a straight line from The Frighteners to Lord of the Rings. Also, it's kind of cute the way Jackson tried to pass off the New Zealand locations for an American city.

Scream -- Wes Craven
While Scream may be responsible for 90% of the bad horror films that came out in the five to ten years after it, there's no denying it's a great movie. The characters are well-developed, the script is solid and self-referential, the cast is perfect, and the killer is terrifying. The Ghostface mask was responsible for many sleepless nights for me and even though Scream scared the bejesus out of me (I was in seventh grade when it came out and I couldn't believe that a classmate of mine wanted to see it in theaters, I still read the script to the sequel before it's release (the only movie script I ever read until I had to read one for my screenwriting class) and I saw Scream 2 on opening night. Now that my knowledge of the genre is so much greater than it was at the time, it's fun to go back and watch the various references/homages I didn't get (truth be told, I like the whole series and though I haven't seen 4, I expect to like it too).

Lake Placid -- Steve Miner
Once again, covered ground.

Sleepy Hollow -- Tim Burton
For sheer joy, Sleepy Hollow ranks as one of my favorite movies ever. It's rare to have a movie live up to one's expectations so fully, but I was running along with the horseman in the theater. I couldn't help it. My legs were moving on their own accord. Once again, I saw this relatively early in my horror education so I didn't realize the importance of Christopher Lee or Michael Gough to the genre. I don't mind the changes from the original story since Johnny Depp keeps the spirit of Ichabod alive and well in his squeamishness (and doesn't Burton gleefully bloody Depp at every turn?). Sleepy Hollow may be the last truly great Tim Burton movie (how sad that the '90s signaled the end of quality output from so many good directors [yes, I know Burton is making tons of money for Disney, but the movies suck]).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Light-Hearted Take on Gruesomely Murdering Strippers: The Gore Gore Girls

Most are probably familiar with Herschell Gordon Lewis from the scene in Juno where Ellen Page and Jason Bateman argue over who the master of horror is. I know that was the first time I'd heard the name and I'd been a massive horror fan since my junior year of high school (about seven-ish years). It took another four years for me to finally check out one of Lewis' films and, if The Gore Gore Girls is any indication, I have little desire to check out more.

Lewis doesn't waste any time getting to the gore. Before there is any indication that the movie has started, a stripper is seen repeatedly getting her face smashed into a mirror. Some mildly interesting credits role and we meet Abraham Gentry (Frank Kress). Gentry is not unlike Sherlock Holmes in that he is apparently a very fine independent investigator (though Holmes always seems to do it for the fun whereas Gentry will take the cash). At least everyone seems to be impressed when they find out who he is. In action, Gentry is more Oscar Wilde than Sherlock Holmes. He's always ready with a quip and a dismissive barb. It's one of the more irritating aspects in a film full of them. However, like Holmes, he's not above using his compatriots as bait.

There's not much plot. Gentry is trying to solve the case of the mutilated strippers. Probably my biggest issue with The Gore Gore Girls is that it wants to be a comedy with intense gore (lord knows it's not a sexy movie even though there's plenty of stripping). There are scenes of pulverized heads and gouged eyes playing next Gentry acting like he's entertaining at a cocktail party. Lewis tries to have it both ways in one scene that features death by butt tenderizing. I can see how some might find the antics amusing, but it plays as hackneyed and "shocking" for lack of ideas. There's a few interesting things in the gory scenes: a bubble filled with blood and some queasy nipple play, but even that stuff lingers too long.

Basically, the movie boils down to strippers stripping, strippers being murdered (often by bludgeoning), and insensitive quips. I mentioned above how unsexy the stripping is and, aside from it taking up so much screen time as to become dull, the dancing is terrible. The art of stripping has come a long way since 1972, apparently, because all I could think about watching these girls was Andy Kaufman:

Stay Off the Moor at Night: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

I remember in 7th grade my English teacher talking about how nearly all novels have many unanswered questions in the end (in retrospect, I really don't know what that means because of course they do, but maybe he meant mystery novels). However, he said that The Hound of the Baskervilles has only one. This sent me straight to the book to find out what that was (this was probably better than assigning the book to read because I never really got into the habit of reading for my classes as I like to read for pleasure whereas reading for classes feels like a race against the clock). I still don't know what that remaining question is, though I'm certain I had more than one when I finished it. That also marks the last time I spent any time with The Hound of the Baskervilles... until now.

