Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Halloween 2017: September 20
Whatever the origins of the killer clown, one of the most popular modern horror archetypes, Stephen King certainly has to answer for a lot of it. His 1986 novel is a sprawling masterpiece that covers a lot of ground. Pennywise the Dancing Clown, however, is the only thing most people remember about “It.” The mini-series adaptation, first aired on ABC in 1990, may be the primary reason for this. Producers originally intended the mini-series to run for ten hours, with George Romero directing. When “It” actually rolled into production, the run time had been cut down to three, with Tommy Lee Wallace of “Halloween III” and “Fright Night II” directing. Despite that considerable step down in talent, “It” made Pennywise into a horror icon and remains a nostalgic favorite.
The killings in Derry have started again. The small Maine town is caught up in a cycle. Every thirty years, children begin to die. After a huge outburst of violence, the murders stop... Only to start again three decades later. In the late fifties, a group of eleven year old youths – calling themselves the Losers Club – confronted the force behind the killings directly. Mostly appearing as a malevolent clown, It is actually an ancient entity older than any of them, that can take the shape of your worst fears. They thought they killed it back then. But, now, It has returned. The Losers Club reconvene in Derry, uncertain if they can survive another encounter with It.
An entire generation of nineties kids have talked about how “It” traumatized them. I remember this too, watching the movie from under a blanket, being too freaked out to even look at it. To adult eyes, Wallace's “It” comes off as deeply corny. Many of the horrific sequences – most of them added for the film – are less than frightening. An encounter between Eddie and Pennywise in the school shower is deeply silly. The creature design for It's final form – an alien spider – is neat. However, the effects are stiff. There was something cathartic on the page about the Losers beating the Spider to death with their bare hands. On-screen, it's deeply anticlimatic. But Henry Bowers gets it the worst. King's frightening young psychopath is changed into a generic, deeply unthreatening greaser kid. The fate of him and his friends, sucked into a pipe and hair turned white, are laughable. The electronic score is largely cheesy too.
Of course, none of this is the real reason people recall “It” so fondly. It all comes down to Tim Curry as Pennywise. Roddy McDowell and Malcolm McDowell were both considered for the part and either surely would've done a good job. But Curry's evil clown is on a whole other level. The clown persona allows Curry to ham it up as much as he wants, which is hugely enjoyable on its own. However, Curry maintains a sinister edge even when being jovial. He understands that Pennywise is someone that enjoys frightening children and relishes it. In fact – with his big smile, wicked laugh, and deeply unnerving delivery – Curry's Pennywise may be creepier than King's. On the page, Pennywise is merely one of It's many faces. In the film, he's the main attraction.
Ultimately, I suspect nostalgia does play a big role in the fondness displayed for “It.” Tim Curry's Pennywise has become beloved and widely referenced for a reason. He's brilliant and easily the highlight of the film. While watching as a kid, he's utterly terrifying and that clearly imprinted on a whole generation of kids. The mini-series around him is less impressive. Especially when compared to King's epic novel, Tommy Lee Wallace's adaptation can't help but pale. Lack of budget, lack of time, and lack of vision lead to a forgettable mini-series with a simply unforgettable villain. [6/10]
Die, Monster, Die! (1965)
“Die, Monster, Die!” might have been the first piece of Lovecraftian fiction I was ever exposed too. I caught the movie on AMC's Friday night creep show when I was a budding horror fan. At the time, I had no idea who H.P. Lovecraft was, though I would soon discover. I remember the film being campy and spooky in the way I had come to expect from American International Pictures classics. As an adult, I now know that the movie was the second Lovecraft adaptation A.I.P. produced, following “The Haunted Palace.” Newcomer filmmaker Daniel Haller would take over the director's chair from Roger Corman. Though not quite a classic, the film does have a certain notoriety, mostly do to its memorably outrageous title and the presence of an elderly Boris Karloff.
The film is inspired by “The Colour Out of Space,” one of Lovecraft's best short stories, though it leaves little of the source material. The setting is moved from New England to old England, firstly. Secondly, the farm house location is switched for a gothic mansion. Naturally, a female love interest and more monsters are added to the tale. The titular color is reduced to a plot device. Instead, the film follows Stephen Reinhart, who has come to England to retrieve his young girlfriend. That girl, Susan Witley, is living in her family's old house. Her father is confined to a wheelchair. Her mother is ill, staying in her room. Soon, Stephen and Susan discover that the mansion holds a strange, horrible secret. One that comes from beyond the stars.
“Die, Monster, Die!” is so heavy on this more quint brand of horror that the Lovecraftian elements aren't immediately evident. Slowly, they emerge. A key sequence involves Steve and Susan entering a forbidden green house. Inside, they find giant vegetables – one of the few holdovers from the original story – and grotesquely mutated animals. These creatures are so deformed that you can't even recognize what they once were. Humans are similarly effected. In the last reel, Susan's mother is revealed. Her face has distorted, sprouting bleeding sores. This kind of proto-body horror makes up much of Lovecraft's original story. There are other elements too. The senior Witley feels cursed by an ancient family bloodline, recalling “Charles Dexter Ward.” There's also a green glowing light underground, which at least hints at the subterranean terrors Howard Philips wrote about.
