Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween 2010: October 30

Yesterday was busy, as far as Halloween festivities go. First thing, my mother and I carved our Jack-o-lanterns. She made a surprisingly gruesome puking pumpkin that turned out surprisingly well. I carved a more traditional jack-o-lantern. I wanted to cut a Jason mask design but that proved a little more complicated then I had time for.

That night, after working all afternoon, I headed directly to the Apollo for a midnight screening of "Rocky Horror" with my hetero-life-partner JD, which you will read about below.

10/30/10:

Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “The Knightly Murders”
This is a very dense episode. They pack a lot of characters and conjecture into this one. John Dehner is hilarious as a grandiose speaking police captain. He makes a nice contrast with the usually antagonistic police captains that butt heads with Kolchak. Carl also bumps into a flamboyant fashion designer (who name-checks David Bowie for some reason), a noisy butler, a jittery museum curator, an old man far too willing to talk about his younger days, and a couple running a store that sells family crest. (that name-checks Queen for some reason. Lots of seventies rock references around this one.) That’s a lot of guest stars and tails for Carl to talk to and follow. Maybe they were just trying to stuff up a flimsy story but I enjoyed following the mystery, convoluted as it might be. As for the mystery itself… The animated suit of armor has always been an odd horror cliché for me. I think the only reason you see it every once in a while is because people like to trot out maces and lances as modern day murder weapons. That certainly seems to be the reason it was chosen for this episode. I like the gag of Kolchak stinking of perfume for the entire second half of the episode. Despite some obvious flaws, I liked this one a lot. It builds and builds to an intense final confrontation, where Kolchak finds himself completely outmatched against a physical threat. The way the monster is dealt with is the only disappointing aspect here. (8/10)

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”
Faith is on my mind a lot this Halloween. Considering how Schultz used the Linus character as a mouth-piece for his religious views before, it’s hard not to view some subtext into this special. It’s been denied, but you can clearly interoperate this as being about atheism vs. faith. (Or a mocking of the devoutly faithful. Or, as Kindertrauma put it, conformity vs. nonconformity.) Watching this for the uptenth time, I noticed how episodic this is. It’s clear that the writer is better versed in writing daily comic strips then a half-hour special, because this is clearly broken up in skits with clear set-ups and punch lines. Only one or two sequence feel extended enough not to fit into a daily comic strip. Though, when each strip is this cute and funny, you can’t really complain. This is a traditional for so many for a reason. (8/10)

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show”
Last night was my first time experiencing a midnight screening of this. (I got branded with a “V” and marched up on stage for my troubles. At least I didn’t get spanked on the ass like my friends.) I was a big fan of RHPS a few years ago, and still love the music, but grew out of my fandom, mostly do to my feelings concerning the Rocky Horror crowd, who I’ve come to find overly cliquey and kind of sadly pathetic. However, I can’t say any of those thoughts bothered me last night. Standing in a long line, in the middle of the night, in the cold, with a bunch of like-minded, clearly nuts people, you just get caught up in the feeling of fun. That I managed to convince some young hottie dressed as Columbia to stick a plush toy dolphin into to her cleavage for me really made the night. Anyway, this was a complete blast, no lie. You can’t even really compare watching the movie at home by yourself with the midnight experience, in a cramped theater, full of people, yelling, laughing, throwing crap, fully interacting with the movie on-screen. I understand now that’s its not the movie itself so much as the midnight experience that causes such a devout fan following. People, especially lonely people, must be eager to revisit that feeling of belonging and unspoken brotherhood that permeated this event. I can’t blame him. The two become inseparable after a while. One by itself is never as good again. Probably because of all this, I ended up enjoying the movie a lot more then I usually do. It’s pretty much a given that I’ll be back next Halloween. (9/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “Legacy of Terror”
I’m sure viewers of the series back when it was new were all wondering when “Kolchak” was going to get to The Mummy. It was the one major horror icon it hadn’t covered yet. The use of Aztec mythology instead of Egyptian adds an interesting variation to the idea. Of course, the mummy doesn’t even show up until the very end of the episode, probably also a wise decision. The opening murder is certainly a striking set piece. Having watched so much of this show in such a small time period, I’ve come to realize that just watching Kolchak go about the business of investigating the story, bumping into the guest stars of the week, and then fighting the monster at the end, is really effortlessly fun. Darren McGavin was so incredibly good in this part. Maybe “Legacy of Terror” isn’t the strongest episode but I can’t say I enjoyed it any less then the best episodes of the series. It handles the story in a really entertaining way. The sports stadium make is a great location for the final scene and, surprisingly, Erik Estrada actually does some acting in his guest role. The Mummy make-up, sparingly used, is actually one of the better creature design of the series. (7/10)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween 2010: October 29

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “Demon in Lace”
This one has a great supporting cast. Keenan Wynn as an antagonistic police captain is the best. Kirstina Holland is also quite good as an enthusiastic college reporter that develops a friendship with Carl. Crazy as it sounds, if the show had continued, I wouldn’t have mind seeing her come back as potential love interest. Holland and McGavin have good chemistry. You’ll also want to watch out for Mortica Addams and the voice of Frosty the Snowman among the minor parts. The episode certainly offers a different take on the succubus legend. I’m not sure if the wild variation on that legend was just the writers cooking up a version friendly to 70s TV or an intentional deviation. Either way, it works. Up until the final few minutes though, were things get seriously silly. Still, I liked this one, pruney face old woman demon included. (7/10)

Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985)
You mind be wondering why I gave this one a second view, considering how negative my previous review was. Well, that was a while ago, before I really grew to appreciate eighties trash-horror. The guys over at The Bodycount Continues really love this movie so I decided, if it was good enough for them, it must be good enough for me, right?

Well, I don’t know. I still don’t think much of this one. It’s obvious the director really had no interest in the previous “Friday the 13th” films. This one doesn’t feel anything like the films before or after it. The atmosphere it does have is one of sleazy eighties cheese, which does have its charms. The biggest issue is the characters, which are even more nondescript then is usual for these films. There’s stuttering kid, new wave girl, a brunette, a couple defined solely by their desire to screw. The final girl is completely bland and undefined. Tommy does almost nothing until the end. Often, characters, like the anachronistic leather jacket wearing hoods or the coked-up couples, are introduced just to be killed minutes later. The redneck retard son and his mom are easily the most despicable, obnoxious characters in the entire Friday mythos. Reggie and Demon are at least amusing but even they have the same, over-the-top shrill tone as everyone else does. Complaining about characters in a “Friday the 13th” movie might seem counterproductive but, I don’t know, is it too much to ask for?

This is the third or fourth time I’ve seen this movie and, only now, do I realize that Tommy is meant to be a red herring, hence his lack of presence throughout the movie. It is that obvious, right from the beginning, who the killer is suppose to be. Roy makes a wholly unthreatening killer.

The direction in this movie is really weird, especially the rough zoom-ins on people’s faces as they’re murdered. Many of the scenes in the house and forest have an odd, unrealistic feel to them, as if they were shot on a sound-stage. The movie does have plenty of nudity. The hedge-croppers-in-the-eyes chick has some nice ones. There are one or two decent kills, though too many are cheap machete stabs. “A New Beginning” isn’t as bad as I remember it being, but it is as awkward, off-center, and generally stupid. I can see the camp appeal here, but it’s not the good kind of down-home cheesy camp I like, but instead a mean-spirited, mid-eighties kind of “Different Strokes” camp that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. (5/10)

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988)
I really love this movie. First off, Angela, as presented here, might be one of the most sympathetic and generally likable slashers around. Sure, the viewers are usually on Jason’s or Freddy’s side, but Angela is different. Most slashers are either vicious unrepentant psychopaths or mindless brutes killing for vague, Freudian reasons. Angela just wants to make camp a nice place. She’s something of a tragic figure, clearly chewed up and spit out by the world and now she’s trying to reassemble her reality into something that’ll make her peaceful and happy. Of course, that just happens to involve killing anybody who rubs her the wrong way… She’s so delightfully demented, but there’s something sad about her too. Pamela Springsteen is perfect in the part.

