Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 30

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

As long as I’ve read books, I’ve loved Ray Bradbury. No author has influenced me more. When news of his passing reached me two years ago, I was crestfallen. If anyone could have lived forever, it would have been him. “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is the first novel I ever read cover to cover. It’s a rare book where you can put your thumb down on any sentence on any page and find something poetic and beautiful. Bradbury’s preferred format was the short story and he never adapted as well to the novel or the screenplay. He happen to write both for the 1983 feature adaptation of “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” It’s not a great film but is one that has moments of greatness inside of it.

The film follows Bradbury’s novel quite closely. During a bleak October, the idealistic town of Green Town, Illinois is visited by a carnival. Led by the enigmatic Mr. Dark, the carnival seems to grants the most heart-felt wishes of the lonely, sad, scared towns people. But at a terrible price. Two young boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, are swept up by the mystery of the carnival, at first intrigued and then frightened. Will’s father becomes an unlikely hero to both, forced to overcome his own regrets and fears into order to protect the boys from the dark dreams of the carnival.

The book, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” is something of an allegory, a dark fantasy struggle of good and evil painted across an American small town. I love the book very much but find Bradbury’s themes overly simplistic sometimes. Perhaps the only way the film is superior is that Mr. Halloway, frequently long-winded on the page, is a more flawed, more human character on-screen. James Robards is excellent in the part, every regret and bad memory on his face. He is a warm, loving father but one wrecked by guilt for the things he didn’t and should have done. If Mr. Halloway is a more realized character in the film, then Mr. Dark is perfectly captured from the page. Bradbury wanted Christopher Lee to play the part, which probably would have been incredible. Yet Jonathan Pryce might be perfect in the role. There is such a real, deep sinister intent behind his every word and action. Mr. Dark isn’t quite the Devil himself but something very close. Pryce gives a star-making performance.

Both actors and characters are placed against each other in two scenes that stand out over the rest of the film. The first is when the carnival marches down the town’s streets. Their trumpets play out a funeral dirge. Will and Jim hide under the sidewalk. Mr. Dark confronts Will’s father, searching out the boy. The father tries to mislead the man, the boys’ faces tattooed on his palms. In rage at being lied at, Mr. Dark digs his fingers into his own hands, drawling blood. Blood that drips down on Will’s face under the street. That’s an awfully good scene.

However, the second confrontation between father and devil is incredible. The boys hide in the library. Mr. Halloway lifts his head up, taking his glasses off. Suddenly, as swift as a shadow moving into the room, Mr. Dark appears behind him. The two trade barbs, Bradbury’s lyrical dialogue dripping off their lips. Mr. Dark snatches Halloway’s book away from him. With every page torn away, another year lifts off of the man’s life, a glowing page falling to the floor. The scene builds an incredible intensity. Pryce doesn’t overdo it. Instead, he spits the words with vigor, rage quivering out of him. The book and film’s themes are summed in this scene, undoubtedly one of the darkest ever in a Disney film. If the rest of “Something Wicked This Way Comes” had been as good as this one moment, it would have been a classic for all time.

It’s a shame the film around those two incredible performances and two fantastic moments is so frequently a drag. The opening and closing narrations, though expressed with Bradbury’s lyrical verse, paint the film’s themes too neatly. The subplot concerning Mr. Cooger is unresolved. Royal Dano is delightful as Tom Fury, the lightening rod salesman. Fury’s overall importance to the plot is somewhat murky. His sudden reappearance at the end reeks of sloppy writing. A long scene where Will and Jim are attacked by spiders in their bedroom is awkwardly executed and goes on much too long. The climax is muddled and lacks satisfaction. Charles Halloway escaping the Mirror Maze through the power of love comes off as helplessly hokey. Mr. Dark dragged to his doom by the carousel is grim and mean-spirited. Considering the book ended with Will and Dad pushing Dark away with laughter and happiness, the film’s ending seems murky and inconclusive. “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is haphazardly paced. The film is only 97 minutes long but feels much longer.

Changing the Dust Witch from an old crone to a siren-like embodiment of male desire was a smart decision. Pam Grier is sensual and enchanting in the part. Jack Clayton’s direction is occasionally quite striking, such as a single shot of Will and Jim running down the darkened town street. Sometimes, Clayton’s direction is a bit flat. The film had a troubled post-production, with rewrites, a completely new ending shot, and a new score recorded. Georges Delerue’s original score is appropriately sinister at times but drones too much. James Horner’s new score works for the film a little better but it’s too light at times. “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is a troubled adaptation of a wonderful book. It’s honorable in some ways and worth checking out for Bradbury fans, despite maudlin and uneven elements. [7/10]

The Lost Boys (1987)

How big a deal is “The Lost Boys?” Is it one of those universally praised horror films? A beloved cult item? Or was it just the people I hung out with in high school who liked this movie so much? The film obviously has enough of a following to greenlit two twenty years later DTV sequels and action figures and things. I saw the movie years ago and it never grew on me. That’s one of the things Halloween is about for me: Possibly reassessing potential classics.

The central premise is actually fairly clever. It’s a gang of juvenile hooligans but the twist is they’re vampires! I’m not sure any movie did the roving gang of vampire teen things before this one. The film attempts to update the vampire for then modern audiences. That made the film successful in its day but has the effect of instantly dating it now. The style, fashion, and music is deeply rooted in the late eighties. Characters have perms, mullets, crimped, perfect hair-dos. They wear studded leather, denim jackets, and torn polyester. The heroes of the film dress in bright pastels. I’m partial to Echo & the Bunnymen’s cover of “People Are Strange” but a lot of the film’s music was only cool in the late eighties. I guess it shouldn’t surprise that “The Lost Boys” is a powerful bit of nostalgia for many folks.

The movie’s biggest problem is that it’s main character is the least interesting character in the film. Jason Patric’s Michael is a typically brooding teenager. He grunts a lot of his dialogue. His romantic relationship with Jami Gertz’ Star is completely flat. Michael spends large portions of the film treating his mom and little brother like an asshole. He is a stock boring audience surrogate.

Luckily, the supporting characters make up for it. The appeal of the Coreys mostly escape me but I’ll admit, Corey Haim is fairly amusing. I like his exaggerated comic reactions to the strange things that happen around him. Feldman, Corey the Second, puts on this bizarre gruff voices. The Frog brothers are entertaining mainly because they pretend to be experts when they are truthfully clueless assholes. Kiefer Sutherland is clearly the star of the show. His distinctive voice lends him a commanding presence, which works very well for this character. Edward Herrmann is fairly consistently awesome in most things and has fun playing two types here: First, the square boyfriend who is far too normal. Second, the evil head vampire, which allows Herrmann to gleefully over do it. The best character in the film is obviously Barnard Hughes’ Grandpa. He makes creepy taxidermy animals, is obsessed with his (usually stationary) convertible, swings root beer, and has an off-screen girlfriend. He delivers his dialogue with such an off-hand casualness. Only Dianne Wiest proves unlikable. She’s the classic clueless mom and remains clueless for far too long.

The horror content is comic book-like and light. The movie holds off on revealing the vampires up until the horror point. Before that, the creatures of the night are mostly represented by swooping shots. Victims are lifted out of the area but little actual bloodshed is shown. The patience pays off, as the reveal of the yellow-eyed, bumpy headed vamps works well. The last act is truly when “The Lost Boys” starts to move. Shades of “kids-on-a-mission” flicks like “Monster Squad” or “Goonies” poke through as Sam and the Frog brothers prepare goofy, creative vampire dispatching methods. The bathtubs and squirt guns full of holy water are actually clever, while the death by stereo moment is far sillier. The entire last act, the confrontation between vampires and the reveal of the big boss, works far better then the film that comes before it.

Joel Schumacher gets a lot of shti but give the guy some credit. He knows how to make a movie look good. “The Lost Boys” is especially gorgeous on Blu-Ray. The nights are dark and full of billowing fog. The red tent in the house at the end helps the suspenseful tone. Sometimes, his music video tendencies go too far, like the painfully earnest love scene between Michael and Star, but usually it lends a stylish, memorable look to the film. It’s probably silly to look for queer subtext in everything Schumacher does but it does become apparent at times. Why would a teenage boy like Corey Haim have a poster of George Michaels, in short-shorts, thrusting his crotch forward, on his bedroom wall? When Michael’s vampire instincts first kick in, he nearly feeds on his little brother. While he’s in the bath. Finally, the bro-mance between Michael and David is nearly homoerotic, especially since Jason Patric has way more chemistry with Kiefer. And then there's the Greasy Sax Man...

