Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Bangers n' Mash 30: High School Horror

 Hey, told you I'd get another episode up before the end of the month. Got it in just under the mark.

In this episode, Mr. Mash and I discuss horror films set in high schools, a real place that's horrifying without any embellishment. We spend half of this short episode discussing the "Carrie" mini-franchise. While the 1976 original classic takes up most of the conversation, we do find some time for the ill-begotten 1999 sequel, the 2002 television remake, and the most recent remake. Following that, we chatter a bit about the "Prom Night" series and a random smattering of other high school set horror pictures, everything from "The Faculty" to "Cutting Class."

Once again, long-time readers might notice I reuse several of the reviews I wrote this October for this episode. Par for the course at this point. This is a looser, more relaxed episode and my co-host seems engaged for once. It's short too, so give it a listen.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bangers n' Mash 29: The Halloween Franchise

What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving then to listen to a pseduo-podcast episode about a series of horror movies set on Halloween?

Naturally, this episode was recorded back in October. A number of work and personal life commitments made the editing progress a long, complicated one, which is why this is up nearly a month late. It also means we missed an episode in our "two episodes a month" schedule I self-imposed on myself. It's not a horribly big deal since, compared to last year, the Bangers n' Mash Show has managed to have a semi-regular release schedule. Still, it's a bit of a bummer knowing we'll be an episode short for 2013. Anyway, yes, we discuss the "Halloween" series, re-purposing the reviews I wrote for this years Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon as notes. But you probably guessed that already.

Secondly, YouTube came down on this one for music copyright. I figured a line of dialogue from a film would be safe. Apparently not. That's why there's a minute of silence before we discuss Rob Zombie's remake. YouTube also tried to edit out "Mr. Sandman" from the end there but did a half-ass job, which is why the sound quality for that very final segment is so shitty. From now on, I'll just avoid using copyrighted music. I probably should have figured this out already.

IN OTHER NEWS: I know updates are always sporadic, I mean more so then usual, during the last two months of the year. That's what Catch-Up Week was designed to counteract. Speaking of which, you probably thought Catch-Up Week was over, right? Nope. There's one more film I'm hoping to review and release before the end of the month, stretching a single week to nearly three. Similarly, another Bangers n' Mash episode should be out before the start of December. I'm not promising anything, but December is probably going to be a very busy month for Film Thoughts. Hopefully. STAY TUNED!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Director Report Card: Bryan Singer (2013)

8. Jack the Giant Slayer

Cinema is a business, least we forget. Hollywood follows were the money is. Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” despite not being a particularly good film, made a lot of money. And in today’s risk averse studio system, a bigger budget film requires a well-known property. This is why comic books, popular novel series, video games, cartoons, and old TV shows are endlessly adapted. Burton’s “Wonderland” proved that the public thirsted for big budget action movie versions of classic fairy tales. The studios love this for two reasons. Those stories are well known, world reknown, and instantly recognizable to most folks. Probably more important, they’re also all in the public domain, preventing any sort of messy, and expensive, rights arguments. In this on-going wave of fairy tale inspired blockbusters, there are going to be winners and losers. “Oz” was a winner. “Snow White and the Huntsman” was a winner. “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” was kind of a winner. “Malecifent” will probably be a winner. But Bryan Singer’s “Jack the Giant Slayer?” A loser. Are the box office receipts representive of the film’s quality?

Unrelated to the (almost) identically titled 1962 (almost) classic, the film instead drawls directly from the story as everyone knows it. Jack is a poor farm boy, sent into town to sell his family’s cow… I mean, horse. Instead, he comes home with a handful of supposedly magic beans. Irate, his uncle tosses the beans under the floorboards. When a thunder storm comes later that night, the beans grow into a giant beanstalk. The stalk leads to a world above the clouds inhabit by a race of man-eating giants. Aside from a cameo from a singing harp, the film branches off into its own stories. A princess resists her arranged wedding to a nobleman, a king struggles about what to do with her, while the nobleman has plots of his own. There’s even political power-plays and hand-wrangling among the giants. A magical crown that can control the giant race provides the almost obligatory MacGuffin. Entering into this fray is Jack the farm boy, who proves himself a hero.

“Jack the Giant Slayer’s” best assets is its sense of old fashion adventure and fun. Nicholas Hoult plays Jack as a classical hero. Unlike so many modern day adventure protagonists, he’s not wracked with guilt or gritty-reboot-prone personality problems. Instead, he longs for adventure, like Luke Skywalker before him. While in town, he inadvertently rescues the princess, impressing her. Why? Because he’s a nice guy, a natural hero, someone who believes in protecting fair maidens and those less fortunate. He proves an adapt giant slayer because of a natural guile. His quick-thinking and ability to take advantage of given circumstances makes him a rather natural hero. This isn’t complex writing. This is also a fairy tale. Hoult has enough charm in his eyes to make Jack an entertaining hero to watch.

Another surprising element is how likable the film’s central romance proves to be. Eleanor Tomlinson plays Princess Isabelle. She too longs for adventure and resents her privileged upbringing. In Jack, she finds something of a kindred spirit. There’s a wonderful scene where the two meet on equal ground, the princess in disguise. Normally, you’d expect a character to be taken in by the ruse. Instead, Jack sees right through it, the discussion playing like a cute, “will they, won’t they.” The movie takes a similarly straight-forward path with the romance throughout. Law prevents a princess from marrying a commoner but Isabelle doesn’t bother with that. Tomlinson is believably strong in the role and has great chemistry with Hoult.

Most modern fantasy films are focused on wizards, magic, elves, that kind of shit. “Jack the Giant Slayer” naturally focuses on giants, something you don’t see too frequently on-screen. The giants of the film are fantastically realized. They are bumpy, ugly, deformed creatures. Their limps are gangly and their bodies are asymmetrical. With callus on their eyes and elongated, exaggerated face, they are memorable creations. My favorite was probably the chief, who bares a passing resemblance to Film Thoughts favorite Rondo Hatton. However, main villain General Fallon is certainly a striking presence. He has a face like a 1940s cowboy actor and an ugly, mumbling, vestigial smaller head sticking out of his shoulder. Moreover, the giant’s world have a lived-in quality. Their armor has ugly, sneering face molded on to them. Their castles are dusty, worn, and broken. Several shots of their kingdom in the sky are striking, huge clouds billowing over the steep cliffs. The beanstalks are cool too, intricate and overwhelmingly huge.

