Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (2010)

22. My Soul to Take

“My Soul to Take” was supposed to be Wes Craven’s proud return to the horror genre. He hadn’t directed one of his own screenplays since 1994’s “New Nightmare.” While he wrote a novel and the regrettable English-language remake of “Pulse” in the meantime, Wes was mostly directing other people’s work. What ideas had the filmmaker been sitting on in that time? You’d think horror fans would want to know. However, “My Soul to Take” came out while “Scream 4” was all ready in active production, the sequel overshadowing the stand-alone film. I actually saw “My Soul to Take” in the theaters. Not because I planned to but because the projector broke down two minutes into “Let Me In,” forcing me to jump across the hallway to the theater showing this film. I was nearly alone in the auditorium which should give you a good idea of the public’s general disinterest in the film.

Like all of the “Scream” films, “My Soul to Take” blasts out of the gates with a semi-unrelated prologue. The opening minutes are burdened with setting up the premise. A seemingly normal man, with an expecting wife, actually has six alternate personalities, one of which is a vicious serial killer called the Riverton Ripper. Or, as an otherwise unimportant character explains, his body contains seven different souls, each at war for control. As the opening makes apparent, the Ripper personality is winning that war. After murdering his wife, his shrink, and nearly murdering his toddler daughter and a police detective, the Riverton Ripper apparently escapes into the night. Along with his son, who survives the mother’s death, six other children are born that night. Anyway, among the badly implemented CGI effects, an overly elaborate ambulance crash, terrible dialogue, jump scares, and a hilariously goofy voice, there are things worth recommending. An establishing shot of the fog-drench river and full moon is rather atmospheric while the killer stepping between two mirrors, causing numerous reflections, cleverly illustrates the man’s problems more then any leaden exposition can. All of “My Soul to Take” carries this schizophrenic tone, memorable moments struggling along aside some goofy bullshit.

In the sixteen years after the opening, the Riverton Ripper has become an urban legend, still rumored to stalk the forest around the river. The seven children gather on their birthday and the anniversary of the crime, the burnt-out ambulance turned into an altar of sorts. The way the teens discuss the specifics of the legend are slightly overdone but I like it anyway. Each of the kids adapt to the legend in their own way, some frightened, others mocking. Wes actually has a strong control of atmosphere throughout. There are numerous establishing shots of a bridge, trees, a railway, and a river, each one choked with fog. Both of these things hit sweet spots for me, perhaps making it easier for me to forgive the film’s flaws.

The teenager characters end up being one of the film’s strongest aspects. An early montage quickly establishes each one, avoiding clichés. Penelope is deeply religious, has a personal relationship with God, but somehow isn’t an overly judgmental, puritanical asshole. Brandon at first appears to be a stereotypical jock but, right before his death, gets a weirdly humanizing moment, revealing layers. Brittany follows along with the high school clique but obviously isn’t happy with it. At the center of the film is the friendship between Bug and Alex. The two are both outcasts, one dealing with obvious mental problems, the other dealing with an abusive step-father. They bound over girls and how to navigate the high school social system. The interaction between all the characters feels realistic. “My Soul to Take's” biggest attribute is it's likable cast.

At least, most of the cast anyway. Blind Jerome lacks development, his disability being his sole defining characteristic. A subplot revolves around Bug’s older sister, a vicious high school bully nicknamed “Fang.” You get the impression that Wes watched “Mean Girls” one too many times during the writing process. The movie has a long way to go towards making her likable, especially concerning her vile treatment of her younger brother. A moment where she destroys a doll house drips with overly precise symbolism. Bug joining in, destroying a rocking horse, changing out of a white t-shirt into a black one, declaring his loss of innocence, is equally on-the-nose.

Even after all these years, Craven can still string together a decent attack scene. The first kill, a chase across a bridge, builds well. A stalking scene through the school’s pool creates some decent tension, escalating noise adding to it. A particular death sticks out. The camera focuses on the victim’s white sneakers, blood slowly pouring over them, staining the shoe’s red. The characters being likable make each death actually shocking, something you can’t say for a lot of stalk-and-slash flicks.

The tension isn’t sustained, disappointingly. Almost the entire second half is contained within Bug’s home. Long scenes of the boy fighting the Ripper through the dark go nowhere, quickly becoming repetitive. A letter from the past drops into the protagonist’s lap, conveniently explaining too many details. The audience can figure out the killer through simple process of elimination. A timeline is put together too quickly, too cleanly. The climax ultimately fizzles out, the story resolving without much excitement.

The film’s primary problem is its presentation of the killer. The Riverton Ripper speaks in a ridiculous deep voice, frequently yelling overdone profanities. Often, any thrills or tension the film’s effective elements build are compromised by that damn stupid voice and the awful dialogue. The killer’s design is uninspired, looking like Rob Zombie and Michael Rooker’s ill-conceived child. Furthermore, the Ripper’s appearance makes no sense, given the information we learn at story’s end. I also dislike Bug taking on the personalities of his dead school mates, something that’s never justified and handled clumsily.

Not many people liked“My Soul to Take,” even the hardcore horror crowd. Probably because, like so many of Wes’ film, the movie has a goofy streak. Most infamous is when a kid whips up an elaborate condor costume in his bedroom, climaxing in the condor puking and shitting all over his classmates. It’s deeply silly but endearingly so. Bug’s obsession with condors, ravens, and vultures is a little odd. The movie tries to justify this but never quite makes it work. The film is awash in Craven trademarks. “My Soul to Take” is another Wes Craven film about the relationship between parents and children. The sins of the father are revisited on the son and Bug’s relationship with his adopted mother provides some emotional barring in the latter half. The goofiness continues right through to the end where a cartoon condor flies over the end credits.

Once again, I stand on the opposite side of fan and critical conscientious. I like “My Soul to Take.” The flaws are obvious and deep. I can’t blame anybody if they dislike it. However, the movie mixes likable characters, occasionally well orchestrated moments of horror, and just enough good-natured camp to keep it all interesting. It’s as much a Wes Craven movie as anything else he’s ever made. [Grade: B-]

Friday, August 23, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (2005) Part 2

21. Red Eye

“Red Eye” was Wes Craven’s second attempt to break out of the horror genre. After the fiasco that was “Cursed,” who could blame the guy? However, unlike the schmaltzy “Music of the Heart,” “Red Eye” was something a little more palatable to his fan base: A thriller, about a strong woman, a menacing man, and just enough political intrigue to keep it squarely out of the horror genre. The high-concept catch? Most of the movie is set in the high-stakes confines of an airplane.

“Red Eye” delights in Hitchcockian games of misdirection. After a fast paced opening credits montage that sets up all the competing plot lines in a clever, visual manner, we are introduced to our heroine. Lisa, a well-respected hotel clerk, is immediately established as someone who can get things done quickly while maintaining a cool head, no matter the situation. While in an airport, waiting to catch a flight back to Florida, she bumps into Jack. The two have a meet cute right out of a romantic comedy. There is an immediate chemistry between them. Jack invites her over to the airport bar, the two trading banter about their favorite drinks. Cillian Murphy’s glowing blue eyes, manly stubble, and general handsomeness seems to paint him as the perfect romantic leading man.

The romantic comedy the first act seems to be building towards is slowly subverted. Jack has very casual phone conversation, the viewer unaware of the nefarious events being discussed. Once on the plane, when the story truly gets going, his pleasant veneer begins to strip away, revealing sinister intentions. Lisa at first seems uncertain to believe what he’s saying, just like anyone else would. However, Jack doesn’t waver, revealing himself as a cold, calculating psychopath. The middle block of “Red Eye” revolves around the rather irresistible concept of two at-odds individuals having intense conversations in a small, stressful location.

Odds are “Red Eye” wouldn’t have worked without Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. Murphy is introduced as someone who can take control of a situation quickly, making him the micro-managing McAdams’ perfect foil. Even in the early going, there’s something subtly threatening about his demeanor. Murphy plays the eventual change brilliantly, never altering his straight-froward, slightly sarcastic delivery. It’s amazing how much malevolent intent he can pack into a single glance. With few words, he can quickly deflate the heroine’s hopes of escape. McAdams is someone the audience can root for. In Lisa, she finds a balance between strength and vulnerability, creating a character that is both sympathetic and likable.

