Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 25

2001 Maniacs (2005)

Let’s look back on the early 2000s, when grisly horror movies were suddenly a big deal again. While James Wan and Eli Roth came to prominence in the mainstream, more compelling directors emerged from the independent scene. Such as Tim Sullivan. A buddy of Roth and Adam Green, Sullivan briefly seemed like a viable member of the Splat Pack. He never broke through to the mainstream, as his films were far too crude for that. (Though I remember “Driftwood” being pretty good.) Which brings us to “2001 Maniacs,” a remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ gore classic and Sullivan’s most popular feature.

Sullivan maintains the general outline of Lewis’ original. A handful of travelers follow a strange detour to the town of Pleasant Valley – clarified as being in Georgia – where they are caught up in the Centennial Jubilee. Of course, the redneck townsfolk actually intend to murder and eat the Northerners, as revenge against the Union Army for massacring the town one hundred years ago. Sullivan otherwise updates the story. There’s eight visitors, instead of six. Instead of vacationing couples and traveling school teachers, the protagonist are horny college students headed towards Florida for spring break. Yet both films are characterized by an irrelevant look at the Civil War and grisly violence.

By shifting the cast in a younger direction, Sullivan sexes up the material considerably. The majority of the characters are preoccupied with getting laid. When the male heroes encounter their female counterparts, both parties immediately express their mutual desire to bone. A montage in the middle of the film is devoted to the characters’ various sexual escapades. This sequence includes gay and lesbian encounters, voyeurism, and even some light S&M. The Pleasant Valley residents aren’t exempt from this air of general horniness either. A girl named Peaches, played by a very attractive Wendy Kremer, speaks almost exclusively in crude double entendres. One of Mayor Buckman’s son constantly expresses his desires to mate with a sheep. A pair of young women can’t keep their hands off each other, even though they’re cousin. Sullivan has essentially turned Lewis’ gore epic into a crude sex comedy. I mean, it’s dumb but fun in its own way.

When not focusing on the character’s lower desires, “2001 Maniacs” occasionally functions as a horror film. Sullivan frequently reprises and revamps some of Lewis’ most famous murder scenes. The drawn and quarter death is more graphic, focusing more on the victim’s suffering. A giant rock is traded out for a large brass bell but the splat is maintained. Sullivan cooks up some twisted deaths himself. Some are effectively ridiculous. Such as two scenes that push good taste, one involving a giant barbecue skewer and the other revolving around a cotton press. Others are just goofy, like a milk jug full of acid. Once or twice, “2001 Maniacs” touches on a genuinely macabre element. Like a blowjob gone horribly wrong or a grisly game of horseshoes. For such a farcical film, it’s weird when “2001 Maniacs” tries to play its story straight. As the story advances, we get more serious scenes of horror, all of them badly jiving with the rest of the film.

“2001 Maniacs” was clearly aiming for the established horror fan crowd. Being a remake of a cult favorite and the outrageous content points towards that. Another indicator is the cast. Lin Shaye, Mrs. New Line herself, has a delightful role as the outwardly friendly old woman who runs the hotel. More pressingly, Robert Englund occupies the part of Mayor Buckman. Sporting a ridiculous Southern accent, Englund hams it up nicely. Peter Stormare and Kane Hodder have cameos. Less immediately recognizable faces include Giuseppe Andrews as a weirdly charming Southern gentleman and Eli Roth, reprising his bit part from “Cabin Fever.” The actors playing the Yankee heroes are less distinguished. Dylan Edrington as nerd Nelson has a few okay bits but everyone else is pretty forgettable.

Disappointingly, Sullivan’s remake also ditches the original’s ambiguity. “2001 Maniacs” seems to think that the Pleasant Valley residents are totally justified in their revenge. You’d think, given the forty year time difference, a remake could’ve addressed the original’s racial and social subtext more directly. It’s super silly and more genuinely dumb then Lewis’ version but “2001 Maniacs” goes down pretty easily in the middle of the night with some liquid imbibements. Sadly, I can’t say the same for the dire sequel, which subbed out Bill Moseley for Englund and was generally far too cheap and dumb. [7/10]

Secret Window (2004)

Recently, I surprised a friend by telling him “Secret Window” was a Stephen King adaptation. That, in turn, surprised me since “Secret Window” is another story about King’s favorite subject. No, not Maine. King’s favorite subject is himself, the frustrated writer, which he’s often explored via fictional surrogates. See also: “The Shining,” “Misery,” “The Dark Half,” “The Tommyknockers,” “Desperation,” “Lisey’s Story,” and that one “Dark Tower” book. “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” featured in the “Four Past Midnight” collection, was adapted by screenwriter turned director David Koepp. Cutting the garden from the title, the film would prove to be a minor hit back in 2004.

Mort Rainey stares down the worst thing an author can ever see: A blank page. Rainey has a lot on his mind. He's in the process of divorcing his wife, Amy, after discovering she was having an affair with another man. His retreat to a lake side cabin is interrupted when a man knocks on his door. Calling himself John Shooter, he claims that Mort plagiarized a story from him. When reading the two stories, Mort is startled by how similar they are. Shooter’s persistent soon turns deadly, as bodies begin to pile up. But all is not what it seems to be.

Before he became a pop culture punchline, famous for trotting out different hats and aggressively eccentric characters to diminished returns, Johnny Depp was a genuinely interesting leading man. “Secret Window” is mostly a showcase for Depp’s talent. He spends large portions of the film talking to himself or projecting his thoughts at a dog. A briefly used voice over sometimes gives the audience insight into Mort’s thoughts and isn’t too intrusive. Mort is slightly grouchy, which is a good starting place for Depp. He builds upon the grumpy writer shtick with some nice physical comedy. Such as when the character stumbles while fleeing a dead body or tries to hide a cigarette from his house keeper. Honestly, if “Secret Window” had just been a one-man show for Depp, playing a blocked writer trying to kill time in an isolated cabin, it probably would’ve been a better movie.

Of course, “Secret Window” isn’t just a showcase for “Secret Window.” John Turturo gets the meaty role of Shooter. Turturo adapts a slightly exaggerated but still believable Mississippi drawl while wearing a suit like a Southern preacher and a ridiculous hat. For the first hour of “Secret Window,” the character does nothing but deliver threats. Turturo manages to summon an unnerving energy, creating a memorable threat if not a fully formed character. John Shooter also leads “Secret Window” to its most obvious horror elements. Such as a dead dog – executed as if in a slasher movie – and a truck occupied by two skewered bodies.

As a screenwriter, David Koepp has written huge blockbusters like “Jurassic Park,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Spider-Man.” As a director, he previously made ghostly cult classic “Stir of Echoes” and would go on to the likes of “Mortdecai.” It’s clear that Koepp is eager to show off his visual skills. This results in some flashy sequences, such as Mort having a nightmare about dangling over a cliff. Or the camera accenting the angles of Mort’s bookshelf. The direction isn’t the film’s only plea for seriousness. Koepp also lassoed Philip Glass, arty musician and occasional film composers, to do the music. (Or at least some of it. Geoff Zanelli did the rest.) Glass’ score doesn’t touch his iconic work on “Candyman” or “Koyaanisqatsi” but the main theme is kind of pretty and marginally ominous.

At some point, twist endings became mandatory for thrillers. King’s novella had one built in, so “Secret Window” happily obliges genre conventions. The twist might catch an unobservant viewer off-guard but anyone paying attention shouldn’t be too surprised. The various red herrings, such as Timothy Hutton as the ex-wife’s current boyfriend, are unconvincing. The script keeps harping on Mort’s resentment of his wife and the violent ending of Shooter’s version of the titular story. Yes, the killer and the protagonist are the same person, the result of a split personality. The film reveals this twist in a hamfisted manner, with Depp talking to himself and slipping into a ridiculous accent. The gory ending comes off as slightly mean-spirited but is memorable, if nothing else. (King’s story had a happier, more supernatural ending that the filmmakers ditched. Which was probably the right decision.)