From an action perspective, “Jack the Giant Slayer” is a bit more uneven. The stand-out is a fall from a toppling beanstalk. Jack and the princess swing from vines as the beanstalk crashes to the ground. The fall makes great use of 3D effects and has the two coming very close to a perilous end. The climatic battle between Jack and the evil two-headed giant builds up nicely. Seeing such a large figure in an in-closed environment proves a memorable image. The build-up, the heroes hiding from the approaching monster, builds some decent suspense. The pay-off, the way the villain is dispatched, is especially satisfying and makes for a great visual.

However, a bit too much of “Jack” falls into typical CGI-overload. A flaming tree tossed over a castle wall is impressive the first time. However, twenty flaming trees gets a bit old. The giant siege on the walled city probably should have been a more exciting event. Instead, it plays out like warmed over “Lord of the Rings” or any other big budgeted, CGI-filled spectacle. Shifting the focus away from Jack leaves the audience without a reason to be interested. Sadly, a bit too much of the film’s latter section is made up of this kind of action.

The film’s exposition-heavy opening sequence, in which the background legend, left me with a similar “been there, done that” feeling. Even the way it uses CGI wooden puppets in places of people reminded me of better films, like "Hellboy II.” The entire legend of the magical crown is nothing other then an awkward plot device. What makes these moments really clever are the way it cuts back and forth between Jack and the Princess. One lives in a modest hut, the other a castle, both approaching the story with a different attitude. Yet the two youths still have plenty in common. Those character moments are ultimately what elevates “Jack the Giant Slayer” above the modern studio fantasy pack. Add in a game supporting cast including great actors doing their thing, like Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, John Kassair, Ian McShane, and an unusually involved Bill Nighy, and you have a film that should have been a huge hit. Honestly, “Jack’s” poor box office performance has more to do with the studio’s lack of confidence, if you ask me. No new franchise for Bryan Singer, who slinked off back to the greener pastures of mutants and sentinels. Oh well. [Grade: B]

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2010)

49. Tangled

When John Lasseter took over as head of the animation department at Disney, fans were expecting a lot. After all, this is the man who had done so much great work at Pixar. Lasseter promised to return the studio to its traditional animation roots and its former greatness. “The Princess and the Frog” was well-received by fans, critics, and earned several Oscar nominations. However, the film performed under the Disney suits’ expectations. Originally conceived under the Eisner era as a lame “Shrek” rip-off, “Tangled” was the second run at reviving the musical fairy tale adaptation.

Many people are familiar with the story of Rapunzel but not the specifics. There’s a girl in a tower with really long hair, long enough that her male suitor can scale the tower by climbing it. “Tangled” provides the context. In a vaguely Spanish renaissance setting, a pregnant queen falls sick. A flower, granted magical healing powers by a drop of sun, is sought out. Drinking the flower as a tea, the queen is healed and the baby girl is born healthy. The princess inherits the flower’s powers, the ability to heal stored in her blonde hair. Enter Mother Gothal, a prototypical fairy tale witch who has lived for centuries from the flower. Realizing the situation, she kidnaps the baby girl and keeps her locked in a tower, never cutting the magical hair. A rogue comes along to whisk the girl away from the tower and we’re off. That’s a clever way to get all the expected pieces in places while setting the story off in its own direction.

Like “The Princess and the Frog,” “Tangled” boldly patterns itself after the fairy tale-based classics of Disney’s various golden ages. Like Ariel and Jasmine before her, Rapunzel is a teenage girl struggling against the lot in her life. She wishes to leave the nest, to experience the world she’s never known. Her adventure is framed as a classic story of a young girl growing into adulthood. Naturally, she finds love outside of the tower. Mother Gothal is an archetypal fairy tale villain. Like Snow White’s Wicked Queen, her villainous actions are motivated by vanity. The coming-of-age angle extends even further, since Gothal is a literal mother figure to the young girl. And what could be ending could be more appropriate to a fairy tale then the young girl realizing she’s a princess? While the general outline of “Tangled” stays faithful to fairy tale roots, the film wildly subverts other traditions. Flynn Rider is no pure-hearted prince. Instead, he’s a thief and a scoundrel. He aspires to be a swashbuckling adventurer but isn’t quite there. These changes and subversion gives the audience what they expect without boring them.

Another differencing factor in “Tangled” is the project’s sense of humor. While the comic relief showcased in the trailer concerned with its broad wackiness, a surprising amount of the humor is character-oriented. One of the funniest moments involves Rapunzel’s reaction to freedom, sling-shoting between elation and deep guilt. The use of that long hair is frequently creative. Cocooning herself inside when frightened or getting wrapped up like a pig in a blanket is both cute and amusing. The girl’s back-and-forth with Rider provides a lot of humor as well. The two try to outsmart each other on their first encounter. A campfire revelation about magical healing powers play out in a very amusing manner. Much of the dialogue is fast-paced and screw-bally. The second variety of humor in the film isn’t as endearing but proves just as many laughs. A surprisingly portion of “Tangled” is indebted not to Disney but rather Chuck Jones and other madcap Looney Toons animators. Maximus is a horse that acts like a dog, his snout to the ground, leg kicking when scratched behind the ears. He chews up wanted poster like a paper shredder. An attempt to hide behind a rock and a bush is amusingly ineffective. His human expressions are handled in an off-handed fashion. Other wacky laughs come in the form of Viking-like ruffians with unexpected soft sides. Only a reoccurring gag about frying pans is overdone.

One of the reasons Disney believed “The Princess and the Frog” underperformed is because it didn’t appeal to young boys. “Tangled” hoped to avoid this by playing up its humor and action qualities. Aside from two sequences, “Tangled” is low on action. However, those two moments make an impression. The first has the protagonists pursued by royal guards, thieves, and a horse. A sword and frying pan duel is presented by dynamically. A collapsing dam really drives the moment into overdrive. The rushing water ramps up the excitement as everyone attempts to escape the flood. The second big action set-piece is more comedic in nature but still features a daring roof top escape. “Tangled” balances genres very well.

Of course, this is an animated movie. What does it look like? Drawing its visual cues from rococo paintings, the picture has a lush, rich look to it. Scenes of sunlight breaking through forest trees are especially impressive. The nights are green in tone, with a deep, painted quality to them. The environments are detailed and impressive. While the backgrounds are rich and life-like, the character designs are more classic cartoony. The eyes are wide and expressive, the faces round and cute. While nothing can replace the charm of hand-drawn animation, the film makes an effort to import the classic Disney style into the world of computer animated imagery.

