Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ten DVD's To Die For

Around the time that Blue Underground released Gary Sherman's 1981 Dead and Buried to disc, I was speculating with a friend over how long it would be before the very finite list of all the great cult movies and TV shows that we wanted to see brought to DVD were burned through and there'd be no more big releases to anticipate.

Well, that had to be probably six or seven years ago and while some titles I never thought would make it eventually arrived in fine form (Hello, Monster Squad!) there's a handful of must-haves that I'm still waiting to put in my collection.

Here's ten titles that I'd love to see make to DVD in 2008:

1. Friday the 13th: The Series (TV, 1987-1990)

This was a late night staple for me during its three year run from '87 to '90 and it was far and away the highlight of the glut of late-'80s horror programs that ran in syndication back then. While I have a huge soft spot for other shows of that time like Tales from the Darkside and Monsters, they were always far too whimsical for my taste whereas Friday the 13th: The Series frequently got downright grim.

A host of notable genre talent both in front of (actors like Fritz Weaver, Ray Walston and Robert A. Silverman) and behind the camera (directors like David Cronenberg, William Fruet, Armand Mastroianni, Tom McLoughlin, and Rob Hedden) all contributed to the series and strong episodes (like the Texas Chainsaw-esque turn towards the "backwoods horror" genre, "The Long Road Home") could be found right up to the end of its run.

With so much genre TV already represented on disc (hell, Swamp Thing is being released this January!), it's long past time for seasons of Friday the 13th: The Series to start appearing as well.

Read more of my thoughts on Friday the 13th: The Series here:

2. Deadly Blessing (1981)

My favorite Wes Craven film. This often loopy but always atmospheric tale of a widowed woman dealing with an unknown prescene that may or may not be supernatural stalking her in her rural home coupled with her tense relationship with her Hittite neighbors (an Amish-like religious order led by a fearsome Ernest Borgnine) is a jolting ride with several of the best shock scenes that Craven has ever put on film (including a snake joining one unsuspecting character in a bathtub and a memorable dream sequence involving Sharon Stone - in her first film - and a large spider).

Read more of my thoughts on Deadly Blessing here:

3. Dark Night of the Scarecrow (TV, 1981)

This TV movie left a lasting mark on me as a kid. Not just because it was eerie but because it told a very humane and touching tale as well. Larry Drake stars as a mentally hanicapped man who is caught in a misunderstanding and pays a final price for it at the hands of a make-shift mob (played by a round of fine character actors including Charles Durning and Lane Smith) who kill Drake's character as he hides within a scarecrow's clothes. When the men who did the deed hide their crime and subsequently start to meet with grisly ends themselves, panic and paranoia set in among them. This is a perfect morality tale that should be part of everyone's DVD library.

Read more of my thoughts on Dark Night of the Scarecrow here:

4. The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975)

I've never seen this movie so I can't comment on it but I've always wanted to see it as it was shot in my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. This tale of paranormal phenonmenon was never the object of much acclaim but I'd love to see it for myself one day. It has some genre credentials in that Margot Kidder (Sisters, Black Christmas) and Jennifer O'Neil (The Psychic, Scanners) play major roles, famed composer Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen) created the score and J. Lee Thompson (who helmed the original Cape Fear as well as the slasher fave Happy Birthday to Me) directed. I think this only had one VHS release way back at the inception of the video age so this is a film long in need of some attention.

5. Werewolf (TV, 1987-1988)

This slice of late '80s cheese which ran from '87 to '88 was a fun horror show. Lasting only one season, this cribbed the format of the popular Incredible Hulk TV show but with its protagonist cursed to turn into a werewolf rather than into a gamma-spawned beast. Whatever faults it might have had, any show with Chuck Conners cast as an evil werewolf really deserves its due.

6. The Sender (1983)

A wild story of psychic phenonmenon concerning an amnesiac who's able to project vividly real hallucinations into the minds of others got a lot of positive reviews when it was released, despite some jumbled storytelling. This was a mainstay of HBO's programming when I was a kid and The Sender's unusual melancholy mood always sucked me in. Sadly, this ambitious film only saw one pan and scan VHS release.

7. Resurrection (1980)

I saw this supernatural drama on TV in the early '80s and it's stayed with me ever since. Ellen Burstyn stars as a woman who survives a car accident that kills her husband. She soon discovers that she's come out of the experience with the power to heal people. This sensitively written and acted film deserves far more attention that it's ever recieved from fans and critics. Burstyn gives one of the great forgotten performances of genre cinema here as a woman gifted with a power that ultimately forces her away from everyone she loves.

In its depiction of a woman struggling to understand whether her abilities are a blessing or a curse makes this an excellent companion piece to Cronenberg's The Dead Zone. The performances (Sam Shepard, Richard Farnsworth and genre fave Robert Blossoms all join Burstyn in delivering heartfelt work) along with Daniel Petrie's direction keep Resurrection from becoming the stuff of cheap melodrama.

8. Paperhouse (1988)

This has been released overseas on DVD (although it may be out of print) but we're still waiting for a Region 1 disc. Directed by Bernard Rose (Candyman), this story of a young girl who retreats into a fantasy world expressed through her drawings was a canny mix of kid's film and surreal horror. Described by one critic at the time as being "the thinking person's Nightmare on Elm Street".

8. Vampire (TV, 1979)

I watched this TV movie about a vampire whose sleep is disturbed by the construction of a new church over his resting grounds way back when it was originally aired and sadly I've long since forgotten all but snippets of it. But the fact that it stars the great Richard Lynch as the eponymous bloodsucker and E.G. Marhsall as the Van Helsing type looking to stake him out of existence with The Exorcist's Jason Miller and Kathryn Harrold (The Sender) also starring is all I need to know that this needs to be available on disc as soon as possible. And to further recommend it, Vampire's script was penned by future Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue producer Steven Bochco.

10. The Horror Show (1989)

Come on - Max Jenke needs to be on DVD, damn it! Late character actor Brion James will always be best known for his replicant role in Blade Runner ("Wake up, time to die!") but I wish his star turn as "Meat Cleaver Max" had spawned a sequel or two.

James was clearly giving his all to this character and the fact that he's facing off against Lance Henriksen as a cop out to put Jenke down for good gives him a worthy foil to pit his performance against. To see these two great character actors spar with each other elevates an otherwise mediocre film to must-see proportions.

There you have it - ten DVD's that I'll be watching for next year. If even half of these make it to disc, this horror geek will have to call 2008 a very fulfilling year.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Best/Worst Of The Year

Man, the holiday season sure kept me busy this year - leaving me little time to do any sort of extracurricular writing. But now that I'm emerging from my Christmas coma, hopefully I'll be a little more active at the keyboard. Until then, I'd like to point you towards my Best/Worst list for 2007 - posted for your pleasure at Shock Till You Drop:

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

All The Right Notes

When it comes to horror films, critics and audiences have come to prefer their B-movies to really be A-budget studio movies, showing little patience for appreciating the virtues of the former. If it's not the cream of the crop, it's just garbage.

