Friday, April 5, 2013
I hope everyone involved with the Evil Dead remake has sent a Thank You card to the MPAA. Clearly this is not the same ratings board that refused to give the bloodless and purposely goofy Army of Darkness a PG-13 twenty years ago. Whatever grudge the MPAA once held against Sam Raimi and co. for bypassing their rulings on the first two Evil Deads has obviously dissipated over time.
Many have suggested that this remake is the goriest R-rated film ever. Not only can I not think of an example to prove otherwise but I'd say that it's also probably gorier than a good many unrated films as well. It's so thoroughly revolting, in fact, that I have no need of seeing the unrated cut when it hits DVD. I'm good with just what's on the screen, thanks. This splatter junkie is already satisfied.
One of the most crushing disappointments of my early horror movie fandom was when my mother failed to convince the ticket seller at our local theater that it was ok for me to see The Evil Dead. I was fourteen at the time and that was a far cry from jumping the "no one under 17 will be admitted" hurdle. In retrospect, I really don't think my mother argued my case that hard but whatever - I had to stare dejectedly at that iconic poster hanging in the lobby window as we pulled away and wait patiently for my later date with The Evil Dead on VHS. While it would've been a feather in my geek cap to say I saw The Evil Dead on the big screen, I have to say the prolonged wait didn't dim my excitement and the movie absolutely fulfilled my sky high hopes for it. That was the thing with The Evil Dead - it had the reputation of being a horror movie that didn't let you down. Raimi didn't pull any stops in trying to make a movie that would please the hardcore horror crowd. He wasn't just doling out horror in drips and drabs, he was shoveling it in the audience's face.
The best compliment I can give the new Evil Dead is that it shares that same determination to be "the ultimate experience in grueling terror."
Directed by Fede Alvarez, who co-scripted with his collaborator Rodo Sayagues (with some contributions by Diablo Cody), this Evil Dead sticks to the bare bones of the original but is made distinctive by Alvarez's crazed creative embroidery. In this film we again have a group of young people together in an isolated cabin but rather than the carefree weekend getaway of the original, here everyone is gathered to help Mia (Jane Levy) kick her long-standing drug addiction so from the start things are already tense. There's no jocularly activity to speak of, even in the early section of the film. And it doesn't take long before a discovery in the basement makes the cabin look like a seriously questionable environment to conduct any kind of healing.
As with the original, there isn't much plot past the initial set-up. The whole addiction thing and the pre-existing drama between the characters would seem to inject more depth into the scenario but it really just provides an easy excuse as to why everyone is in the cabin to begin with. Which is fine. There are moments where long simmering tensions and resentments come into play and while those moments come across just fine, this will not be a film known for its dramatic chops.
Instead it will be known for how mercilessly it put its young cast (including Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Shiloh Fernandez, and Elizabeth Blackmore) through the FX mill.
Bodily harm is served up in heaping doses, with every character suffering grievous (and sometimes self-inflicted) injuries. There's only one instance of CG that I noticed, during the reprise of the infamous "tree rape" from the original, but other than that I think it's all practical. I couldn't swear to that but that's only because I was too gob smacked by the events on screen to analyze how they were accomplished. I'm telling you, this movie is gross. If your tastes run towards subtle horror, you can safely pass on this one.
On the downside, Alvarez and Sayagues' script (I'm guessing Cody's contributions were limited to dialogue polishes) gets in the way of its own fun at times by placing too much emphasis on the Book of the Dead and how it predicts every atrocity. Raimi was wise enough to simply have the Necronomicon (a name not used here, by the way - likely for some legal reason) and the taped translation as a means to have all Hell break loose and not touch back on it much.
Here, every grisly deed that occurs comes with its own helpful accompanying illustration. You know, a possessed person can't just cut their own face off for the heck of it. No, we have to then take a moment to see how it was predicted in the book before we can move on to the next gory spectacle. In the way that many modern films tend to do, it strives to the point of tedium to connect every dot when a simple "something was unleashed" would've sufficed.
I'm also not convinced it was such a great idea to make an earlier victim of possession who pre-dates the main cast's arrival (and that we first see in a pre-title sequence) into a key embodiment of the film's evil. I'm not saying it doesn't work at all but it does create a back story situation that the original was ok without. It was better to keep it all about the core cast and how they turn demonic one by one. Bringing this other character into the mix, who so little is known about, dilutes the formula of friends vs. friends just a tad.
