Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bangers n' Mash 22: Nerd Vomit IV: The Final Vomit

Some times reaching that "two episodes a month" is tricky, especially when real life intervenes. But somehow I managed, popping out the promised fourth (and this year's final) Nerd Vomit episode. The episode was suppose to be based around "Pacific Rim" but we actually spent way more time discussing Comic-Con and the announcements made there. If that doesn't clue you in, this Nerd Vomit is especially nerdy. (And vomit-y.) In addition to the usual ceaseless chatter about superhero movies, we also talk about toys.

Anyway, real episode next time, yada yada. Back to work on the director report cards.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1989)

12. Shocker

Remember when I said that “A Nightmare on Elm Street” loomed over the rest of Wes Craven’s career? I wasn’t kidding. Everyone of his proceeding films featured elements of that classic. “Shocker” took it to a new level, a blatant attempt to recreate Freddy’s success and spawn a similarly lucrative franchise. In a further attempt to mark the movie as the next big horror picture, Wes’ name was even stamped over the title, John Carpenter-style. But the movie underperformed. Horace Pinker didn’t become the next house-hold name in horror. Why did “Shocker” fail when “Elm Street” was such an influential hit?

The town of Berryville, California is terrified by a brutal serial killer, targeting whole families. College football star Jonathan Parker, after having a psychic dream about the killer and loosing his foster family to the murderer, leads the police, and his police chief foster dad, to Horace Pinker, television repair man and satanic serial killer. Before getting caught, Pinker murders Jonathan’s girlfriend as well. Once in jail, awaiting execution, Pinker apparently sells his soul to the devil, transforming himself into an entity made of electricity, able to possess human beings and live inside electronic devices. Realizing a familial connection to the killer, and aided by the ghost of his dead girlfriend, Jonathan attempts to track down Pinker and end his evil forever. Any of that sound familiar?

One presumes that, if “Shocker” was designed to compete with Freddy, it was intended to be a serious horror film. The first act seems to support this. An early nightmare sequence, of Jonathan walking home to find his family murdered, is almost eerie. Blood smeared on white walls, linoleum floors, or pooling out from under doors is a reoccurring image. A scene of the cops exploring Pinker’s repair shop, unaware that he’s watching them from behind a trap door, actually builds some suspense. Mitch Pileggi plays Pinker as effectively mean-spirit and the gut-stabbings and throat-slashings are well executed. The girlfriend’s murder is the movie’s most brutal moment, veering uncomfortably close to sexual assault. All of this is good, gruesome stuff. The rooftop chase where the villain is finally caught, featuring dramatic leaps between buildings and rough fist fighting, makes “Shocker” seem like a strong pulp thriller.

Once imprisoned, Pinker summons magical, talking lips from a television which grants his wish by saying “You got it, baby,” Audrey II-style. This is the first sign that “Shocker” is not what it appears to be. Pinker becomes a possessing spirit, slinging one liners while biting people’s fingers off and snapping necks. A chase through a day-lit park might have been thrilling. Our hero running between trees, bullets whizzing by, comes close to creating tension. But then Pinker possesses a little girl. Who then climbs into a front end loader, shouting profanity. The score blares on melodramatically but there’s no way this was meant to be taken seriously.

In the last act, the movie’s goofy streak goes into overdrive. A recliner grows eyes and attempts to strangle Jonathan. The killer delivers a real groaner about his “volts-wagon.” Hero and villain jump into a television, battling across different channels. Horace impersonates a fighter jet and a mushroom cloud. The Beaver, Frankenstein, Alice Cooper, John Tesh, and a white trash family telling terrible jokes make appearances. All of this is deeply campy and intentionally silly.  The tonal whiplash of “Deadly Friend” was probably unintentional but Wes wrote “Shocker.” What’s his excuse this time? Was the nuttiness of the ending supposes to contrast with the dark aspects of the beginning? Was Wes attempting to combine the tones of “Evil Dead” 1 and 2 into a single picture? Either way, it just leaves the viewer scratching their heads.

The cast is another problem. Peter Berg, future director of big budget action flicks like “Hancock” and “Battleship,” is never quite convincing as Jonathan. He sometimes goes over-the-top when acting traumatized or frightened. His facial expressions are frequently semi-comical. He’s most likable in the early scenes, playing an easily distracted football player. Berg is a palooka and Cami Cooper, as his girlfriend, is muted. The love between the two is supposed to be so deep that she returns from the grave to protect him. There’s a bit of chemistry between the actors but both performers' pure lack of talent makes them unable to sell the connection. It doesn’t help that the movie has Cooper shooting rays of light out of her chest in one scene.

Mitch Pileggi, whom Wes Craven had previously worked with on the hard-to-find TV movie “Night Visions,” is clearly meant to be the star of the show. Pileggi is adapt at gruff and mean-spirited turns. He too has trouble with the film’s tone. He berates Berg with a monologue that pushes between camp and truly sinister. Pileggi isn’t Robert Englund and can’t make bad one-liners and cheesy antics a guilty pleasure. Michael Murphy, as Jonathan’s police chef dad, probably does the best. I especially like the moment right after he pushes Pinker’s spirit out of his body.

The only smooth thing about the film is Craven’s direction. Craven has never been a particularly visual filmmaker but he brings his A-game here. He employs slow pans and long takes throughout. The electric chair is introduced in a very dynamic fashion, the camera circling around the room. I like a long shot of Jonathan walking through a house filled with white sheets. Pinker and Jonathan are visually connected when we see his reflection in the glass behind Pinker. There’s a rather atmospheric shot of fog rolling over a lake, surrounded by deep blue night. Craven even throws a reverse-dolly shot and an “Opera”-style look through a door’s peephole.

Universal clearly intended “Shocker” to be a big hit. The heavy metal soundtrack is given special attention, with superstar producer Desmond Child getting a special credit. Sometimes, the music provides some much needed energy, during a chase scene, or goes perfectly with the images on-screen, like the aforementioned electric chair introduction. Other times, it’s distracting like during a conversation between father and son. Heavy metal super-group Dudes of Wrath provide the title song while Megadeth contributes a tagline lending cover of Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” How much you like any of this is a matter of taste, I suppose. The traditional score isn’t bad, though the heavy synth is sometimes distracting.

Here's a t-shirt.
All the focus on televised violence and TV-on-TV makes you wonder if Craven is slipping some social commentary in here. The ending features a whole town without television, stepping out to watch the stars. If this was the goal, there’s not much to go on. The movie has no clear opinion on the issue. “Shocker” could have been a decent, nasty thriller but decided to be a wacky comedy instead. Maybe that much discussed, still unmade remake would be better balanced. [Grade: C]

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1988)

11. The Serpent and the Rainbow

There has been something of a critical reevaluation of “The Serpent and the Rainbow” in the last decade. Upon original release, the film was only a modest box office success and was critically divisive. For years, nobody talked about the movie. Until recently, when it started cropping up on lists like “Underrated Horror Classics” or “Scariest Movie Moments.” In his book, “A Year at the Movies,” Kevin Murphy says the film is one of three to ever actually scare him. This was an odd discovery for me since, for the longest time, I considered “The Serpent and the Rainbow” to be that mediocre Wes Craven movie that, for some reason, got played incessantly on cable.

The film finds Bill Pullman’s Dennis Alan, an ethnobotanist, hired by a pharmaceutical corporation to hunt down the infamous powder used to create zombies. While in Haiti, he finds love with a beautiful doctor and crosses the local corrupt government. The deeper he goes in uncovering the secrets of the zombie powder, the deeper he is drawn into the terrifying world of voodoo black magic. The story is loosely based off the non-fiction book by Wade Davis and directly adapts the semi-urban legend of infamous zombie Clairvius Narcisse. In real life, Mr. Davis has pointed out that he was never zombified and never fought an evil Houngan with his jaguar spirit totem. 