Now I understand that movies are an expensive habit to keep up with and at today's prices it's hard to justify spending hard-earned cash on second rate entertainment but personally I've always liked second rate entertainment. I've known a lot of people over the years who were second rate human beings and they were just fine to talk to - so why should I be such a snob when it comes to movies?

All of which brings me to director Dwight H. Little's much-slighted 1989 version Phantom of the Opera. While Tim Burton is currently being hailed for the efforts of he and scripter John Logan to create a film that evokes Hammer-era Gothic horror with Sweeny Todd, Little attempted to do the same almost twenty years ago with his Phantom. Even if the results weren't entirely stellar, well, that isn't a reason not to give the guy some credit. As I like to say, second rate doesn't mean worthless. Period horror wasn't really what the kids were into back in the late '80s but Little made a valiant effort to make Gaston Leroux's tale appeal to the Jason and Freddy generation.

To that end, Little cast Freddy himself, Robert Englund, in the titular role. The biggest horror star of the '80s by a wide margin (can it even be said that he had competition?), Englund seized the opportunity to play a "classic" monster by giving a performance that left nothing on the table. The hammy gusto that Englund displays in this film is an awesome spectacle, making his work with Freddy look like a study in minimalism. But to anyone who might criticize Englund's approach as being over-the-top, I can only ask: why would an actor play a role like this if they're not going to play it larger than life?

And this being an '80s horror movie, Englund's Phantom is given a ruined face - courtesy of his character's Faustian pact (and Kevin Yagher's notable FX work) - that only FANGORIA could love (as the text on the back of the VHS release proudly announced - "He's Back And He's Uglier Than Ever!"). Little and scripter Duke Sandefur also work in a Freddy-style witticism or two - which Englund dutifully does his best to sell.

As the Phantom's love interest, actress Jill Schoelen was in the middle of her too-brief run as a Scream Queen - having already starred in 1987's The Stepfather and 1989's Cutting Class (and with 1991's Popcorn and 1993's made-for-cable sequel When A Stranger Calls Back yet to come). In Phantom, she plays Juliard student Christine Day, who arrives at a Broadway audition armed with a long-lost piece of music to sing (discovered by her bookish best friend Meg, played by a pre-SNL Molly Shannon) only to be knocked unconscious mid-song by a falling sandbag (which is not as unintentionally funny as it sounds - sorry).

What follows is a lengthy flashback to Christine's past life in nineteenth century London where she was the understudy to the lead in a production of Faust. Here she was also being secretly coached by the Phantom, a figure who never stepped out of the shadows but who was driven to make Christine a star. This process involves not just singing lessons but many slasher movie-style deaths - including one skinned victim that bears the influence of Clive Barker's then-recent Hellraiser and its first sequel, Hellbound. The MPAA may have been cracking down on graphic violence in the late '80s but Little and co. managed to make this a satisfyingly grisly picture.

Dispensing with much - if not quite all - of the romanticism that has been applied to the character in other versions, including most famously in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, Little and Englund's Phantom is a much more vicious beast, making this the most lurid version of the story to date. But there's some poetic moments to appreciate, too - such as when the Phantom uses a violin to serenade Christine in a cemetery during a light snow fall. There's also a nod to Lon Chaney Sr.'s classic 1925 Phantom of the Opera as Englund appears at a masquerade ball in the guise of Poe's Red Death - just as Chaney Sr. did. And Little stages an exciting climatic pursuit of the Phantom through his sewer lair.

Does it all add up to a great film? No, but it's a handsomely produced effort (with Budapest serving as an effective double for 18th century London) that has its heart in the right place, even if it doesn't hit all the right notes.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Join The Mist Militia

With hindsight, fans can look at the box office failure of a classic like John Carpenter's The Thing and shake their collective heads over how such a great movie was left out to dry. But while the hope would be that were such a movie to be released today a more alert generation of horror fans would give it the reception it deserves, to look at the so-so box office take of Frank Darabont's superlative The Mist is to see that horror fans are either just as unmotivated as ever or else they're just too small a group to make a real difference at the box office.

If fans feel that the genre is being undermined by the success of remakes and sequels and PG-13 horror movies, why are those films continuing to thrive yet a picture like The Mist gets a shoulder shrug? I just don't get it. Horror fans love to bitch about how Hollywood caters to the mainstream but if fans take a wait-until-DVD attitude whenever something promising comes along they shouldn't be shocked if the kind of horror films they're looking for aren't around.

Thanks to the internet, it's easier than it's ever been to market to the horror community. And with months of advance hype preceding their releases, it's not as though films like The Mist or Grindhouse flew in below the radar. So either horror fans are just that apathetic or we're just that small of a community. Personally, my gut says it's more a case of the later.

Even though the fan press likes to foster the idea that horror fans are just waiting to be mobilized in service of the right film, I don't think we have the numbers to make a movie into a hit on our own.

We can bring as much grassroots support as possible (Hatchet writer/director Adam Green recently invited fans to "join the Hatchet Army") but ultimately, the future of horror is for mainstream audiences to decide. As much as we may resent it, fans are just along for the ride.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Evel Never Dies

For a younger generation raised on the injury-risking antics of Jackass and its sophomoric ilk, the famously death-defying acts committed by daredevil extraordinaire Evel Knievel during his '70s heyday may seem like nothing more than the same brand of foolhardiness practiced by Johnny Knoxville and crew.

But Evel wasn't some punk with nothing better to do than tascer his own nuts. No, Evel was a real-life superhero. His larger than life stunts were awe-inspiring, even when they went wrong - sometimes especially when they went wrong. To be honest, I don't remember ever seeing an Evel jump where he didn't land at horrible expense to his body. It's astonishing the amount of abuse that his body was able to recover from time and again.

For most people, being hit just once in the groin by a motorcycle would be enough to call it a day but Evel took those same kind of licks over and over during his career. And only someone who had the unquestionable guts that Evel did could ever make a red white and blue jumpsuit seem bad-ass.

While our current celebrity culture is epitomized by selfish and weak-willed behavior, Evel endures as an icon of an era that was still able to produce real-life giants. Today, anyone with a video camera and something to fall off of can get themselves noticed on You Tube but Evel performed the sort of deeds that create a legend.

As he said in an interview in 2005: "Follow your dreams, no matter what they are or you'll never amount to anything. It's better to take a chance in life than to never take a chance. I'm not saying to go and jump a canyon, but you have to take chances. Next time, I'll take more."

Evel Knievel, dead at 69. R.I.P.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Saved In The Nick Of Time

While discussing Frank Darabont's adaptation of The Mist and its uncompromising - and some might say unsatisfying - conclusion (of which I won't get into any details here), I got to thinking about the general attitude that seems to exist towards downbeat endings. Whenever a movie slants toward a nihilistic finale, the discussion almost always involves a debate over whether the ending was a necessary one. You know, "Did it need to end like that?" or "Did the filmmakers earn that ending?". And I always find that to be a funny reaction.

