Monday, May 31, 2010

The Home Of The Brave

It's appropriate that Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (or Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist, depending on who you ask) opens with the strains of The Star Spangled Banner as this is a movie that celebrates the promise of the Land of the Free (the Freeling family being the embodiment of the American Dream) while reminding us that the land of plenty is made of haunted ground from sea to shining sea.

Over at Shock Till You Drop, I'm looking back at Poltergeist as part of our Summer Shocks series. To read the full review, click here. And if you're a citizen of the U.S. of A. be sure to rise for the playing of our national anthem.

Happy Memorial Day!

Friday, May 28, 2010

All Fur One And One Fur All

As part of the Summer Shocks retrospective running over at Shock Till You Drop, managing editor Ryan Turek has taken a look back at the often-neglected Wolfen (1981). Having the misfortune of coming out the same year that The Howling and An American Werewolf in London raised the bar for werewolf cinema, Wolfen looked awfully weak, what with no transformation FX to give it that competitive edge. Nowadays it look like some kind of almost-classic in need of rediscovery, a horror film of rare adult character. It also carries an eerie foreshadowing of our post-9/11 age. It's haunting to listen to characters in this New York City-set film (this is one of the greatest NYC movies ever shot, by the way) discussing the threat of global terrorism with frequent shots of the Twin Towers dominating the skyline.

It's fitting that Wolfen is about shape-shifters as it's an altogether different animal from most horror films. Director Michael Wadleigh came up with something compelling and it shows. Unfortunately, it just wasn't immediately obvious to most audiences at the time.

To read Ryan's full Wolfen review, click here.

Summer Shocks 1981: Deadly Blessing

When I was in junior high, I had a friend whose parents were way more permissive than mine when it came to R-rated movies. I couldn't even see them on cable but this kid saw all the new horror releases on the big screen. When we got together at the beginning of school in the fall of '81, the first movie I asked him about was Deadly Blessing. The TV spots and newspaper ads for it had terrified me over the last month of summer vacation and I had to know if I was right to be pissing in my pants over it. Having gone to the drive-in to see it with his parents, he assured me that it was one of the best horror movies he had ever seen, reserving high praise for the spider-in-the-mouth dream sequence.

When I finally saw the movie for myself on VHS, I was not disappointed. It remains such a terrific shocker (rewatching it just the other week, there was a 'gotcha' scare involving Sharon Stone's character in a barn that 'got me' so badly - even though I knew it was coming - that I damn near sprained my neck!) and it's such a key movie in Wes Craven's filmography (bringing dream imagery into his work in a big way) that I'm puzzled as to why it hasn't been given a Region 1 DVD release.

Whatever the reason for its absence on disc, here's hoping that one day it'll get the exposure - and the wider fanbase - it deserves.

To read my full Deadly Blessing review click here.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Summer Shocks 1980: Friday the 13th

The new installment of Summer Shocks is up at Shock Till You Drop and for our look at 1980, I'm giving some love to Sean Cunningham's original summer camp slayathon Friday the 13th. Hard to believe how notorious this movie once was but those who were around back then will recall the angry furor over Friday's graphic gore. I still love the movie and think it endures as a wistful, sun-dappled snapshot of a time when the world (and the horror audience) wasn't so jaded.

To read my full review, click here.

Fly On The Wall

While watching the original Amityville Horror (1979) last week, this sinister piece of artwork displayed in the public library that James Brolin's George Lutz briefly visits jumped right out at me. I don't know if this creepy caricature is supposed to be a fly, or if it's some other kind of winged insect, but it sure looks like an emissary of Beelzebub to me. It's come and gone in an instant and Lutz never notices it but given the issues that he's having at home with flies gathering, I thought its placement in this scene was a buzz-worthy choice in decor. It's one sly fly.

Monday, May 24, 2010

One Day We'll All Meet In Our Happy Place

For the sake of my television, I'm so glad I stopped watching Lost at the beginning of its third season. Had I gone against my best judgement and stuck with the show for the duration, I'm sure something would've gone flying through my TV set by the end of Lost's finale last night. Now, to be fair I didn't watch the entire finale, just the last half hour but I think I get the gist - the future timeline where they're all off the island is heaven, or at least some version of the afterlife, and the characters have all reunited there in spirit because their time on the island was the most significant event in their lives (I guess it's hard to top living on a magic island). Some got off the island, some stayed, but in time they all died and met again in some version of the hereafter. Um, that's supposed to be an ending?