It’s apparent that this is another job Wes Craven got because of “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” You can’t say the producers didn’t get what they paid for. The numerous nightmare and hallucination sequences are by far the best moments in “The Serpent and the Rainbow.” The movie shows it’s strength for this early on when Bill Pullman is pulled into a black pit in the ground by a collection of grasping hands. There’s another creepy moment involving a walking corpse dressed in a white gown, slowly moving towards the protagonist. For me, the stand-out sequence starts slowly, with a strange burning boat floating on the water. This leads to a moment of claustrophobic horror, the room behind him shrinking into a coffin that slowly fills with blood. It’s a surreal, frightening moment and one that the film never tops. The fantastic sound design and frequently excellent score helps the movie along during these scenes.

The nightmares aren’t the only taste of Craven we get here. Perhaps the movie’s most affecting bit recalls Wes’ earliest, brutal day: An intense torture session, twenty years before “Hostel.” Pullman is strapped to a chair in the nude, his interrogators pacing around him. The camera focuses on the actor’s face as the villain behind him prepare the tools. Though the testicular trauma is kept off-screen, the film does a great job of building discomfort. When the nail is finally hammered in… Yeah, the guys in the audience are going to squirm.

Scenes that do work are sometimes immediately undermined. The opening hallucination fades into a cheesy looking green screen effect. Jump scares are only truly used once or twice. One, which ends with Pullman rolling into an open grave, actually isn’t bad. I still think they squander atmosphere. A bizarre dance sequence works well until the end when a grown man is tossed across the room in an unconvincing manner. The sight of a crucified pig is startling but the way that attack is settled is less so. A decomposed hand reaching out of a bowl of soup is creepy. A grown woman biting down on glass, swinging a serving knife around, and talking in a man’s voice isn’t. Undoubtedly the film’s centerpiece was meant to be the scene where we see a man buried from the buried’s perspective. Though decent, it never creates the intensity of earlier nightmare sequences. Worse, the moment is resolved with a clumsy plot device, an earlier character being revealed as nothing more then a lazy deus ex machina.

The movie moves into overt horror imagery at the end. There’s cool stuff here, like a zombie tearing his own head off and throwing it, or a man dangling upside down over a staircase. However, other elements come off as silly, like a chair creaking around or rubbery, long arms reaching out of doors. The finale sees the film becoming an action movie. Our formerly meek hero is suddenly throwing the bad guy into shelves, yelling swear words, and punching him in the face. It’s truly out of place and feels like the result of studio interference or test audience disapproval.

Bill Pullman, who I shouldn’t have to remind you is not the same person as Bill Paxton, is fine. Pullman is at his best when haggling for zombie powder, screaming in terror, or questioning the legitimacy of events. The problems with his character comes solely from the script. A heavy-handed voice over frequently puts too fine a point on the film’s themes. The voice over is used to awkwardly link scenes together. From time to time, Pullman has to deliver flat exposition about what voodoo is and the creation of the zombie powder. Early on, the jaguar is introduced as his power animal. His reaction to the animal represents his character’s developing arc. All of this is overly obvious.

The supporting cast is filled with recognizable character actors. Paul Winfield, typically, brings a great deal of substance to his small role. Cathy Tyson as the love interest delivers at least one great moment when criticizing Pullman’s character. Sadly, their romance is nothing but perfunctory. There’s no romantic sparks between the two. You never feel an attraction, even when they are entwine in a steamy love scene. The romance is even more problematic when it becomes Pullman’s primary reason to return to Haiti in the second act. Zakes Mokae and Brent Jennings are the true stand-outs in the cast. Mokae plays the extremely ominous villain. He’s sadistic in a matter-of-fact fashion and takes great joy in his evil acts. Mokae’s performance is glowering and he packs every line with sinister intent. Jennings, meanwhile, is the closest thing the picture has to comic relief. His character has integrity despite being a con man. Jennings jumps between jovial and stern nicely. A small scene on a plane right before lift-off showcases Jennings’ charm the best. Michael Gough shows up for a near cameo, bringing all the charm you expect from the veteran actor.

At this point in his career, Wes Craven had developed into a fully commercial filmmaker. “The Serpent and the Rainbow” is the first film where it appears he actually had a decent budget. He shows this off with long helicopter shots of the lovely Amazon rain forest. Haiti’s colorful culture is used as well, such as a great shot of a crowd marching up the streets, each person holding a candle. Over all, there’s none of the roughness that characterized Craven’s earliest films.

“The Serpent and the Rainbow” is neither the undiscovered horror classic nor the forgotten mediocrity either side of the critical divide thinks. The whole film never quite comes together even if several sequences stand out. The script is sadly routine and some of the filmmaker’s most interesting tendencies are repressed by the commitment to Hollywood formula. Still, when it works, it does delivers the scares. I'm not surprised fans look to those moments, glancing over the less effective bits. [Grade: B-]

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bangers n' Mash 21: A Nightmare on Our Street

If you've been wondering where the hell I've been the last few days, I've been working on this thing:

Yes, another episode of the much neglected, unpopular YouTube podcast-hybrid thingy. Mr. Mash and I recorded this episode about two weeks ago. It's taken this long to get out for a few reasons. First off, the source audio was over two and a half hours long and, as previously established, I've got to edit every single tiny little thing so we don't sound like complete morons. Secondly, I've actually been busy with, I know this next part will shock, real life! A shocker, for certain!

So anyway, that's why I haven't been working on the Wes Craven Report Card. I'll get back on track with that soon. And this is sort of related, isn't it? "A Nightmare on Elm Street" episode is actually the first request we've ever gotten. We had planned on doing one eventually anyway but the request made me decide to get to that topic sooner. I belatantly recycle my notes from the review I wrote here, so some of the rambling here might sound familiar to readers.

Anyway, we'll crap out another Nerd Vomit episode real quick so we can make our "two episodes a month" quota I arbitrarily enforce on myself. The next two won't take as long. Probably.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1986)

10. Deadly Friend

I have an inordinate amount of affection for “Deadly Friend.” It’s not a great movie. It might not even be a good movie. And yet I find myself returning to it more then any other film in Wes Craven’s career. Unlike other not-good movies that I love anyway, the exact reason why I keep returning to Paul, Sam, and B.B. alludes me. Each viewing is like a puzzle, examining the flawed single pieces and trying to figure out why they come together to form such an appealing whole.

Based on the honestly not-bad young adult novel “Friend” by Diane Henstell, “Deadly Friend” follows young Paul Conway and his mother moving to a new town in Pennsylvania. Paul is a young genius and has built a fully functional robot best friend named B.B. Though he’s close to B.B., Paul has a hard time forming bonds with people. That is until he meets Sam, the lovely girl next door. Unfortunately, events align to rob Paul of the two people he loves most in his life, causing the young scientist to take things into his own hands and reveal himself as a modern Dr. Frankenstein.

“Deadly Friend” is a compromised picture. This was the first attempt by Wes to move away from the horror genre. Originally conceived as a more family friendly boy-and-his-robot story, released perhaps not coincidentally the same year as “Short Circuit” and probably inspired by “Gremlins,” the first cut tested soft. The studio demanded that this Wes Craven movie actually become a Wes Craven movie. The director shot and inserted a handful of gory sequences to transform the picture into a proper horror film. This schizophrenic birth is blatantly obvious in the final product. “Deadly Friend” shifts back and forth between cutesy kid antics and over-the-top horror gore set pieces.

The kids’ movie roots are still evident, most obviously in the character of B.B. The robot pushes suspension of disbelief too far. First off, we have to buy that Paul invented artificial intelligence in his garage. B.B. has a distinct personality, can learn, and is completely autonomous. B.B. speaks in his own language, an annoying collection of bleeps, grumbling, and repetitions of his own name. B.B.’s audio is provided by Charles Fleischer, better known as the voice of Roger Rabbit. So keep your ears open for a familiar sounding trill. The character’s design is overly cute, with his yellow chrome, glowing eyes, and smiling face. When the robot is called on to be dangerous or show rage, the cute design distracts. B.B. also has super-strength, which the film displays in the worse possible way, with a piano being stop-motion tossed across a room. All of these wacky robot shenanigans contrasts badly with the serious subject matter of child abuse.