This movie is also a hilarious satire, not only of eighties slasher, but eighties pop culture in general. All of the kids are named after the member of the Brat Pack. Angela’s revulsion to sex seems to go along with Regan era attitudes, though she herself is obviously a lesbian, clearly in love with Molly. (The scene where Angela, in her frumpy nightgown, tells Molly they’re all alone in the cabin together and that they “can still have fun,” is Angela’s awkward way of hitting on her.) “Just say no!” even gets a name check. Further more, the whole premise of Pamela Springsteen, who probably weighed 90 pounds soaking wet, killing an entire camp full of older women, adult men, and wily kids is sort of hilarious and subversive in and off itself. Of course, the scene directly poking fun at the Big Two is fantastically sly too.

The gore is great and supports some truly creative kills. The outhouse murder might be the grossest kill in any slasher film. The movie is also loaded with sex and nudity. (Valerie Hartman should be inducted into some sort of Horror Nudity Hall of Fame. She must be nude for half of her screen time.) About the only negative thing I can say about this is the non-conclusive ending is pretty weak… and it’s way too short! We need more Angela! (9/10)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halloween 2010: October 28

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “The Trevi Collection”
A pretty good episode despite several goofy moments. Kolchak’s office banter is stronger then usual. The mystery is actually pretty involving. It was surprising to see Kolchak get tricked for once. (Naturally, a pretty woman smiling at him was all it took to throw him off.) When a show is as formulaic as this one, it’s nice to see it willing to throw a few twists into the mix. Another interesting element here is Kolchak being pursued by the mob tough buys. The aftermath of them wrecking the INS office is a really funny moment. As for the goofy moments? I remember being kind of creep out by the moving mannequins the first time I saw this, but now that comes off as really silly. Equpally silly is the floating knife, Carl swinging a mojo bag around like it’s a magic shield, and the way the witch is dealt, which is hard to take seriously. Still, after two weak episodes, this one held up nicely. (7/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “Chopper”
It’s not surprising to find Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s name in the opening credits here. The Headless Horseman being remodeled as a headless biker is exactly the kind of darkly whimsical element Zemeckis use when he’s at his best. The episode does drag a bit in the middle (The funeral scene is a pain to get through) and, while you can tell they tried, the central idea of the monster was a little beyond their budget. The motorcycle element does lead to a number of exciting attack scenes. Carl’s confrontation with the monster is actually the least exciting action scene of the episode. The new police chief giving Kolchak a hard time provides some great amusement, as does Carl’s chemistry with the widow. (7/10)

Dead of Night (1945)
An extremely British movie. I guess it wasn’t until the Technicolor Hammer films of the late fifties that British horror stop being so damn drool. The movie is credited with popularizing the horror anthology as well as the killer dummy bit. (As well as Hoyle’s Steady State theory) There’s a reason all anybody talks about in reference to this is the dummy sequence.

The framing story introduces a lot of characters quickly and, even then, doesn’t use all of them. The first story, about a race car driver’s brush with death, is over so quickly it doesn’t really register. The second tale is a traditional ghost story set around Christmas time. It does successfully capture the feel of those ghost stories but fails completely in being scary. The third story, about a cursed mirror, takes a long, long time to get to its pay-off but does okay once it finally gets there. The fourth story is by far the worse. It’s a comical tale about ghost and golf that feels incredibly long, revolves around an annoying pair of characters, and just repeats its central gag over and over until something resembling the punch line comes.

After all of this, we finally get to the ventriloquist dummy. The terror the dummy inflicts is purely psychological and solely upon his master. The final twist of the story comes as quietly and uninterestingly as anything else in the film. The resolution to the framing story is the only moment the movie comes close to being creepy and the twist ending is clever, if expected. Like the Quatermass films before it, this is another highly respected piece of early British genre film that I really couldn’t get into. (5/10)

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964)

The Coffin Joe films aren’t exactly like anything else around. This first film, in particular, Brazil’s first horror film, was made in something of a vacuum. It’s so wonderfully weird. It’s both hokey and brutal, sacrilegious and superstitious. Hokey in that the movie is covered with traditional horror clichés and they are all created in the cheapest forms possible. Black cats, foggy nights, toy hooting owls, paper mache skulls, cackling witches.

The movie is brutal in that its violence and gore probably would have been groundbreaking at the time (If anybody in outside of Brazil had seen it, obviously.) Fingers are cut off, people are brutally whipped, eyes are gouged out. There’s also a rape, albeit off-screen. The movie is a lot nastier then what was common at the time. What’s really crazy about all this though is Coffin Joe himself. He’s a sadist, murderer, rapist, general bastard to everybody, and the thing that horrifies the townspeople the most? He’s an atheist. In this small, improvised Brazilian town, religion clearly gives the people hope and here’s Coffin Joe, going around, yelling about how there’s no God, no ghosts, no spirits, no devil, only now, only “the continuity of the blood,” as he calls it.

What’s really dissonant about the film is its beliefs. Coffin Joe is our protagonist and, it’s clear that Jose Mojica Marins sympathizes with him. (I’ve often wondered how many of Joe’s beliefs Marins shares.) However, after spending the entire movie screaming about how ghosts don’t exist, those ghost do appear and Joe does indeed pay for his crimes. It’s a schizophrenic tone and one of reasons while the movie is so delightfully bizarre.

Also contributing to the charm is the micro-budget cleverness on display here. The director didn’t have the funds to create a ghost, so he just painted glitter directly onto the negative around the actor. It’s a bizarre, totally effective moment. After having mostly watched the myriad of Coffin Joe sequels and spin-offs this film spawned, it’s interesting to return to the original. In the sequels, Joe is obsessed with finding the perfect woman to father his perfect son with, to continue his continuity of the blood. In the third, recent, sequel, it’s becomes less about extending his life via child, and more about continuing his dark, Satanic legacy. The seventies era spin-offs are sleazier, more surreal, not as cheap but somehow cheaper looking, and turned Coffin Joe into some sort of netherworld dwelling spectre, a chronicler of strange tales. Here, he holds down a steady job, has friends, and doesn’t mention his Nietzsche-like quest to father a perfect offspring once. (He’s eyes also go bloodshot any time he flies into a murderous rage.) Anyway, “At Midnight, I’ll Take Your Soul” needs to be seen to be believed.
(8/10)



Cornered! (2009)
A really fun addition to the slasher-comedy fold. It’s got a small colorful cast, all closed up in a single location, who are slowly picked off by a vicious killer one by one. It’s a classic slasher set-up. The characters actually get some pretty decent development too and have a nice repour with one another. The movie isn’t a wall-to-wall gore fest, but when blood does show up, it’s used in clever, nastily creative ways. This movie makes the kills it has count. The dialogue is pretty funny throughout and there’s a sense of absurd fun running under the whole thing. The identity of the killer is fairly obvious right from the beginning. (Hint: It’s the biggest name in the cast.) The ending is also a little meaner then I think they should have gone with. This is the fun kind of little slasher fare we don’t really get enough of any more. (7/10)

Candyman (1992)

I really love this movie for a number of reasons. I’ve always had an interest in urban legends and this movie gets deep into that. It’s all about the power of myth and is an incredibly creative modern update on the ghost story idea. The direction and, especially the music, are fantastically atmospheric. Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd both give phenomenal performance. (Considering the range, subtlety, and quiet command of presence Todd shows here, it’s sort of a shame that he’s basically reduced to turning in one-note cameos in the B-horror market.) It’s scary too. The death of the psychologist is a great horror moment. Read this brilliant Kindertrauma article for an even deeper study of the film. Basically, any film that generates that level of intelligent discussion is probably great, and I think “Candyman” certainly qualifies as great, one of the best horror films of the nineties, if not the best. (9/10)

Halloween 2010: October 26 and 27

10/26/10

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “The Ripper”
This first episode honestly feels like it could have come at any point in the series. The only indicator that this is the premier episode is that Miss Emily appears playing a totally different character. I can’t decide wither that’s a good thing or not. Having the characters and their interactions so definitely established right from the beginning is a strong point, especially since Kolchak’s relationship with his office mates would wind up saving many weaker episodes. Once again, the story here is highly derivative of the first movie, with the way the police is defenseless to stop the monster and how Kolchak eventually faces down the threat on its own turf. The way the killer has been killing in cycles over the decades is also similar to the second film’s story. The scenes set in massage parlors are surprisingly gritty for the time period. Out of the first three monsters that directly attacked the police, the Ripper is definitely the least intimidating. However, the final scenes of Carl hiding in the closet from the killer are quite suspenseful and redeem the weaker aspects of the episode. “The Ripper” isn’t a great way to start the show, but it still a pretty good hour of television. (7/10)

10/27/10

Tremors 4: The Legends Begins (2004)

Probably the best sequel of the series. It’s a return to the style of the origin, in that the focus is solely on the community and the characters’ relationships. Also, the Graboids are the only monsters around, no Shriekers, Ass-Blasters, or any more silly transformations. (The movie still can’t help but introduce some new critters: Baby Graboids.) The film has kind of a slow start but, by the time the defending the town last act kicks in, it’s good stuff. The biggest problems here are the same problems I often have with distinct past prequels revolving around the established character’s ancestors. I find it hard to believe that gene pools are so consistent that Burt’s great-grandfather looked just like him and also had a thing for redheads. Or that the Chang’s store has stuck around since the 1880s.