“Red Eye” is about something else too. Though it’s a topic Craven has frequently floated around, this film finds the director confronting gender relations as a theme for the first time. Casually, early on, Murphy drops a line about men being driven by facts and women being driven by emotion. The film never puts more of a fine point upon the character’s sexism, instead letting McAdams’ strength and refusal to panic speak as a proper rebuttal. It isn’t long before Cillian is lording his male physicality over her, downing her with an unexpected headbutt. Murphy’s intensity is frightening during a confrontation in the plane’s bathroom, one that implicitly suggests a sexual assault… Something the script makes more blatant. Lisa’s strong personality is the direct result of a previous sexual assault. It’s an unfortunate example of Rape as Backstory, even if it furthers the picture’s themes. There’s no reason Lisa needed a violation in her past in order to make her a strong female character. McAdams’ strong performance does make this turn a little easier to swallow or at least overlook.

A few physical scuffles aside, Jack’s main weapon is his voice. After a brilliant visual reveal, Lisa takes Jack’s main weapon away from him. Without delving too deeply into “Men, Women, and Chainsaws” territory, Lisa disabling her male aggressor with a phallic-shaped pen can’t be unintentional. Lisa’s escape from the plane is helped along by another young girl. While playing into the story’s subtext, it’s also an example of the fine-tuned screenplay, which nicely sets up many small plot details before paying them of in surprising, creative fashion later on.

In the last act, “Red Eye” gets really ripping. Wes can’t keep the entire story limited to one location forever. The story eventually falls into a cycle of Jack threatening Lisa. Breaking away from the plane setting keeps the story fresh. It also turns “Red Eye” into a thrilling chase story. A pursuit through the airport food court is milked for all the tension it’s worth. The finale goes small again, connecting with the movie’s emotional subplot. Cillian’s reappearance, wheezing, glowering, is great. The whole movie builds towards the direct confrontation between these two characters. Both characters cleverly misdirect their opponent. A search through a bedroom keeps the audience guessing and pays off fantastically. Even the political assassination subplot, though little more then a MacGuffin, has a dramatic, exciting conclusion.

Though Murphy and McAdams are the stars of the show, the small supporting cast has its notable members as well. Brian Cox, usually cast as bad guys or spy masters, gets to play a normal guy for once. An early phone conversation quickly sets up the relationship between father and daughter, how one compulsively worries about the other. They are close but both have their quirks. Jayma Mays’ gets to play up her wide-eye adorableness as Cynthia, the neurotic hotel clerk working in Lisa’s stead. Mays’ plays her nervous reactions for decent comedy. I don’t have much positive to say about Angela Paton and Laura Johnson’s small supporting roles. Either aren’t much more then broad stereotypes. Perhaps intentionally, since their characters are credited as Nice Lady and Blonde Woman.

It’s easy to nitpick the film’s story. Was such an elaborate plot really necessary just to change a hotel room? Cell phone trouble, the favorite dramatic crutch of modern horror/thriller writers, are employed dutifully. A rocket launcher gets an overly dramatic introduction. After such a thrilling finale, the movie’s short resolution scene seems a bit underwhelming. And, once again, Marco Beltrami’s score is typically noisy and distracting.

To call “Red Eye” Wes Craven’s last great film is overselling it. It’s a speedy, briskly entertaining genre piece and not much more. However, the director seems really engaged with his material for the first time in a while. He makes great use of the tight plane setting, swiftly panning around the location in inventive ways. A close-up on McAdams’ face while Murphy verbally tears her apart is especially notable. The film perhaps should have opened up an exciting last act to Wes’ career. Instead, Wes went back to horror, applying his still considerable talents to derivative projects. In the future, I suspect “Red Eye” will be looked back on for the gem it is. [Grade: B+]

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (2005) Part 1

20. Cursed

After reviving the slasher genre with the “Scream” series, Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven decided to next resurrected another moribund horror favorite: The werewolf. Unfortunately, “Cursed” was a deeply compromised affair. Half the movie was shot when production was shut down and the script completely rewritten. When filming started up again, half of the cast had moved on to other projects, forcing recasting and replacements. When the protracted production was finally finished up, further studio meddling ensued. The R-rated film was cut down to a PG-13 for strictly commercial reasons. By the time “Cursed” finally limped into theaters in 2005, the mainstream appetite for “Scream”-style horror flicks had long since dried up and the hardcore crowd knew to stay away. The movie bombed and remains a low point in Craven and Williamson’s careers.

Like “Scream,” “Cursed” revolves around characters in a werewolf movie that have seen werewolf movies before. When Hollywood production assistant Ellie and her younger brother Jimmy are scratched by a strange animal, Jimmy immediately recognizes it as a werewolf. He looks up information through an immediately dated search engine and in an oddly helpful book. When both are in doubt, they pick up a silver pie server to see if it burns. The movie references “The Wolf Man,” prominently features the famous cane, and reintroduces the pentagram on the palm as part of the werewolf mythos. (Though it gets it backwards, with the pentagram appearing on the wolf’s hand, not the victim’s.) Williamson, once again, sets the film in Hollywood, allowing for bizarre cameos from Scot Biao, Craig Kilborne and Lance Bass, of all people. He rips himself off too, as the opening scene featuring Shannon Elizabeth as a special guest victim is an obvious attempt to recreate the opening of “Scream.” However, Shannon Elizabeth is no Drew Berrymore and “Cursed” can’t build a single molecule of tension.

Everything wrong with “Cursed” can be broken up into three clear categories. There are elements that are simply underwritten, oddly paced, or undone by shoddy special effects. The movie indulges in clichés like an evil-sensing dog, fake-out nightmare sequences, and repeated, exhausting jump-scares. Any time a character walks in to frame, it is accompanied with a loud musical sting on the soundtrack, over and over again. A genuinely subtle moment, like a victim snatched up into the ceiling, is immediately undermined by a loud blast of music.

The tone is frequently weirdly melodramatic. A confession of love in a hall of mirrors or shouted discussion through a car window feel hopelessly phony and off. The protagonists come to conclusions about characters with little evidence or proof. Christina Ricci’s pixie face bending into monstrous contortions provides laughter or bizarre looks of disbelief instead of fear. Despite seemingly wrapping up around the hour mark, the story drags out for another half-hour. These are miscalculations, the result of bad writing or an overzealous composer.

Normally, that would be enough to derail a film but “Cursed” has another problem. A streak of bat-shit insanity runs through the film. Deeply ridiculous things happen on screen with little warning. The tone shifts back and forth between overcooked horror and screwball comedy with abandon. A character wakes up naked on the lawn for no reason, a melodramatic blare of music playing on the soundtrack. A party full of people dressed as ostrich or giraffes features prominently. Dogs gather in front of their house, encouraging Jimmy to join them in a hearty howl. That leads up to the were-dog. As absurd as that premise is, the execution is actually worse. The CGI is wince inducing, a barely believable ball of computerized fluff, and the actors are seemingly nonplussed by it. Oh yeah, the were-dog is also named Zipper. Zipper. All the CGI in the film is terrible, as proudly displayed during an extended transformation sequence. Later on, Jimmy, on a wrestling mat, tosses people ten feet into the air, hard rock music blaring behind him. This sets precedence. Every punch and kick sends someone flying.

The last act goes completely fucking nuts. The werewolf attacks in a swanky Hollywood night-club, decorated with odd wax mannequins of celebrities and fictional characters. There’s a cat fight, a ridiculous sucker punch, and the villain explaining its motive with blatant exposition. The movie has no idea what it’s doing, which is best illustrated when a character sweeps in with a sword, heroic music swelling on the soundtrack. This has no effect on the plot and is in the movie for no discernible reason. Just how clueless the movie is can be illustrated by its treatment of the werewolf. The beast wears eye-shadow, talks in a deeply silly human voice, and, most infamously, flicks somebody off. “Cursed” grinds you down with its goofiness. By the time giant toes explode through sneakers and people are scaling ceilings like Spider-Man, you are completely desensitized to the film’s ridiculous tendencies. Nothing in the film’s first half prepares you for this lunacy. “Cursed's” tonal shifts make “Shocker” look balanced and well-paced by comparison.

The drastic tone shift suggests that two screenplays that handled the same subject in vastly different ways were hastily cut together. Which, from what I’ve read, might as well be true. The film is buried in the stink of executive meddling. The film opens with a fast-paced montage of LA landmarks, a god awful cover of Sam Sham and the Pharaoh's “Little Red Riding Hood” from playing over it. These quick montages are returned to several times, including once at the end of a nightmare which uses scenes shot for the original version of the movie. This is another sign of studio tinkering. The werewolf plot wraps up with about a half and hour left to go. Out of thin air, a second climax is pulled together. A main character’s personality completely shifts, a love interest transforming with little explanation into a villain. The way that newly acquired villain is defeated is highly anti-climatic. The film ends with a total shrug. All of this is clearly the result of rewrites and recuts.