Upon seeing the film for the first time theatrically, I was immediately struck by how the film embraced music. Long-time Disney composer Alan Menkin provides the music while Glenn Slater provides the lyrics. The song styles recall earlier Disney classics while the lyrics have a more modern, almost pop-music angle to them. Rapunzel’s opening song, “When Will My Life Begin?,” establishes her character and her life fully. A reprisal of that song is especially stirring. Any Disney musical can be measured by the weight of its villain song. Mother Gothal’s “Listen to Mother” is darkly funny while acknowledging her passive-aggressive intentions. Both songs are insanely catchy as well. The Academy went for the big love ballad, “I See the Light,” which is a fine song for sure. However, the best number in the film is “I’ve Got a Dream,” a bouncy, upbeat song about hopes and aspirations. I was worried former pop princess Mandy Moore would push things too far into a pop direction but Moore adapts nicely. Zachary Levi unrepentantly has a singing voice to match his vocal performance. The orchestral score is excellent as well. When Rapunzel and Flynn first arrive at the castle, we are greeted to an enchanting dance number, vaguely Celtic in style. For someone who has always loved the Disney animated musicals of the eighties and nineties, “Tangled” is a wonderful return to form.

“Tangled” was the box office success Disney was looking for. The movie made plenty of money and introduced another princess the studio can merchandise endlessly. The film’s success proved something of a double edged sword. At least classical fairy tale style stories will stick around for the time being. Disney’s next Animated Feature, “Frozen,” is obviously patterned after this one. Disappointingly, those new films won’t be traditionally animated. It’s hard to say if the Mouse Factory will ever return to its classic style. Still, if this sets the precedence, I suppose they could do worse. “Tangled” is massively entertaining, modern in its amusement while paying tribute to the classics. [Grade: B+]

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Anderson (2012)

7. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s films are, if nothing else, exquisitely constructed. “Moonrise Kingdom,” his best film in some time, might be his most finely constructed picture. The film begins with a rather fantastic sequence in which a family of young siblings sits down to listen to a record. The record breaks down the parts of the orchestra, displaying each instrument's role in the song. As the recording goes on, we see different members of the family in their rooms. This is actually a bit directorial misdirection on Anderson’s part. Yes, like many of his films, “Moonrise Kingdom” is about family, at least partially. However, the opening scene actually isn’t establishing each person’s role in the family, the most obvious allusion. Instead, it’s showing the group apart. At the end of the film, the recording is played through to the end, when the instruments come back together, to form a full song. Ah, I see what you did there, Wes. Of course, “Moonrise Kingdom” is only partially about family. It’s perfect presentation of tone, time, and place, as well as a tale about young love.

Set in the early 1960s on the fictional island of New Penzance, off the coast of Rhode Island, it follows a pair of lonely, alienated pre-teens as they run away from their homes. Sam is an orphan, his new foster family not working out, and bullied by the other kids in his Khaki Scout group, his surrogate family. Suzy is the oldest of several kids. Her parents are distant, with their own problems, and Suzy has trouble making friends. Set out in the wilderness, the two decide to make their own world, their own family. Of course, the adults try to keep them apart. There are other problems, conflict among the grown-ups and scout masters, the island threatened by an in-coming hurricane. Some of this information is presented to us by Bob Balaban’s omniscient narrator who also interacts with the story on a coyishly undetermined level.

There has always been a level of precision to the way a Wes Anderson movie is shot. It’s very clear every framed is planned out far in advance. However, “Moonrise Kingdom” is expertly designed on a level previously unseen even from a filmmaker this precise. The camera frequently stays in long shots, the characters in the middle distance. The camera slides smoothly to the side, following them as they walk to their destinations. The scenes are constructed the same way someone reads a book, the narrative flowing left to right. Slow dramatic zooms emphasize character’s focus or their placement in a scene. Occasionally, Anderson shifts to a shaky, handheld camera, placing himself right inside the action, on his cast’s level. A few times, Anderson pauses on a particular tableau, a moment isolated like one of Sam’s painting or a classic comic frame.

Anderson is also famous for his exact production design. “Moonrise Kingdom” is as beautifully designed as any of his previous films. Some would say the detailed production design does nothing but feed into Anderson’s various ticks and fetishes. However, the detailed design also makes the film’s world more real, more realized. Our characters live in these places. Their personalities, thoughts, loves, and ideas reflect themselves in their surroundings. A perfectionist Cub Scout trope leader lives in a meticulously furnished pup tent, not exactly realizing the absurdity of that. Suzy’s library books, each one designed by Anderson, speak to her particular likes and dislikes. The rickety tree house is suspended above the world on a single, slender tree, a little world isolated above the bigger one. That “Moonrise Kingdom” wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for its production design is a major oversight. This is what good production design is supposed to do, to reinforce and inform the film’s themes and concepts.

Of course, “Moonrise Kingdom” looks incredible. That’s to be expected, considering the pedigree involved. Being the best looking film in the world wouldn’t help if the story wasn’t worth writing about. The love story between Sam and Suzy forms an emotional backbone that drives the entire picture. The two are just old enough to know what sex is, to be aware of their budding desires and changing bodies. However, physical desire doesn’t drive them. The physical intimacy they share is an awkward pantomime of adult rituals. Instead, it’s an emotional bond that connects them. Sam has no real family of his own. Suzy feels left out of her’s. They fill a need within the other, both providing understanding of a different sort. In a montage, Anderson shows their relationship forming through letters. We only hear the first few lines of each letter before cutting way. This, somehow, gives us a better idea of their connection and mutual understanding then getting all the details would, not to mention much more quickly. Sam and Suzy have the purest love. When the two get married in a mock ceremony, it feels sincere, not absurd. Of course, these two will stick out and be together. How couldn’t they?

“Moonrise Kingdom” has a fully realized world. Sam and Suzy’s love and struggle form the main story. Amusingly, a bunch of other stories are going on in the background of the film. These are the obvious ones. Suzy’s mother is cheating on her father with the sorta’ sad local police officer. Bruce Willis’ police officer has his own story, not much informed by the love story, forming a bond with Sam. Her father, played by an off-handedly eccentric and hilarious Bill Murray, has an inner life all his own it seems, only half-way explored. Each of the other Khaki Scouts has distinct personalities, one in an eye patch, the other with a rivalry with Sam. Jason Schwartzman is a head officer at the other camp, runs the place like a back-alley grafter, trading services for tennis ball tins of nickels. What’s the story of the kid on the trampoline or the boys with the model rocket? “Moonrise Kingdom” presents an interesting world, where all type of things are happening the background. By far the funniest side-story involves Edward Norton’s high-strung camp leader. There’s a miniature movie in here, about him loosing the respect of his commanding officer and then regaining it through an absurdly high-pitched action movie scenario.