One of the strongest aspects of the “Tremors” series is the characters. By going back in time, of course, we loose the characters. It is a weakness for the film. The monsters are portrayed pretty inconsistently here. How much sound they can hear varies and I find it hard that turn-of-the-century floorboards would give them that much trouble. Also, the awful smell is back for the first time since the initial movie. The special effects are definitely the best since the first film. The final shot is pretty funny. The movie is really relentlessly nice. It doesn’t have a mean bone anywhere in its body.
(7/10)

Spike (2010)
I picked this off the shelves at Blockbuster strictly because it looked like a monster movie, and how often do we get those, especially in the DTV independent horror market? Alas, never trust a DVD cover, because this is more of a “Phantom of the Opera”-style gothic romance then a traditional horror story. It’s about a guy with some bizarre birth defect that causes giant spikes to sprout all over his body and his obsessive love for his childhood girlfriend. It’s not a bad idea, and not as far removed from reality as you’d think. (If the Tree Man can exist, I’d say this is well within the realm of possibilities.)

The story is ultimately too sympathetic to the monster. His submissive, erudite tone never makes him threatening or frightening. Ultimately, he comes off like kind of a whiny hipster. The rest of the cast isn’t developed very well. The movies biggest problems is its theatrical dialogue, that never sounds like the kind of thing that would actually come out of a human mouth, much less from a person that’s being living in the woods for a long time. The characters in the movie also seem to think bonking somebody over the head is the first, best solution to any problem.

There’s also a subplot involving a pair of wacky lesbian wandering the forest that doesn’t really go anywhere. Considering the short run time and the director’s previous work mostly consisting of short films, I’d say, cut out that subplot, and this would become a pretty solid forty minute short. This is, generally, a well-made film, very nicely shot, especially considering what was probably a tiny budget, with some potentially good performances and, at the very least, the seed of a good story. While I can’t really say I liked the movie, its creative team has some definite talent. (Film Thoughts favorite Justin Paul Ritter is also thanked in the credits. So, you know, there’s that. The reviews on Netflix are also hilariously mean-spirited and acidic.)
(5/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “Mr. R.I.N.G.”
Another one of my first shows, which I saw during Trio’s “Brilliant but Canceled.” It’s actually one of the weaker episodes. Mr. RING isn’t much of a threat and the extended scenes of Kolchak talking to him are a bore. How the robot is dealt with is pretty anticlimactic and disappointing. However, once again, Kolchak going out and following leads, rubbing people the wrong way, and generally making a lovable nuisance of himself are the highlights of an episode. I do like Carl’s confused opening narration. This episode strays from the formula and is one of the weakest of the series. Coincidence? (5/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “Primal Screams”
Another weak episode. Mostly because the mystery unfolds in a really droll way and the creature itself is pretty silly. Carl confronting the creature in the red subway tunnel is an atmospheric sign that almost immediately gets silly again when Kolchak tries to make friends with the monkey. The confrontations with the police are pretty amusing. I really hope the rest of the series picks up before it ends. (5/10)

Honestly, why isn't there a "Tremors 5" yet? Is it because the TV show failed (And kind of blew?) I know those movies were pretty big hits in the video and cable market when I was a teenager. I feel those movies filled a void. Not just because there cool monster movies and we don't have enough of those, but also because they were (mostly) family friendly. There isn't a lot of quality kid-friendly horror out there today and, you know, the kids have to start somewhere. I guess if the series had continued, it only would have gotten sillier, introducing more variations on the title beasties. But I'd probably still watch. I obviously love these movies for some reason. (My idea for "Tremors 5?" Graboids vs. dinosaurs. Don't tell me that wouldn't be cool.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Halloween 2010: October 25

My friend JD naturally joined me for another movie marathon today. Before settling in for a night of spooky sights and screams, we also stopped by My Little Horror Shop, a really fantastic local place. As unlikely as this is, but if they're are any readers in the Winchester VA area that still haven't checked this place out, you really need to.

Witchboard (1986)
As far as late eighties supernatural slashers go, I rank this one pretty highly. It has a legitimately interesting mystery, some actual character development for its cast, and very good pacing. The swooping, “Evil Dead”-style direction adds some tension to the attack scenes. The cast is pretty awful, admittedly. (Even if Tawny Whitesnake provides some fantastic eye-candy.) It’s really different from the rest of the horror output we’re us to seeing from this time, while also belonging completely to that decade. (7.5/8)

The Exorcist (1974)

There really is so much to say about this movie. First off, having just watched “The Omen” the other night, its fun to compare these two devil flicks. While Satan pretty much reigns supreme in “The Omen,” “The Exorcist” is much more hopeful. It’s a straight-on tug-of-war between good and evil throughout the whole film. Freidkin’s use of subliminal images is so successful. Moreover, this movie is really scary. I’m not exactly sure why or how it pulled it off, but many scenes continue to be legitimately unnerving. I honestly think the sound design has a lot to do with it, maybe more then anything else. As the countless rip-offs showed, it’s not so much a little girl getting possessed and vomiting pee soup that is disturbing, but add a truly odd, ravaging, clicking soundtrack and it becomes weird. How great are Max Van Sydow and Jason Miller? It’s sort of interesting to know that Sydow was only in his fifties but really pulls off being much older and frailer. I do prefer the Theatrical ending to the Extended cut, but the Spider Walk scene makes that cut very much worth owning. (Ouija boards seems to have unintentionally become the theme of the night.) (9/10)

Fright Night (1985)
Charley Brewster is really a nerd. Something I picked up on this time is his car. It’s a nice model, but suffers from a splotchy paint job. Even when he’s trying to be cool, he comes off as a total dork. Something the upcoming remake has all ready fucked up, is Amy. Amy actually looks like the kind of girl that would date a massive nerd like Brewster. I mean, in the opening scene, she’s wearing overalls, for Christ’s sakes. Making her resemble Jerry’s old love is a good idea. Being a vampire, Dandridge could obviously get any girl he wants (And does get much hotter woman throughout.) So why would he go after Marcy Darcy if for no other reason then to spite Brewster?

And Jerry is a fantastically petty character. While other vampires might be ancient, unknowable evils, when pissed off, Jerry destroys Charley’s car, tricks and fools the police and his friend, and then kills some bouncers in a dance club. He’s was the perfect vampire for the eighties. Maybe it’s easy to read the actor’s personal life into his performance, but Evil Ed is totally gay. He jokes about giving Charley a hickey, wears a woman’s wig at one point, and, when Jerry tries to talk him into becoming a vampire, gives Evil a speech about how nobody understands him. Reading too much into it? Possibly, but the subtext is pretty blatant. I love Charley’s hilariously clueless mom and when wasn’t Rodney McDowell fantastic? Chris Sarandon’s performance is completely over-the-top (“Ami-AH!” is a running gag with me and my friends.) and his death scene if fantastic. This is a vampire that’s actually hard to kill. I also love that instead of just turning into a regular bat, he turns into some sort of monster-bat the size of a Doberman. Basically, I like this movie a lot. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call it my favorite vampire movie.
(9/10)

Phantasm (1979)

First off, I think this movie might have more “Oh shit!” moments then just about any other horror film. In-between the sphere in the head, the graveyard nightmare, the midget in the bushes, and that final scare, this one has got scares in spades. What’s maybe most endearing about this film is its truly homespun feel. This really does feel like a bunch of friends just getting together to make a movie. (Probably because it pretty much was.) That slapdash feel both works for and against it. In the for column, it leads to an appropriately dream-like pacing, as pretty much any crazy idea Costerella had was thrown into the mix, from yellow blood, to evil jawas, to alien-flies, and much more. It also works against the film for much the same reason. (Just were the hell did the Tall Man’s thug come from? I guess the Tall Man can’t run a mortuary all by himself but him hiring someone seems pretty silly. Imagine the job interview…)