Most frustratingly, buried under all the wacky slapstick and messy rewrites, are signs that “Cursed” was once a decent film. The very first werewolf attack builds some decent suspense, focusing nicely on twigs breaking in the distance. A stalking scene through a parking lot makes a decent attempt at generating tension. At first, we only have fleeting glances of the werewolf. The wolf scratching the car hoods in order to lure his victim out is clever. Mya, otherwise known as the other-other one from the "Moulin Rouge" music video, does a surprisingly good job of acting terrified. (Enough that she earned a, uh, MTV Movie Award nomination.) Creature effect master Rick Baker once again has to play second fiddle to shitty computer generated images. The film’s werewolf design is uninspired but the practical puppet is preferable to the CGI creation. Even in the depths of the picture’s second half insanity, there are still signs of inspiration. The execution isn’t good but, I’ll admit, fighting a werewolf in a classic horror dungeon kind of works for me.

The final nail in the film’s coffin are its performances. I’ve long been a defender of Christina Ricci. In truth, Ricci was made for the horror genre. She has Barbara Steele’s eyes, Winona Ryder’s sardonic wit, (used to have) Ingrid Pitt’s bust line, and Boris Karloff's forehead. Sadly, Ricci’s performance is dreadfully tone-deaf. Any time she has to summon up genuine emotion, her performance is hopelessly unconvincing. Ricci’s strength has always been her snark which the film gives her little opportunity to use. Part of being a werewolf in “Cursed” is a new found sexual allure. While Ricci is quite capable of being sexy, aside from a surprising finger sucking scene, you have to take the movie’s word on it.

Jesse Eisenberg, before he became the poor man’s Michael Cera and before “The Social Network” made people stop calling him that, plays the second lead. He plays up the nasally neurotic bit decently but, once shit gets goofy, he’s lost. A brief, underdeveloped subplot involves a crush he has on a girl, which pays off as transparent wish fulfillment. Joshua Jackson as the primary love interest is deeply flat but even he isn’t the worse performance in the film. That dishonor does to Milo Ventimiglia’s Bo. Bo is introduced as cartoonishly homophobic. He’s obviously meant to be unlikable but Ventimiglia takes it far over the top. The way this plays out is predictable and just as broad.

It’s hard to say if “Cursed” ever could have been good. The film was screwed around with so much that you can’t blame it on Wes Craven or even Kevin Williamson. A fiasco of a major scale, Williamson and Wes’ careers survived but both were undeniably stained. [Grade: D]

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (2000)

19. Scream 3

Nobody wanted to make “Scream 3.” Wes Craven’s obligation was strictly contractual as he was upholding his end of the bargain that got “Music of the Heart” financed. Neve Campbell had made her growing disinterest in the series well known. Kevin Williamson, far too busy working on that established classic of American cinema “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” couldn’t be bothered to come back and finish the series he started. Ehren Kruger, the screenwriter who would later gift the world with the “Transformers” sequels, was brought in to write the film.

To get an idea of how few shits were given, look at the opening. “Scream” 1 and 2 took great effort to create shocking, memorable first moments. The opening to “Scream 3” is immediately forgettable. Shifting the action to Hollywood, a probably inevitable move that still makes me miss Woodsborough, the film opens with Cotton Weary, a former convicted murderer, now as the host of a “Jerry Springer”-style talk show. Without giving you time to swallow that unlikely scenario, Cotton gets a call from a familiar voice. An attempt is made to build stalk-and-slash tension with an extended sequence of Cotton’s girlfriend stepping into the shower, unaware that there is a killer in the house. This doesn’t work because we neither know nor care about this character. No endeavor is made to get to know her before she’s put in peril. Jump-scares are immediately employed, the film thinking Ghostface leaping loudly into frame is enough to create a shock. The bloody stabbing that follows has little meaning. This gets us off to a less then promising start.

“Scream 3” handles it returning cast problematically. Sydney is now living alone and working as a crisis councilor, having little contact with her friends and family. Though in character, this is obviously a move to remove Neve Campbell from most of the film. Not until fifty minutes into a two hour movie does Syd begin interaction with the rest of the cast. While the other protagonists are knee-deep in the last act, Sydney has been sitting on her ass at the police station. There’s a single decent moment involving her, taking place inside of a replica of her original home and ending with a door opening into mid-air. Even that bit is troubled by heavy-handed, literal echoes of the past. Neve’s lack of commitment to the material is most obvious at the end, where she wearily throws out one-liners like “It’s your turn to scream, asshole!” She can’t summon up even enough conviction to tell an incredibly annoying character to shut up.

With Neve dropping out of the majority of the picture, Gale and Dewey becomes the film’s de-facto protagonists. The script sticks a wedge between the natural chemistry Cox and Arquette have by breaking the characters up again. Dewey is dating an annoying new character, forcing her into far too much of the film, and Cox is saddled with an unflattering haircut. The cute, catty back-and-forth the two have has curdled into an unpleasant vitriol. Considering Arquette and Cox would remain married for a decade more, I blame this one the script. Both characters have a drop in brain cells as well. Despite knowing there’s a killer out there with a perfect voice changer, they still take anonymous tips off the phone. The formally strong Gale Weathers is reduced to screaming for help.

The majority of the new characters are involved in the production of a third “Stab” films and introduced sitting on the steps of the studio talking, a moment that blatantly recalls the fountain scene in the original. Each cast member come off as hopelessly artificial and receives little proper development. Matt Keeslar, who would later prove to be very lovable on the short-lived but well remembered “The Middleman,” plays the fake Dewey and comes off as incredibly shrill, little more then a collection of stall asshole actor clichés. Emily Mortimer, as the meta-double-fake-Sydney, is at least adorable and seems nice enough before she’s revealed to be as awful a person as anyone else in the film. The undistinguished black man is just that and receives a death blatantly ripped from the previous entry. Far too much time is spent with a pair of deeply unlikable detectives. When the one cop says his life is his favorite scary movie, that’s about the time the movie disappears up its own ass.

Even they aren’t the worse characters in the film. That dishonor is reserved for Candy, as played by a pre-nutcase Jenny McCarthy in a very tight t-shirt. She is selfish, vapid, and bitchy. She complains about needless nudity in horror films, which is hypocritical considering the lack of nudity in every “Scream” film. In part two, we got quickly introduced to a new character that we immediately liked and are sad to see go. In part three, the quickly introduced new characters are immediately unlikable and you can’t wait to see them go.

Are you sick of Sydney’s mom yet? After part two took it easy on her, “Scream 3” returns to humping Mrs. Prescott’s corpse to high degrees. First mentioned two minutes in, she is a lazy plot device that is leaned on constantly. Sydney has a melodramatic nightmare where her Mom’s ghosts taps on her window, suggesting Wes was tiring of the series’ usual horror theatrics. This scene too accumulates in another Leaping Ghostface Jump-Scare. Ghost Mom also appears repeatedly as a quote-creepy-unqoute whispering voice, on the phone and in Syd’s head. The script gleefully retcons the events of the first film, rooting every incident in the series’ history back to Sydney’s slutty mom and strong-arming a mythology out of thin gruel. Man, it’s a good thing Tumblr didn’t exist back in 2000. They’d be all over this movie for slut-shaming, for making everything indirectly the fault of poor Mrs. Prescott.

The movie struggles with creating decent scares. Lame duck jump scares are employed constantly. A set piece involving reading a script in the dark is contrived, engineered drama. The moment climaxes with a character accidentally causing his own death and a shitty, CGI fireball. “Scream” has always been a bit too clever for its own good. “Scream 3” is, in general, overly elaborate. The killer marks the crime scenes with obviously photoshopped photographs. Jaime Kennedy’s Randy, despite dying in part two, makes a sudden reappearance. The circumstances of that reappearance are seriously contrived, as they feature a previously unmentioned sister and a self-aware character reaching unheard of heights of self-awareness. Randy even lampshades his preponderance of exposition as exactly that. Other far-too-cute moments include cameos from Carrie Fisher, Jay and Silent Bob.

With forty minutes left to go, the script decides to strand its character in one location. The old Hollywood home setting, with its secret passageways and dusty basement, might be a deliberate call-back to 1940s old dark house thrillers. A gag involving a two-way mirror is actually half-way effective. Still, “Scream 3” is self-important “Scream” and that’s no more obvious then during the killer’s reveal. Long-winded rants that explain motive are, by now, a trademark but this one is especially overwrought. Making one person the mastermind behind the entire franchise’s murders is not only implausible, it’s also lazy screenwriting. It doesn’t help that nasally, pretentious Roman is by far the least threatening killer the series has seen. The finale goes on forever. Neve beats Roman, Roman beats Neve, people get shot, on and on. The reveal of a bullet proof vest is overwrought and, of course, we get another obnoxious “killer isn’t dead” moment.