For the most part, though, no one can say this is a watered-down Evil Dead. You get the impression that if Alvarez could've actually hosed down the audience with fake blood, he would've. It's the only way this movie could've possibly gotten any wetter or redder.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
I often have trouble trying to make any rational sense of why I love certain films and sitting high on that list of head-scratchers is Wes Craven’s Shocker. I caught Shocker in the theaters way back when and I’m not sure what my state of mind was on that fall night back in ’89 but clearly I was extremely open to what Craven was dishing out.
I was so open to it, in fact, that while it was still in theaters I would happily tell anyone who asked that, yeah, it was great – go see it! It was only once it hit video that it finally dawned on me that Shocker might not hold much appeal for anyone else – even if it did boast one of the best metal soundtracks of the era.
Shocker was intended to be, at least in part, Wes Craven’s strike back at New Line for the direction they took the Elm Street franchise. Craven and New Line never quite saw eye to eye on Freddy and as they owned Freddy down to the last thread on his sweater, they called the shots, leaving Craven to stew on the sidelines as his dream stalker was turned into an increasingly corny, MTV-friendly jokester.
With Shocker, made for Alive Films and distributed by Universal, Craven hoped to repeat the success he had with Freddy and create a new, sequel-ready horror superstar, this time around having full participation in the ensuing franchise. Unfortunately, despite the electronic affinities of its villain, Shocker didn't make lightning strike twice for Craven.
Shocker’s story involves Jonathan (Peter Berg), a college football player who, in a precognitive dream, sees the majority of his adoptive family slain at the hands of serial killer Horace Pinker (ferociously played by Mitch Pileggi, still a few years away from his most famous role as Skinner on The X-Files) the same night that the horrible deed happens and he uses the clues that he saw in his dream to help his police captain father (Michael Murphy) track the psycho to his dilapidated TV repair shop and bring him to justice, after which he is swiftly sentenced to death. While in real life, Pinker would've sat on Death Row for years while his lawyers filed appeal after appeal, in Shocker Pinker is sent to the hot seat in no time. However, throwing the switch on Pinker only turns him into an even bigger threat as he uses black magic to allow his spirit to survive his electrocution.
His new state of existence allows Pinker to transfer his essence from one living host to another and he zaps his way from one unwilling host – cops, little kids, etc. – to another as he tries to take Jonathan out of this world. Shocker grows increasingly daffy as Pinker’s powers in the electronic realm increase, climaxing in one of the most outlandish final chases in slasher history as Pinker and Jonathan both enter the electronic world and chase each other at length across every channel on television – running through news broadcasts of street riots, archival footage of the Hindenburg disaster, a religious program (hosted by Timothy Leary in a cameo role as a televangelist), rock concerts, and even Leave It To Beaver.
At one point, they spill out of the TV into a family’s living room where a mother squawks: “I’ve heard of audience participation shows but this is ridiculous!”
It’s often said that if you give someone enough rope they’ll hang themselves and that’s the case here as Craven sends Shocker off the rails in spectacular but fascinating fashion. That said, the sincerity that Craven shows towards his material is apparent. On one hand, Craven was trying to create another cash cow to rival Freddy, which is – on the surface – a cynical venture. But on the other hand, it’s plain to see that Craven was very genuine in regards to putting some heart and thought into Shocker. With its satirical jabs at television and the media culture, the movie is like a dig at the glib “fast food” mentality that New Line applied to the Freddy sequels. The fact that everything in Shocker doesn’t quite gel doesn’t diminish my admiration of the attempt. And if nothing else it also must be noted that Pinker crawled out of a TV screen many years before it became the signature move of Ringu's Sadako.
I no longer regard Shocker as being especially good but I do regard it fondly. It's kind of a mess but it bristles with its own lively brand of electricity.
Friday, March 8, 2013
Some things are just awesome and there's no debating it. Like the above cover to Marvel Team-Up #15. Seriously, what's not to love about that? Illustrated by the cream of the crop likes of Gil Kane and John Romita Jr., this has got bad assedness burned into every line.
Ghost Rider staying just ahead of an onrushing subway train, trying to pick up a dazed Spidey before they're both crushed by however many tons of screaming metal are bearing down on them? Daaamn!! And it could all be originally had for the low cost of 0.20? I practically consider that stealing!
