Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Devil And Max Jenke

With little enthusiasm, I attended a screening of The Rite today and I can report that it was...not quite as lousy as I had feared but still weak sauce. Can we just agree that of all the sub-genres in horror, demonic possession has produced the most sorry lot of also-rans? Most recently, The Last Exorcism (2010) had good performances but the movie around them had the misfortune of being shit. On that count, The Rite betters Last Exorcism but it's still banal and middle-of-the-road.

The Rite is a movie that wants to be above pandering to the cheap seats (we know this thanks to a derisive comment made by Anthony Hopkins' character - when an exorcism fails to meet an observer's expectations, he asks them with a chortle: "What did you expect? Spinning of the heads?") but it's not smart enough to be involving on a higher level, merely somber. Director Mikael Hafstrom did ok by the Stephen King adaptation 1408 (2007) but that movie had an energy to it (largely thanks to John Cusack's performance) that The Rite does not.

Colin O'Donoghue is the film's lead, playing the dour Michael Kovak - a young man who entered into the seminary merely as a way to fund his college education and who, after four years, is ready to bail before taking his priestly vows until Father Matthew (Toby Jones) persuades Michael (with the threat of making him pay off his sizable student loans if he ditches the church after enjoying an education on their dime) to travel to Rome to take a course that'll teach him how to be an exorcist. That eventually brings him in contact with Father Lucas (Hopkins).

The doubtful Michael observes Lucas in action performing exorcisms and Hafstrom makes the mistake of showing us sights during these sessions that no sane person could write off - as Michael does - as being wholly the product of mental illness. I suspect that either Hafstrom, the studio, or both, thought that audiences would be impatient if they didn't see enough FX and so on prior to the climax but yet it hurts the film dramatically to see Michael witness so much and yet still be stubbornly, obstinately unconvinced. Even Dana Scully would've slapped this guy.

Had Hafstrom staged these early incidents in such a way that even we in the audience could have reasonable doubts as to Lucas' prognosis of possession, then we'd be in Michael's corner more. As is, the character just comes off as dense.

The other big problem with The Rite - it's number one problem, really - is that there's only one movie to date that's staged a great exorcism and that's The Exorcist (1974). That movie did it all, it did it best, and anything after just seems like a weak pretender. Worse, like parody. William Peter Blatty was aware of this when he made Exorcist III (1990). That's why he fought the studio so determinedly to try and not include an exorcism. In fairness to the studio, though, I think they were right to believe that any audience going into Exorcist III would be royally pissed if the movie contained no exorcism.

At one point, before Blatty stepped into the director's chair, John Carpenter was in talks to helm Exorcist III and in the book John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness, he says he argued his own case for an exorcism with Blatty: "I kept suggesting a third-act exorcism and kept pushing the both of us to come up with some new, exciting and grotesque devil gags." Blatty resisted this but, of course, he eventually ended up directing the film himself and being forced to include an exorcism anyway - a challenge he rose to admirably, if begrudgingly. I love the film Blatty made but I also would've loved to have seen how Carpenter would've handled the material. His Prince of Darkness (1987) remains one of the very few (only?) post-Exorcist demonic possession movies to do something distinctly different in the sub-genre while still coming through on the visceral shocks that go with the territory.

Sorry, I'm getting away from The Rite here but, really, there isn't much to talk about. Another huge misstep Hafstrom makes is including the usual foul-mouthed demon talk. If there's any one influence from The Exorcist that needs to be permanently shelved, it's that. Regan's vulgar dialogue still works in The Exorcist but it's been laughable in any movie since then. I don't know what demons should be saying to get our attention these days but the lascivious come-ons, the dirty taunts, the obscenities - they all need to be retired. The Rite does a little better in having the possessed Father Lucas (a plot point revealed in the film's advertising so no spoiler warnings here) show some of Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter persona, digging into the psyches of those around him. But at the same time, it feels too much like Hopkins just reaching back to familiar shtick. Rutger Hauer plays Michael's dad in flashback scenes and I wish that he had been cast as Father Lucas instead.

During the climax, to win against the demon that's possessing Father Lucas, Michael must come to terms with whether he really believes in God and the Devil - a crisis of faith that comes off as a call back to Fright Night (1985). That movie cleverly introduced an intriguing wrinkle into vampire lore, saying that a crucifix only works on a vampire if the person wielding it has faith. The Rite tries the same thing with Michael needing to believe in the power of the cross again before it will do him any good. One expects Hopkins as the possessed Lucas to spit out the line "You've got to have faith for that to work on me!"

