Friday, December 31, 2010
What menace of a tragic doom?
What dark, condemning yesterdays?
What urge to crime, what evil done?
What cold, confronting shape of fear?
O haggard, haunted, hidden One
What see you in the dying year?
- from "The Passing of the Year," by Robert W. Service
Thursday, December 30, 2010
As Dead of Winter opens, a woman is murdered too soon by the men using her as a puppet to demand money from the woman's wealthy twin sister; the men then must find a way to convince the sister that her twin is still alive and continuing to blackmail her, which leads them to find an actress who resembles the dead woman and then invite her to a remote, upstate home under the pretense of having her take over for a film's departed lead actress. As it happens, Katie proves to be a dead ringer for the deceased girl.
Once Katie happily accepts the job offer and rides off with the creepy Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowell) to the secluded home of his employer, the elderly and wheelchair bound Dr. Joseph Lewis (Jan Rubes), she becomes suspicious that she hasn't been told the whole truth - a suspicion that starts with her discovery of Polaroid pictures of the corpse of the woman she's meant to replace. Dr. Lewis has pat explanations for all of Katie's concerns but eventually the truth comes out that she's just a pawn in the doctor's blackmail schemes. Soon, after making an escape attempt, Katie finds herself drugged and her left ring finger removed, matching an act of mutilation that had been performed on the dead twin. Will Katie find the wherewithal to outsmart her captors and return to her dick boyfriend, Rob (William Russ)? The answers can be found on the edge of your seat!
Well, almost on the edge. While I remember enjoying Dead of Winter back in '87, time has not been kind to it. As a suspenser, it's pretty tepid and, worse than that, the story is ludicrous with the nefarious blackmail plans of Dr. Lewis requiring more labor than NASA puts into a moon launch. I'm sorry but there's got to be easier ways to make money. And Dr. Lewis doesn't seem to be hurting for cash in the first place so you wonder how all this aggravation can be worth it to him. Furthermore, he's old - when is he going to have the time to spend all this cash before he dies? You'd have to have a villain really desperate for the money to make the audience believe that going through this charade is worth their while. But then, anyone that desperate for the money wouldn't have a large home in upstate NY to keep a damsel in distress in. They'd be doing the sensible thing and breaking into a rich dude's house to rob them (now that would've been a great twist in Dead of Winter's plot - while Dr. Lewis is bending over backwards to pull off his comically elaborate blackmail scheme, some lowlife criminals bust into his house and rob him for everything he's got).
Steenburgen is fine in her multiple roles but the plot device that requires her to play all three parts seems, like the rest of the movie, to be needlessly complicated. That Katie resembles a dead woman is one thing but to have that dead woman also be a twin, allowing Steenburgen to play that third character as well, is just one step too far. The climatic pay-off - when Katie draws on her acting skills to temporarily fool Dr. Lewis and Mr. Murray into thinking she's the still-living sister they're out to extort - just isn't worth it. Especially when that clever ruse really isn't necessary for Katie to escape.
The cat and mouse games that Dead of Winter engages in are slack all around. Dr. Lewis and Mr. Murray seem to be counting solely on the inclement weather to prevent Katie from running for help. Occasionally they'll drug her drinks but she always wakes up in a room alone and unrestrained. Dr. Lewis' house is more like a bed & breakfast than a prison. And while Steenburgen is no Cynthia Rothrock, if she put up any kind of determined fight I do believe she could get the best of Roddy McDowell, whose character's talents lie more in hair-dressing than in strong-arming anyone. That just leaves the elderly, fat-assed, wheelchair-ridden Dr. Lewis to contend with and that's someone even Bonnie from What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) could successfully run away from. Well, kind of.
