Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Tonight's Film Deals With The Supernatural..."

Above is the intro to The ABC Friday Night Movie's premiere of The Shining. That network airing on May 6th, 1983 was my first viewing of The Shining and this intro has been burned into my brain since. I never thought I'd have the opportunity to see it again - but here it is thanks to YouTube.

In those pre-VHS, pre-cable TV days I saw so many of my favorite horror movies courtesy of The ABC Friday Night Movie. They didn't exclusively air horror films but that's honestly all I remember watching on those Friday nights - movies like The Fog, the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Coma, The Legacy, the 1977 The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Warriors (not horror but a movie that I was definitely scared to watch thanks to its ad campaign). But my viewing of The Shining has always been an especially vivid memory.

The intros for The ABC Friday Night Movie were always so exciting with the dramatic voice of announcer Ernie Anderson - aka one-time Cleveland horror host 'Ghoulardi' and the father of director Paul Thomas Anderson - being a perfect match for horror fare. No other TV announcer ever raised my pulse for a movie like Anderson and his voice is permanently attached to many of my fondest memories of watching horror films.

When he introduced The Shining as "the ultimate exercise in terror", by God I believed him. How could I not? I think this intro stood out more than any other from The ABC Friday Night Movie just because Anderson's voice and Wendy Carlos' Shining score made an ideal tag-team. To this day, when I think about a perfect viewing of a horror movie - a movie seen at the right time, under the right circumstances, that airing of The Shining remains the standard for me.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Dark Night of the Scarecrow

Drenched in irony and justice darkly met, 1981's Dark Night of the Scarecrow boasts a level of writing, acting and atmosphere that belies its TV-movie origins. Populated almost exclusively with character actors closer to collecting their Social Security checks than their High School diplomas, the presence of such seasoned pros at the service of a script (by J.D. Feigelson) that evokes the feeling of a tale told at midnight establishes Dark Night of the Scarecrow as an accomplished autumnal treat. And the news that this cult favorite is due to finally make its way onto disc is cause for celebration.

The one youthful face found among Dark Night's older-skewing cast is child actress Tonya Crowe as Marylee Williams, a small town child whose best friend is Bubba - a kind, 36-year-old simpleton whose age and enormous girth hide a child-like intellect. The small but pivotal role of Bubba is played by Larry Drake, who went on to win accolades for his portrayal of another mentally challenged man in the '80s TV drama L.A. Law while genre fans will recognize him both as Darkman's Durant and as the mad medico Dr. Giggles. The innocent friendship Crowe's Marylee shares with Bubba is the tragic catalyst that sets Dark Night's events in motion.

The town mailman, Otis P. Hazelrigg (played by Charles Durning) spies on Marylee and Bubba at play and convinces his good ol' boy buddies (Lane Smith, Robert F. Lyons, and Claude Earl Jones) to see Bubba as a threat to Marylee. And so when the girl reportedly turns up dead after last being seen with Bubba, that's the only excuse Otis needs to organize his three friends into a bloodthirsty posse.

A terrified Bubba runs for protection to his mother's rural home and she tells him to evade Otis and his men by playing 'the hiding game'. But after a prolonged search, Otis and his men find Bubba disguised as a scarecrow hung on a cross in a field. We see Bubba's frightened eyes behind the burlap sack and the four armed men ruthlessly shoot the defenseless Bubba. Just moments later, the call comes in over the CB that not only is Marylee alive but that she was earlier saved - by Bubba - from an encounter with a vicious dog.

With the notion of coming clean not an option (and with its four friends guarding a guilty secret only to have it prove to be their undoing, this was the I Know What You Did Last Summer of its day), Otis makes it look like Bubba had a weapon on him (a pitchfork) and convinces his friends to back each other's lies.

This pays off when they're acquitted of any wrongdoing and walk out of the courtroom weeks later as free men. This miscarriage of justice only makes Otis and his pals all the more smug. But as Bubba's grieving mother tells them - "There's other justice in the world besides the law!". And so it is that before long, one of the four men sees a scarecrow take up grim residence in his field. The night after seeing the scarecrow, this man falls victim to a fatal accident involving the wood chipper outside his barn. One by one, the scarecrow will appear to each of them and herald a reckoning - unless they can track down whoever it is that's taken it upon themselves to make them pay for their crime.

One would think that Feigelson and director Frank De Filetta would've played up the potential mystery angle and offered up some viable suspects as to who could be the vigilante - like the outraged District Attorney who served as prosecutor at the trial, for example (the only person in the film who feasibly could be pursuing these men, ruling out Bubba's diminutive, elderly mother and Marylee). But no real red herrings are provided. Although the four men will look for someone to blame, the film gives us no reason to question that the specter of Bubba is pursuing them (as Marylee tells Bubba's mother: "Don't worry Mrs Ritter, Bubba's not gone - he's playing the hiding game ..."). And while the death scenes are to the bloodless standard of television censors in the early '80s, they're still satisfyingly staged. Filetta really lets us savor the terror of these men - their crime was heinous and none of them pay an easy price for it.

