Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Legacy

In 1978, a new era in horror was ushered in thanks to two trend-setting classics - Halloween and Dawn of the Dead. But while those and several other films from that year (such as Philip Kaufman's incisive Me Decade Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake and Joe Dante's spirited Jaws rip-off Piranha) went on to enjoy lasting legacies among horror fans, a genre picture from 1978 that ironically found itself forgotten almost immediately upon its release is a film titled The Legacy.

First of all, when a horror movie sports a mellow ballad sung by Kiki Dee (a singer who achieved her greatest fame with the Elton John duet “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) as its theme song, it’s inevitably going to have a hard time going head to head with the kind of landmark horror efforts that 1978 was famous for. And yet, whenever I hear Dee’s soothing vocal on “Another Side of Me” at the start of The Legacy, it instantly transports me back to a blissful, earlier time.

1978 was still a few years too soon for me to be seeing R-rated horror movies in the theaters so my first viewing of The Legacy came courtesy of The ABC Friday Night Movie (I’m guessing that The Legacy would’ve had its TV premiere by ’80 or '81). Young horror fans raised in an era of cable and home video probably can't imagine having to wait as long as a few years after a film’s theatrical release to finally see it in their homes – and then to have to watch an edited version complete with commercial interruptions – but The ABC Friday Night Movie (which aired from '75 to '83) was where I first saw many of my favorite horror films from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s like the '78 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the '77 Island of Dr. Moreau, Kingdom of the Spiders, Coma, The Shining, The Car and The Fog - and all of them fueled my burgeoning horror fandom.

Before having the privilege of seeing these semi-recent films, my primary exposure to horror movies was with the older classics that ran on The 4 O’Clock Movie, Monday-Friday as part of Connecticut-based Channel 30's station library. Those movies instilled a lasting love of horror in me but it was The ABC Friday Night Movie that allowed me to feel like I was starting to catch up with the times.

Thanks to my mother not being willing to (or not having the extra cash to) purchase genre magazines like Fangoria or Starlog which covered the current genre scene, I knew very little about The Legacy or any other contemporary horror films (I don't remember my mother having a newspaper subscription when I was younger either - so reviews were out, too). Any reading involving horror movies was limited to whatever books were available at the school or local library and those usually stopped short of offering any info on movies later than the early '60s - so learning about recent films wasn't easy. For me, with so little hard info to go on, The Legacy had every chance to be as good as a movie like, say, The Shining. I had almost no notion back then on what newer horror films had to offer.

In The Legacy (scripted by Hammer vet Jimmy Sangster and directed by Richard Marquand, who would go on to helm Return of the Jedi), Katherine Ross and Sam Elliot play a couple who travel to England for a high-paying interior decorating gig. Once there, they’re involved in a rural motorcycle accident and while they wait for the needed repairs, they become guests at a strange gathering within the walls of the wealthy estate of Jason Mountolive (John Standing). Other guests arrive during their stay (including Rocky Horror Picture Show's Charles Gray and The Who's Roger Daltry) and it soon becomes apparent that something deeply sinister is taking place. All the other guests have achieved impossible wealth in their own various fields, they seem to all belong to some sort of secret order, and when Ross and Elliot repeatedly try to leave the estate, something always keeps the pair from escaping.

On top of that, these well-to-do guests on the estate grounds are being killed off one by one in events that look like accidents but are really (surprise!) the handiwork of malevolent supernatural forces. What is Ross’ connection with these people and why does her destiny seem tied both to this estate and with the incredibly ancient and putrefying form that lingers behind the drapes of a hospital bed in a specialized chamber? All those questions and and more are answered (not answered well, perhaps, but answers are still provided) before the credits roll on The Legacy.

To watch The Legacy now only prompts me to wonder what about it originally held my interest. Even though characters are being bumped off steadily throughout the course of the film, outside of a young woman swimming in an indoor pool who suddenly finds that the entire surface of the water has inexplicably turned solid – forcing her to stay under and drown – none of the character deaths in The Legacy deliver the kind of ghoulish, gut-grabbing flourishes that '70s audiences who had already made the spectacular Omen films into hits would've expected (Damien: Omen 2 was released earlier in '78).

Ultimately, The Legacy is just bland and most of the film's suspense involves Ross and Elliot’s stymied attempts to escape the grounds of the estate. And there's a bizarre happy ending as well where Ross inherits satanic powers but both she and Elliot seem to regard this development as just another of life's curious adventures.