Conclusion? “The Lost Boys” is perhaps too prickly at first but eventually develops a likable zany streak. I’m not converting to the tribe yet but it doesn’t surprise me people love this movie. [7/10]

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 29

Every year I promise to make it out to a haunted attraction. Every year, I miss the opportunity. In 2013, I was determined to fix that. This past weekend, a female friend and I drove out to Hill High Farms in Winchester, VA. After driving up the perilous rock path, we were greeted with a folksy farm and petting zoo. We were mostly there for the corn maze, something I've always wanted to do but have never experienced before. Upon arriving, I noticed that a haunted house was also on the grounds. Haunted Nightmares, it was called. A. doesn't much like scary things, so we got tickets for the corn maze first. It was fun but simplistic. The sound of the wind blowing through the corn stalks is strangely soothing though.

It only took us about forty minutes to make our way through. We only cheated once. A. has a better sense of direction so she led the way. Afterwards, I talked her into stepping through the haunted barn. From the outside, the building seemed small. I was expecting something kind of lame. However, Haunted Nightmares Haunted House didn't disappoint. The barn is separated into various themed rooms. There's a zombie room, a creepy doll room, a clown room, an insane asylum room, a cannibal butcher room, and, most creatively, a haunted outhouse room. There's some clever gags, like spurting mist, which hit both of us straight in the face twice. The strobe lights took some getting use to. Luckily, there's not very many of them. The actors are a little overly confrontational. I'm certain my travel partner was about to elbow one particularly shout-y actress in the face. I enjoyed the dark room segment, where you have to feel your way through pitch black, blind corners. A. was less receptive, the only part of the house to really freak her out. Similarly, I really dislike a portion where you have to squeeze through two black mattresses. If that I had gone on a few seconds longer, I probably would have freaked out.

Generally speaking though, Hill High Farm is a fun place. A cozy country store is also on the grounds, along with a pumpkin patch featuring some obscure gourd species. (Grabbed two jarrahdales, a warty pumpkin, and an Aladdin's Turban.) If you're in the Western Virginia area today, check it out! Anyway, on with the reviews.

Hocus Pocus (1993)

If you grew up in the nineties, you’ve probably seen “Hocus Pocus” a few hundred times. I think most every generation gets their own kid-friendly horror-lite Halloween movie. “Gremlins” probably filled that role for a lot of eighties kids and hopefully “Coraline” is the pick for the modern 6-10 crowd. “Hocus Pocus” is nowhere near as good as either of those movies but I’ve seen it a bunch anyway. Probably more, since my Mom has long been a Bette Midler fan. Of course, even goofy kid’s flicks like this have new information to reveal. I had no idea that Mick Garris, veteran horror screenwriter, co-wrote this one. Nor did I know that Doug Jones, probably the most famous creature actor today, played the zombie in this. Was there any other new information waiting me?

The movie actually holds up alright. The decent premise is classic horror stuff. Set in Salem, of course, the child-stealing Sarandon sisters were executed but not before doing a few things: Turning a local teen into an immortal black cat, draining his little sister’s life force, and, more pressingly, placing a curse on the town. Should a virgin ever light the black candle, they will return. Of course, this happens. Recently relocated teen Max, dragging his little sister and high school crush with him, lights that candle, revives the witch sisters, and leads to a bunch of wacky antics.

The cast and characters make the film far more likable then it would have been otherwise. Bette Midler goes far over the top as lead witch Winnifred. Her make-up is cartoonish, including frizzy red hair, perpetually pursed lips, and comically exaggerated buckteeth. Midler’s acting is on the same level. She hoots, hollers, squeals, and delivers every line with comic stripe panache. Even her facial expressions and body language are calculated for maximum goofiness. She plays off the other two sisters nicely. Sarah Jackson Parker, before everyone started calling her a horse, brings a manic energy to the part. She jumps around, repeats dialogue, and actually conveys a wacky sexiness. Kathy Najimi is similarly silly, acting like an overgrown dofus.

Much of the humor comes from typical “fish out of water” shenanigans. The witches are baffled and occasionally delighted by asphalt, a bus, TV, remotes, and the concept of Halloween. Some of this is more entertaining then others. The interaction with a horny bus driver or Garry Marshall dressed as the Devil get genuine laughs. The trio constantly being fooled by fire sprinklers or headlights proves less so. Some of the overly goofy gags prove better then others. The witches having their brooms snatched by young look-a-likes is amusing. Them jumping on mops and vacuums are the sorts of goofy, kid’s movie jokes you’d hope the movie would avoid. Midler and crew deliver their frequently corny dialogue like pros, never loosing that ridiculous cartoon tone.

It’s not uncommon for the kids in the kids’ movies to be punch-worthy. “Hocus Pocus” mostly avoids that too. The movie’s theme boils down to one of sibling love. Surprisingly, this is incorporated organically into the story. Binx, the talking cat, lost his sister and is driven by the hope of being reunited with her. Max comes to appreciate and love his sister over the course of the story. It fits in and isn’t overdone. The improbably named Ormi Katz finds a decent balance between grouchy, angsty teenager and proactive protagonist. A tiny Thora Birch also comes close to annoying. Her emotional interactions with the brother and the talking cat make the character relatively real. Vanessa Shaw is lovely and shows some genuinely comedic skills as Max’s love interest. Only the ridiculous bully characters overdo it.

The movie couldn’t cast Bette Midler in the lead without getting her to sing. The whole movie’s tone of improbable goofiness is best summed up when a three-hundred year-old witch walks on-stage and sings a choreographed song-and-dance number. Yet that’s probably the most memorable moment in the film. The zombie antics, with his head and fingers getting knocked off, are nicely gruesome for a kid’s flick. “Hocus Pocus” even has a moment of eerie beauty, when Parker lures the children of the town away with a siren song. The music is ethereal and the image of hundreds of kids, some still in their Halloween costumes, walking the streets at night sticks with you. The special effects don’t hold up and the whole movie is a goofy trifle. As far as nineties nostalgia go? “Hocus Pocus” is one of the better examples from my childhood. [7/10]

Eight Legged Freaks (2002)

This is going to date me. “Eight Legged Freaks” is the first time I can remember being excited about a movie no one else cared about. It was my first year of high school. I was just far enough into my teens that my love of black and white creature features were confirmed. Someone was attempting to revive the big bug picture in 2002? Hell yeah, I was up for me. No one else was. It bombed domestically (though broke even internationally) and reviews were middling. The movie isn’t quite old enough to have a cult following. If the “Eight Legged Freaks” fandom has to start somewhere, let it start with me.

The story is basically “Gremlins” by-way of “Tarantula.” This is most obvious in how the film treats its threats. The giant spiders of “Eight Legged Freaks” are arachnid goofballs. The CGI is clearly dated but the animators and special effect guys made sure the spiders had personality. They mumble, shriek, and grabble like Killer Tomatoes. Their vocalizations are intentionally exaggerated and cartoonish. On two separate occasions, giant spiders get dragged behind moving cars. One grumbles in frustration after taking a bite out of a stuffed moose. Another jumps flat into a closed window. One spider out-boxes a boxer. Another cheers on his brothers as they rush the mall. One slides down on a rope, screaming the whole way. A shot spider swings on a thread, dousing his pals with green spider goop. One of the best spider gags involves a sneaky tent. Even a diehard arachnophobe is more likely to laugh then scream. “Eight Legged Freaks” is less a modern reinvention of the classic big bug flick then a Mel Brooks parody on the subgenre. I guess some might find that to be a one-note joke but, I don’t know guys, wacky giant spiders? Count me in.

The film also nails the small town setting. Prosperity, Arizona is nicely isolated at times. The ensemble cast quickly gives you a sense of community. You believe that this small time is fighting for their mutual survival. The crusty old barber and near-sided janitor are equally amusing, each assign simple, entertaining personalities. Doug E. Doug finds a great home for his overtaxed comedic style as the local conspiracy radio host. His beleaguered shouts of frustration prove consistently funny. Rick Overton is also great as Deputy Pete. His reactions to the spiders are, at first, shocked confusion, later transitioning to dead-pan fear. Leon Rippy’s talents are also well-suited to the conniving town mayor. Tom Noonan, uncredited and with minutes of screen time, makes an impression too. The strong character actor cast is another reason to love “Eight Legged Freaks.”