So what do I like about the movie? Roger Corman is the one legitimately amusing cameo. Horror’s relationship with real life violence gets a token mention, something that should have been more focused on. Patrick Warburton’s small role is dryly hilarious, because it’s Patrick Warburton. He gets a decent death too. Lance Henriksen is another present character actor, doing his things, playing a guy that produced Roger Corman style films and threw Roger Evans-worthy parties. Frying pans and prop machetes are well used. Wes’ direction is fairly solid. He tries to pan over LA like he did the small towns in the first two. Maybe the best moment in the film, one heavily featured in the trailers, is the spinning-knife-o-vision. It is short lived.

“Scream 3” ends with Sydney leaving her security system off and front door open. This is lingered on, hammering home that she feels safe now, free of her mother’s poisonous legacy. That shrug of an ending is topped of with a Creed song. The face of horror was changing by 2000, with “The Blair Witch Project” introducing found footage to the masses and “The Sixth Senses” marking the PG-13 ghost story as the predominate trend in the genre for the foreseeable future. The J-horror boom, “Saw” torture porn trend, and remake overdrive were just a few short years away. “Scream 3” was the self-aware, CW-slick slasher’s last hurrah. Though really more of a weary sigh then a hurrah. [Grade: C-]

Friday, August 16, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1999)

18. Music of the Heart

I have a mostly unrelated personal anecdote about “Music of the Heart” to relate. I first saw it, years and years ago, back in my Seventh Grade music class. I only bring this up so I can mention how much of a bipolar nut-job my music teacher was. She would be ludicrously sunny some days, and cruelly judgmental others, not to mention having a puritanical streak running through her. She also had a thing for sentimental, cliché, “heart-warming” drama such as these. (She also made us watch the similarly clunky “Paradise Road,” but not before letting us know how “disturbing” that movie was, which ultimately proved to be a matter of opinion.) Needless to say, eleven year old me was not horribly impressed with either the movie, the class, or the teacher. But then again, eleven year old me, or me of any age for that matter, are not the target audience of "Music of the Heart." Instead, people like my bipolar music teacher, those whose heartstrings are plucked by the most cliched, overly sentimental treacle, were.

"Music of the Heart" was Wes Craven's bid for mainstream critical acceptance. He only agreed to make "Scream 3" if the Weinsteins bankrolled the film. I can understand his desire to break out of the genre that defines his career. I mean, even the most hardened horror fans probably, occasionally enjoy some other type of movie. And Wes has always had mixed feelings about being pigeon-holed as a "horror director." He was a teacher once, after all, perhaps suggesting some sort of personal attachment to the story. However, "Music of the Heart" follows the exact same outline as every other “Naive white teacher moves to inner city school and teaches the troubled youth how to live and love life” story told. The film brazenly follows the footsteps "Stand and Deliver" or "Dangerous Minds" planted before. Either Craven has the soul of a middle school music teacher inside of him or he figured a deliberate assemble of worn-out "inspirational drama" cliches was the best way to win the approval of critics and the hearts of middle-age moms everywhere.

The movie embraces those sentimental tropes but, at times, does show signs of something resembling a harder edge. Roberta Guaspari, at least as Meryl Streep plays her, reminds me a lot of my old music teacher: Abrasive and critical, especially of the kids who, you know, don’t actually give a shit about a music class routine school scheduling shuffle them in to. Perhaps some of those kids would rather express themselves with writing, painting, athletics but this isn't there story, so their interest aren't important. I suppose this shows Roberta as a fully rounded human being. Maybe but there were probably better ways of making that point then having her rotate solely between “inspirational” and “bitchy.” Streep plays the same kind of part that she’s played numerous times: A hardened iron lady who gets her way through pure force of will. And skill, I guess. Streep hardly stretches herself.

The rest of the cast isn’t really notable. Josh Pais is really irritating as a teacher who doesn’t care about his pupils. Instead of exploring what could lead to this sort of mindset, Pais plays him as a thin caricature. Kieran Culkin, Macaulay Culkin’s younger, more talented brother, plays Streep’s son at fifteen. Kieran’s presence is appreciated but he isn’t given much to do. Gloria Estefan acts in this too and doesn’t embarrass herself. Good for her, I guess. Most of the child actors are non-professionals and aren't horribly annoying.

The movie makes a major writing faux-pas when it jumps ahead ten years at the start of the second act. All those kids we spent the last half-hour getting to know? No longer in the movie. It’s obvious that these children exist just as stepping stones to make Roberta seem more noble, especially the little girl in the leg-brace, the girl with the divorced parents, or the inevitable kid slain in gangland related violence. Roberta handles each of these events like a saint, of course. The film doesn't address her self-important attitude, perhaps because it can't address it's own.

I did like the scenes of unappreciative parents having to put up with their kid’s off-key practicing. That seemed realistic. The message of keeping music programs alive in inner-city schools is an important one, I suppose, even if the film approaches it in a very thin manner. The film is blatant Oscar-bait that successfully bait the Oscars. It received two nominations, one for Estefan's end credits collaboration with 'N Sync, still a favorite of dental office waiting rooms and elevators. The other was for Streep's performance, her twelfth of seventeen nominations. “Music of the Heart” is totally paint-by-numbers and isn’t anything that hasn’t been done many times before in painstakingly similar ways. Is it any wonder that Wes was back to directing horror in no time at all? [Grade: C-]

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1997)

17. Scream 2

“Scream” wasn’t just a huge hit, it was a bona fide pop culture phenomenon. After a success of that level, a sequel was inevitable. A sequel even makes sense. Aside from the senseless violence, pointless T&A, and clichéd scripts, slashers are famous for having multiple sequels. Usually, slasher sequels feature little returning cast and rarely involve the original creative team. However, “Scream” wasn’t your typical slasher flick. Kevin Williamson was probably eager to return, the cast was probably paid well, and, after turning down the sequel to his last culture-busting hit, I bet Wes wasn’t willing to let this one go. So, per tradition, “Scream 2” was marched out a year after the first.

Topping the opening of the original “Scream” was a tall order but “Scream 2” almost manages. The opening takes the first’s meta tendencies even further by introducing the concept of “Stab,” a fictional horror series-within-the-series based off the (fictional) events of the first film. From what we see of it, “Stab” self-reflectively recreates the first film, even using the same Nick Cave song. The opening is nearly identical but a little louder, a little dumber, and with a little more exploitation. (That Heather Graham is cast as a nudity-prone fake-Drew Berrymore might be a self-reflective move it and of itself.)

Ultimately, “Stab” is just set-dressing for another opening that lampshades the conventions of the genre and the fandom while working solidly as a horror set-piece by itself. First thing first, “Scream 2” comments on the first film’s lily-white cast but introducing black characters who, in keeping with the style, comment on the lack of black characters in horror films. Despite this, the movie seemingly employs the racial stereotype of black women talking loudly at the theater without irony. The film doesn’t take the best view on the fandom either, as the midnight horror crowd are shown grunting in ape-like excitement at the prospect of on-screen violence. Theaters are a rarely used but excellent setting for on-screen horror. The bathroom stall kill might be slightly implausible but it’s well executed. The second kill plays up the old “the audience thinks its just part of the show” bit excellently. As far as bloody slashery goes, it’s inventive and exciting. Is it as scary as the first film’s opening? No. But it is just as much fun.

The overall tone of “Scream 2” is more light-hearted then the first. The survivors from the original have evolved as characters. Sydney is used to prank calls and has invested in a Caller ID. (Which is very 1997.) She hasn’t changed much and still has some considerable trust issue. Her last minute transformation into an action hero isn’t anymore convincing then it was last time. She seems fine at the film’s end, which is odd, considering what happened. The main character continues to be the least interesting character in the series.

Randy still can’t get the girl though he’s considerably less abrasive then last time. Jamie Kennedy has learned to balance what was actually likable and amusing about the character with his more annoying attributes. Gale Weathers maybe gets the most character development. She starts out as still a massive bitch and rightfully earns another smack in the mouth. However, Courtney Cox continues to have strong chemistry with David Arquette. There’s a wonderful moment where he tears her down over what she wrote in her book. When he looks her in the eyes, he still melts. The two share a sweet love scene in an unlikely location. Eventually, Gale has a self-aware moment and, before the end, comes around completely. The development is natural, works with the character and the actress.

