Saturday, October 31, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: The Shining (1980)

The common wisdom says that when marketing a horror movie, you've got to hard sell the film's exploitation elements - the monsters, the violence, the terror. In step with that, horror movie trailers have typically gone for lurid, attention-grabbing come-ons ("To Avoid Fainting, Keep Repeating: 'It's Only A Movie, Only A Movie, Only A Movie...'") and challenges to the audience (how many horror trailers have dared viewers to test their bravery or issued 'warnings' about a film's content?). Director/producer William Castle (The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler) built an entire career out of turning his movies into the equivalent of carnival attractions and a campaign like the one that's recently made Paranormal Activity into a box office sensation shows that the game plan for marketing horror movies hasn't moved too far from Castle's shadow.

But the original teaser for Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's novel The Shining took a daringly different approach. It abandons all conventional logic in that it's comprised of a single, unedited shot in which the camera never moves and there's no dialogue - not even voice-over narration. It has none of the things that horror trailers have always relied on to make an impression (not even darkness) and yet it's chilling in a way that few entire films are.

While today The Shining is such a part of the cultural lexicon that everyone is familiar with the image of the elevator doors cracking open to release a tidal wave of blood, in 1980 it was a startling sight. To this day, it remains the most unique horror trailer ever.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

I know The Exorcist (1973) was a tough act to follow, but few filmmakers have torched expectations like the makers of the ludicrous, self-serious Exorcist II: The Heretic did. Maybe it's best to blame the debacle of Exorcist II on the excesses of the '70s. Director John Boorman and his co-writer Rospo Pallenberg (credited as 'creative associate,' Boorman brought Pallenberg on after original Exorcist II screenwriter William Goodhart refused to make the changes to the script that Boorman wanted) must've been high on something more than just their own egos if they thought their film was going to satisfy audiences. If nothing else, only in the '70s would a production of such importance to a studio balloon into a film so strange, inept and willfully difficult without someone writing the checks getting wise to the fact that they were funding a disaster.

But at least Exorcist II is terrible in an ambitious way. It's a mess but it's the kind of mess that would never be made today and that's both good and bad. On the one hand, it's a dick move to fuck with the audience by giving them a self-indulgent head-trip (and a bad self-indulgent head-trip at that) when they're paying good money to see a scary movie. On the other hand, if you're going to fail, fail big, and that's something that's rarely allowed to happen in these safe times.

Every time I watch the trailer for Exorcist II: The Heretic, I become convinced that there must be an amazing movie in there someplace (how can it not be a party with all those swarming locusts?). I haven't watched it in years but I'm thinking that maybe I ought to make the time. This trailer's got a great beat, and you can dance to it.

Almost as great as the trailer is Exorcist II's teaser. Love the use of still photographs here:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

Some trailers are seen and soon forgotten but the trailer for 1990's Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is forever. The troubled production, which was eviscerated by the MPAA before it reached US theaters, did nothing to kick start the Texas Chainsaw franchise but yet its ingenious trailer, riffing on the legend of the Lady in the Lake and Excalibur, remains a thing of true coolness.

That New Line went the extra mile to have this trailer shot when it would've been much easier to go with clips from the film is curious - especially when its reference was likely lost on much of Leatherface's audience. Marketing Rule #365: If you want to sell a slasher movie, don't spoof Arthurian lore. Still, while it didn't help Leatherface make bank, this spot remains one of the most creative horror trailers ever.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: Magic (1978)

I would think that after someone made the first ventriloquist doll, put it on their knee, and began to make it 'talk,' that whoever was witnessing this sick spectacle play out would've immediately and forcefully said "knock it off!" I mean, honestly - how psychologically damaged and starved for entertainment did people used to be that ventriloquism ever seemed like a good idea? From top to bottom, it's truly unhealthy. But had good sense prevailed and all public displays of ventriloquism had been outlawed, we never would've had the 1978 thriller Magic to enjoy.

More correctly, I should say that we would've never had the trailer for Magic to enjoy because while the movie - starring Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist suffering from multiple personality disorder - is deadly dull, the 30 second trailer for Magic is the stuff of Gen-X legend. I've read that this spot aired only once on television before being pulled due to parent complaints that it gave their kids nightmares but if that's the case then I must've been real lucky to be in front of the TV when it made its one and only appearance.

If someone watching it for the first time now finds it hard to imagine how it would traumatize even a young kid, I think what really scared kids my age about it was the way it totally ambushed them. There's no prelude to what you're seeing, no build-up to the scary stuff. It just jumps right into Fats the Dummy talking in a big close-up, right at the viewer, and I'm sure that whatever commercial or program had been airing before this came on was something completely innocuous. This spot blindsided kids and at just 30 seconds, it was over before they even had a chance to really register what was going on. Years later, when I finally saw Magic, I couldn't believe how dreary and unexciting it was. But the original trailer still casts a shivery spell.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

This is the film that asked the $40 million dollar question: "what's up with Dracula's hair?" As the biggest horror 'event' since Stanley Kubrick took on The Shining, the fact that Francis Ford Coppola's opulent retelling of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel turned out to be a whole lot of nothing does nothing to diminish my fond memories of anticipating its release. Posters bearing the single word "Beware," scrawled in blood, began showing up in theater lobbies months in advance and the teasers and trailers looked incredible. Even if Bram Stoker's Dracula doesn't quite come together as a powerful film (although its devoted fanbase would argue that it does), it's still a triumph of style, thanks to the use of turn of the century-style, in-camera effects and the iconoclastic costume designs of Eiko Ishioka.