The supporting cast proves far more memorable then the leads. I’m willing to give David Arquette more slack then others. But there’s no mistaking the guy for leading man material. His attempts at one-liners are especially groan-inducing. His performance works best when playing up his nervous qualities. Kari Wuhrer is never convincing as a mom or action heroine. Yeah, she looks fantastic in tight jeans and t-shirts but can hardly carry the film. She has zero chemistry with Arquette. Even Scarlett Johansson, hardly a great actress in her right, outshines the leads. (And also looks fantastic in tight t-shirts and jeans.)

You can actually see elements of a more serious horror film under “Eight Legged Freaks” goofy exterior. A mouthful of spiders, regardless of size, is likely to make some squirm. The trapdoor spiders snatching people running across a parking lot could have been mined for real scares. Probably the biggest action set-piece in the film is the jumping spiders going after the kids on dirt bikes. This is the closest the film comes to real tension and, even then, it’s awash in silly special effects. I’m not complaining, simply noting. It wouldn’t surprise me if this started life as a more serious screenplay.

The script is decently constructed. You can tell that the cigarettes, stun gun, and underground gas veins will be important later. I still appreciate the effort to set them up. I also appreciate the horror in-jokes, “Them” on TV, the mall invasion finale, the Hockey Mask/Chainsaw combo. The Micky Mousing score is probably the only thing about the movie I don’t like. That’s the only overly jokey element. Even then, incorporating a low-pitched version of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” was clever. An early scene where a spider and a cat wrestle inside a wall probably goes on too long and reaches too hard for the kind of silly laughs the rest of the movie has no problem with. “Eight Legged Freaks” is still underrated and underseen. This surprises me. I can think of many horror fans who would love its goofy charms. [8/10]

Larger Than Life (1998)

Included on the DVD of “Eight Legged Freaks” is director Ellory Elkayem’s short film, “Larger Than Life.” Filmed in black-and-white, the short is even more of a homage to classic big bug flicks then the feature is. When strange chemicals leak out of a sinister factory, normal spiders are exposed and gradually grow bigger. This is a problem for single woman Jo, alone in the house with giant arachnoids. The clueless exterminator isn’t much help and soon she has to defend herself from the eight-legged invasion.

“Larger Than Life” functions more like a straight horror film. The tone is still light and jokey. The exterminator doesn’t notice the giant spider on his back and the “Or Is It?” ending is winkingly silly. However, some scenes attempt to build suspense. The spider corners the girl in the shower, “Psycho”-strings playing on the soundtrack. An escape is cut short by a shot of webbing. Opposed to “Eight Legged Freaks” CGI, the spider here is mostly a puppet. Actors struggling with a real object, even if it’s an obvious puppet, still prove more squirm-inducing. There’s not a lot to the short and it’s less charming then Elkayem’s feature. Still, there’s enough obvious strength and love of the material on display that it’s not surprising the director would get the jobs he did. [7/10]

Halloween 2013: October 28

The Manitou (1978)

William Girdler is an odd case of a competent filmmaker who even showed a stylish visual sense from time to time who made mostly terrible films. This isn’t a case of a spectacularly untalented filmmaker accidentally making outsider art, like Andy Milligan or even Ed Wood. Girdler was consistently, quite nearly a good director. Odds are, if he had lived longer, he would have actually developed talent. With “The Manitou” he graduated from the world of low-budget genre rip-offs to the world of slightly higher budget genre rip-offs. “Grizzly” was “Jaws” with a bear. “Abby” was “The Exorcist” with (offensively stereotypical) black people. “The Manitou” is also “The Exorcist” but with Indian mysticism and bits of “Star Wars” thrown in for fun.

Based off a novel by hack horror author and sex manual writer Graham Masterton, the movie begins when Susan Strasberg discovers she has a thing in her neck. At first, it appears to be a tumor. As the growth continues to, uh, grow, baffled scientist realizes a fetus is developing inside her neck. Attempts to remove the growth results in disaster. Strasberg’s friend Tony Curtis, a phony medium, soon discovers that the tumor is actually the reborn spirit of an ancient, evil Indian shaman. Once the spirit reaches maturity and enters our world, shit gets craaaaazy.

“The Manitou” escalates in ridiculousness as it goes on. This is impressive, considering the movie begins with an Indian shaman being reborn through a tumor on a lady’s neck. First off, it cast an aging Tony Curtis as a romantic league, in a relationship with the noticeably younger Susan Strasberg. Wearing a succession of unflattering tight shirts, Curtis cons old ladies with chicanery so hackneyed and obvious only a delusional old lady would believe it. The first sign that “The Manitou” will be rife with unintentional hilarity is when one of Curtis’ elderly clients begins to chant in ancient languages and float inches above the floor to her death. The second big laugh comes when Curtis’ hippy-dippy friends make the top of the villain’s head appear. Just the top. When a surgical laser goes ballistics, the audience is far more likely to laugh then scream. Everything in “The Manitou” is pitched at a hysterical level.

About an hour in, “The Manitou” leaps from campy to goofy. A greasy-haired, dark skinned dwarf crawls out of Strasberg’s back. The character’s attempts to fight him off prove unsuccessful. The reborn shaman summons an evil spirit, which is shown by having an actor in an unconvincing giant lizard costume slither around on the floor. He freezes the entire floor of the hospital, including the present staff. Tony tosses a typewriter at the little person, which melodramatically explodes. (Because everything, even man-made objects, has manitous, you see.) This prompts the Manitou to toss decapitated heads, snow, and wind at the heroes. In its last ten minutes, “The Manitou” completely looses its shit. Curtis and his ethnic Indian friend open a doorway to outer space. Electric energy shoots through the hospital and explodes a doctor while Misquamacus laughs uproariously. A giant eyeball floats behind them, shooting beams of light and asteroids at everyone. The naked Strasberg rises from her bed, shoots lasers out of her hands, and beats the evil back. This is the kind of wacked out, hilarious imagery only seen in seventies B-flicks. God bless ‘em.

Despite its unforgettable moments, much of “The Manitou” drags. Really, up until the last half-hour, the film is massively boring. Curtis slums about, disinterested. Strasberg spends most of the story bed-ridden. The sleuthing and studying of American Indian spiritualism mostly amounts to people sitting around and talking. Only Burgess Meredith’s amusingly kooky cameo enlivens this portion. Even then, Meredith delivers dialogue about the Indian population that is fairly offensive. Also offensive: The film’s resident stereotypical medicine man character who is played by Michael Ansara who was, of course, Syrian. Heck, even the evil Misquamacus is played by an Italian, short actor Felix Silla. Honestly, if you fast-forward until the latter section of the film, you wouldn’t be missing much.

There’s very little intentionally good about “The Manitou.” Lalo Schifrin’s score is decent, incorporating traditional tribal music in with his usual action style. Michel Hugo’s cinematography is quite lovely. While the digital effects are laughable, the practical effects actually aren’t bad. Though the images Girdler presents on screen are absurd, there’s no denying the guy had a flare for the dramatic. You’re unlikely to forget “The Manitou,” or at least parts of it anyway. Bad movie lovers should check it out, for sure. [6/10]

Slaughter High (1987)

Have I talked about how my love of grime-bucket, zero budget trash-horror came about? If I haven’t already, now’s as good a time as any. I’ll come back around to “Slaughter High” eventually, I promise. I guess I was just out of high school and already a genre fan and devotee. However, when it came to slashers I hadn’t explored much beyond the big franchise. Until I came upon a YouTube channel, and later a Veoh channel, remember Veoh?, that did nothing but post hard to find slasher flicks. In this territory, “The Burning” or “My Bloody Valentine” was the well-known films. Over that summer, I promise to watch every eighties slasher ever made. That quest went unfulfilled, of course, yet I discovered that films made with no money, time, or talent could be as endearing as the classics. It was in this world that I was first exposed to “Slaughter High,” an incompetent, bizarrely fascinating piece of eighties slasher garbage.