It’s very clear where the harsher horror elements have been hastily inserted. There’s an opening jump scare, making this seem like a very different type of film and further attempting to establish adorable B.B. as a creditable threat. There are two nightmare sequences that were obviously inserted to cash in on “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” The first one begins with a disturbing suggestion of sexual abuse, which makes it careening into campy, over-the-top gore even more off-putting. The second has a nice build-up, panning from the outside of the house to the bottom of a bed. However, the eventual pay-off is silly and, once again, unrelated to the film’s actual themes. The first murder in the film builds all right and makes good use of a basement’s shadows. Sadly, an actor’s ridiculous death face ends the whole thing in laughter.

If the movie is remembered for anything, it’s for the infamous exploding head. It’s clearly the center piece of the film. The scene involves a slow build-up. The frightened old woman sees the resurrected Swanson in the neighboring window. It’s a potentially interesting moment that doesn’t quite work. Slowly, the movie piles on the atmosphere. We see close-ups on the lock coming undone. The open gate blows in the wind. A door creaks open. A basketball slowly bounces into frame. It’s the film's only moment of genuine suspense. A jump scare deflates a lot of that tension. But then again, the exploding head. The graphic gore doesn’t match the film’s overall tone. An exploded head and decapitated body twitching around, blood spurting everywhere, really doesn’t fit. The effects are obvious but awesome. The scene encapsulates all of the film’s problems but, taken on its own, is amazing.

Matthew Labyorteaux, looking much older then his fifteen year old character, is technically the lead actor. Labyorteaux occasionally underplays it. He doesn’t show much grief when loosing the love of his life nor is their any wonder when he realizes his plans to recreate life are successful. Sometimes, he goes in the opposite direction. Watching his beloved pet robot killed in front of him would surely be a traumatic experience. However, Labyorteaux cries of agony are deeply overdone. The general melodramatic presentation of the scene doesn’t help any. Even then, Labyorteaux does get a moment a two, especially in the film’s second act.

He has top billing but Kristy Swanson is the star. Swanson has a naturalistic charm that makes her a deeply convincing girl next door. She seems like a perfectly normal, adorable teenage girl. Her wide, expressive eyes is used fantastically, especially in the latter portion of the film where Swanson only has her face to act with. The two teen leads have strong chemistry together and it’s mostly Swanson’s doing. A moment when she comes to the house, nose bloodied, is great. Sam shrugs the abuse off and stands by her father, even if he is a bastard. Though it starts out appropriately awkward, their love is sincere and pure. Another fantastic, small moment is when Sam celebrates Thanksgiving with Paul and his Mom. The romance between the two teens is the heart and soul of the film. Maybe the sweetest moment in the movie comes after Sam’s resurrection, when she has realized what happened. The two teens sit across from one another, desperately wanting to hold each other but unable to. The movie attempts to capture romantic longing and teen angst throughout but only that moment is truly successful. Over all, far too much of the Sam and Paul’s budding relationship is glossed over.

It’s a good thing that the two leads are strong because the supporting cast is seriously thin. It’s not the cast’s fault but rather the script’s. Sam’s father is immediately, obviously evil. A scene of him glaring at an empty liquor bottle is especially heavy handed. Even after accidentally injuring his daughter, he shows no guilt or remorse. It doesn’t help that Richard Marcus seriously overplays it. Similarly, Anne Ramsey is nothing but cartoonish. She is obsessed with protecting her property and calling the cops on the teens, a complete cliché. Even Michael Sharrett as Paul’s other human friend is problematic. Sharrett does okay in the part but the subplot doesn’t add up to much. Sharrett is mostly in the movie to help out during the hospital heist sequence, a moment that is far too madcap considering what’s at stakes. That character’s arc is eventually handled in a sloppy, unsatisfying manner, the typical cliché of male friends coming to blows over a girl.

Aside from the moments of gory violence, Craven has difficulty creating decent suspense in “Deadly Friend.” A moment when Sam returns home to a seemingly empty house builds decently and plays off of Swanson’s natural vulnerability. Once again, it dissipates into a lame jump scare and broad characterization. There’s a long moment involving sleeping powder in a coffee mug. I’m not sure if that sequence is going for laughs or thrills. Only his visual presentation is strong, making good use of shadows, open space, and scene transition.

The tonal issue affecting “Deadly Friend” eventually causes the film to almost collapse in the last act. Like electricity and radiation in the past, it’s decided that microchips can do anything. Once Sam and B.B. are occupying the same body, Swanson starts to move in a stiff, robotic fashion. Her motionless facial features are fine, eerie even. However, the way she holds her arms and hands is really goofy. The premise becomes impossible to take seriously during the finale, when you have a small teenage girl leaping through windows, battering boys her own age, and lifting adult men over her head. To make matters worse, Sam eventually starts speaking with B.B.’s silly, computerized voice. The inept visual robs the scenes of any emotional impact they should have. Even the final, poetic image of Paul holding Sam’s lifeless body is ruined by the pointless, senseless pre-credits scare. It doesn’t make any sense, goes against the characters as we know them, and features a rather silly looking robot mask. Even Charles Bernstein’s score is conflicted, jumping back and forth from whimsical strings to throbbing synth.

I think what fascinates me about “Deadly Friend” is its potential. The story tackles teen romance, child abuse, family, loss, grief, and re-purposes classic horror concepts in a modern setting. The movie is a prime target for a remake, one that could better synthesize those themes into a more cohesive whole. It’s hard to say if Wes Craven’s originally intended version of “Deadly Friend” would be a better movie. The version we have is something of a spectacular mess, several beautiful elements shining through the tonal inconsistency. [Grade: B]

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1985)

9. Chiller

Though he was just coming off the biggest hit of his career and the film that would make his name synonymous with horror films, Wes Craven still had bills to pay. Or perhaps the critical and social clout of “Nightmare” wouldn’t become visible for a while. Either way, while Freddy was slashing up the box office, Wes was toiling in the TV movie trenches again. “Chiller” manages to be almost as silly as “Stranger in Our House” or “Invitation to Hell” but somehow even less entertaining.

The title might make you think “Chiller” is going to be an ice-themed horror flick. Instead, it focuses on the evils of cryonics! Yes, the same science that preserved Walt Disney’s head and threatened to make Gary Busey immortal. A man kept in stasis in a cryonics lab is suddenly unfrosted when his holding pod malfunctions. The liver transplant that was unavailable ten years ago has presented itself, bringing the newly unthawed Miles Creighton back to life. At first, his elderly mother, teenage sister, and corporate partners are overjoyed by the news. However, Miles came back wrong. He is now a soulless sadist, reeking passive-aggressive wrath on his unprepared family and friends.

Before we discuss the film proper, check out the DVD for this thing. It’s one of the strangest menus I’ve ever seen, falling just short of Inspector Gadget explaining everything to you. An omniscient narrator points out the features and describes the plot. The disc is either very old, very cheap, or, most likely, both. The film presentation itself is almost unwatchable. The sound is so garbled and static choked that you can’t even hear the dialogue some times. The picture quality is comparing to a third generation VHS, tracking lines intact. The commercial breaks have been hastily, awkwardly edited out. In other words, you might as well be watching this thing on YouTube.

The film’s script is rife with clichés and hokey elements. The film’s themes are theological, focusing on the purpose of the soul. This proves out of the reach of a crappy TV horror film from 1985. Cliché Watch: Man meddles in God’s domain and is punished for it. While Miles’ mother remains utterly clueless to his evilness up until the very end of the film, in what would almost be a decent portrayal of denial if it wasn’t so awkward, his pet Rottweiler is immediately aware. Naturally, the dog has to die first. A torn photograph is given overly melodramatic focus. The villain hits on trashy floozies before turning his sexist wrath on a female co-worker. A large portion of the film’s plot revolves around charity contributions!

Aside from being goofy and dumb, “Chiller’s” screenplay is also badly paced and awkwardly constructed. The film doesn’t have a proper protagonist, jumping back and forth between Miles, his mom and Paul Sorvino’s Reverend Penny. The audience never got to see Miles before his transformation, removing any meaning from his perverse new behavior. The first act is protracted, stretching on for a half an hour before the Chiller finally wakes up and makes it back to his home. Numerous other scenes drag on forever, like a scene of Sorvino and his wife talking about the soul in a church. The biggest issue with the film is that it’s so obvious to the audience that Miles is evil but everyone around him refuses to see it until it’s much too late. The mother, in particular, is deeply clueless.