And here's the original teaser, pulled from theaters after complaints about its blood imagery:

Monday, October 26, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: When A Stranger Calls (1979)

There's only about fifteen good, scary minutes in When A Stranger Calls - its urban legend-inspired opening with babysitter Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) terrorized by an unknown caller (Tony Beckley) - but it's enough to make it a legendary fright film. Writer/director Fred Walton originally made When A Stranger Calls as a short film ("The Sitter") and in the wake of the success of Halloween (1978), decided to expand it into a feature. The opening of When A Stranger Calls is reportedly a shot-for-shot remake of that short but the obvious challenge of where to take the story from there plagues the rest of the film.

Given that, it's fitting that the trailer for When A Stranger Calls ignores the rest of the movie and advertizes the opening alone. There's not a moment of the rest of the movie shown in the trailer and what's even funnier is that the trailer gives away every shock and surprise of the opening - we even see Kane opening the door to reveal Charles Durning! You'd think that'd have been a big issue at the time but no one seemed to mind. I know that as a kid, the trailer for When A Stranger Calls was perfect because there was no way I was going to get to see the movie anyhow so seeing a trailer that gave away all its best moments suited me fine.

The downside to that is that the trailer also completely traumatized me. I was a latch-key kid at the time and for weeks, whenever the phone rang after school I had one eye on the stairs to our second floor - just in case a shadow would appear on the wall and I'd hear foots on the steps. Looking back, I have to say I'm not even sure if we actually had a second line in the house at the time - and if that's the case, then this trailer had me not only jumping at shadows but had me imagining someone calling me on an imaginary phone. That's what I call getting me good. Well played, When A Stranger Calls, well played.

And here's a teaser for the UK release of the film that proves - years before Paranormal Activity - that you can never go wrong showing an audience losing their shit at a movie.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: The Manitou (1978)

There's a lot of incredible movie trailers out there - trailers that are shocking, or mysterious, or hilarious. But only one is for 1978's The Manitou (directed by William Girdler) and respect must be paid. Telling the uncanny tale of an Indian shaman being reborn through a tumor in the back of a woman's neck, The Manitou's trailer whistles up a mean tune of pure bat shit.

Besides the sight of a entranced old lady floating down a hallway, besides the spectacle of random laser beam fire, besides Tony Curtis' spontaneous yelling, and besides the confoundingly cosmic final image, what I love most about this trailer is how the title keeps dramatically appearing. That's something that used to be commonly seen in trailers but it just gradually went out of fashion. It's really awesome here, though, as 'The Manitou' flies out of a woman's screaming mouth, is zapped by lightening, and finally emerges from an explosion. You just can't forget a movie title when you see it like that - not even if you try.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: Motel Hell (1980)

Before the horror boom of the late '70s and early '80s, a movie about motel owners who kill their guests and use the bodies as the 'secret ingredient' in their popular brand of smoked meat would have been the bottom of a drive-in double bill instead of a major studio release. But in 1980, MGM backed Motel Hell and gave it a big push, hoping for a horror hit (it didn't happen and the film had to settle for finding a cult following on cable and home video). While in later years I came to know that Motel Hell was a horror-comedy, when I first encountered the trailers and TV ads for it as a kid, I sure wasn't laughing.

Maybe it's that the voiceover talents in early '80s horror trailers always made everything sound so pants-shittingly scary. Or maybe there's just so much weirdness going on in this trailer that the idea that it was supposed to be funny never crossed my mind. After all, you've got the pair of creepy hick-types (Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons), you've got someone in a blood-smeared pig mask wielding a chainsaw, and there's thrashing, hooded heads poking out of the ground in a garden. Oh, and there's also a slow-motion scream at the end - and for some reason that kind of thing just unnerved me as a kid. Eventually I had a good laugh with Motel Hell but when I watch this trailer, I still think of pure terror.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: Dawn of the Dead (2004)

When director Zack Synder's reimagining of George Romero's watershed zombie epic Dawn of the Dead (1978) was announced, no amount of outrage in the horror community was spared. How could Romero's independent, unrated splatter classic (this was the very film, in fact, that Romero coined the term 'splatter movie' for) possibly be translated into an R-rated studio film? Even worse, this atrocity was going to be helmed by a music video director who had never directed a feature film - and it was scripted by James Gunn, who at the time was known mostly as the writer from the godawful live-action Scooby-Doo. If there was ever a film that had fandom united in anticipation of impending suckitude, the Dawn of the Dead remake was it. To call it a hard sell to the horror crowd doesn't even cover the amount of animosity that Dawn of the Dead '04 had to overcome.