The new characters aren’t as endearing as the previous batch. This ends up being fine, since none of them make it out of the movie alive. Following along with the opening, the film doubles down on persons of color, with Sydney’s roommate and Gale’s new camera man. Sydney’s new batch of friends are nicer, if slightly bland. Elise Neal is fine, likable enough, if not particularly memorable. Sarah Michelle Gellar, around the same time “Buffy” was making her a cult figure, provides a lot of charm for a small part. She’s the best thing to come out of the under realized sorority subplot.

I’m not much of a Jerry O’Connell fan. His big moment involves singing a rendition of “I Think I Love You” to prove his love to Syd. It’s a cornball moment, not as charming as the screenwriter thinks it is, and O’Connell doesn’t have the built-in charisma to pull it off. The character mostly exists to be a red herring, as if the series would make the killer Sydney’s boyfriend the killer two films in a row. The Cotton Weary subplot is a red herring too but at least it pays off in a decent manner. Timothy Olyphant doesn’t hide his guilt very well, especially not with those crazy eyes. Like Lillard before him, he goes far over the top when revealing the motives of his plan. Laurie Metcalf does much better. She has an interesting nervous quality to her and pulls off crazy fairly convincingly.

By the second installment, “Scream” is a well-oiled thrill machine. Sarah Michelle’s big moment recalls the opening of the first. The leering camera returns, small noise escalating to a louder volume. Ghostface’s sudden appearance makes for a good jump-scare, even if Buffy totally kicks his ass. Her death, though low on gore, is unusually satisfying. Sydney’s chase through the same building just isn’t as good. An attempted attack during a stage show is dramatically directed and thrilling, in addition to featuring a David Warner cameo.

Phone conversations have a lower presence in this sequel, save for a moment on the college campus in broad daylight. Tension builds as one character distracts the caller and others run around, tackling everyone on a cell phone. Blood dripping out of a van is a visually appropriate conclusion to the sequence. The chase through the film department is probably the most intense moment in the film. Our heroine just barely misses being detected by the killer and sound-proof glass is used fantastically. Splitting the two storylines is a bit awkward, even if I don’t mind Syd being absent for a large portion of the film. She gets her own stand-out moment, involving an effective car crash and some Hitchcock-style “bomb under the table” tension. Disappointingly, that moment fizzles out with a gory slashing everyone (but the characters) sees coming.

While the first “Scream” used the discussion of real life violence's relation to fictional violence mostly for window dressing, “Scream 2” goes into a little more detail. A scene is actually devoted to the discussion. Well, that and sequels. Literally putting these thoughts into the characters’ mouths is a bit lazy, I suppose, but it’s nice that Williamson tried. O.J. Simpson appeared to have been on his mind at the time, since the killer’s ultimate goal is a media-circus trial, fame and fortune. Granted, once again, none of these themes pay off but “Scream 2” makes more of an effort to tie them into the movie’s action.

The script shows some signs of being a rushed-together sequel. For example: Ghostface routinely gets his ass handed to him by teenage women that weigh 90 pounds but manages to take down not one but two trained police officers with ease? And, man, that college theater department has got some crazy production values. All that set dressing becomes important at the end, in a very silly moment that squanders the good will the finale had built up to that point. By process of elimination, you can figure out the killer. Once again, “the killer coming back for one more scare” rule is overdone and overused. I don’t understand the series' obsession with that. If you watch many eighties slasher flicks, and I have, that’s not a cliché you see very often. Marco Beltrami’s score is slightly better this time but still too heavy for my taste.

A part of me wants to like “Scream 2” more then the first. The problems that were present in the first are present here, including a last act that doesn’t quite work and a flat protagonist. Being a sequel, it naturally lacks some freshness. Still, “Scream 2” is a little more fun and a little more innovative. And almost smarter. Almost. [Grade: B+]

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1996)

16. Scream

It’s difficult to talk about “Scream” outside of a historical context. For the first half of the nineties, the horror genre had wound down. Whether horror had burnt itself out with the flood of the 1980s or the public had grown tired of endless sequels and similar product is still a topic of debate. Either way, by 1996, horror wasn’t hot and the slasher film, especially, was ice cold. That is until “Scream” came along. Though it didn’t invent the concept of the self-aware horror film, it did bring that concept to wide-spread audiences. Horror fans who were sick of characters making the same mistakes in every movie suddenly saw characters who were sick of the same thing. “Scream” resuscitated the slasher sub-genre, birthing a new, short-lived cycle of slick, studio slasher flicks, full of pretty television friendly actors, jokes about clichés, and low on the gore. All of this is true and “Scream’s” place in genre history is secure because of it. Seventeen years later we can ask the question: Is the movie actually any good?

If nothing else, it has the best horror opening this side of “When a Stranger Calls.” Like that film, “Scream” intentionally recalls an urban legend about a teenage girl alone in a house. The gentle focus on Drew Berrymore’s face subtly suggests a peering voyeur. Long shots of the house emphasize her isolation. The crackling of cooking popcorn builds tension. When Berrymore realizes she’s being watched, there’s a slow zoom on her wide, expressive eyes, revealing Drew as an ideal scream queen. She plays her growing stress well. As the killer quizzes her about horror trivia, the girl is cornered against a TV, visually illustrating her current situation. We get a brief glimpse of the killer before a shocking reveal shows Ghostface as the latest in the line of horror villains with dark bodies and white, expressionless faces. The tension concludes in bloody violence, with a gut-ripping and multiple stabbings, wrapping up with parents discovering their dead child. It’s a stellar moment, the film’s best, and immediately became a classic.

“Scream” brought self-aware horror to the mainstream. The cast openly talk about horror films. The conventions of the slasher genre, as well as all of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequels, are widely mocked. Wes and John Carpenter both get named-dropped, along with “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” “Evil Dead,” “Hellraiser,” “Prom Night,” and Jaime Lee Curtis. Aside from the widely parodied opening, the second-most famous moment in “Scream” is when Randy, “Halloween” playing in the background, explains the rules of the horror genre. Something that tends to be overlook is the next following scene, when a character watches the monologue and declares it to be “boring,” mirroring the general public’s boredom with the conventions of the genre. The hyper-referral tone is summed up with Henry Winkler playing a hard-ass principal, the opposite of the Fonz, and Wes himself cameoing, dressed in a Freddy sweater.

The biggest, unspoken subversion is that the teen murderer is far from the infallible slasher killer of the “Friday the 13th” or “Halloween” franchises. Ghostface routinely gets beaten up by a girl. In the last act, instead of just pointing out clichés, “Scream” starts to play with them. Sydney’s boyfriend convinces her to have sex by telling her life is like a movie. The moment in “Halloween” right before PJ Soles drops the bed-sheet is cut with Sydney taking her own bra off. However, the audience is denied the rush of blatant exploitation. (The rip-offs that followed “Scream” missed the irony and cut back on T&A for strictly commercial reasons.) The moment when the final girl turns the table on the killers and start to use their own methods against them probably played better on paper. Personally speaking, the multiple fake-outs involving the killer’s death always annoyed me, even when it’s being intentionally evoked.

Sydney Campbell is introduced as a prototype good girl, with a bed full of stuffed animals. However, the recent murder of her mother casts a long shadow over her life. The script never lets you forget this. Sometimes her grief and lost are played for real emotions. A moment when she overhears two classmates gossiping about her is maybe the most painful moment in the film. Usually, the story is just spinning its wheel with the constant references. Neve Campbell conveys a proper sense of vulnerability, even if she is overall a little flat. Her evolution into a strong woman by film’s end feels artificial. The final shot of the sun rising mirrors an earlier, darker moment of the sun setting, suggesting she is moving past her grief, something I can't quite believe considering the sequels continued to mine Sydney’s mom for drama.

My biggest problem with “Scream” lies in its supporting cast. Sydney’s friends are all flatly introduced in a moment around the school fountain. Each one can be reduced to a single characteristic. Unlike many things in “Scream,” I don’t think this is a deliberate reference. Matthew Lillard is incredibly annoying and Jaime Kennedy isn’t much better. Kennedy’s Randy seems like a character I should like, in theory, but the loudness of his performance turns me off. Rose McGowen, at the peak of her hotness, provides blatant eye candy, always dressed in tight sweaters, tiny skirts, or midriff bearing tops. I’m not sure if Gale Weathers, as played by Courtney Cox, is supposed to be likable or not. She frequently says awful things. Her romance with Dewey humanizes the character. David Arquette has never been more likable then he is here. The two have a genuine chemistry, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the actors eventually married in real life.