I don't have much steam to blow off about Lost because I ditched it so early on but as far as I'm concerned, this was a six year scam on its audience and for what it's worth, I hope the writers and producers are called out for it. I don't doubt that some Lost fans found the finale emotional but let's be honest - if you took any long-running show and ended it with all the characters reuniting in fucking heaven, you'd get the exact same reaction. It's the lowest kind of emotional baiting (well, almost the lowest - it's probably even cheaper to have a wounded character stagger off alone and be kept company in their dying moments by a dog, which Lost's finale also stooped to). Compare the narrative smoke and mirrors practiced by Lost with the way a show like Supernatural has consistently played straight and true with its audience and I think the critical acclaim and adulation Lost has received over the years is nearly criminal.

Mysteries and ambiguities are fine but what the makers of Lost delivered was an epic cop-out. What's worse is that they clearly had this cop-out ending in mind for years, an ending that they knew would answer none of the show's long-standing questions. To call it a six season shell game with the audience would be giving Lost more credit than it deserves. In the end, it was just a full-on con job.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Summer Shocks

If you think that things have been quiet around here lately because I've been slacking off, that's not quite the case. Instead I've been busy gearing up for a big summer project over at Shock Till You Drop. It occurred to me recently that while the fall may be the time of the witching season, my most indelible horror movie memories belong primarily to the summer months. Shock's managing editor Ryan Turek is of the same mind so we've decided to spend this summer celebrating thirty year's worth of our favorite summer horror releases. We're kicking off with the summer of 1979 with Ryan taking on The Tall Man's debut with Phantasm and myself making the trip to check out some infamous real estate in Long Island. We've got plenty of great movies lined up to reminisce about between now and Labor Day so I hope people will enjoy the ride!

Read Ryan's Phantasm review here.

Read my Amityville Horror review here.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Magic That We'll Feel Is Worth A Lifetime

In the Further Proof That Cancer Is Fucking Evil department, heavy metal great Ronny James Dio succumbed to his battle with stomach cancer this morning at age 67. If you grew up as a metalhead in the '80s, or if you just appreciated peerless powerhouse vocals, you were a fan of Dio's. Whether in Rainbow, during his stint as Black Sabbath's frontman after Ozzy Osbourne's departure, or in his solo career, RJD was one of the all-time greats. Besides the strength of his operatic vocals, I love Dio because he was from that now long-gone era of metal where even if the imagery of the lyrics and the LP art veered into the cartoonish, it was never played as a joke. When Dio flashed the devil sign, or prowled through a video in a sword and sorcery get-up, it wasn't meant as a post-modern goof, it was all 100% sincere. Hard to believe that a voice so powerful is no more.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Swan Song

"Endings are hard," as the character of Chuck the prophet says in "Swan Song," the concluding episode of Supernatural's fifth season. Throughout the episode, show creator Eric Kripke was clearly using Chuck's voiceover narration as an authorial stand-in to express the daunting challenge of wrapping up five year's worth of monster hunting, demon slaying, heavenly discord and brotherly drama in a one hour episode. Even though Supernatural's success led CW to renew it for a sixth season, in order not to betray the trust of longtime fans, last night's season ender had to make good on creator Eric Kripke's promise that he had envisioned the show as a five-year arc. As the credits rolled on "Swan Song," I felt relieved that my faith in Kripke had not been misplaced. On a side note, I love that the entire episode's budget went towards getting the rights to Def Leppard's "Rock of Ages" for a key climatic moment. I don't know what the price tag was on that song but as the final epic showdown between Lucifer and Michael was so cost-conscious that it had to be limited to a cemetery in the middle of nowhere, I'm guessing it was more than Supernatural has ever paid out for a song in its history. I say it was worth it, though.

That "Swan Song" was such a solid closer came as a double-relief for this fan. First, it redeemed the most wobbly season in the show's history. While Season Five was not without its share of top-shelf episodes, it was by far the most unsteady year in the show's run. Previously, the show's writers and producers deftly jumped back and forth between the mythology episodes and the done-in-one "monster of the week" shows but this season, episodes where the boys were sidetracked from the looming apocalypse to hunt, say Paris Hilton as a shape-shifter, frequently felt shoe-horned in. At the same time, too many of the mythology episodes ("Dark Side of the Moon," in particular) felt like they were just marking time until the finale. Kripke had his endgame planned but for the sake of having a full season he had to noticeably dawdle for time on the way there with too many patience-trying bouts of Sam and Dean doubting each other, then getting back on the same page again, only to slip back into being at odds on how to prevent the apocalypse. Thankfully, the finale was able to put the herky-jerky quality of the season to bed.