Why do negative endings need to be justified in a way that positive endings don't? Especially when positive endings usually involve just as many - if not more - plot contrivances to make them happen than any downbeat ending. In life, events hardly ever go the way we plan them to or the way we wish they would but yet when a filmmaker chooses a downbeat resolution for their story, it's seen as stretching to make a point - that there's an artificiality involved. When a filmmakers chooses a negative conclusion, it's perceived that they're forcing it on us as well as on their characters.

Very few audiences ever cry foul when much-needed help arrives for our protagonists just in the nick of time, or when the guy wins back the girl, or even when a medical miracle occurs. It doesn't matter how unlikely these endings might be or what manner of deux ex machina the filmmakers have to introduce to make them happen. But audiences almost always feel betrayed by a negative ending. Maybe it goes back to Alvy Singer's words in Annie Hall: "...You know how you're always trying to get things to come out perfect in art, because it's real difficult in life."

And while that's understandable to a point, I think it's unfortunate that downbeat endings are often looked upon as examples of failed storytelling. You know, the implication is that unless such an ending is indisputably at the service of Art, then a movie should never leave the viewers in bleak place - that it's just too glib to do so otherwise, that popular entertainment can't support that kind of ending.

But I think filmmakers should have greater leeway to decide for themselves what ending suits their film and their characters. And that audiences shouldn't always regard downbeat endings as being a cruel punishment.

As a friend who had also seen The Mist said to me in expressing their dislike of the movie, knowing that I had personally enjoyed it "Well, you like those kind of endings." And while I will concede that's true to some extent, my thought is "What's wrong with that?". Nobody questions the favorable response that a happy ending receives. Nobody harasses somebody for liking, say, Enchanted (which I haven't seen but I'm guessing doesn't finish in a blood bath) by saying "Well, you like those kind of endings". But whenever someone expresses a preference for something that smacks of cynicism, it's as though there ought to be a Good Reason for it.

For the record, I'm fine with happy endings. Really. I just think that downbeat endings deserve to have a happy ending of their own. One where it's not viewed a stunt to simply say "And Then They All Died."*

* Note: This is NOT the ending to The Mist, by the way. No hate mail, please.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Crystal Lake Persuasion

There's many horror films that are disparaged upon their initial release but enjoy the satisfaction of an eventual critical reevaluation, but Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980) is still regarded in most quarters as mediocre, despite launching one of most successful movie franchises ever. Even among today's generation of horror fans, Friday's classic status seems like more of an honorary gesture of respect, rather than a sign of passion for the film itself.

In contrast to Carpenter's Halloween, which is universally praised as the best of its series, a highwater mark for the genre, and which still has legions of new fans flocking to discover it, Friday the 13th's lack of play with contemporary audiences was addressed over ten years ago by the opening of Scream (1996) when Drew Barrymore's character failed to correctly answer the killer's trivia question: "Who was the killer in the first Friday the 13th?" Given that, it's not surprising to hear that the upcoming Friday the 13th remake will look to emulate the sequels more than the original.

But even though the perception is that it took a few films before the Friday series got all its pieces in place, for me it's always been first and foremost about the original. No other film in the series ever nailed the eerie sense of isolation that the original did. Once the sun went down on Camp Crystal Lake, it became a truly foreboding place. You really felt like you were out in the middle of nowhere with these kids. And Barry Abrams' photography has a grittiness to it that was abandoned by the slicker sequels. When it's night in this movie, it doesn't feel like the typical movie version of night time where the trees are perpetually backlit. You get the feeling that without a flashlight in these woods, you couldn't see your own hand in front of your face.

And there's an earnestness to the performances here that still plays well. I especially love the fact that these kids spend their last day on Earth doing such stupid, random shit (there's no activity too tedious for Cunningham to linger on, whether it be Bill strumming his guitar or Alice making herself a cup of instant coffee). It's endearing. It's also endearing that the kids play a risque game of "Strip Monopoly" that manages to not be titillating in the least.

Cunningham has never gotten much credit for whatever directorial touches he brought to Friday the 13th but even as familiar as this film's scares have become it's evident what a canny hand Cunningham had for goosing the audience. He shows just enough violence for it to have an impact and the reveals and the jump scares always come right when they should. Even though the climatic scare was cribbed from Carrie, I think that Cunningham actually improved on DePalma's final shock. So there.

And Mrs. Voorhees has always scared me way more than Jason. First of all, in several close-ups of her hands, we're actually seeing the hands of Tom Savini's assistant Taso Stavrakis so it appears that Mrs. Voorhees has hairy man-hands and that's definitely unnerving.

But it's the sick personal joy that Mrs. Voorhees derives from Final Girl Alice's terror that really creeps me out. Her mouth might be telling Alice "it'll be easier for you than it was for Jason", but her eyes are saying "ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma". It's not enough for Mrs. Voorhees to just kill Alice, she wants Alice to know full well what kind of butchering she's in for.

It would've been much easier for Mrs. Voorhees to stash Bill's body someplace, for example, rather than taking the time to impale him on a door with multiple arrows (a hideous defilement to which Alice can only say, "Poor Bill!") but Mrs. Voorhees prefers to go the extra mile. She's been getting away with this kind of shit since the '50s, after all, so there's no fear on her part that she'll drop the ball now.

When Alice does get the upper hand on Mrs. Voorhees during their final stand-off (apparently Alice is equipped with a bionic arm, by the way - how else to explain her ability to decapitate a person with one swing of a machete?), it's a true look of surprise we see on Mrs. Voorhees' face as she realizes that her reign of terror is at an end.

Come Friday the 13th, February 2009, the Friday remake will prompt more people than ever to disregard the merits of the original. But whatever its reputation, Friday the 13th will always rank with me as one of the all-time perfect horror films. A shocker of the first order.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Werewolf's Big Break

As the horror classics of yesteryear are reintroduced to new generations of fans courtesy of slick, well-monied (if not always well-considered) remakes, I'm still waiting impatiently for someone to pony up the cash for one of the few films that really needs attention, 1974's The Beast Must Die.

Many low budget horror films thrive on their hardscrabble origins - films like Night of the Living Dead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would not have been the classics they are without their handmade vibe. And the films of Val Lewton, such as Cat People, expertly used suggestion to compensate for a lack of spectacle. But The Beast Must Die really could've stood to afford fancier sleight-of-hand in depicting its titular beast. Even as a kid, I knew that any movie trying to sell a dog as a werewolf was going to be caught flat-footed. I don't care how darkly a scene is lit, a dog is still a dog. Werewolves don't wag their tails.

Some horror movies can pull off a monster that's charmingly substandard. Unfortunately, this is just substandard. Then again, even Steven Spielberg couldn't make a convincing shark in Jaws a year later in '75 so maybe it's unfair to give The Beast Must Die too much grief over its werewolf. Especially as it's such a cool movie in every other respect.