Dead of Winter was greeted as an anomaly at the time of its release and it's even more of one now. Not because of the lack of violence but because of the fact that it's a woman in peril film. Those were common in the '80s, with almost every slasher film fitting into that category but good luck finding anything like that now. In recent years, there was P2 (2007) - the one where Wes Bentley terrorized a businesswoman in a parking garage - and in very limited releases, House of the Devil (2009), where a college student is stalked through a house by satanists and the Kim Basinger film While She Was Out (2008).
Somewhere along the way it stopped being fashionable (or PC) for women to be presented as vulnerable or endangered. Now it's all about Milla Jovovich and Angelina Jolie being able to somersault backwards out of helicopters while firing Uzis in each hand. It's not enough for members of the fairer sex to simply be resilient anymore, women have to be full-on superheroes.
Blame Aliens (1986), maybe, for making Ripley the template for future sci-fi/horror heroines (even Barbra, in the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake had to become Ripley-fied). Or Buffy, or Xena, or Trinity from The Matrix. I love all those characters but they've made it hard for women to be portrayed in peril. When even barely adolescent girls are depicted as lethal weapons, as in Kick-Ass (2010) and the upcoming Hanna (2011), I think it's hard for horror and thriller filmmakers to depict an adult female protagonist spending too much time cowering in fear, even if it's for the good of the movie.
I'd like to think that the largely favorable response to director Ti West's House of the Devil could be a sign that the classic model of horror heroine can come back into style. But we'll see. Like Dead of Winter, House of the Devil wasn't a particularly good movie. At least in both cases, though, I felt like their maker's hearts were in the right place. But then, I'm old-fashioned when it comes to this stuff.
Saturday, December 25, 2010
He sees you when you're sleeping...
He knows when you're awake.
He knows when you've been bad or good...
So be good for goodness' sake!
Oh, you better not pout...
You better not cry...
You better not shout, I'm telling you why...
Santa Klaus Is Coming To Town!
He's making a list...
He's checking it twice...
He's gonna find out who's naughty or nice!
Santa Klaus Is Coming...
Saaaanta Klaus Is Coming...
Santa Klaus Is Coming To Tooooown!
Friday, December 24, 2010
If you're done with shopping and wrapping, pour yourself some egg nog and click here to read what Dennis Cozzalio, Paul Gaita, Nicholas McCarthy, head Horror Dad Richard Harland Smith, and myself (with the absent Greg Ferrara there in spirit) have to say about this often-overlooked Val Lewton production.
It doesn't have Jimmy Stewart or St. Nick to recommend it as essential Christmas viewing but The Curse of the Cat People is a poignant holiday-set fantasy, sensitive to the imaginary worlds that children inhabit and the loyal friends that they meet there.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Anyhow, with 2010 now all but officially over I'm all for forgetting about the films I disliked this year, being thankful for the few I did like, and moving on to a better year in 2011.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Anyhow, Black Swan is definitely Aronofsky's best movie to date. I know a lot of people champion Requiem for a Dream (2000) but that movie just didn't do it for me. I already got the message that drugs were bad from those ads back in the '80s when the kid gets busted by his dad for smoking weed or hitting the crack pipe or whatever then his kid flips on his dad and says he learned it all from him.
Black Swan, though, is something different. Because I honestly had no idea dancing could fuck you up this bad. If anyone wants to be a dancer after seeing this movie, they're nuts. I'd rather not be turned into a bird, thanks. At least I think that's what's going on here. It sounds kind of ridiculous, I know, but apparently ballet does really crazy things to your body.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballerina who's talented and dedicated but just hasn't gotten a big break yet. Her overbearing stage mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) used to be a dancer but it never quite panned out for her (the excuse is that she had to quit to raise Nina but it's probably really because she just wasn't good enough) and now she's just a big, bitter mess. On the one hand Erica wants to live vicariously through Nina and on the other hand she doesn't really want her daughter to become more successful than she was.