And that's why this trailer is one of the all-time greats - because it immediately turned the tide of opinion on this movie. What had been the target of nothing but 'fuck this movie' diatribes suddenly was looking pretty sweet. Whether Dawn of the Dead '04 is the greatest zombie movie ever is debatable (it's not, but feel free to debate it) but no zombie movie has ever had a more bad-ass trailer.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

When fans look back on the '70s, even for those who didn't live through that decade, to think of what legacy the '70s left the genre is to celebrate the gritty, grindhouse style classics like Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). But that wasn't the '70s that I knew. As a kid I had no awareness of that side of the horror genre. It wasn't just that I didn't see those movies, I didn't even know they existed. Later in the decade, I knew about the likes of Halloween and Dawn of the Dead (both 1978) but for most of the '70s, modern horror to me was about eco-horror films like Frogs (1972), the '50s-throwbacks from Bert I. Gordon like Foods of the Gods (1976) and Empire of the Ants (1977), and Godzilla movies. In other words, I hardly had my finger on the pulse of the decade.

Thanks to TV, however, I was well versed in classic horror and genre stalwarts like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Cushing were heroes to me as much as they had been to fans of previous generations. But among the classic horror stars, Vincent Price was always my favorite - maybe because he was still such an active presence on TV while I was growing up. I saw him everywhere - as Eggman on Batman reruns, as a guest host on The Muppet Show, on Hollywood Squares, and he even showed up in commercials for the game Hangman ("Wrong window!").

But the definitive Price movie for me was 1971's The Abominable Dr. Phibes. When I first saw it on Channel 30's The 4 o'Clock Movie, I was transfixed by its vivid colors, its art deco set design, its lurid violence (the death by locusts was the grisliest thing I had seen up to that point), and by Price himself in the role of vengeance-seeking organist, Anton Phibes. Thanks to the imagination of director Robert Fuest, there was a strange, ornate quality to the movie (with details like Phibes' clockwork band of mannequins) that I hadn't encountered before. I had never seen a movie as elaborately art-directed and stylized as Phibes.

The ghost of Phibes still haunts modern horror in the form of the elaborate murder schemes of Se7en (1995), the Saw films, and in the currently playing action/splatter hybrid Law Abiding Citizen. But there's nothing quite like the distinctive handiwork of the original mad planner. Even if it isn't "probably the most terrifying motion picture you'll ever see," as its trailer promised, The Abominable Dr. Phibes does curse most other films to be disappointments.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: Alien (1979)

I may be forcing Trick Or Trailers to peak early, but I can't hold off on spotlighting Ridley Scott's Alien. Even though it borrowed liberally from the likes of It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and Planet of the Vampires (1965), Scott's film blew past its sci-fi predecessors to establish the benchmark for space-set horror.

It's common now to see studios spending big money on genre pictures and as a rule, horror and science fiction films don't look like ratty B-movies anymore (if a genre film is made on the cheap, like Paranormal Activity, it's the stuff that headlines are made out of). But in 1979, it was still relatively rare to see a science fiction or horror film treated like an A-movie. One of the criticisms leveled at Alien, in fact, was that some found it obscene that so much money had been lavished on such a flimsy story (if these people only knew what the future held for cinema!). But Scott was a stylist who initially honed his craft in commercial work (the kind of professional background that came to be common among directors) and the look that he gave Alien was indispensable to the film's success.

The trailers for Alien were every bit as strikingly designed as the film itself and as opposed to the recent sci-fi/horror film Pandorum - which while being a more than decent movie, could not have had a murkier, more unappealing ad campaign - whoever was in charge of getting the word out on Alien back in the day hit a bullseye. With only giving the sparest idea of the story, and without including any lines of dialogue (or a good glimpse of the alien itself), the teasers and trailers for Alien conveyed the most important fact about the movie - that it was going to terrify you. "In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream" still holds the title as Best Tagline Ever, topping even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's infamous "Who Will Survive And What Will Be Left Of Them?"

Watching these trailers again, it makes me wish that someone today would be able to take the kind of resources that Scott had to work with and apply them towards making a movie that wants nothing more than to be mercilessly frightening. Nowadays when a horror film has a big budget, it usually has to be a PG-13 hybrid of action and horror but Alien remains the rare instance where a big budget film put everything it had towards scaring an audience senseless.

For a better quality version of the above trailer, click here. And here's a TV spot that carried over the memorable 'egg' imagery from the trailers.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: The Ghost And Mr. Chicken (1966)

Most fans rate the venerable monster mash Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) as the greatest horror-comedy of all time and while that is certainly an ace choice, my pick for that honor is the 1966 Don Knotts classic The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Younger audiences know Knotts mostly from his role of Mr. Furely on Three's Company (and an even younger generation of viewers know him from 1998's Pleasantville, if they know him at all) but for me Don Knotts was a highlight of my afterschool hours thanks to Channel 30's The 4 o'Clock Movie, which aired out of Hartford, Connecticut.