Secondly, the success of "Swan Song" was proof that Kripke hasn't just been jerking the chain of the audience for the past five years. As much as I love The X-Files, it still fries me that Chris Carter didn't have any clue on how to pull his show's convoluted mythology together (I bailed on Lost in Season Three for fear of getting taken in the same way twice - a decision that now looks like it was a smart move). Kripke, however, really did know how his story ended rather than just fudging his finale.

My biggest fear going into "Swan Song" was that the task of concluding the show's ongoing storylines would be compromised by the need to set-up next season. Thankfully, Kripke gave the series some closure while leaving the door open for more stories with the Winchester brothers. "Swan Song" could easily have served as the final episode in the series as by the hour's end, this chapter of the saga of Sam and Dean Winchester has been properly shut - although as Chuck says, "nothing ever really ends."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I'm Getting Too Old For This Shit

In contemplating watching writer/director Tom Six's instantly notorious The Human Centipede (now available on VOD), I had to confess to myself that I just didn't feel motivated to check it out. For years, I felt obligated as a fan to see every horror movie that was released - even more so if a movie was rumored to be a boundary-pushing example of the genre. My trips to the video store back in the '80s were all about renting intestine-slinging Italian cannibal gut-munchers like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) or Make Them Die Slowly (1981). If it was "Banned in 31 Countries," I was on it. I wanted to see the most offending footage that filmmakers had to offer.

These days, as I approach middle-age (or maybe I'm already there) my appetite for the extreme isn't what it used to be. The idea of watching The Human Centipede feels like committing to a burdensome chore rather than welcoming the opportunity to enjoy some potentially taboo-smashing entertainment and I have to wonder why that is. Why am I watching Stuart Gordon's Dolls (1987) for the umpteenth time when The Human Centipede is readily available? Maybe it's just that given the limited time I have to watch films on my own - when my wife and son are otherwise occupied - I don't want to waste time watching something I feel I'm not likely to enjoy. After all, life is too short.

When I was a teenager, the appeal of extreme horror lay - at least partly - in that there was some bragging rights to be found in watching films that were past the comfort zone of my family, friends or classmates. On an adolescent level, it seemed cool to be hip to films that grossed other people out. Some of these films were well-made in their own right but more often they weren't and the only point in watching them was to be able to say that I did and hope that someone would be impressed. As a teen, unless you're lucky enough to be well-adjusted and happy with yourself, I think you're always doing things to push people away but at the same time trying very hard to make them notice you.

If I were fifteen again, I know I'd be chomping at the bit to see The Human Centipede but I'm pretty far from fifteen. I feel like The Human Centipede is a movie that unless you feel as if you're getting away with something you shouldn't be by watching it or reveling in exposing some unwitting soul to it (or both), it just isn't much fun. Adding to my reluctance is that I've heard from a number of people that the movie, ultimately, is much tamer than one would expect. If I'm going to take the time to watch a movie where someone has their mouth sewn to someone else's ass, it better be the absolute last word on the subject. I don't want to watch The Human Centipede and then find out that a more extreme version of it was made six months later in Korea or something.

I might watch The Human Centipede eventually if the time presents itself and I'm in the right mood (what mood that would be, I don't know) but I have a feeling I won't. Had the distributor offered a kitschy VHS release like was recently offered for Ti West's House of the Devil (2009), however, that shit might've been enough to sucker me in. Selecting The Human Centipede on my VOD menu just doesn't feel right. It's too banal. To my mind, The Human Centipede is a movie that needs to be found in a mom and pop video store in an oversized box with a garish illustrated cover. You know, something along these lines:

Even on VHS and with appropriately sick cover art, I still might have never watched The Human Centipede but hey, at least I would've felt pretty cool about loaning it out.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Board Games

I would've thought that after Regan MacNeil claimed to speak to "Captain Howdy" via her Ouija board in The Exorcist (1973) that enterprising filmmakers would've instantly recognized this popular conduit to the spirit world as a ready source of trouble. Surprisingly though, it wasn't until 1986's Witchboard that the Ouija finally got its full props as a horror movie prop.

Even though it would've been easy - especially in the '80s - to slap together a scenario involving careless kids channeling the wrong spirit, writer/director Kevin S. Tenney took a more researched approach. For all I know, Tenney could've been pulling everything out of his ass but Witchboard appears to be earnest about serious about schooling the audience on the dos and don'ts of the Ouija - it isn't just treated as some phony MacGuffin like the Necronomicon in The Evil Dead (1982).

Tenney uses the character of Brandon Sinclair (Stephen Nichols) as the film's resident occult expert to walk the audience through the proper usage of Ouijas. One of the first scenes in the movie has Brandon giving a group of mostly drunken partiers a starter's guide. As he explains: "For the best results, the ouija should be used by two people, preferably a man and a woman, and it shouldn't be sitting on a table, it should sit on our knees so there's as much body contact as possible. Also the two people should have clean, pure systems so that the energy flowing through us through the planchette is as strong as it can be."

