Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

John Carpenter's Halloween may have made the slasher franchises of the '80s possible, but by the mid-'80s, the slow-steppin' Michael Myers had been outpaced by the likes of Freddy and Jason. Showing an uncommon aversion to commerce, Carpenter and producer Debra Hill tried to end the Shape's saga with 1981's Halloween II and their stubborn attempt to continue the Halloween brand name without any of the familiar elements of the first two films - 1983's Halloween III: Season of the Witch - left fans outraged. But with the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street films being such reliable earners - for Paramount and New Line, respectively - it was inevitable that Michael Myers would be groomed to reclaim his throne as the slasher genre's premiere icon. Once producer Moustapha Akkad took control of the series again, plans to put Haddonfield back on the map in time for the ten-year anniversary of Halloween were made. For a brief moment in 1988, Slasher Nation had good reason to be happy.

Taking a straight-forward approach, Alan B. McElroy's Halloween 4 script (delivered under the gun of a writer's strike) is respectful towards the first film, eschewing II's attempts to explain Michael's supernatural abilities through the myth of Samhain (as in the first film, Michael is now simply regarded as Evil incarnate with no arcane explanations necessary) and director Dwight H. Little creates an efficiently scary mood, evoking the dark autumnal menace of the original with the proper Midwestern ambience (and composer Alan Howarth effectively reprises the famous Halloween theme). With Jamie Lee Curtis having gone on to A-list projects by this time, her character of Laurie Strode was written out of the new film (dead in a car crash, we're told) leaving a young daughter in her wake. In tribute to Curtis, her onscreen daughter is named Jamie (played by the appealing Danielle Harris) and Jamie lives in the care of her adopted family, the Carruthers, which includes an older sister named Rachel (Ellie Cornell).

While a comatose Michael is being transported from the sanitarium that he's been incarcerated in for the last ten years (this move is being attempted, of course, during a thunderstorm on the eve of Halloween - how about a pat on the back for whoever planned this fiasco!) an ambulance attendant who clearly takes his life for granted carelessly lets slip in Michael's presence that Michael has a niece alive and well back home. Mad Mike immediately emerges from his catatonia and does what he does best, slaughtering the ambulance crew. With Michael loose again, it's up to Dr. Loomis (the returning Donald Pleasence) to hunt down his old quarry. Given that Michael is famous for his one track mind, Loomis doesn't waste any time heading to Haddonfield.

As Loomis tries to stop Michael from reprising his rampage of ten years ago, Halloween 4 quickly reveals itself as an amped-up remake of the first film only now instead of Donald Pleasence simply crouching in the bushes with Charles Cyphers scaring kids away from the Myers' house, Loomis has some real back-up in place. Which is good, because Michael is pressing his attack harder than ever this time around. On the way to Halloween 4's climatic face-off, Little delivers several well-conceived action scenes, including an extended roof top chase and an attack on a speeding pick up truck. While some may feel scenes like these take some of the Boogeyman element out of Michael, there's still a number of moody scares to be found - in fact, Little stages one of the creepiest kills in the entire series featuring a bit of misdirection involving a rocking chair and a cop on late watch against Michael.

As much as this was billed as the Return of Michael Myers, this was also the Return of Loomis. Unlike Jason and Freddy, who squared off against succeeding rounds of disposable teen opponents, the Halloween series was always distinguished by Loomis' Ahab-like pursuit of Michael. Ever since Loomis uttered the lines "He's escaped! The Evil has escaped!", the chase was on and much of the appeal of the series lay in Pleasence's comfortingly hammy portrayal of Loomis. Having Loomis around to describe Michael as evil on two legs is what made Michael more than just a thug with a knife. This wasn't Charles Durning chasing Tony Beckley in When A Stranger Calls. You'd never hear Loomis talk about Michael in psychiatrict terms. From Day 1 Loomis was trying to send Evil Itself back to Hell - an element that turned what could've been mean-spirited set of films into something more akin to classic monster movies with Loomis serving as a determined Van Helsing. If the makers of Halloween 4 deserve credit for anything, it's for bringing Loomis back, when it would've been easy to just have let the character go.

Following Michael's latest spectacular demise, as he goes down in a hail of bullets (again making this film a more elaborate replay of the original - now instead of Loomis putting a few rounds into Michael, a entire firing squad is there to execute him), Halloween 4 offers an epilogue that for many may have seemed like an incredibly obvious turn of events but it managed to catch me off guard back in '88. And while some may have scoffed at this final scene as an obvious sequel set-up, I honestly think it could've functioned as a satisfying close to the series, bringing events full circle. If this had been the last Halloween, I would've been ok with that. It leaves the Loomis character in such a psychologically tortured place that it seems like a bitter but fitting end.

Like most sequels, Halloween 4 is largely a middle-of-the-road effort but in an age where most horror franchises now revolve around unlikable characters subjected to extreme torture (the current success of Saw V proving that this trend is far from over) and when even the Halloween series itself has taken an ugly turn (thanks, Rob Zombie!) it's worth appreciating what Halloween 4 represents - a time when even horror's heavyweights didn't have to be such jaded enterprises to prove their credibility.