Still, I don’t know if Anderson could make a film that didn’t feature at least a little musing on family. Sam’s search for acceptance or Suzy being designated as the dysfunctional among equally dysfunctional adults are the obvious aspects. But how about the surrogate family of the Cub Scouts? At first, the other boys look down on Sam, treating him like the outcast he is. Midway through, they have an about face, realize they’ve been treating their fellow scout lousy. Suddenly, their on the boy’s side, helping him on his mission. One of the movie’s best reoccurring jokes is Suzy reading from her books, pausing to ask if her devoted audience wants her to continue. The boys being together as a family becomes obvious when we see all of them gathered around Suzy, listening intently. Could this be the whole film’s thoughts on family in miniature? We might fight but we’ll always come back together. Maybe.

The usual Wes Anderson soundtrack of classic sixties Britrock is traded out here for a more esoteric sound. Hank William’s bluesy country informs a great deal of the story, connecting with the film’s rural setting. Alexandre Desplat’s rich orchestral score fits the film’s particular mood, with Anderson regular Mark Mothersbaugh occasionally powering the more openly eccentric moments. My favorite musical piece used in the film are those of Benjamin Britten. In the penultimate scene, the subtle melancholy of “Songs from Friday Afternoons, Op. 7 (Cuckoo!)” takes the movie out on an appropriately bittersweet tone. Because even if that perfect moment is gone, we will always have our memory of it.

Anchored by two exceptionally intelligent performances from young Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, “Moonrise Kingdom” sees the director conversing with his usual films in a bold, reenergized way. By returning to childhood and the rush of first love, Wes Anderson has found new ground for his unique style and execution. It might be his best film. [Grade: A]

Monday, November 18, 2013

Director Report Card: Mary Harron (2013)

5. Anna Nicole

The Director Report Card project has sent me on many a varied, unexpected journey. I have experienced films that otherwise never would have graced my eyes. Certainly, I never expected a Lifetime Channel TV movie about Anna Nicole Smith to cross my watch-list. On the surface, it’s the sort of material beneath an accomplished filmmaker like Mary Harron. But then again, the life of a sex-pot is a topic Harron has covered before to some success. If anyone could look beyond the trashy surface of Anna Nicole’s complicated life, it would be a well-known feminist like Harron. Yet at the same time, how does one handle a topic this outrageous? Do they play Anna’s frequently ridiculous life for campy, mean-spirited laughs? Or do you look for pathos among the strip clubs, pill-popping, and reality show tomfoolery?

The film follows Anna Nicole’s life mostly through the well-known, broad strokes. She starts life as Vicki Lynn in a Texas trailer park. Her police officer mother is frequently absent, a series of step-dads around to abuse her and her older sister. Mom is determined to prevent her daughter from getting married and/or pregnant young. It doesn’t work, as the soon-to-be Anna Nicole is divorced and with a baby boy by the time she’s 19. Desperate for work, she soon gets a job at a strip club. A chance encounter with an elderly billionaire changes her life forever, soon realizing her secret dream of becoming the next Marylin Monroe. The breast implants, Playboy centerfolds, flopping acting career, spousal death, drug addiction, reality show, and baby-daddy scandal all follow in rapid succession.

This isn’t something I’d expect to say: It’s a discredit to Anna Nicole’s life squeezing the whole thing into a brief, 86-minute TV movie. The film skips over large portions of her story. Her rise to fame from stripper to international sex symbol is covered in a montage. The transformation from Vicki-Lynn to Anna Nicole happens completely off-screen. Her time at Playboy boils down to one photoshoot and a few glimpses at magazine covers. Nicole’s career as the Guess Jeans girl, arguably what really launched her into pop culture infamy, is isolated to two whole scenes. Her ill-fated foray into action stardom with “Skyscraper” gets a brief mention but the actual production, filming, and critical fallout aren’t elaborated on. The rest of her “acting” career, such as “The Hudsucker Proxy,” warrant no mention. You’d expect the legal battle for her husband’s estate to take up more screentime. It’s discussed over maybe ten minutes of scenes. The model’s relationship with her daughter’s father is another topic you’d expect to come up a lot. Instead, that’s all of one interaction. If, for whatever reason, you’re looking for a comprehensive peak into the life of Anna Nicole-Smith, you might be better served reading her Wikipedia article then watching this movie.

So what about the personal details? Does “Anna Nicole” get at the mockable pop culture figure’s soul? Almost. The emotional heart of the film rises out of Nicole’s relationship with her son Danny. The two are portrayed as close from the get-go. Most of what Anna does, at first anyway, is for the benefit of her son. Early scenes of the two playing together or swimming in a pool are sweet. After she reaches stardom, the relationship switches around, the son being the responsible one. He chastises his pill addled mother out of love and disappointment. Nicole loves her son a great deal and the two increasingly depend on each other. Disappointingly, Daniel’s own drug problem is brushed over, happening off-screen in the margins. The only time “Anna Nicole” truly generates pathos is during Daniel’s funeral, when Anna breaks down. A mother, albeit a highly dysfunctional one, burying her own son is deeply sad, regardless of the context. The protagonist’s sole moment of self-awareness is on the car ride away from the funeral, the only time the mostly-intrusive frequently absurd voice-over really works.

You’d also expect Mary Harron to comment more on the system that feeds into the self-destructive tendencies of stars like Anna Nicole. Or maybe on the sexist hierarchies that force women to exploit themselves. Instead, Nicole’s drug problem and the excessive life style that fed it are presented without much comment. She first combines wine and pills to ease anxiety over getting naked in public. From there on, the drugs are just a part of her life, something she routinely indulges in. She doesn’t start out as much of a party girl but instead fills the role, making out with another model in a hotel elevator or getting publicly drunk while three weeks pregnant. Harron employs the rather cheesy device of young Anna regularly getting glimpse of her glamorous, idealized self in a mirror. After she hits rock bottom, she begins to see herself as a child in the mirror. That’s a little on the nose, don’t you think? Either way, it’s fairly clear this is a work-for-hire job for Harron.