Another problem is the identity of the killer(s). Skeet Ulrich is never anything but weird and off-putting, even in his ostensibly charming scenes. At first this seems intentional, since the character is marked as a red herring early on. What wasn’t intentional is how unlikeable the character is. I suppose disregarding his girlfriend’s fear and grief is realistic behavior for a teenage boy but it doesn’t make him likable. Billy and Stu’s identity as the killers is foreshadowed heavily. The movie tries to mislead the audience but even a first-time viewer should find the truth fairly obvious. Lillard continues to be incredibly annoying up until his dying moment, where he gets a few funny lines and is actually humanized to a degree.

The self-referential elements come off as slightly hypocritical since “Scream” itself isn’t much more then an above-average slasher film. However, the film does engineer some effectively intense moments. Any body who has ever spent a creepy night alone in a big, empty house will probably appreciate the moment when Sydney is first attacked by Ghostface. His sudden appearance makes for a great jump-scare. An attack in the school bathroom builds nicely, by slowly looking under the stalls or focusing on a jittering air vent. While it’s not scary, I do appreciate a moment towards the end that recalls another urban legend. Sydney rushes back and forth to lock doors in a van, not noticing the hatch at the back opening over her shoulder.

While the films that followed were low on the gore, the original “Scream” didn’t exactly skimp on it. The garage scene is another stand-out set piece. Tension is built with flicking lights, an empty hallway, a peer from inside a fridge, and even a not-quite spring-loaded cat. McGowen’s conversation with the killer is both funny and builds anticipation for the violence. As far as deaths go, head crushed by garage door isn’t the most plausible but it is nasty and memorable. Randy watching “Halloween,” complaining about a character on-screen not looking behind him as the killer walks into the room, is a clever moment. The use of spy cams and a delay leads to a satisfying throat-slashing.

“Scream” is slickly directed. I’m not a big fan of Marco Beltrami’s abrasive score or the heavy use of pop music but the montage set to Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” is excellent. My biggest problem with “Scream” is that it’s a surprisingly hollow screenplay. The commentary on the horror genre is, in the end, fairly superficial. You see little of Wes Craven in the film. Sydney’s guilt about her dead mom seems to be more of Kevin Williamson’s hang-up and doesn’t fit Wes’ usual theme of family. A lingering shot of an empty seat in a class room suggests interest in the effect death has on young people but the rest of the film doesn’t pick that up. There are a few comments on the relationship between violence and the media but, again, it doesn’t build to any sort of actual insight. As for the meaning a film-obsessed murderer being killed with a TV might have… I honestly don’t know if Kevin Williamson is that smart.

“Scream” made Wes Craven relevant again. Its style dominated the direction horror would take for the next half-decade and largely made the genre popular again, for better or worse. The film endures too and still has a strong fan-following. I’m not a huge fan and think it hardly represents Craven’s career. Still, “Scream” is an effective pulp thriller. (Oh, and by the way, Norman Bates totally had a motive.) [Grade: B]   

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1995)

15. Vampire in Brooklyn

“Vampire in Brooklyn” was a passion project for everyone involved except it’s director. As you watch the opening credits, you see Eddie Murphy and his brother Charlie’s name repeated over and over again. Wes has done plenty of work-for-hire jobs over the years but this stands out strictly for how uninvolved he appears to have been in the project. I can imagine Murphy, still a big star at the time, wanting to make his semi-“Blacula” remake and picking Craven simply because he was a director strongly associated with horror. It’s clear from the beginning on down that this was Eddie’s project, not Wes’.

The story drawls a lot from both “Blacula” and the original “Dracula.” The film begins with a ship pulling into dock, full of its crew’s dead bodies, a vampire prince the only living thing on board. However, this isn’t Victorian London and Eddie Murphy’s Maximillian isn’t Bela Lugosi. The vampire has come to Brooklyn looking for a mate, a dhampyr woman and the last remaining vampire besides himself. He finds that woman in Detective Rita, the cop coincidentally investigating the very murders Max is responsible for. Along the way, the vampire acquires a Renfield-like ghoul, has to get between Rita and her potential love interest, battles a Van Helsing style vampire hunter, and gets involved in all sorts of serio-comic shenanigans.

Craven hasn’t shown the most daft grasp of horror comedy before. “Vampire in Brooklyn” also fits the tonal inconsistency between horror and comedy that has plagued the director’s last few films. It’s a wacky, madcap comedy for most of it’s run-time before an obvious tonal shift in the last half-hour towards serious vampire thrills. However, this is the least of the movie’s problems. The script just isn’t very good. The writing smacks of laziness and a lack of professionalism. To give you an idea, the film begins with a flat, exposition-filled voice-over from Murphy. He explains the movie’s entire take on vampire mythology, tying in ancient Egypt and the Bermuda triangle. This could have been potentially interesting if, you know, the film had actually fucking showed us these things instead of just dumping that information through flat audio. Murphy’s bored narration crops up through-out the film several times, always uninvited, frequently explaining things that didn’t need explaining or could have just as easily been visually shown. This violates the number-one rule of screenwriting: Show, don’t tell.

The second biggest problem with “Vampire in Brooklyn” is its characters. Or rather, two characters. Kadeem Hardison plays Julius Jones, the Renfield to Maximillion’s Dracula. He slowly decomposes into a rotting, undead ghoul as the film progresses. The make-up is decent and, when he replaces a missing hand with a mannequin's or loses an eyeball, the viewer actually gets a rare laugh. But for the majority of the run-time, Julius is absolutely obnoxious. The character is an unfortunate racial cliché, a lazy, inner-city low-life. He makes constant lewd comments, most of them obvious and base. When Max and Rita first meet, Julius interrupts the potential seduction with a long string of profane sex talk, preventing the story from wrapping up an hour sooner. There’s little reason to keep him around and yet Julius gets an ungodly amount of screen-time. Hardison might be a decent actor but here, he is stuck doing the world’s most annoying Chris Tucker impersonation before Chris Tucker was really even a thing. As bad as Hardison is, John Witherspoon is actually worse. He plays Julius’ uncle and amplifies all of that character’s annoying attributes to an even higher level.

Eddie Murphy does little to help his own film. "Vampire in Brooklyn" emerged out of the same awkward period as “Metro” and “Harlem Nights,” when Murphy was seemingly trying to shift away from comedic parts to more action-centric leading man roles. Just as Murphy was ill-suited to strictly action roles, he can’t pull of a convincing horror villain either. Maxmillion drops cheesy one-liners after ripping people’s hearts out or drinking their blood. Murphy is hopelessly unconvincing whenever the film calls on him to be threatening. He can’t bear his fangs or clench his forehead in a serious matter. Eventually, the movie takes the burden off of Murphy and puts him in somewhat cartoonish monster make-up. Murphy is better as a romantic lead. He has no sparks with Angela Bassett and plays the role as weirdly asexual. At least he’s slightly more comfortable when seducing women then when he’s making scary vampire faces.

The stench of the actor’s notorious ego is all over the picture. The vampire can, for no particularly good reason, take the form of any of his victims. This allows Murphy to trout out his, by then old, gimmick of playing multiple characters in the same film while under heavy make-up. He becomes a evangelist gospel preacher, in an overly long, broad sketch that has assuredly been done before and better. Not long after that, Murphy takes the form of an Italian gangster. The make-up isn’t impressive and the bit indulges in tired stereotypes about the mafia and pasta. Eventually, Murphy just drops the pretenses and starts playing his main role for comedy as well.

And that’s the other big problem with “Vampire in Brooklyn.” When it’s going for laughs, it’s not funny. The comedy that is in the film is weirdly mean-spirited. Eddie explodes a dog early on and, a little later, shoots a cat to death. I don’t know about you but animal abuse doesn’t exactly tickle my funny bone. Like “Blacula” before it, you’d expect “Vampire in Brooklyn” to explore racial issues to some degree. Not really. There’s a small bit late in the film where a white victim says something about “relating to your race’s plight,” paraphrased, but the script doesn’t build on that in anyway.

The movie’s attempts at serious horror are only marginally better. Craven gets some decently atmospheric POV stalking shots in. The only truly memorable moment involves blood leaking out of a keyhole. The rest of that sequence, where Murphy’s character is attacking a woman he doesn’t even appear to be in the same room with, is hopelessly awkward. Some choppy special effects also undermine the horror elements. A cobra is clearly divided from the actors by a glass screen in one scene. Basset running into a church, being bathed in white light, is melodramatic. An early scene where Murphy stalks her while inside the boat concludes abruptly. A stunt involving a cab is oddly framed. Despite being set in Brooklyn, the film was shot on obviously fake looking sets. The stunts are so weak that, when you read a stunt person actually died while working the film, the movie becomes depressing for a whole new reason.