Similar words could be spoken to Hafstrom and his collaborators on The Rite. You've got to have faith in the movie you're making if you want viewers to invest in the story you're telling. If you don't believe that your movie really needs to exist, nobody else is going to believe it either.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Take My Wife, Please

It never quite struck me until my latest viewing of The Brood just how brutal it is that Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) strangles his estranged wife to death. Not that I normally take acts of strangulation lightly but I guess I always accepted Frank's murder of Nola (Samantha Eggar) as a horrible but necessary act. After all, he's trying to safely extract his kidnapped five-year-old daughter from the Somafree Institute where she's in the bunk house of the deadly Brood and the only way to stop the Brood from killing Candice (Cindy Hinds) is to stop their "mother" who is psychically willing them to attack. Frank isn't really the killing type, I don't think, but Nola really forces Frank's hand in the matter. Oh, excuse me - I mean forces his hands.

Cronenberg's films have always been lauded for thier precognitive acumen and philosophical depth. But amid all the provocative, esoteric ideas that his films have offered, Cronenberg says something very simple and true in The Brood - an observation born not from intellectual study but from bitter experience:

On that count, Frank worries that Candice has already been screwed up before she's even six. Sadly, all evidence suggests that he's right.

In his 1981 book Cult Movies, critic Danny Peary fumed at The Brood's final sight of Candice, writing "...It makes me angry that Cronenberg ends the film by showing welts on [Candice's] arm (signifying that her rage is building up in her just as it did in her insane mother when she was a child) - why can't contemporary filmmakers ever let us leave the theater thinking it's over and all is well?" I don't know what movie Peary was watching but I'd like to know how the Hell all could possibly be well after the events of The Brood.

That said, I always went along with it when Frank and Candice drive off at the end. Sure, Candice's trauma isn't something that a bowl of chicken soup is going to remedy but at least she has her one sane parent so some good days might lie ahead. This time around, though, I couldn't help but think that Frank and Candice's time together is surely almost at an end. Frank himself might know this but doesn't let on.

The whole murdering your child's mother thing...even if the police never show up at his door asking questions (and I can't imagine that they wouldn't), it's still a thing, you know? And that's a shame because, as The Brood shows, Frank really tried to be a good dad.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Fantastic Fatality

With the release of Fantastic Four #587 (in stores Tuesday), one of the members of Marvel Comics' First Family will perish in the concluding issue of the storyline titled "Three." I'm pretty sure that Reed Richards has already died before and returned and whoever bites it this time (my bet is on The Human Torch) will probably be back within a year or so but I say this with no sense of cynicism.

Yes, death in comics has been utilized as an attention-grabbing stunt since the famous Death of Superman storyline back in 1992 (an event that Marvel is recalling with FF #587 by shipping the issue in sealed plastic bags with a "3" logo on it, in the same way that Superman #75 originally came packaged in black bags with a blood-red Superman "S") but I say: "what's wrong with grabbing some attention?"

The most common complaint about these high-profile, heavily-hyped deaths is that they never prove to be permanent. Superman eventually returned; Batman recently died and has just come back. The same goes for Captain America. A more dedicated follower of the X-Men franchise could tell you how many times Jean Grey aka Phoenix has been killed and resurrected but I'm guessing the number on that must be creeping towards the double-digits. With all these death-defying comebacks, the gripe is that because these characters don't stay dead that the death is meaningless - that, essentially, the reader has been ripped off. I say that's bullshit. I think that attitude mostly comes from the investor mentality - fans who jump to buy these "death" issues because of the imagined value they think these issues will have only to have the character's return thwart that.

Personally, I enjoy these storylines. The normal rules of mortality don't apply to superheroes and that's part of their appeal. Even the street-level hero Frank Castle aka The Punisher recently died (torn to pieces by Wolverine's sociopathic son Daken) only to be resurrected as a Frankenstein-esque monster (in a truly gonzo arc dubbed, naturally, "Franken-Castle") before becoming whole again.

That's the kind of story that's uniquely suited to the anything-goes world of comics. So why not take advantage of that? Punisher writer Rick Remender really ran with that unlikely plotline and it was a great read from start to finish, taking Frank Castle on a truly wild journey.

FF writer Jonathan Hickman has been weaving a complex run on the book so far and based on that I feel safe in saying that "Three" and its resulting fallout won't be an act of hackery. In comics, it's just the name of the game that a character's death will only be the halfway point of the story.

Even the recently deceased Brother Voodoo won't be gone for good.

Well, actually...that's one death that might stick for awhile.

Sorry, Brother. R.I.P.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

No Wonder People Don't Read Any More

This past week, Fright Rags debuted their "King Collection" series of T-shirts based on the classic cover art for Stephen King books like Night Shift, The Dark Half, Pet Sematary and Skeleton Crew and looking over these nostalgic images got me lamenting the fact that somewhere along the way, tastes and approaches to design changed and we've ended up with forgettable cover art like this:

That's probably not going to be on a T-shirt anytime soon. It's no knock against the content of the book but it does make me wonder where the knack for crafting cool jacket art went. More than that, it makes me wonder where the appreciation for good jacket art went. It boggles my mind how the original, iconic artwork for King classics is always ditched when a new edition comes out in favor of increasingly bland, boring designs.