“Secret Window” is ultimately a minor work, much like the story that served as its inspiration. The script is standard stuff, removing King’s musings on the creative mind in favor of traditional thriller exercises. However, the two lead performances are enjoyable, the pacing is snappy, and the scenery is lovely. It seems unlikely that “Secret Window” was designed to linger in the brain for very long. Instead, it’s a mildly compelling bit of horror/thriller fluff that won’t make you roll your eyes, oh, more then two or three times. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Cold War

To talk about “Cold War,” one of season seven’s best episodes, you have to spoil all the twists that make the show fun. So if you’ve never seen this one, you might want to skip this review. “Cold War” follows Ford and Cammy, two petty thieves. After a grocery store stick-up goes awry – some other robbers have already claimed the place – the couple have a big argument back at home. Cammy goes to a bar and meets up with Jimmy Picket, an attractive black man. After bringing the man back to the apartment, Cammy and Ford’s true nature is revealed. They’re ghouls, undead creatures who feast on the flesh of corpses. Jimmy, meanwhile, is a vampire who sees these zombies as beneath him.

“Cold War” is a lot of fun, the episode holding off on revealing the characters’ true nature as long as possible. When the twist comes, it signals a transformation into a highly amusing monster fight. The direction is colorful, a green light often shining on Jimmy’s eyes after he shows his fangs. The script is full of colorfully profane dialogue. Like “Kiss my zombie ass!” Or “Fight’s over, Count Chocula!” Boosting an already amusing story is a fun cast. Ewan McGregor and Jane Horrocks have great chemistry together, the two happily playing up the characters’ love/hate relationship. (Horrocks spends the entire episode in corsets, leather mini-skirts, and stockings which is nice too.) Colin Salmon gets to go gleefully over the top as Jimmy, especially once his true nature is revealed. The final image throws in some gruesome make-up effects too. In other words, “Cold War” is classic “Crypt.” [8/10]

Lost Tapes: Devil Dragon

“Devil Dragon” features one of “Lost Tapes’” more mundane monsters: The Megalania, a twenty foot long monitor lizard that actually exists in the fossil record. Unsubstantiated rumors suggests the species may survive into the modern day. “Devil Dragon” also has one of the series’ better premises. The star of a “Survivor Man” style reality show is dropped into the Australian rain forest alone, with nothing but a backpack and a camera. While delivering practiced banter to the camera, he’s bitten by the unseen predator. Over the next day, he’s stalked by the giant reptile while growing sick from the festering bacteria in the bite wound.

By focusing on a reality show host, “Devil Dragon’s” script provides a genuine reason for its main character to record everything and constantly talk to himself. (Though you’d assume that, while running for his life, he’d toss the damn thing.) The actor playing Tim Akrin – IMDb doesn’t provide a cast list – is charismatic enough. Akrin repeatedly flubs his lines, forcing himself to re-shoot several moments. He lies directly to the camera before admitting the truth in asides. After getting bitten, his physical health degrades quickly which adds a grounded, human element to the story. There’s few of the silly moments that characterize other “Lost Tapes” episodes… Aside from the monster remaining entirely off-screen. It’s hard to imagine a giant lizard being that good at hiding itself, even in a heavily forested area. [7/10]

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 24

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

How is it that I’ve been writing about horror movies for eight years and I’ve never reviewed a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie? I reviewed a movie about H.G.L. before I reviewed a movie he actually directed. Despite that, I’m a casual dabbler in the Godfather of Gore’s creations. During my college journey into trash cinema, I watched a handful of his crude but charming splatter flicks. Of these, “Two Thousand Maniacs!” emerged as my favorite. The film is also an early example of the murderous redneck subgenre.

During a road trip through the American south, six travelers takes a mysterious detour. The path leads them to the small town of Pleasant Valley. Each of the Northerners are given a grand welcome. The Yankees are the special guests of the Centennial Jubilee. One of the travelers discovers that, a hundred years ago during the Civil War, a Union army massacred the inhabitants of the town. Now, during the anniversary of the war crimes, the residents of Pleasant Valley decide to visit their bloody vengeance on any Yankee that wanders into their town.

The films of Herschell Gordon Lewis are an acquired taste, to say the least. Gordon’s cinema is not especially concerned with the traditional aesthetics usually valued by professional filmmakers. The film’s low budget is apparent in its crude production design. Aside from Jeffrey Allen’s jovial turn as Mayor Buckman, the acting is extremely flat and amateurish. The characters are thinly defined and indistinguishable from each other. The story rambles loosely from set piece to set piece. The music ranges from distracting to actively annoying. The pacing is awful, the script alternating between scenes that creep at a snail’s pace and moments of manic comic relief. The movie has about six different endings, tortuously extending the story to feature length. Fans of Lewis just have to take these things in stride. It’s all part of the filmmaker’s charm. “Two Thousand Maniacs!” is lo-fi, home made, nutty, roughly assembled but fun in its own way.

After all, the main attraction for Lewis’ exploitation flicks were the gore. Back in 1964, graphic dismemberment and Technicolor blood were shocking sights. To modern eyes, the gory special effects in “Two Thousand Maniacs!” are obviously unsophisticated. When a woman is held down and has her arm chopped off with an axe, the removed limb is clearly a mannequin's arm. The film’s often displayed blood is obviously bright red paint. Despite how evidently fake the gore is, it still has its charms. The methods of murder are usually creative. A woman is drawn and quartered by charging horses. A guy is rolled inside a barrel hammered through with spikes. An especially amusing sequence is devoted to a contraption that drops a big ass rock on a bound victim. While there’s a clear streak of sadism in the death scenes, the execution is too goofy to offend.

As cornball as “Two Thousand Maniacs!” is, some have actually applied a scholarly reading to the film. This is, after all, a film about murderous rednecks that was released during the Civil Rights Movement. Yet I doubt these issues were on Lewis’ mind. Instead, the film re-characterizes the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history, as an outrageous gore comedy. The residents of Pleasant Valley are monstrous. They’re cannibalistic murderers. Yet their actions are motivated by the bloody atrocities visited upon them a hundred years earlier, making their revenge understandable, if not reasonable. But things aren’t that simple. After one of the graphic murders, many of the town’s citizens are unnerved. The Mayor forces them to celebrate. And the Northerners are, ostensibly, the heroes. If Hershell Gordon Lewis was making any point at all, it seems to be that the victors write the history books. Or that nobody gets out of war without blood on their hands.

If you’re not already a fan of H.G.L.’s demented motion pictures, “Two Thousand Maniacs!” is unlikely to win you over. As cheap and unrefined as this one can be, it’s actually one of his most polished movies. For those on the director’s trashy wavelength, “Two Thousand Maniacs!” can be a lot of fun. Any film that opens with an upbeat blue grass number like “The South’s Gonna' Rise Again” can’t be all bad, no matter how many wooden performances and unnecessary endings it has. [7/10]

Cell (2016)

When first published in 2006, Stephen King’s “Cell” was a hot literary property. The story cashed in on the newly popular again zombie genre while commenting on fears that cell phones would take over our lives. The film rights were immediately picked up. For a while, Eli Roth was going to direct, from a script by King. By the time the “Cell” movie actually came out, Roth was nowhere in sight. The film had switched production companies and distributors several times. What was once hyped as a big horror movie event slipped onto VOD and DVD with little fanfare. No, “Cell” is not one of the good Stephen King movies.

Comic book artist Clay Riddell has arrived in Boston, hoping to reconnect with his estranged wife. At the airport, people begin to go fucking nuts. Anybody with their head near a cellphone is turned into a mindlessly homicidal zombie. Chaos breaks out in the city. Soon, Clay teams up with other survivors – gay Vietnam vet Tom, teenage girl Alice, prep school student Geoff – with the goal of reaching Maine and rescuing his wife and son. However, there’s a hidden intelligence behind the psychic outbreak.

In the ten years between the publication of “Cell: The Novel” and the release of “Cell: The Movie,” we as a culture have only become more dependent on our cell phones. The film had the oppretunity to comment on this. Instead, “Cell” presents its zombies in a ridiculous manner. The opening scene is more likely to produce laughter then gasps. When the mysterious signal takes over people’s mind, they seize, gyrate, and foam at the mouth. The erratic behavior has the zombies smashing their heads into walls or running out of bathrooms, pants still around their ankles. It’s silly and the film only gets sillier. The zombies quickly earn the goofy nickname “phoners.” They open their mouths and release bizarre audio feedback sounds. At night, they sleep, their collective signal singing the “Trolololo” song. Through their dreams, the protagonists become aware that the phoners are controlled by a zombified man in innocuous red hoodie. “Cell” is packed with unintentionally comical touches like this.