For all its shortcomings, I can’t deny that The Legacy left a lasting mark on me. Until now, though, I found myself having a hard time saying why. But then I realized that about a year or so after seeing The Legacy was when my eyes became newly opened to the splatter era and I became a regular reader of Fangoria as well. Almost overnight I hit adolescence and became a gorehound. And as I look around my house now at the scattered discs and screeners readily available to watch - titles that proudly push the boundaries of cinematic violence like Inside, Frontière(s) and Mother of Tears, the simple reason finally dawned on me why The Legacy still lingers on in my imagination:

It reminds me of a time - the last time in my life - when I needed so little horror from my horror movies.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jeopardy Free Jamie Lee

Towards the end of the new Prom Night (yes, it was lousy, by the way), lead actress Brittany Snow evades her psycho-stalker in the manner that made original Prom Night star Jamie Lee Curtis a Scream Queen during her horror heyday. But while watching the new film's endgame play out, something that I never consciously noticed about the original Prom Night finally came to my attention.

And I’m probably the last person in the world to pick up on this so forgive me if this is nothing but a “duh” moment for everyone else but as I watched Snow’s character going through the familiar motions of the Final Girl, alternately eluding and striking back at her pursuer in the kind of tense climatic face off that Jamie Lee earned her place in horror history with, I realized that Jamie Lee’s Prom Night character was never in any jeopardy in that film.

As Kim Hammond, Jamie Lee has nothing to do for the duration of Prom Night but be the best disco queen that Hamilton High has ever seen. While her classmates are being taunted, harassed, stalked, and slaughtered, Kim herself is never a potential victim (actress Anne-Marie Martin as Wendy earns the longest chase scene between herself and the killer and even though Wendy fails to survive, this sequence is the kind of lengthy pursuit that in most slasher films would've been earmarked as the heroine’s Big Moment).

It isn’t until Kim’s ax-wielding brother Alex brings his slaughtering ways onto the flashing lights of the dance floor in the last ten minutes or so of Prom Night that she’s even aware that there’s a killer on the loose. And even then, it’s her date Nick who’s in direct danger, not her.

This made me wonder for a moment why Prom Night's producers even bothered to cast Jamie Lee in the first place but I believe that with any other actress it would’ve been too apparent just how little this character had to do with the events of the film for an audience to perceive them as being the lead.

In 1980, though, Jamie Lee had the horror movie crown long before she got to the Prom. It only makes sense that after Halloween that she could literally dance her way through the role of a horror heroine.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Midnight Meat Matters

The fate of Midnight Meat Train as the official moniker of the upcoming Clive Barker adaptation has been looking iffy for months now. Apparently, some tragically juvenile theater goers were finding this innocent title more humorous than Lionsgate liked which led to speculation that the skittish studio had decided to avert disaster by taking out the obvious source of unwanted humor and going with the far less hilarious handle of Midnight Train.

I wasn't happy to hear about this potential title change but I was willing to be sanguine about it. After all, why risk alienating a potential wider audience who can't get past the title? But the latest reports confirming that "Meat" isn't being pulled after all is good news. I don't know why Midnight Meat Train sounds so right, it just does. I can barely remember the content of the short story, having last read it about twenty years ago but that title has always stuck with me and I always thought it was bad-ass - whether it be for a horror movie or a gay porn flick. Either way, it's an enticement.

I'd like to think that Lionsgate had to go through an elaborate marketing process to determine whether "Meat" was in fact the cause of all the intended laughter. You know, maybe they thought Midnight Meat or Meat Train would somehow be the cure to stop the snickering. Whatever the case, I'm just glad that Meat is back in the Midnight Train sandwich - right where it belongs.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Cinefantastique was a magazine that formed the backbone of my evolving fandom during the '80s. It altered me to a need to dig deeper into the genre films I loved and the accomplished writing that filled CFQ's pages proved to me at a crucial age that there would be no need to abandon these films as I moved into adulthood, that they could sustain my interest long past my adolescent years.

I still refer back to my back collection of CFQ issues for info and inspiration and while the magazine has ceased publication as a print entity, it lives on in cyberspace. So it's a truly wonderful moment for me to see that this blogspot has been deemed worthy for inclusion in the very exclusive ranks of their site's blogroll.