Each week, Monday through Friday, The 4 o'Clock Movie was programmed according to a theme, and each theme would repeat several times during the year - which was great if it was five days of Godzilla again but not so terrific if it was, say, another week's worth of Doris Day films. One theme that I was glad to see come around as often as possible was 'Don Knotts Week' when The 4 o'Clock Movie showed the movies Knotts made for Universal Studios after his departure from The Andy Griffith Show (a show that was in constant syndication when I was a kid but which I never watched) - including The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968) and The Love God (1969).

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken was the natural highlight of that week for me, an seemingly effortless mix of humor and light-hearted fright (although the sight of the shears jammed into the portrait of Mrs. Simmons, with blood dripping from it was legitimately freaky to me), buoyed by the spooky/jazzy score of Vic Mizzy (who also composed the theme to TV's The Addams Family and who passed away earlier this week at age 93). The trailer for The Ghost and Mr. Chicken perfectly embodies the fun of the movie, making great use of Mizzy's music and with Don Knotts providing some in-character narration. From the first sight of the cobwebbed-covered organ coming to life, this trailer takes me back to a place of undiminished joy.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: Suspiria (1977)

With just thirteen days till Halloween, I thought some kind of series to count down to the big day would be fun - and what's more fun for horror fans than watching trailers? Before we're old enough to be allowed to watch the movies for ourselves, trailers and TV ads are responsible for creating an image in our minds of what a horror film is. Given the impact they can have, the trailers for horror films are often just as fondly remembered as the films they advertised - sometimes even more so. Which is appropriate as no matter how dismal a movie might be, chances are a great trailer convinced you to see it. So starting today, I'll be running a feature by the hokey, but hopefully catchy, title of Trick Or Trailers where I'll be posting my favorite horror movie trailers every day up through the 31st.

To kick things off, here's the unforgettable trailer for the US release of Dario Argento's alchemical masterpiece, Suspiria (1977). As far as Argento goes, I've always been more of a Deep Red kind of guy but this trailer for Suspiria is enough to give me second thoughts on that. I love the pulsating, veined claymation letters created here. Like the meticulous look of the film itself, this trailer really goes the extra mile!

...And free of charge, here's a trailer for a promising upcoming release of Suspiria on the Nouveaux Pictures/Cine-Excess DVD label.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Undercover Of The Night

Earlier today I finally caught up with this year's horror phenomenon - the shot on $11,000 spook-tacular, Paranormal Activity. Did I think it lived up to its reputation? For the most part, yes. I will say I found it to be more satisfyingly creepy than outright terrifying but I think it's difficult at this stage for it to impact viewers the same way it did unsuspecting film festival attendees. I also have to say that on this first viewing, I couldn't help but have part of my attention focused on admiring the resourcefulness of writer/director Oren Peli.

Unlike its faux-doc brethren, The Blair Witch Project, which was completely free of any effects work, Paranormal Activity does show some physical manifestations of its haunting. And while these moments are all convincingly accomplished (save for one brief, late-addition instance of CGI - which doesn't seriously harm the movie but yet is the phoniest-looking shot in the film), it was hard for me to not be speculating (with admiration) on how Peli pulled off some of his low tech tricks (was that done with wires? was there a magnet under the table?) rather than just being wrapped up in the story.

While critics of Blair Witch often complained that "nothing happened" in that film, I think the fact that we never saw the slightest sign of any movie-style trickery (no glowing eyes in the woods, no levitating bodies, no ghostly apparitions, etc.) is what helped it maintain such a perfect illusion. Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, risks breaking the spell of reality to deliver the kind of goods most audiences want out of a spook show and I expect most will appreciate its concession to showmanship. In endeavoring to please the audience, there's nothing esoteric about Paranormal Activity. Just as the film's 'Demand It' marketing campaign recalled the kind of bluster and ballyhoo of William Castle, so to does the movie's thrills show an ingratiating desire on the part of Peli to really work a crowd.

Given the film's limited (by Hollywood standards, at least - I wish I had $11,000 to throw around) means, this will inevitably not be an eventful enough paranormal happening for all audiences. And the avalanche of hype it's arriving in theaters on, while doing it a lot of good commercially, is surely creating the kind of outsized expectations that any film would be hard pressed to meet. But Peli doles out his story's supernatural incidents in steady increments, leading to some nice payoffs. Sam Raimi's recent return to horror, Drag Me To Hell, was referred to by Raimi as a 'spook-a-blast' and that's an apt description of Paranormal Activity as well. It's nothing that's going to seriously traumatize an audience, just keep them jumping and shrieking.

While a 'found footage' film like this is supposed to appear relatively artless and off-the-cuff, Peli does a couple of things in regards to storytelling that I thought were smart. One, he answers the 'why don't they just leave' question right out of the gate by establishing that this isn't about the house, it's about the girl, Katie, and how she's experienced similar haunting episodes throughout her life in every place she's ever lived. So until events escalate to a violent degree later on, the idea of leaving doesn't make much sense. And secondly, Peli makes the ongoing recording of events plausible by portraying Micah as an arrogant ass, whose machismo only acerbates the situation. While some will find Micah's behavior to be too much of a turn off, I enjoyed Micah Sloat's deliberately unsympathetic performance as a skeptic, control freak, and all-around ego tripper.