That “Cell” would limp out to little commercial success must’ve been a bummer to its investors. The last time John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson starred in a Stephen King adaptation, it produced “1408,” a decent sized hit that was well received. Admittedly, “Cell’s” cast is its best attribute. Samuel L. Jackson steps outside his usual BAMF roles to play a seasonal, relaxed gay man who just happens to be handy with a rifle. I like Isabelle Fuhrman, who panics nicely, as Alice. Wilbur Fitzgerald stays on the right side of likable as Geoff. Stacy Keach shows up for a small role. He mostly delivers some awkward expositions but still maintains that gritty charm. Of the performers, only Cusack seems bored. He spends most of the movie whispering grimly, showing little of the humor or humanity that made his “1408” role memorable.

While King’s novel bent the zombie apocalypse story in some bizarre directions, the movie plays the subgenre’s conventions much straighter. “Cell” partakes in those usual scenes of survivors scrambling around for supplies. The heroes conveniently stumble upon a home hoarding guns and ammo. There’s the expected moments of city-wide chaos, of the mad horde descending on innocent by-standers. There’s even the expected middle of the story sequence of the heroes finding shelter, which quickly turns deadly. Yes, some of the ensemble die and loved ones have to be put down. As dull as “Cell’s” typical zombie movie shenanigans are, its attempts to deviate from the formula are baffling. How the zombies act shift from scene to scene. The climax borders on incoherent, the end landing weakly.

Yeah, “Cell” is pretty lame. It squanders more-or-less all the potential its premise has and doesn’t give a talented cast nearly enough to do. Instead, the movie quickly collapses into goofiness and clichés. By the end, I’m not even sure what was happening, as the story’s attempt at self-mythologizing are more bizarre then interesting. Would Eli Roth’s “Cell” have been better? Maybe not but I bet it would have been a lot less boring. The “Cell” we got instead is destined to rest in Wal-Mart DVD cheap bins, rarely seen and even more rarely enjoyed. [4/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Horror in the Night

After more general thriller stories for the last two episodes, season seven of “Tales from the Crypt” takes a hard swing back into horror. In “Horror in the Night,” a jewelry store robbery goes horribly wrong. The two thieves turn on each other, shooting one another, with Nick surviving. He hides out in a seedy hotel, mending his wound and carrying the briefcase full of diamonds. Inside the hotel, he meets a sexy woman who seems interested in him. Nick, however, is haunted by bizarre visions.

It’s not hard to see where this is going. Yes, Nick died in the opening shoot-out and the episode that follows is his dying vision, his subconscious guilt manifesting as an elaborate fantasy. Despite the predictability, “Horror in the Night” still manages to entertain. Russell Mulcahy’s direction is moody, making great use of the flickering lights and the shadowy location. Nick’s graphic hallucinations manages to include several effective images. Such as the pipes bursting with blood. Or Nick’s sex scene with Eliazbeth McGovern’s simmering sexpot, which quickly turns gory and weird. While that ironic ending is easy to predict, “Horror in the Night” throws in a few other twists that makes the situation more personal. That’s what the best “Crypt” episodes were about: Using established story idea and bending them in unexpected, entertaining directions. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Oklahoma Octopus

When this episode of “Lost Tapes” first aired, I thought for sure the show’s producers dreamed up the titular monster themselves. Surely, no one truly believes that a freshwater octopus lurks in the lakes of a land-locked state like Oklahoma? But, nope, the Oklahoma Octopus is a cryptid some say exist. As for the episode itself, “Oklahoma Octopus” follows a group of high school graduates on their last trip together before college starts. One of the boys decides to video tape the day at the beach. After an asshole boyfriend strands the group on a raft in the middle of the lake, an unseen but tentacled creature begins dragging the kids to their deaths.

“Oklahoma Octopus” is one of several “Lost Tapes” that resemble underachieving found footage flicks. (It also resembles “The Raft” segment from “Creepshow II.”) The teens are uninspired characters. The main guy harbors an unrequited crush on the main girl, which he announces to the camera as soon as the episode starts. Some of the kids, such as the aforementioned asshole boyfriend, are obnoxious. The script is repetitive, quickly falling into the pattern of kids leaping off the raft and getting killed. Several of the attacks happen off-screen, characters disappearing in the blink of an eye, which really defuses tension. The episode’s conclusion is underwhelming. The educational segments discuss lake monster legends and attempt to explain how a freshwater octopus could possibly exist. The documentary shots of real octopi manage to be creepier then anything in the actual episode. [4/10]

Friday, September 23, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 23

Cat’s Eye (1985)

In the mid-eighties, Stephen King inspired stories were big business. For a while, at least two adaptations of the author’s work were hitting theaters every year. So many were being made that it actually became possible for the films to be overlooked. “Cat’s Eye,” released in-between “Firestarter” and “Silver Bullet,” did satisfactory box office and was well reviewed. However, the film isn’t talked about much and is often passed over in favor of the bigger King adaptation. This isn’t fair, as “Cat’s Eye” is a charming little picture that King fans should seek out.

“Cat’s Eye” is an anthology feature, adapting two of the stories from King’s “Night Shift” collection and featuring a third story unique to the film. The only connecting fiber between the tales is an unlucky, traveling cat. The movie’s opening segment is “Quitter’s Inc.” Compulsive smoker Dick is determined to quit his nasty habit. In order to facilitate this, he seeks out the services of Quitter’s Inc. The company is guaranteed to get results. Dick is watched at all hours. His family is threatened. After one relapse, his wife is tortured. Ironically, the stress is really making him want a smoke.

“Cat’s Eye” is not a serious horror film, going for lighter thrills. It begins with jokey references to both “Christine” and “Cujo,” director Lewis Teague’s previous Stephen King adaptation. “Quitter’s Inc.,” meanwhile, is pure black comedy. James Woods’ typically high-strung but frequently sarcastic performance establishes the tone. High-lights include him arguing with a closest and destroying a phone. Though the threats of violence are serious, the manners in which they’re delivered are fallacious. Woods has hallucinations of dancing cigarette boxes at a smoke filled party. A gunman sent to observe his family makes light-hearted comments. Alan King’s performance as the glad-handing councilor is dripping with sardonic amusement. “Quitter’s Inc.” feels a bit like a “Twilight Zone” segment and ends with an appropriately memorable twist.

For its second story, “Cat’s Eye” shifts its location to Atlantic City. In “The Ledge,” we meet Cressner, a mob boss willing to bet on anything. Ex-tennis player Johnny recently got caught with Cressner’s girlfriend. The villain has the athlete kidnapped and decides to play a game. Johnny is forced out onto the eighteen inch wide ledge outside the sky-scraping casino. If he can successfully navigate around the building and return to the window, Cressner will send him on his way with money and the girl. The alternative? Fall to his death on the streets below. But the mob boss doesn’t play fair.

“The Ledge” is a bit more serious then “Quitter’s Inc.,” though it maintains the film’s light tone. The tense set-up, sadistic villain, and ironic ending recalls “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Kenneth McMillan is amusingly nasty as Cressner. His rigs the challenge by blasting Johnny with a hose, honking a horn in his ear, or tossing a sheet on his head. The obstacles the story puts in Johnny’s way, including a pesky and persistent pigeon, escalates the stakes nicely. The reveal is one of “Cat’s Eyes’” most grisly element but certainly puts a strong exclamation point on the film. The conclusion is easily predicted but is certainly satisfying. The only true weakness with “The Ledge” is Robert Hays’ forgettable protagonist.

The longest segment in “Cat’s Eye” is its last one, “General.” Throughout the film, the cat has been having visions of Amanda, a child actress played by Drew Barrymore. The two finally meet after the cat catches a train to Wilmington, North Carolina. Amanda immediately likes the cat, who she names General, but the mother is suspicious. She’s worried about the old legend of cats stealing children’s breath at night. Amanda insists General sleep with her, as she believes the cat is protecting her from a monster living in the wall. The little girl is right and the cat has to leap into action to save her life.

“General” begins as a traditional story about the give and pull between parent and child. Our alliance is with Amanda, especially since her mom’s reasoning is so silly. Drew Barrymore is more comfortable here in the part of a normal little girl then she was in the previous year’s “Firestarter.” What’s most memorable about “General” is its little monster. A troll, wearing a jester’s hat and carrying a tiny dagger, crawls from the wall at night to suck the breath from the girl’s mouth. The troll design, created by Carlo Rambaldi, interacts with an oversized bedroom set. This is a cool effect while the troll, with his grimacing voice and Frank Welker provided grumbles, is a memorable adversary. The final showdown between General and the troll proceeds with a whimsical edge, nicely walking the line between spooky and goofy.