But even though the four 'protagonists' are all murdering bullies and cowards, thanks to the expert acting of its veteran cast we feel involved in their fates. Durning manages to portray Otis as despicable (we learn through the course of the film just how base he really is - with a suggestion that he may yearn to act on pedophile urges) and yet he imbues the character with enough charisma that we're able to - not sympathize with - but at least to feel we have a stake in his ordeal. And while this may be the best example of the slight but popular 'killer scarecrow' sub-genre (sorry, Scarecrow Gone Wild!), the irony is that we never see the scarecrow move (save for two shots left for the end of the film) or stalk its victims. This isn't like Scarecrows (1988), in which we see a whole gang of sack-headed slayers. Here it's all suggestion.

There isn't even a distinctive shadow seen creeping along a wall or a close-up of a straw-stuffed hand reaching towards a victim. Until the very last seconds of the film, we just see the scarecrow spread-armed on its cross in the field like a portent of doom. But it works. Like a horror movie that's so cannily edited that viewers will swear they saw more blood than was actually in the film, I'm sure many fans believed they saw much more of the scarecrow in action than is actually on screen in this film. I know that when I had a chance to see this again as an adult that I was stunned to realize how little of the scarecrow we truly see.

Originally aired on October 24, 1981, at a time when theatrical horror was in the midst of the '80s slasher boom, the restrictions of TV dictated that Dark Night of the Scarecrow be an example of 'classic' horror, relying on mood. And yet, it now feels far less dated than many of the more graphic films of its day. From its script, to its caliber of acting, to its atmospheric direction, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is best described as timeless. It remains one of the witching season's finest fables.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Always Carrie It With You

Stephen King was already a card-carrying member of the horror elite years before he appeared in this 1985 American Express commercial.

But this ad saw him at the height of his mainstream popularity, when King wasn't just authoring a staggering amount of books but the adaptations of those books were also crowding movie theaters. Of course, having strangers know you on sight isn't all it's cracked up to be and it's ironic to hear the same author who would go on to write Misery deliver a line like "when I'm not recognized it just kills me".

Don't leave home without it? With the world being such a scary place, it might be wiser not to leave home at all. Especially if you're famous.

Monday, August 18, 2008

"The Problem With Today's Horror Films Is..."

The League of Tana Tea Drinkers have invited its members to participate in a unity blog, with the theme being for each blogger to supply their own ending to this sentence: "The problem with today's horror films is..."

This is a topic that lots of fans have an immediate answer to, with plenty of vitriol to share about how horror is a diluted product now - just watered-down thrills made for an undiscriminating audience. Tips for improvement run the whole gamut of: horror movies should be R and not PG-13, there should be less of a focus on teenagers, and more original films instead of remakes and sequels.

But horror fans of every generation have typically made it a point to complain that the horror films of the present are inferior to whatever scare fare they grew up on. I imagine that even some ancient moviegoers who were raised in the silent days must have believed that the advent of sound was the death knell of true horror. Because, you know, movies are only scary when you have to imagine what a creaking door sounds like. And once black and white was replaced by color, I bet some fans never recovered from that because everybody knows that horror movies just don’t work as well unless they’re in black and white. The point being that every era has given horror fans something new to gripe about.

When I was a kid in the early ‘80s, all I ever heard was a lot of hyperventilating about how horror had fallen into a morass of blood and guts and how the slasher genre was destroying horror movies. Now, of course, that time is now thought of as some kind of golden age and films that were dismissed as outright junk like My Bloody Valentine and Happy Birthday to Me (both 1981) are considered (in some quarters, at least) to be classics and now it’s the turn of remakes like Prom Night (2008) to be blamed for ruining horror.

So if anyone ever asks me what’s wrong with horror today, my usual answer is “nothing”.

Sure, I don’t love every horror movie I see. With some films, I just don’t understand how they appeal to anyone. The Saw series baffles me, for instance - not because of the violence, but because of the inanity of the storylines. But what other people like doesn't bother me and every year I always manage to find some movies that I do enjoy. As long as that stays true, I can't say things are all bad.

If I could change anything, it’s that I'd like unrated and NC-17 movies to get wider theatrical releases rather than either going straight to DVD or receiving very limited runs. I was part of the last generation who got to see the unfettered likes of Pieces, The Beyond (aka Seven Doors of Death), and Demons in theaters and I think it's unfortunate that unless someone lives in or near a major market, the most extreme horror movies they'll ever experience on the big screen are R-rated fare. And it's also a shame that quirky independent pictures like Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter and Stuart Gordon's Stuck (among many others) don't have a chance of playing at most fan's local theaters. I'm glad these movies have an outlet to be seen uncompromised on DVD and cable but yet I wish they had greater opportunities for theatrical distribution.