I'm usually not one to blow my own horn but I have to say that this really put a smile on my face.

Thanks, CFQ - I'm honored!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dancing In The Moonlight

There's a number of early '80s slasher movies that were initially trashed by both fans and critics that hold up well today as being much better films than they were originally given credit for. Films like Terror Train, Hell Night, House on Sorority Row, The Funhouse, and My Bloody Valentine may not be legitimate 'classics' outside of their sub-genre but they all have some actual merit. And for years - up until this very day, in fact - I always thought director Paul Lynch's Prom Night belonged in that company, too. But a fresh viewing instigated by the current remake has forever cured me of that delusion. As far as I'm concerned, Hamilton High's Class of 1980 has a lot to answer for.

I first saw Prom Night when it premiered on NBC a mere seven months after its theatrical release and I know that at the time I felt like a pretty privileged twelve-year-old. Watching the movie now, it's impossible to remember what it was like to view Prom Night through 1981 eyes as a contemporary thriller before the film's insta-dated fads and fashions took center stage. Apparently I've also forgotten what it was like to view the film through retarded eyes so Prom Night really looks like a completely different movie to me now.

Like many slasher films, Prom Night is a murder mystery with its masked killer's identity meant to be a whopping last-minute reveal but no one must've told screenwriters William Gray and Robert Guza, Jr. that if you're going to introduce multiple red herrings to keep the audience guessing as to who your killer is that you ought to make sure these various characters rate as believable suspects. Instead, Gray and Guza, Jr. introduce red herrings that by their screenplay's own logic can't possibly be the real killer.

For instance, we meet the new school gardener of Hamilton High (played by Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman) who's meant to be a suspicious character apparently because he has thick glasses and looks like he owns a sizable porn collection but the film immediately cuts from his introductory scene on the school grounds to the killer busy at home making taunting phone calls to his victims. So that's it for the gardener, but yet he's still shown creeping around the girl's locker rooms and showers as though he's still in the running as the man behind the mask.

Even more incompetent is a subplot involving a sex offender named Leonard Merch who has just escaped from the state hospital in which he's been institutionalized since being disfigured in a fiery car wreck six years earlier as a result of being pursued by police who had wanted to question him in regards to the death of a young girl named Robin Hammond (whose surviving brother and sister now attend Hamilton High). Police institute a manhunt to get Merch and maintain a presence at the Hamilton High prom just in case he shows.

But while it's meant to create suspense, this entire subplot is just empty wheel-spinning as we already know from the movie's opening scene that this character isn't the film's killer. From the opening, we know that four kids caused Robin's accidental plunge from the window of an abandoned convent so to try to have us care that Leonard Fucking Merch is on the loose is just ridiculous. Maybe if the opening sequence had been taken out and the film had opened in the present day with the cause of Robin's death unrevealed, then having Merch be a false lead would be useful. This actually might have made for an intriguing film - to lead the audience to believe that Robin died at the hands of a child murderer who may now be returning to the scene of the crime only to have it be revealed that Robin in fact died at the hands of a group of kids and that the killer stalking the prom is their fellow classmate, Robin's brother Alex, out to avenge her death. But unfortunately Prom Night doesn't have nearly that much sense.

And honestly, even the killer's motivation is sketchy. Sure, Alex (Michael Tough) saw his sister die at the hands of these four kids and he's looking for some payback but it's unclear why he decided that the best way to deal with this was to keep his mouth shut and wait six years to exact his revenge! The only way this plot point could've worked is if he had been stricken mute after the trauma of seeing Robin's body and was institutionalized for the intervening years. What else could've possibly stopped him from telling his story as soon as he got home? Especially when the guilty parties were all people that he saw everyday? I mean, shit, his sister Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis) is dating one of the people who he knows killed Robin! How fucked up is that?

And on a lingering, albeit trivial sidenote: why does it look like Alex is wearing make-up when he's unmasked at the end? Seriously, is he wearing lipstick or what?

Besides the iconic presence of Jamie Lee Curtis (who actually delivers the least appealing of her horror film performances here) the only good thing about the original Prom Night is that it's notable as one of the last youth culture films to emerge before MTV's 1981 debut. A few years after Prom Night's release it would become impossible for anyone to make a movie involving teenagers (much less one that featured music so prominently) without taking their cues from MTV. That's not a bad thing necessarily but there's an undeniable nostalgic vibe to Prom Night for the fact that it was made in such blissful ignorance of the seismic change in teen (and film) culture that was looming ahead. Oh, and I seriously dig the cheesy ballad "Fade to Black" sung by Gordene Simpson that runs over the end credits. That does kicks ass.