Based on the short story "There Shall Be No Darkness" by James Blish, The Beast Must Die has wealthy big game hunter Tom Newcliffe (played by Calvin Lockhart, who's own name seems to much better fit his character's cool factor) corralling a group of hapless guests (including Peter Cushing and Charles Gray) at his inescapable island manor in order to ferret out which one is a werewolf (!) and hunt down what he sees as the ultimate quarry. Unfortunately for all the guests who aren't werewolves, the chance of getting mauled to death before Newcliffe collars the beast hiding among them is extremely high. Because even with all the high tech resources at his disposal, Newcliffe isn't able to get the upper hand.

As a lycanthropic version of The Most Dangerous Game crossed with a Ten Little Indians-style murder mystery, The Beast Must Die is inspired. But as much as I love the movie as is, and appreciate its oddball inclusion in the '70s blaxploiation genre - thanks to Lockhart's brash, bad-ass hero and the horn-heavy funk of Douglas Gamley's score - The Beast Must Die has too much unused potential not to be retold one day with better resources.

Any effort to update The Beast Must Die, though, would mean its infamously silly gimmick of the "Werewolf Break" - where the film stops for thirty seconds just before the climatic reveal so viewers can ponder the surviving suspects and take a last chance to guess the identity of the werewolf - would probably have to be left behind. But before fans cry heresy, let's be honest. Don't you think this werewolf film deserves a real break? Or should it always be a shaggy dog story, just a wolf in cheap clothing?

Go on, think it've got thirty seconds to give your answer.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Up In Flames

I just saw a TV ad for The Mist that put a big goofy grin on my face. What did it was a brief image of soldiers standing side by side, using flamethrowers on an unseen enemy. I just love that monster movie convention seen in such '50s creature features as Them! of the military incinerating anything that breaks rank with the human form. It always seemed like such a hardcore response to me! So I'm thrilled to see that Darabont is holding an All-American cook-out for his own tentacled terrors. Some traditions are worth carrying a torch for.

Monday, November 5, 2007

What All The Cool Kids Are Up To

I don't know when it happened but somewhere along the way, it became cool to be a geek. Liking comic books, horror movies, and science fiction doesn't automatically put you in the loser's club anymore. On the contrary, to have any hope of understanding popular culture today you have to be something of a nerd (look at the big holiday movies, for example - who else but a sci-fi horror buff would have the inside track on I Am Legend or The Mist?). More than ever, it's become a geek's world. But somehow I can't help but think that the glamorization of geeks is ultimately a bad thing. I mean, some of us just weren't born to be cool.

Picking up my first issue of Geek Monthly recently has only acerbated my sense of dismay over the new face of nerddom. After skimming through its glossy pages, I fear I just don't quite belong to whatever group this is representing. Based on the interviews with Sam Raimi and Frank Darabont and the reviews of such things as the final cut of Blade Runner, I guess we share some of the same interests but Geek Monthly is aimed towards a new breed of geek who possesses a level of polish and style (and a disposable income) that's alien to me. It's as though the term 'geek' has been stolen from the genuine article.

I mean, I'm not exactly a slob. And I'm not socially inept, either. But looking through Geek Monthly made me think I must've been given bad instructions along the way because clearly geeks are living larger than ever. Growing up as a geek, I at least felt some comfort in the fact that there was some collective nerd pride found in not fitting in - a romantic quality to it, even.

Well, so much for all that.

It's hard not to think of myself as a geek but I guess I'll have to get used to it. It's either that or learn how to be much more popular. And as I always told myself during my most awkward times, that'll happen someday - in my dreams.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Thank The Projectionist

During the last month at Shoot the Projectionist, Ed Hardy Jr. has taken on the task of soliciting votes from his readership and compiling a final list - out of 183 initial entries - of 31 Flicks That Give You The Willies. The results are now up (along with the newly posted results for Top Five Horror Comedies) and what made the grade makes for interesting reading. Some might carp that too many great films or obscure but excellent choices got left off (many of my own picks didn't make the cut, that's for sure!), but hey, whatever.

If you're making a list like this on your own, there's the tendency to go with choices that you know will be regarded as savvy or discerning. No one wants to look unsophisticated, after all. Everyone likes to look like they have erudite taste - even when it comes to selecting the best zombie movie. But a list like this, with choices voted on with relative unanimity, can take some critical posturing out of the equation and bear out more gut level truths. For example, maybe most people really do prefer Gore Verbinski's The Ring to Hideo Nataka's Ringu. I find that sort of thing endlessly interesting to consider - the gap between what's considered hip or tasteful to like and what people actually do like.

Not that people who prefer a more critically lauded film are lying, of course, only that sometimes we might intellectually appreciate one film but privately consider a "lesser" film more appealing. And that begs the question of whether such a lesser film shouldn't be held in higher esteem. After all, what else ultimately matters more than how much of an affect a movie has on its viewers? With that in mind, I think it's telling that the number one film on this list is a film that was deemed mediocre upon its initial release by most critics and horror fans but that has seen one generation after another come to embrace it as a undisputed (or at least a much more seldom disputed) classic.

I might post my own votes here eventually but in the meantime the above pic represents my #1.

Click the link below to see the result of Ed's hard work:

Monday, October 29, 2007

Jigsaw's Big Score

Based on the strong showing of Saw IV at the box office this weekend, it's clear that the Saw franchise has not worn out its welcome with today's horror audience. Among this decade's would-be fear franchises, only the Saw series has been able to sustain popular interest. The Ring, The Grudge, and Hostel all found a wan response to their first (and to date, only) sequels and Saw's most successful competitors, the Final Destination and Resident Evil series, made it to their third films but with little fan demand left for more. In the meantime, the Saw films are proving to be the defining horror series of their time, impervious to box office failure.

Personally, I wish that the Halloween season could be dominated by a horror series that was more inclined towards the ghoulish, the supernatural, and the macabre. The bone-breaking death traps of the Saw films just don't suit my perception of the witching season. But clearly that's strictly my hang-up as for a whole generation of horror fans, Halloween will be forever synonymous with Saw. That's proven to be cagey marketing on the part of Lionsgate but I think the Saw films would have found the same success regardless of their release date.

Like the popular horror series of (semi) old, the graphic gore of the Saw films provoke the same knee-jerk outrage that greeted the slasher franchises of the '80s (which is fine, because it just isn't fun to follow a horror series unless it's pissing off your uptight elders). But more important is the Old Testament brand of moralizing propping up the series' baroque violence. The Saw films, and its figurehead Jigsaw, are all about teaching life lessons with each kill. If the moral message of '80s slasher movies was that indulging in unmarried sex, drug use and general carousing was as good as putting a machete to your throat, the Saw series has met a more drastic set of social problems with a much more drastic set of solutions.