But as far as the movies themselves go, even if much of the new crop is terrible I don’t see that as being any different from any other point in time. Most horror movies have always been poor at best. Even with good films, when they make a lasting impact, it’s usually down to the age that you first watched them. Burnt Offerings (1976) blew my mind because I saw it when I was around seven or eight years old. Had I seen it when I was thirty-five instead, well...that'd be a different story. That’s not to say I wouldn't like to see more horror films strive for greatness, or that it’s always about seeing a film at the right age, just to acknowledge that the movies I grew up with weren’t flawless by any means and yet my movie collection is full of films that critics - and most fans - once thought would be forgotten in a month. A lot of irrational attachments are made when it comes to horror films so it’s not my place to say that today's fans shouldn’t feel as connected to the movies that they’re growing up with as much as anyone else did to the movies of their eras.

Personally, I enjoy seeing how the genre changes each year. I like watching trends come and go. And I like the fact that the horror genre's prosperity is seldom up to the hardcore fans but instead in the hands of a larger mainstream audience who determines what movies become hits (even if it sometimes flies in the face of what horror fans approve of). The horror movies that we see may seldom be the kind that would be made if fans were left to call the shots but I don't see anything wrong with that. Instead I think it keeps things interesting. My feeling is that every age gets the horror films that it needs - although sometimes this is only evident in hindsight.

Ultimately, other people are probably better equipped than I am to tell you what's wrong with today's horror movies. More often than not, I'm happy to roll with whatever's out there. I even liked Mirrors, for crying out loud. As far as I'm concerned, the biggest problem with today's horror films is the same as always - they just don't make enough of 'em.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Brickbats For The Bat

Something bothered me about The Dark Knight when I saw it on its opening weekend but until now I couldn't zero in on what that was. At first, I thought it was its weak third act. No matter what kind of trauma he suffered, I didn't buy that Harvey Dent would go from being the most virtuous man in Gotham to a guy who'd put a gun to a kid's head. That was a leap that didn't feel convincing to me. I also felt that it was annoying for The Joker to promote himself as an "agent of chaos" while spending an inordinate amount of time thinking ahead and putting multiple plans in place but I was willing to go along with that contradiction. No, it was something else about the movie that felt 'off' to me. Then I saw it again and I immediately knew.

By putting Batman into a more reality-based world rather than the stylized stomping grounds of the comics universe, it puts a heavier onus on the filmmakers to justify The Batman's presence and - on reflection - I don't think The Dark Knight pulls that off. Specifically, take a look at The Batman's jailhouse interrogation of The Joker mid-way through the film - what exactly does Batman hope to accomplish here? What about his methods does a veteran cop like Gordon think will work? The only thing The Batman does is rough up The Joker. That's it. He doesn't do anything to The Joker that the cops couldn't do themselves by turning a blind eye to ethics and procedure. He doesn't utilize some illegal technology or experimental drug that's out of the hands of normal law enforcement. No paralyzing ninja nerve pinch, even. For shit's sake, he doesn't even brutalize Joker all that much. He just throws him around a room. The only thing that's different from anyone else shoving The Joker around is that The Batman is doing all this while wearing, well, a bat costume. That's supposed to be his edge in this situation - that he's wearing a bat costume (oh, and he has his growly voice, too). That's supposed to break The Joker.

After The Batman gets nowhere by throwing The Joker around, he seems confused that this hasn't prompted an immediate confession. Because, after all, he's wearing a bat costume - which should tell The Joker how serious the situation is. When Batman opens his best can of whup-ass on The Joker, the one labeled "Emergency Use Only", Gordon tells his fellow officers that the Batman is "in control". But in this world, what good is a dude in a Bat costume if he's in control? You need a psycho in that suit - someone who's willing to break a few human rights and a few bones, too. In the world of The Dark Knight, The Batman's interrogation methods need some serious stepping up. He's still relying on the costume and the voice to do all the work - like he thinks he's in a comic book or something.

And while his comic book counterpart has always stopped short of killing his opponents, that moral stance doesn't make the same kind of sense for the Batman of The Dark Knight. In the comics, there's an arch-reality to that world where constantly returning his incurable adversaries to Arkham Asylum can appear to be a sensible, even noble, move. But the more evil, depraved and real you make a character like The Joker, the bigger an idiot Batman looks like for not taking him out for good. In The Dark Knight, The Batman tells Gordon that he's "whatever Gotham needs him to be" but really, he's just talking out of his ass. He says "Either you die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. I can do those things because I'm not a hero." but yet he could've decided he wasn't a hero fifteen minutes earlier, dropped a pile of sociopathic scum twenty stories and have done Gotham a lot more good. Director Christopher Nolan establishes Batman as someone who won't do much more than yell at criminals. And if that doesn't work, he's all out of ideas. So what is this version of Batman then, other than a guy who gets his kicks from wearing a costume?

Nolan has been acclaimed for his efforts to give The Dark Knight the feel of a gritty crime drama but given the approach to crimefighting that he, his brother Jonathan, and David Goyer (all three collaborated on The Dark Knight's script) have given their version of the Caped Crusader, it's no wonder that Gotham is going to hell in a handbasket. They want the audience to accept that Gotham's Guardian is needed because he's, well, a superhero but yet they present him as a ineffectual, self-flagellating loser.

