Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Summer Shocks 1986: The Fly

When it came to picking a Summer Shocks selection for 1986, it wasn't easy. I mean, there's great summers and then there's the summer of '86. Take a look at the line-up:

Poltergeist II: The Other Side (May 23rd)
Invaders from Mars (June 6th)
Psycho III (July 2nd)
Vamp (July 18th)
Aliens (July 18th)
Maximum Overdrive (July 25th)
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (August 1st)
The Fly (August 15th)
Manhunter (August 15th)
Dead End Drive-In (August 22nd)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (August 22nd)
Night of the Creeps (August 22nd)

Now that's a bad-ass summer! Even the movies among that bunch that were shit were still great fun (Maximum Overdrive, baby!!). For anyone who wants to make a case that being inundated with sequels and remakes isn't so bad, the summer of '86 makes for a damn good argument. Psycho III, Aliens, Friday the 13th Part VI, and Texas Chainsaw 2 are arguably the best sequels in their respective series. And even though it isn't so hot, Poltergeist II has to be seen as the better of the two Poltergeist sequels so there's that, too. But really, among a great crop of movies, David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly just can't be beat. Even after almost twenty years, as a tale of science gone awry it can easily mop the floor with recent offerings like Splice, dated FX and all. The Fly is just genius - and it has the most quoted tagline ever to boot.

For my full review at Shock Till You Drop, click here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Summer Shocks 1985: Day of the Dead

With its oppressive atmosphere and often abrasive characters, Day of the Dead is a hard movie to love - as opposed to the rollicking Dawn of the Dead (1978) or the classic chills of Night of the Living Dead (1968). Day is, by design, a harsh, difficult to approach movie.

In the summer of '85, it sure didn't have what fans were looking for in the final chapter in the Dead trilogy. For myself, walking out of a screening of it that summer, I must've looked more than a little dazed. Day was one gnarly zombie flick. Savini's FX had never been better or ghastlier. To me, it's the pinnacle of splatter in the '80s. Add to that the volatile atmosphere and murderous tensions within the film's underground caverns and you've got a pretty grim picture.

Looking at it today, it's still grim - time hasn't softened the movie at all - but in an odd way it seems more and more like comfort food to me. The old-school ingenuity of Savini's effects, the scenery-chewing performances of Joe Pilato (Captain Rhodes) and Richard Liberty (Dr. Logan), the endearing Howard Sherman as Bub, Terry Alexander's wonderfully cheesy Jamaican accent, and John Harrison's synthesizer score - all of it instantly takes me back to that summer of '85.

To read my full Summer Shocks review of Day of the Dead, click here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Still Crazy After All These Years

Now celebrating its fiftieth (!) anniversary, Psycho is still a living thing, not some stuffed carcass like the birds that decorate the office of amateur taxidermist Norman Bates. Fifty years since Alfred Hitchcock single handedly created the modern horror film, we're still reeling from the way Psycho changed both movies and our collective psyche. One wonders what Simon Oakland's glib psychiatrist character would have to say about that.

Maybe just "Happy Anniversary."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Summer Shocks 1984: Dreamscape

The summer of '84 was the world-class geek summer of such heavy-hitters as Ghostbusters, Gremlins, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (who wouldn't give to have a summer like that this year?) but my personal favorite was Dreamscape. It wasn't hyped that much and I'm not sure how well it did at the box office but I took to it instantly.

As one of the first PG-13 movies, Dreamscape embodied the purpose of that rating and it was truly the perfect movie to see as a young teen. It wasn't so intense that it freaked me out but it was certainly edgier than a kid's film. It was pretty scary in parts (with some rad FX!) and it even had some mild sexual content that was satisfyingly risque to my eyes then. If your parents were going to drop you off at the mall to see a movie with your pals, Dreamscape was a perfect choice. After Dreamscape, I wasn't going back to PG movies. No sir!

Curiously, it's never really taken off as a big league cult film (just for David Patrick Kelly's pitch-perfect turn as evil dream linker and would-be presidential assassin Tommy Ray Glatman, I think Dreamscape earns its place in cinematic history - nobody rocked neon nunchucks like he did) but for those who caught it in theaters in '84 or who saw it on its endless airings on HBO back in the day, Dreamscape remains the stuff of fond memories.

For my full review, click over to Shock Till You Drop.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Summer Shocks 1983: Psycho II

Had the internet existed when Psycho II went into production, I'm sure there would've been no end to the online ire directed towards this project. To be fair, a sequel to Psycho looked like nothing but a bad idea, even with Anthony Perkins returning as Norman Bates. It was the success of the slasher genre that spurred Universal to bring the granddaddy of slashers back to the screen so a low grade slasher film is what most expected Psycho II to be.