Beyond the series' byzantine plotting and signature twists, I think this is what fuels the Saw films and makes Jigsaw an ever-more interesting psychopath. As played by with weary determination by Tobin Bell, Jigsaw is someone who is smart, perceptive, and above all, honest (and industrious as well - even in death he's tireless). This is not a hulking cretin lurking in the bushes waiting to skewer nubile teens, and he's not a jokester. He's out to make the world better, one hopeless case at a time. As our social standards becomes more permissive, as we see the lazy, the criminal, the vain, and the simply stupid thrive at the expense of others - it's not surprising that Jigsaw would be embraced as the boogeyman (or the avenging angel) of our current age.

We live in a world where notions of right and wrong have become flexible to the point of meaninglessness. We practice situational ethics, adopting whatever morals personally benefit us from moment to moment. And the public figures who are supposed to lead by example are often the greatest abusers of this. In a compromised world that pays only lip service to the morals it's supposed to live by, Jigsaw is someone who doesn't waver in his convictions, who doesn't give ground to excuses, and who regards anyone who can't live a responsible, unselfish life as being fit to perish.

Director Stuart Gordon has long expressed his plans to send Herbert West to the White House for the next Re-Animator. But perhaps a team-up is in order as it's really Jigsaw that ought to arrive at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Once Jigsaw is back on his feet thanks to West's serum, he can put the current administration to the test ("Hello, Mr. President. I want to play a game.") and restore morality to the Oval Office in time for next year's election. But that's the kind of gimmick only a waning horror series would have to resort to. Based on Jigsaw's big score this weekend, the White House (as well as Manhattan and outer space) will be safe from Saw for a long time to come.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Laundry Day

I knew as soon as this film's release on DVD was announced that I would add it to my collection one day. It wouldn't happen immediately, and indeed this film has been out for some time, but it would happen and I've never tried to fool myself into believing otherwise. And this week that time, that implacable destined day, came. Yes, I now finally own Tobe Hooper's The Mangler on DVD.

At the irresistible sale price of just $4.99 at my local Best Buy, you can hardly blame me, can you? I mean, it's not as though my child had to go hungry for me to buy it. Right? Yes, but it wasn't free and that still means I Bought The Mangler. Now, I'm sure a fair amount of fans have also added this to their collections since its DVD release several years ago. But then again, it's likely that it was a blind buy in those cases, from people having never seen the movie during its brief theatrical run back in March 1995. Maybe they were too young at the time, or maybe they were busy flocking to that month's more high profile genre flicks like Hideaway, Outbreak or even Candyman II.

But you see, I did make the time to see The Mangler on the big screen. As a matter of fact, I saw it twice. And I didn't see it twice because I had to confirm that it was really as bad as I thought it was. No, I saw it twice because I thought it was kind of...great. Not Exoricst great, no. Blood still gets to my brain on occasion. But it was definitely "this is pretty cool" great. Like, hey man, Tobe Hooper's still got some fire in his belly! He doesn't have much sense, unfortunately, because no reasonable soul would ever try to make a real horror movie with a demonic laundry press as its villain but the fact that Hooper tried and tried with full sincerity makes him a hero - or at least a Holy Fool - in my book. I mean, this is the textbook definition of a valiant effort. To make this movie and not cover your ass by winking your way through it is pretty awesome in my opinion. And really, the only reason I didn't buy this on DVD sooner is because I was lamenting the lack of special features - surely The Mangler deserved more, no?

I realize that Hooper's effort fell on deaf ears and hard hearts since Day 1 but I'll always champion it. So to Tobe Hooper, let me just say this: Thanks, man. Thanks for trying to scare the sheet out of me!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fearless Vampire Killer

Director John Carpenter knows more than his share about anti-heroes. The creator of such hard-bitten characters as Napoleon Wilson, Snake Plissken and R.J. MacReady has given the cinematic world many a Bad Man to contend with. But in 1998, Carpenter made the rest of his run of antisocial outlaws look like soccer moms next to Jack Crow, a vampire slayer who tolerates humans only barely better than he does bloodsuckers. When John Carpenter's Vampires was released in the fall of '98 on the heels of the summer smash Blade, it was found by most audiences to be lacking the visceral excitement of that bigger-budgeted vampire film. And fans of the John Streakley novel Vampire$ groused for their part that Carpenter failed to do the novel justice. Well, boo-fucking-hoo to all that.

Carpenter doesn't do anything special with this film's action set-pieces (they're a bit on the lethargic, who-gives-a-damn side) and the vampires themselves are standard-issue goth creatures. But I love James Woods' portrayal of the perpetually enraged Jack Crow. Woods tears into the opportunity to go larger than life with such a ruthless character and Carpenter goads him on every step of the way. Whenever Woods is onscreen (which is a lot) the film is a field day of overplayed machismo with no one in the cast being safe from Woods' pimp hand, least of all Father Adam Guiteau, the hapless, well-meaning priest (played by Tim Guinee) who Crow all but takes a blowtorch and a lead pipe to.

Even if you're someone who doesn't like Vampires, which seems to include almost everyone, please give Carpenter some credit here. After all, never in the annals of cinema has a film's hero beaten a priest, shoved a gun in their face, and afterwards taunted them by asking whether the savage beating they just received had sexually aroused them. ("Let me ask you something - when I was kicking your ass back there, did that give you wood?") The fact that Guinee's character becomes such a devoted acolyte of Crow by the end of the film - after Crow inflicts further acts of violence on him such as cracking him across the face with a phone, slicing his hand open with a knife, and punching him in the stomach - makes Guinee's situation a plain parallel to the symptoms of abusive relationships: surely a historic first between two male characters in an action film. And when he's not beating Guinee's meek priest, Crow is shoving, slapping, and verbally berating Katrina (played by Sherly Lee), a freshly feasted-on hooker kept under Crow's watch for the purposes of the hunt.

Perhaps intentionally due to Carpenter's affection for the Western genre, Crow is depicted as being as single-minded as John Wayne's Indian-despising Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers (1956). In fact it's easy to imagine Crow himself delivering a variation on these grim lines from Ethan: "...Seems like he never learns there's such a thing as a critter that'll just keep comin' on. So we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em. Just as sure as the turnin' of the earth."

Almost ten years since its release, Vampires hasn't garnered much of a cult. But I think it's ridiculously entertaining. From the first time I watched the film, I got the feeling that Carpenter had intentionally gone all out - for the purposes of his own amusement, if nothing else - in making Jack Crow such a hardcore sadist, misogynist and racist. While those around Crow fall prey throughout the course of the film to such human foibles as fear and love, Crow suffers no such weaknesses. Carpenter revels in the only-in-the-movies fantasy that Crow embodies - someone so self-reliant and so self-certain that they never need to acknowledge their fellow man or adjust to what the world expects of them. And in that way, this harsh character reveals a romantic longing on Carpenter's part: the desire to never have to live in doubt's shadow.

