Monday, October 9, 2017
Halloween 2017: October 8
Of all the eighties slasher icons, it seems like Leatherface has been the most abused. Following Tobe Hooper's unhinged sequel to his own classic, it seems like few filmmakers actually known what to do with the chainsaw wielding maniac. Over the years, we've gotten reboots, remakes, and prequels, one after the other, none pleasing fans much. So when it was announced that another “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” prequel was in development, I didn't get my hopes up. My anticipation briefly flickered when Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, the madmen behind “Inside,” signed up to direct the film. Then “Leatherface” sat on the shelf for a few years before finally being released straight-to-DirecTV, a release strategy that raise my confidence. When the film finally came out, it actually received some okay reviews. Was I wrong to pre-judge this one?
The film takes us back to the early days of the Sawyer family. For his seventh birthday, Jedidiah Sawyer is presented with an unusual gift: A chainsaw. The next day, Jed's deranged older brothers kill a young woman. This girl is the daughter of Sheriff Hartman. As revenge, the Sheriff gets Jed taken off to a mental institute, separating the boy from his mother, Verna. Ten years pass. Jed has grown into a young man. After a failed attempt to free her son, Verna engineers a riot at the hospital. Jed, along with three other inmates, escape. With a kidnapped nurse in tow, the group heads back to the Sawyer family home. Sheriff Hartman quickly pursues them. By the end, Jedidiah will complete his transformation into Leatherface.
Maury and Bustillo's previous films were characterized by two things: Frenzied direction and extremely intense gore. “Leatherface” lacks neither. The bloody effects are vivid and disturbing. During the mental asylum escape, a nurse has her tongue graphically ripped out. A stick-up in a roadside diner climaxes with a massive exploding head. Faces are bashed, heads caved-in, necks stabbed, and brains blown out. It's pretty gnarly stuff and the directors deployed it with maximum impact. Disappointingly, the duo leans on that most dreaded of cinematic styles – shakey-cam – a little too much as well. Several scenes are so shaky, they become difficult to follow. It's not as bad as the equally spastic “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” but its rougher than I would've preferred.
Like I said, “Leatherface” just doesn't feel enough like a real “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movie. There's maybe one instance of people eating people and a single shot of bones used in interior decorating. Despite this, the script is peppered with references and in-jokes to the other films. Hartman is one significant name that crops up. Nubbins is another. Ultimately, a big mid-film twist is what bugged me the most about this one. A character that looks and acts a lot like the classic Leatherface is introduced. Names are limited to pseudonyms at this point, making exact identities difficult to determine. Eventually, we find out that this person who obviously seems to be Leatherface actually isn't. That feels contrived and unnecessary. Why set up all that foreshadowing just to swerve suddenly at the end? Did that twist have any purpose other than just screwing with the audience?
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Some images reverberate through history. Arnold Bocklin's “Isle of the Dead” series are probably some of the famous paintings that you might not be able to name. They all depict the same thing: Positioned on a small island are a closely cropped group of towering trees, growing up in-between stark stone cliffs. A solitary ship is docked outfront, seemingly carrying coffins either to or away the island. The paintings are so powerful and iconic that they've inspired all sorts of art. Sergei Rachmanioff composed a tone poem inspired by the painting. In 1945, Val Lewton took the title for his seventh horror RKO horror movie. Fittingly, Bocklin's painting appears behind the opening credits. The film similarly captures the same foreboding, melancholy as the painting.
The Balkan Wars of 1912 rage on. The Greek forces are led by General Pherides. While conversing with a visiting American journalist, the topic of Pherides' deceased wife comes up. The two decide to visit the grave, kept on a near-by island. As they arrive on the island, they find the tomb has been disturbed. Staying at a local inn, both men hear stories of vorvolaka, an undead monster similar to a vampire. Both men dismiss the belief as superstition. Soon, a batch of septicemic plague breaks out on the island. As the group is forced to stay inside the inn, quarantine, suddenly stories about undead monsters being to make more sense.
Despite the title, “Isle of the Dead” does not seem like a horror film at first. Much of the earlier scenes are set in the daylight, leaving few opportunities for Mark Robson's trademark shadowy direction. The script mostly deals with people trying to survive a plague, talking among themselves inside the inn. However, as “Isle of the Dead” nears its conclusion, the film gets both visually and narrative darker. Robson creates a very intense sequence where Thea wanders through the island's darkened corridors, encountering a Mary that has seemingly returned from the dead. This scene; which is painted in stark black and white, making stunning use of the eerie island noises; may be among the scariest in any of Lewton's films. In this last act, “Isle of the Dead” takes a hard turn into horror, featuring a mad woman stalking and killing people with a trident. So the film rewards your patience in a great way.
“Isle of the Dead's” production was protracted. Karloff needed surgeon on his back following the first two weeks, forcing filming to pause for several months. As it took longer to prep “Isle of the Dead,” he actually shot “The Body Snatcher” in the interim. The released film also wasn't a huge hit for RKO either. This one is not quite as good as that previous collaboration. It's slower and more ambiguous. However, if you're willing to wait around, you'll be rewarded with a chilling and thought provoking classic horror picture. [7/10]
During its brief run on NBC, “Fear Itself” was either ignored or outright dismissed by most critics. However, “Eater” – the contribution from Stuart Gordon – received some positive notices. The episode is set Set in a police station caught in the middle of the snowstorm, the episode follows new recruit Danny Bannerman. She is one of four officers in the entire building. That night, Duane Mellor is brought in for holding. Mellor is a towering Cajun serial killer, who was notorious for eating his victims. Bannerman discovers Mellor doesn't just eat people because he likes how they taste. Using voodoo magic, he can also take on the appearance of the people he kills. Soon, it's up to Bannerman alone to stop this madman.
After directing two of the best “Masters of Horror” episodes, Stuart Gordon directed one of the best “Fear Itself” episodes. “Eater” makes great use of its cramped location. The police station, surrounded on the outside by snow, is lit by sea-sick green, florescent lights. Often, the lights flicker, temporarily casting the characters in darkness and disorientated the viewer. This is one technique Gordon uses to create several tense encounters. The episode doesn't immediately reveal the Eater's powers. Danny can tell something is wrong with her co-workers. One guy gets uncomfortably close to her, continuing to bring up the disturbing circumstances of the case. Another passive-aggressively chides her. Everybody is sweaty and sleazy. By the time the killer reveals himself, “Eater” has ramped up to a fever pitch. The final ten minutes are easily the most suspenseful of the series thus far.
Turns out the cliffhanger last episode was a total cop-out. Looks like “Wolf Creek” really is going to drag this out for six whole episodes. Eve drives to Opalville to talk to the parents of one of Mick Taylor's previous victims. The father, a milker of venomous snakes, turns out to be mentally unstable himself. A struggle inevitably follows. Afterwards, Eve gets bitten by one of the snakes. She is then rescued by an unexpected friend. Meanwhile, an increasingly frustrated Mick Taylor gets sloppy in his slaughter, dropping a clue that Detective Sullivan picks up on.
The first half of “Opalville” represents “Wolf Creek” at its most frustrating. The encounter between Eve and the snake farmer is obviously another unnecessary stop, meant to stretch the story out further. The idea of Eve connecting with another victim of the killer is interesting. As is the subterranean dug-out setting. The direction the script goes in next – making the dad a mentally unstable abuser, causing the sequence to explode into a fight and a chase – seems like a totally random writing decision. Mick, meanwhile, has been reduced to cameos in his own show, murdering random people at the beginning and end. If you weren't annoyed enough already, “Opalville” concludes by reintroducing that pointless biker subplot.