I feel as though it's hard to screw up a Sherlock Holmes story as long as one sticks fairly close to the source material. There's something far more satisfying to watching Holmes work as opposed to anyone on CSI or something like that. Perhaps it's the fact that Holmes doesn't have to use high tech machinery and crazy forensic analysis. He goes by his wits and his gut and we feel as though we can figure the mystery out if we pay close enough attention without having to wait for results to get back from the lab. And Hammer does a damn fine job here. Sadly, audiences weren't ready for non-monster Hammer films and the planned series of Peter Cushing starring Sherlock Holmes movies was abandoned.

Cushing strikes me as the perfect Holmes. He basically plays the know-it-all authority in every movie he's in for Hammer. He's a master of exposition only here the exposition is more interesting because it's how he solved a case instead of the history of Dracula (which he's given at least five times) or something similar. I particularly like portrayals of Holmes where he's a bit of a prickly pear. He doesn't have time for nonsense and doesn't put up with foolishness. Holmes is even a jerk to his host, Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee), when he knows it will benefit in the long run. It's very enjoyable and more than a little amusing. Cushing also does a masterful job of looking like he's always observing. His eyes wander and his head darts around to everything. One gets the sense that this is a man who can't help but obsess over minutiae.

I like to think that the Hammer Holmes series would have featured Cushing and Lee in every film with Lee playing a different character all the time. It's nice to watch a movie where he's not a bad guy and is actually normal. Due to his most famous role as Dracula, he always carries a sinister air about him, but he does a pretty good job a keeping it to a minimum. I can definitely see why he wanted to avoid being pigeonholed as Dracula.

There are a few red herrings floating around, but I don't think there's any real surprise as to who the guilty party is even if you haven't read the book. There's also some silliness with a Tarantula that is explained away fairly reasonably, but remains silly nonetheless. Sherlock is absent for most of the first act, as well, which is a little disappointing. But it's Sherlock Holmes! In color! By Hammer! Fun times are had by all.

Now, if I can just get someone to write a mash-up of The Hound of the Baskervilles and An American Werewolf in London. American Werewolf of the Baskervilles... I like that.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Uncle Sam Wants Us Dead

I'm fairly certain everyone saw this box when they went to the video store (remember those?):
I know I do. I still remember where it was situated in the store. Back wall, about a third of the way in (going left to right), just below eye level. It had a holographic cover that changed from regular Uncle Sam to evil Uncle Sam, (not unlike the Jack Frost box). The tag line always struck me as amusing (because I'm a sucker for those things), but everything else about the movie looked terrible. How perspectives change once one gains a little more knowledge...

For instance, did you know that the film was written by Larry Cohen? Even though Special Effects was terrible, the man tries to make horror movies with something to say. All right, Uncle Sam. I'm listening. Also, did you know that William Lustig directed it? The man is responsible for one of the more unsettling horror movies I've ever seen: Maniac. Additionally, Uncle Sam has a cast featuring appearances by Robert Forster, P.J. Soles (*sigh*), Timothy Bottoms, and Isaac Hayes. OK, Uncle Sam. Let's do this.

Sam Harper returns form Operation Desert Storm in a coffin, killed by friendly fire. He spent his living years preaching patriotism to his young nephew who exalts his Uncle Sam as a hero (see, it's a clever title because Uncle Sam is the name of the character AND the icon) even though most know him as something other than that. But, for some reason, Sam returns from the dead (shades of Deathdream?) to punish the unpatriotic. In a way, it's the perfect movie for our current political environment and it was released in 1997. Doesn't it feel like there's a growing sense of "kill the unpatriotic" in this country, what with the whole, "let people without health insurance die" crowd. Uncle Sam works pretty well as a satire about blind patriotism. With the young nephew as the protagonist, it helps the film drive home the point that blind patriotism isn't just ridiculous, but it's a childlike and naive view of the world.