So there’s little social commentary or deep insight into the starlet’s life. Ultimately, “Anna Nicole” becomes worth watching for its central performance. Agnes Bruckner has given underrated performances in films before, most notably (for me anyway) in Lucky McKee’s “The Woods.” I never would have picked the actress for the part. However, Bruckner adapts amazingly well. She’s nearly unrecognizable with bleached blonde hair, wearing fake breasts to bring Bruckner’s modest figure up to Nicole’s famous curves. She fully inhabits the part, conveying Nicole’s mannerisms. Bruckner never slips into parody, instead rooting even Nicole’s most outrageous behavior, such as binging on fast-food pizza or drunkenly stumbling around in clown make-up, in humanity. It’s probably the best performance any one could ask of the material. The supporting cast is solid too. Martin Landau is probably slumming it as J. Howard Marshall. However, Landau brings a lot of humor and grace to the part, playing him as more then just a horny old man. Cary Elwes sneers fantastically as the millionaire's son while Graham Patrick Martin and Caleb Barwick are solid as both versions of Danny. I guess its standard that above-average performances save bland bio-pic material, even in the world of Lifetime TV movies.

“Anna Nicole” rises above the trashy TV movie thrills of, say, “Dick and Liz.” But just barely, and mostly thanks to its lead performance. It’s a fairly unremarkable film. Harron doesn’t contribute much visually, save for a nicely poetic final shot. Maybe barely above mediocre is the most you can ask for in this territory. [Grade: C+]

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2000)

Welcome to Catch-Up Week! Over the next six days, I will fill in missing gaps in my various report card projects by reviewing things I should have reviewed already! Some of films I'll be talking about are recent and from this year. Others are several years old, like the one mentioned below. Either way, this project will be making Film Thoughts a more rounded, detailed place. Hopefully.

39.5. Dinosaur

For about a decade, “Dinosaur” was not considered a part of the Disney Animated Cannon. Why would it? At the time of the film’s release, there was no precedence for a CGI-animated film coming from the Mouse House. Pixar itself was only three entries into its eleven film winning streak. Secondly, “Dinosaur” is not a fully animated film. Rather, it’s CGI characters move around inside footage of live action location. This is probably the primary reason the film was disqualified for so many years. However, for some reason, at some point, “Dinosaur” was retroactively declared a part of the Official Canon. I’m fairly certain this decision was made so “Tangled,” a big budget affair Disney had a lot of money riding on, could have the special distinction of being the 50th Feature. Whatever the reason, the move has forced me to acknowledge this rarely mentioned film.

And why is the film rarely mentioned? “Dinosaur” is widely regarded as a flop yet it doubled its considerable 127 million dollar budget at the box office. The movie came in the middle of the lulling period of Disney’s Renaissance, pocketed between genuine flops like “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” It’s critical reputation is the obvious reason “Dinosaur” is rarely mentioned during retrospectives. The movie was lauded for its visual beauty but criticized for its cliched and overly simplistic story. The tale, about a group of dinosaurs on a long journey towards a prosperous promised land, recalls “The Land Before Time.” The critics wishing the dinosaurs would remain speechless is a problem also facing the upcoming “Walking with Dinosaurs 3D.”

No doubt, the dialogue-free opening of “Dinosaur” is probably its most impressive sequence. We follow an egg bounce around the prehistoric landscape, rolling away from the nest, through a river, down a waterfall, into a pterodactyl’s mouth. It finally comes to rest in an isolated stretch of colorful jungle. The dinosaurs are lightly anthropomorphized, gaining expressive faces, but maintain their realistic appearances. The scene suggests the film could have been a visually impressive prehistoric travelogue, a feature length version of “Fantasia’s” “Rite of Spring” sequence.

This is only the opening though. The egg, an adorable iguanodon baby hatching from it, is quickly adopted by a family of anachronistic lemurs. The lemurs crack jokes and talk in broad, celebrity-provided voices. Flash-forward a few years and the dinosaur is all-grown-up, still living among the lemurs. This is when the film’s intent becomes obvious. The lemurs’ dialogue continues to be overly precious, delivering corny one-liners about mating rituals. The other dinosaurs on the journey include a triceratops voiced like a sassy black woman or an elderly brontosaurus speaking with a high-pitched, proper British accent. A little ankylosaurus looking guy acts like a dog, right down to playing fetch. Would “Dinosaur” been improved if the creatures never spoke? It certainly would have been a more interesting film, anyway.

How do you think “Avatar” is going to look in ten years? The CGI animation of “Dinosaurs” was cutting edge in 2000. Painstaking detail was taken to make the creatures appear as realistic as possible. The commitment to realism was furthered by the decision to place the characters on real landscapes. However, thirteen years down the line, the effects of “Dinosaur” look less then convincing. The lack of detail in the dinosaurs is apparent. Their movement is sometimes overly light, lacking life-like weight. The interaction with the real locations are especially awkward. Whenever trees or water are pushed aside by the CGI dinosaurs, the disconnect becomes very noticeable. Furthermore, the attempts to anthropomorphize are sometimes more off-putting then cute. Aladar has forward-facing eyes and expressive facial features. The rest of him looking so real when the face is that of a cartoon feels a little strange at times. The movie still has moments of pure beauty though, such as the lemurs swinging through the trees or a pan over the rich valley.

Animation showing its age is one thing. But what about the story? After a meteor strike, which is obviously not The Meteor Strike, Aladar and his furry family wander into a herd of migrating dinos. Conflict arises when Aladar befriends the elderly stranglers, much to the consternation of pig-headed leader Kron. Because this is a kid’s flick, Kron is immediately established as a jerk in his first scene. Similarly, Aladar has a meet-cute with his love interest. You know this iguanodon is a girl because she’s pink. Ultimately, Aladar’s in-born friendliness and need to care for the weak ultimately teaches the asshole villain a lesson. The carnotaur predators, truthfully just T-Rexs with horns, are little more then plot devices, Overly Persistent Predators that exist to chase the herd and eliminate loose plot threads.