Friday, October 19, 2007

We Rent To Own The Night

30 Days of Night is a fake horror film living in the borrowed skin of the genuine article. It has the would-be look of a classic - almost monochromatic with stark blues and blacks contrasted against white snow speckled with blood; barren tableaus that make for haunting still lifes. There's also no humor in the film, nothing to give fans cause to decry it as camp. And the feral vampires that set down to feast on the vulnerable town of Barrow, Alaska? Yes, they're fierce. But director David Slade's film feels like the work of someone who only knows enough about the horror genre to try and counterfeit one of his own.

Having not read the Steve Niles/Ben Templesmith comic book (this is one comics fan, by the way, that will continue to detest the usage of the pretentious term "Graphic Novel"), I don't know if I was at an advantage or disadvantage coming into this film. I will say the idea always sounded terrific to me, as it does to virtually everyone. But there's an incredible shot early in this film that at once is a bad-ass visual and on the other hand points up a deep flaw in the story. The shot is a God's Eye overhead of Barrow as vampires run freely through the streets killing every human in sight. All we see is carnage. Within just hours, the sparse population of this town has been bled out in the streets save for a meager handful of survivors.

As much as this looks cool, all I could think of was that these vampires have just consumed 99% of their food supply in less than one day. So, really, what's the point of them staying the rest of the month? For the dozen or so vampires assembled there to pick over what few stragglers might be left? Is that really worth it? Shouldn't they just burn the town down after that (and smoke out whatever remaining humans might be hiding) and move on to the next community? Rather than being slack-jawed with horror at the sight of a whole town wiped out, all I could think of was how this movie had essentially put the cart before the horse. I just watched the climax to the movie in the first fifteen or twenty minutes. There's nothing to keep these vampires in this town or in this movie after this point, but yet they stay.

If the rest of the movie is just meant to be about how the remaining humans will last for the next 29 days, that kind of survival story needs to be dramatized within an inch of its life - we have to feel each day - but Slade's film becomes lost whenever its vampires aren't going for the throat. A movie like this lives or dies on how it handles the moments between the attacks and this one just doesn't know how to sustain that deeper interest in its premise or its characters. I felt that what I was watching would make for a superior video game but didn't have enough of a story to support a feature length movie. I imagine the impulse to go for an action-based narrative was too strong both in the comic and the movie - after all, when you describe the notion of vampires invading a town without sunlight, it's easy to want go for a visceral approach. It just seems right, doesn't it? And I would've thought so too - until seeing this movie.

As 30 Days of Night trudged on, I longed for a film that would've centered on just one vampire that infiltrates this town on the sly, feeling that they have hit on their own private paradise - a near-inexhaustible blood bank. And this lone vampire would work quietly, secretively - never tipping its hand to its presence. The people of Barrow would just think that there was some kind of flu or virus going around. Now that I could've bought. I would've liked to have seen a film follow that type of story in which the people of this isolated town slowly suspect that something is feeding off their blood but yet don't trust whether their perceptions have been affected by the long night. That could've been a creepy, moody horror film. Instead, 30 Days of Night is the Michael Bay version of a vampire movie.

It doesn't help maters that nothing in this film ever feels approximate to real life - even in a vampire movie we have to believe that a real community and real lives are danger. However, the sets and photography are so meticulous and striking that it's impossible to forget that we're watching a movie with a captial 'M'. The artifice never recedes into the background (not helped by the many close-up shots of vampires with digitally altered faces). And the dialogue is similarly jarring. No character in this film ever sounds like they're having a genuine reaction to anything. Contrast that with a movie like The Thing where no matter how outrageous the horror, every response feels true.

And nowhere does this movie feel more contrived than at its climax. A situation arises that Demands A Sacrifice but yet when one character does the unthinkable because There's No Other Option, the film renders it all ridiculous by the reappearance of the sun just moments after this character has made an irreversible choice. Their decision is presented as being the only way to save a character that would've otherwise perished but as it plays out, it's clear that maybe just a little bit of waiting would've been prudent. And by "a little bit of waiting" I mean five minutes, tops. The least Slade could've done as a storyteller is make it look like daylight wasn't just around the corner so this character's selfless act didn't seem like the most wasted of gestures.

As for the vampires, it's bad enough that Slade and co. give these guys a goofy language of chirps, grunts and squawks to communicate in but to then add subtitles that reveal dialogue more howlingly awful than the worst lines we could've imagined is just inexplicable. And why are these vampires even bothering to talk to us in a language we don't understand? Further, why does no one ever bother to ask these vampires "what the fuck are you saying?". That actually might've been cool - to play up the notion that these people are being killed by creatures that are speaking a totally alien language. How frightening would that be? But yet when these vampires do talk to the human characters, it's as though these people are able to read the subtitles right along with us. So what's the point, then?

Under its failings to make its narrative or its characters worth our attention, 30 Days of Night has nothing to offer other than the novelty of its concept. There's no thematic underpinnings, no use of its monsters as metaphor. With a whole month not to worry about the rising sun and with a whole town to themselves, it might've been interesting to see a race of vampires adopt a facsimile of a "normal" life only to know it will ultimately be ripped away from them. But no, these vampires exist solely to jump out intermittently for a cheap scare. Again, what's the point?

With so many remakes, sequels and half-hearted horror efforts plaguing the current genre scene, it felt like 30 Days of Night was a movie that needed to be good. And it's a heart-breaker to find that it isn't. It bites, but it doesn't leave a mark. Now can someone make a real horror film, please?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Tough Love Of CFQ

Whenever I look over the coverage of upcoming genre releases in the pages of today's fan press, I always wish that the late, great Cinefantastique was still around to cover films the way they did in their hey-day (which for most fans was the late '70s/early '80s but I think the magazine was still strong through the early '90s).

Although I'm looking forward to reading more about the likes of The Mist, Sweeny Todd, and I Am Legend as their release dates approach, when I see films I'm excited about covered in the pages of Fangoria, Rue Morgue or the mainstream likes of Entertainment Weekly, I can't help but think it's a shame - no matter what the quality of the finished film or how professionally these various venues file their reports - that they'll never have a CFQ cover to call their own.

When I think about the films I love from my childhood and early adolescence, Cinefantastique consistently played a critical role in my appreciation of them. CFQ cover stories devoted to the likes of Conan The Barbarian, Dark Crystal, Blade Runner or The Thing were the fully loaded DVD Special Editions of their day, exhaustively covering every aspect of a film's production.

Of course even CFQ itself, for whatever reason, stopped covering films in the definitive the way they famously used to long before publisher Fredrick S. Clarke's untimely passing in 2000. And it makes me sad to know that there isn't room (or even a demand, it seems) today for the kind of exacting approach that CFQ proudly practiced.

By all reports, Clarke could be a difficult taskmaster but his insistence on excellence resulted in reportage that stands the test of time. When I see Rue Morgue devote a cover to a classic film like The Thing, for example, all I can think of is that RM's efforts look paltry in comparison to CFQ's definitive account of The Thing's production published twenty-five years ago.

