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.