Among the broad characters, predictable story, and shaky animation are occasional bright spots. Most of the voice cast is far too on the nose, D. B. Sweeney and Max Casella especially. However, occasionally Alfre Woodward and Ossie Davis get a moment or two as the elders of the lemur clan. James Newton Howard’s score is epic and sweeping. The African drums and chanting blatantly recall “The Lion King.” Still, it’s a good piece of music, listenable and exciting. The script for “Dinosaur” ultimately fell short of the project’s ambitious sights. That’s the real reason the film is mostly forgotten. It’s mediocre. [5/10]

Friday, November 1, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 31 - HALLOWEEN

October 31st is always a little anticlimactic in my house. We never get many trick r' treaters. It doesn't matter if I dress up first or how much candy I buy. I reprised my costume idea from two years ago, going as the Big Summer Movies of 2013. Even if I couldn't find a "Star Trek" badge or a "Pacific Rim" shirt in time. It ended up not mattering. We had four kids at the door, all in one group. There was some rain later in the evening but there was still plenty of opportunity for kids to visit us. Oh well. I can make my own fun.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

For nearly two Halloween seasons now, I’ve been going on about the influence silent German Expressionism cinema had on the early Universal Monster films. It only seems fair, for the conclusion of 2013’s viewing season, to return to the film that started it all. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” has an obvious, undeniable influence on those early American horror films. It is doubtlessly one of the earliest mad scientist films. Cesare the Somnambulist might be brought to life through the power of hypnotism but he acts much the same as Frankenstein’s Monster. He walks stiffly through the German village, murdering innocents, all at the will of the mad doctor. Most famously, he even abducts a fair young maiden, carrying her off in his arms. I try to resist hyperbole but, fuck it: The classic American horror films would not exist without this movie. The entire genre would have been irrevocably changed without it.

Of course, the main influence “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” had on the word was in its production design. I don’t know what precedence existed for horror in 1919, if any. Robert Wiene and his crew decided to make a movie that would frighten not through blatant shocks or big scares. Instead, every aspect of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is design to put the audience off-balance. Every building and structure of the village setting is at an angle, curving or jutting out diagonally. Doors are twisted slots cut in bent walls. Homes and buildings seem to pile atop each other. Bridges twist up and around. Even the writing in the titles is bent and jagged. It creates a sense of a world out of order. Madness rules over all. Even the scenery has gone insane.

My personal favorite sets are those that make the human form seem unnatural by association. The wrongfully accused man hugs his knees in his cone-shaped jail cell. The triangular room and cramped windows make him seem like a sprite trapped in a frame. Caligari flees down a winding mountain pathway, disappearing into the distance. A police office walks over a bridge, one that twists senselessly around the land. The doctor’s office at the hospital is visually striking. A skeleton dangles from the wall, seeming out of place amidst the warped room. After his insanity grows, Caligari is framed by a pile of books, his face twitching into a mad grin. Silent films couldn’t depend on dialogue. Instead, the themes of the story must manifest in the image. “Cabinet” succeeds fully at this.

Does this ninety-three year old movie still retain any power to scare? The pacing is undeniably creaky. Most of the characters are little more then pawn pieces. Yet “Caligari” has an eerie horror atmosphere all its own. Most of this can be accredited to Conrad Veidt’s performance as Cesare. The Somnambulist is a mime from hell. Every movement is calculated and controlled. He is less a human being and more a moving statue. His earliest appearances bring dread with them. The murder of Alan is still terrifying. Cesare’s shadow is cast huge on the wall. The murderer descends on him, the victim powerlessly to fight him back. There’s something deeply nightmarish about this sequence. It strikes a primal cord. Cesare walking up the slanted building, the innocent girl in his arms, might as well be the film’s ascension in cinema history. Maybe scary isn’t the right word but “Caligari” is still powerfully strange.

The Expressionist movement produced many fantastic films. Yet Robert Wiene was not as good a filmmaker as F. W. Murnau or Paul Wegener. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” comes to a screeching halt in the last fifteen minutes. The story of Cesare is resolved about an hour in. A very long epilogue follows. We learn the origin of Dr. Caligari, how he was once an administrator at an asylum who became obsessed with the pre-existing legend of Caligari. Determined to recreate the story, he went insane himself and was locked up in his own asylum. This, in turn, is revealed to be nothing but a fantasy of the lead characters. Turns out, the whole movie was the deluded ramblings of a crazy man. All of this is laid out for the audience in extended detail. It feels extraneous and only delays the inevitable twist.

A film this surreal is obviously open to interpretation. It’s easy to see how the story of authority figures gone mad with power is interpreted as criticism of the Nazi regime, incorrectly. Or perhaps it was merely an attempt to create a unique film. Success. The film’s influence can be seen all over pop culture, from the films of Tim Burton down to the art stylings of Lady Gaga. A mostly unrelated remake, that maintained nothing but the twist ending, followed in 1962 and another nearly shot-for-shot remake came in 2005. At least that one had the good sense to cast Doug Jones as Cesare. Neither matched the strength of the original, a true classic for all cinema, regardless of genre. Even if the ending is bogus. [8/10] 

Sssssss (1973)

Some people are afraid of snakes. I understand this. Most animals at least have legs, something resembling humans, but not snakes. They have scaly skin, forked tongues, and swallow their food whole. Some can kill with a bite or crush your skull. Aside from spiders and maybe sharks, I don’t think any animal has endured a more disproportional hatred. I like snakes. I like the way they feel, the way they move. They are humble, straight-forward creatures. Despite their reputation, a snake will never lie to you.

“Sssssss,” or “Seven S” as I sometimes call it, is a snakesploitation film I have an unusual amount of affection for. This is probably because it use to air constantly on cable. It was a regular fixture on the old, good Sci-Fi Channel, USA Network, and the HBO of my youth. Re-watching it now, I think I might have responded to the films treatment of snakes. They are not shown as mindless killing machines. For the most part, the animals are depicted accurately. Most of the snakes are harmless while the venomous ones are respected. This is not a monster movie where actual animals are slotted in the spot of villain. The humans are the monster. Or become them.

The plot of “Sssssss” fits in with the early seventies, drive-in/grindhouse market. Strother Martin, previously seen in “Brotherhood of Satan,” is Dr. Stoner, a snake expert. Along with his daughter, Kristina, he runs a snake farm and research center. The prizes of their collection are Harry, a python and beloved pet, and a regal, female King Cobra. Dr. Stoner seems harmless enough but is actually a mad scientist. He begins to inject his new lab assistant (and Kristina’s new boyfriend) with a strange chemical compound. Soon, David’s skin begins to peel and scales grow…

“Seven S” is delightfully kooky in spots. This is mostly due to Strother Martin’s performance. Dr. Stoner has one-sided conversations with Harry the Python. He almost worships the enormous Queen Cobra. He is open about enjoying the company of animals to most people. Martin is a warm, if slightly eccentric, father at first. Slowly, he reveals his sinister side. He murders someone with a Black Mamba, sticks a colleague that has seen too much in a death trap, and feeds someone to Harry’s starved mate. His ultimate end game? Turn a human into a snake. While this is obvious to the viewer early on, the film holds off on revealing exactly why he’s doing this. In a climatic monologue, he reveals his motive, that he considers snakes superior to man, and believes the human race will survive the future if transformed into slithering reptiles. Martin’s best moment as an actor is when he stares down the Queen Cobra, treating the animal like real royalty. The character is obviously insane but Strother never raises his voice, making him all a more effective villain.

