Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ring In The New Fear

The best thing about coming to the end of the year is that all the cinematic disappointments of the last twelve month are forgotten (by me, at least - I hate to go into the new year carrying a grudge) with the promise of a better year ahead. And if it should come to pass that things don’t pan out as well as expected, well, there’s always another year to come.

As for the prospects that 2009 holds for horror fans, I think we’re in store for a fun year. Below are the twenty films I’m most excited to check out in the months ahead. If it seems like my choices are too thick with what some may categorize as mainstream American crap, well, I happen to be a fan.

While I know there’ll be plenty of foreign and indie offerings in '09 that'll knock my socks off, they likely won’t be in 3-D and won’t have Piranha in the title. I also will probably have to wait until DVD to see them.

When I think about the movies I’m looking forward to, I mostly like to think about movies that I know I’ll have a chance to actually see in movie theaters and unfairly or not, it's big studio pictures that best fit that description. Even if a movie turns out to be lackluster, I still love the anticipation of seeing trailers and TV spots, seeing the posters in theater lobbies, and ultimately seeing that new movie on the big screen. And those times when a movie really delivers makes the many disappointments worth enduring.

With that said, here’s to 2009!

1. Friday the 13th
Times have come around in a big way for old-school slasher fans with the disreputable films of our youth coming back into fashion. Whether this is a good thing or just a further sign that standards are irrevocably slipping is up to individuals to decide. As remakes go, this return to Camp Crystal Lake seems like an easy win. After Jason Takes Manhattan, Jason Goes to Hell, and Jason X, this can only be a major upgrade for the Friday franchise. And I like that this reboot is looking to make Jason a figure of fear again as there’s a new generation (or two) that doesn’t understand or remember that the early films in the F13 series were considered to be scary in their day.

2. My Bloody Valentine 3-D
The original My Bloody Valentine is arguably the best of the post-Halloween, post-Friday the 13th slashers. It had a better caliber of actors than were usually found in other slasher films of the time, the characters skewed to an older twentysomething crowd rather than to teens, the storyline was a little more elevated (with its love triangle and romantic angst) than just a series of killings, and it had one of the more vivid environments of an early ‘80s slasher film with its blue collar town and cavernous mines. This remake looks to retain all the qualities of the first film and do it bigger, better, bloodier, and in 3-D. And with Tom Atkins to boot.

3. Drag Me To Hell
Who cares if this is PG-13 – it’s still Sam Raimi coming back to the genre after an extended stay in the big budget leagues. I’m excited to see how his time helming the Spider-Man films will affect his approach to the kind of gonzo horror comedies that he made his name on.

4. The Wolfman
This would be higher on my this list – maybe even Number #1 – if Rick Baker had been allowed to do a real transformation scene. But the word that the FX in this remake will be primarily CG is discouraging. On the other hand, I love the cast here (I think everyone agrees that Benicio Del Toro is great wolfman material), the early word on Andrew Kevin Walker’s script has been positive, and I’ve mostly liked director Joe Johnston’s films to date. Along with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Wolf Man is my favorite of the Universal Monsters so I have my fingers crossed that this will be a great revival for the character.

5. Ashecliffe
Martin Scorsese returns to horror/thriller territory for the first time since 1991's Cape Fear with this adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel Shutter Island. I haven't read Lehane's book but its plot - involving two U.S. Marshalls searching for a mental patient (a woman who committed multiple murders) who's gone missing from an island-set asylum - sounds like ripe material for Scorsese to work with. I'll try to keep myself shielded from any spoilers before this hits theaters in October and hope that this one is going to floor me.

6. Final Destination: Death Trip 3-D
This series has been the only horror franchise of the current decade that I’ve enjoyed. I love the simplicity of the concept, and its inventive, Omen-esque set-pieces. The second Destination remains the best of the bunch and with FD 2 director David Ellis returning for this entry, I’m sure Death Trip is going to up the ante on 3-D horror.