Whether or not Paranormal Activity scares everyone the same across the board (it won't, because nothing ever does), I love the fact that it's scared as many people as it has with such old-fashioned means. This is a movie that rediscovers (as Blair Witch did) how cheap it is to frighten an audience. Slamming doors, lights that turn on and off by themselves, screams in the night - Peli is working from a familiar bag of tricks but it just shows how hard-wired the human brain is to react to these primitive, primal fears. This probably isn't the movie to make hardened horror fans curl up in a corner but it may brush some of the cynicism off their love of the genre.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

This Film Contains Elements Of Shock And Suspense

Above is the opening bumper for the TV premiere of Halloween. That 1981 broadcast was my first time seeing Halloween and watching this intro again for the first time since that night, I find myself reliving the tingle of excitement of knowing that I was finally - finally! - going to see this modern classic. Almost thirty years on, this bumper makes me think of how much has changed since then in regards to how we watch movies.

First of all, it's outrageous to imagine that once a film left theaters that not only would it take years to be able to watch it at home but the only way to see it would be edited for television, pan and scan, and with the usual shitload of commercials. Can you imagine a horror fan today too young to see an R-rated movie in the theaters having to wait until 2012 to see Paranormal Activity for the first time? And then to have to see it on NBC or whatever? They'd laugh in your face as they downloaded it from the internet.

Make no mistake, though - in '81 I didn't think seeing Halloween on TV was cause for any disappointment. I mean, how else was I going to see it? Sure, it was a compromised way to watch it but I didn't know anything about pan and scan vs. letterbox (I don't even know if those terms existed at the time) and enjoying horror classics with commercial interruptions wasn't a problem. Having seen very few horror films in the theaters at that point (and no R-rated ones), most of the horror movies I saw as a kid were on commercial TV and they scared me just fine.

We had no cable, no VCR - it was all broadcast TV so I had no other expectations about how I would eventually see Halloween because there were no other options. It was just a matter of being patient and waiting for it to make it's TV premiere. But man, what incredible patience we had to have back then! On the upside, all that waiting helped movies to build a real mystique. Over the course of the three years that I had to wait to see Halloween, I gathered all the info about it that I could from magazines, reviews, and older kids and adults who had seen it. By the time I saw Halloween, I already had the whole movie in my head.

Speaking of which, the other thing that kills me about this bumper is how in twenty-two seconds it gives away nearly every single big scare in the movie! Fans complain about modern trailers giving everything away but they've got nothing on this! And this ran right before the movie was about to air! As far as my enjoyment of Halloween goes, though, it must not have ruined anything for me because I know I proceeded to jump out of my seat for the whole movie.

The two hours that Halloween ran on NBC that night comprised one of the great horror movie experiences of my life. It's unreal now to remember how a network broadcast of a film once was considered to be a huge event. We're so spoiled today, I can't ever imagine going back to that time but it made watching movies something indelible to me, and something not to take for granted.

I've owned Halloween in many different home video formats and in many different editions since then but what I really would love is to own a copy of the film as it ran that night with every commercial in place. In the meantime, though, that bumper - more of that night's programming than I ever thought I'd see in its original form again - will have to do. Just seeing it again puts a big jack o' lantern grin on my face.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Right Snuff

To speak nostalgically of ‘movie magic’ usually conjures up thoughts of the wizardry associated with pioneering special effects geniuses like Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen. But during the slasher boom of 1978 to 1983, advances in practical make-up FX made it possible for artists to slice, dice, burn, bleed, puncture and purée the human form in the most convincing manner possible.

Make-up maestro Tom Savini was the undeniable superstar of the splatter era, becoming a household name among households with FANGORIA subscriptions, and although this tale of a killer stalking a graduation dance doesn't have the same iconic status as Dawn of the Dead (1978) or Friday the 13th (1980), with The Prowler (1981) Savini delivered arguably the most ghoulishly convincing FX of his career.

While Savini is revered among slasher buffs for depicting the slaughtering ways of Mrs. Voorhees and her mad mongoloid offspring Jason, The Prowler is where he really got brutal. First off, in The Prowler the killer uses a pitchfork - and nothing tells the audience that a slasher villain is serious about killing like giving them a pitchfork. When a killer uses a pitchfork, it’s understood that they’re hardcore. You don’t see it used a lot in The Prowler but when that pitchfork is put into play – as in the film’s centerpiece shower murder in which the Prowler attacks actress Lisa Dunsheath – it’s the stuff of slasher legend.