There’s some home-made, low budget camp at play here as well. Hunk-of-meat actor Reb Brown, a decade apart from the hilariously low budget action-fest that would make him a dubious cult icon, plays an asshole jock. To show how big of an ass he is, he starts aggressively hitting on Kristina. Dirk Benedict doesn’t like that and a fist fight breaks out. In the film’s most hysterical moment, Benedict leaps onto Reb and starts biting him like a snake. It’s hilarious. Reb shows up later to get killed by a black mamba, prompting him to unconvincingly yell “Oh shit!” Reb’s exaggerate assholery is just one of the film’s silly joys. In order to maintain a PG rating, all the nudity is blocked by out-of-focus foliage or lamps. This is also, probably the only film in history where a mongoose causes a woman to scream in slow-motion agony.

If you’re looking for camp, you’ll find it. However, “Sssssss” is ultimately too effective as a horror film to be laughable. There is something definitely unnerving about the half-formed “snake man” central to the plot. The way he flops his stumped arms and legs and grunts wordlessly is genuinely grotesque. The facial features are human but the body is not, creating an uncanny effect. David’s slow transformation is rather horrifically realized. His skin peels like bad sunburn. His dreams are haunted by psychedelic hell scapes. He writhes on the ground as his innards change. The special effects are a little shaky but the film sells them. As the opening titles tell us, all the snakes are real. Even the ones that look like puppets, like the perpetually poised King Cobra. Seeing actors interact so freely with venomous snakes is liable to make viewers a little nervous.

There’s another reason I love the movie. I had a major crush on Heather Menzies, all because of this movie. She has an infectious girl-next-door charm. Her conversations with Harry the Python are adorable and I love how she treats the snakes with love, not fear. She sports a pair of clunky seventies eye-glasses fantastically, emphasizing her charm and vulnerability. Her romance with Benedict evolves naturally. The skinny dipping scene is played more for innocent cuteness then wanton titillation. Menzies proves a strong scream queen too, properly horrified by the snake man. She’s adorable in “Piranha” too. It’s a bummer she’s retired from acting. I blame Robert Urich.

I also have a soft spot for horror films set at carnivals. The carnival here is delightfully sleazy. Where burlesque tents with disproportionally attractive dancing girls that sidelined as prostitutes a common feature at carnivals back in the day? I seem to remember a similar scene in “The Funhouse.” Anyway, “Seven S” is a favorite of mine I return to quite frequently. There’s little reason to love it but I do anyway. [8/10]

The Prowler (1981)

The slasher is probably the most derided of any horror type. People criticize the films are formulaic, gore-for-gore’s sake, mindless, or even misogynistic. These things are sometimes true, yes. Which isn’t to say that a satisfying, suspenseful, well made film can’t be made within those outlines. “The Prowler” is one of the best examples of the subgenre.

How much does “The Prowler” fit the traditional outlines? It opens with a crime in the past. After his girlfriend breaks up with him via a Dear John letter, a just-returned World War II veteran murders the girl and her new lover with a pitchfork. On what night did the deaths take place? The night of the big graduation party. Thirty five years later, the New Jersey town of Avalon Bay is having a graduation party for the first time since that night. Naturally, this event inflames the still-living killer’s rage, forcing him to kill again. Just to go down the list, that’s a crime in the past, a special holiday event, an anniversary of a crime, and a killer in both a mask and with not one, but two!, trademark weapons. On the surface, “The Prowler” is about as typical as it gets.

The story is not what makes “The Prowler” special. Instead of being shot in some dark forest or other, uninteresting isolated location, “The Prowler” was lensed in New Jersey’s historical district. This gives the film a unique look, the old Victorian buildings adding a certain gravitas to the proceedings. Joseph Zito’s direction is equally handsome. The nights are made up of contrasting blues and blacks. Zito frequently employs less then typical shots, like a long sequence reflected in a mirror. My favorite bit is when the girls getting ready for the dance are cut with and contrasted against the killer preparing his weapons and outfits. “The Prowler” might just be the prettiest slasher ever made. It’s certainly far more polished then must of the output of the time.

The film is also, perhaps, the goriest film of the first wave of American slashers. Tom Savini declared it his best work. It very well might be. Pitchforks are dug into backs, a large puddle of blood oozing from the victims. An eighteen inch long bayonet is shoved all the way through a victim’s head, his eyes rolling back until they’re completely white. “The Prowler” one-ups “Psycho” by the having the naked, bathing beauty nailed to the wall with a pitchfork. Savini marches out his trademark of exploding a fake head with a real shotgun fantastically. The bayonet is, earlier, shoved directly into a woman’s jugular, blood spurting from the wound, her shoes painted red. All of these are fantastic. Yet no kill is more impressive then the girl with the slit throat in the swimming pool. Sorry, did I say “slit?” “Embedded” is more likely. The villain saws her neck open until he hits bone. The latex stretches and tears, torrent after torrent of corn syrup flooding the pool. It’s extended, brutal, and borderline pornographic. I love it.

Buckets load of blood and gore are fine and dandy. “The Prowler” backs it up by generating actual suspense. A scene where the heroine is delayed by the creepy old man works well. The girl being unaware of the killer in the same room is another potential cliché enlivened by excellent execution here. The sudden surprise of a corpse in a fireplace or discovery of a fresh body in a casket jolts nicely. Most slashers have a long chase scene between final girl and killer. The one presented here stands above the rest. Final girl Pam enters a room of old furniture covered with white clothes. Hiding under a table, she watches helplessly as the killer tears the room apart, flipping tables and smashing things. Even when a big ass rat crawls through her hair, she remains silent. The same year’s “Friday the 13th Part II” featured a similar sequence but this one is far more effective. This is how you do it, kids.

About the only thing that doesn’t work about “The Prowler” is its cast. The film earns points for not featuring the typical horny teenagers. Instead, the hero is a deputy police officer, his girlfriend spunky and strong. The middle chapter of the film is composed of them sleuthing out the mystery, investigating graveyards and old homes. The boyfriend trying to convince the girl to stay behind add some character. Also among the cast: Horny college students. Most of the victims are just random by-standers. I suppose it’s fair to develop the central duo while filling the body count with minor characters. Vicky Dawson is likable enough as the final girl but Christopher Goutman, looking all the world like a young William Fichtner, is too blandly heroic to register. The film also makes the mistake of wasting Lawrence Tierney, sticking him in a speechless, undefined “creepy old man” part and not even giving him the dignity of a death scene.