Something else that Clarke brought to the table that's sorely missed is his oft-times antagonistic relationship both with his readership and with the filmmakers whose work was CFQ's bread and butter. While most publishers and editors have followed Forry Ackerman's example by portraying themselves as a friend to their readers, as an uncritical fellow fan, Clarke refused to ingratiate himself in that way and instead maintained a prickly, combative attitude that made for challenging (if sometimes exasperating) coverage. And I miss that.

CFQ didn't just champion individual films, it championed a way of looking at films - with an eye that was discriminating, demanding, and informed. And that meant much more than just going behind the scenes of a production or delivering the occasional pan of a film, it meant sometimes rudely challenging fan's assumptions about themselves and the films they cherished. In the end, that irascibility - even when it rubbed me the wrong way - is what I miss most about Cinefantastique.

Genre fans are often predisposed to nostalgia and easy comforts. Thanks to Clarke, CFQ always showed a tough love for the genre. And sometimes that's the love we need the most.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

If It's Halloween, Can It Please Not Be Saw?

Ads are currently trumpeting the return of the reigning king of Halloween horror to theaters - Saw IV is coming and given the financial success of the series' previous three outings, the arrogant tone of Lionsgate ad campaign - "If It's Halloween, It Must Be Saw" - isn't an unearned boast. But that tagline is just obnoxious, don't you think? I'm sure lots of nice people work on these films and Tobin Bell really is a terrific actor but Lionsgate is just getting too full of itself when it comes to pimping their most famous franchise.

I mean, hey - I grew up on horror franchises. Every year throughout my adolescence there was always a new Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Hellraiser coming to theaters. But as big as those series were, they never publicly pat themselves on the back as odiously as Saw. And that's ultimately what rubs me the wrong way here - thanks to Lionsgate's marketing, Saw is just too self-satisfied to be any fun.

I don't want to sound too churlish about it - after all, as a horror fan I want there to be a reliable big screen fix every October. But, man, does it always have to be Saw? Here's hoping that 30 Days of Night will be a big enough success to force Lionsgate to alter their marketing plans next year for Saw V.

"...If It's Halloween, It Might Be Saw." Yeah, now that sounds better.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Road To Wellville

Twenty-five years after their hey-day, it's become fashionable to regard the slasher films of the early '80s - no matter how pedestrian they might be - as horror classics. At present, however, their late '80s/early '90s counterparts have not received the same kind of reappraisal. In fact, I expect the slashers pictures of that era will forever be regarded as substandard. But that won't deter me from giving some critical care to the mad medico known as Dr. Giggles.

Directed by Manny Coto, Dr. Giggles was an awkward attempt to create a horror villain for the '90s, with the resulting film destined to be remembered alongside such other would-be franchise starters as Shocker, Ghost in the Machine and Brainscan. But maybe I'm in need of medical attention myself as I (and I alone) continue to nurture an indulgent fondness for this movie. Fifteen years after its release in October of 1992, I hold that Dr. Giggles remains a slight but satisfying example of severed-tongue-in-cheek humor.

The script by Coto and Graeme Whifler (who recently wrote and directed the reportedly grim thriller Neighborhood Watch, his first effort since Dr. Giggles) brushes over their story's cliched beats - lunatic escapes from asylum only to make an expedient return to his hometown to stalk unsuspecting teens - with a series of grotesquely funny set-pieces that display a comic book sense of exaggeration (the film was in fact adapted as a four-issue miniseries from Dark Horse Comics meant to tie-in to the movie's release). And actor Larry Drake's portrayal of Dr. Evan Randall Jr., aka Dr. Giggles is purposely larger than life.

As Dr. Giggles uses every instrument in his medical bag (including some that would make the Mantle brothers cringe) to leave no patient breathing, the film fulfills the lurid promise made by the poster to 1981's Happy Birthday To Me, which promised to show "six of the most bizarre murders you'll ever see." That earlier film ultimately failed to show much invention when it came to annihilating its cast but Coto and Whifler take their medical theme and not only run to the wall with it but run it through the wall. Perhaps it's best that a Dr. Giggles 2 never happened as nothing is left on the (operating) table here. It's as though Coto and Whifler had planned a series of Dr. Giggles films, had come up with enough gore gags to fill them all but then decided that they'd better not take the possibility of even one sequel for granted and put their best ideas into this first outing, making Dr. Giggles its own "Best Of" of a series that never was.

They also exploit their medical motif with every possible pun and one-liner related to any well-worn medical cliche one might think of. The incessant corniess of such an approach may be the single most alienating aspect of the film but I love that Drake is able to deliver every groaner in the script with equal enthusiasm.

Giggles' victims - including future Charmed' star Holly Marie Combs, the late Glenn Quinn (best known for his role in TV's Rosanne), and '90s personality Doug E. Doug - are a pretty bland bunch but no more so than one would find in any other slasher film. This film is all about making Dr. Giggles himself into the next horror superstar. Unfortunately, the makers of Dr. Giggles forgot that the biggest horror icon of that time, Freddy Krueger, had only became funny as his series went on. It was the intense, genuinely scary first film that had created a demand for more.

Perhaps if he had been portrayed with a little more gravitas in this picture, Dr. Giggles would've gone on to be a successful send-up of his former self. As is, Coto and Whifler left audiences with no reason to see what a Dr. Giggles IV, V or VI might look like. It may have been a flawed strategy on their part in terms of launching a successful horror franchise but I continue to appreciate the 'sick' humor of their character's singular appearance.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cooper Was Right

In his role as the belligerent Harry Cooper in the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) as well as in his various behind-the-scene roles in that seminal film's production, the late Karl Hardman Schon (1927-2007) was integral in realizing Romero's masterpiece, making him one of the architects of modern horror.

But aside from the incalculable debt owed to Mr. Hardman by legions of fans, in honor of his passing I'd like to acknowledge a seldom-spoken truth about his most famous role. And that truth is this: Cooper Was Right.

Sure, Duane Jones' Ben successfully marshalled the scared group holed up in that farmhouse into action, making him the heroic opposite of the craven character that Hardman portrayed so well. And yet Ben was also fatally wrong. Had the band of survivors listened to Cooper's advice to stay in the cellar, they all would've made it safely to morning. Well, all except for Cooper's daughter Karen - played by Hardman's real-life daughter Kyra Schon. But still, Cooper's insistence that the cellar would be a safe refuge turned out to be 100% sound. He may have been right for all the wrong reasons but regardless, his instincts on successfully weathering a zombie siege have proved to be self-evident. It's his atrocious people skills that did him in.

So here's to you, Cooper - if you weren't handicapped by such an abrasive personality, history might've told a very different story of the Night of the Living Dead.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Resident Evil: Extinction is the worst thing to happen to Sin City since Robert Urich. Under the direction of the once-promising Russell Mulcahy (and he's not just the Highlander guy in my eyes - his 1999 Christopher Lambert-starring psycho-thriller Resurrection was pretty sharp, I thought. And who doesn't love Razorback, huh?), Extinction is a laborious piece of work that manages to take the pulp potential of an army of zombies gathered en masse in post-apocalyptic Vegas and turn it into so much dust and sand.