But it’s a smart movie too. Just read John Kennith Muir’s excellent essay about it in “Horror Films of the 1970s” in which he smartly deconstructs the symbolism. As the nightmare of a young boy, the movie is ultimately about that boy’s fear of death, abandonment, and equal revulsion and curiosity about sex. I suspect this was mostly unintentional on the director’s half but, whatever, it works. So “Phantasm” is a crazy, truly unique slice of homemade late seventies horror. “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re all ready dead” indeed.
(9/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “The Werewolf”
The werewolf here is maybe the goofiest monster make-up from the entire series. (Which is saying something.) He looks less like a traditional werewolf and more like Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy (which I guess isn’t completely illogical, but still…) That the camera freeze frames during his attacks for some reason just calls more attention to the weirdness here. Despite the goofy monster, Kolchak’s interaction with the cruise passengers and captains almost makes up for it. This probably has the funniest dialogue out of any episode. It also features drowning as a way to kill the werewolf, something I’ve certainly never seen before. Hey, how about a Kolchak/Werewolf crossover? Surely that fanfiction exist! (6/10)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Halloween 2010: October 24

Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (2001)
My blatant nostalgia for this series will really start showing now. These movies used to be on constant rotation on the SciFi Channel back during my early teens and I watched them over and over again. Smart things part three does: 1. Make Bert the lead character. While he always seemed like the type that worked better as a sparingly used supporting man, Michael Gross really makes the most of his opportunity here. 2. The supporting cast. 3. Getting the government involved in the story, not in a paranoia cover-up way but in a supportive way that drives the story. One of the things I always really liked about these film si that the monsters are not only public knowledge but exploited and sold. 4. El Blanco. He’s basically the Slimer of the series, a former threat that quickly became a harmless mascot. Things part three does that aren’t so smart. 1. The Ass-Blaster. I thought the Shrieker was a pretty big departure for the series but letting the monster take to the air is getting really good. 2. The effects. Hand puppets galore! Shaky CGI! 3. The gag of a monster blowing up and the intrails raining down on the heroes has gotten old. Flaws, and their considerable and all, I still sort of love this movie. (7/10)

Blood: The Last Vampire (2009)
I saw the anime movie a few years ago and thought it was pretty underdeveloped. (Haven’t read the manga or seen the series.) But I do understand why this would get adapted before better known, more successful series. The appeal of a Japanese schoolgirl chopping up monsters with a big samurai sword is universal. But, man, this is a shitty movie. The fight scenes are so ridiculous and over-the-top, but also serious and self-important. “Ramping” is abuse to such a degree that it would make Zack Synder look subtle. Everything is exaggerated but stylistically hollow. Bits are stolen from “Kill Bill,” “Wanted,” and the “Blade” films, to start. The saturated comic book look just ends up making the movie look even more unreal. Nothing ever has any weight. This isn’t real fighting, just people jumping around inside a computer. The rest of the movie feels similarly empty. The introduction of the general daughter is an obvious, and unnecessary, attempt to appeal to American audience. The ending is inconclusive and anticlimactic. The fake blood is really fake looking. I liked the gravelly voice fedora guy. Just to think, Ronny Yu could have directed this… (4/10)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Halloween 2010: October 22

The Omen (1976)
This movie also holds a special nostalgic quality for me. It was the first “adult’ horror film I ever watched, at the tender age of twelve. (I was a late bloomer.) The movie seriously freaked me out at the time. Having had the idea of the apocalypse drilled into my head by my fire-and-brimstone Southern Baptist grandmother for most of my childhood, the premise of the movie felt frighteningly real. And, I think, that childhood mindset, were you only half-understand the true implications, is really the best way to view this one. The film creates a profound sense of dread, one that sent me spiraling into deep existential despair when I first saw it.

Watching it now as a mostly-agnostic adult, I interpreted the story in a totally different way. This is as much a movie about the fear of parenthood as it is one about the Antichrist. “Kids are the devil” is one of the, I suspect, unintentional messages of the film. And, while this is obviously a movie dealing in religious paranoia and Christian fear, there’s something oddly Atheistic about this one. Less in the literal sense of “God never existed in the first place,” but more in that late-seventies “God has abandoned us” mindset. Satan is presented throughout as the clear victor, as powerful as the Christian God but obviously more active in our world. This is really a relentlessly grim film. After all, the best possible outcome to the story involves a father murdering his adopted son. Antichrist or not, that’s a pretty terrifying concept.

On a technically level, it’s brilliantly crafted. Donner’s direction and the editing are pitch perfect and Goldsmith’s music is rightfully legendary, truly one of most ominous, disturbing film scores ever composed. You can also trace the modern day “Final Destination” films specifically, as well as a great deal of later supernatural slashers, directly back to this movie.
(9/10)

The Night Strangler (1973)

Better then the first movie. Kolchak’s character and personal voice are more definitely established. His interaction with Vincenzo and the supporting cast is juicier. The mystery is more intriguing. The Seattle Underground provides an incredibly atmospheric setting. Carl spends more time investigating, reporting, and encountering the monster in an up-close-and-personal way. The supporting cast is great, featuring terrific turns from Wally Cox, Scott Brady as a fantastically confrontational police chief, and the gorgeous Nina Wayne.

The only way it pales in comparison with “The Night Stalker” is that it’s just not as scary. The restaurant sequence is the only real nail-biter. The script is also largely derivative of the first film, especially when the police shot harmlessly at the monster and how Kolchak ends up confronting the villain in his lair. (Granted, pretty much every story involving Kolchak follows almost that exact same formula.)The way the Alchemist info-dumps a load of exposition on us at the end is also pretty lazy. But as the car-ride final sequence shows, I found this one to be considerably more likable and relatable then the first film.
(8/10)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Halloween 2010: Catch-Up

While I was doing my Romero report card, I was, naturally, watching other stuff. What I've really been working on viewing, was the original "Kolchak: The Night Stalker." I love this show. People uses the term "Monsters of the Week" show like its a bad thing. As a horror nerd obsessed with the various archetypes, icons, and myths of the genre, I love anything that revolves around exploring those concepts, especially in new, modern ways. Honestly, I'd take the simplistic pleasures of the Monster of the Week show, in comparison to the mythology heavy genre shows that are popular now. Those shows inevitably wear me out by focusing so tightly on a continuing story.

"Kolchak" is pure comfort food for me. It's like curling up with a blanket and a cup of hot cocoa. Most of my movie watching takes place late at night. These two effects combined have the unfortunate side-effect of putting me to sleep in the middle of an episode. So, I'll only post reviews of the episodes I made it through, hence why they are so completely out of order.

Mini-Reviews:

The Night Stalker (1972)
Something about the Kolchak character really resonates with me. He is similarly brave, rushing headlong into god knows what terror, but also somewhat cowardly, hiding and screaming in terror. He was a full-on cynic, critical and dismissive of most people around him, but also always in search of “the truth,” no matter the cause. This first film showed them still figuring out the character’s angles. Kolchak living with a girlfriend or staking a vampire right in front of police seems to contradict his later protrayels, but his gritty narration is on display and the genes of the character are laid down here. If nothing else, Janos Skarsky is a great villain, a frightening vampire from an era when a vampire in a modern setting was still a novel idea. This is certainly one of the best made-for-TV horror films. (7/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “The Zombie”
The big difference between the movies and the TV series is the importance of its supporting cast. Kolchak and Vincenzo’s chemistry is one of the most consistently satisfying elements of an often mix-bag series. The eventual addition of Updyke and Ms. Emily to the cast added other appropriate foils to play Carl off of. As for this episode, it’s the show at its scariest. It’s an unique take on the zombie mythology, and the title monster is certainly one fo the most physically imposing of the series. It’s final is also really intense, with Kolchak, one again, confronting the monster in its lair. (8/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…”
I’ve always had a hard time getting into this one. The science-fiction based monster never fit in as well as the more traditional creatures. The story doesn’t exactly come to a statisfying conclusion either. The strongest point about this one is the great guest cast, including the first appearance of the Ghoul and Dick Van Patten. (6/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “The Vampire”
This episode is pretty derivative of the first movie, in a lot of ways. With her constant screeching, the vampire doesn’t make the most threatening of nemesis. The giant flaming cross at the end is a nice visual but Kolchak getting away with staking a vampire in front of the authorities twice strains believability. This one also suffers by removing the office cast from most of the episode.
(5/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “Firefall”
Have I mentioned how much I love the opening sequence for this series? The way it starts out light and cheerful, how it perfectly sets up the Kolchak character by having him carelessly throw his hat, and then slowly gets darker and darker? And then gets literally darker at the very end, as the paranormal premise of the show is subtly made apparent? Anyway, this is a good episode. It provides a creative threat for Carl to deal with (I love how threadbare he gets as he goes without sleep) and wraps it up in an interesting, though slightly obvious, mystery. (7/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “The Devil’s Platform”
Definitely the show at its silliest. It’s nice to see Tom Skerrit show up, but the supposedly limitless powers the devil provides him seem pretty limited. The devil dog is a pretty silly element, as is how Kolchak ends up saving the day. Honestly, the devil isn’t a vampire or a Bigfoot. You can’t really just kill it and be done with it. And, really, considering what kind of character Carl is, it seems odd that he should confront the devil and not ask any of the big questions that brings with it. (4/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “Bad Medicine”
This is one of the first episodes of the series I can remember seeing. So, even if it’s a flawed episode, I have some fondness of it. The monster, an immortal Indian shaman, makes for an exciting monster of the week, especially as played by Richard “Jaws” Kiel. However, his obsessions with jewels is rather silly and the way he’s dealt with rather unconvincing. The show also leans on bringing in guest stars as exposition spewing experts pretty hard in this one. (And would again in the future.) Still, I like it. (7/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “The Spanish Moss Murders”
Probably my favorite episode of the series. Yes, the monster springing from a comatose man’s subconscious is a bit of a cliché now, but the bayou boogieman is flat-out the scariest monster from the show’s entire run. Also, extremely effective is the final scene, when Carl confronts the monster in its sewer lair. When Kolchak’s familiar straw hat gives him away, it’s a good example of how this show so effectively combined laughs and thrills. (9/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “The Energy Eater”
This would probably be a weaker episode if it wasn’t for McGavin and guest star William Smith having such good chemistry. The guest stars usually weren’t this involved with the story, usually only showing up for a scene or two, but Smith is an important component here. The monster being an invisible, building-wide threat is an interesting take as well and this show’s conclusion is surprisingly pleasant. (7/10)

“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” “Horror in the Heights”
Another episode that prospers greatly from pulling from obscure mythology. The Rhakashi, a cannibalistic demon that takes the shape of its victim most trusted friend, is a really powerful idea and one the show pulls out extremely well, even with the cheesy seventies effect. Cliché as it is, the Jewish community the episode takes place in also allows for a number of great guest stars and some colorful character writing. Definitely an above average outing. (8/10)

My Soul to Take (2010)

I wouldn’t call this the return-to-form we were hoping from Craven, but I did end up liking it a lot more then expected. I really cared about the characters, something that was completely unexpected. The movie is melodramatic in spots, but the goofiness reminded me of Craven’s output in the early nineties, like “Shocker” and “The People Under the Stairs.” Yes, it’s silly, but in an endearing sort of way. (7/10)

The Mummy (1959)
First off, it was a smart idea to remake the Kharis story instead of the original, Imhotep storyline. Secondly, the English atmosphere goes an extremely long way. Without that, this would probably be a completely routine exercise, but that London fog adds so much. Finally, Cushing and Lee are, naturally, fantastic. Even if he doesn’t have any speaking lines, Lee does a lot with his eyes and body language. And, of course, Peter Cushing is as badass as ever. The way he goes at the moment with a spear is one of the most memorable moments here. (8/10)

Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964)
A pretty weak sequel. It feels very cheap, from the cakey mummy make-up to the cheesy Egyptian props and settings. The story of immortality and brotherly rival is at the very least different. This is also fairly gruesome for its time period. (The mummy stomps on a guy’s head at one point, squishing it. Yes, it’s off-screen, but still pretty nasty.) Still, you get the impression nobody was really invested in the material here. (6/10)

The Mummy’s Shroud (1967)
Man, I thought the last one was weak. Part three feels even more routine and tired then part two. And, yeah, even the mummy design is a step-down from the lousy effects in “Curse.” The white wrapping makes him look like a bad Halloween costume. “Under Wraps” had a better looking mummy. I think it was a really bad idea for Hammer to set any of their Mummy films in Egypt. They just didn’t know how to make sand dunes creepy. (5/10)

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)
I like a lot of Hammer’s offerings from the early seventies. They were sexier, more modern, and more daring then some of then the increasingly tired sixties output. This story is completely unexpected. A tale of reincarnation gone evil, it takes a number of surprisingly twist and turns before ending up at its chilling ending. (An ending that brutally subverts the title’s expectations.) Valerie Lennon is gorgeous, by the way. The cleavage-exposing Egyptian get-up they have her wearing is fantastically sexy. (7/10)

Carnival of Souls (1962)

I also caught this one as a midnight showing at the Apollo. I was really hoping the late-night, old-building setting would add a lot but it, sadly, didn’t. Yes, it drags a bit in spots, but this movie is a classic for a reason. It really is just as much an art film as it is a ghost story, and you can read so much into its themes and subtext. The final scene at the carnival are hypnotic, the stuff of nightmares. (9/10)

Night of the Demons (2010)
This one had me from Linnea Quigley’s cameo on. It’s certainly bigger and bolder then the original, but not in an intrusive way. It effectively rumps up the story for modern audiences. I like the characters and the creature effects. It’s trashy, anything-goes tone is what really works here. Very few recent horror films capture the tone of eighties exploitation films as well as this one did. See it for all the great cleavage on display, if for no other reason. (7/10)

Tremors (1990)
Nostalgia is one of the main things that drive me as a movie fan, obviously. I loved the “Tremors’ movies when I was thirteen. They’re such cool monsters and the desert setting really causes the series to stand out among other creature features. Its such a clever premise too, taking the “land shark” idea and really running with it. The film starts out with a good idea and then plays with it throughout. This first movie also features a fantastic ensemble cast. Kevin Bacon is goofy as heck but it’s really Fred Ward, Michael Gross, Reba McIntyre, and especially Victor Wong. Sure, it’s barely horror and the series would become even less horrific as it went on, but this is a good time. (7.5/10)

Horror Remix: Halloween
It was fun to revisit the original “Night of the Demons” after watching the remake recently. Honestly, as a film, it’s a little too well-made, well-liked, and creative compared to the usual Horror Remix fare. Luckily, the evening was saved by the rest of the program. What we saw of “Primal Rage’ made it look gloriously misogynistic and unhinged. “Hack-o-Lantern” dragged a bit at the end, but you can’t really undersell the value of gravelly voice Satantic grandpa or the delirious hair-metal, laser-eye-shooting devil woman rock video dream scene. Finally, “Hollowgate,” a hilariously inept, completely bonkers escapee from late eighties shot-on-video hell, wrapped the evening up on a fantastic note. It’s a shame that this is the last Horror Remix of the year but it’s a good note to take the season out on. (8/10)

Tremors II: Aftershocks (1996)
A decent follow-up. First off, it was a great idea to bring Fred Willard and Michael Gross back. While the cast here is nowhere as strong as the original, Helen Shaver is a pretty decent addition. I like how the heroes of the first film became something of celebrities in-between films. I’m not sure how I feel about the Graboid’s metamorphosis. It shakes (har) the premise up but, at the same time, I’m not sure it makes sense that giant worms change into raptor like, heat-sensing, pack monsters. The early CGI has not aged well at all either, even if the practical effects are still great. Still, it maintains the first’s sense of fun. (6/10)

Let Me In (2010)
A really admirable remake. As too be expected, it’s not as quiet as the original. The one or two additions they made to the vampire character were questionable and there’s some unforgivably shoddy CGI. However, the heart of the story is maintain and this version is, in some ways, darker then the original. Owen is certainly a lot creepier and perverted then the original’s Oskar. It handles the issue of Abby’s gender fantastically, by the way. The two young actors are also great, maybe even better then the original’s performances. It was also wise to ct out some of the original’s subplots. The pool finale here is definitely inferior though, and feels a bit tacked on. And, yeah, I got a total nerd boner when the Hammer logo popped up. It’s not an essential remake but it’s an intelligent, faithful, and in some ways superior, treatment of the material. (8/10)

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Seeing as how this always pops up in books about the best horror films, I was kind of disappointed to see a film that was more offbeat thriller or dark comedy then straight-up horror. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are fantastic here. (Ironic, that Crawford plays the calm one here, consider how crazy she supposedly was in real life.) The movie rears up against camp as Davis gets crazier and crazier and I found most of the subplots extraneous. Blanche, despite playing a helpless victim for most of the story, does show herself to be more passive-aggressive then expected by the end. The ending is really strange though appropriate. It’s surprising that such an off-beat film would be a hit and wind up inspiring an entire wave of “hag horror.” But it is an entertaining film, an interesting take on sibling rivalry and washed-up fame. (7/10)

Willard (2003)
A really criminally underrated film. It was the film that made me the huge Crispin Glover fan I am today. He so perfectly captures what it’s like to be an awkward, isolated nerd. I really can’t praise his performance enough. The set-design for the film is also brilliant. The old house is so perfectly brooding. The accordion driven score is great too.