What doesn't kick any ass is that outside of a severed head that slides onto the dance floor (which looks incredibly hokey, by the way - Tom Savini wasn't looking over his shoulder for whoever did the effects for this), there's no gore to be found in the entirety of Prom Night. An early '80s horror movie - a slasher movie, no less! - with zero splatter FX? Sorry, but that's grounds for fraud in my book. Prom Night may have the reputation of being a classic (or at least a classic of its kind) but I believe that's only because so few people have bothered to watch it recently. I know the remake is probably terrible and in light of that it's tempting to give some credit to the original but while I'll grant that the remake likely doesn't have any dialogue as awesomely goofy to offer as "For a guy so fast on the disco floor, you are the slowest!" let's just say that both of 'em suck.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Carrying A Torch For Charlton Heston

The fact that despite his large filmography my enduring impression of Charlton Heston lies almost exclusively with his run of post-apocalyptic sci-fi films of the late '60s/early '70s - Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Soylent Green - makes me feel inadequate in trying to address the scope of his professional accomplishments. After all, these films are still considered camp in some quarters. But they shook me as a child and Heston's portrayal of Taylor in the first two Ape films remains an indelible touchstone for me.

In 1968's Planet of the Apes, Taylor is a hardcore, out-for-himself cynic, roaring with derisive laughter as one of his fellow crew mates stops to mount a tiny US flag among a pile of stones shortly after their crash landing on what they assume is an alien planet. Taylor doesn't believe in carrying the banner of his country out to the stars. Putting the flag of our country on the lonely ground of this far-flung, barren land? Who could possibly benefit from such a gesture?

And when the dominant species of this unknown, "upside down" planet puts his very right to exist in question, he vaults over every ordeal with dogged determination. No matter how backwards this planet may be, he means to survive it. He gives as good as he gets - and then some - to Dr. Zaius and also scores himself a gorgeous companion to ride off with. As one ape admiringly says of Taylor's winning ways, "Not bad - for a human." But when the other shoe falls in the last scene of POTA, it literally brings Taylor to his knees.

The way this final scene plays out, and Heston's performance, still gives me chills - no matter how many times it's been sent-up and parodied elsewhere in the forty years since. When he cries out "You maniacs!" in front of the ruined, half-buried Statue of Liberty, it's the agony of a man betrayed. As much as Taylor may have scoffed at his crew mates' naivete, to see that the world he left behind had squandered its own future confirms his own cynicism in the most awful possible way. It not only confirms it, but coldly trumps it.

And although Heston's screentime in the second chapter of the Ape saga, 1970's Beneath the Planet of the Apes, is limited, he makes his scenes count. As a kid, I found the scarred faces of the psychic subterranean mutants in this sequel to be pretty alarming but not as alarming as the fact that a dying Taylor - fatally wounded after being machine gunned by gorillas - uses his last gesture to destroy the entire planet by setting off an atomic bomb (as a side note, I'd just like to mention that this little love letter was originally rated 'G'!).

When Beneath the Planet of the Apes closed on the astonishing sight of the Earth being obliterated ("a green and insignificant planet is now dead"), I was stunned. This was very a heavy conclusion for a kid to process. Before seeing Beneath the Planet of the Apes, I never considered the idea of the world coming to an end, even in the very far future. After seeing this film, though, Charlton Heston would be irrevocably joined hand in hand with the Apocalypse in my mind. And that's a very profound association to have.

Even from the opening of Planet of the Apes, as Taylor records his final thoughts before being the last of his crew to enter cryogenic sleep ("...One more thing - if anybody's listening, that is. Nothing scientific. It's purely personal. But seen from out here everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man's ego. I feel lonely."), I've always felt as though I had to credit Heston with introducing me to my first existential thoughts.