The prospect of pitchforking a nude woman might’ve made lesser men pause (or to work under pseudonyms) but director Joe Zito and Savini embrace the opportunity. No doubt there were easy techniques behind this effect (as there was with many of Savini's effects, which often took their cues from stage magic) but Savini and Zito do an expert job of selling the illusion (after Dunsheath is impaled, we hear the tips of the pitchfork scraping against the tile of the shower wall), making this an unforgettably ghastly scene. While not every slasher victim of the early ‘80s had the luxury of being able to simply gasp at the sight of their off-screen assailant (like Friday the 13th’s Laurie Bartram) before the filmmakers discreetly cut away to the next scene, this isn’t even as elegant as Robbi Morgan having her throat slashed or Jeannine Taylor receiving an axe to the head. No, even in a slasher film when a naked woman is impaled by a pitchfork and jacked up off her feet against a shower wall, an invisible line of etiquette has been breached.

Even more manners are decimated by the film’s second-most legendary effect, a climatic shotgun blast to the head. Savini was something of an expert head exploder in his FX heyday, first depicting a shotgun blast to the head in Dawn of the Dead (as a zealous S.W.A.T. member shoots a zombie point blank), then doing the same in 1980's Maniac (Savini blew his own head apart here, portraying a guy out for a night at the disco who runs afoul of a shotgun wielding Joe Spinell), and in The Prowler an instance of cranial carnage serves as the film’s final coup de grace. Some might cry that The Prowler’s exploding head is just a case of Savini repeating his past tricks but when something’s good, it’s good.

Savini’s work in The Prowler is so good, in fact, that he even makes the film’s two throat slashings memorable – no small feat given that by 1981, these were already the most commonplace of slasher movie kills. Seeing a character get their throat slashed in a slasher film was about as remarkable as seeing a character in an old-time Western get shot in the gut and keel over but Savini challenges discerning gorehounds to shop and compare, delivering premium throat-slashings with outrageous super soaker action.

Unfortunately, the pacing of The Prowler could’ve been improved, with too much time separating the already sparse number of kills (a half-hour between kills in a slasher movie is too long) and it was also a bad decision on the part of Zito and screenwriters Neal Barbera and Glenn Leopold to pair the film’s heroine, aspiring journalist Pam MacDonald (the fetching Vicky Dawson) with her deputy boyfriend (Christopher Goutman) for almost all of her scenes so there’s very little of her in solo jeopardy – with a scene of Pam hiding under a bed as the enraged killer trashes the room searching for her (almost identical to a scene from the same year's Friday the 13th Part 2, even down to the appearance of a rat scurrying next to the heroine’s face) being an effective exception. Also, while most slasher films with a whodunit angle at least tried to give the audience a range of plausible suspects who could be the killer, the identity of the Prowler is by far the most lamely transparent of all slasher movie mysteries.

Still, Savini is so 100% on his game here that those flaws ultimately don’t matter. Despite their reputations, very few old-school slasher films are especially graphic. The Prowler, however, is a grisly exception to that. Savini may be most celebrated for his contributions to the zombie classics Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead (1985) – films with FX far more elaborate than seen in Savini’s slasher films, which had to strive for a greater sense of plausibility (and usually strive for an R-rating as well) – but The Prowler features signature work from the Sultan of Splatter.

It's often been said by critics that if you’ve seen one slasher film, you’ve seen them all. But if there’s a mantra to the slasher genre, it’s that it’s not the weapon you use to kill a character (a shish—ka-bob, a hot poker, a pitchfork), it’s how you stick it in. And with its uncomfortably convincing realism, Savini’s work in The Prowler still has the right snuff.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Cloudy With A Chance of Meat Hooks

Soon movie screens won't be able to contain the fury of Leatherface. According to a story in Variety, the next installment of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series will not only be under the auspices of Twisted Pictures (rather than Platinum Dunes) but will also be in 3-D.

Some say that in the case of horror movies that 3-D detracts from suspense or whatever but while I understand that complaint I think it's all in how the story is told. There's only been two big 3-D horror movies so far since the recent 3-D revival - My Bloody Valentine 3-D and The Final Destination - so it's a little early to tell how horror and 3-D will continue to develop together.

There's obviously a lot of resistance to the format among some genre fans but frankly, I'm stoked to see zombies (Resident Evil: Afterlife), vampires and werewolves (Underworld 4), man-eating fish (Piranha 3-D), Jason (Friday the 13th Part 2), Michael Myers (Halloween 3-D), and even Jigsaw (Saw VII) all in 3-D. Maybe the format is still a novelty but color film and sound must've seemed like novelties at one point, too. Besides, in the case of Texas Chainsaw, I know that meat hooks and chainsaws are going to play great in 3-D. I'm just stating the facts here.

If I could offer one suggestion to Lionsgate, though, the poster for TCM 3-D has got to bear the tagline "You Haven't Seen A Massacre Until You've Seen A Massacre In 3-D!" Granted, as taglines go it's no "Who Will Survive And What Will Be Left Them" but I sure like the sound of it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Seeing Red

I'm not against the revisiting and retooling of the classic slasher franchises of the '70s and '80s. Even if these reboots have been only sporadically satisfying (and some would say that's an overly kind assessment), I just don't see the harm. Besides, it's not very realistic to expect that studios would leave modern icons like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees alone for long - so why get up in arms about it? As long as these properties are lucrative, they'll remain active. And yet, at the end of a decade that's seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Friday the 13th spearheading slasher cinema again, it's hard not to overstate how energizing The Hills Run Red feels amidst all the deja vu.