The story is a really mixed bag. Yes, Willard progression from bullied, to bully is handled perfectly, and the film rightly shows him becoming what he hates. The way Ben leads a rat rebellion against his human oppressor is pretty silly though and overdone. Willard’s love for Socrates also pushes believably. It gets creepy, which I suppose is the point, but creepy in a way that’s not plausible. The inevitable revenge story feels far too formulaic. R. Lee Ermy is hilarious, doing his typical schtick, but it would’ve been nice if the movie had made Mr. Martin more then the one dimensional villain he is. Love interest Kat is similarly underdeveloped. (And badly acted.) Socrates’ death is heartbreaking though and the breakdown of Willard’s home situation works far better. The new ending is emotionally sweet but definitely thematically wrong. I really love the performance and ideas at the heart of the film and wish the rest of it was as strong. However, this flick really deserves a much bigger cult following then it has. It begs to be rediscovered on DVD. (Also, this is a completely superior remake of a cheesy, surprisingly hard-to-find older movie.)
(8/10)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Director's Report Card: George A. Romero (2007-2009)

15. Diary of the Dead
I worry sometimes about my generation, Generation 2.0, they’re calling it, the generation that created YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, that embraced reality television. We are increasingly self-involved and less concerned with the world around us. It seems we almost can’t experience the world anymore without the comforting detachment of a television or computer screen. We are more inclined to watch then to act.

George A. Romero is apparently worried, too. While most of the Seventies Horror Babies have mellowed in their old age, Romero is only more enraged. He’s never trusted the government or mainstream media but the supposed last bastion of free journalism, the new media of the internet, blogs, and so on, are even more vilified. It’s just more noise, cluttering up the truth. By the end of “Diary of the Dead,” Ol’ Georgie Boy even sug
gests that the best way to survive the increasingly frightening world we live in is to completely seal our self off from it.
Kids, Romero is back. After the disappointing “Land,” “Diary” is by far the most unsettling and frightening film he’s made in years. His social observations are even less subtle then usual and perhaps take up too much prominence. However, they are vital and far too truthful too ignore.

In addition to being upsetting on a social level, this is just a scary movie. Perhaps for the first time since the original “Night of the Living Dead,” we get a sense of panic
, a sense of our reality and society completing crumbling around us and the world submitting to total chaos. The first-person camera makes this panic even more realized because we get a sense that this could really be happening.

The mood is fairly somber but moments are still set aside for the lighter aspects we enjoy about these movies. There are several awesome gore effects and Romero has managed to think up new cool looking ways to dismember living and undead bodies alike. There’s humor too, some of it really funny. (The Amish have never been better.) Don’t miss the cheap shots at some modern horror films and a handful of notable voice cameos, either.
At first, the cast and characters come off as amateur-like or shrill. However, as the story continues on, we get a hold of some of that strong characterization we expect and some surprisingly good performances emerge, most notably Michele Morgan and Joshua Close. A deal has all ready been struck to make another Dead film but George can stop now as far as I’m concerned. The cycle has come full circle. By going back to the beginning, he’s made the appropriate, excellent closer this franchise deserves. Good job, old man. [Grade: A-]


16. Survival of the Dead
During the nineties, it seemed like Romero couldn’t get any funding for his potential zombie projects. The fourth of his dead saga was up in the air for so long and fans cried for more Romero zombie movies. Now, here in the new century, it seems like the only thing Romero can get made at this point are zombie movies. And instead of bitching about how he can’t get his original visions made, George seems to think that making any movies is better then none. Said fans are now bitching about how these films lack the, aheh, bite of Romero’s classics.

So what of “Survival of the Dead,” the latest in the seemingly outgrowing “Dead Trilogy?” The exposition filled opening narration concerned me, as I didn’t want a repeat of “Diary of the Dead’s” didactic tone. Soon afterward, however, the movie evens out. It comes to focus on a group of six ex-soldiers, the leader of which was a minor character from “Diary.” While the ensemble style never really went away, this group of characters feels more like a Romero group of characters then either of those from the previous two zombie movies. Alan Van Sprang is a strong lead, grouchy, motivated. He’s a jerk with a heart of gold and entertaining to watch. The rest of the team is less developed. The swarthy Hispanic, the wacky comic relief, the hipster youth, and the butt-kicking lesbian aren’t exactly four dimensional, but all of them are at least given amusing dialogue. I’d say they have two and a half dimensions. The group of mercenaries are all quite capable fighters.
The zombies are not what end up providing the main threat. Instead, the group of heroes are dropped into an island were a religious debate rages. These zombies use to be our loved ones. Should we just kill them or hold on, keep them around, see if they can be trained? It’s a minor difference between the two views but it ends up creating a small war among the people. Any number of sociological ideals could be applied to this but, ultimately, Romero hasn’t had to change his themes much since 1968. Humanity refuses to address the real problem and instead focuses on inane, petty differences that amount to nothing in this strange new world. Society has collapsed around us, but there’s always time for a philosophical debate. Even if George has made this point six times previously (As have I), it continues to be a potent one.

Despite these heavy themes, the movie has an overall lighter tone. The script takes itself less seriously. The eccentric characters and the numerously comical zombie kills make that clear. (Sadly, a few of those kills are saddled by bad CGI gore.) It’s honestly the closest the director’s come to recapturing the spirit of “Dawn of the Dead.” Even the minimalistic zombie designs (Which I love by the way) recall that film. The music is overblown, that pretentious voiceover returns at the end, and I’m not exactly sure what to think of new revelation concerning zombie behavior. (The movie also addresses what would happen if a human bite a zombie, something I’ve wonder about for years.) However, “Survival of the Dead” might mark the return of comic book George Romero. It’s his most fun film in years.
[Grade: B+]

So that's it for the George Romero report card. What about my statment at the beginning about Romero being one of the greatest horror filmmakers of all time? Does it still hold true? Look at it this way: The dude is responsible for two of the greatest horror films of all time. Are there a few duds along the way? Of course. Are his current films not as good as his older ways? Naturally. We all have to peak at some point and George is in his seventies. I will say this: A Romero film still has over a fifty percent chance of being better then most of the horror trash out there.

What's next for George? The only project he has announced at the moment is a 3-D remake of Dario Argento's "Deep Red." Seeing as how vastly different those two directors' styles are, I'm not sure if that's a good idea. Or if it'll even get made, seeing as how active production hasn't started yet.

My next Report Card will be Mario Bava, the grandfather of Italian horror. Before I get to that, I do plan on continuing the daily Halloween viewing updates.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Director's Report Card: George A. Romero (1993-2005)

12. The Dark Half
Taken as a part of Romero’s body of work, this represents something interesting. Unlike his most well known and well regarded work, “The Dark Half” doesn’t appear to have any sort of sociological subtext. Instead, Romero fills the film with visual layering. There are so many symbols used here. The pencils, twins, the switchblade, the car, the birds, even a roasted turkey seems to hold some symbolism, seems to further dive into the theme of halves. This leads to some truly interesting replay value.

The story itself is fairly predictable. It uses what I like to call a reverse twist in that what seems like the obvious twist isn’t actually the case. The movie doesn't go down the "
split-personalities" route you'd expect. Instead, the story goes into more interesting supernatural territory. But just because it’s predictable doesn’t mean it isn’t good and the film still manages to build quite a bit of suspense. I can’t help but think that George was taking some cues from his buddy Dario Argento, as the murder sequences here are more elaborate then you’re use too.
Timothy Hutton is good in the lead(s), though when Thad Beaumont starts acting tough towards the end, he comes off a bit silly. Amy Madigan gives a very good performance, showing a lot of emotion, and Michael Rooker brings some weight to a thin role.