“Cat’s Eye” is a nice snack for fans of King or eighties horror, assuming you’re on its light-weight wavelength. More funny then scary, “Cat’s Eye” is extensively charming nevertheless. Each of the stories has a nice dose of black comedy but enough macabre twists to fit in with the Halloween season. And General is a pretty cool cat too. [7/10]

Redneck Zombies (1989)

With a title like “Redneck Zombies,” you know what you’re getting into. “Redneck Zombies” is brought to you by Troma, the notorious New Jersey based producers of extremely trashy horror/comedy nonsense. But don’t expect cameos from Toxie, Sgt. Kabukiman or Lloyd Kaufman. “Redneck Zombies” was one of those locally produced flicks that Troma merely picked up for distribution. Yet the association with the studio has brought the film some notoriety, as it was even released on DVD as a “Tromasterpiece.” The film was also an early example of a movie shot on video and released direct to video. Don’t let these factoids fool you. “Redneck Zombies” is not a delightful cult item. It is, instead, an exercise in tedium.

The premise, at the very least, gets right to it. A barrel of radioactive toxic waste is transported across the American south via Jeep. After a vehicular accident involving a dog and a joint, the barrel bounces out of the truck. A local redneck corn farmer gets hold of the barrel. He sells it to another backwoods brood, who transform the barrel into a still for making moonshine. The rednecks then sell the moonshine all over their town. The combination of radiation and booze causes everyone who drinks the concoction to transform into a flesh eating, pasty faced zombie. Chaos ensues.

Though not produced by Troma, “Redneck Zombies” maintains the Troma sensibility. The movie is crude and offensive, filled with gore and obnoxious jokes. It also lacks the social satire and demented wit of the studio’s best films. Instead, the movie double downs on the grotesque redneck shenanigans. The toxic waste is stolen by a morbidly obese hick in overalls, a hideous human the movie focuses on repeatedly. After the hillbillies get a taste of the zombie brew, we’re treated to a slow motion montage of the Southerners blithering on the ground. The colors invert as the camera zooms in on their gyrating mouths, their tongues flapping in the air. A later sequence has one of the film’s heroes freaking out, imagining a painfully long medical presentation, which has him swishing a knife through the air repeatedly. This is in addition to the movie’s sound design and music, which is extremely grating.

In order to meet the required 90 minute run time, the script inserts a bunch of random bullshit. Most of these sequences are obnoxious. Such as an old woman who carries a squealing piglet around or a young mother who shares her moonshine with her baby. Or how about an extended scene devoted to a moonshine client who keeps a duck tape bound woman on his couch and watches footage of chickens being slaughtered on TV? While most of these scenes continue the movie’s stupid, gross streak, occasionally a likable loopy moment emerges. Such as a scene parodying “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” where a hitchhiker rambles on about his shaving hobby. My favorite moment has two of the rednecks running to meet the Tobacco Man, as if it was an ice cream truck. The Tobacco Man wears a burlap sack on his head, speaks with a demonic voice, others Luciferian bargains, and monologues about the evil in the world. It’s the film’s sole moment of genuinely amusing randomness.

Overall though, “Redneck Zombies” fail miserably as both a horror film and a comedy. Its humor mostly manifests as annoying characters doing annoying things. In the back half, the black lead screams and mugs horribly in a high pitched voice. Two minor characters sit around, watching naked women on television, giggling crudely about titties. There’s some good old fashion homophobia too. Among the soldiers is a flamboyantly gay man. One of the redneck sons insist on being called by a woman’s name, though he shows no other transgender traits. As for the horror, “Redneck Zombies” piles on the crude gore effects. There’s gut munching, flesh tearing, eyeball squishing, head crunching, shotgun murder, and much spraying blood. There’s also some vomit too, if you’re into that. If cheap gruel is all you look for in horror flicks, I guess “Redneck Zombies” will satisfy.

Mostly, I found “Redneck Zombies” to be an incredibly irritating and generally boring experience. The opening credits are packed with obviously fake names like Pericles Lewnes, Zoofoot, Boo Teasedale, and P. Floyd Piranha. (Mr. Piranha also plays one of the rednecks.) This suggests that even the people who made the movie wanted to distance themselves from it. Don’t be fooled by the awesome title or outrageous poster art. “Redneck Zombies” annoys more then it entertains. Maybe Pericles Lewnes should’ve made a movie about the Tobacco Man instead… [3/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Escape

For the first time since season three’s “Yellow,” “Tales from the Crypt” returns to the World War setting. World War II, this time. “Escape” follows Luger, a German deserter who betrayed his fellow Nazis and winds up in a British-run prisoner of war camp. He’s immediately recruited by several other prisoners in their bid to escape. Luger is resistant at first, as he finds the entire war effort to be pointless. Yet when the commanding officer he betrayed winds up in the camp, he suddenly became very eager to get out.

Despite the episode’s inspiration being published in “Vault of Horror,” “Escape” is pretty light on the horror elements. The commanding officer is bandaged up like a mummy, there’s a gory throat slashing, and some caskets play an important role. Despite that, “Escape” is still a decently entertaining episode. Martin Kemp gives a nicely slimy performance as the main character. It’s interesting that Luger is slightly sympathetic – a war deserter willing to intellectualizes his cowardice – without sacrificing his scumbag qualities. (The guy is a Nazi after all.) The escape sequences are fun and the twist ending is very satisfying, paying off on several minor elements laid down earlier in the episode. I enjoy the Cryptkeeper’s military puns in the drill sergeant themed wraparound segments too. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Swamp Creature

“Lost Tapes” take on the Honey Island Swamp Monster has to jump through some especially convoluted narrative loops. A zoologist, documenting the local alligator population following Hurricane Katrina, takes a trip into the Louisiana swamp with her inexperienced nephew/cameraman. After their cell phones and GPS are snatched by a (seemingly heavily sedated) gator, they get lost wandering through the bayou. The cameraman accidentally stomps through a patch of strange eggs and the two soon discover odd, three-toed foot prints. They stumble upon a Cajun fisherman who refuses to go out after dark, for fear of the monster that is closing in.

In addition to the strangled set-up, “Swamp Creature” is, thus far, the “Lost Tapes” episode most blatantly derivative of other horror films. The characters getting lost in the woods recalls “The Blair Witch Project.” Maybe it’s just because I watched it the other day but a sequence where the heroes are threatened by a Cajun after nearly stealing his boat reminded me of “Southern Comfort.” The monster’s rage being activated by the destruction of its nest brings “Crocodile” to mind. Aside from the derivative qualities, the characters in “Swamp Creature” are broad and annoying. The encounter with the Swamp Monster is far too brief. It appears outside the tent, attacks the fisherman, and then wanders off, leaving its eggs unavenged. For once, the edu-tainment segments are more entertaining, as they focus on alligator facts and real interviews with Honey Island locals. [5/10]

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 22

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010)

The murderous redneck is such a well establish horror movie troupe that parodies must now exist. Instead of exaggerating the excesses of the genre like must parodies do, “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” took its cue from “Shaun of the Dead.” Eli Craig’s film handled its farcical rendition of the killer hick story from the angle of a buddy movie, packing in as much heart as possible into the story of Southern mayhem. This approach worked swimmingly. On multiple occasions, I’ve had people who don’t normally like horror movies tell me how much they enjoyed this one. The film has become a cult favorite since its 2010 release.

In the backwoods of West Virginia, simple minded but good hearted hillbillies Tucker and Dale are hoping to rebuild a secluded cabin into a vacation home. At the gas station they work at, they run into a group of college kids on a road trip. Attractive blonde Allison catches Dale’s eye but his nervous approach disturbs the girl. Her friends think the two guys are deprived rednecks. After rescuing Allison from a swimming accident, a series of bloody misunderstandings ensue between the two parties.

“Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” functions on flipping the slasher formula on its head. Instead of focusing only on the clean, attractive college kids entering the Southern territory, it tells this story from the perspective of the hillbillies. Instead of being deprived murderous, Tucker and Dale are well-intentioned buffoons. When the teens have a creepy encounter with the country folk at a gas station, it’s actually the result of an awkward attempt at flirting. Tucker and Dale never kill anyone. Instead, all the bloody mayhem that happens is strictly the result of unfortunate accidents. What is seemingly a chainsaw attack is actually the result of bad timing and some angry bees. Even individual lines of dialogue sound threatening when heard out of context. It’s a simple joke. But “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil’s” familiarity with horror troupes stretches that simple joke out for an unexpectedly long time and with surprisingly fruitful results.