Having regarded the first two RE's as being slick and somewhat accomplished, I had no worries that this third film would deliver more of the same. Unfortunately, just as Extinction re-imagines the Entertainment Capital of the World to be a dry, barren wasteland, in turn the movie itself is just as arid.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

For Those About To Rot, We Salute You

With the undead storming the big screen yet again in the latest installment of the Resident Evil saga, I wanted to salute the Greatest Horror Movie Poster Of All Time, the iconic one-sheet for Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1979). While there's been many examples of strikingly designed horror posters over the course of the last however many years - the posters for Rosemary's Baby, Jaws, and Alien come immediately to mind - it's Zombie that holds all of the cards. If horror had its own currency, this would be the face (what's left of it) on the $1 dollar bill.

It's a poster that makes you feel more alive just by looking at it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Savini: The Movie

Watching the behind-the-scenes featurette included on the DVD release of the 1981 slasher fave The Burning and seeing a young Tom Savini (who barely looks different than the Savini of today, by the way - what's this guy's secret?) work his magic on the set, I was struck by a notion: when will Savini get his own bio-pic? After all, just think of the scores of unforgettable moments Savini has presided over in his roles as make-up artist, stuntman, and actor. To follow Savini as he famously made genre cinema his own in the late '70s through the mid-'80s would be a treasure trove for genre buffs - the Boogie Nights of Splatter. Imagine seeing the filming of the motorcycle gang mall raid from Dawn of the Dead newly recreated, for example. Sure, we have Roy Frumkes' Document of the Dead in this instance but while Frumkes' on-set footage stands as an invaluable record, it's not the same as being able to recreate an event. Not to fudge facts, but to be able to dramatize real life - to be at the right place at the right time for every shot and reaction you need - in the way that only scripted filmmaking allows for.

As for the narrative arc, here's my pitch: after establishing Savini's childhood exposure to the work of Lon Chaney Sr., which set him on the path of being a make-up artist, we jump ahead to him losing the gig to provide the effects for the original Night of the Living Dead due to being drafted into the Vietnam War. He then goes on to experience the horrors of Vietnam through his assignment as a combat photographer (Savini has often said that the graphic sights he witnessed in the war greatly influenced his later work as an effects artist) and upon returning to civilvan life, he begans to 'bring the war home' by rendering unflinching imagery on screen with a realism that audiences had never seen before (and 1974's Deathdream stands as the first film - long before Hollywood addressed the issue in dramas such as 1978's The Deer Hunter and Coming Home - to comment on the effects of Vietnam).

After charting Savini's rise to celebrity status (his amusing guest apperances on Late Night with David Letterman could be recreated), and detailing his personal and professional dramas throughout the '80s (whatever those might be) the film would end on a high note with Savini's career coming around full circle back to Night of the Living Dead as we end on Savini's first day of shooting as the director of the 1990 remake of NOTLD. Or the film could continue further, documenting Savini's later-day cult fame found through his roles in the films of fans-turned-filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez as well as the inception of Savini's Make-Up Effects program, confirming his enduring impact on future generations of filmmakers.

Sound like a movie to you? Yeah, I think so too. Sure, I'm just daydreaming here but honestly - I think a Savini movie needs to happen one day. Lon Chaney Sr. had his own movie (1957's Man Of A Thousand Faces, with James Cagney) and Savini deserves at least as much.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Make Every Wish A Death Wish

I couldn't let the opening of The Brave One (which puts director Neil Jordan in the company of exploitation filmmakers such as Meir Zarchi and Abel Ferrara) go by without a nostalgic nod to Death Wish, the 1974 vigilante classic that forever associated actor Charles Bronson with street justice.

Bronson's portrayal of Paul Kersey makes me think of Nicholson's Jack Torrance in The Shining. When The Shining begins, Nicholson is supposed to be this affable, normal (if flawed) family guy who only goes crazy once the specters of the Overlook worm their way into his brain. But of course, we know from first sight that Nicholson would be every bit as bat-shit had he spent the winter caretaking a condo in Hawaii. Similarly, from the start of Death Wish, Bronson already looks like he's ready to blow a Buick-sized hole in anyone fool enough to share a sidewalk with him long before his wife and daughter suffer their brutal assault. The makers of Death Wish might've served Kersey's character arc better had they cast a meeker actor in the role so his turn from left-leaning dude (we're told he was a Conscientious Objector during the war) to dispenser of hot justice wouldn't feel so predetermined but ultimately Death Wish isn't about portraying a character's journey - it's about Charles Fucking Bronson making punks shit their pants before they die.

1985's Death Wish 3 is actually my favorite of the series. By that time, Kersey was essentially the Rocky of violent death (and just like the Rocky films, the Death Wish series had abandoned the relative believability of the first two films in favor of crowd pleasing cartoonishness by the third entry) so to have him coaching a neighborhood full of AARP members on how to kill gang members with extreme prejudice was as rousing as movies could get. I remember an elderly Martin Balsam getting thrown down a fire escape during the course of the film and that was just so wrong. Trivia Minute: Gang Leader Gavin O'Herlihy (coming across here as the poor man's Frank Doubleday) was originally the long-lost older brother 'Chuck' from Happy Days.

I hope Jordan scores a winner with The Brave One but I don't think the ruthless sensibility a movie like this should have will be there. But for whatever reason, Bronson and director Michael Winner (who stayed with the Death Wish series throughout its first three installments) found wasting human trash to be a wish come true.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Dinner and a Movie

Welcome to Dinner With Max Jenke, a blog concerning my ongoing - and sometimes personally exasperating - love of horror and exploitation. And say hello to our dinner companion at right, Max Jenke, as played by the late character actor Brion James in 1989's The Horror Show. Why Max? And why are we having dinner with him? Well, the notion of sharing a table with the feral-faced fiend just struck me as funny. My only other candidate for this blog's name was Nancy's Hall Pass so it was going to be an arcane '80s horror reference either way.

My tastes tend to be eclectic, so there's no telling what my reaction to any given film might be. I'm often genuinely surprised myself by the films I end up liking or disliking - which is an experience I always welcome. I hate feeling that my reaction to any movie will be a foregone conclusion. One of my main gripes with film criticism as it exists today, in fact, is that the Internet culture seems to foster a rush to judgement. There seems to be a need to reach a popular consensus even before a movie is released rather than to grapple with differences of opinion or to surprise each other with divergent views.

I think a lot of writers don't want to risk looking unsophisticated in front of their peers, especially in a medium like the Internet where - as opposed to publishing in a magazine or newspaper - there's so much immediate feedback and readers show so little patience for views they consider to be foolish or out of step.

Well, I have no issues at all with looking foolish or being out of step. I love horror movies - and if you do too, I know we'll get along just fine.