A Hardy Halloween

According to the onscreen text, this clip from The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries is taking place on June 12th - and the episode itself originally ran on September 11th, 1977. So as a Halloween clip, its credentials may be suspect. But when you have Paul Williams sporting a Dracula cape and signing "The Hell Of It" from Phantom of the Paradise to a costumed crowd of revelers, I think it all evens out.

Have A Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Halloween Meltdown

For the duration of my trick or treating years (1975-1981), I never wore a really great costume. At first, dressing up as Spider-Man or Captain Marvel (better known as "Shazam!" to kids of the '70s) was pure pleasure – no matter how chintzy the store-bought outfits may have been – but as time went on, I felt that I wasn’t living up to my full Halloween potential.

Finally, in 1978, I saw an opportunity for all that to change.

A few weeks before Halloween that year, as I walked through a Kaybee’s toy store with my mother, I spotted an actual, honest-to-God, officially sanctioned make-up kit for The Incredible Melting Man. The film – about an ill-fated astronaut who returns from a space mission only to find that he’s melting away – had been released the year before and even though it had tanked, I had no concept of the success or failure of movies back then. I just knew that it had come out and that it had looked absolutely awesome.

I remember having excitedly gawked at MM’s melted mug on the cover of Famous Monsters and knowing that this had to be one of the scariest movies ever made – I had no capacity at the time to discern that it was likely to be utter shit. In that regard I can’t be too hard on myself because honestly, Rick Baker’s make-up for the titular melting menace was so badass that it single-handedly sold the movie as a must-see.

And standing in the toy store on that day in ‘78, I saw my golden chance to become the talk of the neighborhood by transforming my face into the glistening visage of The Incredible Melting Man.

As I looked at the picture of MM on the cover of that kit in all his dripping glory, I knew that’s exactly how I was going to look. I pictured that head sitting on my shoulders - there would be no discrepancy between the image on the box and how I’d look once that make-up was applied. The kit was designed by make-up maestro Rick Baker himself and I knew that he’d make the process of becoming The Incredible Melting Man an easily accomplished one.

I’d never be able to find that out first hand, however, because as soon as I called my mother’s attention to what I wanted, she made it clear that she would not allow me to be the Melting Man. After one look at the oozing edifice on the front of the box and examining the array of materials pictured on the back, my mother told me that there was no way I was putting any of this on my face. I tried to argue, being adamant that there was no potential harm in whatever materials were used in the kit but she was sure that something in that make-up would cause some kind of reaction in my skin, that there must be unknown chemicals that would leave me permanently marked (I shouldn’t have been surprised – after all, this was the same woman who adamantly refused to buy me a chemistry set for fear of exposure to deadly materials) or that it would drip into my mouth or eyes and we’d have to spend Halloween in the emergency room. There was nothing I could do to convince her otherwise.

When Halloween finally came a few weeks later, I didn’t see any Melting Men walking the streets (my only solace in the situation) so maybe my mother’s reaction wasn’t a unique one. I can’t even remember now what my own costume was that year. I’m sure I settled for a full-head Wolf Man mask or something. Whatever it was, my heart wasn’t it. Once we left Kaybee’s without that make-up kit, I was done caring. I had wanted to walk the night looking like someone had poured a bucket of dripping snot on my head. I wanted to be hideous - spectacularly hideous, as only a melting man can be.

But in 1978, my chance to live that dream came and went. And with it, my hopes of Halloween greatness melted away for good.

The above post was my contribution to a group blog on "Halloween Memories" by The League of Tana Tea Drinkers. Read the rest of the LoTTD contributors' recollections here.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Children

Stories about evil kids never go out of style, they never lose their currency, and these sort of tales are even more alarming to me since the birth of my son three and a half years ago. I now know first hand that children can be amoral little creatures and despite their size, they're more capable of inflicting harm than you might think. But while we wait to see how well the upcoming UK chiller The Children (visit the film's official site here) exploits its creepy subject matter, I'd like to give a shout out to an earlier film by the same title that remains one of my favorites - 1980's The Chidlren.

This film is an embarrassment on every level and yet I remain stubbornly fond of it. Telling the tale of a school bus that drives through a toxic fog, turning all the children on board into nuclear-powered zombies with black fingernails and the ability to microwave any adult just by hugging them, The Children was and is a whole new kind of stupid. A staple of the USA Network for years during the mid-'80s, The Children frequently aired on USA's Saturday Nightmares as well as on Commander USA's Groovy Movies.

I never passed up an opportunity to watch this - mostly due to the method used to dispatch the children. Somewhere along the way, it's determined that only by chopping off the hands of the children can they be put down - not cured, but killed. By the climax of The Children, the lawn of the Last Parent Standing is littered with tiny hands. What I love about The Children is that no effort to subdue the children by non-lethal methods is considered. There's no thought to contain them so a cure might later be found.