Many of the story elements and supporting characters are purely functionary. Bassett’s guilt about her dead, insane mother is repeatedly referenced in heavy-handed ways. The actress seems confused and frustrated by the material. Allen Payne as her (human) love interest is bland as can be and only going through the motion. He too has an unpleasantly cartoonish moment, an oddly sexist outburst inside a car. It’s nice to see Zakes Mokae, from “The Serpent and the Rainbow” in the Van Helsing part. However, Mokae is barely in the movie. He’s introduced towards the end of the first act and completely forgotten about until the very end. Even then, his actions in the finale are barely important.

You’ll have to search deep for Wes Craven trademarks in this one. Wendy Robie, Mitch Pileggi and Jsu Garcia have cameos. Wes’ by-now trademark sweeping dolly shots put in one or two appearances. Like everyone else involved, Craven didn’t seem particularly invested in this one. J. Peter Robinson’s score is mostly bland but throws in some decent Romanian violins.

“Vampire in Brooklyn” actually did okay at the box office but is still remembered as a bomb. The lead actor disowned it. When the film is remembered at all today, it’s as another sad bullet point on the downward trajectory of Eddie Murphy’s once blossoming career. This overlooks that it was a low point for Wes Craven as well. It might his most boring, deafeningly uninteresting, least entertaining film. I mean, at least the TV movies were unintentionally hilarious. [Grade: D]

Monday, August 12, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1994)

14. New Nightmare

In the ten year span between the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “New Nightmare,” the film had become an established classic of the horror genre. Five sequels, a TV series, comic books, a video game, even a dance album all followed. More importantly, Freddy Krueger had become, perhaps, the most iconic horror movie villain of the latter half of the 20th century. At that same time, the character quickly became overexposed, engaged in increasingly ridiculous antics, and lost all of his scare factor. So not three years after New Line killed Freddy off forever, his creator Wes Craven decided to return to the franchise, reviving Freddy for a decidedly different type of sequel. That Craven hadn’t managed to replicate the original’s success in all that time didn’t have anything to do with this decision, I’m sure…

“New Nightmare” trades in the kind of meta-film devices that are overdone in the horror genre now but were relatively unexplored in 1994. The cast and crew members of the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” twenty years later, are haunted by images of their own film. Heather Langenkamp’s life suddenly befalls tragedy and strange coincidences. Her young son begins to suffer from disturbing nightmares and trance-like states. Robert Englund receives visions of a darker, more evil Freddy Kruger. Wes Craven is uncontrollably driven to write a new sequel, one in which Freddy is simply the latest form of an ancient evil and threatens to cross over the threshold of fiction into the world of reality. And only Nancy, only Langenkamp, can stop it.

“New Nightmare” is Wes Craven’s best screenplay. The film smartly tackles a number of heavy themes about the nature of fiction. One of the best decision it makes is recognizing what a powerful pop culture symbol Freddy Krueger is. The movie makes repeated, explicit references to “Hansel and Gretel.” Freddy has frequently been called the Male Witch and this connection only makes it obvious. Craven goes deeper, recognizing that Krueger fits an archetype that stretches back thousands of years. He is from the same lineage that Lilith, Lamia, and countless more belong to: The monster that eats children. He is the monster under the bed, that little Dylan holds back with his toy dinosaur, one of my favorite touches. In this case, “under the bed” stands in for the subconscious, the barrier between wake and sleep, reality and dreams, the real world and fiction. Freddy emerges from the bed in the last act, shadowed claws projected on the wall like Graf Orlok. Later, Heather crawls down through the bedsheets, into the shadows, into the darkness of the mind. This takes her to Freddy’s lair, a boiler room mixed with Greek architecture, further connecting the entity with ancient times.

As self-reflective on the horror genre in general as the film is, it’s even more reflective on the franchise’s own history. It makes a few cute call-backs to the series. A limo driver speaks for Wes by saying the first film is the best, an opinion not mutually agreed on. Robert Englund, appearing in make-up and in full-on campy “Freddy’s Dead” mode, has a hilarious appearance on a talk show. The movie never shies away from Freddy’s status as a pop culture icon, placing claw symbols throughout and openly comparing him to Santa Claus or King Kong in terms of recognition.

The movie puts Heather Langenkamp, and by extension Nancy, in the unlikeliest of positions. Throughout the “Elm Street” series, parents are usually portrayed as clueless at best and out-right abusive at worse. Their lack of action frequently leads to their children’s deaths. At first, Heather seems a typical example, trying to get her son to sleep. She takes him to a hospital, run by a clueless authority figure. In one moment, she raises cage-like barriers up over his hospital bed. As the film goes on, as Heather becomes more like Nancy, she relates more to her son’s plight, ultimately correcting the shortsighted, cliched writing of the weaker sequels.

The thesis behind Freddy’s motivation and containment in the film gets at an even deeper, more fascinating theme. The ancient entity, whether it takes the form of Freddy Krueger or Baba Yaga, can only be contained by telling stories about it. Wes is explaining the importance of the horror genre or, perhaps, justifying it to more dismissive critics. Horror stories keep the horrors of the real world at bay. The movie seems to go out of its way to justify the slasher genre too, placing the Final Girl at no less a position then guardian of reality. Perhaps the sixth “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequel wasn’t the most visible place to make this statement but it’s a powerful one never the least. “New Nightmare” might be the smartest horror screenplay of the decade.

The movie gets at the roots of the horror genre and seems particularly focused on adult fears. A child in peril provides its protagonist’s motivation. The signal that all is not well in the first scene appears when Dylan climbs onto his bed. Two later moments best exemplify this. The first, when Dylan climbs to the top of a playground rocket ship, reaching for the heavens, is a far creepier, subtle example. (Underscored by Jon Saxon’s insistence that “Kids know.”) The second involves Dylan running out onto a busy freeway, his mother stepping too far behind. Sadly, this bit is undermined by some shoddy rear-projection work. While the film defends the horror genre, it seems undecided about horror’s effect on children. The topic is brought up several times. Dylan watching his mom’s most famous work is painted in a sinister light. The overly critical doctor character introduced near the end makes the director’s opinion more clear but you can’t help but wonder if Wes Craven had some personal reservation about his career’s effect on his own kids.

Building a whole film around Heather Langenkamp might have been a risky proposition. Her acting ability has improved in ten years. She seems far more comfortable in front of the camera and her line-delivery is more assured. She still doesn’t do big emotions well. She’s still at her best when she’s sassy, like elbowing a nurse or punching Freddy out. Her interaction with Miko Hughes as her son and David Newsom as her husband are mostly believable. The scene of husband and wife talking and kissing is very warm. Even better are the moments of mother and son talking in his bed, sweet and believable. Miko Hughes does fine, interacting well with Heather. His reading of the line “God wouldn’t take me” is almost heart-breaking. Whenever the script calls on him to be “scary,” that’s when his performance falters. Kids are hard to make scary anyway and Hughes’ melodramatic writhing and growing doesn’t make it.

The movie makes no qualms about reinventing Freddy, devoting its opening credits montage to the invention of a new, mechanical claw. The opening nightmare scene is a good jolt but the film is a slow burn for most of its run time. The film is halfway over before we get a clear look at Freddy’s new design. Sticking him in a trench coat and leather boots might be overly grimdark but the biomechnical claw is great. The treatment of the character is far more successful. The only true attack scene in the movie revisits Tina’s attack from the first film. The difference is, this time, you get to watch Freddy go to work. A nice subtle moment comes before the kill. Dylan sees Freddy rearing up behind the victim. However, she can’t see him behind her. Instead, she turns around to see x-rays of the brain.Once again, Freddy springs from the dark recess of the human mind, as always.

The film’s creepiest moments don’t actually feature much of Freddy. Chase’s death switches the gender of the bathtub scene in the first movie. Heather walks through a hospital proves a quietly spooky moment, as you hear off-screen wails of agony and the sound of bone-saw whining. Unlike most horror movies, we see the aftermath of the violence. The fallout of a loved one’s death is focused on, further representing this as a horror movie for grown-ups, rooted in adult fears. A funeral evolves into a creepy moment, the confines of a grave used well. A loved one being quietly menacing proves far more effective then a little kid throwing up black sludge and yelling in a big devil voices.