While some thought the explicit violence of Psycho II did put the sequel in that lesser category, most fans applauded Tom Holland's clever script and Richard Franklin's sure-handed direction. In the summer of '83, Psycho II was by far my most anticipated movie. Appropriately for a Psycho film, my mother let me skip my junior high graduation to take me to see it and I was enthralled from start to finish.

Thanks to the incredible surprise win by Holland and Franklin, Norman Bates wasn't just a part of horror history anymore, he was slashing shoulder to shoulder in the '80s with Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers. Some might not see that as anything to celebrate but not only was Psycho II a superior sequel but the Anthony Perkins-directed Psycho III (1986) was as well. In some ways, I prefer Psycho III as it's a funkier, seedier entry in the series. It has a more lived-in aura of madness, a more macabre sensibility, and a richer sense of tragedy. It goes places that a direct sequel to Psycho couldn't have. But it never would've existed had Psycho II not accomplished the impossible and made Norman a horror superstar to a new generation of fans.

For my full Summer Shocks review of Psycho II, click here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Fun With Science

Whenever scientists play God in a horror movie, it seldom goes well and Splice is no exception. I'm not sure if Splice is trying to say that scientists shouldn't go certain places or that they should just have their personal shit together before they do. It's a toss-up. But whether writer/director Vincenzo Natali is anti-progress or just sees people as too flawed to shoulder the responsibility of bringing new life into world (like, really new life), I wasn't that taken with Splice.

Being a parent isn't easy, as scientist couple Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) come to find out. Of course, when you've invented a new life form in a lab, you've compounded the already daunting difficulties of child-rearing. When you're rearing a child, it helps to know what the hell you're rearing.

The genetically spliced offspring that Clive and Elsa create is dubbed Dren and with her accelerated growth cycle, the little thing sprouts from a tadpole to a young lady (albeit a young lady with a tail and stinger) in no time. But as Dren was never meant to exist and Clive and Elsa are a little dysfunctional as individuals and, naturally, as parents, her quality of life is lacking. Poor kid!

If this was the first movie in history to depict scientists messing with shit they aren't ready to mess with, Splice might've been provocative. As is, it feels second-hand. Natali is certainly conscious of the cinematic lineage his film is a part of, naming his scientist protagonists after Colin Clive, the actor who played Dr. Frankenstein in the original Frankenstein (1931), and Elsa Lanchester, who played the titular character in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Given that awareness, you'd think that Natali would've have come up with a story that didn't follow such a rote trajectory. I mean, come on - we've been here before. Tampering with nature? Bad scientists! Bad!

If you're going to make the umpteenth movie about overreaching scientists bringing a monster into the world, at least make it entertaining. Splice is not that. Clive and Elsa are not especially likable people. They're cocky and self-absorbed and their act of bringing Dren into the world reeks of carelessness. This is all intentional on the part of Natali. I'd be very surprised if he intended anyone to sympathize with his lead characters. That in itself isn't a problem. The problem with Splice is that the story is so boring. This is like going back to Horror Science 101.

Clive and Elsa are hotshots in their field, rock and roll stars of genetic engineering (they even made the cover of Wired!) but when the corporation footing the bills for their research doesn't want them to explore the option of splicing human DNA into a hybrid creation, they go rouge and create Dren as a side experiment. What follows is all predictable stuff for anyone who's ever seen a horror movie. Even the one provocative moment in the film isn't really so provocative. I'm gonna go ahead and talk about it so skip the next paragraph if you haven't seen Splice and you don't want any spoilers.

Alright - for those still sticking around, there's a scene where Clive is seduced by Dren and they cross a line that should never be crossed between man and miscellaneous. I get the feeling that Natali thought he was really pushing the envelope here but not only can the audience see this would-be shocker coming from so far away, but the only dramatic consequence from this scene is that Clive gets busted by Elsa. That's it. It amounts to an awkward "whoops!" moment but he might as well been caught banging some random chick. He and Elsa argue about this one-time momentary lapse of reason and then move on. There's a lot of truly weird, kinky, uncomfortable places that Splice could've gone in sexualizing the relationship between Clive, Dren, and Elsa - I can only imagine what David Cronenberg or Frank Henelotter would've done with this material! - but Natali barely cracks the door open before slamming it shut and running away.

In the end, Splice is a whole lot of nothing. After all the provocative posturing, it comes down to chasing a monster through the woods at night. There's a final act of violation that would be shocking if it hadn't been done in much more queasy, appalling fashion in The Beast Within (1982). The epilogue doesn't seem so much like a troubling coda to the film's action as it does suggest the unwanted possibility of a sequel. Most of all, it left me longing for the last shot of Humanoids from the Deep (1980).