Nolan's Batman seems like nothing more than a professional masochist, more interested in bringing pain on himself than waging an effective war on crime. For instance, with all the technology available to him at Wayne Tech, are we supposed to believe that he can't start packing some kind of sonic device to ward off dogs? To be surprised once by dogs is acceptable. I mean, who could see that one coming? But once should be the one and only time that trick would work against him. I mean, really - even a mailman wouldn't be attacked twice by a dog on their delivery route. But yet at the climax of The Dark Knight, there Batman is again with a pack of dogs on top of him, like dogs are suddenly Batman's kryptonite. At the end of the day, this Batman is more about perpetrating his own suffering than being the best vigilante he can be. It's only fitting that the only copycats we see his deeds inspire are out-of-shape fanboys (Do the wanna-be Batmen seen in The Dark Knight represent a not-so-veiled dig at the stereotypical comic book fan? And wouldn't it have been more interesting to see at least one person who's actually capable try to give Batman a run for his money in cleaning up Gotham's streets?).

In the comics, Batman is the world's greatest detective. He also possesses an unmatched grasp of human psychology and his success as a crimefighter hinges on his ability to claim the edge in any given situation.

That isn't the dude Christian Bale's playing in The Dark Knight, however. I mean, even Adam West wouldn't have suffered the indignity of multiple dog attacks. I don't care if you drive a missile-equipped tank, that sort of thing can wreck your mystique overnight. Once criminals start posting clips on YouTube of Batman flailing on the ground with dogs tearing at him, even a third-rater like Egghead would feel less daunted.

The Batman of The Dark Knight is the champion of our present age - a half-assed hero for half-assed times.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Director Alexandre Aja's supernatural shocker Mirrors is likely to earn plenty of derisive hoots from both mainstream reviewers and the genre press. But I hope I'll have some company on the other side of the looking glass when I say that I got a really big kick out of this. If you're only going to see one bad movie about evil mirrors this year, please make it Mirrors because no one else is going to top it, believe me.

Aja first made a name for himself with his French shocker Haute Tension (2003) then successfully made the leap to the US with his remake of The Hills Have Eyes (2006). Both of those movies earned their share of accolades from the horror community but neither film quite did it for me personally. Yes, the violence was spectacular - but on both counts what should've been tense, gritty, close-to-the-bone tales badly unravelled. Mirrors, on the other hand, is a crock right from the start. To me, that makes it more of a party. This is a movie that can only get more and more inane. And by God, it does.

As Mirrors unfolds, it's clear that Aja intended this to be the premiere evil mirror movie, the final word on this subject (watch your back, Poltergeist III!) and anyone who wants to take a foolish dream like that all the way to the wall deserves to have me on their side. There's not a lick of an apologetic tone here. Aja is 100% committed to making the best scary mirror movie he can. He doesn't even want to stop at mirrors - any reflective surface is a potential way for evil to find its way into our world. In hindsight, Aja probably should've reined the screenplay (co-written with his regular partner Gregory Levasseur) in a bit and done a better job of establishing a clearer set of rules for how the evil presence in his film operates. But then if he had, this movie would've been a little less cracked (heh!) than it is and that's not a trade-off I'd have been willing to see. Mirrors' story is a complete pile of nonsense, but it's an entertaining pile of nonsense. It's the warped funhouse mirror reflection of a potentially better movie. Or possibly vice-versa. With mirrors, it's so hard to tell.

Kiefer Sutherland stars as ex-NYPD detective Ben Carson, who was dropped from the force after accidentally shooting a fellow officer and who now works as a night watchman at an abandoned, fire-gutted department store (stunningly depicted by production designer Joseph Nemec's sets) while temporarily crashing on his sister's couch. In the meantime, he's trying to mend his relationship with his estranged wife (played by Paula Patton) and their two kids. So this is the worst possible time for Ben to be dealing with a supernatural force trying to push its way into our world, using him as an unwilling conduit.

Had anyone else played Ben, Mirrors might've lost a good deal of its appeal. But for those, like me, who never tire of watching Sutherland explode ("Goddammit!"), this is gold. Some will write off Sutherland's performance here as a lazy continuation of his Jack Bauer shtick but for me, even if that's all he's doing, that's cool because there's no one else around to do it. I don't know why seeing Kiefer Sutherland in pissed off mode is so enjoyable to me, it just is. Mirrors wouldn't be half as much fun without him in the way that the original Amityville Horror (1979) wouldn't have been half as much fun without James Brolin. And while Sutherland's got some horrendous dialogue to deliver here, he never seems put out or embarrassed to be saying any of the dumb things he's asked to say - and that makes him a stand-up guy in my book. Aja's lucky to have him in his corner.

Initially, Aja probably meant for Mirrors to be a Shining-esque chiller, with a more psychological brand of scares than he'd gone for previously, but apparently he couldn't help but cover his ass with some gratuitous violence, which KNB's Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger deliver in spades. This was definitely a smart move on Aja's part as Mirrors' nastier highlights leave a strong impression. And Aja also can't help but ratchet up the action in the finale, which is totally jarring but in a good way. Sutherland's final throwdown with the evil behind the mirror might blow any chance of taking this movie seriously out of the water but that shipped had already sailed. If Mirrors' climax had been a low-key affair it would've made me think that Aja didn't really know what kind of movie he was making. Thankfully he totally did and that means we get to see Sutherland do his best Bruce Campbell as he battles what looks like the pit hag from Army of Darkness (it wouldn't have been out of place at all to hear Sutherland say "This is my boomstick!"). I also liked the film's coda, which delivers a hokey but satisfying Twilight Zone-ish sting.