Even by the '80s, covers like this had already fallen out of fashion in comics in favor of less hyperventilating depictions of excitement (no more words balloons with breathless exclamations like "Good Lord! I'll never stop this train -- in time!") and, for the life of me, I don't know why.
It's the same with horror movie posters. Once they reeked of hyperbole and promised lurid entertainment but that kind of zealous hucksterism became considered...I don't know...cheesy? Again, I don't get it. Why would you ever think that making something less awesome is better? It's enough to make you throw up your hands in exasperation.
Now, it should be said that the comic behind this cover isn't so hot. Scripted by Len Wein with art by Ross Andru (the most unsung Spidey artist of them all), "If An Eye Offend Thee..." is the somewhat routine account of Peter Parker and Mary Jane, both out at Madison Square Garden to see Ghost Rider's Motorcycle Extravaganza when Peter has to ditch MJ to help out as Spidey as the Ghost Rider tangles with The Orb and his motorcycle minions. It's servicable enough as team-ups go...just not nearly as gripping as the cover would suggest.
But hey, that cover is tough to live up to. The world is full of many things created by man that remind you of the madcap majesty that some gifted souls are capable of. Things that make you go "Wow, that's something!" Or words to that effect. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Great Pyramids...and the cover to Marvel Team-Up #15.
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
In 2002, Marvel gave indie comic icon Peter Bagge (Hate) a one-shot issue, outside of normal continuity, to poke subversive fun at their flagship character, imagining everybody's friendly neighborhood Spider-Man as an angry misanthrope, out to cash in on his fame. It was a funny tweaking of the Spidey story, the kind of "What If?" that can only occur off to the side of the carefully shepherded status quo.
Companies like Marvel and DC are always mindful not to alter their core characters too much as so much rides on their ready familiarity. In comics - mainstream superhero comics, at least - creativity must always be juggled with the overriding directive to protect the brand.
That push and pull of art and commerce makes the never-ending tapestry of superhero narratives irksome to some and fascinating to others. As characters like Spider-Man, Hulk, Batman, and Superman are forever denied a definitive end to their stories, there has to be the illusion of change in order to maintain interest.
They'll get married, or be injured (seemingly permanently), or be killed (again, seemingly permanently), or something dire will happen to a key cast member (over at DC, for example, the latest Robin just perished), or gain a new costume (in Spider-Man's case, a costume he gained on a distant planet turned out to be a sentinent lifeform). But no matter how seismic the event might seem, fans know that in time it will somehow be reversed, or glossed over, or something.
This circling back to status quo (or a close proximity of it) is accepted as the only way these characters can have ongoing adventures for decades upon decades. They have to change but yet still stay evergreen.
In the pages of Superior Spider-Man, Marvel is currently telling perhaps the most fascinating example of this type of status quo upset yet seen in superhero comics. Under the pen of longtime Spidey scribe Dan Slott, Spider-Man's enduring arch-foe Doctor Octopus, found a souped-up scientific solution to the impending death of his withering body - he switched brainwaves with Spider-Man. In one wild stroke, Peter Parker found himself trapped in the dying body of his enemy while Doc Ock had a new lease on life in Peter Parker's body.
In Amazing Spider-Man #700, Ock prevented Peter from reclaiming his own body and let Peter pass away inside of Ock's dying shell. The saving grace was that, in a Hail Mary pass, Peter unleashed a last-gasp info dump into Ock - forcing the melgalomaniacal villain to experience the various life lessons that had made Peter into a hero.
A transformed Ock vowed not just to carry on Peter's legacy, but to find a way to be a better Spider-Man - a superior Spider-Man, hence the launch of Superior Spider-Man #1.
I loved the perversity of the concept from the start. The idea of putting Doc Ock, even a slightly less amoral one, in the driver's seat of Marvel's most beloved hero - their "everyman" character - seemed like wicked fun. And it has been. But five issues in, it's also been so much more than I expected. The thing with these status quo upsets is that they always seem very easy for future writers to wiggle out of, so their long term impact on the character is never much in question.
This, however, is trickier to resolve. Whenever Peter is able to return from the dead and wrest back control of his body, Slott has it set up so it won't be a simple matter of triumphantly popping back in.