“Chiller” utterly fails as a horror film. The opening scene stretches an attempted scare out for a long time, which involves a shambling aluminum foil man, before concluding with a lame fake-out. A scene largely shot form a dog’s perspective, as he stalks a hallway, might have worked had it been the killer’s perspective we were seeing. As it is, it’s a long scene with an unimpressive pay-off. One of the most ridiculous moments in the film is the stairway sequence. It’s dramatically shot but also utterly ridiculous. “Chiller” features one of the most passive aggressive killers in horror history, as Miles kills a man by forcing him to walk up the stairs. Why doesn’t the old man just stop? Beyond that, we’ve got a park stalking scene that builds to nothing. A car is used as a lethal weapon but in a laughable manner. A stunt man clamoring behind the vehicle as it drags him proves a comical sight. The finale in a meat locker could have, once again, been suspenseful if the filmmaker wasn’t so obviously bored with the material.

Only two or three horror sequences work in any way. The film somehow wrangled the great Stan Winston into doing the effects. This is only evident in one scene when the Chiller first wakes up, a bunch of bladders fluttering under his skin, an odd moment of body horror. It’s cool, even if it’s obvious and goes on too long. Miles sexually menacing his female co-worker honestly recalls “Last House on the Left,” even if the actress’ broad performance sinks any of the tension. The only moment that is truly creepy is the villain’s attempt seduction of his little sister. Besides the squick-y premise, the scene mostly works because Jill Schoelen is especially good at appearing vulnerable. Even then, the leopard print décor of the room adds some unintentional humor.

Speaking of the cast… Paul Sorvino is mostly grave and muted as the Reverend. He’s one of the few reasonable characters in the film, noticing something is wrong with Miles early on. He alternates between bored and committed to whatever dialogue he’s given. Schoelen’s role is very similar to her later part in “The Stepfather,” as another daughter that notices the new male in the house is villainous when others don’t. Michael Beck as the Chiller has a moment or two of devilish glee, his face bathed in blue lights, but is mostly horribly bland and muted. Beatrice Straight is, by far, the worse, delivering each line wide-mouthed and dumb founded.

“Chiller” eventually pays off on its title’s promise, Miles eventually becoming a blue-faced murderous ghoul, however briefly. A potentially poetic image of a mother cradling her dead son is ruined for the sake of a lame jump-scare. The film’s theme of religious conviction comes back for the hilariously melodramatic penultimate scene. “Chiller” then ends on one of the most unpromising sequel hooks I’ve ever seen, suggesting there’s an entire locker full of soulless murder machines just waiting to break out. Man, somebody’s gonna’ get sued over that.

And thus concludes the Wes Craven TV Movie Trilogy of Crap. Unlike the other two films in the trilogy, which were terrible but at least unintentionally hilarious, “Chiller” is mostly just a bore. The pacing is strained, the performances broad, and the scares non-existent. The droning electronic score might be one of the worse I’ve ever heard in a horror film, though the sound quality of the disk doesn’t help. You have my permission to skip this one. [Grade: D-]

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1984) Part 3

8. The Hills Have Eyes Part II

After “Deadly Blessing” was largely ignored by the public and “Swamp Thing” bombed, Wes Craven was in desperate need of some work. Out of this uncertain period, emerged the idea to sequelize what was, at the time, Craven’s biggest financial success. However, midway through filming “The Hills Have Eyes Part II,” time and money ran out. The film was abandoned. After “A Nightmare on Elm Street” reignited the director’s career, Craven tried to convince the producers to finish up “Hills Part II.” Instead, they told him to insert a bunch of stock footage from the first film into the new one. Thus, the misbegotten birth of “The Hills Have Eyes Part II.”

Picking up five years after the events of the first film, Ruby has integrated herself into polite society and Bobby is still haunted by the memories of what happened in the desert. He has also, oddly, invented a new type of super-active motorcycle fuel. His new group of motorcycle racer friends, including blind Cass, are headed out to the desert for a race and to test this new fuel. Bobby gets last minutes jitters and decides to stay home. This turns out to be a good decision. As soon as they are in the desert, the racers are attacked by a resurrected Pluto and his previously unmentioned uncle.

The movie is infamous for the amount of footage it recycles from the first film, perhaps only rivaled by “Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2” in the dubious category of literal rehash horror sequels. Even the original’s opening credits are reused. Scenes from the first film are so overused, and contrast so badly with the new ones, that the original is almost retroactively robbed of its power. It gets to the point where you wonder if a simple scene transition is actually another flashback. Every returning character gets a flashback, including the dog, a widely mocked, deeply silly moment. Aside from that, the opening scroll is obviously cribbed from “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” to a much lesser affect. If this is what was required to get the movie finished, I honestly wish the director had just left the raw footage in the vaults.

Even if the film had been finished as the director originally intended, I suspect it would still have been a pale shadow of the original. The script is hackneyed, goofy, and clichéd. A lot of horror sequels struggle with finding a good reason to place surviving characters back in the same harrowing situation. In the opening, Bobby recounts to his oddly enthusiastic shrink about how badly the encounter with Jupiter’s brood fucked him up. The mere thought of returning to the desert turns him into a weeping, quivering mess. So much so that… He doesn’t go back into the desert. The actor and character disappears abruptly at the end of the first act. This is a good indicator of the sloppy film to follow. That Bobby ends up being right isn’t something the movie addresses much. Actor Robert Houston is cashing a pay-check and his sudden exit seems unplanned. Ruby and the Beast, still the smartest dog in the world, able to detect evil, and incredibly spry considering he has to be pushing seventy in dog-years by this point; are the only reoccurring protagonist from the first film.

The movie’s excuse for getting everyone out in the desert again is weak. None of the characters in the first film ever displayed an interest in motorcycle racing. Its sudden intrusion into the story comes off as kind of random. The cast is headed for some sort of race but miss the deadline due to Daylights Saving Time, making “The Hills Have Eyes Part II” another eighties slasher film based around an unlikely calendar event. The prominent placement of motorcycles and dirt bikes makes me think that Yamaha put up some of the money for the film. Even the villains have them! The Super Formula of gasoline is such a blatant McGuffin and plot device. The film laboriously notes that it’s super-explosive, making the inevitable massive explosion even more predictable.

The script relies blatantly on clichés and hacky story devices. The movie knowingly indulges the slasher tropes of the day. Even though they are stranded in the desert and being hunted by savages, two young, nubile lovers sneak off for some nookie at one point. There’s a shower scene randomly inserted as well. A body is tossed through a window and Harry Manfredini’s score seems recycled from various “Friday the 13th” sequels. Despite this, slasher fans are bound to be disappointed. There’s little gore. A spear through the chest here, an axe in the head there, and two instances of blood from the mouth. The only true gore gag is an unconvincing throat-slashing.

What I hate most about the film is how fast and loose it treats the characters’ legacies. Making a sequel to “The Hills Have Eyes” without poster boy Michael Berryman would have been dicey, for certain. However, the character returns nearly without explanation. Pluto recovering from his wounds is given little explanation and doesn’t amount to much more then “He got better.” We are even shown Pluto’s very final seeming death in one of the notorious flashback scenes, making his miraculous recovery even more ridiculous. His eventual death is more-or-less recycled from Mercury’s demise in the first film. Getting pushed off a cliff by a dog might have befitted a minor character like Mercury but, for a horror icon like Pluto, it sure is unglamorous. Ruby too, has a very disappointing exit from the film, one that seems created more by sloppy editing then anything else.

Pluto’s mysterious reappearance is bad. The entire character of the Reaper is much worse. Papa Jupe having an older brother not only openly contradicts the information we were given in the first film, it’s a hacky, cheesy story choice. Perhaps that would have been forgivable if he was an effective villain. He’s not. The character looks silly, an undistinguished burly biker type with a ridiculous bulging forehead. He spends most of the movie whispering threats to characters off-screen. Near the end, he dives through a moon roof and gets stuck on the glass, allowing the final girl to escape. It says a lot about the Reaper’s effectiveness as a horror villain that a blind girl manages to escape him unharmed. Unlike Pluto, the character’s eventual death is totally fitting. (And features the movie’s sole Wes Craven Improvised Booby Trap.) When someone yells “The Reaper sucks!,” the audience is inclined to agree.

