Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Summer Shocks 1998: Blade

Man, 1998 is so long ago that I first saw the trailer for Blade on E! Television's Coming Attractions show. In an age where people can watch this shit on their phones now, it's nuts to remember a time when it was a useful function for E! to devote a half-hour of their programming to showing the latest movie trailers. I would get pissed if I forgot that show was on! Worse than missing it altogether was if I only caught the very last preview, saw the recap of what they played that week only to find out I missed, like, the Dark City trailer and then have to hope the same episode would be showing again soon.

Anyhow, when I saw the Blade trailer, I immediately had a good feeling about the movie. Sure, a good trailer can fool you but Blade just looked incredibly cool to me. It had the right vibe to it. When I saw Blade on its opening weekend, I was ecstatic over how good it was. This is one of those movies where all the elements came together just right. In one swoop, the days of Marvel movies being direct-to-video jokes were over. Better yet, a Blade II was inevitable.

I only wish that director Stephen Norrington had stuck with the series - or at least had returned for Blade: Trinity because, well, that movie sucked hard. I can't hate on David Goyer because Blade wouldn't have been what it was in the first place if he hadn't convinced New Line to go with a serious, big-budget take on the character but man, as for his work as the writer/director of Trinity all I can say is "WTF?" But hey, that's all blood under the bridge now. The way I look at it, it's a minor miracle that both Blade and Blade II (under Guillermo del Toro's direction) were as as terrific as they were.

Who would've ever guessed that out of all the heavy-hitters in the Marvel Universe that Blade would be the first one to be the subject of a great film? So much for putting all my money on Squirrel Girl.

For my full Summer Shocks review of Blade, click here.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Review: The Last Exorcism

Filmed under the mild-mannered title of Cotton, distributor Lionsgate changed the title of this faux-doc - directed by Daniel Stamm, written by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland and produced by Eli Roth - to the more marketable moniker of The Last Exorcism. And while that title change may have yielded a big opening weekend, most customers have not left the theater happy. "Exorcism" is a buzzword for horror fans that you can't mess around with unless you really intend to deliver the goods. Unfortunately, The Last Exorcism is a classic case of "they showed all the good stuff in the previews."

Had Lionsgate stuck with the title of Cotton, this movie might not have been quite as disappointing (then again, it also wouldn't have been as profitable, so there you go). The title Cotton correctly creates an expectation that the movie is a character study first and an exorcism movie second and as a character study, The Last Exorcism isn't half-bad. Patrick Fabian is excellent as Cotton Marcus, a disillusioned preacher who was raised by his reverend father to follow in his footsteps. Having been groomed as a child preacher, Cotton has been getting parishioners good with God for years. He's also performed many exorcisms, all of them fraudulent. A news story about a botched exorcism that resulted in the death of a young boy has inspired him to perform one last exorcism, with a documentary crew in tow, in order to "out" the phony practices of the church and hopefully stop people from turning to a potentially dangerous method of "curing" their loved ones.

Cotton randomly picks a letter sent to him asking for help and soon he and the doc crew are off to the isolated grounds of the Sweetzer farm where Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), the teenage daughter of stern widower Louis (Louis Herthum), is in the throes of what Louis believes is demonic possession. Nell's younger brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), greets the intrusion of Cotton and co. with surly anger and characterizes his father as "a superstitious drunk." So far, so good. It's an interesting set-up, the actors are giving it their all, and as the story progresses, there's several unexpected twists and the question of whether Nell is truly possessed or not is kept up in the air.

The problem is that little of what's happening is the least bit scary. It's interesting, yes, but when you refer to a horror movie as "interesting," that's often just a code word for "boring." I can't fault the reaction of kids who went to see this (thanks to its PG-13 rating), spent two hours shifting in their seats waiting for a horror movie to kick in, and left pissed when the end credits rolled. It's not for nothing that audiences are calling bullshit on this movie. I don't think horror movies should have to cater to the attention deficit crowd but in this case, I can't blame people for feeling they were short-changed.

One aspect of The Last Exorcism that I liked that few others do is its controversial ending. I'm not sure what people don't like about it. Is it that it's too abrupt, that it leaves too much unresolved, or that it's too cartoonish? Without giving away specifics, I think if the movie had ended any other way, I would've been let down. The ending has a sense of pay-off that the movie really needed, where all the ambiguity is finally kicked to the curb. And for those who find it too abrupt, or too much of a left-field development, I say that it was laid out in a way that would reward a second viewing. If the complaint is that it's too horror movie cheesy, I say that's something the movie could've used more of. If anything, it left me wishing that someone would get a full-on return to satanic thrillers going. Movies like The Devil's Rain and Race With The Devil (both 1975) scared the shit out of me as a kid and I think that devil worshippers will always be ripe material for horror films. In the meantime, The Last Exorcism is just a tease.