“Slaughter High” has been given an official DVD release but, going by the quality, you’d never know that. If it wasn’t for the Lionsgate branding, trailers, and cheap-ass trivia track “special feature,” you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a bootleg. The full-screen video is ripped off the same VHS copy all the YouTube video pirates use. The image is almost indecipherably dark at times. The picture is grainy, scratchy, washed out, and full of tracking errors. The audio is tinny and frequently distorted. They even maintained the Vestron Video logo at the end! You could criticize Lionsgate for the shoddy release. Actually, you should do that. Yet, when I pressed play at the menu, a rush of nostalgia washed over me. I remember this world of scratchy VHS-rips and barely watchable uploads. (By the way, if you want a decent disc of the film, import Arrow’s Region 0 release from the UK.)

Anyway, the actual movie. “Slaughter High” begins in a high school. Duh. Thirty-six year old Caroline Munro plays a high school student, part of a group of the school’s “cool” kids playing a prank on resident nerd Marty Ratzen. Marty is seduced, stripped naked, strapped into a bizarre condom, photograph in the nude, sprayed with cold water, and has his head dunked in a toilet. Afterwards, the gym teacher yells at Marty for being in the girl’s bathroom. His humiliation isn’t over yet, as another one of the bullies hand him an exploding joint. This goes horribly wrong and the nerd is splashed with acid, deforming his face. A decade later, the same group of bullies are invited back to the now-abandoned hospital for an April Fool’s Day party. Predictably, a lunatic in a jester mask begins murdering them in gruesome, contrived ways. Gee, who saw that one coming?

The film was produced by Dick Randall, the same man behind “Pieces” and countless other low-budget trash offerings. While “Slaughter High” is neither as sleazy nor hilarious as “Pieces,” it comes awfully close at times. Aside from the thirty year olds cast as teenagers, the film is full of ridiculous slasher nonsense. Somebody just drank an acidic soda, their stomach literally splitting open. What is Nancy’s first course of action after that? To take a bath in one of the dilapidated building’s tubs. Surprise, the tub is full of acid! Her face melts via stop-motion animation. Despite their friends dying left and right, two of the invitees decide now is the best time to have sex. The woman implores the man to talk dirty, leading to him grunting out “Tits!” and “Fuck!” The killer drops an activated lawn mower on a victim. The guy never thinks to roll out from under the vehicle. Characters play practical jokes, a rat leaps out at someone, and the creepy old janitor dies first. If you want clichés, “Slaughter High” delivers swiftly with its own demented sense of humor.

The film’s hilarious oddness is exacerbated by an unexpected mean-spirited streak. None of the characters are likable. Yes, Caroline Munro’s Carol expresses some guilt over the accident, but just a little. Marty, at first, might be a victim. Yet his cluelessness, awkwardness, and overwhelming dorkiness make him hard to root for. The other victims show such astonishing stupidity that they endear no sympathy. “Slaughter High” quickly dissolves into awful people doing awful things to each other.

But a devoted stalk-and-slash fan can find something worth-while in any thing. Honestly, when it comes to grimy, Z-grade slashers, “Slaughter High” is a better example. It’s certainly better then, say, “Blood Cult” or “Honeymoon Horror.” The empty hallways of the high school provide some decent atmosphere. Directing trio George Dugdale, Mark Ezra, and Peter Litten throw in one or two inventive shot, like a close-up of Marty’s hands bursting through a picture or a POV of someone falling from a rope. The kills are ridiculous but quite creative. I mean, any maniac can stab someone, and Marty does, but it takes a real creative mind to melt someone in an acid bath. The final chase sequence goes on far too long but admittedly hits the horror fan sweet spot for me. The jester mask and letterman jacket combo is actually a cool get-up. When many slasher films were content to stick their killer in a ski mask, that one sticks out. Henry Manfredini’s score is terrible but his fans will probably enjoy it.

Ultimately contributing to “Slaughter High’s” atmosphere of nastiness is that Simon Scuddamore, the actor playing Marty, committed suicide from a drug overdose not long after filming wrapped. Apparently, he suffered from depression. It’s easy to imagine that his character’s torment added to his real life depression. The film’s thrown together, nonsensical ending features slow-motion murder, self-mutilation, and character’s forever stuck in mental anguish. Dude, what a bummer. So “Slaughter High” is not a good movie in any traditional sense. Yet those with a stomach for the stupid, senseless and cheap will find it has an indelible atmosphere all its own. [7/10]

Last Halloween (2011)

I first found out about “Last Halloween,” a short film from director John Stewart Muller, while Googling around for info about “The Last Halloween,” the obscure TV special I reviewed last year. The short was written by and co-stars Leslie Andrews, the talented star of “Sick Girl,” a movie I have to defend way too frequently and should probably get around to reviewing eventually. The short features a couple arguing and breaking up following a Halloween party. Experienced horror short viewers will spend the run time waiting for the kicker. What’s the morbid twist on this otherwise simply dramatic seeming material?

Leslie Andrews charms me in everything I’ve seen her in. The same goes for this, even if Andrews has very little to work with. Kit Williamson is a lot less interesting as the foul-mouth, philandering boyfriend. Director Muller is clearly a horror fan, slipping music from “Suspiria” and a poster of “The Thing” into the short. At only six minutes long, a bit too much of this is spent on the opening dance scenes. Of course, indie shorts like this hang on their last minute shock. “Last Halloween” has a pretty good one. It’s funny and morbidly amusing, probably more so then the rest of the film. Is “Last Halloween” worth checking if you’re not a Leslie Andrews fan? Probably not. Eh. [6/10]

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 27

Firestarter (1984)

It would be unfair to say “Firestarter” was Stephen King’s attempt to recreate “Carrie.” King was hugely successful by that point, enough that he could write anything and Hollywood would immediately turn it into a movie. (Which is what happened with “Firestarter.” The film rights were acquired before the book was even published.) While “Carrie” is a horror character study, “Firestarter” sits more comfortably in the realm of sci-fi thriller, with occasionally grisly special effects. Both books and film adaptations revolve around a young girl with extraordinary power. However, Charlie McGee is eight years younger then Carrie, has a perfectly sane parent, and is on the run from a secret government sect. For all their differences, both stories build towards the girl unleashing her massive powers. All the film that comes before is leading towards Charlie’s psychic-induced climatic rampage.

“Firestarter” is split evenly in two. The first hour is a chase picture. Father Andy and daughter Charlie are on the run from the Shop. The scenes of them fleeing through an airport or hitchhiking pass government agents are decently exciting. These moments are broken up by laden flashbacks that flatly explain the origin of the characters’ powers and why they’re running. At least the blatant exposition is presented visually but they hamper the film’s forward momentum.

After Charlie is captured by the Shop, the pace completely shifts. Charlie is manipulated by psychotic government hit man Rainbird into honing her powers. Like every other secret government agency in cinema history, the Shop wants to use the unstable super being as a weapon. Rainbird is another thin Stephen King villain. The obviously American Indian character, played by obviously Caucasian George C. Scott, believes that he can steal someone’s powers by looking into their eyes at their moment of death. He is obsessed with Charlie’s ability and befriends the girl strictly so he can kill her later. Rainbird has no deeper motivation but the relationship between Scott and Barrymore provides a drive for the second half. The seemingly benign scenes of Scott befriending the girl are laced with a sinister intent. This plotline certainly proves more compelling then Andy’s routine escape plan, the Shop boss’ hand-wrangling or long scenes of Charlie blowing things up in a lab.

“Firestarter” needed stronger performances to succeed. I suspect the involvement of Drew Barrymore, the most popular young actress at the time, is what got the film into active production. It’s not that Barrymore was a bad actress at this time. Her personal moments are quite affecting. You certainly feel sorry for Charlie anytime she cries. However, Drew can’t quite carry the bigger moments. Her emotional outbreaks are unconvincing. Her constant pleas to her powers to “back it off” come off as helplessly hokey. David Keith, who I’ll remind you is not Keith David, does fine, I suppose, but his Southern accent is seriously distracting. Martin Sheen is not a terribly interesting villain and neither is deep-voiced Moses Gunn as a near mad scientist. Art Carney is likable as the kindly old farmer, even if the part is underwritten and Louise Fletcher is wasted as his wife. Only George C. Scott truly impresses. Scott can play gravely maliciousness with ease and he makes Rainbird, otherwise a simplistic figure, captivating to watch.