7. 25/8
Although his career has hit its share of lows (Hills Have Eyes 2, A Vampire in Brooklyn) and his name on a film as a producer never seems to bode well (Mind Ripper, Dracula 2000), Wes Craven always seems to find a way to stay relevant. While peers like George Romero and Tobe Hooper are pretty much making films that go straight to DVD and John Carpenter hasn’t made a feature since 2001, Craven’s latest is bound to be a big deal. What I’ve read about the storyline sounds a little on the convoluted side but I have hope that this will be a return to classic Craven. Having said that, even Craven’s missteps (like Shocker) are more fun than most of what current horror has to offer.

8. Splice
This Frankenstein-esque tale of genetic engineering has an impressive pedigree of talent behind it with Cube’s Vincenzo Natali directing and Guillermo del Toro producing. I’m not sure how horror-orientated this’ll turn out to be but I bet it’ll be one of the better genre offerings of the year.

9. Piranha 3-D
How great would it be if 2009 was host to three kick-ass 3-D horror films? Three kick-ass R-rated 3-D films, at that? Of the three on this list, I only put Piranha last because it hasn’t even started filming yet and who knows if it’ll really make it’s planned-for summer '09 release date. I hope it does as I can’t imagine a better summer horror movie than one with piranha swimming off the screen in 3-D. To my eyes, Alexandre Aja isn’t that impressive as a director but he does know how to deliver great visuals and gore. This year’s Mirrors was a cheesy mess that won my heart and I’m hoping that Piranha 3-D will do the same.

10. The Last House on the Left
The original Last House is one of those movies where I concede its classic status but have no love for it whatsoever. For me, it’s not a movie I’ve ever cared to see a second time. A glossier, more crowd-pleasing take on this tale of rape and revenge might miss the point of the hard-hitting original but positive early word has me curious.

11. The Box
I’m not much of a Richard Kelly fan but this Richard Matheson adaptation could be a welcome surprise. I’m hoping this story of a couple who find themselves in possession of a mysterious box that grants wishes at a grisly cost will be a mix of the quirky and the genuinely scary.

12. The Orphan
R-rated, old-school slasher films may be back in vogue this year but director Jaume Collet-Serra was there first with 2005’s House of Wax, delivering one of the more underrated horror films of the current decade (he also beat the torture-porn fad to the punch, with scenes of nastiness that outpaced what Hostel offered audiences months later in January ‘06). Ever since seeing House, I’ve been anxiously awaiting Collet-Serra's follow-up and now here it is, courtesy of another Dark Castle production. The storyline – about a couple who’ve lost a child and subsequently adopt a young girl who turns out to be evil – doesn’t sound like the most promising but I have hope that Collet-Serra will do something interesting with it.

13. 100 Feet
This might be going straight to the Sci-Fi Channel but I’m still excited to see this ghost story about a woman (Famke Jenssen) under court-ordered house arrest who is haunted by the ghost of her abusive husband. Writer/director Eric Red’s last film, Bad Moon, was awful but the writer of Near Dark and the writer/director of the goofy but fondly remembered (by me, at least) Body Parts deserves some consideration. I just like how the concept of this film inventively solves the Achilles Heel of haunted house tales – why don’t people just leave the house? – and I expect that this should prove to be a little different than the rash of Asian-influenced ghost stories of the last few years.

14. The New Daughter
The idea of Kevin Costner in a horror film might not pique much interest among genre fans but I have a feeling that this supernatural shocker will end up being pretty good. I haven’t seen director Luis Berdejo’s previous films but he co-wrote [REC] and that’s recommendation enough for me.

15. The Knowing
This might be more sci-fi than horror but it looks suitably creepy to me. I just hope that when we find out the whole enchilada about what the force is behind this film’s eerie prophecies that it won’t be too cheesy. Even if this is only 3/4ths of a good movie, though, I think I’ll enjoy it.

16. 2012
Apocalyptic crap is always a good time waiting to happen. And with the Mayan calendar involved, doomsday has never looked such a sure thing. Well, actually it all looks like baloney to me – but immensely entertaining baloney. I just worry that this movie won’t be quite as nuts as I’d like it to be.

17. The Haunting in Connecticut
I’m always game for seeing an average American family forced to battle the supernatural on their home turf. We'll see how this one shapes up but at the very least, with Virginia Madsen as the mom and Elias Koteas as the concerned priest, this looks to have a little more dramatic clout than the usual teen-orientated fare.