Supernatural horror is clearly not Aja's forte, he's more of a visceral guy (next year's Piranha 3-D is going to destroy!) but after years of seeing one PG-13 remake of a J-Horror film after another pedal the same soft scares, Mirrors (a loose remake of the 2003 South Korean film Into the Mirror) automatically earns my gratitude for telling the likes of Pulse, Shutter and One Missed Call where to shove it. This may be a silly movie, for sure, but I was thoroughly entertained by it. A reflection of my own loose standards? Maybe. But when I looked into Mirrors, I liked what I saw.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Terror in the Aisles

It's hard to imagine that a film comprised entirely of clips from other movies would be granted a wide theatrical release but that's the case with 1984's feature-length compilation of horror and thriller highlights (hosted by Donald Pleasence and Nancy Allen), Terror in the Aisles. Presented as an overview of fear on film with an emphasis on modern terrors, Terror in the Aisles (directed by Andrew J. Kuehn and written by Margaret Doppelt - who's responsible for penning such insightful lines as "perhaps we invent artificial horrors to help us cope with the real ones") is at best a scattershot affair that lacks any kind of focus or insight. But yet for fans of a certain age, it remains a fondly remembered snapshot of a past era.

Younger genre fans who have - thanks to the advent of home video, DVD, and the internet - always enjoyed near-instant access to virtually the entire history of film might wonder how a film like Terror in the Aisles could ever be regarded as useful. But at one time even a poorly put-together compilation like this served a valuable function. Before almost every film was readily available on VHS (and before VCRs themselves were a common part of every household), Terror in the Aisles was an HBO staple and it provided many young horror fans an initial glimpse of films that remained out of their reach.

And as Terror in the Aisles didn't specifically note where each of its clips originated from, novice viewers were left to puzzle out for themselves what many of these films were. And even if they had the ability to identify which clips belonged to such lesser-known titles as Alone in the Dark and Ms. 45, it was unlikely that kids would have the immediate opportunity to see the complete films themselves.

Even if the presentation was lacking (the film leaps from one montage to the next with no rhyme or reason, making a series of unrelated points - People love villains! Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense! Crazy horror audiences talk back to the screen!), these clips still offered younger horror fans an intriguing taste of films that were largely unavailable to them. If only Terror in the Aisles had been assembled with a sharper eye towards the genre and had spent less time dwelling on thrillers like Nighthawks, Marathon Man, Klute, and Vice Squad (all great movies - but not horror).

Still, just for its host segments with Pleasence and Allen - who deliver their narration while sitting in a theater watching a film along with an audience that would give the seediest 42nd Street crew a run for their money (my favorite audience member is the fat Hispanic dude with the bandanna) - it's easy to harbor plenty of affection for Terror in the Aisles. With these host segments, it's clear that the makers of this film were out to caution viewers about the possibility of some real terror in the aisles as they portray the horror audience as being far scarier than the actual movies with narration that delivers digs like "There's no question about it - some terror films go too far. But so do the audiences." The irony is that as intimidating as the audience in Terror in the Aisles is supposed to be, they seem normal compared to Donald Pleasance. No matter how many thugs, stoners, and prospective serial killers they place around him, Pleasence is always more alarming than they are, blurting out lines like "It's only a movie!" at random junctures. Terror in the Aisles proves that Pleasance couldn't even host a compilation of clips without chewing the scenery and that alone makes it awesome.

The posters for Terror in the Aisles read "If you can handle more than one hundred jolts of one hundred percent pure terror, then you might be ready for Terror in the Aisles." but while that promised a film aimed at the advanced horror fanatic, Terror in the Aisles was more like a set of training wheels for those fans just learning how to get up to speed.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

USA Saturday Nightmares

The USA Network might be known as the home of eccentric detectives these days with the likes of Monk, Psych, and Law and Order: Criminal Intent but during my teen years, they were the most horror-friendly of basic cable channels with their USA Saturday Nightmares block of programming that aired in the mid-to-late '80s every Saturday at 8 o'clock starting with a feature film and then continuing on with an hour-long episode of The Hitchhiker and another hour of the new Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It wasn't the edgiest four hours on television (although the movies were often very cool - with cult gems like The Brood, Shock Waves and Let's Scare Jessica To Death being spotlighted) but even when it was a dud night (Island Claws? Ah, shit!), I still loved being able to count on that block of horror every Saturday 'cause the only watchable alternatives on the networks were Spenser: For Hire or Hunter.