The new villain isn’t the only annoying addition to "The Hills Have Eyes” legacy. The whole cast are undistinguished spam-in-a-van (bus?) slasher bait. Harry, played by Peter Frechette, is maybe the most annoying prankster character to ever grace the genre. The events of the first film have become an urban legend, an admittedly interesting idea, which Harry recounts in extended detail, in an obnoxious “scary” voice. He does this several times. The character refuses to shut up. We are even denied the satisfaction of watching him die painfully, as the character is buried in an obscuring rock slide. Willard E. Pugh’s Foster is, similarly, maybe the most generic eighties black guy ever. His girlfriend, played by the lovely if otherwise uninteresting Penny Johnson, even calls him “a typical, paranoid black man.” His idea for winning her back after upsetting her involves chasing the girl down with a bus. The final girl, Cass played by Tamara Stafford, is blind, which is an intriguing idea. Scenes of her feeling around empty rooms, terror near-by, recall the much better, Mia Farrow thriller “See No Evil.” Even then, the movie pushes her advanced senses too far. A character asks if she’s psychic and she might as well be. The rest of the cast, with names like “Hulk” and “Jane,” don’t warrant mention. For the record, Michael Berryman hams it up as a cackling loon, which is at least entertaining. Janus Blythe contributes the only human moment in the whole movie, talking about her family and past while walking through the desert.

Yep, it's on Blu-Ray.
It probably isn’t worth mentioning but the movie isn’t scary. There’s an obvious, early fake-out scare involving a boyfriend in a mask which doesn’t even fools the film’s characters. This is the first of many obnoxious fake scares. There are so many that, when the actual scares come, you’re not sure if they’re the real deal at first. Silly as it is, the motorcycle action is at least somewhat excitingly shot. Weirdly, there’s a lot of focus on fight choreography. It’s actually not bad but seemingly untrained characters knowing how to pull off drop-kicks, judo tosses, and karate chops eventually comes off as ridiculous. The movie even acknowledges this when Rudy punches Foster straight in the face, the film’s sole moment of intentional comedy.

Well, the scenery is still nice. The design department contributes a few, cool looking bone sculptures. The movie is largely set around a mine shaft, a great location for a slasher film. It also appears to be where the cannibal clan keeps their plundered loot, which is a clever call-back to the first film. Over all though, “The Hills Have Eyes Part II” is a laughable, regrettable sequel. Wes Craven has publicly disowned it which says a lot, considering the films of his he does acknowledge. Also, the movie should have been called “The Hills Still Have Eyes.” [Grade: D]

Monday, July 15, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1984) Part 2

7. A Nightmare on Elm Street

“A Nightmare on Elm Street:” Every other film in Wes Craven’s career stands in its shadows, even his earlier and later successes. Though he had worked almost exclusively in the genre before, for Craven, there was no escaping horror after this one. The film birthed arguably the most iconic horror series of the eighties. It made Freddy Krueger a house-hold name, allowed him to join the pantheon of iconic movie monsters, and transformed Robert Englund into the closest thing we have to a modern day Boris Karloff. The movie more-or-less built New Line Cinema and Craven would spend most of the next decade trying to recreate its success. “Elm Street” is a film that turns normal movie nerds into horror fan boys.

But is it good? The story is well-known at this point. The high school students of Springwood, Ohio are all having nightmares about the same man. A strange figure in a red and green sweater, with a burnt face, and wearing a glove with claw-like blades on each finger. The dreams start out as just disturbing but the teens quickly discover that sleep can kill you. Nancy Thompson, after loosing her friend, sets out to solve the mystery, discovers who Freddy Krueger is and that her parents are hiding a huge secret.

A horror film’s success is often measured by whether or not the film is scary. If there’s anything “Nightmare” does better then anything else, it’s produce memorable, freaky images. The opening nightmare sets the tone, slowly building with creepy music, claws scraping against pipes, and the inexplicable appearance of a sheep. A figure pushes through the wall above a sleeping girl’s bed, linking this story of nightmares to many previous ones. Perhaps no image is more famous then that of Fred Krueger walking down an alley way, arms extended out so that his claws can touch the walls and produce the trademark sound effect. How about a dead girl in a body bag, standing up, centipede crawling out of her mouth, spools of muddy eels squirming at her feet? Or maybe the same body bag pulled along by an invisible force, a moment that always got me? If nothing else, “Nightmare” knows how to construct a killer jump scare.

If the nightmares weren’t what scared teens so much in 1984, maybe it was the gore. The use of nightmares allows the creation of slasher-killer murders unlike anything the audience had seen before this time. Tina floating into the air and getting dragged along the ceiling shows the movie isn’t afraid to break the rules and the pool of blood that forms behind her shows the movie is equally fearless about the red stuff. Yet the actress’ constant, frenzied screams is what makes the moment unsettling.

Good as that moment is nothing really tops the Blood Geyser. It is one of those indelible horror moments. The sheer amount of gore on-screen was probably unprecedented for 1984. Beyond that, the scene is disturbing for another reason. The wall is covered with dinosaur stickers. A stuffed animal, a vulture, sits over the boy’s bed. Despite being teenagers, Freddy’s victims are still children. A parent has lost a child. An innocent is gone. Perhaps most squarely, this scene gets at the central premise of the series and why it is still scaring people to this day.

Freddy Krueger would eventually devolve into the one-liner spewing clown of the horror genre. However, in this first film, he’s a fully-formed boogeyman. Moreover, the character reads almost totally as a child molester. His stalking is always accompanied by whispered threats, maniacal laughing, glares from behind pipes, and heavy breathing. His attacks are filled with vaguely erotic groans as he pushes his victim to the ground, squirming under the bed covers. The glove rising out of the tub water between Nancy legs further empathizes Freddy’s status as a sexual predator, as does the later, infamous “I’m your boyfriend now!” moment. And if all of that’s too subtle for you, Freddy even suggestively flicks his tongue during one of the nightmares. Even the greasy, pizza-face make-up design seems to suggest this.

Freddy was inspired by a frightening encounter Craven had as a child. The director describes him as somebody who “enjoys frightening children.” He relishes the chase, taunting his victims. My favorite example of this is Nancy’s stairway becoming cement potholes and Freddy wearing his previous victim’s face. It’s no wonder the later sequels would reveal that the character literally lives on fear. Unlike the sequels, this Freddy has no time for cheesy one-liners, a declaration of “This is God!” or “I’ll kill you slow” coming the closest. Furthermore, the claw glove is one of most unique and immediately iconic horror weapons ever devised. Even the movie realizes this, as the opening credits are devoted to its construction.

Freddy represents something else too: Upper-middle class suburban guilt. Ultimately, the teens’ fates are the fault of their parents’ actions. The sins of the parents are revisited on the children. This is almost blatantly illustrated when Nancy’s mom puts iron bars on the windows. The kids are trapped in prisons of their parents' devising. Despite burning the guy alive, none of the adults are willing to accept Freddy’s return as reality. Both Nancy and Glenn’s parents putting their offspring in peril has to be intentional. Before the last act, Nancy’s mother tells her that all she was trying to do was protect her. But you can’t protect your kids from the real world, from the literal and symbolic horrors of the world, or even the ones that lurk in the shadows of their own mind. The whole movie is about adults abusing and manipulating the youth for their own means. Freddy himself is the biggest example of this.

From a technical aspect, the movie is more touch-and-go. Craven’s direction is composed mostly of slow, creeping pans. It’s his writing that shines more, despite a few clichés here and there, such as character discussing a plan that’s destined to go wrong, a toothless method for beating the bad guy, and a shock of white hair. Even this early in his career, the filmmaker seems to be commenting on common horror tropes. Freddy getting his ass beat by a teenage girl is probably a comment on Jason and his like, the unkillable killer, while the dream sequences give an actual reason for the killer to teleport around. Craven also deploys what has become his most enduring trademark: The improvised booby trap. Freddy gets hit over the head with a glass vase, hit in the gut with a sledge hammer, falls down the stairs, and thrown back by an exploding light bulb. Despite being almost certainly intentional, the villain getting so soundly thrashed by a young girl is kind of comical. (Especially when a not-totally convincing stunt man is rolling down the stairs on fire.)