Tucker and Dale’s friendship is not as endearing as Shaun and Ed’s legendary bro-mance. Having said that, the titular pals prove lovable. The two are part of a long line of fat/skinny comedy duos. Tyler Labine’s Dale accuses himself of being stupid or foolish. In truth, he has a brain for trivia and an inherent sweetness. Labine is super cuddly, a big friendly guy with a soft spot for dogs and broad games that freezes up around pretty girls. Alan Tudyk’s Tucker is the Bud to Dale’s Lou, in an almost classical sense. He seems wily, the smarter of the two, but is actually a bit of a klutz. Tucker’s arrogance is paid back by the comical injuries the script heaps on him. Tudyk is hilarious, especially when reacting to the story’s increasing zaniness. The back-and-forth between the two characters produces the film’s best moments, such as Dale’s response to Tucker’s bee stings or a conversation concerning a chili dog coupon.

For all the ways it plays with slasher movie conventions, “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” doesn’t skimp on the gore and mayhem. In a kind of splatstick, the vacationing teens die in increasingly unlikely accidents. Running in a blind panic results in impalement via a pointed tree branch. A hole in the ground and a spear combine to make another unlikely impalement. A loose board of nails and a rickety pillar result in a hilariously extended fatality. My favorite scene has a leap of faith landing in a wood chipper. These kind of bloody hysterics as easily entertaining. Less successful is the movie’s other switch-a-roos. The college boy who would be the hero in a normal horror film quickly reveals himself as an unhinged psychopath, with little regard for personal space and a burning hatred of hillbillies. This still produces some decent laughs – such as Dale’s reaction to the killer’s exit from the film – but it’s too silly and obvious a screenwriting decision.

“Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” reaching people typically outside the horror crowd speaks to its affability. (Though Alan Tudyk’s presence, and the horde of obsessive “Firefly” fans he brings with him, surely helped.) There has even been some talk of a sequel bandied about. I have no idea where a story like this goes from here or what other types of evil Tucker and Dale could possibly battle. But these two goofballs are likable enough that I would happily watch another one of their adventures. [7/10]

Dreamcatcher (2003)

What is Stephen King’s worst book? “The Talisman” is divisive. My sister, a big Stephen King fan, considered “The Tommyknockers” his worst effort. “Dreamcatcher,” meanwhile, seems poorly regarded. The 2003 film adaptation was directed by Academy Award nominee Lawrence Kasdan and written by William Goldman, who previously penned the adaptation of “Misery” among other well received movies. This talent did not prevent “Dreamcatcher” from receiving extremely negative reviews. The resulting film hews closely to King’s book, suggesting the source material was the problem here.

Every winter, four friends gather in a rural cabin in upstate Maine. Henry, Beaver, Jonesy and Pete have a special bound. As boys, they rescued a mentally disabled child nicknamed Duddits. A psychic, Duddits linked the five together telepathically. During their latest trip into the woods, strange things begin to happen. Animals flee the forests, covered with an odd, red mold. Military helicopters circle the area. Beaver and Jonesy pick up a sickly, gassy hunter. Soon, it becomes clear that an alien invasion – which has a very nasty way of infiltrating the human body – has broken out around them.

“Dreamcatcher” often plays like an incoherent mish-mash of other Stephen King stories. The theme of boys going on adventures recalls “Stand By Me.” The structure, which flashes between the present day and the characters’ childhood, brings “It” to mind. Duddits is similar to “The Stand’s” Tom Cullen but with magical abilities like any number of King characters. The insidious alien forces suggest “The Tommyknockers.” Of all these elements, the bound between the four men is probably the best part of “Dreamcatcher,” as it brings all these crazy ideas down to Earth. The early scenes of guys using their powers, to help their patients or pick up women, are mildly amusing. However, the character of Duddits is deeply ridiculous, with his unflattering speech impediment and bizarre tics. He’s the worst example of how Hollywood treats the mentally handicapped: A literal Magical Retard. Duddits prevents the story’s emotional heart from connecting with viewers.

As unfortunate as Duddits is, he’s far from the only embarrassing part of “Dreamcatcher.” Behold, the majestic Shit Weasel. The alien threat comes to Earth as a red spore, which is then consumed by humans. It grows in the digestive track, causing immense gastric discomfort. In other words, the aliens make people fart and belch. There’s way more farting in “Dreamcatcher” then any serious horror film should ever have. When done gestating, the alien burst from the host’s rectum, amid bloody bowel movement. This is, admittedly, an extremely unpleasant way to die. The Shit Weasel’s design, both fecal and phallic, is decent. The special effects, a combination of practical effects and solid CGI, works fine.  However, “Dreamcatcher’s” emphasis on bodily functions makes it impossible to take this threat seriously. It’s like a far cruder, much dumber version of “Alien.”

Yet Duddits and Shit Weasels aren’t enough for “Dreamcatcher.” The film also throws in a hostile government quarantine. In one of his few genuinely bad performances, Morgan Freeman seriously overdoes it as Colonel Curtis. The alien hating military leader responsible for containing the outbreak, Curtis goes madder as the story progresses. This subplot results in a lengthy scene of the military bombing the aliens’ crashed space ship. The movie tosses in even more stuff. Such as Mr. Gray, the leader of the invaders. (Called as such because the alien, who actually resembles a giant Shit Weasel, telepathically disguises himself as a friendly grey.) He psychically possesses Jonesy, causing him to speak with an overly foppish British accent. Jonesy hides within his own mind, illustrated as an elaborate library of thoughts. The two personalities often argue for control. If it wasn’t clear, “Dreamcatcher” has an excess of wacky ideas but rarely executes any of them well.

“Dreamcatcher” has a – let’s be kind – colorful ensemble. The film brings together a number of talented actors and allows them to give wildly divergent performances. Jason Lee plays Beaver, peppering his dialogue with profane and bizarre phrases, making him the most Stephen King-esque character ever. As Jonesy, Damian Lewis does fine but as Mr. Gray he wildly overacts. Thomas Jane as Henry and Timothy Olyphant as Pete, meanwhile, go too far in the opposite direction. Their performances are incredibly sleepy and one-note. Tom Sizemore also shows up as Freeman’s second hand man, a role he does little to define. But the worst performance in the movie belongs to former New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg. As the adult Duddits, Wahlberg speaks with a frankly embarrassing speech impediment and mugs horrendously. A reveal concerning his character in the last act blindsides the viewer, raises more questions then it answers, and generally adds the movie’s overall what-the-fuck-ness.

Stephen King has admitted to disliking the literary “Dreamcatcher.” He wrote the novel while recovering from the vehicular collision that almost killed him. During this time, he also developed an addiction to painkillers which he would, luckily, kick soon afterwards. This might explain why “Dreamcatcher” is so damn weird and so sloppily plotted. As for the movie, Lawrence Kasdan isn’t much of a fan either. The film is a complete fiasco, a wild hodgepodge of mostly unrelated ideas, a total narrative and tonal mess. [4/10]

Tales from the Crypt: A Slight Case of Murder

After a two episode slump, season seven of “Tales from the Crypt” finally finds its footing. “A Slight Case of Murder” revolves around Sharon, a successful but anti-social writer of murder mysteries. She despises her next door neighbor, an old lady eager to write her own mystery fiction. Her ex-husband, Larry, hates Sharon too. He arrives with intentions to murder her. Through out the violent game of murder, the neighbor’s nerdy son, who harbors a crush on Sharon, also becomes involved. The body count quickly piles up.

This is more like it. “A Slight Case of Murder” is full of gleeful mayhem. Larry’s attempt to murder and bury Sharon doesn’t work out. She digs herself out of her own grave and goes for revenge. The woman takes a lot more punishment before the story ends, including garden shears to the chest and multiple gunshots. The performances are nicely absurd, especially Francesca Annis as the hateful author, Elisabeth Spriggs as the nosy neighbor, and Patrick Barlow as the weirdo living next door. The episode includes some amusingly morbid images, like a dead body propped up by a typewriter or the satisfying twist ending. In other words, this is a classic “Tales from the Crypt” episode. [8/10]

Lost Tapes: Monster of Monterey

So how does “Lost Tapes” justify its found footage premise this week, during the obligatory sea monster episode? Sharon Novak is a solo sailor, nearing the end of her circumnavigation of the globe. She’s been documenting the journey with web-cast and video recordings. As she pulls into Monterey Bay, she receives a distress call from another boat. Navigating through the increasingly choppy waters, she encounters the titular monster. The episode more-or-less out right states the creature to be a plesiosaur, every cryptozoologist’s favorite aquatic dinosaur.