When Nina's career looks like it's going to finally jump to the next level, Erica makes subtle, likely unconscious, moves to undermine her. Like bringing a big, thickly frosted cake home to celebrate Nina winning the lead role in her ballet company's production of Swan Lake and then becoming enraged when Nina understandably says she doesn't want to eat it because she has to watch her weight - an outburst that causes Nina to quickly apologize to her offended mother and then eat the cake anyhow. For all her encouragement and advice, deep down Erica would be happier seeing Nina fail.
Besides being already bent in the head thanks to her mother, Nina has plenty of other issues to contend with. She's won the part in Swan Lake, yes, but that only seems due to the new found physical interest that her dance company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has shown in her. Also, one of her rival dancers, the outgoing Lily (Mila Kunis), looks like she out to steal the coveted part (parts, really, as Nina is intended to play both the Swan Queen and the Black Swan) - and possibly Thomas' attention - away from Nina. Given all the stress she's under, it's no wonder that Nina seems to be gradually transforming into a swan. It's a real nightmare but things could be worse. She could be turning into a duck or something.
I've got to say - it's been awhile since I've seen a movie that so successfully makes an audience squirm, cringe, and collectively suck in their breath. If you have any kind of phobia regarding the proper maintenance of fingernails, watch out for Black Swan. Man, you can show people being chainsawed in two and I won't blink an eye but seeing someone cut past their fingernails into their skin - you can find me under my seat after it's over. Aronofsky is all about wearing the audience down with tiny moments that fly under their defenses. You're never allowed to feel completely at ease in Black Swan.
You are allowed, though - even encouraged, I believe - to nervously laugh at times and what sets Black Swan apart from the joyless, oppressive likes of Requiem for a Dream or Pi (1998) is that as heavy as it is, it seems to be ok to have some fun with this film. This is a great film to see with a receptive audience if they're able to scream and laugh at the right moments.
There's nothing campy or tongue in cheek about the committed performances of the cast but yet because the underlying metaphors of the film are so ripe for ridicule, Black Swan is always walking a tightrope between the silly and the sublime. That's what makes it so exciting to watch. This is a movie that is constantly in danger of falling on its face but Aronofsky makes it work through virtuoso filmmaking. Black Swan is just absurd enough to be enjoyed as pure entertainment but serious-minded enough to be a credible work of art.
By the conclusion of her first public performance of Swan Lake, Nina is dancing like she's never danced before. Locking rhythms to the beat of her heart, changing movement into light. On the ice-blue line of insanity - it's a place most never see. There's a cold kinetic heat, struggling, stretching for the peak...
Oh wait, damn it - those are the lyrics to "Maniac." I'll tell you - if I was Michael Sambello I'd be pissed Aronofsky didn't put that song on the soundtrack. It's perfect, just like Nina's hard-won performance. By the time the curtain falls on her big night, she has definitely danced into the danger zone when the dancer becomes the dance.
Monday, December 13, 2010
But it did get to me. Besides being as scary as I'd remembered - it's a movie that's just relentless in piling on the horror - I was grateful to be reminded of how much real sadness the movie carries. It's not a traditional tearjerker, no, but the deaths in this movie aren't just there to be gawked at for the FX (like Capt. Rhodes' death in Day of the Dead) - they really pierce you.
When Judy (Judith Ridley) impulsively bolts out of the farmhouse to ride shotgun with Tom (Keith Wayne) on his run to the gas pumps, it seems like such a true gesture on her part. And when Cooper (Karl Hardman) slams the front door behind her, it already feels like the end has been written for her and Tom. After their mission to fuel up the truck has gone horribly wrong and Tom has bravely driven the flaming pick-up away from the gas pumps, when he turns back to help Judy free her caught jacket, it's still a jolt to see that truck explode. Romero doesn't milk the scene for any gratuitous suspense. We don't see a lot of fumbling with Judy's jacket - it's about being hit by that sudden, instantaneous loss of life.
That's the moment where Romero and co. really let the audience know they're playing for keeps. The early, unexpected loss of Johnny (Russell Streiner) was cause for concern but the abrupt loss of Judy and Tom in that one fiery moment moves the film to another level.