The special effects are soundly excellent. As the series would go on, Freddy’s make-up would get more and more away from the greasy, peeling look he has here. Which makes sense since the character would become less threatening with each film. The sound design in the film is amazing. You hear every claw mark on pipes or fabric. My favorite moment involves a choir of crying babies as flames builds behind the victim. The soundtrack could definitely be better. While the main theme sets the spooky tone nicely, the heavy synth actually defuses the tension of several attack scenes. Freddy’s main theme being a loud, shrieking synth riff isn’t great either.

The young cast is a mixed bag. Heather Langenkamp’s performance is uneven. When she’s pissed off but quiet, like when scolding her boyfriend or announcing to Freddy that she isn’t afraid of him, she’s great. However, Langenkamp gets broad when going for big emotions. Amanda Wyss is immediately likable so it’s a bit of a shame that Tina is the “Psycho”-style fake-out protagonist. Johnny Depp is fine if a little flat while Nick Corri is cartoonish and dickish. John Saxon, star of several giallos, gets to play the investigating detective. He’s stern but tough. Ronee Blakey is an odd performance. An Oscar-nominated actress, Blakey seems intentionally zoned out for most of the film. Okay, the character is an alcoholic and zoned out a lot but the delivery is still startlingly off. Of course, the movie’s biggest star wound up being Robert Englund who has no problems playing up Freddy as a creepy, repulsive figure, even if his power and style makes him alluring.

In the final scene, a mother smiles as her child is dragged off to god knows what fate, feeding soundly into the film’s theme of parental cluelessness. However, it makes the movie lack an ending. A sense of satisfaction is sacrificed in the name of one more scare. And it’s not even a great scare, as a green-and-red cloth top is more silly then frightening. However, Craven is at least smart enough to cap the movie off with one of his trademark moments of startling nihilism. 

Freddy Krueger is here to stay. Rachel Talalay couldn’t kill him, Jason couldn’t kill, and neither could Michael Bay and Samuel Fuller. The sequels tried to neuter him but the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” remains an effective horror boo-show. The film is almost as good now as it was when first released. [Grade: B+]

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1984) Part 1

6. Invitation to Hell

As a genre built on the fantastique, horror films occasionally come across premises that are absurd. Talented filmmakers can wring genuine chills out of killer cars or dolls, premises that are ridiculous on the surface. Far more frequently, horror filmmakers are unable to convincingly work with silly premises like killer beds, killer lamps, killer elevators, killer mirrors, killer clocks, etc. In his theatrical work, Wes Craven mostly avoided high concept goofiness. Yet in his television work, where he didn’t give a shit, he wound up directing a movie about a country club and health spa that is a doorway to hell.

There’s a deep strain of goofiness running through “Invitation to Hell.” The film begins with a driver, distracted by a pair of women in bikinis, accidentally running over Susan Lucci. Lucci, with an enormous eighties perm and wearing a tomato-juice orange full-body pantsuit, pops up, spring-loaded, on the other side of the vehicle, unharmed. She points a hand at the driver and the man melts, like a candy bar on the dash of a car. Backed by the groaning, pulsating synth score and a series of fake heartbeats, the sequence is hysterically pitched and absolutely hilarious. This should prepare you for what’s to come.

Robert Urich, his wife, their young son, and toddler daughter ride into a new town in their wood-paneled station wagon. Urich is a technology contractor, working with NASA on a mission to put a man on Venus, probably the last planet in the solar system NASA would actually want to go to. The suit has a number of impressive built-in features. Aside from an oxygen supply and the ability to survive in intensely hot temperatures, the suit also contains a laser gun and a flame thrower. The gun shoots a straight-up laser beam, a bolt of yellow, burning light. I’m not sure were the fuel for the flame thrower is kept. Perhaps more impressive, the suit can also read people’s “auras,” determining whether or not they are human or evil, a concept I’m fairly certain science doesn’t actually recognize. Anyway, none of that’s really important. The movie’s actually about the local country club, which is secretly a doorway to hell and run by demons, and their attempt to seduce Urich’s family into their demonic, soulless, evil ways.

And what about that family? Urich is probably the best leading man Craven had for any of his television films. It’s a fairly bland performance though Urich does get a good moment when tucking in his kids. His character at least recognizes how weird the entire community’s obsession with a spa is, even if his flat-out refusal to join is slightly overdone. At the very least Urich doesn’t fall into campy histrionics, unlike every other performance in the film. Barret Oliver, as the son, keeps an obsessive inventory of every item in the house and says things like “Computer heaven!” Meanwhile, Soleil Moon Frye, just a year away from becoming Punky Brewster, doesn’t seem aware that she’s on a film-set and plays imperiled especially badly.

Susan Lucci was probably the biggest name in the film at the time. She attempts to play her character as a wicked seductress. The eighties fashion, which includes much hairspray, shoulder pads, and pastel-colored pantsuits, distracts from this. Moreover, Lucci’s broad, cartoonish performance really distracts. Her character is obviously evil. She never makes the country club sound like anything but an obvious cult. Lucci bites into some deep cheese, speaking dialogue that no human has ever spoken, while seducing the family into joining. If she was intentionally going for campy humor, it’s a success. I somehow doubt that was the case. Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy and Bill Erwin show up for brief, professional roles and Michael Berryman has a blink-and-miss-it cameo.

“Invitation to Hell” was suppose to be a horror movie, I think. When it isn’t awash in day-glo camp, there are some attempts to scare. A long sequence involves a strange noise rapping at the door… That goes on too long and pays off in a senseless fake-out scare. Sometimes, some legit spookiness comes out of kids whispering strange things at night. However, kids melodramatically smashing video games and then getting a cookie aren’t it. The wife, played by Joanna Cassidy, gives into the evil very quickly. She displays her new demonic presence by buying new furniture, getting a haircut, and developing a major hate-on for the family dog, in a particularly awful moment. This builds up to a moment where Urich confronts his wife about the changes, her brandishing a butcher knife the whole time. In a better movie, it could have been a suspenseful sequence. However, Cassidy overacts to a major degree, casting the sequence in an exaggerated, overheated light. If it wasn’t for that, the synth score strobes along, adding to the ridiculousness. The way the couple makes up following this sequence also leads to unintentional laughs. The only semi-effective moment in the whole film is a fight between Urich and a beefy security guard. Even it delivers some laughs due to the abrupt way it ends.

The movie is a fairly transparent critique of eighties era excess and materialism. Everyone in the town is willing to quite literally sacrifice their souls to get ahead in life. The line, “Everyone is climbing over each other at work” is dropped at one point. But why a country club? You could tell a similar story, shift the health spa angle out with, I don’t know, a new promotion at work. Everyone in the film is so obsess with the Simmering Springs Country Club. The constant mention quickly goes from being silly, to annoying, and back around to ridiculous again.

Like “Summer of Fear” before it, in the last act, “Invitation to Hell” completely looses its shit. Rob comes home to discover that his daughter has disemboweled her favorite stuffed bunny with a crowbar. The image of Punky Brewster swinging a crowbar around, shouting “Bad bunny!” in a hopelessly cheesy demonic voice, produces nothing but laughter. It’s gets better, when the son jumps from the stairs onto his back and the wife attacks with a nine-iron, each one shouting in bad “Exorcist” voices.

The ridiculous has only begun to escalate. After stealing the astronaut suit and proving that his phasers are set to kill, Urich walks into the club’s Halloween party. For extra-subtly, one of the demonic club members is dressed as a Nazi. Our protagonist then walks into a literal fire and brimstone hell, resists Susan Lucci’s demonic charms, does a melodramatic dive into the abyss, and ends up in a version of the home town where all the color is inverted. Inside his house, the wife is tortured by playing the piano forever, surrounded by a blue light force field. Not to go too far into spoiler territory, but the power of love prevails. Piano keys shoot through walls and Lucci Xanadus herself out of existence. Normally, I’d say that explaining all of this has ruined the movie but some things you’ve really got to see for yourself.

This awesome poster has
little to do with the actual movie.