Cohen and Lustig don't do much to hide their distain for modern warfare. Isaac Hayes' character yells at the nephew to keep out of the army (the nephew still has about eight years to go) and that there are no heroes, only crazy people lucky enough not to get killed being crazy, get medals, then are told to go home and not be crazy anymore. There are lines that hint at the complexities of Vietnam and why draft-dodging wasn't necessarily cowardice and more lines about how war used to be about fighting something tangible. And the obvious, having your uber-patriotic soldier come back to life and kill people at an Independence Day celebration because they are less than perfect Americans.

I spoke of the difference between movies made in the '90s versus those made earlier and Uncle Sam is a decent example of that. Not so much in the aesthetic, but in the way the violence is portrayed. Through the '80s, horror filmmakers were getting away with all sorts of bloody mayhem even with many of the films getting severe cuts from censors. Into the '90s, though, horror movies pulled back and the violence largely happens off-screen with the end result being shown. Instead of having Tom Savini (for example) make a prosthetic body to shove a spike through, they cut away only to show someone with a bloody spike in them. Given that Lustig is responsible for one of the greatest head explosions in cinema history (supplied by Savini, of course), it's a little disappointing that Uncle Sam doesn't deliver the goods (this trend starts in the late-80s and is readily apparent in both Sleepaway Camp sequels which could really use some good gore because Bruce Springsteen's sister only gets a movie so far...).

Uncle Sam falls apart a bit in the third act, but considering what I was expecting, I'm more than happy with the experience. Even though it cuts short on some gore, it's nice to see someone actually lit on fire (as opposed to someone pretending and having a shitty CG fire added after) and the satire is pretty good. Netflix lists Uncle Sam as a comedy, which baffles me because there really isn't much that's funny in the film and I don't think the filmmakers intended it to be funny. I get the feeling that, much like my gut reaction above, the fine people at Netflix didn't watch the film but just assumed it was going to be in the "so-bad-it's-good" category. No. It's just good (but not great).

Friday, October 14, 2011

Not to Be Confused with Tremors 4: The Burrowers

I've been waiting to encounter a movie that I didn't really have much to say about. The Burrowers is a fine movie and I would never tell anyone not to watch it, but it just didn't give me much to think about story-wise or message-wise. It's an hour and half horror Western. Think The Searchers but instead of the Comanche killing the family and taking the girl, our protagonists assume Indians were responsible for the massacre and pursue them (I believe it's the Utes in The Burrowers) instead of the creatures that live underground. Maybe the moral of The Burrowers is "Never assume because it makes an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me.'"

Lost fans will be happy to see William Mapother in a major role. Genre fans will be excited to see Clancy Brown because Clancy Brown is awesome in everything and should be a huge star (and was also on Lost, come to think of it). There are times when The Burrowers does feel like an epic Western with impressive shots of people riding horses across the prairies and appropriately sweeping music playing. The movie loses that a bit towards the end, but it was nice to look at, though the whole look of the movie suffers from post-production tampering (why can't people just get the lighting right when they shoot it? This post-production color alteration must stop). Along similar lines, it may be easier to create CG monsters and use CG gore, but it looks terrible! Doesn't anyone care about the craft? There are methods that have been in place for 30 years that yield better results than crappy CG.

Even at 96 minutes, The Burrowers feels long. I attribute it to the fact that Clancy Brown leaves the film about halfway through and we're left without his awesome presence for the rest. There's a a sense that we're just running over the same old ground. Perhaps if the viewer was kept in the dark about what was really going on so we're trying to figure things out while the characters are the film would have had a stronger hook. As it stands... meh.

Gore Reigns Supreme: The Beyond

This is going to be a pretty short write-up. It's not that there's not a lot to say about The Beyond but that it's so visceral and the story matters so little that it's hard to get much across without just saying, "you just have to watch the movie." It's the second film in Lucio Fulci's "Gates of Hell" trilogy, the others being City of the Living Dead and The House by the Cemetery (the latter of which I enjoyed far more the second time I saw it). The Beyond is easily my favorite of the trilogy even though there's little that makes sense in the film (which is kind of the case with the whole trilogy).