It's also interesting to watch NOTLD now and see how differently the zombies are depicted from how they went on to be portrayed in Romero's subsequent Dead films. Everyone who makes a zombie movie or writes a zombie book now always points to Romero's original Dead trilogy as the Bible in how to proceed (unless they're going off on their entirely own take) but it wasn't until Dawn of the Dead that Romero really started to refine the rules of what his zombies could and couldn't do. NOTLD is its own thing. You would never see a zombie stabbing someone with a garden trowel in a Romero, or a Romero-influenced, zombie movie today but yet it's such an iconic moment in the original when Karen (Kyra Schon) attacks her mother (I bet the main reason this scene was changed in the 1990 remake to Karen simply biting her mother - with the spurting blood splashing on a nearby trowel as a nod to the original - is because zombies weren't supposed to be capable of that kind of advanced action anymore).
There's also the crazed ferocity with which the Cemetery Zombie (Bill Hinzman) attacks Johnny and Barbra, to the point that he grabs a rock to smash the car window to get at Barbra. And look at Johnny's eyes when he returns as a zombie and sees Barbra:
The intensity that he looks at his sister with (can we call it recognition?) has subsequently became a violation of the rules (almost all zombies now have those murky cataract eyes that seem to see nothing). But it's such a chilling moment in NOTLD. The way that Johnny focuses his gaze on her, it's almost as if he's been trying to get to her ever since he came back. In NOTLD, zombies have the capacity to glare - a skill that's since been stolen from them. With Johnny's pale skin and glowering eyes, I also feel like there's a little hint of vampire lingering in this encounter - perhaps a faint spiritual residue from the acknowledged influence of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend.
While it's well-known that Romero imagined this film as the start of a larger story from the get-go, watching NOTLD I always get the impression that in the bigger world beyond the farmhouse things were generally well in hand. At one point, the field reporter asks the Sheriff if the problem is going to be wrapped up in the next 24 hours, or words to that effect, and the laconic Sheriff gives a pretty unconcerned response. From the perspective of law enforcement, this zombie plague seems more like a temporary inconvenience than an apocalypse. And that's something I always liked about NOTLD. Within that isolated, overwhelmed farmhouse, this is the end of the world but in reality it's a manageable crisis - nothing that a redneck posse can't successfully mop up once the sun is out. I feel like when that bonfire is lit at the end, normalcy - for what it's worth - has been restored.
Of course, I'm probably the only person who looks at NOTLD this way - because, you know, there's all those sequels that say otherwise - but I like the idea that all this really was just a wind passing through. It makes it seem a little sadder to me, and makes the character's losing struggles that much more bitter.
To think that these people might've survived their long night of horror only to become part of the thankless, never-ending fight against an army of the undead doesn't seem so poignant to me. But to look at Ben (Duane Jones) and Cooper's bodies next to each other on the pyre and think that they might've returned to their normal lives had they only found a way to protect each other and those around them for a few dark, desperate hours - well, that's something to mourn.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
For instance, I'm sure that during the making of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) more than a few people must've questioned the wisdom of putting a dream-stalking boogeyman in a red and green striped sweater but look how well that paid off.
Successfully designing a horror villain seems to be as attributable to happy accidents as much to deliberate artistic design. The classic example of which would be Michael Myers.
Would Halloween (1978) have become the classic that it is had Tommy Lee Wallace not included the unlikely option of a Captain Kirk mask among the choices he presented to John Carpenter in determining what disguise their villain should wear on his rampage through Haddonfield? Probably not. Sometimes fate just intervenes and provides the right inspiration at the right time.
The Trickster (played by stage actor T. Ryder Smith), star of 1994's Brainscan, is far from the only would-be franchise player that failed to win the hearts of horror fans. But he remains the one that looked the most ridiculous. From head to toe The Trickster is a catastrophe.