As always, “Lost Tapes” borders silliness even during its best moments. The main character having a camera on her at all times quickly becomes ridiculous, especially once she goes in the water. Sharon is video chatting with her boyfriend throughout the episode and can somehow still hear him after swimming away from the boat. The “educational” segments are especially goofy, discussing barely connecting facts about solo sailing, plesiosaurs, and the animal life in Monteray Bay. The episode also trots out the Zuiyo-maru carcass as proof of sea monsters, even though that has been repeatedly proven to be a basking shark.

Flaws aside, “Monster of Monterey” still includes some surprisingly spooky moments. An aerial shot early on shows the monster’s underwater silhouette, unnoticed by anyone, passing beneath the ship. A moment devoted to Sharon climbing around her vessel generates some okay tension, as you know she’ll be knocked into the ocean soon. The episode’s final scene, devoted to the protagonist floating alone in the water, waiting for death to come, is almost chilling. Bright spots like that are what keep me watching this goofy-ass show. [6/10]

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 21

Wrong Turn (2003)

I might’ve mentioned this before. When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, Stan Winston was my hero. In-between his hosting gig on AMC’s efx and the Stan Winston’s Creatures toyline, Winston was the monster maker I admired the most. In addition to launching his own toy company, Stan also began producing movies. “Wrong Turn” was his first theatrically released production. A throwback to eighties slasher flicks a few years before such things would come back into vogue, I was super excited for the movie. I even convinced a girl to see it with me in theaters, on my first ever real date. Back then, I was disappointed, the movie falling short of the awesome picture I imagined in my brain. Thirteen years later, I was curious if my opinion changed any.

Chris is traveling through the West Virginian country side, on his way to a new job as a medical school. Along the way, he takes a turn – you might even say a wrong turn – down a spooky back road. His car collides with another vehicle, broken down on the road. The other travelers – composed of couples Scott and Carly, Evan and Francine, and fifth wheel Jessie – had their tires busted by barbwire left on the road. Soon, the group discovers that a trio of deformed and deprived mountain men hunt these woods for human flesh to feast on. And Chris and his new friends are on the menu.

Story wise, “Wrong Turn” is strictly formula. The film opens with some unimportant characters getting the axe before the main story even starts. Before encountering the murderous brood, Chris stops for directions at a gas station. There, the excessively creepy attendant sends him down the wrong road. One of the couples decide the weird forested area is the perfect place for some hanky panky. Immediately afterwards, both are killed by the madmen. The girl who isn’t romantically involved, on the other hand, survives. On at least two occasions, a character hides under a structure while the villain stands above them. Most egregiously, the twenty-somethings run into a park ranger. Seconds later, the cop is killed. “Wrong Turn,” of course, ends by revealing that the nightmare is far from over.

Despite the entirely predictable script, “Wrong Turn” is entertaining. Rob Schmit’s direction is tight enough that he creates several effective jump scares. One worthwhile sequence has the fleeing teens hiding in a watch tower. This builds towards an amusing moment, when a radio blares to life at the worst time. Schmit also tosses axes, sometimes in a nightmare, sometimes in reality, at the audience’s face. Though predictable, the moments devoted to characters hiding inches away from the monsters generate some minor suspense. A dive into some trees is ridiculous but the following chase scene is decently executed. In truth, “Wrong Turn’s” predictability is more likely to endear it to slasher fans then annoy. We appreciate a good cliché every now and then.

“Wrong Turn” also has a better then average cast. I’m not talking about Desmond Harrington as Chris, who is a total snore, his face rarely changing expression. Instead, the other survivors are the ones that shine. Eliza Dushku, who was still best known as “Buffy’s” Faith at the time, plays a more down-to-Earth character as Jessie. Though the script’s attempts to generate pathos are unlikely – a scene under a waterfall is laughably brief – Dushku does much better when rolling, jumping and running from the backwoods maniacs. Jeremy Sisto, who shined in the previous year’s “May,” seems to be channeling Jeff Goldblum as the twitchy, nervous, but still endearing Scott. Sisto is certainly more interesting then Emmanuelle Chriqui’s Carly. Chriqui was probably cast more for her often exposed washboard abs then her acting. Perhaps she should’ve changed roles with Lindy Booth, whose energetic presence and charming screen persona is underutilized as the sexually active (and, thus, destined to die early) Francine.

Another reason “Wrong Turn” disappointed me back in 2003 was because I expected it to be gorier. The blood does splatter. Arrows are shot through chests and heads. Perhaps the most graphic death befalls poor Lindy Booth, who is garotted with barb wire. A conceptually cool kill, involving an axe to the head in a perilous place, is undermined by some not great CGI effects. Despite this, “Wrong Turn” is more conservative then you’d expect from a movie about inbred cannibal mutants. Considering Stan Winston’s influence, the trio of brothers are barely human. They squawk in a bizarre language, one of them cackling. With their bumpy skin, exaggerated teeth and jaws, and mutated limbs, they resemble demons more then men. There’s very little of the familial interplay of superior savage south shockers like “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” or “The Devil’s Rejects.” However, just as special effects, the three mountain men are cool looking creatures.

One or two decent moments, a better then average cast, and some neat monsters makes “Wrong Turn” a fun eighty-four minutes for we horror fans. (The economic runtime is another reason to like the film.) Surprisingly, “Wrong Turn” would spawn a long running series, begetting five direct-to-DVD sequels. I remember part two being a lot of fun but never got around to seeing the others. As a native West Virginian, I definitely appreciate my home state having its own slasher franchise. Despite “Wrong Turn’s” success, Stan Winston’s producer career never quite took off. His proposed follow-up, “Wild Kingdom” – about a genetically engineered Cerberus running amok in the modern day – never materialized. I still want to see that movie. As for “Wrong Turn,” it’s a fun bit of slasher movie fluff. [7/10]

Sometimes They Come Back (1991)

The 1985 Stephen King-penned anthology “Cat’s Eye” contained three stories. But that wasn’t originally the plan. Initially, “Cat’s Eye” was to include a fourth segment, “Sometimes They Come Back,” based on another story from “Night Shift.” However, producer Dino De Laurentiis decided the tale had more potential. “Sometimes They Come Back” was developed as a stand alone project. The adaptation would premiere on television, on CBS, in 1991. Aside from the obvious Stephen King connection, there’s another reason I’m talking about the movie. It’s the fourth feature film of Tom McLoughlin, who previously made likable horror riffs like “One Dark Night” and “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.” “Sometimes They Come Back,” said to say, does not live up to that standard.

Jim Norman does not have pleasant memories of his childhood home town. When he was nine years old, his older brother was murdered by a group of juvenile delinquents. Immediately afterwards, the greasers were killed when their car was struck by a train. The events still haunts him. Twenty years later, he’s returned home, to take a job as a teacher. Not long afterwards, one of his students is killed in a hit-and-run. The boy is replaced by a new student with an uncanny resemblance to one of the men who killed Jim’s brother, unaged and unaffected by changing fashion senses. This keeps happening, until all of the murderous hoods are present in Norman’s class. They’ve return and they want revenge.

“Sometimes They Come Back” is a movie about regret and trauma. Obviously. The screenplay by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal really wants you to know that. The film begins with a voice-over, provided by the bored sounding Tim Matheson, that constantly reminds the viewer of what Jim has lost. In the first half, the film frequently flashes back to the past, as Jim experiences nightmares, day dreams, and hallucinations about his childhood. One long series of flashbacks is punctuated by white light flashing on the screen, a very irritating choice. Making the returning ghouls greasers could’ve been a comment on boomer nostalgia but the movie is, instead, satisfied with these lazier themes. These constant callbacks aren’t just a lazy way to establish the movie’s otherwise evident themes. It’s also a way to stretch a short story to feature length.