The film's biggest issue, its lack of scares and the love-it-or-hate-it ending aside, is the faux-doc format. When you have a movie like this, the first question that needs to be asked was "how was this footage found?" and "who put this movie together?" The Blair Witch Project (1999) is a perfect example of how to do the "found footage" conceit right. Kids disappeared in the woods; at a later date, the footage they made of their trip was found, and that's the film you're watching. If you're doing a found footage movie, it has to make sense within the premise of the film. [REC] (2007) is another good example - it's the footage shot by a TV news crew. Easy. With The Last Exorcism, the idea that this is the work of a documentary crew makes no sense. It could've, maybe, if they didn't present the film as a finished doc. There's onscreen titles to identify speakers, there's a music score - this isn't just found footage, it's a film that's passed through some hands. That would be ok to a point but the ending shoots that out of the water. When the climax unfolds, the question of how the footage was found and who put it all together becomes a sticking point.

The notion that this is all being filmed by a documentary crew also reveals its flaws earlier when Nell is going through her second rite of exorcism and it appears that a demon really might be in her. Her body goes through all kinds of painful, impossible-looking contortions but yet the cameraman keeps turning his camera to get the reactions of the other people standing around. Sorry, but if you've got a camera and a girl is going through some kind of possession right in front of you - why would you move the camera off of that for even a second? You wouldn't. It'd be like being in the right place at the right time to shoot footage of Bigfoot coming out of the woods but turning your camera to check out a squirrel.

To me, the whole point of making a faux-doc about an exorcism would be to blow people's minds by having the familiar staples of exorcist movies happening "for real." It would be a FX challenge to have this stuff - the bed rising, the projectile vomiting, the words appearing on someone's bare skin, etc, - all happening in a single take, and done "live" as it were. That should be the "wow" factor of a movie like this, to take it back to old-school FX, the tradition of stage magic. If you're not going to do that, you might as well make it as a straight narrative film.

The makers of The Last Exorcism didn't have a bad story to tell. It's just too bad they didn't know the best way to tell it. Its title aside, this won't be the last exorcism horror fans see on screen but it will be one of the least.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Summer Shocks 1997: Mimic

Movies about bugs always get under my skin. One of the films from my childhood that traumatzied me the most was Bug (1975), directed by Jeannot Szwarc (responsible for some of the best Night Gallery episodes) and produced and written by horror icon William Castle (his last project before his death in '77, Bug's screenplay was based on the Thomas Page novel The Hephaestus Plague).

I haven't seen Bug since I was a kid but although I expect it would look awfully goofy to me now, back in the day the sight of a woman's head bursting into flames as a bug crawled into her hair and ignited it upset me to no end. The insect world is so freaky to begin with, if Bug told me that fire-farting cockroaches could be released from the Earth one day, I was ready to believe it.

So to sum up: bugs - a real source of anxiety for me (don't even get me started about the spiders in The Mist). Guillermo del Toro's Mimic isn't nearly as freaky as Bug but it's a very respectable addition to the sub-genre of insect horror. Released in the summer of '97 to little notice, it still hasn't been rediscovered - even with del Toro's name meaning much more now than it did in '97. The studio interference that del Toro faced on Mimic did take a toll on the finished film but for the most part, it's a creepy effort that's well worth appreciating.

For my full Summer Shocks review, click here.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Summer Shocks 1996: The Craft

The '90s were not known for boundary breaking excursions into hardcore horror. All told, it was a pretty light decade for fear fare. But I'm not adverse to "light" horror. This stuff has to be fun sometimes, too, you know. Too often in recent years, horror seems to be about punishing the viewer for watching. I don't mind a horror movie being grueling but when it comes to stuff like A Serbian Movie (2010), I'll stick with something more mainstream, thanks. Maybe I'm just getting old. Maybe it's because I'm a parent now. I don't know. I grew up on shit like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Make Them Die Slowly (aka Cannibal Ferox, 1981) but nowadays, when I hear that a movie is incredibly fucked-up, I've got no interest in it.

But I digress. What I meant to be talking about is a movie that is as untraumatizing as they come, the 1996 teen witch thriller The Craft. Like I said, I'm fine with movies like this. A lot of horror fans huff and puff about any movie that isn't going to make their friends and family sick to their stomachs but The Craft is a good time as far as I'm concerned. 1996 was the year that the long horror drought finally ended and The Craft was one of the first cracks in the dam before Scream let the flood loose. Horror hadn't been gone-gone, of course - horror never completely goes away - but that next big wave or trend just hadn't come since the '80s. But the sleeper success of The Craft signalled that a new resurgence in teen horror - with attractive casts and kickin' soundtracks - was coming.

And whatever your opinion of The Craft, you've got to give it up for Fairuza Balk's performance. You've just got to.