It's hard now to remember a time before VHS and DVD allowed me to stop caring what was on TV or before DVR made it no longer necessary to be home when a movie or show was airing (I seldom ever bothered to pop in a blank tape to record a program unless it was something really vital, like the season finale of a TV show, but now I'll record practically anything on DVR - I can't tell you how many times I've taped Timecop). But Saturday Nightmares started airing before my parents bought our first VCR so for me it really was a matter of being at the mercy of station programming as to when I'd get to see any horror on TV (and even after they got a VCR, it wasn't always easy for me to rent the kind of movies I wanted to, much less watch them whenever I pleased).

Nowadays I'll scan the cable schedule and see a few films that look interesting - like the latest 'original' offerings from the Sci-Fi Channel - but typically I'll set something to record, start to watch it a few days after the fact, get through about five minutes or so, then decide I should just clear the space for something else and hit 'erase' (sorry, Basilisk: The Serpent King - nothing personal!). I take it all for granted now. But when Saturday Nightmares' opening kicked in each week, with that camera prowling through the house with the paintings on the wall shifting from one iconic image to the next (Frankenstein's Monster! The Wolfman! Freddy! Jason!), no matter what was scheduled to air that night I felt like I was in for a treat.

It's funny how having a room (or two) of shelves and boxes full of movies on disc and tape from every era of horror makes me less excited than random programming and watching edited films with commercial interruptions ever did but I guess those Saturdays were just something special.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane

Advertised as a suspense thriller for its Psycho-esque storyline involving a troubled protagonist resorting to murder to hide the truth about a deceased family member (as the poster read: "What is her unspeakable secret? Everyone who knows is dead."), The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) is a dramatically different genre entry that generates much of its quirky appeal by making its teenaged heroine capable of murder but smart and sympathetic rather than disturbed and ghoulish. With a screenplay by Laird Koenig adapted from his own 1974 novel, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane remains a sensitive and unusual character study.

As the eponymous 'little girl', thirteen-year-old Rynn Jacobs (Jodie Foster, in her first leading role) lives in a seaside home with her father, a well-known poet and the two zealously guard their privacy. But that privacy is at risk due to their prying landlord, Mrs. Hallet (Alexis Smith), who constantly comes by unannounced. After butting heads with the willful Rynn, Mrs. Hallet insists on speaking to Rynn's father. But what we know from early on is that Rynn's dad is not on a business trip and he's not working in his study - instead he's been deceased for some time, having committed suicide after being diagnosed with cancer.

Prior to his death, he and Rynn planned for her to keep up the pretense that he was alive so she could live independently. That means dealing with her estranged mother should she ever appear and whenever visitors come calling - everyone from Mrs. Hallet to her adult son Frank (played by Martin Sheen), to the local law (Officer Miglioriti, played by Mort Shuman) - Rynn has to hustle to keep up the illusion of her father's presence.

This complicated ruse is too much for one girl to handle, though, and circumstances drive her to confide in a neighborhood boy, named Mario (Scott Jacoby, who starred several years earlier as a disturbed teen who secretly lives in the walls of a family's home in the 1974 TV movie Bad Ronald). Mario not only helps Rynn maintain the appearance of her father's existence, he also tries to protect her from the advances of the landlord's son, a pedophile with designs on Rynn.

The bond between Mario - who bears his own cross as a cripple due to a childhood bout with polio - and the precocious but also vulnerable Rynn makes for a genuinely touching relationship. Director Nicholas Gessner fails to make much of the film's thriller elements (there's several opportunities for suspense that he never works to their best advantage) but he elicits a range of strong performances that illuminate Koenig's subtle screenplay.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Koenig's script is that he lets Rynn be a fallible character and shows that there's limits to her ingenuity. As smart as she is, she's still a kid and Koenig wisely doesn't forget that. Rynn makes mistakes and her attempts to cover up the absence of her father are not always smooth. Koenig always reminds us of Rynn's intelligence but her Achilles Heel is that she is only thirteen and lacks experience. Not just with the adult world but also with her own emotions - we can see how blindsided she is by the way she feels about Mario.

Based on the creepy preview that ran before the film when I first saw this as a kid on The ABC Friday Night Movie, I was expecting two hours of thrills and chills. But the only act of unsettling physical violence involves some vicious harm to a pet hamster. Oh, and there's also a cellar hatch door that comes down pretty hard on one character's head. And that's about it. But yet this movie, and primarily its unsentimentalized tale of first love between Rynn and Mario, riveted me. There's no final twist to turn the movie on its head and the climax is no more than two people drinking tea. Yet Rynn is such a well-rendered heroine that the movie succeeds as a character piece.

To be a kid but to also be independent, Rynn's situation seems to be a case of pure wish-fulfillment (it's appropriate that this movie's biggest following is found among Gen-Xers - the first generation of so-called 'latch-key' kids) and her bravado is attractive. But as The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane comes to an emotionally ambiguous end, the irony is that while Rynn has kept her freedom, her haunted eyes question how much more freedom she can endure.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I Believe!