And that the only way to kill the kids is to chop off their hands is only half as funny as the fact that this award-winning solution is only discovered after it's found that bullets have no effect on them! So only after failing to gun the children down does dismemberment look like a good idea. Luring these kids into a barn, or a basement and keeping them locked up even for a few hours is never discussed. In the world of The Children, parents have no qualms about throwing their kids under the (school) bus.

Maybe they knew what Helen and Harry Cooper had to learn the hard way in Night of the Living Dead - that when it comes to your kids turning zombie, it ain't no bedtime story. You've got to shoot 'em, burn 'em, or cut 'em into little pieces. If you don't, it's your ass.

Saw V

The only good thing about Saw V is that I hope the inevitable derision this sequel is met with by even the series' hardcore fans will finally let other studios see that Halloween is no longer off-limits from competition. Lionsgate has staked out Halloween as their own private turf over the last five years and in turn, other studios have all-but ceded the month of October, going along with Lionsgate's hype that "if it's Halloween, it must be Saw". But I think there's an unsatisfied hunger out there for alternative fear fare and that the Saw films are about as un-Halloween as you can get. If Warner Bros. had put out their long-shelved anthology Trick R Treat this year, it would've rolled right over Saw V. Honestly, I believe it would've done the same last year back when it was originally scheduled to come out.

At this point, the Saw films are doing well because there's no alternative for audiences looking for a Halloween horror fix. It's like being the only restaurant in town. Quarantine performed well earlier this month, though, and I bet it would've done equally well had it gone head to head with Saw V this week. Maybe it's because most studios executives don't really care to consider what horror fans want (or to believe that horror fans have opinions about what they want, like actual discriminating moviegoers) that they're content to let Lionsgate have Halloween to themselves.

But I think audiences will take the first opportunity they can to make it known that they're ready for something else. Like any franchise, Saw will continue to have its core fans who will follow the series regardless of declining quality but there's a huge opening for something else to come along and steal the wider market. I'm curious to see how the teen-friendly The Haunting of Molly Hartley will do this coming weekend. I don't think it'll be quite the film to overtake Saw but it could do well enough to prove that at this point anything else has a shot at succeeding on Halloween. There's no need for other studios to sheepishly back away from Saw anymore. The Haunting of Molly Hartley may not kill Saw this year, but it could draw first blood.

And if it bleeds, we can kill it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

When Harry Schooled Jason

Fans of '80s horror got a full serving of awesomeness today with the teaser trailer debuts for the upcoming Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine remakes - both films due early next year.

But while Jason is the bigger brand name, in this initial face-off between MBV's Harry Warden and F13's Jason, I've got to give the early advantage to the mad miner. Call it a surprising upset but I'm suddenly way more excited about MBV than Friday the 13th. And it's not just about the 3-D - though that's a hard factor to ignore - but Valentine simply looks like the movie to beat.

For those who haven't seen it, here's the Friday the 13th teaser:

It looks slick - not bad at all. I like the heavy use of the classic Harry Manfredini music, the Pamela Voorhees voice-over, and the prospect that Jason might finally be scary again.

But just compare it to the My Bloody Valentine spot:

Now that's how you sell a slasher movie, folks! It's possible that seeing the My Bloody Valentine teaser on the big screen tonight in front of Saw V might've given it an edge for me but regardless, I think the MBV teaser readily hands Friday the 13th its ass.

Jason probably didn't think he had to look over his shoulder, what with being an icon and all. And 3-D? He's been there, done that. But in the world of slasher cinema, you're only judged by your last body count and by the look of these two teasers, the makers of My Bloody Valentine have taken that to heart.

A 3-D Ride To Hell!

This poster for the upcoming release of My Bloody Valentine 3-D isn't particularly good in the sense that it's goofy as shit. On the other hand, for the exact same reason it's one of the best posters I've ever laid eyes on! I am pumped, brother! Sure, it would've been nice to see a more dramatically designed poster, one that kept more of a horrific mood, like the kind that accompanied the resurgence of 3-D in the early '80s:

...Even House of Wax's 1982 re-release boasted a cool new poster with a dark-clad figure thrusting a melting candle out from a movie screen to hold dripping over a screaming audience. So compared to those, this My Bloody Valentine poster isn't in the same league - or maybe that's just nostalgia getting the better of me.

But yet it promises something that's sorely been lacking in genre films lately, and that's fun. I can't think many horror films I've been genuinely excited to see recently - either in the theater or otherwise. Even if it's a film I end up liking, the anticipation wasn't quite there. But I guarantee that I'm counting the days till this arrives on the big screen. I remember watching Beowulf last year and wondering how long it would be until someone put the new 3-D technology to use on a horror film and the fact that My Bloody Valentine will be the first of at least three (R-rated!) 3-D horror films next year (Piranha and Final Destination 4 being the others) makes me ecstatic.

