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.