My reaction to The X-Files: I Want To Believe wasn't quite as ecstatic as the exclamation point in this blog's title suggests but I definitely let out a relieved sigh early on in the film when I knew that I was feeling the vibe of an authentic X-Files case again. And throughout the rest of the film's running time, I continued to feel that my faith had been restored. In fact, I felt slightly embarrassed to have been so skeptical of the film in the first place. It's not an outstanding film, it's not spectacular (especially not by summer movie standards), and it wouldn't even place in my top twenty of the show's episodes - but it is engrossing for the most part and it gives us a new Mulder and Scully adventure that feels like more than just nostalgia. My only gripe would be that Mulder and Scully don't really do much investigating together per se but it's their bond that drives the picture.

After watching I Want to Believe, I'm totally ready to chastise 20th Century Fox for forfeiting this movie's already slim commercial chances in the middle of a grueling summer season. I don't think it ever would've been a huge hit but it could've been a modest success in the fall or late winter (this is a January movie if I ever saw one) rather than the flop (a small scale flop, perhaps, but a flop nonetheless) that it ended up being. Series creator (and director and co-writer of I Want To Believe) Chris Carter probably needs to shoulder some blame as well - I don't know if the intense secrecy around this movie was solely his call but it completely backfired, in my opinion.

In an ideal world, it'd be better for people to find out only once they're in the theater itself that they've come to watch a movie about Gay Russians involved in black market organ harvesting and Frankenstein-like experiments but for some of us, knowing that kind of info ahead of time is what might motivate us to buy a ticket. Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz didn't quite get as bizarre with this storyline as I might've hoped but even with not taking it as far as they could've, it's still a movie about Gay Russians involved in black market organ harvesting and Frankenstein-like experiments so it's not the usual multi-plex fare, that's for sure. Add a pedophile priest who sees visions on top of it and it's suddenly not hard to see why 20th Century Fox might've failed to market this with much enthusiasm. But I give credit to Carter and Spotnitz for telling a story they, well, believed in.

I just wish that Carter and Spotnitz had more time to finesse their story as this only ranks as an average-to-sub-average episode of the show and it had the potential to be much more. Part of the failing is that the villains are intriguing but aren't given nearly enough development. Another is that the climax is too limp - the slow burn approach taken by Carter is fine but there should've been more of a pay-off. Also, it's a bummer to see Mitch Pileggi return as Walter Skinner only to see him given absolutely nothing to do. His one and only scene with Mulder cries out for something more between them - even just a funny line - but it never comes. I just wonder if the writer's strike hampered Duchovny and Pileggi from improvising a better moment between their characters than what was on the page.

But the film's faults aren't fatal ones. And I much prefer this over the first X-File movie, the enervating Fight the Future (1998). It's a challenge for this to feel exactly like a classic X-Files adventure with Mulder and Scully no longer working as FBI agents but I Want To Believe is a satisfying continuation of the show. Anderson and Duchovny are still a winning pair and at its best, I Want To Believe made me realize how much I'd missed their mutual passion - not just for each other but for their work in saving lives. Even though she's mostly out of the loop of Mulder's investigation, Carter and Spotnitz give Scully a pertinent subplot concerning her efforts as a doctor to save a terminally ill child (not as mawkish a storyline as it might appear). As we see both of them stubbornly persisting when the world is telling them to give up, we're reminded that where ever life might take them, both Mulder and Scully will continue to be the patron saints of lost causes and unpopular opinions. After the failure of this movie to make The X-Files a viable commercial property again, The X-Files itself can be considered its own lost cause but I hope Carter won't give up on trying to bring it back again one day.

It'd be a shame if this was where Mulder and Scully's journey had to end but if it is, I feel like it leaves them on a much better note than the last episode of the series did. For me, it's the dark horse of the Summer of '08 - a film that'll have to wait to find more believers on DVD.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Car

Steven Spielberg's acclaimed TV movie Duel (1971) is generally regarded as a haiku of road rage. But is Duel the tour de force that it's been made out to be? Does it really make the most of its premise? Well, yes in the sense that cat and mouse games don't come much more tense than Dennis Weaver's distraught efforts to keep his Plymouth Valiant ahead of the mysterious trucker who has a death wish out for him.

But as nerve-wracking a movie as it was, and as much of an Everyman that Weaver played, I always felt that Duel was the story of one chump's bad luck, with a cautionary note about truckers and proper road etiquette attached. It didn't do anything to scare me off the road, in other words. Instead it was another, much less lauded film, that made me forever wary of other vehicles - 1977's The Car. As far as my traumatized nine-year-old self was concerned, when the rubber met the road, The Car was by far the better drive than Duel.

A head-on collision between Duel and The Exorcist (the film opens with a quote by famed Satanist Anton le Vey), The Car was deemed a jalopy by most critics and fans at the time of its release, not fit for scrap metal. But I don't know a single kid who grew up in the '70s who doesn't have the blare of The Car's hell-spawned horn branded into their consciousness.

The tight-knit community of Santa Ynez is a quiet Utah town until the day a tank of a black sedan arrives and gets a taste of blood on its bumper by dispatching two carefree young bicyclers. From there, The Car proceeds to out-maneuver all efforts of the local law to stop it as it runs roughshod over as many hapless victims as it can. Can James Brolin as cycle-riding cop Wade Parent beat The Car with just his two wheels and a kick-ass moustache?