For my full Summer Shocks review, click here.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Summer Shocks 1995: Tales from the Hood

As beloved as anthologies are by genre fans, they rarely do well commercially (the latest example of that being Trick R' Treat, which didn't even make it to theaters). Personally, I don't get it. I love the idea of seeing a film with multiple stories. The great thing about anthologies is that with three to five stories to get to in just two hours or so, none of the stories can overstay their welcome. Math is on their side.

An anthology that deserved a much better reception than it got was Tales from the Hood. Putting an 'urban' spin on the Amicus anthology format, Tales from the Hood was clearly made by people who knew their stuff. It's not an exercise in nostalgia but yet for fans, there was plenty of shout-outs to the anthology classics of the past. Plus, with Clarence Williams III as the loquacious funeral director Mr. Simms, director Rusty Cundieff and co. got a perfect actor to act as the host for these stories. His performace alone is enough to make the movie memorable.

Sadly, there just wasn't an audience for it. Too bad, as I'd like to think that the team behind this movie had some more Tales to tell.

To read my full Summer Shocks review, click here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Summer Shocks 1994: The Crow

I still remember being taken back by the first shot of The Crow, as the camera glides over an inner city hellhole. I don't know exactly what I had expected from the look of the movie, but I knew that I didn't expect anything so stunning - not from a modestly-budgeted adaptation of a little-known comic. Thanks to the internet, it's so hard to be surprised by movies these days but in '94, it was pretty easy - even for a hardcore movie junkie - and from the get-go, The Crow definitely surprised me.

Nowadays, it's common - even mandatory - for filmmakers to "get" comic books. Many still don't - as Jonah Hex proves - but on the whole, Hollywood is more comic-literate now than at any time previously. But in the early '90s, studios and directors were still figuring out how to translate comics to the screen. Unlike, say, the directors of Spawn, Steel, or Judge Dredd, Crow helmer Alex Proyas had a natural affinity for the material he was adapting (by all accounts, star Brandon Lee shared the same affinity) and that made The Crow a true eye-opener.

The day the story broke that Lee had died, I kept hoping the news would turn out to be a hoax. It just seemed too sad to be true. Watching Lee's heartfelt, would've-been-star making performance in The Crow all these years later, it still does.

To read my full Summer Shocks review of The Crow, click here.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

More Shit My Horror Dad Says

Horror Dads were once Horror Kids and our experiences growing up with parents who sometimes indulged, but didn't always understand, our strange interests is the subject of the third and final Horror Dads roundtable.

I hope these discussions have been as fun to read as they have been to participate in. If you've been enjoying these, the good news is that more roundtables will be coming up, focusing on specific films!

To read the concluding installment of Horror Dads, click here.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Aim. Shoot. Kill.

I'll keep this short: The Expendables is fucking awesome. My expectations were met and exceeded. If you're any kind of action fan, a Stallone fan, or a fan of things that don't suck, I bet you'll enjoy this. If you count yourself as belonging to any of the aforementioned categories and this movie doesn't ring your bell, you're lying to yourself about the kinds of movies you like. Stallone and co. totally bring it and there should be no argument about that. The Expendables has all the action you'd want and there's genuine heart to it as well.

The "heart" part is what might confuse some people. You know, Stallone isn't just in this to portray a bunch of killing machines. He doesn't skimp on that end of it, no, but he's also out to give these characters - his character and Mickey Rourke's, in particular - a bit of soul-searching to do. Personally, I'd be disappointed if he hadn't. A younger crowd might get fussy towards scenes where some sincere talk takes place among these battered and bruised legends but that's their hang-up. Stallone knows what he's doing, he knows what needs to be in this movie and sure enough, it's all there.

I wouldn't call this movie retro, I'd call it old-fashioned. Retro, to me, implies camp; a movie that is out to wink at the audience. When I think "old-fashioned," on the other hand, I think of a film that subscribes to the values and tastes of an earlier era without any concern towards fads. The Expendables isn't trying to be old-school, it is old-school. Not so much in how it's shot or edited but in the storyline and the interactions of the characters. There's no pop culture references, no snark, no undermining of the skill-sets of these guys. A lot of modern action movies feel like they have to put macho heroes in their place but this one puts them on a pedestal.

I won't go into any details about my favorite scenes as I really think people owe it to themselves to go in to this with as little spoiled as possible (although the fact is I could tell you about my ten favorite kills and I still wouldn't even be scratching the surface). As terrific as the movie is, I don't know if The Expendables will lead to a revival of this kind of action picture. The sad fact is, even if the public decided they wanted more - as much as Hollywood could give them - there's just not enough filmmakers working today who know how to do these kinds of movies right.

It's enough to make a man cry.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summer Shocks 1993: Jason Goes To Hell

Before I say a few things about my Summer Shocks selection for 1993, let me just say how crushing it's been to discover how badly Jurassic Park has dated. I don't know - maybe I'm the last one to find this out, maybe everyone else has known that Jurassic Park sucks for awhile. If so, bear with me.