Questions of quality aside, just the knowledge that we'll be sitting in theaters next year ducking pick-axes and flesh-eating fish is to know in advance that 2009 will be a banner year.

I just hope that 3-D will eventually be put to its proper use in the service of a 3-D Phantasm remake. If the day never comes when the Tall Man's flying silver spheres can soar off the screen, then history must ultimately judge 3-D as having never reached its full potential.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Fade To Black

Last week's episode of Supernatural, featuring a shape-shifter who copes with the loneliness of being a freak by adopting the guise of classic Universal monsters, inspired me to dig out my copy of 1980's slasher thriller Fade to Black, in which a movie buff uses his expertise in make-ups and disguises to become the characters he loves when he proves unable to cope with his everyday troubles.

Played by Dennis Christopher, Eric Binford was the quintessential movie nerd of the pre-internet, pre-DVD, pre-VCR era, a friendless nebbish spending his nights projecting old films on the walls of his bedroom.

In time, pressure from his disabled but loud-mouthed aunt, his abrasive boss, his bullying co-workers (including a young Mickey Rourke) and a romantic misunderstanding (with his dream girl, a Marilyn Monroe look-alike) push wimpy Eric over the edge and he starts to slay his enemies in the guise of movie icons like the Mummy and Hopalong Cassidy. But as I actually started to watch Fade to Black again for the first time in many years, I realized to my surprise that I found that Eric Binford wasn't the sympathetic soul that I remembered. Christopher gives a good performance but man, what an unlikeable character!

I didn't even get through half the movie before shutting it off and moving onto something worthwhile, like Leviathan. This reaction made me realize that what used to be considered sympathetic traits in characters are now qualities that we have much less patience for. During the '60s and '70s, it used to be common to see nervous, neurotic types portrayed as put-upon protagonists. But today you can only be so much of an introvert without turning off an audience.

To present a character like Eric Binford with no aptitude for social skills would be a hard sell now. Today giving attitude is second nature, being a geek is hip, and to be exposed to pop culture in the last twenty years is to be extra-fluent in irony so there's less tolerance for modern characters - even ones that are meant to be 'different' - to be sketchy weirdos. If you can't find a way to make your individuality work for you, then you must be doing something wrong.

If you're a true social misfit it's no good being sensitive and insecure about it. That's weak. You have to declare your outsider status by being a hardcore serial killer. The Eric Binfords of the world are too soft and easily pushed around to look at with anything but exasperation. Hell, you wouldn't even want to talk movies with them.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Halloween III: Season of the Witch

Having burnt Michael Myers to a cinder at the end of 1981's Halloween II but feeling pressured to not let the brand name go unexploited, producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill decided to fulfill the pragmatic demand for more Halloween movies by continuing the series as a Halloween-themed anthology.

With an original script by Quartermass scribe Nigel Kneale (who requested his name be removed due to the gratuitous violence that was later inserted - the sole writing credit going to director Tommy Lee Wallace) involving a malevolent mask maker and his schemes to inflict mayhem in the name of Halloween, Season of the Witch was the promising launch of a new Shape-less direction but whatever ambitions that may have been behind it, upon its 1982 release Halloween III: Season of the Witch was roundly rejected as a colossal cheat. Where was Michael Myers? Where was Laurie Strode? Where was Dr. Loomis? And where, in the name of Samhain, was anything that fans would recognize as part of the Halloween mythos?

Rather than a thug in overalls slaughtering promiscuous teens, Season of the Witch instead offered up a certifiably zany plot involving no less than Stonehenge, pagan magic, killer robots, and Halloween masks with frigging laser beams. Far-fetched? Hard to swallow? Bat-shit insane? Yep, Season of the Witch is all of that.

As Debra Hill said at the time, this was more of a 'pod' film than a 'knife' film, in reference to the sci-fi elements of Season of the Witch (the film itself explicitly references the 'pod' terrors of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by naming its small town Santa Mira, after the one in Body Snatchers). But that doesn't even begin to describe the endearingly dopey hijinks that make Season so nutty. It may be too over-the-top to ever be convincingly creepy but this odd-man-out Halloween sequel is a fun ride filled with moments of cool menace. It has the virtue of not only being unlike any other Halloween sequel but being unlike few other films at all (although it shares an intriguing connection with 1983's Videodrome in that both films involve television signals that initiate fatal bodily mutations).

Carpenter regular Tom Atkins (The Fog, Escape from New York) stars as Dr. Dan Challis, a middle-aged medic who while on the job witnesses the grisly demise of a store owner clutching a Halloween mask ("They're going to kill us all!" the doomed man warns prior to his death), and soon after Challis stumbles onto an outrageous plot by the world's leading mask maker - Conal Cochran (played with avuncular evil by Dan O'Herlihy) - to exterminate as many people (mostly children) as possible by sending a signal on Halloween night through TV ads for his line of Silver Shamrock masks (a witch, a skull, and a pumpkin - collectively known as "The Halloween 3") to activate electronic chips embedded in the masks (each containing a small piece of Stonehenge!) to make the heads of every punk kid wearing them to erupt in an unholy burst of beetles, snakes, and assorted other creepy-crawlies. And as this ghoulish glory is brought about, so will Halloween be rightfully returned to its dark roots.