The bird imagery is obviously a Hitchcock homage. Sadly, the birds here look about as realistic as Hitchcock’s did. This is some awkward early CGI. And the film pushes it a bit in the finale and comes off kind of silly, even if it does lead to some juicy gore. Julie Harris’ character isn’t very good and seems to exist solely as a wobbly exposition mouthpiece. All and all, this is a solid King adaptation and a solid Romero picture. It's not a great film, but if this is an example of what a work-for-hire Romero would have looked like, I would've been okay with it.
[Grade: B]

13. Bruiser
“Bruiser” is odd and off-center. The main character’s face becoming an expressionless mask seems to say something about the dehumanizing effect of today’s workforce. However, this angle isn’t followed through on at all. Instead, the movie seems to be about loss, and then the regaining, of identity, taking bloody control of your life back... I think.

Subtext isn't the focus here. The movie seems more interested in the routine, campy revenge story then anything else. Said revenge story is nothing special but at least has some momentum to it. There's at least one really good kill here, a fancy strangulation. (Is it just me, or does Romero seem very uncomfortable
working in the slasher sub-genre?) However, in the last act when the action shifts to a rowdy Hollywood party for some reason, everything falls apart. The mood becomes shrill and annoying, characters start making irrational decisions, our suspension of belief is stretched too far with the whole laser thing, and we never really get a proper climax.
The oblique nature of many of the story’s aspects, not to mention that it’s a Romero movie, would make you think there would be some meaning or subtext behind the action. But there doesn’t seem to be… “Bruiser” ends feeling very hollow and, well, pointless. His heart just wasn't in this one, I suspect.

Jason Flemyng is decent in the lead and at least knows what he’s doing with his character, even if the movie doesn’t. Peter Stormare is irritating and way too broad. Tom Atkins shows up and does his cop thing but doesn’t bring much energy to his role. And why is so much attention paid to the presence of horror-punk band The Misfits? I mean, I like The Misfits and all but did the movie have to become a music video for a few minute near the end? This is Romero’s strangest film and, sadly, one of his worse.
[Grade: C-]

14. Land of the Dead
“Land of the Dead” disappoints. Horror fans waited through the nineties, hoping Romero would return with the epic conclusion to his Dead cycle, a “Twilight of the Dead” if you will. He talked about it for a long time, how it would be about humanity moving on, about the undead rotting away and society reforming itself. He also promised an epic even wider in scope then “Dawn.” “Land” doesn’t deliver on those early promises. First off, no satisfying conclusion to the “Dead” story is anywhere in sight. Secondly, the dead/living conflict is hardly resolved. I suppose there’d be no real way of doing that, but I would’ve liked something more then the shrug we get.

It’s easy to criticize “Land of the Dead” for what it isn’t. So let’s criticize it for what it is. The weakest element is its characters. Hero Riley is wildly uninteresting. How much of this is the writing and how much of it is Simon Baker’s white-toast turn, I can’t tell. John Leguizima gives an okay performance but, if Cholo was an attempt to create another Peter, it failed. The character isn’t that charismatic or exciting. Dennis Hopper, God rest his soul, gave an odd performance. His stilted speech makes it seems like he’s almost going for comedy. The only likable characters in the film are Robert Joy’s Charlie and Asia Argento’s Slack. Joy makes Charlie as lovable a misfit as possible while Argento could make reading the phone book seductive. I don’t know if you could’ve built a movie around them, but it probably would’ve been a better one.
Now the other major problem. The evolution of the zombies’ personalities was clearly set-up by Bub. However, it’s taken too far. Big Daddy has more personality then most of the human cast, but the image of him ordering other zombies around, planning strategies, shooting guns, and setting off explosives is too much.

The politic subtext is obvious. The movie might as well have been called “Eat the Rich.” The zombies are the put-upon, lower-class citizens. The poor and the downtraught, and probably blue collar workers. (Big Daddy is a gas attendant and another notable zombie is a butcher.) The rich literally live in their towers, shielded off from the world, with all the best life has to offer, while the poor toil with the zombies. Naturally, the zombies, the lowest on society’s ladder, revolt and raid the castle. After all those evil rich people are eaten, the poor people can live in peace and the zombies march off. Its ham-fisted, obvious, and a case of the politics getting in the way of the movie. Hopper’s Kaufman is obviously a Bush figure and the talks of terrorism don’t go anywhere. And, perhaps, I’m reading too much into it, but the way everyone talks about going to Canada like it’s the promise land… It makes me wonder if that’s another political point.
So what does the movie do right? The gore is great. And I mean the real gore, not that CGI shit, of which there’s far too much of. But when it focuses on creative gruel, it shows some skill. A zombie pulls a tongue out, an arm is split down the middle, a belly-button piercing is pulled out, a solider pulls the pin on a grenade only to have his arm cut off, causing the bomb to go off right under him. A zombie’s head is severed by gunfire, its eyes still blinking. Another zombie’s head is connected only by a spine. Moreover, the KNB provided zombie designs are also fantastic. The undead’s raid on Fiddler’s Green is pretty satisfying, while the Dead Reckoning itself is a threatening piece of machinery.
Out of the whole series, the film’s world does feel the most foreign. It certainly feels like some sort of post-apocalyptic world. Romero used his big, studio budget well there, creating a genuine sci-fi setting. An earlier scene involving a suicide is very well done, as is the scene that introduces Argento’s character. Savini’s cameo is a great fan boy moment. If he wasn’t willing to satisfactorily wrap up his series with a proper ending, couldn’t George at least focus modern anxieties into a tight horror tale? “Land of the Dead” isn’t a total dud but it’s far from the triumphant return we all hoped for. [Grade: C]

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Director's Report Card: George A. Romero (1985-1990)

9. Day of the Dead
“Day of the Dead” took a rocky road to the status of horror classic. The general response upon release, from both mainstream critics and horror fans, was disappointment. It’s understandable. “Dawn” is a hard act to follow and the movie was overshadowed by “Return of the Living Dead” and “Re-Animator,” both released the same year, whose injection of comedy and sexiness into the zombie genre seemed comparatively fresher. However, “Day of the Dead” has aged well. It’s not the easiest movie to like but becomes more accessable with repeat viewings.

The characters are both its biggest assets and most obvious weakness. The military types are all abrasive, while the rest of the cast are more personable. Sarah, played solidly by Lori Cardille, is an okay lead but Rastafarian helicopter pilot John (Terry Alexander) and alcoholic radio technician William (Jarlath Conroy) are immediately likable. Dr. Logan, with his crazy eyes, frantic speech, and mother issues, proves to be too eccentric not to love, especially when brought to life by Richard Liberty. Meanwhile, the military ranges from the super-asshole Capt. Rhod
es to the obnoxiously vulgar Steel and Rickles. (Admittedly, the actors are good in these parts, Joseph Pilato in particular.)
This is intentional, of course. “Day of the Dead” is about how people can’t communicate. It’s a comment on the militaristic, jingoistic, macho attitudes that ruled the country at the time and its total disinterest in listening to anyone else’s opinions. Maybe not as powerful a metaphor as the previous “Dead” films but a valid one none the less, especially when you realize how little things have changed. I know I’m repeating myself here, but George continues to make the main point that people refuse to communicate, work together, put their nonsense aside, and actually solve the problems, even as deep into a crisis as they are here. It’s the common thread connecting all the films in the franchise.

None of the characters are as interesting or captivating as Bub, the zombie with a soul. Brought to life in a brilliant physical performance from Howard Sherman (Or is that Sherman Howard?), Bub takes everything we love about zombies and then adds another dimension of emotion. It’s amazing what giving a zombie a personality can do f
or it.
Speaking of which, the zombies are great looking, each one unique, like rotting, bloody snowflakes. By its same accord, the gore effects are hugely impressive. Tom Savini really outdid himself here. “Day of the Dead” rivals the sickest Italian cannibal flicks for some of the most intense gore sequences around. Captain Rhodes’ death sequence has got to be one of the best in horror history.