“Sometimes They Come Back” shows little of the inventive eye McLoughlin displayed in his prior horror films. With this being a television production, there’s none of the creative dismemberment of “Jason Lives!” Yet even the low-fi spookiness of “One Dark Night” is outside of the feature’s reach. The ghostly delinquents appearing in Norman’s class is repetitive, the film drawing too much attention to it. Other attempts at creating a creepy mood – like an ominous pair of shoes hanging from a wire or the distant cry of a train’s horn – come off as overly cheesy. McLoughlin occasionally gets in a good jump scare, like when the gang’s roadster leaps over a hill. Or when a peaceful tracking shot through the family house is interrupted by the psychobillies’ intrusion. But the best thing about “Sometimes They Come Back” are the zombie versions of the undead greasers, decent special effects the movie utilizes well.

Jim is played by Tim Matheson, an actor with a long history in television that even includes voicing Jonny Quest. Matheson’s character arc is uninvolving. The film paints itself into a boring corner. Every time one of Norman’s students dies, he’s near-by. This, coupled with his erratic behavior, causes the police to suspect Jim is behind the murders. This tired story device is dropped by the movie’s halfway point. Matheson’s performance is uninspired. Brooke Adams makes her second appearance in a King adaptation, after ‘The Dead Zone,” as Jim’s wife. Though a talented actress, Adams isn’t given much to do.

King’s original short story has a far more sinister ending. The film version of “Sometimes They Come Back,” instead, goes for naked sentimentality. Changes like this mark “Sometimes They Come Back” as an uninspired production. Despite that, the television movie must’ve been popular on video, as it spawned two direct-to-VHS sequels. The first, “Sometimes They Come Back… Again” from 1996, at least maintained the idea of a dead criminal returning for revenge. 1998’s “Sometimes They Come Back… For More” tossed together demons, zombies, and a “Thing” inspired Antarctic setting, divorcing itself totally from the source material. I’d be really surprised if Stephen King knew about those two. I’d be surprised if he even bothered watching the original “Sometimes They Come Back,” as there’s not much to it. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Last Respects

Considering the series’ tendency towards horror clichés and tales of ironic revenge, I’m really surprised “Tales from the Crypt” didn’t adapt the Monkey’s Paw story until its final season. “Last Respects” revolves around three sisters, who own their late father’s magic/novelty shop. Two of the sisters want to sell the shop, while the third wants to respect dad’s wishes and keep the business open. While cleaning out old stock, they stumble upon a magical Monkey’s Paw. Like always, the talisman grants the sisters’ wish but in the most gruesome way possible.

The most notable thing about “Last Respects” is who was behind the camera. Freddie Francis, famous cinematographer who directed many British horror flicks in the sixties and seventies, directed this one. Francis, of course, also directed Amicus’ original “Tales from the Crypt” movie. It’s a nice bit of trivia but “Last Respects” is not Francis’ best work. The two evil sisters are obnoxious. The elderly relatives they take care of are grotesque, as the old woman messily gulps pureed meat. The acting is fairly over-the-top. Script wise, anybody familiar with both “The Monkey’s Paw” and “Tales from the Crypt” can see the twists coming. Yes, there’s a betrayal and a murder, motivated by greed. Yes, an avenging zombie appears at the end. Francis’ direction is colorful and there’s a handful of fun moments but “Last Respects” is otherwise forgettable. [5/10]

Lost Tapes: Bigfoot

Every supernatural themed show has to cover Bigfoot eventually and usually sooner rather than later. The obligatory Bigfoot episode of “Lost Tapes” at least has a good reason for its story to be recorded. The episode follows a park ranger who is documenting black bear poaching in the Pacific Northwest. Naturally, she has set cameras up all over the forest and frequently records herself. After finding and deactivating many traps left around the woods, she attracts the ire of a poacher. Meanwhile, the ranger is also capturing glimpses of Bigfoot on her camera. While the poacher is hostile, the sasquatch appears more benevolent.

“Bigfoot” is one of the best episodes of “Lost Tapes.” Which means it still has some problems. Yes, there’s some tedious footage of people running through the forests, the camera shaking like crazy. The actor playing the poacher makes the character as ridiculously sleazy as possible, which includes spying on the park ranger with his own camera. Yet making Bigfoot a kindly protector gives the episode some novelty value. If nothing else, it gets some decent mileage out of the spooky sasquatch cries. The conclusion happens entirely off-screen, allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in the violence. Meredith Thomas is decent in the lead role. The pseudo-educational segments are actually interesting, as they spend more time discussing the realities of poaching then the possible existence of Bigfoot. It’s still awfully silly stuff but this was definitely one of the series’ prouder moments. [7/10]

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 20

The Mist (2007)

“The Mist” may be a prime example of the horror cult classic. In 2007, it came and went from theaters quickly. It made back its budget at the box office but was hardly a huge hit. The reviews were okay but many considered the film disappointing compared to director Frank Darabont’s previous Stephen King adaptations, “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile.” Horror fans, on the other hand, loved the movie immediately. It seems that the combination of survival, siege, end of the world, social commentary, and elaborate monsters tickled fans everywhere. I should, by all metrics, love “The Mist.” Yet I was disappointed in the film upon release. Going back and watching it years later, I still don’t quite get the hype.

A bad storm blows into a small town. While the Drayton family hides in the cellar, a tree blows through their front window. The next morning, father David and his young son Billy head to a local store for supplies. The building is packed full of people, looking for the same thing. While there, a mysterious mist blankets the entire area. Bizarre monsters, with a taste for human flesh, hide in the clouds. Locking themselves inside the general store, the townsfolk soon discover that the worst kind of monsters might not await them in the mist.

My discontent with “The Mist” boils down to one complaint. Half of the people in this small town are assholes. David’s neighbor, Brent Norton, is needlessly confrontational. Several of the employees are abrasive dick bags. They doubt our hero, allowing a tentacle to kill several people. As annoying as these guys are, at least they get eaten early on. The same can’t be said for Mrs. Carmody. She’s a character Stephen King has written repeatedly: The fanatical Christian. Within minutes of the mist arriving, Carmody begins to rant about the End Times. She soon claims that God is talking directly to her, that she’s a prophet. By the halfway point, she’s convinced several of the residents of the same and begins demanding human sacrifices. Marcia Gay Harden is incredibly over the top and irritating. But she’s just playing the character as written, a broadly sketched stereotype. If “The Mist” had simply made the main villain somebody else, it would’ve been ninety percent more tolerable.

This is even more of a bummer since “The Mist” features several genuinely likable actors. Thomas Jane usually bores me. He’s still pretty bland here but, considering David Drayton is another one of Stephen King’s everyman protagonist, that quality works for the film. Toby Jones has one of the best parts as Ollie, the store’s assistant manager. Jones is a reasonable man, who manages to keep his cool during the panic. He’s also the local shooting champ, a skill which comes in handy later. Frances Sternhagen, in her second appearance in a Stephen King movie after “Misery,” plays Irene Reppler. An elderly school teacher, Miss Reppler is feisty and happily calls people on their bullshit. William Sadler plays Jim Grondin, who is another thinly sketched character who follows whoever is leading. Sadler, however, always brings something interesting to every part he plays.

The characters, I suspect, aren’t the reason for “The Mist’s” cult popularity. Instead, I bet it’s all about the monsters. And “The Mist” does indeed feature some awesome monster designs. A number of creative beasties are on display. At night, pterodactyl-style winged reptiles fly into the store, leading to a fairly intense attack scene. They’re pursuing giant flying insects, who are equipped with nasty stingers. When venturing into the drug store next door, the ensemble battle a breed of giant, spiny spiders. One of the most memorable monsters in “The Mist” is the behemoth, briefly glimpsed near the end. All of this stuff is pretty cool and the film utilizes computer generated and practical effects well.

Frank Darabont’s director’s cut of “The Mist” is in black and white, suggesting he envisioned the film as something of a throwback to 1950s creature features. If so, why is so much of the movie shot in a distressingly shaky, handheld style? Perhaps he was attempting to capture a sense of realistic panic. Yet this is another example of Darabont’s perhaps overdone directorial hand. The theme of “The Mist” is evident and often repeated. People do stupid things when they panic. Even the movie’s tagline, “Fear Changes Everything,” emphasizes this. That’s why Mrs. Carmody’s particular breed of crazy catches on. It also explains the movie’s twist ending. Yet even in context, that ending comes off as overly sadistic. A main character takes a very drastic action, after spending the entire movie being the only reasonable person around. The universe goes about punishing him for his rashness far too quickly and in far too unlikely a circumstance. Mostly, the ending makes me feel like Darabont is screwing with us.