That's a lot more than I ever knew about Ouijas before seeing Witchboard, I can tell you that! It could be that all that info is on the boxes that they sell Ouijas in but I kind of doubt it (although at the very least they must tell you that the triangular object that the spirits guide across the board is called a planchette). No, I think Tenney actually had to go look this shit up - and this was back when researching a subject didn't just mean googling it. For a guy making a low-budget horror movie, Tenney really went the extra mile!

After the party - and the Ouija demonstration - takes a sour turn thanks to a heated exchange between Brandon and his former best bud Jim (Todd Allen), Brandon leaves in a huff and makes the mistake of leaving his Ouija behind in Jim's home. While the Ouija is temporarily in the care of Jim's live-in girlfriend Linda (Tawny Kitaen, of Whitesnake video fame), she breaks the number one rule of the ouija board and uses it alone, allowing herself to fall under the influence of the spirit of a child named David. Linda's growing obsession with the Ouija is referred to by Brandon as "progressive entrapment" and he tries to convince Jim, the hard-nosed skeptic, that Linda - and everyone around her - is in danger. You'd think this would be easy to do as people around Jim and Linda start to die in almost spectacular ways (the creative deaths that Tenney is able to realize on his meager $1,000,000 budget don't quite rival those of The Omen - even though one death via falling sheet rock is a memorably well-timed shock) but Jim's long-standing issues with Brandon make it hard for Jim not to think that Brandon is just jealous of his relationship with Linda. This bitter relationship between Brandon and Jim proves to be the heart of the film.

While it was common in the wake of the slasher trend of the '80s for directors to insist that their film wasn't just a slice n' dice picture and that their film didn't just have cardboard characters getting dispatched in innovative ways, that talk almost always proved to be just talk. Witchboard, however, really is a movie with (at least two!) fully developed characters as in their efforts to protect Linda, Brandon and Jim are forced to come together and deal with the issues that wrecked their friendship. Intriguingly, Tenney doesn't make it obvious from the start which of the two men - if either - is the more sympathetic character. Early on, Brandon seems like a high-handed prick and Jim an unassuming everyman but as the film goes on, it's not as clear who we ought to side with as Brandon starts to show much more humanity and Jim reacts to conflict and confusion by coming across as a flippant jerk. Kitean is never more than just eye-candy (she's often seen in negligee and there's an obligatory shower scene as well) but Tenney makes Brandon and Jim into the kind of thought-out characters that seldom appear in horror films.

I can't say I ever thought Witchboard was anything great (it could've benefited from more atmospheric direction - the movie suffers from looking overlit) but compared to the glossy, overblown nonsense that too often passes for horror these days (I'm looking at you, Platinum Dunes!), it comes across as a winning effort. And I'm still fond of the punk rocker medium (Kathleen Wilhoite) who practices her quirky brand of "psychic humor" before taking a fatal dive on to a sun dial.

To use the customary sign-off after using the Ouija: "Good-bye."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

One Is The Loneliest Monster

The above poster for Splice is one of the most eye-catching one-sheets I've seen in awhile - not just for the striking image itself but for the fact that it reminds me of how rare it's become to see a single original creature as the subject of a genre film. Save for the return of an old favorite like The Wolf Man, monsters in the new millennium have stuck to a "more the merrier" (or scarier) attitude with the genre of late represented by either zombies or zombie-like victims of virulent plagues (Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Quarantine, The Crazies), werewolves (Dog Soldiers, Skinwalkers), vampires (30 Days of Night), the subterranean crawlers of The Descent, the Lovecraftian spawn of The Mist, as well as the familiar likes of the Aliens and Predators and the mythological creatures of Clash of the Titans.

The most dramatic thing about Dren isn't the cleft down the center of her head or her X-shaped pupils but that she's a monster in 2010 without any back-up. It's become so common now to see monsters travelling in anonymous hordes, finding strength in numbers, that it jumps out to see one going solo.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Ten Reasons Why This Summer Won't Suck

Hard as it may be to remember, summer movies used to premiere exclusively in the summer months. Back in the day, there was none of this business of releasing FX-heavy, blockbuster style movies like Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief or Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland in winter or early spring.

While it's nice for those who enjoy these kind of movies to count on seeing them all year round, some might say that the idea of a summer movie season has been rendered obsolete. I say it doesn't matter what else is released the rest of the year - to not be excited about the summer movie season is like being blasé about Christmas: Not going to happen.