Directed by Dave Parker (who previously helmed The Dead Hate The Living) and scripted by David Schow (Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III), The Hills Run Red is arguably the only great American slasher film of the present decade. And I say "arguably" only because I'm not sure if American Psycho (2000) and Wrong Turn (2003) qualify as true slashers or whether they belong in other categories. Whatever the case, The Hills Run Red is a rowdy, but smart, call back to the early '80s style of slasher film - specifically the likes of The Burning (1981) and Madman (1982) which featured woods-dwelling maniacs who had taken on the legendary aura of campfire folklore. Here the maniac is 'Babyface,' the monstrous star slasher of a lost early '80s film titled - da-dum! - The Hills Run Red. Even if everything else had been mediocre in this movie, Babyface alone would've made Hills a notable addition to the slasher pantheon. However, there really is much more to appreciate here.

It's not a perfect film but Parker and Schow show just how far applying some intelligence and genre savvy to a slasher film will get you. I feel like I'm in danger of setting expectations too high for Hills and, I admit, my reaction may be more enthusiastic than the film really warrants but as a slasher fan I found it worth celebrating.

Writer/director Adam Green's Hatchet (2006), was trumpeted as being "old-school American horror," with its posters boasting that "it's not a remake, it's not a sequel, and it's not based on a Japanese one," but yet that film had so little going on besides its kill scenes (which admittedly did look great) that it ended up simply pointing out the limitations of the slasher genre rather than vaulting past them. If anything, Hatchet was a deliberate step backwards, making it appear that slasher movies no longer had anything to offer to fans except nostalgia. And if that's the case, if the only new ideas are going to be about creative kills, why not go ahead with remakes of known titles like My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th? But The Hills Have Red proves that even if your film is about the search for an '80s slasher movie, you don't have to make a film that's stuck in the '80s as well.

Read my full review at Shock Till You Drop.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Zombieland, Ho!

In case you haven't been keeping up on the avalanche of rave reviews it's been receiving, Zombieland is one terrific time at the movies. I honestly can't see many people being disappointed by this one - even the most constipated of horror fans ought to enjoy it. There's one particular moment, though, that I wanted to give a mention to - even though it really has nothing to do with much.

At one point in the movie, Wichita (Emma Stone) cites Anaconda (1997) as being her first R-rated horror movie. Now, maybe it's not a widely known fact but Anaconda is actually PG-13. That's an awfully lazy gaffe to make but yet I found it to be an endearing slip-up.

Movie making - in regards to genre films, at least - has become more and more the province of know-it-all film buffs, always prepared to flaunt the most arcane knowledge about the most obscure films. And yet, Zombieland flubs the rating of Anaconda. Which means that this went all the way to theaters with no one connected with making this movie at any point ever reading or hearing that line of dialogue and saying "You know what? That doesn't sound right." The thing is, I've gotten so used to hearing dialogue written by screenwriters who are out to prove how dense their knowledge of movies and pop culture is that to hear an out-and-out mistake was actually refreshing. And really, the whole movie struck me as a breath of fresh air - only most of what I loved about Zombieland was the deliberate result of great writing, directing, and acting.

Check out my full review of Zombieland at Shock Till You Drop.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I've Seen Fire And I've Seen Rain But I Always Thought I'd See The Boogens One More Time Again

There are few things more disheartening than rewatching a movie that you loved as kid only to find out that it just isn't any good. Case in point: 1981's fondly recalled creature feature The Boogens. I've had the tape that was released in 1997 from Republic Pictures lying around for ages - and pre-dating that, a bootleg copy bought at a Fangoria Weekend of Horrors way back when - but I never really got around to sitting down for a proper reunion with The Boogens.

I kept buying it, of course, because it was a movie I had really adored as a kid - for a few months in '81 or '82 it always seemed to be on HBO - so adding it to my collection was a no-brainer. But actually watching it again - well, it never seemed like the right time. Or I would put it on but end up getting busy with something else while it played in the background (comic book collections don't organize themselves, you know). But last night I finally made a commitment to watch The Boogens.

See, for a few frightening moments yesterday I thought I had lost my copy. Out of the blue I had been thinking about The Boogens but when I went looking for it where I had last remembered it being, it wasn't there. That then sent me on a wild Boogen hunt through various rooms and boxes and in the span of those desperate moments, I started to beat myself up over having owned this movie forever and a day without watching it so when I finally did come across it in the back of a closet I swore I wasn't going to put off The Boogens one more day.

But damn it, I should've known better. I mean, seriously - I never could remember anything cool actually happening in The Boogens. I knew that the monsters had looked lousy - even by the standards of low budget filmmaking. And I couldn't remember any great splatter FX moments or even ever being especially scared for that matter - and back when I first saw The Boogens, I was an easy mark for scaring! Well, I'm all grown up now - kind of on the old side, in fact, and having rewatched The Boogens I'm trying hard to figure out what could've originally appealed to me about this movie.

If only I had kept a diary, it would make things so much easier.