Roughly, The Beyond deals with a woman who inherits an old hotel in Louisiana and is trying to prep it for reopening. The problem is, this hotel is one of the seven gates of hell. That's all you really need to know. Just strap yourself in for a steady flow of plasma, eyes getting mutilated, stabbings, and a head explosion (The Beyond gets the formula for that right, unlike some other film I know). The scene that fucked me up the most is when the tarantulas attack. Fulci lingers on them walking and something about watching all eight of their legs move at different times gave me the willies.

The Beyond is loaded with great, stylish shots and awesome gore effects. There's an annoying blind woman and when the doctor is shooting at  zombies at the end, you'd think he was a moron, but those are just about my only complaints for the movie. It's perfect to watch with a crowd as there's lots to elicit vocal responses. Seriously... you just have to watch the movie.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

You Can Forget About Atari: Pitfall

Pitfall is a movie with ghosts but no haunting. It has more in common with a police procedural than a horror movie. I thought about not including it with the other write-ups but I figured that there has to be room for a supernatural drama in October at some point. Plus, I've already covered other thrillers and this one isn't so different. In fact, more people are killed in this than in Special Effects. And like Special Effects, Pitfall features doppelgangers, though much more effectively.

There is a startling amount going in in the 97 minutes of Pitfall. I hesitate to even try to write a synopsis. Briefly, a migrant miner is working for work and is killed. A reporter examine follows up on some leads and discovers that there is a head of a union that broke off from the main union who looks exactly like the murdered man. The reporter, the deceased, and the look-a-like are all trying to get to the bottom of what's happening for their own reasons. It's damn near remarkable that the film isn't a garbled mess by the end and wraps up quite nicely (some might say too nicely).

Pitfall loses steam when it tells the back story of the two unions, but then I've never been much for union talk. It's essential to set up what's to come, but very dialogue heavy and some interesting staging does little to pep the scene up. However, the rest of the film is cracking; steeped in dramatic irony. It's very easy to empathize with the characters and you almost want to shout out at the screen to explain what they can't (because they are dead and all). Having so many people with an interest in the murder really helps to keep the pitfalls of procedurals at bay. Pitfall also does some pretty ingenious things with the doppelganger (I particularly like when the dead man returns to the woman's store late in the film).

The music is terrific and interesting and the film is beautiful to look at with lots of really neat tracking shots of people moving through reeds and ghost towns and the like. Director Hiroshi Teshigahara has a masterful eye and I only wish that they'd spent more time cleaning the lens before shooting. Pitfall feels like it takes place in another time as it starts and the mention of a bus early on was very jarring. As the film progresses, we move into more modern spaces of industrialization. It's a little bit like moving through the evolution of mining. There's even some documentary footage of mining incidents in there for good measure. 

At one point, a (dead) character says to our dead man, "The more you know, the worse it'll be" (no wonder NBC dropped the last half for their PSAs). And of course, that appears to be true for everyone by the end of the film. The ultimate irony is that no one really knows anything at the end of Pitfall for all of their efforts. Save for one person who knows everything but never says a word during the film.

So, it's not scary, the ghosts don't haunt, and it's heavy on union politics. But it's beautiful, and involving, with great music and solid direction. Yeah there's definitely room in October for supernatural dramas.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

When Good Girls Go Vampire: Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural

There's something about horror films from the '80s and before that proclaim authenticity. Not that the events depicted are more realistic than their more current counterparts, but that the viewer is going to get a fun or scary experience (or both). When I see that a horror film was made in the '90s, I hold a low opinion of it instantly because I grew up during that time and associate so many bad movies with the era. I don't know if it was the film stock or what, but movies in the '90s have a sheen to them that makes them feel artificial that coincides with bad storytelling. It's an era caught between the big ass blockbusters of the '80s, changing technologies, and corporatization. As for the Aughts, there is a slickness to the image that gives the feeling that they are trying really hard to distract from the fact that their movie sucks. This goes from the Platinum Dunes productions all the way down to independent movies. Post-production effects are starting to ruin movies for me.

Even though I know most of the older horror movies are going to be bad as well, I'd still rather stick with them given the chance. I love the murky image (and as far as Instant View goes, many of these more obscure movies are taken from VHS copies). I love the good and crappy practical effects. I love that, for the most part, it feels like people are making the movie for fun and not necessarily as a job. They feel personal instead of clinical (one of the top reasons many of the remakes aren't any good. There's little investment in the subject, just the Brand).