There's many great performances from Mr. Heston that I've sadly never taken the time to expose myself to. Maybe I will make the effort to seek out films like Will Penny one day. And maybe then I'll have a more informed appreciation for his abilities as an actor. But for now, I can only say that the first film that introduced me to Charlton Heston instantly made him every bit as iconic to me as the Statue he famously kneels before.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The New Jason

At the start of 1986's Jason Lives, the sixth entry in the Friday the 13th series, Jason was depicted mimicking the famous opening to the James Bond series. The moment rated as a nice tip of the hat to Jason's status as a pop icon but unlike the many actors that have famously carried on the mantle of England's premiere super-spy through the years, when it comes to Jason Voorhees, the man behind the mask has always been an anonymous figure to all but the most hardcore geek set. But whether or not it's news outside of the FANGORIA crowd, the new Jason for the upcoming Friday the 13th remake has just been revealed to the world. The lucky candidate to don the hockey mask this time around is Derek Mears (see photo above).

For some, the news of a new Jason will be greeted with a shoulder shrug - after all, couldn't any big dude fit the bill? For instance, I felt that Rob Zombie was just blowing a lot of smoke in trying to say that he cast Tyler Mane as Michael Myers in his Halloween remake because he really needed someone who could ACT as opposed to going with a stuntman. Well, having seen that film I strongly disagree. Mane did fine, sure, but I didn't see much in his performance that previous Shapes like Dick Warlock or Brad Loree didn't pull off just as well. If you're playing Michael Myers, you can only get so far from Nick Castle's original portrayal before it doesn't seem like Michael Myers anymore. With Jason, however, there's a little more leeway for the personality of the actor to show through.

To that, some might say "Jeff, do you ever get tired of being stupid?" but bear with me. To the untrained eye, to the casual observer, there may not be much difference between the loping, lumbering hillbilly hustle of Steve Dash's Jason in Friday the 13th Part 2 and CJ Graham's lightening-charged, zombie superhero in Jason Lives (with that film, Jason was no longer just a creepy mongoloid skulking through the woods, he was elevated to a more mythical status) but I stand here today to tell you that there is.

In Friday's 2, 3, and 4, in particular, Jason seemed really scary to me (sure, my young age probably had something to do with that, but still...). Despite the character's uncanny resilience to injury, Jason didn't come across as a supernatural entity in these films, he was just a tough bastard to keep down. He wasn't yet the stoic, Terminator-esque figure that he became in the hands of actors like Graham and Hodder.

I especially liked Richard Brooker's Jason from Part 3. Even if he hadn't been the first Jason to wear the hockey mask, and even if he hadn't been the only Jason to date to kill his victims in 3-D, I'd still be a big fan. For instance, I love the way he loses his shit and tears up a horse stable when it looks like a potential victim that he'd cornerned in a barn may have given him the slip. Seeing Jason get pissed is great! Brooker's Jason also added a patented Jason move to the playbook, being the first to hurl a victim's body through a window with enough velocity as though it had been launched by a missile.

Part 3 also features the best Jason unmasking of the entire series. When Jason is literally at the end of his rope towards the climax, hung to apparently fatal effect from a noose by Final Girl Dana Kimmell, Kimmell pushes open a set of barn doors to look at her handiwork. As Jason's body swings in front of her, twisting and turning with the wind, he suddenly reaches his arms over his head and moves to free himself. As the noose slides over his head, it dislodges his hockey mask, briefly revealing the gruesome visage underneath. It's a great moment, and Brooker's performance really sells it.

And it should also be mentioned that with Part 3 for the first time we had a Jason who possessed the tremendous upper body strength needed to crush a dude's head hard enough to make the crushee's eye fly out. After that history-making kill, all future Jasons were required to go the extra mile at the gym.

Kane Hodder remains the most famous Jason with four Friday's to his credit (he wore the hockey mask from Part VII through Jason X, cruelly being let go by New Line just before Freddy vs. Jason became a reality) but while Hodder's tenacious efforts on behalf of the series always made him an ingratiating presence on the convention circuit, I never loved his portrayal of the character. This isn't Hodder's fault as his tenure in the role was marked by a series of ill-advised alterations to Jason's iconic character (turning Jason into a zombie was questionable to begin with but turning Jason into a hell-spawned, body-hopping slug as well as into a half-man/half-machine cyborg was just too much change for the character to withstand). I much preferred the early versions of Jason when the character was just a crazy mama's boy running around the woods, playin' the fool.

That's the Jason I like and if the plan is for Mears' portrayal to bring that back, I'm all for it.