Is this ambitious, genre-bending fun or just completely unhinged? I'm not sure on what side Season of the Witch really falls. All I can say is that it works. I love the eerie atmosphere of the small town dominated by the Silver Shamrock factory, with its loud-speaker announced curfews and too-cheerful townsfolk all indebted to their benefactor. And most of all I love Tom Atkins as Dr. Challis.

As much as fans today lament the teen-ification of horror, the situation was every bit as bad twenty-six years ago in the wake of Friday the 13th and the original Halloween. So to have the pushing-fifty Atkins in the lead here was already a plus. Even better was the fact that Challis is one of the most morally bankrupt heroes to be featured in any genre film. Atkins' Challis is a womanizing drunk as well as a coward with a taste for jailbait. And to that I say, "how could anyone not love him?" Atkins had already played a borderline letch as Nick Castle in The Fog where he bedded the much younger Jamie Lee Curtis in about as much time as it takes to tie your shoes. But in Season of the Witch, he takes it to the next level by getting Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), the barely legal daughter of the slain shop owner, into the sack all while being on the trail of her father's murderer!

It's during the consummation of Challis and Ellie's affection that we best see what a sorry excuse for a hero Challis is. While they're going at it, in the next motel room over a woman inadvertently causes a Silver Shamrock chip to fatally misfire in her face. Ellie immediately voices her alarm at the sudden sound ("What was that?") only to have a preoccupied Challis mumble into her breasts with all the indifference he can muster - "...Who cares?".

If there was an Olympics for apathy, Challis would handily take the gold. It's this chronic aversion to sticking his neck out that makes Challis a very different hero than the obsessed Dr. Loomis. Then again, who can be bothered to fight evil when they're busy keeping a buzz going? Above all else, Challis likes his booze. Before they even hit to road to Santa Mira, Challis makes sure to bring a six pack for the ride. And when he and Ellie arrive in Santa Mira, Ellie is eager to scope out Cochran's factory for clues about what happened to her dad but Challis' response is "Whoa! It's getting late and I could use a drink!". For Challis, it's always Happy Hour somewhere in the world. And as soon as they catch on to the fact that something seriously sketchy is up in Santa Mira, Challis' immediate question to Ellie is not to figure out how to root out what's going on but to ask her "You wanna leave?".

Unfortunately, Challis' personal complexities are set aside once he and Ellie fall into Cochran's hands. The last third of the movie is little more than a series of chases, resourceful escapes (And improbably resourceful ones, too. Note the scene where a bound Challis manages to throw a mask from across a room to land over the lens of a security camera hanging on the wall - not bad for a drunk!) and expository (if well-delivered) dialogue from O'Herlihy.

But resorting to a few conventional action beats can't undo the undeniable quirkiness of Season of the Witch, with its alcoholic anti-hero, its sci-fi weirdness and its arcane menace to the world's children. While it'll never be the pride of the pumpkin patch, this one-time franchise killer has outlasted its initial controversy to earn its place as an October essential and a Halloween staple.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Once George Romero's watershed Night of the Living Dead (1968) became the defining moment of late '60s horror, the new cool in ghouls for the next two decades was zombies. All through the '70s and '80s, the undead marched en masse across the screen, sent from all corners of the world with one purpose in mind - to feed on the flesh of the living.

And it was all thanks to that grainy black and white classic from Pittsburgh that galvanized audiences with an almost newsreel-like verite. But after over twenty thriving years of copycats and rip-offs - many of them cult classics in their own right (everything from Let Sleeping Corpses Lie to Night of the Comet) - it was the commercial failure of 1990's Romero-written and produced, Tom Savini-directed Night remake that hastened the end of Zombie Cinema as fans knew it. Save for the limited release of Michele Soavi's Dellamorte, Dellamore (1995), after NOTLD '90 the undead were M.I.A. in theaters for the rest of the century. Not until 2002's Resident Evil would zombies come back into popular fashion. But while NOTLD '90 was found wanting by audiences at the time, I have to say that I unabashedly love this movie and revisit it often. When fans talk about the upper class of remakes, I believe that NOTLD '90 should have a place in that company.

By 1990, genre fans had been inundated with a previous decade's worth of remakes that brought new levels of big budget spectacle to former B-movies such as The Thing, The Fly, The Blob, and Invaders from Mars but unlike those more lavish productions, one of this film's charms is that there's very little - outside of a few of the more convincingly grisly make-up effects - that couldn't have been done just as well in 1968 had the original been just slightly more flush with cash. Although the FX (courtesy of Optic Nerve Productions) are often very cool and startling (in fact, I much prefer the zombie designs here to KNB's work in Land of the Dead), this is the rare instance of a B-movie being remade as another B-movie.