The film was dismissed as a special-effects-fest upon release. No wonder since Charlie’s fireball fueled rampages are the most exciting moments. The ambush on the farm builds nicely. I like the thermostat rising and the butter melting in its dish. The blazing agents and exploding cars are orchestrated fantastically. After watching the girl get pushed around for a solid hour, it’s satisfying to see Charlie burn down the Shop. Men fly through the air, ablaze. Burning trails hunt running agents down. Some of the special effects have aged better then others. Bullets bursting into flames just before her face look cheesy. The Flaming Biscuits of Doom that Charlie explodes a truck and a helicopter with are likely to cause giggles. Still, it’s as effortlessly entertaining as “Firestarter” gets. No surprise that director Mark L. Lester would reinvent himself as an action auteur following this.

With a more even lead and tighter screenplay, “Firestarter” could have been an intense thriller. As it is, the film never reaches its full potentials. If you’re looking for flaming carnage, you’ll get it eventually. The rest of the film doesn’t exactly; I apologize for this, set the screen on fire. [5.5/10]

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987)

“Prom Night” took a long road towards becoming a horror series. Seven years after the original, a sequel finally rolled out. The slasher subgenre was played out by then and the original story presented little opportunity for a follow-up. “Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II” took the series in a radically different direction, one of quasi-comedic supernatural horror. The stories are totally unrelated, connected only by the high school, prom setting. It’s no surprise to read that the screenplay wasn’t written as a sequel at all and was, instead, slapped with the “Prom Night” connection in post.

“Hello Mary Lou” is so much better then you’d expect an in-name-only sequel to a minor slasher flick to be. Its premise is successfully played for both humor and chills, featuring plenty of slimy special effects and an unexpectedly erotic streak. Back in 1957, promiscuous, rebellious prom queen Mary Lou Mahoney was accidentally set ablaze by her jilted boyfriend. Thirty years later, good girl Vicki Carpenter stumbles upon Mary Lou’s tiara in an old store room. Slowly, the vicious spirit of the undead prom queen begins to possess Vicki, once again making prom night a night for terror at Hamilton High.

“Prom Night II” takes it time setting up its premise. The opening flashback is rather brilliantly presented, the camera swooping in and out of an old storage truck at the start and end. Vicki’s eventual corruption by Mary Lou’s spirit is a gradual process. She has disturbing hallucinations during the school day. Some of these are humorous, like the volley ball net transforming into a spider’s web, her teammates turned into pasty-faced zombies. Others are genuinely off-putting and weirdly creepy. In her bedroom, her childhood rocking horse gains red, reptilian eyes and a perversely long tongue. The lunch lady in the cafeteria is suddenly spooning out corpse soup with a side of cockroach. A subtle one has the face of a taunting schoolmate transforming into Mary Lou’s grinning visage. Vicki’s final nightmare sees a chalkboard morphed into a pool of black sludge.

The stand-out moment of “Hello Mary Lou” comes after Vicki is completely taken over by the evil ghost. After her changed behavior annoys a close friend, Vicki-Lou decides to seduce the girl while they’re both in the gym shower. Unexpected for 1987, both actresses show full nudity as light-kissing turns to heavy petting. The audience gets a thrill but the character doesn’t buy it. The stalking scene that follows features no music, only the possessed girl humming a tune, running her hands over the locker doors. The suspense builds nicely and the gory pay-off is impressive. The rest of the movie is more of a campy guilty pleasure but that one moment combines titillation and horror fantastically.

The film mostly plays its supernatural elements for humor. While stabbing a priest to death, the possessed Vicki reflects on the truths of the afterlife. A high school teacher with grabby hands gets his comeuppance comically. The culture clash of a 1950s teenage getting launched into the eighties provides some amusing antics. An attempt to rig the prom queen vote goes awry for the AV nerd, probably the movie’s silliest bit. The film’s jokey side mostly manifest in horror in-jokes. Characters have familiar sounding last names, like Carpenter, Henenlotter, Browning, Craven, Wood, Waters, and O’Bannon. Mary Lou’s climatic reappearance goofs on “Carrie.” There are numerous shout-outs to “The Exorcist.” It’s apparent the film was made by fans of the genre.

Keeping the film sincere among its goofiness and nastiness are surprisingly well-acted and rounded characters. Wendy Lyon is immensely likable as Vicki. Her wide-eyes and innocent good-girl looks gets the audience’s sympathies. Lyon plays a girl loosing her sanity very well. Once possessed, she has no problem playing the other side of the coin. She camps it up fantastically, delivering silly one-liners. Lisa Scrage doesn’t have much screen time but makes an impression as Mary Lou. She’s looks fantastic with her bright blue eyes and tight prom gown. She, too, has a good time playing a campy horror villain. The commitment to character is clear when the subplots that otherwise would have been drool actually hold your attention. Vicki’s best friend has a startlingly confession early on, the camera not cutting away. You wouldn’t expect such a moment of honest emotion in the middle of your trashy horror sequel.

And that’s why “Prom Night II” is awesome. The script is refreshing and smart. The performances are committed and strong. The direction is stylish. The film gets both laughs and scares. This is a sequel that is vastly superior to the original. To this film I say, “Hello Mary Lou, goodbye heart.[8/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “The Secret

If it wasn’t for its frequently bloody or raunchy content, “Tales from the Crypt” would be a kid-friendly horror show. The violence is rarely mean-spirited, the morals are simplistic, and the tone is usually light. “The Secret” is one of the rare episodes that embrace this. The story of an orphan adopted by a mysterious wealthy couple, only to have his face stuffed with sweets and candy, intentionally recalls “Hansel and Gretel.” The boy’s issues are easily understood for younguns. Theodore is bossed around by the mean orphanage mistress. He quickly makes friends with the Colbert’s man-servant just because he’s that nice a kid. He longs to have a loving, friendly family. You’d probably have to be a kid not to see the story’s double-twist coming, which is heavily, obviously foreshadowed. The goofy conclusion mixes that child-like wish fulfillment with just enough nasty gore to make this feel more like “Tales” and less like “Goosebumps.”

None of which are exactly bad things, you see. “The Secret” is handsomely shot, experienced production designer J. Michael Riva contributing an opulent look. Lead actor Mike Simmrin is a bit flat but the supporting cast makes up for it. Grace Zabriskie and William Frankfather go nicely over the top as the wicked foster parents. Larry Drake, in his second “Crypt” appearance, amusingly goes against type as a friendly Alfred / Mr. Belvedere type butler. The final chase scene is a little too silly and light-weight to be suspenseful but comes close enough. “The Secret” takes season two of “Tales from the Crypt” out on a high note, a solid conclusion to a very strong, perhaps the best, season. The host segments recognize this, Crypt Keeper bidding us a fond farewell. See you next September, you undead rascal, you. [7/10]

Halloween 2013: October 26

Cemetery Man (1994)

Italian zombie movies come with their own set of rules. By 1994, the extreme gore and apocalyptic visions the genre is famous for were well-established. Michelle Soavi’s “Cemetery Man” shows disinterest in the tradition of the genre in its opening minutes. After a long pan out of the inside of a skull, Francesco Dellamorte causally shoots a zombie in the head. “Cemetery Man” has zombies in it but is not a zombie movie. Instead, it’s a surreal, absurdest voyage into the psycho-sexual subconscious of its lead character.

Adapted from a novel by Tiziano Sclavi, itself a spin-off of Sclavi’s immensely popular “Dylan Dog” comic, the movie takes a semi-episodic look at the life of Francesco Dellamorte, the caretaker of a cemetery in the small Italian town of Buffalora. The dead buried in the cemetery have a nasty habit of returning to life. However, Francesco’s concerns are elsewhere. He worries about loosing his job, keeping the zombie infestation a secret. He wonders if his life has meaning and if he’ll ever get out of his dead-end corner of the universe. A plot line slowly forms, revolving around Francesco meeting the woman of his dream, only for her to die, and reappear again. The troubles in Francesco’s life pile up, culminating in visions of Death itself, prompting him to murder the dead while they’re still living.