18. Surrogates
Bruce Willis doing sci-fi is always alright by me, I’ve liked director Jonathan Mostow’s previous films (even if they haven’t been outstanding, they’ve shown he has an able handle on how to deliver B-style thrills), and the concept of a future where humans stay inside and only interact with the outside world through robot surrogates sounds like it has plenty of potential. I don’t know how much towards horror or scares this will lean – if at all – but the idea of these surrogates being murdered by an unknown killer hits me as one that could lend itself to some creepiness.

19. Pandorum
Space-set horror films are always favorites of mine, even if when they’re not that great. I have a feeling this’ll be a good one, though. Produced by Paul W.S. Anderson and Jeremy Bolt, this hopefully will be comparable to the duo’s minor cult classic Event Horizon. Aside from Pandorum, I’m also curious about Moon, with Sam Rockwell as an astronaut stranded on the lunar landscape for three years.

20. The Crazies
A remake of this 1973 Romero classic involving a small community stricken by a man-made virus that turns them into homicidal lunatics could be cool. There’s plenty of current incentive to do a timely update on the government’s failed response to a disaster but I have a feeling much, if not all, of the political ire of Romero’s film will be lost. Look for this to be another amped-up, post-28 Days Later zombie film. Still, maybe it'll at least succeed on those lesser terms.

Besides the above films, I'll be keeping an eager eye out for the return of Frank Henelotter with Bad Biology, the already raved-about UK offering The Children, J.T. Petty's well-received horror western The Burrowers, the Predator-meets-The 13th Warrior tale Outlander, Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, the Jack Ketchum adaptation The Offspring, the intriguing psycho-thriller Peacock starring Cillian Murphy as a man who fools a small town into believing his two personalities are man and wife, Park Chan-wook's vampire film Thirst, and the French shocker Martyrs.

A Happy and Safe New Year's to everyone!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Best And Worst Of 2008

It seems like just yesterday that the year got off to a dismal start with the remake of One Missed Call but now here we are twelve months later and it's time to rank the best and worst horror offerings of the past twelve months. Overall, it wasn't the best of years but it wasn't a complete wash-out either (kind of the same assessment that every year earns). Go to Shock Till You Drop for the full rundown.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Came Early!

With our son's presents laid out under the tree and the wife having headed to bed early, I whiled away some time in the minutes before the clock struck midnight with a quick browse of the internet only to learn - courtesy of Ryan Rotten's 10 Most Anticipated Horror Films of 2009 - of a film that sounds too good to be true. A film that I had no inkling of until now but I know will go on to consume my thoughts until I've seen it. It's called Burning Bright (formerly known as Tiger, Tiger) and the story involves Step Up 2's Briana Evigan trapped in a house during a hurricane along with her autistic brother as a tiger is also trapped in the house with them.

While I'm sure my eyes will light up at a few of the presents I receive tomorrow and even more so at my son's reactions to his Christmas Day it'll be hard to match the wave of joy that instantly poured over my face when I read the plot description for Burning Bright. Why does it make me so happy to learn about this movie? I couldn't say, it just does. A hurricane, an autistic brother, a tiger - I don't even need a set-up for that. Nothing about how the tiger got there could possibly interest me. Just have it there as soon as the movie begins, please.

As of now, there's no release date set for Burning Bright but I hope Lionsgate makes it a priority to get it into theaters in '09. The only thing that could possibly make me more excited about this movie is if it were called Burning Bright 3-D. It wouldn't even have to be in 3-D, man - just to have it in the title would be enough.

In the face of such good news, it'd be wrong to get too greedy.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Remembering A Miner Masterpiece

In the early '80s I was too young to see any R-rated movies in theaters but that only caused the films of the slasher cycle to loom all the larger in my imagination - often helping pedestrian films take on legendary proportions.