Admittedly, this summer looks pretty light on films to anticipate (and real light on horror - I guess Drag Me To Hell's weak showing last June took a toll) but here's my top ten reasons why I'm looking forward to the next few months of movies:

10. Jonah Hex

This adaptation of the DC horror/western comic will suck, surely, so maybe it shouldn't be on this list at all. But on the other hand - they made a freakin' Jonah Hex movie and that blows my mind! Hex is a character that only the most die-hard comic fans have any idea about, a character that even within the comic book community has extremely limited appeal - in other words, he sounds like the ideal character to build a big budget summer movie around, doesn't he?

Oh, and it's also a Western - and we know that's proven box office gold right there. So...this will be tanking in a big way when it hits theaters on June 18th (serving further death notice, Hex shares that date with Toy Story 3) but I'll be eagerly checking it out just the same.

9. The Last Exorcism

Some viewers have been done with the faux-documentary approach since The Blair Witch Project (1999). Others threw up their hands when Cloverfield (2008) came along. Just last year, Paranormal Activity (2009) further polarized audiences. For whatever reason, this type of film always provokes a divisive reaction. Personally, I usually love them and the idea of one dedicated to the demonic possession sub-genre seems promising to me. Produced by Eli Roth, I'm hoping The Last Exorcism will smoke all other faux-docs.

8. Inception

I wouldn't say I'm necessarily a big fan but it's hard to beat director Christopher Nolan's track record. At this point, it's almost a guarantee that anything he does is going to be quality and I can't imagine that with an artist as canny as Nolan that his first post-Dark Knight movie will be a misstep. Inception may not be as much as a slam-dunk as Batman 3 would be but this thriller set inside of dreams looks primed to keep Nolan's growing reputation intact.

7. Machete

This'll be the movie that shows the difference between a Mexi-can and a Mexi-can't. As the fake trailer for Machete upstaged almost everything else in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's tag-team exploitation extravaganza Grindhouse (2007), I hope that if this feature-length expansion turns out to be great, they'll pull the terminally dull Death-Proof from all Grindhouse DVDs and substitute Machete instead.

6. Splice
Genetic mutants should always be found running amok in at least one summer movie offering. To that end, Splice is this year's entry in the science experiment gone awry sweepstakes. Looks a little funkier than the usual summer fare but at the same time, it also looks like a full-on B-movie with earnest, over-reaching scientists in over their heads chasing down their creation.

5. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage

I don't know if this will actually play in any theaters in my area but I sure hope it does. A feature-length Rush documentary is too cool not to see on the big screen. Don't you agree?

4. The A-Team

On the one hand, it's valid to say that supporting remakes and adaptations of old TV shows is just encouraging Hollywood to flood theaters with mediocre bullshit. On the other hand, we're talking The A-Team here and that's nothing for a Gen-Xer like myself to be indifferent about. One of these days, it's inevitable that they'll start making movies based on shit I didn't grow up with and invariably I'll stop giving a damn about most of what's released in theaters. But as long as Hollywood is raiding my childhood for inspiration and playing the nostalgia card, I'll keep being a chump.

3. Predators

I hope this does really reboot the Predator franchise as planned and that isn't just a one-off thing. Either which way, whether audiences go for this or not, I think the concept is great. It's simple, but with a lot of opportunities to show off the Predators and their abilities. I'm of the opinion that you just can't go too wrong with a movie about a hunt - and if you've got the Predators doing the hunting, then you're really good.

2. Piranha 3-D

To my mind, the only bad thing about Piranha 3-D is that we have to wait through the entire summer to get to it. Labor Day Weekend? Seriously? Come on! Maybe I'm nuts, maybe I'm too pumped about piranha, but I think this movie should've been scheduled for July 4th weekend or something. Put it out at the height of the season, not dragging on the ass-end of the summer. Then again, I'll admit that my tastes and that of the movie-going public aren't always a match. To most people, this might look like a joke - like a glorified (or not so glorified) SyFy Channel movie. That attitude confounds me because all I see is awesome. I didn't think I'd be ok with CGI piranha but it turns out I am.

1. The Expendables
A movie that needs no further hype at this point - all I can say is that I am truly jacked to see it. Had Stallone's last two pictures - Rambo (2008) and Rocky Balboa (2006) - not been as satisfying as they were, I'd been more leery about the prospect of this being any good but I think the odds are in its favor. I just wish Kurt Russell had been able to be a part of this as well.

The above titles may not look like the makings of a great summer to everyone, but they look damn promising to me. Sure, I may feel very differently about them by the end of Labor Day weekend but with the summer just starting, who cares about all that now?