Soavi loads his film with symbols and deeper meanings. A first time viewer has to let the dreamy “Cemetery Man” wash over them. Repeat viewers are allowed to examine the picture, discerning the purpose behind its images. Francesco apathetically slays zombies. He has little regard for life either, even before his murder sprees start. He struggles to find meaning in his life, has few friends, and no future. The cemetery becomes his prison, the job and the town around it inescapable. The events of the film are representative of his inner turmoil. The ending and snow globe imagery reflect this, showing Francesco as trapped in his own cycle of self-defeat. The script acknowledges this is the protagonist's own fault. Dim-witted Gnagi has no problem assembling the skull puzzle Francesco struggles with.

The original Italian title is “Dellamorte Dellamore,” translating as “Of Death, Of Love.” The love of Francesco’s life is a nameless woman that keeps returning to his life. Credited only as She, the woman sets up her own purpose earlier on, asking the man if she “can return.” She is represented by billowing scarfs. The title is visually illustrated when her bright red scarf, representative of love, blows onto a pile of skulls. The nameless woman is less a character then another symbol of Francesco’s self-inflicted torture. During their graveyard set sex scene, the woman stand behind a statue of a headless angel, the wings behind her. Later, the wings fall off the statue, beside Francesco’s feet, marking them both as fallen. The first time She dies in Francesco’s arms, he is unable to save her. The second time he lets her rotting zombie chew on him. The third encounter shows his suffering over a woman he barely knows isn’t worth the trouble it brings. By her fourth appearance, Francesco has come to actively resent his love, another symbol of his endless frustrations. Love, like death, is never as simple as it’s supposes to be.

Don’t think “Cemetery Man” is a pretentious study in symbolism. The movie has a darkly comic streak running through it. This is most evident in Gnagi, Dellamorte’s sole friend and companion. The rotund Gnagi resembles Uncle Fester and speaks only one word, a grunting “Gna!” He grotesquely scarfs spaghetti and mindlessly watches television. He hordes dried up leaves in the same way Francesco hordes old telephone books. Like Stan, he shows his romantic interest in the mayor’s daughter by vomiting on her. Despite perishing immediately afterwards in a motorcycle crash, Gnagi still gets to have a relationship with the girl. He removes her zombified head from her glass coffin, serenading her with his violin. The girl(‘s head) is charmed by the bizarre Gnagi and happily takes up resident in his blasted-out TV. Humor is all over the place in this film, from the oddball motorcycle riding zombie, the mid-film absurdest take on Tod Browning’s “The Unknown,” the mayor’s morbid political grumbling, to Rupert Everett’s sarcastic line readings. For all its melancholy and existential wandering, “Cemetery Man” is a very funny movie.

It’s also, visually, quite a beautiful one. Soavi has always been a fantastic visualist but he tops himself here. The cemetery is another world. Turquoise balls of fool's fire dance through the air. Fog billows among the grave stones. The gates and walls of the graveyard seem to close in on the characters as the story goes on. The tombs are painted in blues and violets. Soavi places his camera in creative locations. It slides between floorboards, under coffin lids and even peers out of a floating head’s mouth. Instead of showing the aftermath of a violent shooting in a simple A-to-B fashion, the camera spins upside down. “Cemetery Man” is equally moody and creative in story and visual presentation.

The ending is inscrutable at first. However, I finally gleamed its meaning on this rewatch. Francesco realizes his greatest treasure had been beside him the whole time and, still unable to escape his own world, devotes himself to his stalwart companion. Rupert Everett is perfectly cast in the lead, Francois Hadji-Lazaro makes one word mean so much, and Anna Falci is achingly desirable. “Cemetery Man” is a unique, beautiful film, Michelle Soavi’s masterpiece, a one-of-a-kind treat for adventurous horror fans. [9/10]

Prom Night (1980)

“Prom Night” is the second chapter of a trilogy of slasher films Jaime Lee Curtis starred in early in her career. After “Halloween” and before “Terror Train,” Curtis lend her rising scream queen talent to this Canadian production, a minor classic for slasher fans. Coming so early in the sub-genre’s life, “Prom Night” follows the expected slasher outline. A group of kids while playing an aggressive game of hide and seek in an abandoned high school indirectly causes a fellow child’s death. The police pin the murder on a pedophile. As the years pass, some of the children harbor guilt over the death, while others forget about it. A decade later on the eve of the senior prom, the girls begin receiving threatening phone calls. The same child molester has escaped from prison and murdered a nun already. As prom begins and the kids boogie the night away, a masked man begins to hack his way through the guilty party.

“Prom Night” takes a surprisingly long time to get to its murders. It’s nearly an hour into the film before the deaths start to happen. For such a deliberate pace, you’d expect the characters to be more solidly developed. Most of the large cast aren’t much more then loose ideas. Jaime Lee proves to be the final girl but she’s not quite the protagonist. Curtis’ Kim is mostly defined by her relationship with neurotic brother Alex. Her boyfriend Nick doesn’t have much personality. Asshole Lou and bitch Wendy seem to want to recreate the end of “Carrie” by hijacking the prom. Seymour is the required prankster character. Only Kelly, pushed by her boyfriend into having sex, has any sort of definable arc. She, of course, dies first.

What joys there are to “Prom Night” come from Paul Lynch’s frequently moody direction. He mines quite a bit of sinister intent out of long shots of empty high school hallways. The killer’s first appearance is stretch out nicely, the death coming as a shock, the murder scene fading to red. The creepy phone calls are handled nicely, with extreme close-ups on a pencil thumping at a pad of paper. The ending is surprisingly sincere, playing the material for pathos instead of blatant shocks. While “Prom Night” doesn’t earn that emotion, the attempt is still appreciated.

The movie’s camp factor is probably more entertaining. I hope you kids like disco because this movie is full of it. There are long sequences of cast members dancing to cheesy, canned dance music. Have you ever wanted to see a pre-comedy-career Leslie Nielson boogie his heart out? You’ve got it. The killer’s sparkly ski-mask proves a somewhat comical disguise. Predating “Scream,” the slasher is borderline incompetent. He gets beat up by a nerd. The hilarious van crash has little to do with the killer’s attempt to sneak inside. He nearly forgets his axe during a chase scene. He routinely gets beaten and battered by the film’s heroines. This is probably intentional, considering the murderer is just another teenager.

“Prom Night” is hardly a gory film but what kills it has are quite clever. A shattered glass throat slashing is memorable. The van face stabbing generates a shock or two. The decapitation, the severed head landing on the day-glo dance floor, is darkly humorous. It’s no surprise that “Prom Night” was a big hit in its day and would, years later, spawn the required slasher franchise. The movie’s nothing special but I can see why slasher fans consider it nostalgic horror comfort food. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “My Brother’s Keeper

I’m rather fond of the premise behind “My Brother’s Keeper.” Conjoined twins Eddie and Frank are stick of being stuck with each other. Frank is bookish and arty, fond of reading, museums, orchestral music, and fancy cooking. Eddie likes bars, loose women, gambling, and kinky sex. Conjoined at the ass, separating the two would prove a difficult, potentially deadly procedure. Eddie wants the surgery desperately while Frank is more cautious. The brother’s condition makes romance difficult. This becomes obvious once Frank catches the attention of Marie. The two develop real feelings for each other, despite Eddie’s obnoxious attempts to break the couple up.

“My Brother’s Keeper” mostly plays it fascinating premise for overly broad humor. The fictional brothers are played by real brothers Jonathan and Timothy Stark. Both actors overdo it, Jonathan especially. Eddie is such a cartoon, slinging cheesy one-liners and spending time with a dominatrix. Timothy Stark isn’t much better, playing Frank as an almost equally broad stereotype. The brothers’ condition is frequently played for easy laughs, such as their bathroom or exercise routine. Still, “My Brother’s Keeper” builds decently. I’m on record as a Jessica Harper fan and she’s wonderful as the woman that comes between the siblings. She brings all of her expected charm to the part. The humor finally pays off towards the end, when the brothers start to fight one another. I’m not sure I like the implications of the ending though. I’m not hard to please. This is another slight but goofily entertaining episode. [6.5/10]

Monday, October 28, 2013

Bangers n' Mash 28: The Films of John Carpenter

So if you want to know why I'm two days behind my Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon, this is why.