The scariest aspect to The Car is how The Car can strike at any time. You wouldn't think a black sedan could be so stealth but this one is. It can even get into your garage without you knowing about it. And even when you see it coming a mile away, you're just as dead. Duel was merely about a trucker chasing one panicky middle-aged dude for miles upon miles and then he even fails to scrub that one dude. If The Car could laugh at that, it would because The Car knows how to deliver a body count.

All the time, horror movies are referred to in terms of what they'll make you afraid to do once you seen them. You know, you'll never shower again, you'll never go to the beach, you'll never go in the woods - and so on. Well, The Car might be the only horror movie I can think of that literally gives you a reason to be scared to do anything. Don't bicycle, don't hitchhike, don't cross the street, don't drive, don't run, don't walk outside, don't stay in the house. Whatever you do, you're in a world of shit if The Car is around. You're just not safe, period. As a kid, this movie even made me scared to be sleeping on the second floor. Because I knew that the Car could easily bring the whole house down.

We never see who's behind the wheel of The Car, but director Elliot Silverstein and writers Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack, and Lane Slate don't give you a long list of suspects. The Car all but has a license plate that says HEL-666. Why the Devil would be driving a black sedan and running down, say, hitchhikers who play the French horn is unexplained but that just makes it scarier, right?

Even though its hard to upstage the Car itself, the cast of The Car is one of my favorites of the '70s with James Brolin, Ronny Cox, and R.G. Armstrong being the most recognized names. But I particularly love Brolin's onscreen squeeze, played by Kathleen Lloyd. As Lauren, the local school teacher, Lloyd was like every groovy grade school teacher I had during the '70s - from Ms. Metzeger to Mrs. Cosgriff.

She was a character I completely recognized from my own experiences. She was cool, she was funny, and she wasn't one of these sad characters you often see in movies that take place in small towns who are just itching to get out and start a real life. You know, you always felt that by staying in Bodega Bay that Suzanne Pleshette's school teacher Annie Hayworth in The Birds was consigning herself to an unfulfilled life. But that's not the case with Lauren. Santa Ynez is totally her town. And her and Brolin are definitely Santa Ynez's It Couple. Lloyd isn't just playing the disposable love interest here, she's one boss chick (major bonus points to Lloyd S. Papez, The Car's art director, for the inspired touch of including an oil painting of Wade that's clearly the work of Lauren's amateur hand among the objects in her house). So when Lauren is singled out for The Car's most personal attack, it really is a devastating shock. In a movie that doesn't lack for outrageous moments (like when The Car deliberately flips itself over at top speed to roll over two oncoming police cruisers at once - killing every officer on board), Lauren's close encounter with The Car is ultimate proof that The Car will not wait for its victims to meet it out in the streets. Instead it provides its own drive-thru service.

When Quentin Tarantino made Death Proof (2007) with the claim that it would be a slasher movie where the killer's weapon was a car, I figured he'd be looking to outdo - or at least compare with - the car-nage of The Car. But as it turned out, Death Proof amounted to little more than thirty seconds of Driver's Ed footage. When it comes to making a horror movie about a car, The Car is still the uncontested King of the Road. Over thirty years later, it still gets better mileage.

And in closing, a big honk of the horn to Final Girl for inspiring this blog as part of her Film Club Day.

The Most Controversial Phenomena of Our Time

Sorry for being out of commission all week but I've been in a crazy funk. I can't say why, exactly. But for whatever reason, I've been in a strange place. A place where the usual laws of reality don't abide. All of which, of course, has moved me to remember the series of ads for such Time-Life book series as "Mystic Places", "Mysteries of the Unknown" and "The Enchanted World" that were a television staple throughout the '80s and early '90s. These ads were always a comforting presence to me - at the time I was too old to find them scary but yet I was still young enough to enjoy their hokey eeriness.

These series seemed like they'd be part of America's book shelves forever but apparently after the AOL-Time Warner merger, Time-Life decided that their book line was no longer profitable in the US. I was just entering my twenties when these ads stopped appearing and being busy with new demands and spending less time in front of the TV, I didn't notice this until months later.

Looking back, it seems appropriate that the world of arcane possibilities these books promised would evaporate from my life as I moved into adulthood and no longer had time for such things (and just as appropriate is the fact that I wouldn't immediately notice their absence). Life became more sensible, as it always has to at some point. Until we realize that being sensible doesn't always get us to the places we need to go.

I realize now how much I miss these evocative invitations to "a darker time when the world was young". In their place, late-night TV viewers are eternally browbeaten by come-ons for credit unions, used car lots, affordable health insurance, and real estate rackets. These ads all prey on material worries while Time-Life promoted a sense of wonder - or just simple curiosity - about a world of spirits, magic, chance and uncanny coincidence.

It wasn't pragmatic, of course, to look to acquire a library about legends, tall tales, and superstitions. But what I miss most - what the magic of these ads really were - is the belief that these books, and the fabricated mysteries they endorsed, were a luxury that the average person was able to afford.