To be fair to myself, it's not as though it was just young dumb-asses like me that thought The Boogens was worth throwing a party for. At the time, in Twilight Zone Magazine, Stephen King heralded The Boogens as being a "wildly energetic monster movie." Maybe our perceptions of 'energetic' have been permanently warped since epilepsy-inducing editing styles have become the norm in the last twenty years or so but I don't know. After all, some really exciting movies did come out in '81 - like Clash of the Titans, An American Werewolf in London, Escape from New York, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yeah, some of those might seem leisurely paced by today's standards but compared to the crushing tedium of The Boogens, even On Golden Pond looks like Crank 2.

For those unfamiliar with The Boogens, it chronicles the deadly consequences that occur when a long-shuttered Colorado silver mine is reopened. Back in 1912 the mine was closed thanks to reports by the miners at the time of mysterious attacks on them. Turns out that it was damn Boogens causing that trouble. What a boogen really is, or where they came from, the movie never tosses out any clues (it never even refers to them in the film by any name - 'boogen' or otherwise). That's ok - monsters don't need explanations to be enjoyed (although I think it's odd that The Boogens didn't include a representative of that old B-movie standby, the Concerned Scientist).

But while a monster's origins aren't so important, performance must be judged and on that count, the Boogens get low marks. When you're making a monster movie, no matter what you've got to find a way to make your monster work or you're sunk. Unfortunately, the tentacled Boogens are kind of non-descript critters. Despite the damage they inflict, they never appear to be much of a threat. Their movements never seem like anything more than the awkward movements of puppets and fangs alone don't make for a ferocious face.

Where the designers of the Boogens made their real misstep, I believe, is in giving them completely pupil-less black eyes. My gut tells me that the Boogens would've been immeasurably improved as monsters if some scary, jaundiced yellow eyes were staring out of those faces. Call me a cheap sucker for yellow eyes if you want but in this case I think they would've worked like fins on a fish. And along with the yellow eyes, I think it would've also been smart to indulge in some Boogen-Vision shots - kind of like the shots from the Wolfen's POV in Wolfen (1981). Subjective camera angles are one thing but if The Boogens can't have shots in official Boogen-Vision, then who can? I mean, talk about leaving an opportunity lying on the table.

The one endearing aspect I did find in The Boogens was the presence of actress Rebecca Balding, who - along with Friday the 13th Part II's Amy Steel - was the best should've-been scream queen of the early '80s. Balding also starred in the lost 1980 slasher film Silent Scream (due to be released on DVD for the first time soon) but inexplicably, that and Boogens marked her only horror roles (although she eventually went on to a recurring role in the supernatural series Charmed - a show on which Boogens director James L. Conway served as a co-executive producer).

Seeing how casting a truly likable heroine in horror films has become something of a lost art, it's great to see how Balding's charm effortlessly comes across here. I don't know how to describe it but there used to be a sense of reality that came across from actors and actresses where the line between the actor and the character they were playing seemed imperceptible. Up through the early '80s, especially in genre films, it seemed like performers had a natural ability to 'be themselves' on camera - or at least to make it seem like they were bringing no special artifice to their work. And Balding's performance here is a perfect example of that. I have no idea what Balding is like in real life but I'd be very surprised if her personality was much different than that of the character of Trish that she played here. Sure she might not jump into bed with a guy she just met like Trish does (to be fair, we know this is a decent guy and really - what else are these two going to do in a nothing dump like Silver City?) but it's easy to believe from watching her in The Boogens that you were seeing the genuine article. Good luck getting that kind of vibe from anyone in a modern movie.

I wish The Boogens was as much fun as I'd remembered it being. All I can say is that I guess at the time, thanks to Balding and her cast mates (including the future Mrs. Michael Crichton, Anne-Marie Martin) that The Boogens had a charm that some of the slasher movies of the time didn't. This wasn't a bunch of obnoxious teens in peril - instead it was a more personable, adult foursome of friends (even if they were every bit as horny as teenagers). Plus, even if the Boogens themselves were piss-poor monsters, they weren't a guy in a ski mask with a knife and in 1981 that probably seemed worth applauding, too. But none of that matters now. What seemed like a cool little throwback to the monster movies of the '50s back then now plays like the broke-ass production that it was, filled with a lot of yawning dead air. I've always said I'd love it if someone came along to do a remake of The Boogens and now I really want to see that happen.

Boogens director Conway is still active and working in the genre - in fact, he helmed an episode of Supernatural (entitled Fallen Idols) due to air in a couple of weeks - so maybe it isn't out of the question that he could return to revamp The Boogens. Hell, if the producer of the original Children of the Corn could direct a remake of that film for the SyFy Channel, Conway should be able to get The Boogens back in business too. Maybe SyFy might even back a Boogens trilogy - which would be great, just as long as one of the titles is Boogens: Unleashed because, well, it ought to be. It's possible, and even probable, that Conway doesn't even care about revisiting The Boogens (it might also be impossible, given the rights issues that have plagued the movie over the years) but that'd be too bad - because if you had a chance to build a better Boogens, why wouldn't you?