I appreciate what “The Mist” is trying to do. I can’t completely dislike a movie with this many cool monsters in it. Yet a heavy handed script and a deeply unlikable supporting cast keeps the film out of my good graces. Maybe Frank should’ve kept King’s more ambiguous conclusion. Or maybe he should’ve been less focused on his obvious themes. Or, I don’t know, just killed off the obnoxious crazy Christina bitch in the first act? Either way, “The Mist” is a movie I appreciate more for its technical aspects then its actual story telling. As for that upcoming TV show? I have no interest in seeing the movie’s drama stretch out for thirteen episodes. Thanks but no thanks. [5/10]

Southern Comfort (1981)

Walter Hill is one of those filmmakers who have had several big, mainstream successes yet have never become a hugely well known name. “48 Hrs.” was a genre defining hit, while “The Driver,” “The Warriors” and “Streets of Fire” are all beloved cult classics. Well known for his work in tough guy action pics, Hill has always skirted the horror genre without fully committing to it. Hill produced all of the “Alien” films and directed several “Tales from the Crypt” episodes. Yet the closest thing Hill has ever directed to a proper horror feature is the 1981 underrated backwoods survival flick “Southern Comfort.”

A group of weekend warriors, members of the Louisiana National Guard, gather in the state’s swampy, humid bayou. Among the men are smart-ass Private Spencer, redneck Corporal Reece, mentally unstable Corporal Bowden, and rough around the edges new recruit Corporal Hardin. A standard exercise has the group navigating the swamp. The soldiers steal some unclaimed boats in order to make it across a river. When the Cajun owners of the boats appear, one of the soldiers fire blanks at the hunters. In response, the Cajuns open fire, killing the group’s leader. Now, the men are being hunted, pursued by an enemy that is more familiar with the area then they are.

“Southern Comfort” is not truly a horror movie. The story – men on a journey through hostile territory – recalls Hill’s own “The Warriors.” The themes, of American soldiers outwitted by less technologically advanced locals, bring the Vietnam War to mind. (Hill has vehemently denied this reading.) Despite mostly being an action/thriller, “Southern Comfort” undeniably contains some horrific elements. The Cajun trappers rarely appear on-screen. Instead, they are more like an almost supernatural force of nature. Traps have been left for the men, getting attacked by dogs, bear traps, dropping trees, and spring-loaded spikes. The dead bodies of their victims are artfully displayed, tied to trees or strung up from train tracks. If you squint hard enough, these scenes could be right out of a slasher flick. Mostly, “Southern Comfort” is characterized by a foggy atmosphere of foreboding and dread. The genre elements are marginal but “Southern Comfor” makes them count.

Upon release, “Southern Comfort’s” characters were criticized for being thin or exaggerated. The cast members are undeniably simple. With nine principal characters, reducing the soldiers to archetypes was probably a good decision. So you’ve got the smart ass, the hard ass, the dumb ass, the tight ass, and so forth. Hill fills his cast with tough guy character actors, which goes a long way towards defining them. Front and center are Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe. Carradine has a wry glee in his smile but is surprisingly cool under pressure. Boothe is hard as a flint, constantly scowling. Yet Boothe’s Hardin gives the impression of being a massive bad ass. Peter Coyote is the voice of powerless authority as the unit leader. Fred Ward is well utilized as the needlessly violent good ol’ boy. Even the bit roles are filled by soon-to-be action veterans. Such as Brion James as the one-armed Cajun or Sonny Landham as a briefly glimpsed hunter. The back-and-forth between the cast members is one of the biggest pleasures of “Southern Comfort.”

“Southern Comfort” is excellently paced, the plot always barreling forward. Within a few minutes, the threat is introduced. New attacks occur steadily every ten or fifteen minutes. Many of these sequences, such as the bracing dog attack or intense run through the falling trees, make an impression on the audience. A knife fight between Boothe and Ward is another stand-out moment. It all builds towards an excellent final act. Boothe and Carradine arrive at a seemingly friendly Cajun village. While Spencer dances with the locals, Hardin notices that their enemies have pulled into town. The build-up to the next attack is cut between graphic footage of a pig being slaughtered, increasingly putting the audience at ill ease. When the violence hits, the results are explosive. “Southern Comfort” doesn’t leave much room for cathartic release, as the film ends immediately after the violent conclusion, leaving the audience unsettled.

The film did poor business at the box office during its original theatrical release. When “Southern Comfort” was released to video or shown on cable, it attracted a bigger audience. In-between the excellent cast of likable actors and intense sequences, it’s earned that cult following. Due to a Southern setting that can’t help but recall “Deliverance” and backwoods villains, it also fits fairly snuggly within the redneck horror genre. (Bizarrely, the film would be shown on Iranian television in the nineties, re-edited to become anti-American propaganda. In that version, the U.S. government knowingly sends the boys to their death, the Cajuns working for the military. Now that’s unexpected!) [8/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Fatal Caper

As the Six Weeks begin, the Cryptkeeper is there to happily invite me back into the tomb. For the last three years, I’ve been watching my way through the series. Just hearing that theme song and seeing the opening makes me grin. This year, I’ll wrap up the show, watching the last season of HBO’s horror anthology. For the seventh season, as a cost saving measure, the show was moved from America to the United Kingdom. It’s a move the show acknowledges, with the Cryptkeeper relocating underneath London Bridge. He even mentions his English heritage, which is probably a reference to Amicus’ original “Tales from the Crypt” movie.

But the move in geography doesn’t mean a change in style. “Fatal Caper” continues the “Crypt” tradition of revenge, betrayal, deceit, and twist endings. The episode concerns an ailing millionaire, Mycroft Amberson. His sons are an unworthy lot, with Evelyn being a money grubbing jerk and Justin being a sex-craved moron. Mycroft hires a female lawyer to deliver the conditions of his will. The brothers will only receive his millions if they can locate their missing third brother, who walked out of dad’s life years ago. This being “Tales from the Crypt,” things aren’t exactly as they seem.

“Fatal Caper” is a fairly standard “Tales” episode, full of bad guys getting what’s coming to them. The horror content this time includes a bloody murder at the end, a spooky séance, and a pivotal scene in a tomb. With this standard script, it’s up to the performance to keep your attention. Greg Wise plays Justin as a buffoon who is indifferent to his father’s pain, having a good time. James Saxon really goes over the top as Evelyn, making the character as snooty as possible. Bob Hoskin, who plays a small role, directed the episode. He produces some neat shots, like a reveal concerning a maid. The twist ending is pretty silly, deeply politically incorrect by modern standards, but admittedly unexpected. It’s not among the series’ best premieres but it’s an amusing thirty minutes nevertheless. [6/10]

Lost Tapes: Chupacabra

Lost Tapes” was a series that aired for three seasons, from 2008 to 2010, on Animal Planet. That’s probably not the first network you associate with horror television. “Lost Tapes” was, of all things, a found footage anthology series. Each episode would detail an encounter with a cryptozoological creature, always captured by cameras of some sort. In order to justify such a series airing on an ostensibly educational channel, interviews with experts, media critics, and legitimate zoologists would play in-between the fictional segments. During the early years of the Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-Thon, I review one or two episodes of the show. In order to appease my OCD, I hope to watch the entire series this year.

The first lost tape concerns the chupacabra, that goat sucking monster from down Mexico way. The Ramierz family, composed of a father, a mother, and a young daughter, hope to sneak across the border into America. Midway through the trip, their coyote abandons them in the middle of the desert. For some reason, the daughter lugs the family camcorder along with her. This allows her to record the frightening encounter they have with el chupacabra.

“Lost Tapes” was never a great show but I’ll admit a certain fondness for it. The premise – combining horror anthology, cryptozoology, and found footage – hits too many of my sweet spots for me to ignore it. Considering it aired on fucking Animal Planet, the series was also surprisingly downbeat. As the title suggests, the main characters usually ended up dead.

Yet “Chupacabra” is a weak premiere. The camera work is overly shaky, with far too much of the episode devoted to people running and screaming. The chupacabra, as presented here, does not match up with the awesome, alien-like conception of the creature, as passed around in the nineties. Instead, the brief glimpses we get at the monsters show one of those lame, dog things some people insists are chupacabras. The story basically wraps up midway through, an extended epilogue tagged on at the end. And the “informative” segments are especially inane, focusing on basic facts concerning illegal immigration and what kind of animals live in the Mexican desert. This is pretty standard for the show but, I assure you, a few episodes are better then this. [5/10]