I was all set to go with Jurassic as my pick for '93. I saw the movie several times in the theater and still have fond memories of seeing terrified kids haul ass out to the lobby during the first T-Rex attack. It was the most notable movie event of that summer, the movie that single-handedly ended the era of stop-motion animation.

Watching Jurassic Park now, though, is a painful experience. The effects are still astonishing but the characters are just dead weight (even good actors like Sam Neil, Jeff Goldblum, and Sam Jackson can't do much with their parts), any screen time spent on the kids is torture, and talk about a drawn-out set-up! I knew that it took awhile to get to the T-Rex attack but it's over an hour (!) and every minute drags by getting there. By the time the T-Rex finally shows up to party I had fucking had it with the movie and everyone in it. On the upside, I watched Jurassic Park III afterwards and still really dug it as a solid B-movie. But that superior sequel was from 2001 and this is the summer of '93 we're talking about, which brings us to Jason Goes To Hell.

There's not a lot of support out there for this movie and I get that. I think the fact that the series went on to ignore this entry altogether makes it easier to appreciate on its own terms as a one-shot deal but yet I do agree that writer/director Adam Marcus and co-writer Dean Lorey should have put down whatever they were smoking, checked their egos, and made a real Friday the 13th movie. If only Sean Cunningham had brought back director Joe Zito for Jason Goes To Hell, I bet Zito would've delivered something tight. And it's a guarantee that no metaphysical, mystical nonsense would've made its way into the film.

Shit, back in the day there'd be no way that Marcus would've been allowed to film a single page of his screenplay. According to interviews in Peter M. Bracke's book Crystal Lake Memories, when Zito did The Final Chapter and Tom Savini came up with the idea of having Tommy Jarvis kill Jason with a handmade microwave contraption, the money guys back then said no way, that it was too "sci-fi" for the Friday the 13th universe. Machetes - now that was what Friday the 13th was all about. Those guys who called the shots on all the sequels through A New Beginning would've taken one look at the Jason Goes To Hell screenplay and thrown it out the window.

That said, and putting aside the fact that everyone involved in this film needed to have some sense shaken into them, there's some fun to be had with Jason Goes To Hell. I'm sure that Sean Cunningham regrets letting Marcus and Lorey run with the ball but it is what it is. For my full review, click here.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Summer Shocks 1992: Single White Female

In the slasher films of the early '90s, it wasn't about invincible boogeymen anymore. No more heavy-breathing dudes in ski-masks stalking slumber parties. Now it was about the outwardly normal people who worked with you, who took care of your kids, who you were dating, who were your neighbors or tenants. Or, as in the case of 1992's Single White Female, who could be your newest roommate.

These movies weren't as down and dirty as the early '80s slashers had been but yet they were more serious about scares than most of what passed for horror at the time. You know, if you wanted a good seat-jumper, you were better off with something like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle than Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice.

Like most cinematic trends, this one ran its course in about five years - falling out of favor just in time for Scream (1996) to re-invent the slasher genre again. But while it lasted, it was great fun. When Obsessed came out last year, I got all excited thinking that the "blank from Hell" genre was making a comeback. That was the movie where Ali Larter plays a temp worker who sets her sights on her handsome, well-to-do boss and gets violent when her planned seduction of this married man (and new father) hits some road bumps. It looked great and it looked like it could've came out in '92, smack at the height of the yuppie slasher trend. In the end, though, it was just so-so. It was adequate but it just didn't have the flair that the psycho flicks of the early '90s had. They really knew how to do crazy right back then.

To read my full Single White Female review, click here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Summer Shocks 1991: Body Parts

The summer of '91 was especially barren for fear fare but on the upside, that only made the, ah, limber medical chiller Body Parts all the more memorable. It's probably hard for younger fans to imagine a time when there wasn't a glut of horror movies to enjoy but that was the way it was back then. I mean, this summer is a little light but at least there's been Splice, Predators, Survival of the Dead and [REC] 2 (the later two in limited release and VOD) and The Last Exorcism and Piranha 3-D are on the way.

In comparison, the summer of '91 had Body Parts, Child's Play 3, and Dead Again (and calling that horror is really stretching it). So with so little to see, you had to appreciate what was out there.

With Body Parts, that wasn't so tough as I liked it from the get-go. It's flawed, yes, but the cast is terrific, the premise is classic, and writer/director Eric Red knows the genre well enough to be able to surprise even seasoned viewers once or twice. It'll never be a classic but it's still a keeper. I also fondly remember it because a friend of mine at the time inexplicably insisted on pronouncing Fahey's name with four syllables. Whenever I see Body Parts, I always hear my long ago pal's voice saying "Fa-ha-hey-ey" in my head. Good times!

To read my full Summer Shocks review, click here.