And that’s the main problem with “New Nightmare.” The script is very clever, the performances are solid, the direction is smooth, and the movie has a decent scare or two. It also has a serious melodramatic streak running through it. Part of the problem is the musical score, which is bombastic and overly used. Heather’s growing fears, most obviously during the scene in Bob Shaye’s office, are overly focused on . The moment that introduces the new glove is protracted, dragged out to an absurd level. By the last act, you have a giant Freddy appearing in the sky and Heather sliding out of a water slide shaped liked the villain’s mouth. That’s a bit much. Freddy stretching his arm, hand, and tongue like rubber are more cartoonish then creepy. The confrontation between heroine and evil entity is never scary like it should be. By this point, the film is more interesting on a conceptually level then a visceral one. While it’s not fair to criticize the film for some bad digital effects, the movie ending with a giant explosion is another example of how overdone it is in some regards.

“New Nightmare” wasn’t successful at the time, becoming the lowest grossing entry in the series. Despite this, the film has gardened a following. In some ways, it might be the best of the series and is certainly the most polished. I think it’s a very personal film for the director. For all its positive elements, and there are many, the film is never quite as scary as the first “Nightmare.” From the perspective of Craven’s career, it shows his continuing interest in using horror as a format for commentary and subverting and playing with fictional devices. This is an interest that would take the director to his next big success. [Grade: B+]  

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1991)

13. The People Under the Stairs

By 1991, Wes Craven was well on his way to becoming a brand name. In a few years, he would be slapping his name on unrelated, kind of crappy low-budget flicks. Even though “Shocker” underperformed, the director still had a solid reputation. Perhaps this combination of prestige and desire to prove himself is why “The People Under the Stairs,” a real gem, emerged when it did.

The film sets up its premise very quickly. The protagonist, nicknamed Fool and directly compared during the opening credits to the Tarot archetype of the same name, lives in the L.A. ghetto with his sick mother and pregnant sister. On the day his family is evicted from their crack house apartment, an equally archetypal treasure hunt presents itself. The landlords who own the slums supposedly have a cache of rare, valuable gold coins hidden somewhere in their sprawling home. Once he breaks in, Fool discovers neither the home nor the landlords are what they appear to be, discovering a twisted, frightening world inside.

While Wes’ films frequently feature social commentary of some sort, “The People Under the Stairs” shows the director moving into overt political commentary. The villains of the film are slumlords, draining the local populace of all their resources, growing richer and fatter while their tenants starve to death. Mommy and Daddy are introduced eating the flesh of an animal. As the story progresses, we discover them to be cannibals, the rich literally eating the poor. While there are no supernatural elements in the film, the villains might as well be vampires, sucking the life blood from the less fortunate around them.

The movie blatantly invites comparison to real life politics. Mommy at one point says, on the steps of her huge home, “It’s as if we are the prisoner and the criminals roam free,” the kind of Republic rhetoric still in use today. The villains don’t just exploit the poor, they also imprison them in the house’s basement. Righteous retribution comes at the end, with the put-upon clawing out from the walls and floorboards, attacking the rich. The final image of the film is the villain’s home exploding, raining money over the ghetto, a moment of pure wish fulfillment. On top of this, Daddy bears a frequently commented on resemblance to Ronald Reagan and TV coverage of Desert Storm shows up at one point.

Beyond the social commentary in the film, “The People Under the Stairs” shows the director’s continued interest in the concept of family. Mommy, Daddy, and their abducted children play like the Nuclear Family from Hell. Mommy cooks the food, even if that means chopping up intruders. Meanwhile, Daddy defends the home, blasting people away with a shotgun. The daughter lives in terror, constantly abused for not living up to her psychotic parents’ standards. Like in “Deadly Friend,” the movie deals frankly with the kind of child abuse that frequently hides under clean, suburban homes. At one point, when cops investigate their house, Mommy and Daddy slip on a mask of civility and normality easily, hiding their twisted true nature.

Mommy and Daddy are another one of Wes’ memorable creations. The two live in their own world. The way they act, somewhere between 1950s idealism, twisted backwoods abuse, simultaneous asexual and sexually deviant, is unnerving. The two appear to be genuinely deranged individuals. Wendy Robie as Mommy is frankly terrifying, screaming and brandishing a huge butcher knife. Has there ever been a more convincing “crazy bitch” performance on screen? Poor Alice, the adopted daughter, is held down, screamed at, and forced to slide around in blood, all deeply upsetting moments.

As Daddy, Everett McGill similarly goes over-the-top, his big, glowering face being used well. One of the film’s most memorable images is the towering McGill running around in a full-body S&M leather gimp suit. As the man of the household, Daddy is the sexually aggressive one. Scenes of him holding Alice down, sniffing a boy’s shorts, or feeling himself up are oddly funny but hint at disturbing, off-screen events. McGill and Robie also played a couple on “Twin Peaks,” which makes sense. Craven and David Lynch both subvert the traditional family unit to surreal, disturbing effect. Oh, and did I mention the characters are brother and sister too?

There are other Craven trademarks present here. “The People Under the Stairs” shows the improvised booby trap making a strong comeback. The villains’ home, where most of the action is set, is perhaps the biggest Wes Craven Booby Trap ever devised. We see doors on trip-wires pulling themselves shut, stairs that turn into slides, electrified door knobs, giant spikes on a trigger, and coins stuck into a melting candle. “Scream” wasn’t the first time the director subverted horror clichés as here, when faced with a spooky basement, a character says “I ain’t stupid!” and turns to leave. And maybe it’s just because I like “Deadly Friend” so much but another young girl looking longingly, silently out a window seems to recall that film.

“Shocker” and “Deadly Friend” both struggled with tonal inconsistence. “The People Under the Stairs” also jumps back and forth between intense horror and wacky comedy. A vicious Rottweiler figures in to many of the film’s scenes. While an early attack generates some tension, the dog is a bit too cute to be truly fearsome. The dog careening down a slide is too silly. Silly moments, like exaggerated dog punches, dick punches, or kids hitting adults with slingshots makes this seem like a “kids on an adventure” flick, like “The Goonies” or “The Monster Squad.” It’s not, really. Silly moments like that should contrast badly with moments of explicit horror. A little girl getting dumped into a boiling tub is probably the film’s most disturbing moment. Once the butchery starts, the film doesn’t pull back on the gore, showing a corpse chopped up in graphic detail. However, unlike the tonal shifts in the director’s previous films, these actually work in the film’s favor. “The People Under the Stairs” plays like a modern fairy tale, showing young kids stumbling into a dark netherworld, hunted by human monsters.

Horror fans should be satisfied. Atmosphere is frequently built with little. Slow, quiet pans around the living room or a creepy basement are good examples. Moments like this build tension. Tight corridors behind walls and into air vents make for claustrophobic thrills. This is the director’s first movie in a while not to feature a nightmare sequence but even then, some scenes have a strange, nightmarish tone to them. Flashlights shining through the wall or a hand pulling someone through an open door feel that way. The movie’s scariest moment involves Fool being attacked by the dog on one side of the wall while Daddy stabs through the wall with a bayonet on the other side. It builds well and ends well.

Wes Craven’s visual direction continues to evolve. The camera frequently slides around the house in evocative, interesting ways. A bayonet sliding out of the wall, in extreme close-up, blood dripping off it, is a great image. A shot of a long hallway, a pair of legs sticking out around the corner, is another interesting image. A pile of dead flies is an inventive, neat moment. The film shows the director in a very creative mood.

Brandon Adams is great as Fool. The character is very likable, crafty and inventive. You root for him to survive and succeed. As you’d expect, the character transitions from Fool to Hero before the film’s end, marching back into danger to save the damsel in distress. It feels natural, not forced. A.J. Langer as Alice does well too. When she finally rebels against her “parents,” it’s a deeply cathartic moment. Adams has some hilarious facial expressions too. Ving Rhames, still early in his career, plays a very typical Ving Rhames part. He’s hilarious, throwing out absurd, ribald dialogue throughout. Sean Whalen and Bill Cobbs have notable supporting roles as well.

This is another movie Wes has talked up remaking. On one hand, I don’t see the point. “The People Under the Stairs” is a hidden gem, a surprisingly likable picture. Aside from some cheesy early nineties fashion, the movie has aged astonishingly well. But then again, a remake might be worthwhile. The social commentary behind the film is just as viable and relevant now as it was then. The film is rightfully considered a minor classic among horror fans and one of the highlights in Wes’ post-“Elm Street,” pre-“Scream” era. [Grade: B+]