I mean, Dr. Giggles never made it to a Part 2 (a crime, in my opinion) but you can't fault the way Larry Drake looked as the mad medico in that movie. Similarly, Clint Howard really did look like an Ice Cream Man in, uh, The Ice Cream Man (1995). The Trickster on the other hand, well...where to begin?
Seriously, you don't want your movie's embodiment of evil to look like he should be jamming on a synthesizer. An even worse move was giving him an '80s "rock" wardrobe (complete with leather pants) to match the big hair.
And in a post-Hellraiser world, what was a nose-ring supposed to do for The Trickster's look? Dee Snider looked laughable in Strangeland (1998) but at least you could say he was really in the game.
It's too bad for Brainscan that The Trickster is a walking joke because the movie itself is, well, the movie itself is pretty bad too.
Director John Flynn was responsible for some great movies, like the legendary action fave Rolling Thunder (1977), the James Woods thriller Best Seller (1988), and one of Steven Seagal's best, Out For Justice (1991) and Brainscan's script was by Andrew Kevin Walker - who proved he knew how to write the hell out of a horror movie with Seven (1995) but things just didn't come together for these guys on Brainscan.
A movie about cutting edge technology should've had a villain with a cutting edge look. Instead, The Trickster was a evil genie that took his cues from an earlier decade's most unfortunate fashions. After sixteen years, everything else about Brainscan is long since dated (in some ways, endearingly so) but its villain's look was already dated the day they bought his clothes.
And unlike Jason, The Trickster never got a sequel to retool his look.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
With Predators, the Predators apparently wiped their hands of all that screen-sharing Vs. business but while I think splitting from the Aliens was a good move for both franchises, I still like the idea of vs. movies for the Predators. They're hunters so it's natural to want to see them go up against challenging adversaries. Some say that going the vs. route put the Predator and Alien franchises into inherently cheesy territory but I don't think it was the principle of a vs. film that sunk both AVPs, it was that when it comes to the movies the Aliens are better off on their own and the Predators were versusing against the wrong foes (is versusing a verb? If it isn't, it ought to be).
There's a big galaxy out there, full of potential star-spanning enemies for the Predators, but there's only one alien race that I consider to be the Predator's ideal extraterrestrial adversary:
Killer Klowns From Outer Space.
Now, please - don't leave. Just hear me out. The Killer Klowns are perfect to go against the Predators. These are the true arch-enemies that these guys were always meant to have. If the Predators are like Batman (who they faced off against in comics, by the way - check out your LCS's back issue bins!) with their grim, stoic demeanor and calculating methods, then the anarchic Killer Klowns are their Joker - the maddening, madcap Jesters that the Predators can't eliminate. The problem with the Predators facing off with the Aliens is that it's boring from the get-go. They're both dark characters and their means of fighting each other just don't offer a lot of variety (that acid blood? It gets old.). The Predators up against Killer Klowns, though? You'd be hard-put to exhaust the possibilities of that war.
Listen, maybe you don't want to see Predators get creamed with a barrage of pies. Maybe you don't want to see the heads of Killer Klowns displayed in a Predator trophy room. Maybe you don't want to see Predators stored in cotton candy cocoons. Maybe you don't want to see an army of Predators storming the Killer Klowns' Big Top-shaped spaceship. But if you don't want to see any of these things - I've gotta ask: what the hell is wrong with you?
The no-nonsense Predators vs. the prankish Killer Klowns would be a death match for the ages. Guaranteed. Call it KKVP: Blood Circus. Whatever you call it, it would go down as The Greatest Hunt On Earth. Man, I can just see the poster - a Killer Klown dotted with the laser sights of a Predator gun with the tagline "Who's Laughing Now?"
And if 20th Century Fox doesn't jump on getting the rights to Killer Klowns and making KKVP (oh, excuse me - KKVP:3D) the event movie of the millennium, how about a fan-made flick, huh?
You know, something like this:
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
For the full contents of the issue, click here.