Films like Terror Train, Friday the 13th, and My Bloody Valentine weren't the kind of horror films that I had grown up watching afterschool on The 4 O'Clock Movie or on the Saturday Creature Double Feature. This wasn't Godzilla stomping Toyko, or Peter Cushing's Van Helsing sticking it to Dracula. There was no element of fantasy to be had. I had already seen Psycho by then (although I wasn't even aware of films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left) but Psycho had that buffer of being, well, old. It was scary, yes (as a latchkey kid in the '70s, I watched Psycho for the first time on afternoon TV alone in the house with literally one foot out the front door during the film's scariest parts so I could feel I wasn't 'shut in' with the movie), but it was a "classic" - meaning that it was in black and white and that I read about it in books long before I saw it. I mean, my mom saw it when she was a kid - or at least a teenager - herself so I knew I'd be ok, no matter how scary it got.

But these new slasher films were changing the game. It was like a mean season had come. By reputation, slasher films were nothing but one brutal death after another. And from the TV commercials I'd been exposed to for the likes of He Knows You're Alone, they didn't even have that gloss that I always associated with movies - even by the standards of the more realistically-shot movies of the '70s, slasher movies seemed to be even more void of artifice. Without fail, every TV spot for a new slasher film would leave me traumatized. They never looked hokey to me, only harrowing.

Appearing more harrowing than any of the others was 1981's My Bloody Valentine. From the TV commercials, it looked hardcore - even before I was inclined to use words like 'hardcore'. There was something instantly unnerving about the killer's miner gear outfit with the gas mask and the blinding flashlight mounted on his helmet (which had the effect of freezing his startled victims like deers in headlights). This guy wasn't trying to look 'spooky' or to play hide and seek behind some shrubs, he was dressed to get in there and end you. And the clip from My Bloody Valentine that I saw on Siskel and Ebert's Sneak Previews was terrifying to me. It was the scene where Mabel, the old lady at the laundromat, is murdered. Seeing how helpless this tiny old woman was against the killer really disturbed me. Unlike most of the horror films I was used to, there wasn't anything 'fun' about that scene. I had seen many people victimized in horror films before, of course, but seldom did it seem so mean-spirited. So, well, heartless. And it because it was an older woman as the victim, there was nothing even titillating about it - it wasn't a 'damsel in distress' type of scene, it was just vicious.

The victims in Psycho never had time to plead for their lives (although the suddenness of the attacks in that film is what makes them so frightening), but the victims in slasher films always seemed to. Often times these characters had plenty of time to know exactly what was in store for them and go through the whole gamut of emotions. Scenes like this were new and upsetting territory to me. Sure, I had seen victims whimper and beg in terror before but usually it was in the presence of something absurd like a giant ant or whatever. But to see a hulking dude with a pick-axe attack an old woman and to hear the character react with real fear to this inexplicable thing happening to her ("What do you want?! Go away!") was chilling. By 1981 this was far from anything new to horror films, of course, but at my age I was seeing it for the first time. To my mind, My Bloody Valentine was a lock to be the scariest movie ever made. Hell, I couldn't even get through the 30 second TV commercial without leaving the room.

I don't remember when I eventually saw My Bloody Valentine in its entirety but I know it was on home video, which would've likely made that the mid-'80s for me. Inevitably it wasn't quite the terrifying experience I had expected (of course I had already become a jaded splatter fan by then!) but I still loved it. It followed the cliches of the genre enough to make it an archetypal slasher film but it had its own characteristics, too, like the working class atmosphere of its mining town and its love triangle subplot (a familiar movie staple but one rarely seen in horror films). But even if the movie itself didn't rewrite the book on horror, when I think of My Bloody Valentine I always think of how my earliest glimpses of it represented a new kind of horror film to me - one that would take no prisoners. In reality, it was very far from being that but to feel so threatened by a movie upped the ante and forever changed the way I thought about horror.

Next month, not only is the 3-D (!) remake due to hit theaters (coming in on a wave of positive notices) but the original will finally be able to be seen in all its uncut glory. I'm not sure which has me more excited. But while the original My Bloody Valentine may not have been the ruthless film I expected to see when I was eleven and fleeing from the TV commercials, it continues to have a place in my heart. Like the lyrics of "The Ballad of Harry Warden", it reminds me fondly of "the horror from a long time ago."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Halloween 2: The Revenge of Big Joe Grizzly

Despite his once-adamant stance that 2007's Halloween would be writer/director Rob Zombie's one and only trip to Haddonfield, the news just broke that Zombie will be filming Halloween 2 (aka H2) next year. My immediate thought to that is "Thank God another horror film can finally give fucking Saw a run for its money next Halloween!". Of course, that's kind of like having a mice problem in your home and letting snakes loose to take care of it but that's fine.