I actually enjoy “Die, Monster, Die!” more now than when I was a kid. I guess my appreciation for this brand of nonsense has increased with age. It's not an especially accurate Lovecraft adaptation and is fairly goofy overall. However, this movie still hits enough of my sweet spots to recommend it. I'm certainly not the only fan, as there are several songs and bands named for the film. A.I.P., by the way, originally released this on a double feature with Mario Bava's “Planet of the Vampires.” I bet that was a fun show to catch at the local drive-in. [7/10]
Masters of Horror: The Damned Thing
Last year, I reviewed season one of “Masters of Horror.” Back in high school, when my horror fandom was really starting to burn bright, the show was appointment television for me. So revisiting that first season was a source of nostalgia, even if the episodes varied in quality. I have fewer fond memories of season two. By the time the second season started, I was no longer speaking to my father, the only person in my family who had Showtime. So I didn't see season two during its first run. As a youngster, I also though the second season's line-up of directors was disappointing. Now, however, I have another reason to continue watching this show. These unique filmmakers are starting to die off. The first episode of “Masters of Horror's” second season, “The Damned Thing,” is from the recently late Tobe Hooper. I have to watch this show now, to pay tribute to this now-gone filmmaker.
“The Damned Thing” is loosely based off the Ambrose Bierce story of the same name. Very loosely, it must be said. The film begins in the eighties, when Kevin Reddle was only a boy. His father went insane on his fortieth birthday, killing his mother and attempting to kill Kevin. Afterwards, the man was torn apart by an invisible force. Now, Kevin is approaching his own fortieth birthday. He's now the sheriff in his small town, currently separated from his wife and son. Reddle has a dark feeling that the damned thing is about to return. He's right. An evil force bubbles up from the ground, driving the townsfolk insane, causing them to murder one another.
The script, provided by Richard Christian Matheson, is also a mixed bag. The damned thing manifesting as oil, the hate and violence literally bubbling up from the ground, is a clever touch. (Even if the CGI used in the last scene could've used some work.) Some of the interactions in the town, like Ted Raimi's Catholic priest turning a gun on a mouthy confession, are darkly humorous. Yet Matheson's script also saddles the main character with a distracting voiceover. That narration blandly explains too much of the story. You can see this dynamic in the cast too. Sean Patrick Flannery is decent in the lead. Brenden Fletcher is amusing as the deputy who dreams of becoming a cartoonist. Yet other performances are less certain. Marisa Coughlan is tone-deaf as the wife, especially in the scenes where the damned thing begins to influence her.
Perversions of Science: Dream of Doom
Over the last four Halloweens, I watched all of “Tales from the Crypt.” The show was frequently formulaic yet I loved it. It was also a big hit for HBO, who was only beginning to move into original television at the time. Unsurprisingly, after its healthy seven year run, the network wasn't ready to give up on the idea of an E.C. Comics-based anthology series. In 1997, the same producers would re-team for a follow-up. While “Tales from the Crypt” was based on E.C.'s horror comics, “Perversions of Science” would be based on E.C.'s science fiction comics. Instead of a jokey puppet Cryptkeeper, the show was hosted by a sexy CGI gynoid named Chrome. Despite having so much going for it, “Perversions of Science” would not repeat “Tales'” success. It would end after one season. Though ostensibly a sci-fi show, the stories crossed over into the horrific often enough to make it fitting viewing for the Six Weeks of Halloween.
That's very evident in the sole premiere episode. “Dream of Doom” is more-or-less straight-up psychological horror. The story concerns Arthur Bristol, a forty-something college professor. Bristol visits a psychologist, claiming that he can't wake up. He believes himself to be stuck in a dream. Every time he awakes, he simply finds himself in another dream. Faces reappear throughout his fantasies. A woman who is sometimes his doctor and sometimes his wife. Or a comely young lady who is sometimes his student and sometimes his girlfriend. Arthur becomes desperate to break this cycle and begins considering violent options.
The Man Who Was Death” though. The script, from future blockbuster scribe David Goyer, is intentionally scattered. The premise, of endless dreams cycling into each other, leaves little room for narrative coherence. So we get a collection of scenarios. Some of them, like Arthur awakening inside a seedy strip club or a shrink's office, are kind of interesting. The segments play joyfully with Freudian implications. Such as the same woman appearing as his wife in one dream, and his daughter in another. The sexy females also show up as Marylin Monroe-style muses, cooing unhelpful secrets. Yet the constantly shifting story never comes together into a solid whole. “Dream of Doom” is essentially a half-hour of unfinished situations, occasionally building on each other but too often simply existing side-by-side.
Just like “Crypt,” recognizable actors appeared in “Perversions of Science.” This one stars Keith Carradine, Lolita Davidovich, and Adam Arkin. Sadly, the script didn't give anyone much to work with. As a show, “Perversions of Science” is already less charming than “Tales from the Crypt.” Chrome's slinky double entendres are less endearing than the Crypt Keeper's puns. Her CGI appearance is also way less expressive than the old Crypt Keeper puppet. Danny Elfman's boozy jazz theme song is pretty cool though. I'm hoping the show will get better before I finish with its ten episode run but I'm not really expecting that. [5/10]