But B-movie or no, one key improvement of the remake over the original is in its caliber of actors. No disrespect to Duane Jones and the rest of the original's ensemble of Pittsburgh locals but Savini assembled a choice cast for this film and much of what's memorable about NOTLD '90 is its performances. In particualr, leads Patricia Tallman and Tony Todd (as Barbara and Ben) are especially good, bringing real conviction to their roles. Ben's anguish ("Goddamn all of you!") and Barbara's growing resilience are both well-played and both actors have their share of indelible moments. Barbara's brief but poignant encounter with a zombie clutching a doll is one of the highlights of any of the Dead films and I love Todd's burst of mad laughter in the basement towards the end as he finally realizes how close to escape they all were earlier. It's a moment one can imagine as the irony-laced final panel of an E.C. Comics tale, complete with "Ha Ha Ha!" scrawled across the page in block letters.

Savini doesn't catch lightning in a bottle the way that Romero did but he turns in solid work (with some rumored uncredited assistance by Romero) and Romero himself clearly put as much thought into his script as he would've to any of his own Dead sequels. Whereas the original gained much of its energy through the palatable sense that it was written quickly, without being finessed, the remake is interesting in that we can see Romero having a chance to tell his story again from a more reflective place in his life and career. His script for the remake comes from the hand of a more seasoned writer and in turn is much less of a blunt instrument than the original was.

For example, it's a small detail but I like how Romero lays in the subtle suggestion that it's the sound of Ben and co. hammering boards to secure the house that draws many of the zombies towards the farmhouse in the first place. After all, this place is in the middle of nowhere - why would a horde of zombies come to it in such numbers? Had the survivors simply laid low, many of the zombies who come to attack them might have shuffled past the house with no thought to approach it, leaving an easily manageable number of zombies to contend with. But in doing what they feel is right, by taking 'heroic' measures, they only draw death closer to them. It's that kind of wry touch that Romero pulls off so well.

Early on in 1978's Dawn of the Dead, the film's fleeing protagonists fly their helicopter over an open field full of good ol' boys who we see treating the undead plague as an excuse to get drunk, party, and shoot zombies for sport. While this moment is played for derisive laughs in Dawn (with the country song 'Cause I'm A Man emphasizing Romero's send-up of redneck values), in NOTLD '90's effective coda, Romero and Savini now let us observe these same events through Barbara's eyes as tragedy ("We're them and they're us.").

With its slicker production values, NOTLD '90 lacked the immediacy of the Vietnam-era original but while this may not have been a movie of its time, I believe that time has been on its side. Of course, even close to twenty years later some fans continue to resent the idea of a Night of the Living Dead remake as a matter of principle. But for me, when comparing the two Nights, I can't always see things in black and white.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


I'll admit that I wasn't too motivated to check out Quarantine. It looked like such a dead-on recreation of its source material - the acclaimed Spanish shocker [REC] (2007) - that I wondered whether I really needed to bother. I wasn't looking to avoid it out of any film geek elitism, though - I would have been just as reluctant to watch the exhausting original a second time (even for a chance to see it on the big screen). It's just not a movie I felt the need to see twice.

But I did think [REC] was an ideal candidate for a US remake and that a nearly shot-for-shot approach was definitely the way to go. It may make Quarantine redundant for those who have seen the original but that's not who this is aimed at. Even though it's true that audiences should be able to suck it up and read subtitles, that's just not the world (or specifically, the country) that we live in. You can call people unwilling to read subtitles idiots if you like and you can call studio heads assholes for not forcing more Americans to be exposed to foreign fare but I just can't find it in my heart to berate people for looking to enjoy a movie about a rabies outbreak without the distraction of subtitles. To me it's nothing to get on a high horse about.

So while I wasn't against Quarantine, I was still reluctant to see it. But there's so little out there horror-wise this October and with the running time on Quarantine being an attractively slim 89 minutes, I gave it a shot. And I'm glad to say that - even with being familiar with where the story was going - Quarantine really worked for me. Brothers John and Drew Dowdle (the duo responsible for the much-talked about but still unreleased Poughkeepsie Tapes) recreated the intensity of [REC] with much more fidelity than I would've thought possible. Maybe I'm just a sucker for the same scares I already saw but I flinched my way through the greater share of Quarantine.

I don't remember enough exact details about [REC] to say whether some of the issues I had with Quarantine were directly inherited from the original or if they're the doing of the Dowdle's but there were moments in Quarantine that only served to remind viewers that - Shaky-cam realism notwithstanding - this is all Just A Movie. Like when characters turn on a TV for all of five seconds but get the exact information on the local news that they need to hear (whereas in real-life, you'd find yourself watching an interminably long commercial break), or when a character will turn rabid at just the most dramatically opportune time, or that there's one character in this besieged building who conveniently has the medical experience to explain that we're dealing with a form of rabies - that kind of stuff. As I said, I don't remember whether these were all elements in [REC] as well but regardless, they don't affect Quarantine's bottom line. And that bottom line being that Quarantine is one scary movie.