So that’s “Invitation to Hell.” Perhaps Wes thought of this one just as a paycheck. Perhaps he was focusing on “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” a significantly better film that would be released in the same year. Maybe he was going for intentional comedy. Either way, “Invitation to Hell” is an invitation to madness, boredom, and lots of wacky laughs. [Grade: C-]

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1982)

5. Swamp Thing

After finding success in the independent horror realm, Wes Craven was finally called upon by a mainstream studio to direct a crowd-pleasing genre picture, adapted from a comic book. Despite resembling the career paths some recent filmmakers have taken, “Swamp Thing” has little in common with modern comic book blockbusters. The budget was hardly huge. Craven wrote it himself, inspired less by the long-running DC Comics second-stringer and more by 1950s creature features.

Written before Alan Moore’s mystical reinvention of the character made him a critical darling, “Swamp Thing: The Movie” is a campy, action-adventure monster mash. Adrienne Barbeau stars as Alice Cable, a government agent sent to investigate scientist Alec Holland’s work on plant biology. Unfortunately for our heroes, evil villain Anton Arcane wants the research for himself. They destroy Holland’s lab and leave the scientist for dead while Alice runs off through the swamp. If you know the origin story, you know the explosion only transformed Holland into Swamp Thing, the vegetable defender of justice. Arcane’s men try to hunt down Cable, get Holland’s research back, all the while dealing with their new superpowered adversary.

It also represented Craven’s first step outside of the horror genre. “Swamp Thing” might be a monster movie but it’s barely a horror film. There’s a brief head crushing scene that’s as non-graphic as a head-crushing can get. Later on, we get two somewhat grisly transformation scenes. Both involve vegetation sprouting through human skin. The last transformation goes even further, with blood running down a face and a strange moss-like substance covering the person whole.

Despite featuring grotesque creatures and men being picked off by a monster in a swamp, “Swamp Thing’s” tongue is strictly in cheek. Craven’s direction drawls blatant attention to the story’s comic book roots. The film makes repeated use of stylized, frankly cheesy scene transitions, some of them shaped like explosions or slime dripping down the screen. Swamp Thing tosses henchmen around like rag dolls, their bodies flying through the air in slow-motion, sometimes accompanied by a shout of “Oh shiiiit!” or a Wilhelm Scream. The campiness peaks in the last act when a helpful midget who shouts puns like “Have a nice trip!” or “See you in the fall” shows up. Geez. This was the era of Christopher Reeves, so I suppose camp was the default mode for superhero flicks. The film’s super-cheesy trailer makes this apparent.

When Craven isn’t intentionally referencing the film’s comic book origins, he is treating the material like a retro monster movie. Henry Manfredini’s score is intentionally overblown and cheesy. Swamp Thing frequently plays like a heroic Gill-man, jumping out from behind trees to dispose of villains. He even holds Barbeau in the classical Monster’s Touch pose at one point. When he’s being bombarded by grenade shells, you can’t help but feel sorry for the poor guy. Craven even gets his heroine chained to the dungeon wall, surrounded by torch wielding baddies.

In some ways, the film’s production values seem higher then what Craven usually works with. There’s some lovely swamp photography throughout, a big explosion, and plenty of gun shots. The abandoned church and laboratory sets look great. Foggy swamp atmosphere is deployed at one point as is some stylish green-lighting. Craven even throws in some point-of-view shots.

However, the money doesn’t seem to have been spent on the creature effects. Considering he’s the title character, Swamp Thing probably could have looked better. The suit is rubbery and the stiff mask doesn’t allow for much expression, leaving Swampy with a permanent smirk. He looks fine when shambling through the swamplands like the Skunk Ape. But when running or tearing through vehicles, the flaws in the make-up are obvious. The villain’s final monstrous form, a were-boar of some sort, is even worse. The design itself is lousy with unmoving yellow eyes and perpetually open jaws. The final monster-on-monster tussle is largely underwhelming for these reasons.

What “Swamp Thing” does have going for it is a solid cast. Adrienne Barbeau, in all her big-haired eighties glory, makes an especially strong lead. Barbeau is tough, successfully and easily fighting off a pair of male adversaries. She even guns a guy down with an AK-47, suggesting an alternate universe where Barbeau could have been a female Rambo. She does well in the part, even making lines like “You thrive on the light” sound believable. Despite being a strong female lead, the movie never backs away from sexualizing her. Adrienne’s clinging t-shirt gets wet on two separate occasions, when she isn’t running around without a bra on or wearing a low-cut gown. She even went topless for a frequently edited bath scene.

Barbeau also has fine chemistry with her co-star, Ray Wise. A scene of the two talking while on a boat trip through the swamp works well. The two have a catty back-and-forth that I like. Wise plays his part as a benevolent mad scientist, passionate about plants and helping the world. It’s sort of a shame that he exits the film as earlier as he does. Louis Jourdan camps it up as the villainous Anton Arcane. He is at his best when quoting Nietzsche and going on about the values of genius. David Hess plays a glowering henchman with a deadly karate chop. It’s a very different type of villain then what he played in “Last House.” Despite this, occasionally elements of deadly woman-hater Krug will shine through, like when man-handling Barbeau.

“Swamp Thing” should be a swift, entertaining action fantasy and, occasionally, it is. The overwhelming camp and shoddy effects really hold the film back. The script is hokey at times too, since it features a sassy black kid, Chekov’s Magical Healing Swamp Powers, and a potion which brings out a person’s inner self. I want to like the movie more then I actually do.

Despite only being a modest success, the film was popular enough to spawn a bonkers sequel, a television series with a small cult-following, and even a short-lived cartoon and far better remembered accompanying toy line. As you’d expect, a new “Swamp Thing” film is in development right now. I suspect it will drawl more from Alan Moore then this flick. [Grade: C+]

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1981)

4. Deadly Blessing

“Deadly Blessing” is the third part of what I like to refer as Wes Craven’s Savage Wilderness Trilogy. Starting with “Last House on the Left,” continuing into “The Hills Have Eyes,” and concluding here, each details acts of violence in rural areas. Strengthening my theory is that most of the director’s films from this point on would be set in suburban, urban, or even exotic locations. The thematic trilogy also clearly shows the director’s evolution. His premier and sophomore efforts are rough and nasty. “Deadly Blessing” is his most competently shot and made film yet. To show his complete transition into a fully commercial filmmaker, Craven only co-wrote “Deadly Blessing.”

The film follows Martha, a normal girl who lives near a community of Hittites, an Amish analogue. Her husband, a former Hittite, is killed mysteriously, prompting two of her friends to come and keep her company. The murders continue, the girls are haunted by strange nightmares, the Hittites claim Martha is an Incubus, and members of the religious community struggle against sexual and social repression.

“Deadly Blessing” is somewhat uneven as a horror film. There are some effective horrific sequences. The scariest moment takes place in the barn. It features several nice jump scares, like black shutters slamming suddenly over the windows. A character running into a spider web or the spider climbing over her exposed cleavage will probably make arachnophobes squirm. The scene pays off fantastically when a corpse on a rope suddenly drops into frame. Spiders show up again in an effectively creepy nightmare that plays on common fears. The moment was memorable enough to make the poster. It’s the only time that the musical score actually elevates the horror.

Sadly, most attempts to be scary fall flat. James Horner’s score is deeply overdone. Ominous “Omen”-style chanting features heavily when Horner isn’t indulging his love of sweeping strings and horns. The music frequently undoes any tension the movie could have created. The director made another odd choice. During two of the attacks, the action lapses into slow motion. It’s a bewildering and distracting decision. The movie piles on the jump scares near the end. There’s blood in milk, a scarecrow at the door, and a casket full of chickens. All of these moments border silly and are very loud. Craven’s direction is usually solid, making good use of crash-cuts and slow pans. However, one moment features a cheesy fade-to-black which makes me think Wes had been spending too much time in TV-Movie-ville.