At the end of ASM #700, Peter realized that in trying to kill Ock (desperate not to let his body be used for evil, and with only seconds left to live, he threw both himself and Ock out a skyscraper window in a death plunge) he crossed a line that he swore he never would and that, even if he got his body back, that he could never be Spider-Man again. So even if he physically returns, his life as Spider-Man is over.
The real masterstroke of what Slott's been up to, though, is that Ock's attempts at being a better hero (and even a better Peter Parker, one that's more attentive to his Aunt May) are not all bad. Far from it. In fact, it's hard to argue that he isn't the superior Spider-Man as he puts his brilliant scientific mind as well as his gift for meticulous planning towards being more efficient in guarding NYC than Peter ever was. The catch is that even while working towards goals that are beneficial to others, Ock's core nature can't help but seep through. He is working towards the greater good but this is someone who can't hold his ego in check and who doesn't doubt his right to implement any strategy as long as it produces the results he's looking for.
This is a man who has been a global threat in the past. What will he do in order to be the absolute best in the superhero set? Based on what's transpired so far - including the shocking events of SSM #5, it's enough to make any sensible Spidey foe surrender on the spot. And it seems like we've only seen the tip of the iceberg so far.
While Slott had been dutiful in tending to Spidey's legacy in his solo tenure on ASM, the kind of gentle caretaker that comic writers are expected to be - keeping the book and the character as intact as possible until it's time to pass the torch again - SSM has him in terrorist takeover mode. Not knowing what this Spider-Man (dubbed "SpOck" by some online fans) will do next or whether Ock will be redeemed or be further damned has made the character of Doc Ock (usually simply the target of fat jokes) more compelling than he ever has been - a gripping, impossible to pin, bundle of contradictions.
And it should be noted that he's funny, too. Not in the smart alecky way usually associated with Spidey but in his impatient condescension towards those he considers less than his equal (virtually everybody).
In recent years, we've become more comfortable with villains as protagonists. Maybe it's a growing embrace of moral relativism that lets us be ok with a character like, say, Dexter. Or maybe we just find it hard to dislike goal-orientated characters who are really good at what they do. Whatever the case, Slott has still done something remarkably subversive - he's not only had a villain kill a beloved hero and take over their life but in the process turned them into someone that we're able to root for.
It's that kind of audacity that makes Superior Spider-Man the best roller coaster in comics right now - a status quo change that might just stick (for awhile, at least) as well as its title character sticks to walls.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Recently it occured to me to wonder what kind of pressure there must be to find love in Valentine Bluffs. I mean, everyone wants to find a connection in this world but when you live in Valentine Bluffs it must especially suck to be single. Then again, could there be a less romantic place to name Valentine Bluffs? When you decide to name a town Valentine Bluffs, you'd think it would have to be an area that was plainly condusive to romance, a place that had some real poetry in its landscape. Somehow, a dreary coal mining town just doesn't fit that bill. It's more a place where you just count the days until you die.
Oh sure, it's not all misery. I mean, thank God for alcohol.
But once you get to a certain age, forget it.
For all the decorations in Valentine Bluffs - for all the paper hearts and streamers - it still looks like a dead man's town. Or maybe you just have to see it through rose colored glasses to appreciate what it has to offer. After all, every place has its endearing qualities.
Doesn't mean you can find any love there, though. In the end, life's disappointments will find you no matter where you live. It's nothing to lose heart over. These things, they all come out in the wash.
Friday, January 25, 2013
I'll confess, though - it wasn't just the gore and the scares that attracted me but at a formative age these films performed the valuable service of offering a window onto the next stages of life I was heading towards - high school, college, young adulthood. For a socially stunted young person curious about what lay ahead in life, movies like Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine were fascinating to me, regardless of how poorly written or acted they might've been. Deeper critical assessments didn't occur to me. I just craved the view into the everyday lives of older kids and young adults that slasher films offered - even if that glimpse would always be truncated by an axe, or machete, or the whole tool shed.
One thing I loved about slasher movies was their ordinariness. You know, even when they were about nerds and outcasts, the John Hughes films had a Hollywood sheen to them but slasher films never had an once of glamminess. He Knows You're Alone (1980) is a perfect example of that. It all takes place in semi-shabby New York locations. Everybody's working class. These were people I recognized.
Hell, they even had glasses from McDonald's!