As the character who's on screen in almost every single frame of Quarantine, Jennifer Carpenter does an outstanding job as news reporter Angela Vidal. This is the kind of performance that - if it wasn't in a genre film - would get all kinds of acclaim. Carpenter holds our attention throughout and manages to be likable even when there's ample opportunity for the audience to sour on her character. After all, we have to go along with Angela's insistence that her cameraman keep rolling at all times, we have to not see her as a whiner - even when circumstances demand that she break down, and we have to believe that she isn't making the situation worse by chasing a story. But Carpenter's performance is able to pull all that off - her character responds to her dilemma as well as anyone reasonably could. Others may disagree but there's a segment of movie-goers out there who hate any character who isn't the strong silent type. They can't conceive that they themselves would ever be over their head in any given situation and can't tolerate the idea - even in a work of fiction - that a character worth caring about wouldn't know exactly how to solve any crisis. In their minds, there's no such thing as the no-win scenario - only people too stupid to save themselves. And similarly, if there isn't a satisfying outcome to a film clearly it's because the writers were too lazy to do their job.

So on that count, some people will reject this movie. But I'm glad that the nihilism of [REC] wasn't buffered for US audiences. I'm also glad that we were spared a subplot where a miracle antidote to the virus is somewhere, just waiting to be found. Quarantine won't be for everyone but it's the best hybrid to date of the guerrilla tactics of Cannibal Holocaust and Blair Witch and the gloss of mainstream US horror.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Norman, Is That You?

I don't remember my reaction to this spot but I imagine that at the time this commercial originally ran (somewhere in the late '80s, early '90s) I would've considered it heresy to use the iconography of Psycho to hawk Bud Lite. At the very least I would've rolled my eyes at the crass abuse of a classic film in the name of commerce. But I was, of course, younger then and much more prone to taking things seriously.

Now to watch this makes me nostalgic for a time when an ad spoofing Psycho was guaranteed instant recognition - from baby boomers who were traumatized by the original and from their kids who saw the Psycho saga continue in the '80s with Psycho II (1983) and III (1986). Norman Bates was widely recognized as the godfather of Jason, Michael Myers, and Freddy so even though he was old, he was cool - the single vintage horror character at the time who wasn't simply another generation's idea of what was scary. Psycho was a film that parents who didn't understand the new wave of graphic FX could hold up as an example of how it was possible to scare people without gore (even though people conveniently forgot the virulent reaction that Psycho's violence received) but thanks to the sequels, the series was in step with the '80s (I can attest that my ninth grade classmates unanimously felt Psycho II was a huge improvement over the original!).

It's been a long twenty-two years now since Psycho III debuted in theaters (the exact amount of time between the original and Norman's return in Psycho II - as that sequel's tagline noted "It's 22 years later, and Norman Bates is finally coming home"), eighteen years since Anthony Perkins' final appearance as Norman in the made-for-cable prequel Psycho IV: The Beginning, sixteen years since Perkins passed away, and ten years since Gus Van Sant tore the stuffing out of mother in his Psycho remake. Today the world is more psycho than ever (Perkins' widow and the mother of his two children, perished in one of the ill-fated flights on September 11th) but it's not a Psycho world any more.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Why Isn't This Coming Out For Halloween?

Man, I really wish I didn't have to wait until January to see writer/director David Goyer's possession tale The Unborn. This is a PG-13 movie but judging by the above trailer, it looks like it's got the right stuff. And by the 'right stuff', I mean an old man in a hospital johnny doing an Exorcist-style crab walk. You can have Quarantine, Saw V, and Molly Hartley - take 'em all. None of them says 'Halloween' to me like Gary Oldman screaming at a dog sporting a creepy mask.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead

John Dahl's 2001 original Joy Ride was a modest hit that fared well across the board with audiences, critics, and genre fans. So how does the DTV sequel (rolling into stores today) measure up? My full review is up over at Shock Till You Drop but the short version is that it's pretty lousy. That's probably not breaking news to anyone but I have to say, watching this movie made me wonder why so many horror filmmakers in recent years believe that making characters who come across as intensely unlikeable is a productive strategy.

It used to be that you could count on most protagonists in horror films to be appealing - even those side characters who you knew wouldn't make it to the end. It just seemed to be the way to go - if a filmmaker wanted their audience to fear for their characters they should be sure to make them relatable and sympathetic. Even when the occasional jerk was included, they were never that abrasive.

But there's a character in Joy Ride 2 that's a belligerent ass well past the point where most human beings would've started to show a different side to themselves. If a filmmaker wants to introduce a character by having them come off as arrogant or sarcastic only to reveal those qualities as being a front, that's fine - but don't wait until the 11th hour to turn that card over. By then, your audience will have long stopped caring.