The movie willingly indulges in the clichés of the, at the time, still young slasher sub-genre. There are multiple POV shots from the killer’s perspective. Lovers in their pure bedroom are stalked by an unseen killer. Later on, a peeping tom is stabbed in the back, punished for catching a glimpse of naked flesh. A stand-out moment near the end is directly patterned after the Dead Boyfriend urban legend. The image of a black gloved hand, knife brandished, stabbing through a convertible’s cloth-top recalls Italian giallos. When a trail of flames is following a car, the driver isn’t smart enough to just jump out. Adding the perfect cherry on the slasher movie clichés sundae, the movie even throws in a Useless Authority Figure.

“Deadly Blessing” sometimes plays like a prototype for “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” A moment were a girl is menaced in the bath by a snake was almost recreated shot-for-shot in the more famous film. Personally speaking, while all the spider stuff creeps me out, I have no fear of snakes so the scene doesn’t work for me. Your mileage may vary on that one, I guess. There are other signs of “Elm Street,” like the repeated nightmare scenes or young girls discussing dreams of menacing strange men. Those looking for further Craven call-outs will notice a cameo from Beast and a brief appearance of “Summer of Fear.”

Maren Jensen of “Battlestar Galactic” fame, stars in her last role before disappearing from film work. Jensen is never overly charismatic, flat once or twice, but eventually proves likable. If nothing else, the film uses Jensen’s brilliant blue eyes nicely. Sharon Stone spends most of the movie nearing a nervous breakdown. It’s hard to read the performance and the character eventually becomes irritating. Susan Bruckner is easily the most likable of the cast. Bruckner has great chemistry with Jeff East. Their romance is a highlight and Barr’s subplot, a man bristling against his religious convictions, is frequently more interesting then the horror storyline. Lisa Hartman and especially Lois Nettleman come close to overdoing it, with their country accents. Michael Berryman plays another mentally afflicted man-child. He’s a little comical, running around screaming “Incubus!,” but he works better when interacting with kids.

Ernest Borgnine received a Razzie nomination for his performance which is very unfair. It might be easy to criticize him, especially when delivering lines about God’s nostrils. However, he’s actually quite good. He plays a man that control his community through religious prosecution and threats of violence. I love how he turns on a dime, being a kind father one minute and a wide-eyed religious fanatic the next. Borgnine believes his words, imbuing the fire-and-brimstone sermons with real intensity.

The script is somewhat muddled. The plot doesn’t start rolling until 22 minutes in and an opening and closing narration is obviously tacked-on. I dislike the gender bender plot twist. It comes out of nowhere, makes little sense, awkwardly fits into the film’s themes, doesn’t provide a satisfying motive for the murders, and might honestly be offensive to transgender viewers. Horror always has an uneasy relationship with superstition and religion, criticizing those beliefs while frequently playing them straight. “Deadly Blessing” wants it both ways, a critique of overbearing religion that also uses those ideas for cheap scares. The screenwriters also misuse the word incubus, a very male demon that is used to refer to a group of women.

If nothing else, “Deadly Blessing” has got a hell of a last minute jump-scare. I really doubt you’ll see that one coming. Only available for years as a grainy VHS tape, or internet rips of a grainy VHS tape, “Deadly Blessing” was recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray for the first time. The film has never looked or sounded better. While it’s unlikely that the movie will ever be reevaluated as a lost classic, it’s not without merits. [Grade: B-]   

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1978)

3. Stranger in Our House

Welcome to the land of 1970’s TV movies. Many folks declare the decade as the best for the format, especially in the horror genre. Indeed, television did produce many classics during this time. But for every “The Night Stalker,” “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” or even a “Bad Ronald,” there was a “Stranger in Our House.” It was Wes Craven’s first time working in TV, a field he would return to repeatedly through out his career with decidedly mixed results.

Based on a young adult novel by Lois Duncan, the film follows the Bryant family. An uncle, aunt, and their house keeper recently perished in a car accident. The surviving niece, Julia, comes to stay with the Bryants. While mom, dad, older brother, and even younger brother are fine with this, middle daughter Rachel has some suspicion. Something is off with Julia’s story. Petty misfortunes begin to affect Rachel, while every one in the family just loves Julia more and more. Could something sinister be afoot, hmmm?

“Stranger in Our House” is an exercise in high ridiculousness, from beginning to end. The opening credits play over footage of a car madly careening around twisting mountain roads, the musical score pitched at hysterical levels. This is only the first deeply silly thing that happens. How about the horse? The horse, named Sundance, can detect evil, prompting it to go on several rampages throughout the film. It smashes its obviously fake legs through a car window, the musical score blaring and Fran Drescher screaming. Later on, it goes nuts at a horse show, pushing awkwardly through a tent. That happens because Julia, who is an evil witch, made a weird clay effigy of the horse, one that kind of looks like a hairy yam.

To find out that the film is based on a book written for teenage girls is not surprising. The stakes here are astonishingly low. What are the awful things Julia does to Rachel? Causes her prom dress to fit badly! Gives her really bad acne! And on the day of the prom! She accomplishes this by drawling red dots on a photograph. And, oh no, she wears Rachel’s dress to the dance and magically steals her boyfriend! These most pedestrian threats are treated with not only up-most seriousness, but melodramatic emphasis. The most evil thing Julia does is give an old dude a heart attack and, I guess, cause some potentially fatal car accidents.

Aside from its general hilariousness, “Stranger in Our House” has another serious problem. Linda Blair, sporting some frighteningly frizzy hair, is impossible to take seriously as a dramatic lead. Her cutie-pie voice drains any convincing quality from all the dialogue. Lines like “Whoa, Sundance!” or “A rat-fanged varmint!” are especially hard to swallow. Blair can’t convey emotion in any believable manner. She takes the death of her aunt extremely well. When a beloved pet dies before her very eyes, Blair’s sorrow plays as a petty temper-tantrum. She spends the entire latter half of the movie pouting like a snotty teenage girl. Did I mention she’s dressed up as a cowboy at one point?

The script is predictable. Julia, as played by Lee Purcell, immediately covets everything Rachel has. The movie goes out of its way to contrast the two characters, making it glaringly apparent from the beginning that Julia is not who she claims to be. The movie features one of my most hated horror clichés: No body believes the protagonist. Even though Julia is a blatant, transparent villain. Even though the coincidences pile up so quickly, something unusual must be happening. All this does is make Blair look even more ineffectual and makes her family look like total bitches. Lee Purcell slips in and out of a silly Southern accent, ruining an all ready shaky performance. Oh, and did you know witches can’t be photographed? I thought that was only vampires but apparently not.

The movie is notable, I guess, for featuring an early performance from Fran Drescher. She schleps her way into the film, visibly flubbing her dialogue several times. She trades obnoxiously “girly” dialogue with Blair. Despite the situation being serious (to the characters anyway), the girls seem to have a lot of fun sleuthing around. Beyond Drescher, Macdonald Carey has a thankless small part as the very convenient occult expert in town. He delivers grave, self-serious dialogue in a professional, committed fashion.

From the technical perspective, the score is a huge problem. It’s super happy at times, such as during the montage that exist to display some deeply seventies fashion. When it’s not inappropriately upbeat, the music is poundingly melodramatic. Concerning Wes Craven, trademarks of his like POV shots or long pans crop up once or twice. You could say the film fits into his reoccurring theme of family. There’s an incestuous relationship that is introduced and promptly never mentioned again. And there might be an early example of intentional shaky-cam during the aforementioned horse rampage.

After dragging in total boredom for a good hunk of its middle section, “Stranger in Our House” goes nuts at the end. The villain drops a load of leaden exposition for no reason before attacking Blair. She fights the witch off with a camera, prompting the villain to show off her superpowers. She punches through a wall, wears some goofy contact lens, and blows a door off its hinges. What follows is one of the most ridiculous car chases I’ve ever seen. There’s a rough zoom on a road sign and the baddy is disposed off in the most absurd horror villain’s demise since Ed Wood’s “Bride of the Monster.” We conclude with Linda Blair squee-ing over a new pony and an incredibly lame “Or Is It?” ending.

There's not a single poster for
this movie with the original title.
It’s hard to believe but “Stranger in Our House” was actually released theatrically in Europe, under the title “Summer of Fear.” The same title is on the DVD which, despite being out of print, can still be easily found. I don’t know why television producers looked at Craven’s early, extreme films and decided he was perfect for television. [Grade: D]