I did my John Carpenter Director's Report Card episode earlier this year and, hey, I'm not against reusing my notes for the podcast.

If you're wondering why this is so incredibly late, it's actually (mostly) my co-host fault. Mr. Mash did not want to record earlier in the month, those this last minute addition to the show. We've already recorded a second episode for October but it's not going to come out in time. Which is annoying, since it's a seasonal topic. But there's no chance of me getting that one out by Thursday. Anyway, back to the reviews.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 25

Frailty (2002)

When an actor turns to director, you never know what to expect. Usually, an actor’s first crack at directing is an ugly little vanity project. Occasionally, a real classic is born when an actor steps behind the camera. “Frailty” is not exactly a “Night of the Hunter” or “Unforgiven,” but it is an ambitious, surprising directorial debut from veteran character actor and sometimes leading man Bill Paxton.

Told in flashback against the backdrop of a Texas serial killer investigation, “Frailty” is mostly set in the late 1970s. Fenton and Adam live with their single father, a simple man, a car mechanic. Their normal lives are interrupted one night when Dad wakes them in their beds, claiming to have received a vision from God. That he and his sons are chosen as warriors against demons that walk among man. Fenton is terrified, hoping the whole situation is a nightmare, while Adam is faithful to his father. Both boys will have their faiths tested as their father’s actions become more and more extreme.

“Frailty” goes out of its way not to present Paxton’s father character as a religious fanatic. He has a warm, close relationship with both boys. The lack of a mother is not focused on, aside from a picture on a bedside nightstand. The early scenes, of the two brothers talking in bed or the family gathered around the dinner table, establish a relaxed, familial tone. You quickly understand that these three only have each other. Dad’s visions break this safe bubble apart. A parent turned insane or deadly is a primal fear. Two particular moments in “Frailty” plays this up to chilling effect. The next morning, after Dad tells the sons of his vision, Fenton hopes it was only a dream. At first, this might seem the case, as their morning routine progresses normally… Until, as they walk to school, Dad reminds both boys not to mention any of it to anyone. Later on, Fenton tells the local sheriff about the crimes, the unbelieving cop following the boy back to the house. When Paxton turns to his son and asks him if any further investigation is necessary, the film reaches a peak of malevolent atmosphere.

Paxton is a surprisingly self-assured first time filmmaker. He is open about the influence Hitchcock and “Night of the Hunter” had on him, visually quoting from both. His direction is stylish but rarely distracting. The camera moves smoothly, following characters along when needed. When Paxton’s camera becomes more direct, it’s for a reason. Fenton’s run through town, visualized by shooting the actor on a treadmill, or his fall into inner darkness, shown by placing the actor's face on a black mat, deepen the story’s emotion. There are other clever moments, Fenton slipping into shadow or his face crossed over a stone guard dog. Only a Vertigo Shot late in the film is too on-the-nose. Paxton doesn’t back away from invoking classic horror atmosphere with fog or moonlight breaking through trees. “Frailty” looks spectacular.

The film quickly sets its central question up as one of faith. Is Dad insane, like Fenton fears? Is God truly involved in the proceedings? Are the victims innocent bystanders or truly demons in human form? At least at first anyway, “Frailty” leaves things fantastically ambiguous. We have Fenton’s sympathy. He doesn’t know if demons are real but he knows that murder is wrong. However, Paxton is so convincing and so likable as Dad that you can’t help but wonder. The existence of God, demons, the apocalypse, fate, and morality: These are big questions for a scrappy little thriller to address. It handles them all in a mature fashion, always allowing the audience to decide.

At least until the end anyway. In its final minutes, “Frailty” throws away all that sweet, sweet ambiguity. Any time there’s a twist ending, the screenwriter should always ask themselves if the twist reflects on the film’s themes or enriches its story. On one level, “Frailty” succeeds in that regard. The twist changes the way the viewer watches the rest of the movie. However, it’s just plot mechanics. By declaring definitively what happened, what this meant, the ending weakens the overall film. It’s nothing longer a meditation on faith but instead simply a twisting, turning thriller. Fine, sure, but not as exciting.

Still, for most of its run time, “Frailty” is an exciting, complex horror-thriller. Paxton and Matt O’Leary are excellent in the lead roles. Jeremy Stumper is a bit flat, playing too much like an insecure child actor. Matthew McConaughey’s voice over is mostly unneeded but the actor nicely plays against his folksy image. Brain Tyler’s score is elegant and quietly ominous. It’s a shame about that reveal because otherwise “Frailty” would have been a true sleeper classic. It’s still a great sleeper but could have been a better one. [8/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “Television Terror

Morton Downey Jr.’s popularity was a bit before my time. To be brutally honesty, before seeing this episode for the first time years ago, I had never heard of the guy. Even before browsing his Wikipedia article, it was easy to figure out that he was some sort of proto-Jerry Springer, Rush Limbaugh shock-jock trash TV host asshole. “Television Terror” has Downey more-or-less playing himself and seems to bet that the audience would like to see him tormented by violent ghosts. The similarly-named Horton Rivers is a trashy talk-show host who decides to film a live broadcast inside a notoriously haunted house. Naturally, this being “Crypt,” the host and the audience get exactly what they ask for.

Unlike most “Crypt” protagonist, Horton is not guilty of any crime worse then being an abrasive jack-ass. Downey’s faux-sincerity is ultimately far more aggravating then his obnoxiousness, which is so clearly put on the audience isn’t offended. The episode mines some okay spooky atmosphere out of the haunted house setting and J. Petter Robinson’s score is genuinely creepy. Any subtly is done away with when the chainsaw comes out though. The tech crew insisting the cameras still rolling while the ghosts attack is a bit of far-too-obvious social commentary. Still, that final image of Downey, disemboweled and swinging by his tie outside the house window, while the preview for next week’s show play, is darkly funny and creepy. Not one of the best “Tales” but it still has some of that ghoulishly ongue-in-cheek flavor that I love about this show. [6/10]

Panic (1978)

Another urban legend inspired short film from the glory days of USA’s Saturday Nightmares. Like James Dearden’s previous short “The Contraption,” “Panic” is all about slow pacing gently building tension. The story revolves around a model going out for a drive to her next job. The night is rainy and, as she drives through the city, she is accosted by rube punks. Despite the nasty vibes the city puts off, she still decides to stop and pick up an old hitchhiking lady. This turns out to be a mistake.

Not much happens over “Panic’s” 17-minute run time. There are long scene of Mandy just driving around, the synth score droning away. However, the short slowly builds a sense of unease. From the beginning, it feels like the entire world is against our protagonist. The rain beats repetitively at her windows. Nothing happens at first when she picks up the old lady. Still, the driver and the audience feels like there’s definitely something wrong with the elderly woman. The sting in the scorpion’s tail doesn’t come until the very end, the film dragging the tension out as tortuously long as possible. The ending goes for quiet chills instead of abject thrills. The silent eeriness of that final image is destined to stick with you a lot longer then any jump scare would have. James Dearden would later become better known as the screenwriter of “Fatal Attraction” and would, disappointingly, never direct a feature horror film. What a shame, as the guy obviously had the talent for it. [7/10]

Halloween 2013: October 24

Halloween II (2009)

Despite its mixed and at times vitriolic reaction, Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” was financially successful. It was one of the few big hits for the fledgling Weinstein Company. A sequel was immediately commissioned. Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo of “Inside” fame circled the project for about a year before the Weinsteins finally convinced Zombie to come back. Zombie’s “Halloween II” was quickly written and shot, the Akkad heir giving Zombie full reign to do whatever the hell he wanted. The result was a highly uneven and deeply unpleasant film.

After a highly condensed remake of the original “Halloween II” turns out to be just a nightmare, we join Laurie again a year later. She has been left deeply traumatized by the events of the first film, suffering emotional outburst and screaming profanity. This puts a strain on Sheriff Bracket and Annie, whom she lives with. Michael, despite taking a .357 to the face, also survived that night. For the last year, he has lived in a barn, his mask rotting away, eating stray dogs, and killing anyone stupid enough to mess with him. Dr. Loomis has written another book and become a total asshole, a facile shallow celebrity cliché. As another Halloween approaches, Michael and Laurie are both haunted by bizarre visions of Michael’s dead mom, his younger self, and... A galloping white horse?