Maybe these types of characters are just a sign of our culture. Selfish, attention-seeking behavior is popular today in a way it wasn't years before (after all, you don't see many reality shows about considerate, well-adjusted people) so maybe that's why we see it appearing more in films. But to me, it's nothing but detrimental to making scary movies. When I watch a horror movie, I want to feel worried that its characters won't find a way to survive - not be angry if they do.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Ray Bradbury Theater: "The Town Where No One Got Off"

One of my favorite episodes of the slight but entertaining '80s anthology program The Ray Bradbury Theater was titled "The Town Where No One Got Off" (based on a short story that first appeared in Ellery Queen Magazine in October 1958). Originally aired in 1986, "The Town Where No One Got Off" told the tale of Cogswell, a dream-filled, would-be writer (Jeff Goldblum) traveling alone by train who rises to the challenge of a cynical fellow passenger (Cec Linder) by deciding to forgo his plans and depart the train at a random small town.

Having argued with this passenger that the simple life offered by these anonymous small towns is preferable to the high-stress environment of the big cities, Cogswell sets out to explore an unknown town just for the sake of discovery. In typical small town fashion, though, Cogswell's presence is received by a lot of suspicious glares. But as he walks through the town, being rejected at every turn whenever he tries to make contact with these 'friendly' small town folk, Cogswell becomes aware that someone is following him. An old man (Ed McNamara) who had been seated at the station platform when Cogswell exited the train has been trailing him on his journey through the town ever since.

When Cogswell eventually stops to confront him, the old man says that he's been waiting his whole life for Cogswell to arrive - or for someone like him. As they continue to walk, eventually ending up in a deserted old barn, the old man reveals to Cogswell that he's been waiting years for a complete stranger to set foot in town - someone with no reason to have gotten off there. He's been waiting for such a person because he intends to commit murder, to unleash his life's frustrations on a victim who he would never be suspected of killing.

The old man's hand is in his pocket at this point, assumedly holding a knife. Cogswell then quickly moves his hand into his own pocket and declares that his plan was to come to a town where no one knew him and take the life of a complete stranger. The old man and Cosgwell are left in a stalemate and the final scene sees Cogswell boarding the train to leave town with the old man returning to his post on a bench at the station - waiting for another unknown stretch of time for the next opportunity to act on his desire.

Despite the potentially dark subject, this is not a grim tale. We know that Cogswell isn't a killer and we also know that the old man isn't much of a threat. He may well harbor murder in his heart but his ability to put that into action is easily thwarted. When we see him last on the station platform, it's not entirely clear whether his encounter with Cogswell may have dealt a lasting blow to his murderous dreams. Perhaps now he'll just be an old man watching the trains pass by, wishing he had taken a life when he had the chance.

"The Town Where No One Got Off" isn't an outstanding example of TV terror but it does bring together several of my favorite things - trains, sinister small towns, Jeff Goldblum, and the fall (much of the episode is taken up by dialogue-free shots of Goldblum walking alone through this town at the peak of the fall season, accompanied only by a unmistakably '80s synth score). I also like how the story doesn't come down to a physical struggle at the end. Cogswell doesn't have to wrestle the old man for a knife, he doesn't have to kill the old man in self defense, and he doesn't even make the move to report this man to the police. He just gets back on the train, leaving this man who he knows is a potential killer free to resume his search for a victim.

Perhaps his brusque treatment by the townsfolk leaves Cosgwell unmotivated to alert them to the monster in their midst. Or maybe as a writer, he knows that you can't persecute someone for their thoughts - twenty years spent thinking about murdering a stranger hasn't made this old man an actual killer. Either way, as the train carries Cogswell out of town, it's not the breathless escape of someone fleeing for their life. Instead, it's the departure of a curious soul who has been given an insight into a stranger's darkest fantasies and refused to judge them. Because no matter where you live, that would be rude.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

October Is Barlow Country

Tobe Hooper's adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot originally aired in late November of '79 but for me, as soon as October arrives and the leaves start to crunch beneath my feet, I feel the itch to revisit this favorite. It isn't as easy as it used to be for me to clear the time to watch this in one sitting but I feel like it wouldn't be fall if I didn't. There might be a lot of mundane soap opera elements to be found in this mini-series but even if there had just been five minutes of Barlow in the entire four hours that Hooper took to tell this tale, it still would've been a high-ranking horror classic for me.

As anyone who's read the novel knows, in describing Barlow in the book, King never wrote anything along the lines of "looking at this dude made people want to eat their own faces off in fear". But to his credit, Hooper had other ideas. While there's an obvious debt to Max Schreck's appearance in Nosferatu, Nosferatu always struck me as a sad, frail figure. He may have been an immortal vampire but he seemed like someone you could goof on to their face and get away with it - if you were the type of person who would do that sort of thing, that is.

That's not the case with our friend Barlow, however. Studies prove it's hard to goof on someone after you've swallowed your own tongue.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


To celebrate the first day of October (woo hoo!) - and the hundredth post here at Dinner with Max Jenke - here's a seasonally appropriate teaser trailer for you.

Enjoy it - and remember...there's just 30 more days till Halloween!