At the very least, Zombie doing his own follow-up means that the truly promising directors that were attached to this project - most recently, Inside helmers Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury - can move on to something more deserving of their talents. For another, this is the first time to my knowledge that a director has gone on to sequelize their own remake and that's an intriguing situation.

Word from Variety that Halloween 2 will chronicle "the aftermath of Michael Myers' murderous rampage through the eyes of the sister he hunted" doesn't really say much, however, and what it does say worries me. I just hope Zombie doesn't try to justify returning to the Halloween universe by going experimental and having the new film be some kind of psychoanalysis of Laurie Strode's traumatized mind. That's a waste of everyone's time. Now that the origin story is out of the way, just put Michael Myers on a full-out rampage. There's still room to do things differently than in the original saga but at the end of the day Halloween 2 has to be about Michael suited up in his overalls and mask, knife in hand, doing what we like seeing him do. If it isn't, it shouldn't be called Halloween 2.

To that end, here's my suggestions: first, kill Loomis off right away. Bring Malcolm McDowell back for an Adrienne King-like opening cameo. Have him living alone, bat-shit crazy and blinded after Michael gouged his eyes out in the last movie. Michael, of course, pays him a final visit and the opening credits roll. Once that's done, bring back Ken Foree's character of trucker Big Joe Grizzly as the new antagonist for Michael - a character who'd be more akin to Robert Shaw in Jaws than the traditional Loomis type. Sure it looked like Michael put a permanent end to Big Joe during their last encounter but this is a horror movie so who's to say this character couldn't have survived his injuries and emerged with a vendetta to carry out against Michael Myers? Michael caught him off-guard the first time but now Big Joe's ready for Round Two. For the last two years he's been watching, waiting, training his ass off. Now it's on.

If this sounds ridiculous to you, listen: we've already seen six Halloween movies where Michael is pursued by Loomis - someone who could never pose any kind of physical threat to Michael and who's only purpose is to spread the word on Michael's evil nature. That's beyond tired. Now I want to see a Halloween movie where a total bad-ass is gunning for Michael, not some frail old dude but a guy who can really take it to Michael on his own terms. I also think it'd be cool to see this tough bastard who doesn't believe in shit like the Boogeyman slowly forced to consider that there's more than just a whole lot of crazy to Michael.

Of course, in Zombie's Halloween universe, I'm sure that Michael is still just supposed to be some burly psycho and not a supernatural force and that bringing Big Joe Grizzly back to grapple with Michael - taking their death-feud through the streets of Haddonfield - would be regarded as a cheesy move. Well, yeah. It would. But I also believe it'd be fun and that slasher movies - especially sequels to remakes of slasher movies - ought to be fun and not so full of themselves. I want to see a Halloween movie where Michael is in some suburban house, bearing down on his latest victim when suddenly a semi truck crashes through, horn blaring, taking off the back of the house and Big Joe Grizzly jumps out of his giant rig in a suit of homemade armour, ready to stomp the shit out of Michael. Goddammit, that's the Halloween 2 I want to see - the Night HE Got Rocked. And I'd also like to see Keith David cast as Big Joe's brother - someone even more bad-ass than Big Joe himself, some real John Carpenter-esque character like Napoleon Wilson who just broke out of jail. Shit, if Zombie doesn't want to bring back Foree because feels like it'd be cheesy to have him survive his Halloween injuries, just have David as Foree's brother, busting himself out of maximum security to avenge Big Joe's death. If that's what it comes to, I'd be cool with that.