Watching He Knows You're Alone back in the day used to make me want to live in that world with those people - well, sans the knife wielding maniac, of course. But the rest of it, going to the ice cream shop, the amusement park - all of that was ideal. Now, thirty-plus years later, it all fills me with nostalgia for a world that's vanished. Oh sure, there's still plenty of ice cream shops and amusement parks to be found but the mood is different, the world just isn't the same.
It's ironic that He Knows You're Alone, which was part of such a notorious, controversial trend in movies, now plays as such an innocent - practically gentle! - film. Yes, there's the requisite slasher movie murders to be had but there's not a mean bone in this movie's body. Caitlin O'Heaney plays such a regular person here, the kind of "girl next door" that doesn't really exist on film these days. Horror heroines aren't allowed to be so normal and down to Earth anymore. The same goes for all the people around her who are uncommonly relatable by today's standards - even her kid sister isn't precocious.
It's so rare (impossible?) now to see movie or TV characters who genuinely like each other and who enjoy each other's company without being out to one-up each other in hipster snark or strained, bizarro behavior that the simple friendships and (mostly) innocent courtships portrayed in He Knows You're Alone feel so appealing in their uncool, unfashionable sincerity (even though one of O'Heaney's friends is up to sexual hijinks with their married college professor, it doesn't come across like such a moral blemish on her character).
Back when I started watching slasher films, I was on the brink of adolescence. Now, I'm middle aged. I don't have my whole life ahead of me anymore. But He Knows You're Alone connects me to that time when I still did and when life seemed full of promise and possibilities.
And for that, I continue to love it.
Monday, January 14, 2013
So for the opening weekend, I sat Chainsaw out. And, as expected, the reports back on it only confirmed my sensible stance. So of course that meant I had to break down and watch it. Call me weak and foolish if you will but I reasoned that, in the end, it might prove to be a wise strategic move. After all, if it was as bad as people were saying, the rest of 2013 couldn't help but look better in comparison.
So was it really that bad? Oh yes, it was. In fact, it was kind of flabbergasting in its idiocy. Having said that, as a connoisseur of slasher cinema, I'm glad that I took the time to check it out. It was awful but it sure wasn't the worst of the Chainsaw series and as schlock goes, I found it giddily entertaining for the most part.
Tobe Hooper's brilliant original certainly deserves better films to carry on its legacy but, clearly, that's not going to happen. The only worthwhile successor to TCM to date remains Hooper's own sequel (a cracked masterpiece in its own right). Everything else has strived for mediocrity and mostly failed to even hit that mark. Of all the major horror franchises, TCM runs neck and neck with The Exorcist in terms of the biggest fail rate. I don't have the time to enumerate all the cataclysmic lapses in logic perpetrated by TC3D but as I watched the movie unfold I found myself helplessly laughing at much of it. But at least laughter means that I dervied some entertainment out of it - even if it's not exactly the kind that the makers were presumably shooting for. But hey, there are a lot of awful films that I slog through without even the slightest chuckle to show for it so I'm giving TC3D due credit for accomplishing something. And I'm sure that as the year goes on, lines like "You came from shit-apes!" (as said by an adoptive father to his twentysomething daughter, who was secretly snatched from the Sawyer clan when she was a baby), "What a fruitcake!" (the professional observation of a cop as he surveys Leatherface's secret lair), and "Do your thing, cuz!" (the context of which I won't reveal) will remain some of my favorite lines of 2013.
Also in the plus column for TC3D is the post-converted footage from the original, which looks pretty stunning in 3D. If not for the fact that there's no way I'd stomach seeing TCM with a modern audience of dipshits under any circumstances, I'd love to see a 3D release of the original. I also liked the assertion this movie makes that the worst thing about Texas isn't a cannibalistic clan of serial killers but rather corrupt redneck politicians. That's a message I can get behind.
This movie has, and will continue to get, a shitload of flack from horror fans who feel that it's nothing less than a desecration of the TCM name (to be fair, it literally is as it doesn't even include the 'M'!) but I guarantee you that had this come out back in the '80s, it would be every bit as fondly recalled as any of the other slasher sequels of that era. I don't mean that it's good, mind you, just that it would be judged by a very different standard. For myself, I'll be judging it by that other yardstick - the same one that lets me enjoy Jason Takes Manhattan. When you're a slasher fan, you have to take your fun where you can get it. And, despite what the tagline to Pieces says, sometimes you do have to go to Texas for a Chainsaw Massacre.