The underground bunker makes an atmospheric setting, with its cross of shadowed caves and flat concrete. The Caribbean influenced synth score is pretty decent, with an interesting main refrain, but feels somewhat flat in other parts. The movie’s plot on-folds in a somewhat predictable manner and drags a little before the big ending. I’ve heard the resolution called overly convenient. Maybe. But I sort of like it, in all of its idealistic ways. You can tell that, despite all of his pessimistic attitudes, Romero does have hope for humanity. Probably the weakest of the original 3 “Dead” films but “Day” easily stands among the other two.
[Grade: B+]


10. Monkey Shines
The biggest problem with “Monkey Shines” is, surprisingly, not its silly concept. Yeah, killer helper monkey sounds pretty dumb but the movie actually makes that work on at least two occasions. The idea is built-up throughout until being paid off during the rather suspenseful climax. At the very least, putting us in the places of an almost completely helpless individual who is then at the beset of a possibly dangerous helper, is a good idea.

It’s actually the cast
of characters that provide the biggest issue. Nobody is really likable. Our protagonist is abrasive and Jason Beghe is too broad in the role. The character pretty much treats everybody else in the movie like crap, especially his mother and his nurse, who don’t seem to deserve the abuse most of the time. The supporting cast fares no better. Dorothy Van Patton and Stanley Tucci are both over-the-top, far more annoying then endearing, while Kate McNeil is underdeveloped as the shoehorned in love interest. Christine Forrest is the most relateable performance here, probably just because I felt sorry for her.
The music is a little over the top. There is a subplot involving animal testing that goes largely nowhere. I did like the atmospheric drug scene and the steamy love scene is… Interesting. The final jump scare is very silly, though. “Monkey Shines” might seem like an easy target for ridicule but most of its unfounded. It’s a very flawed attempt at a pretty decent thriller that actually makes a ridiculous concept work but is undone but something completely unrelated. The film does have a fantastically creepy movie poster, seen to the left. [Grade: C+]


11. Two Evil Eyes (with Dario Argento)
Segment: "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemir"
The idea behind “Two Evil Eyes” is exciting. We have two of the greatest horror directors of all time getting together to adapt stories from the grandfather of the genre. Considering these expectations, the results are disappointing.

Romero’s segment, “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemir” is the weaker of the two halves. Adreine Barbeau is decent enough in the lead and Tom Atkins has a cameo. The story presents a lot of interesting angles with the discussion of hypnosis and the afterlife. Sadly, these ideas are underdeveloped and not used to their full potential.
I’ve heard some compare the overall look of the piece to Romero’s TV series, “Tales from the Dark Side.” If it wasn’t for some last minute gore effects from Tom Savini, this could easily fit into that series. When a theatrical movie has the same level of scope, feel, and general look of a half-hour television show, that’s never a good sign. “Two Evil Eyes” was a failure and a disappointment and, sadly, seem to be the turning point in both Argento and Romero’s career.
The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemir: [C] Film as a whole: [C+]

Monday, October 11, 2010

Director's Report Card: George A. Romero (1981-1982)

7. Knightriders
There’s something about “Knightriders” that almost feels like a confession on Romero’s behalf. With this one, only his second non-horror movie and only the first to ever be widely released, it’s almost like he’s saying that, while he’s stuck making horror movies for the rest of his life, his heart really belongs to slow, character-driven dramas.

Even then, “Knightriders” is hardly a typical character drama, even
by nineteen seventies standards. If there was a studio pitch, which there wasn’t, it would’ve been “The Arthurian Legend on motorcycles.” Even then, the story plays with expectations and it’s ultimately more inspired by the King Arthur legend then an adaptation.

On a strictly visual level, this is one of Romero’s most captivating films. From the opening sequence down to the last frame, there’s an air of dreaminess floating through the whole thing. Many shots of the motorcycles on the road are just exciting for some reason and really capture the sense of speed and exhilaration that comes from riding. The jousting scenes themselves are also shot in an exciting style. This is how action movies use to l
ook, kids. The excellent music is also worth pointing out.
What really keeps the movie going is a cast. While Ed Harris is strong in the lead role, what really impressed me about the movie is Tom Savini’s turn. While he had acted in Romero’s flicks before, this is the first time Tom’s had a part of great significance and extended screen time. And, surprise surprise, it’s actually a really good turn. Tom expands pass the kind-of-love-him, kind-of-hate-him smart-ass he’s played in the past (and would continue to play in the future) to actually develop things like arcs and layers. Brother Blue is hypnotic as the Merlin of the group. Also keep an eye open for many of the Romero company players, like Christine Forrest, John Amplas, Ken Foree, and Patricia Tallman.

The story is always moving forward, in the style you’d expect of a road movie, but it wanders as well. The movie is long at two and a half hours and it seems like there could have been some editing. The main character’s dilemma, to hold onto his dreams and honor in the face of real world concerns like how to pay the bills, is a little overplayed. The movie stretches that issue out for too long. I also feel like the confrontation between local police and the scenes of Savini’s group on their own probably could have used some subtle clipping. The movie manages to wrap up all of it’s plotlines in an incredibly neat (A little too neat, I think) way before concluding on a sad, inevitable note. “Knightriders” is one of Romero’s most ambitious films, perhaps a decree to Hollywood that he himself refuses to sell out. It’s not a perfect movie, maybe not even a good one, but interesting nevertheless.
[Grade: B]


8. Creepshow
“Creepshow” is a rare example of a horror anthology were all of the stories work. Though some of the five tales are better then the others, there isn’t a sour one in the bunch.

Romero has mentioned before how the old EC horror comics were one of his earliest influences and is responsible for his belief in horror with a message. So he’s a natural choice to handle such an anthology. I have a mixed opinion of Stephen King but I will give the man this: If you can keep him from overwriting, he can do a damn fine old-fashioned horror story.

The framing sequences sets the trick-or-treat tone with an early shot of a Jack-o-Lantern. Stephen’s son (and now a famous author in his own right ) Joe King has a part, as does the great Tom Atkins, who is nearly unrecognizable without his mighty ‘stash. I really like the comic book motif. Romero incorporates panels, action lines, and bright coloring to further emphasis. George did it a good twenty years before “Sin City” and he does it better too, in a way that’s natural and never too flashy. I also like the ads within the magazine that bumper each segment.
“Father’s Day” is our first story and is a fun piece of horror formula. It’s got a cool zombie make-up, some neat death scenes, and a solid cast, including demented performances from Carrie Nye, Viveca Lindfors, and especially Jon Lormer.

“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verill” plays like a slapstick take on Lovecraft’s “The Colors out of Space” and stars King himself. Now, it’s obvious that Stephen King isn’t an actor and, considering the bit is mostly a one man show, a stronger performer probably should have been chosen. But something about King’s goofy facial expressions and general mugging makes me laugh every time. He’s just having so much damn fun.

“Something to Tide You Over” is more notable because of Leslie Nielson. (Yes, that Leslie Nielson.) The story is mostly a back and forth between him and Ted Danson. While Danson’s character is fairly uninteresting, Nielson’s voyeuristic, vindictive son-of-a-bitch is immediately worth watching. It makes me think how good Nielson would be as the bad guy in action movies.
“The Crate” is the centerpiece of the film. Hal Halbrook is at his best as the beleaguered husband of a shrewish Adrienne Barbeau who plays down her natural beauty for the obnoxious part. I’m not quite sure while “The Crate” resonates so much. Maybe it’s the idea of sorting out what makes your life unhappy. Or perhaps the concept of finding something old, horrible, and unexplained in a normal place. Or maybe it’s just because it has a really cool monster and some nice gore effects. Either way, the segment really sums up the film’s mixture of black comedy and classical horror concepts.

I can’t decide if it’s the best part or if that title belongs to the next sequence, “They’re Creeping Up on You.” The final tale is definitely the creepiest moment, as the images of cockroaches crawling over everything is squirm-inducing. E.G. Marshell is really fantastic as the paranoid, germaphobic old white guy who has alienated every person in his life and likes it that way. This is really the only time Romero’s typical social commentary comes into play and there’s something really satisfying about watching this son-of-a-bitch get his comeuppance. And its final image is one of the ickest of Tom Savini’s many tricks.
The fantastic score, which switches around from pounding synth cords, to scattered electronics, to simple piano and a children’s chorus, helps along the atmosphere. Savini actually gets to create some monsters here and they are all perfect, look like they step right out of the pages of “The Vault of Horror.” “Creepshow” is probably Romero at his most fun and prankish. It’s a textbook definition of how horror was done in the eighties. [Grade: A-]