I'm sure what Zombie has in mind for Halloween 2 is nothing like what I have in mind for Halloween 2 but until I hear for sure, I'll keep hoping that Big Joe Grizzly will be on the comeback trail next October.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Freddy Mania

Now that a Nightmare on Elm Street remake is officially set to be filmed next year, courtesy of Platinum Dunes - the producers of the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the new Friday the 13th - I'd like to say upfront that I'm all for it. As with Texas and Friday, my thought isn't one of "how can this ever be as good as the original?" but rather "how could it be worse than the sequels?". Sure, I wish that Hollywood would spend more time creating new nightmares instead of recycling old ones but good luck waiting for that to happen. Personally, I'm less sick of remakes at this point than I am of hearing people whining about them. As far as relaunching the Elm Street franchise goes, even with seven films to the old series' credit, the concept of a killer that stalks you in your dreams still has plenty of potential and if nothing else, the promise of seeing Freddy Krueger restored to the scary presence he was in Craven's original is appealing to me.

I can't say that the Elm Street films were always favorites of mine but Freddy's cult hero status was part of what made '80s horror fun. There's a whole generation of now-twentysomething horror fans who bought their first issues of FANGORIA because Freddy was on the cover. Sure, the character quickly became corny but looking back, I'll take his one-liners and cruel heckling of dysfunctional teens over the stultifying philosophising of Jigsaw in the Saw movies any day.

For some, it might be an automatic deal-killer that Robert Englund won't be playing Freddy but I think it's time to pass the sweater and glove onto someone else. I mean, they change James Bonds, and Draculas, and Dr. Whos, and Batmans all the time - just because Englund has been the only Freddy to date doesn't mean the role has to stay with him until he's in a nursing home. At least he got to be in 2003's Freddy vs. Jason, which was as good a way for him to take a bow and kiss the role goodbye as possible. The dude's in his 60s now, let's let him retire gracefully and keep our memories intact - not like when Sean Connery went back to being Bond for Never Say Never Again. Or when Roger Moore hung around one damn film too long with A View To A Kill.

But even though I think Englund is better off not returning, it does make me a little sad to know that whoever they get to play Freddy in the new film won't be as consumed with the role as Englund was. Part of what I liked about Englund was that he was Freddy. Sure, he had a few other roles - mostly TV work - during the hey-day of Elm Street but essentially his job then was to be Freddy. He guest hosted hosted MTV as Freddy, he appeared in the TV spin-off Freddy's Nightmares - he worked his Freddy shtick wherever they needed him to. And I liked that. I liked the fact that Englund was a character actor who fell into unexpected popularity late in the game, got the kind of stardom that actors like him rarely find, and he ran with it.

For Englund, that role wasn't a matter of being trapped, it was a windfall. Like the popularity of the series itself, which made the fledgling New Line into The House That Freddy Built, it was the kind of success that dreams are made of.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Prone To Violence

When I saw Rambo back in January, I was worried that it'd be an interminable wait until another film as rife with carnage would come to theaters. But here we are just under a year later and Punisher: War Zone has made the perfect bookend to 2008. For what it's worth, Rambo is the more serious-minded of the two films, addressing the very real atrocities occurring in Burma while Punisher: War Zone is in every way a gaudy comic book - from its stylized lighting to the arch approach to its bloodshed (as a criminal is exploded in mid-air by a missile, the moment takes place in front of a red neon sign reading "Mortey's" in which the last letters blink out, leaving only 'mort' - French for "death" - glowing in the night).

Some might carp that the violence of these films is more extreme than warranted but you won't hear that kind of talk from me. Hell, I'd be embarrassed to even think it. Professional critics are forced to see movies they may not otherwise be inclined to watch and it's inevitable that they might feel affronted at times (as when NY Times critic Janet Maslin walked out of the original Dawn of the Dead after ten minutes) but if someone consciously chooses to see the fourth Rambo or the third Punisher, then I believe they've abdicated the right to be offended. Unhappy, dissatisfied - fine. Offended, not so much. To see either of these movies and take issue with their violence is like seeing Titanic and being upset that the boat sank.