The killer’s military garb gives him a distinctive look. His habit of leaving roses with his victims gives him personality. I enjoy the bizarre comic relief scene involving a lazy hotel clerk. The last jump scare is totally bogus but effective all the same. “The Prowler” is one of my top slasher picks, fantastically gory, beautifully shot, well structured and paced. I’d rank it above “The Burning” but just below “My Bloody Valentine.” [7/10]

Ghostwatch (1992)

Most horror fans, including my fellow Six Weekers, have one movie they watch every Halloween. Some pick “Halloween” or “Trick r’ Treat.” Casual fans go with “The Great Pumpkin” or “Rocky Horror.”  I’ve never been one to watch the same thing every year. Well, guys, I think I might have found my yearly Halloween favorite. It’s “Ghostwatch,” the notorious BBC Halloween special from 1992.

Notorious in what way? Imagine in the early nineties, long before reality television was established as a format, ABC took cameras inside of a real haunted house. Imagine established television personalities like Diane Sawyer, Alex Trebek, or Dave Coulier were involved in the program. What if seemingly genuine ghostly activity was caught on camera? What if things went terribly wrong? And what if it was all presented as 100% true? “Ghostwatch” did something much like that, involving recognizable BBC personalities in a convincing recreation of a haunting. It wasn’t real, of course. Any one who noticed the opening and ending credits probably could have realized that. But tell that to the frightened, fooled television audience. People called in amass, complaining. Most tragically, an autistic child, taken in by the program, killed himself from the trauma. “Ghostwatch” was never aired again.

The effectiveness of a program like “Ghostwatch” is dependent totally on how believable it is. Getting the most trusted newscaster in the world to go along with the prank wouldn’t matter if the whole could be laughed off as a gag. Luckily, “Ghostwatch” is committed totally to verisimilitude. The structure of the film is calculated to appear as realistic as possible. The rhythm of any live television documentary is matched perfectly. The live feed of the family inside the house is cut back and forth with banal interviews with experts or previously recorded ghost stories. The mindless chit-chat between the hosts match the tone. This sets up the precedence of reality.

The freakiness of the unspooling events slowly escalates. “Ghostwatch” is, if nothing else, an exercise in deliberate pacing. The film drawls from documented poltergeist phenomena. The opening features children awoken in their bed by banging on the walls. We see the pictures of the oldest sister covered with cuts. A mysterious wet spot appears on the carpet, perfectly circular. Photographs fly off the wall. The temperature in their bedroom drops. Video becomes distorted and slowed down. A stuffed bunny is found floating, eyeless, in the sink. The sound of cats crying overwhelms the dialogue. This all leads up to the film’s most frightening moment. The boards on the crawlspace door are pulled off. The door slowly opens on its own accord. The audience catches a brief glimpse of Pipes before the camera cuts away. “Ghostwatch” isn’t over after that, about ten minutes left to go, but the film obviously peaks in that moment.

Have I mentioned Pipes? The central villain of “Ghostwatch” is a ghostly apparition of a balding man in a gray dress, his eyes and face scratched out. The ghost is never seen clearly, only in shadows or brief flashes. Some of these are very quick. The camera pans around the room, the spirit standing next to the girl’s window. Panning back quickly, he’s gone. Others are completely subliminal. He is briefly glimpsed in reflections or the background. “Ghostwatch” manages to build up an impressive mythology behind its villain over a series of three phone calls. A supposedly live caller rings in, discussing the haunted history of the area. We learn a baby farmer drowned infants in that house. Later on, in a sobering monologue, a different caller relates the history of the home’s previous tenant. Normally, I’d be against a character just talking about the story’s background. However, like Robert Shaw in “Jaws,” sometimes the camera just needs to stop and listen. The way Pipes is handled, right down to the video distortion, makes me wonder if the guys behind “Marble Hornets” had ever seen “Ghostwatch.”

“Ghostwatch” has something else in common with Slendy too. The fourth wall will not protect you. Being presented as true, the increasingly concerned callers were presumed to be real people as well. Viewers from all over the country report strange poltergeist activity. Without spoiling too much, the program suggests that, after Pipes and his nasty supernatural cronies are done ruining the Early’s lives, they’re coming for you. A lot of fiction attempts to yank the carpet out from under the viewer. Most come of as horribly hokey. “Ghostwatch” is presented so realistically, its program so convincingly spooky, you buy. I’ll probably leave the hallway lights on tonight…

It does take a patient viewer to enjoy “Ghostwatch.” When Michael Parkinson and Dr. Lin Pascoe are looking at warped spoons, you’ll be forgiven if your attention wanders. Similarly, a subplot involving a skeptical scientist in New York doesn’t pay off much. The acting from Brid Brennan, as the oldest Early daughter, is a bit ropey at times. However, it’s very easy to see why this program freaked people out. Still obscure in the States, “Ghostwatch” definitely deserves to be more widely seen. It’s a shame “reality” TV ghost hunting shows, found footage films, and YouTube video hoaxes have made a similar experiment impossible. No one would buy “Ghostwatch” at face value today. Watching it on Halloween night, during the witching hour no less, I found myself believing. Just for a minute anyway. [9/10]

The Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-Thon is always crazy for me. I go into September super excited and ready. Half-way through October, I'm feeling a little fatigue. Usually, I come around before the end, ending the season just as excited as I was to begin with. That's how it's been in years pass, that's how it was this year. Real life threw some wrenches at me this month and, when I fell behind a few days, I didn't know if I'd ever catch up. But I did. Thank the spirits. I made it.

How did 2013's festivities measure up to last years? Last year, even with the hurricane, my watch total was 120 things. This year, amazingly, I surpassed that record, with a total watch number of 123. Don't be too impressed. Last year's total was made up of 103 movies, 14 television episodes, and 3 short films. This year's tally was formed by 80 films, 37 television episodes, and 6 short films. Still, looking back on what I accomplished this month, I'm pleased. I finished my Universal Monsters Mega-thon. I attended a horror convention. I worked my way through the first two seasons of "Tales from the Crypt" and the first season of "So Weird." I browsed some short films. I walked through a haunted house and carved jack o' lanterns. In between all that, I still found time to revisit movies I love and learn to love ones I had never seen before. Good deal. November may now start, the ghouls, pumpkins, and skellingtons put away for another year. The spirits are satisfied and so am I.

Count Pumpkula is at rest.