So, I'm more than happy to watch Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural which, depending on your source, was either made in '73 or '75. On Instant View, it's very clearly a VHS copy as it has the Samuel Goldwyn Productions logo tagged onto the beginning. Another aspect that hooked me is that Netflix describes it as "weirdly erotic" yet it has a PG rating. The Catholic Film Board even banned it for its pedophilic and lesbian content. Sounds like a go for me!

The plot is very simple. Thirteen year old Lila, (Cheryl Smith), the daughter of a gangster who's on the run, is adopted by the church and lives a good Christian life (for some reason, the congregation is all women though the pastor is a man). She gets a letter from Lemora (Lesley Gilb) saying her father is hurt and wants to see her so Lila takes off on a terrifying journey. Here's a clip as I can't find any trailers:

Lemora is like an even creepier version of Jan Svankmajer's Alice. For a while, all Lila does (can do) is react to the terror around her. She's like Alice drifting through Horrorland encountering ghouls and creepy kids around every corner. Even the "normal" people she encounters are lecherous animals. When Lila finally sees what Lemora really is, it's not unlike the Queen of Hearts and her minions chasing after Alice shouting "Off with her head" except that instead of decapitation, Lemora wants to sink her fangs into Lila's neck. This final chase is actually quite terrifying, too. Lila is always one step ahead, but the torches are never far behind. The camera angles and the set are intricate and framed to maximize the hunt. Per the discussion above, I can only imagine if Lemora was made today, the chase would be filled with hyper-cutting and camera moves galore. The approach here gives the viewer a chance to get a sense of the surroundings an just how confusing running away from someone (somethings?) can be.

Lemora is far from solid. apparently about 30 minutes were cut from its original release to its DVD release in 2004. In that light, it's easy to see why there are a fair amount of incomprehensible moments, especially during the final fight in the church. Nonetheless, I am surprised at how effective the film is. It takes a little while to get where it's going, but when it gets there, it's pretty relentless.

When Nazis Aren't the Only Bad Guys: The Keep

Conventional wisdom is that the book is better than the movie. Always. But can a movie be so inept and poorly conceived that it makes one want to avoid the book at all cost? Surely the odds are in the books favor that it will be better. But here I was, wondering how bad the book has to be to yield a movie so uninteresting. There was no benefit of the doubt even though I've seen Will Smith version I Am Legend and it's a travesty of an adaptation that totally misses the point of the novella. Yes, people screw up adaptations all the time. Why was I already hating on the novel? It does my mind good and makes me curious about source material that the writer, F. Paul Wilson found the film to be incomprehensible (in it's theatrical release. Allegedly, the first cut was 3.5 hours[!]).

The plot, as near as I can tell, is that Nazi soldiers are stationed at a deserted citadel in which no one has ever died, but no one has ever lasted spending the night either. Some greedy treasure-hunting soldiers dig out a silver cross and unlock something from within that seems only set on killing Nazis. There's a Jewish historian brought in from a death camp to help figure out what's going on. A guy with glowing eyes has sex with the historian's daughter. Smoke billows, heads explode, one man is healed... it's a mess.

There's a surprising pedigree involved with The Keep, or I should say much of the cast and the director would go on to much bigger things or at least consistent work: Michael Mann, Ian McKellen, Gabriel Byrne, Jurgen Prochnow, Scott Glenn. And the acting is mostly good (though Ian McKellen somehow looks like he's dressed in his father's clothes even though he was in his 40's when this film was made). The directing his accomplished and there are some Michael Mann flourishes. The sets are pretty cool and there's a number of sweet mattes (and an awesome laser show at the end).

But as I said, the story is a mess. Nothing makes sense and not in the good way when something supernatural is happening. There really is no specific place to begin. You just have to watch the movie, but I don't recommend it. It's a movie that takes the bold step of making the Nazis the bad guys. It's got some pretty bad dubbing even though everyone is speaking English and it was shot on a set. There's a go-nowhere love story and the final duel is anticlimactic, laser show or no. And it breaks one of the cardinal rules of the movies: never explode a head before the finale. Everything that comes after that moment is just a letdown. It happens in Scanners and it happens here.

Still... awesome poster.