If there's a callousness to these films that some might find disturbing, well that's the price of war for you. When making a movie called Rambo or Punisher: War Zone, it doesn't pay to pull your punches. Or to insult your audience's intelligence by reminding them that violence doesn't solve anything.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

At The Bottom Of A Black Hole

Thinking recently about the random things that used to prey on my mind as a too-nervous kid, a long lost fear has suddenly come back to me - the cosmic phenomenon known as black holes. Even though there were no lack of things in my immediate vicinity as a child to worry about, the existence of black holes somewhere out in the great gulf of space seemed too important and deadly to ignore. The idea of black holes was so terrifying to me that even the teaser for Disney's The Black Hole (1979) was as unnerving to me as any horror trailer.

The fact that something existed in nature that could mindlessly absorb life and light on a massive scale seemed like proof that the universe had it in for us. My high-ranking fears of an asteroid colliding with Earth - or at least coming close enough to knock us off our orbit and send the ecosystem into disarray - were penny-ante in comparison. At least I had hopes that I might survive an asteriod collision, even if it were only for a short time until I'd become one of millions to perish in the harsh new conditions on Earth. That wasn't so terrible to imagine. You've got to die sometime, after all, and my name might've eventually been included on some memorial wall after the mutants took over and rebuilt society. But to disappear forever into a black hole offered no such comfort. You couldn't get any more gone than that.

I don't know when I stopped considering black holes to be a threat but I'm glad I learned to let it go. That's the thing about black holes - they pull you in.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Punisher: War Zone

Based on the paltry grosses of this weekend's release of Punisher: War Zone, I guess most of America felt that they'd already seen two lousy Punisher movies and didn't need to bother with a third. That's a shame because with this film, director Lexi Alexander finally did right by Frank Castle. Punisher: War Zone is the hard-hitting, hard-R Punisher that fans of the character have been waiting years to see - a triple-digit killing spree that'd make Jason Voorhees stand up and salute. 2008's most lauded comic book adaptation, The Dark Knight, will likely go on to earn a statue or two at the Oscars come next year but I can guarantee that I'll be giving Punisher: War Zone more time in my DVD player.

All discussion of the relative caliber of their directing and performances aside, The Dark Knight is a movie where the hero can't accomplish a single thing. That's how we know it's a 'serious' movie, rather than just a 'comic book' movie but it's also kind of a drag. In trying to keep a lid on crime in Gotham City Batman fails utterly, mopes incessantly about his shortcomings, and then tries to atone for ineptitude by making himself a martyr - taking on Harvey Dent's sins as his own. On the other hand, Punisher: War Zone is about a hero who single-handedly kills nearly every criminal in NYC. Batman's idea of getting tough on crime is dressing like a bat and talking in a growly voice. It's all a big bluff with him - it's all about masks and theatricality. The Punisher, however, likes to shoot people in the face. And he doesn't bother teaching civics lessons to sociopaths.

The kills in this movie are outrageous and are delivered with just enough of a wink to let the audience know it's expected that they'll laugh. Because, really, when a parkor-practicing criminal is exploded mid-leap by a missile shot from a rocket launcher you're absolutely supposed to be having fun. And I'm glad that Ray Stevenson took over from Thomas Jane in this movie because Stevenson's Punisher does things that the slightly scrawnier Jane just couldn't pull off as convincingly - like punching an opponent so hard that their face literally implodes. There's also a prolonged alley fight between Castle and a Federal Agent that seems to be a deliberate tip of the hat to the alley brawl to end all alley brawls from They Live (1988). In short, this is one amazing movie.

Punisher: War Zone may not be getting the love it deserves at the theaters but I expect it'll be a favorite on DVD. Will it be enough of a favorite to get another Punisher movie into theaters one day? I'd like to hope so. But even if that doesn't happen, the old-school comic nut in me is ecstatic that they kept making Punisher movies long enough to make one that really kicked ass. I knew it'd happen one damn day.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Sad Day In Horrorwood

The world of horror has lost one of its most influential, inspirational figures with the passing of Famous Monsters editor Forrest J. Ackerman (aka 'Uncle Forry') at the age of 92. It's the boomer generation on which he left the greatest mark - the advent of Famous Monsters gave the kids of the '50s and '60s (including the likes of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, John Landis, and Mick Garris) their all-important first taste of the larger world of fandom. It may be hard for a younger generation to understand this now - with genre material regularly covered by the mainstream press and with the internet giving fans around the world instant access to each other - but at one time it was revelatory to discover through the existence of FM that you weren't alone in your interests. Through FM, Forry helped forge the fan community as we know it today.