Splice did not instill me with a new-found concern that genetic scientists need to tread carefully but rather that internerd sites should be banned from hyping films. I've lost count by now of how many films that sites like Ain't It Cool News and C.H.U.D. have acclaimed months ahead of time as the smart new genre film that fans need to support only to discover that the movie is pedestrian at best. It's worth noting that Splice isn't a sequel or a remake or PG-13 but it's still weak sauce. Some will point to its failure at the box office as a sign that audiences just don't have the appetite for challenging genre fare but while that may prove to be true, until some challenging genre fare does come along, we just won't know.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Third Time's The Harm

The novelty of 3-D didn't come to Elm Street until Freddy's last hurrah. Jigsaw has been putting victims in mere 2-D traps up until the seventh Saw. Friday the 13th, however, went 3-D at the first opportunity. Sure, timing had plenty to do with it - after all, 3-D had its second coming in '82-'83, just as Friday the 13th was coming up as a franchise - but given that the series has gone on to last twelve films so far (including Freddy vs. Jason and the 2009 remake), I think it's funny that as quickly as Friday's second sequel, the producers felt they needed a gimmick to maintain interest. Jaws needed it and so did Amityville but were viewers already so bored with the Friday formula after just one sequel that 3-D was the only way to guarantee another hit for Paramount? I don't think so but why look a gift horse in the mouth? Even though I was too young in '82 to see this in 3-D, instead of being bitter about it, I'm glad that other fans were able to enjoy that experience and share a joint with Chuck and Chili.

To read Ryan Turek's full Summer Shocks review of Friday the 13th Part 3 over at Shock Till You Drop, click here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Toast To Friday the 13th Part 2

For my Summer Shocks selection from 1981, I went with Wes Craven's Deadly Blessing as I think that's a movie that just doesn't get enough love. However, I have to say that my most beloved film from the summer of '81, and maybe - just maybe - my all-around, all-time favorite horror movie is Friday the 13th Part 2. I know that admitting this it doesn't say good things about me or my ability to appreciate the finer things in life but when it comes to Sack-Head Jason vs. Amy Steel, it's hard not to gush like a BP oil leak.

Part 2 was my first Friday the 13th, seen on late night HBO on a sleepover, and I'll never forget my friend and I daring to sneak a peek at the end of the earlier showing that night, at a time when his parents hadn't gone to bed yet. We already had our plans to watch the 2:00 am show - late enough when we knew no one else would be up - but our curiosity got the best of us at around 11:25 or so and we switched from Madame's Place or whatever to the final couple of minutes of Part 2. We put it on just in time to see Paul (John Furey) open the cabin door to reveal the adorable pooch Muffin and then for Jason to explode through the window behind Ginny (Amy Steel).

After that, we both lunged forward to change the channel. As a taste of what was in store for us, Part 2 looked freakin' intense! Maybe the new plan was to not watch the movie at all. But even though Part 2's opening with Jason exacting his revenge on Alice (Adrienne King) was scary enough to make us again reevaluate our decision to stick with the movie, we made it through to the end. After that, I was a Friday fan for life.

With any long-running series, whether it be Bond or Godzilla or Friday the 13th, I think fans are always loyal to whatever film in the series they first encountered and that's definitely true for me and Friday the 13th Part 2.

Nostalgia aside, I can decisively argue for Part 2 as the being best of the Fridays. Amy Steel is the best Final Girl of the series (I suspect a lot of the appeal of Part 2 stems from the fact that Steel never went on to have the movie career that many thought she should've had); Sack-Head Jason is way scarier than Hockey Mask Jason because he seems like just some real-life psycho holed up in the woods instead of an over-the-top super slasher; the make-shift shrine Jason has with his mother head on an altar and bodies of victims piled around it is a creepier sight than anything the other Fridays have offered (the nasty toilet Jason apparently shits in is pretty hair-raising, too); the Part 2 girls are the cutest of the series; Part 2 has my favorite kill in the series (the machete across the face to wheelchair-bound Mark, followed by his backwards tumble down the stairs); Stu Charno as Ted goes where no practical joker in the series has gone by actually surviving; and director Steve Miner delivers the best final chase of the series, a long sequence that kicks off with Ginny memorably exclaiming "There's someone in this fucking room!" And finally, there's a clever final stand-off being Jason and Ginny as she uses her child psychology education to play with Jason's head - I love that!

Oh, and there's some ambiguity at the end as we don't know quite what happened to Paul between Jason's jump through the window and the arrival of the paramedics and police. I guess the truth is that Miner and co. just didn't film a scene or a line of dialogue that they were supposed to but as a kid it seemed kind of artsy to me to leave it with Ginny deliriously asking "where's Paul?" as she's being loaded into an ambulance. I mean, shit - what did happen to Paul?

Also, Part 2 was the last Friday filmed on the East Coast (not counting the Times Square scene in Jason Takes Manhattan) and as someone born and raised in Massachusetts, I was always attracted by the unmistakable East Coast atmosphere of the first two Fridays. Sorry, but the woods in California or wherever just aren't the same as the woods in Connecticut or Jersey.

I might be too in love with Friday the 13th Part 2, I know. But that's just the way it is. It's a movie as familiar to me as my own face.