The first Zombie “Halloween” film worked best when Rob followed his own muse. His attempts to recreate Carpenter’s classic were less successful. You’d think Rob completely owning a sequel would work out for the best, right? Wrong. “Halloween II’ is grotesque, vulgar, senseless, completely divorced from the source material, and a Rob Zombie movie through and through. This is evident early on when paramedics crack jokes about raping Lynda’s corpse. After an inexplicable collision with a cow, we are treated to a solid two minutes of the driver bleeding from the mouth and repeating the word “fuck” over and over again. In extended close-up, we see Laurie’s bones get set, her wounds clean out, all in sickening detail. Zombie indulges his love of extreme violence, over-the-top profanity, and crude sexual references, far pass the point of acceptability.

The grotesque quality extends to the characters. Laurie Strode is not only unrecognizable compared to the original, she’s completely unlike the character from the last film. She too gets a minute of repeating “fuck.” She screams, swears, pops pills, swigs beers, dances on tables, and raves about parties. She spends the whole movie in a state of emotional distress, her breakdown only growing worse. By the time she finds out that she’s Michael Myers’ sister, she’s gone totally bonkers. Her screaming, nerve-wrought confession to her shrink pushes far pass the audience’s patience. Scout Taylor-Compton’s limited range can’t convey Laurie’s over-exaggerated distress. The audience can’t relate. Worse yet, we can’t like her either. It’s screaming, ranting protagonist is perhaps “Halloween II’s” biggest issue.

The other returning characters undergo serious changes as well. Michael spends large portions of the film unmasked, Tyler Mane with a full beard looking a lot like his director. He wears a ratty hoodie and hides out in the woods. He is motivated by visions of his dead mother, determined to reunite his family in death. He grunts with every stab and, in the video release, even speaks. This is Michael Myers in name only. Dr. Loomis is completely unrecognizable. He is the biggest asshole imaginable, chewing out his beleaguered assistant, demanding obscure tea, and pulling tasteless publicity stunts. Loomis wantonly exploits the victim’s tragedy, something the film hammers into the ground. The doctor’s sudden, last minute change of heart is sloppy writing at its worse. For his part, McDowell hams it up, nearly saving the whole thing. Only Brad Doriff and Danielle Harris, both more comfortable in grounded roles, give good performances.

Zombie’s extreme visual style overwhelms the film. Laurie and Michael share surreal visions. These dreams are overdone and obnoxiously directed. What does a table full of pumpkin-headed ghouls have to do with “Halloween?” Why is Laurie buried by her mother in a glass coffin? The siblings sharing dreams have no justification. The white horse symbolism is so out-of-place and meaningless, the movie needs to justify with a pre-credits info card. Miss Myers’ extended appearance exists mostly so Sheri Moon can be in the movie, I think. The surreal elements are deeply out of place, incredibly distracting, and very annoying.

The violence is unnecessarily brutal. Michael decapitates someone with a shard of glass. The most nauseating sequence is when Myers stomps a man’s head to pulp. He repeatedly smashes a stripper’s face into a mirror, the carnage unnecessarily focused on. He brutally stabs countless people. The violence is sickening and lingered on. Everyone cries out in agony as they die, suffering. This extends far pass fun slasher gore and into the realm of gratuitous, I hate to say this, torture porn.

The new characters aren’t very good. Laurie has a new batch of friends that exist to be slaughtered. Harley loves to party and sleep around. Angela Trimbur overdoes it. Brea Grant is slightly better (and very cute) as Mya, who at least feels sympathy for her friend in-between rounds of cursing and partying. Worse yet are the additional victims added to up the body count. Numerous redneck assholes hassle Myers, prompting their deaths. Why would anyone threaten someone who looks like Michael Myers does in this movie? A pair of hicks assaults him on the road, each one a human cartoon. The residents of a strip club are even worse. The owner is possibly mentally disabled. His partner is a hateful bastard. The stripper is exploited and abused. You wonder if Zombie even wants you to like these people. Special guest stars include Howard Hessleman, Margot Kidder, Richard Biehle, Chris Hardwicke, and, most bizarrely, “Weird Al.” Yes, it’s as distracting as it sounds.

“Halloween II” is nihilistic and depressing. It ends with most of its character’s dead, without solace, satisfaction, or catharsis. You come to hate its character’s quickly, the visual style is oppressive, and the violence is far too ugly to be entertaining. John Carpenter’s traditional theme doesn’t appear until the end credits, signaling the film’s total disconnection with the rest of the series. No wonder a third/eleventh installment has stalled. Rob Zombie has made a film so uncompromisingly weird and punishingly ugly that no one would want to follow it up. [4/10]

Teen Wolf (1985)

When people complain about the “Twilight”-ifaction of the classic monsters, I like to point out that Stephenie Meyer did not invent this phenomenon. Cinema isn’t that old a medium. It was only about thirty-so years old when the Universal Monsters came along. It was only twenty-some years later when pop culture overexposure had watered the original horrors down to TV sitcoms, kid cartoons, and breakfast cereals. You can’t trace a path from Lon Chaney Jr. hunting maidens on the foggy moors to Taylor Lautner turning into a big shiny husky without passing through “Teen Wolf,” a fondly remembered bit of ridiculous eighties nostalgia.

The premise is hacky, Hollywood, high concept writing at its best/worst/burst. Scott Howard is a high school student who’s not quite a loser but definitely isn’t cool. He plays, poorly, basketball for his school’s poor basketball team. His friends are weirdoes obsessed with van-surfing who can only get into the good parties by promising to bring booze. His object of desire, the hottest girl in school who is also a drama student somehow, is way out of his league. All of this is confounded when Scott finds out he’s a werewolf. While horrified at first, the powers that come along with the transformations quickly make Scott the most popular kid in school. But, ah, the screenplay implores us, will Scott learn to accept himself for who he truly is?

If that plot synopsis didn’t clue you in, “Teen Wolf’ is an exceptionally dumb movie. Co-written by Jeph Loeb, a frequently terrible comic writer who gets a life-time pass for “Commando,” the movie takes place in that bizarro high school world that only exists in 1980s comedies. One of Scott’s basketball teammates is a big fat guy clearly in his thirties. Even the perpetually youthful Michael J. Fox looks a bit too old for this. Jerry Levine plays Scott’s best friend, Stiles, a really bizarre creation. Aside from the van surfing, he wears obnoxious t-shirts and MCs inexplicable party games, one of which involve two people in their underwear, tied up and covered in whipped cream. The entire premise hinges on the student body finding a kid turning into a werewolf to be the coolest thing ever. That strikes me as somewhat unlikely. Despite this being made in the mid-eighties, the film parodies “Saturday Night Fever” during the prom scene.

Despite its general dumbness, “Teen Wolf” manages to mildly amuse at times. Released the same year as “Back to the Future,” Fox is as charming as ever, making his bizarre character a likable every-kid. Even when Scott’s sudden popularity is suppose to turn him into a huge asshole, Fox makes him immensely likable. Occasionally, the movie’s lame humor catches up with its wacky premise. The basketball couch delivers rambling, heart-to-heart speeches that are in no way helpful. James Hampton is delightfully dead-pan as Scott’s very patience father. The asshole principal subplot pays off nicely. Susan Ursitti is also over-qualified as Scott’s childhood friend. You know the two of them are going to end up together and it’s clear she loves him. However, Ursitti and Fox have great chemistry and she’s likable enough to make the obvious plot mechanics less clunky.

Like all ridiculous high school stories, “Teen Wolf” tries to play its deeply inane premise for drama in the last act. The school turns on the wolf and Scott is forced to prove himself at the final basketball game. It makes the preceding stupidity seems even more stupid in retrospect, no more so then when an overdone ballad plays over the slow-motion end-credits. The werewolf make-up isn’t very good and, considering the tiny budget, it’s no surprise that there’s only one on-screen transformation. The storyline involving Scott’s crush, her douchebag boyfriend, and the drama teacher is terrible. The sometimes homophobic dialogue will probably make you wince. “Teen Wolf” is an occasionally entertaining stupid kid’s movie that’s a bit too raunchy for kids. Aside from a terrible cartoon show and a terrible sequel, the movie would also lend its title to a terrible MTV supernatural romance soap-opera, bringing the “Twilight’ connection full-circle. [6/10]