The deliberately juvenile slant of Famous Monsters (marked by Forry's love of horror-endous puns) made it inevitable that FM wouldn't be able to stay relevant as the horror genre became more transgressive throughout the '60s and '70s but Forry's unflagging enthusiasm kept FM a cherished institution. I was among the first of the FANGORIA generation - with Fango #1 hitting stands when I was ten - but I never felt that FM wasn't cool in its own right. Even though FM was obviously a product of an earlier era and a different sensibility, its love of horror and sci-fi (a phrase that Forry coined) was timeless.

By the time I became aware of Forry, he was already as old as my grandparents. But seeing that instilled me with the belief that there'd never be a need to outgrow my interests, that they wouldn't have to be just a phase to be replaced by more sensible concens. 4E is gone now, but his efforts left the world a safer, happier place for geeks everywhere.

Snow Waves

Instantly scoring a place on my 'must-see' list, the upcoming Norwegian zombie movie Dead Snow (just accepted into next year's Sundance Film Festival) puts me in mind of 1977's Shock Waves. Directed by Ken Wiederhorn, Shock Waves introduced the world to the unforgettable sight of Nazi Zombies who lived underwater, striding out of their watery grave to stalk a group of fun-seekers on a diving cruise who find themselves stranded on an island occupied by Peter Cushing an an old SS Commander. Shock Waves was one of those movies that could stop viewers in their tracks if they ever came across it on late night TV. As movie monsters go, the prune-faced zombies - still sporting their full SS uniforms and dark googles - made for an awesome sight.

The zombies of Dead Snow don't look quite as striking in comparison, but they're pretty cool nonetheless. My only complaint so far about Dead Snow would be the nerdy gripe that I wish it was more serious than comedic -I'd rather see a Nazi Zombie movie that was trying to be genuinely scary rather than a Raimi/Jackson-style gross out - but like I said, that's a nerdy gripe to make. At the end of the day, I'll take Nazi Zombies anyway I can get them. That's how I am.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Going For The Kill Shot

At first glance, Marvel Comics' hard-hitting vigilante The Punisher (aka Frank Castle) seems like he'd be the easiest of characters to translate to film. After all, the character's Death Wish-esque origin in which his family is felled in the crossfire of a mob hit doesn't call for any suspension of disbelief and his goal of killing all criminals is easily understood.

But yet the release of Punisher: War Zone tomorrow marks the third attempt to get the character right on screen with both the 1989 version starring Dolph Lungren and the 2004 version starring Thomas Jane not quite hitting their target. Lungren's version fared better overall - despite Lungren's inappropriate accent, the lack of the Punisher's iconic chest skull and the fact that Frank Castle shouldn't be spending so much time meditating naked in the sewer.

With Jane's Punisher, tone was an issue in that the filmmakers awkwardly tried to take comedic elements from early on in writer Garth Ennis' run on the Punisher (in the form of the surrogate family that Castle meets in his apartment building) and ply them with the grimmer direction Ennis had since moved the book into. It also didn't help that somebody involved in that adaptation - whether it be the writers or the director - was confused as to the Punisher's M.O..
Sure, they still had him emptying rounds in plenty of scumbags but to have Castle spending weeks putting a fake fire hydrant in front of Laura Harring's character car so she can get ticketed by the police, which in turn leads John Travolta as her onscreen husband to suspect that her and his best friend are having an affair and then gunning both of them down in a jealous rage is a lot of roundabout bullshit. That's just not how The Punisher rolls. He doesn't need to engage in that kind of prolonged manipulation - he'll just end you. That skull on his chest isn't just empty advertising.

In the real world, a person like Castle would be a sociopath rather than someone to cheer for but in the world of comics and movies where motives can be kept clear-cut, there's no need to wear kid gloves. While Batman is on too many T-shirts and lunchboxes to let his inner psycho loose, here's hoping that Punisher: War Zone lets Castle rack up the spectacular cinematic body count that comic fans are counting on.