I mean, really - take a look and these old vs. new pics...

Who the hell approves of this stuff? The Pet Sematary cover at the top of this post was (and still is!) enough to be scary on its own, even before you cracked open the book. This newer design? Not so much:

I know it's shallow to judge a book by it's cover but the fact that decades later, people still find the imagery from those early King books appealing (to the point where they want to have it on their clothes!) tells me that artwork can make a real impact. Maybe the old imagery on those King books seems juvenile or corny to the people in publishing who make the decisions about these things now. If so, that's a shame. With sights like a hand sprouting eyeballs and crippled Paul Sheldon in the shadow of an axe-wielding psycho, the old artwork wasn't afraid to revel in the pulp status of its material. The new designs all run from it, trying to look hip or clever instead.

The writing still speaks for itself but maybe Fright Rags' King Collection will serve as a reminder that there's something to be said for horror books that don't disguise or apologize for what they are.

To check out more great cover art from the '60s, '70s, and '80s, skip over to Too Much Horror Fiction.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Kindergarten Meets Kinder-Trauma!

Every parent thinks their child is a potential prodigy and I'm no exception. While some kids are sports stars in training or budding musicians, my five-year-old son Owen loves to draw. Even better, he's latched onto his father's love of the weird, the geeky, and the macabre.

His artwork recently caught the eye of my pal Unkle Lancifer of Kinder-Trauma and Unk has been kind enough to put a spotlight on Owen's drawings. Click over to Kindertrauma for a mini-gallery of Owen's handiwork, including his renditions of the posters for such above his age range fare * as Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse (1981) and Man's Best Friend (1993) as well as the slightly-less-scary likes of Mark Hamill as Flash nemesis The Trickster!

My thanks to Unk - I hope everybody enjoys the pics! Here's a couple more of my faves:

* For the benefit of anyone who might be concerned, I should add that Owen doesn't watch R-rated movies yet (well, except for Army of Darkness), he just loves looking at the DVD covers!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Fango At 300!

I started buying Fangoria with #22, an issue which featured Halloween III: Season of the Witch on the cover. That was a long frigging time ago so holding Fango #300 (!) in my hands is a sharp reminder of how much time - and how much horror history - has gone by since I picked up my first issue of the World's Greatest Horror Mag at a now long-defunct book store in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Those early years, when the ship was being steered by "Uncle" Bob Martin and David Everitt, were the magazine's fondly-remembered formative years. Horror was changing in the splatter age and Fango was right there on the cusp of it. When both Martin and Everitt left the mag prior to its 50th issue, it was a genuine shock to readers.

Thanks to those behind-the-scenes shake-ups, little could be done to make that first publishing milestone a special occasion but succeeding Fango Editor Tony Timpone went on to make sure that Fango's anniversaries would be duly celebrated with jam-packed issues.

Now, Fango is celebrating its 300th issue in the aftermath of yet another editorial change. After a lengthy run, Tony Timpone moved up the ladder to other responsibilities in the Fango organization, leaving Chris Alexander to step in - as of issue #293 - as Fango's first new Editor-in-Chief in over two decades. That means the responsibility of assembling a 300th issue extravaganza fell into Fango's new editor's lap with barely any prep time. The change may not have been quite as last-minute as those changes surrounding issue #50 but seven issues is still a very short time to pull together an anniversary issue that could meet the high bar set by the mag's previous landmarks.

Alexander's solution was to honor 300 essential horror films, with brief commentaries from a mix of filmmakers, actors, and genre commentators - topped off with a pull-out poster reproducing the classic Godzilla cover to Fango issue #1. What Timpone might have done had he stayed in place for the anniversary, we'll never know (he does contribute an editorial and several of the issue's capsule reviews) but judging by past examples, I imagine it would've been very different than Alexander's approach. And also, had Alexander had more time at his new post leading up to this issue, I expect that we'd be looking a very different celebratory ish as well.

As is, Fango #300 is a fun read, oozing with a love of the genre, but it inescapably suffers in comparison to the anniversary issues of the past. Given the situation, I think it's a miracle that Alexander was able to put together as elaborate an issue as he did but it's still, unfortunately, the least of the centennial Fangos.

Fango's anniversary issues - including the 25th and 30th anniversary issues - have always been used to take measure of where the genre has been, where it's at, and where it's going. As such, they were Who's Whos of authoritative genre voices, bringing together the best, brightest, and most knowledgeable genre critics. Previous Fango anniversary issues have been graced by the seasoned skills of Maitland McDonagh, Tim Lucas, Tom Weaver, Bill Warren, Kim Newman, Douglas E. Winter, Stephen Bissette, David J. Schow, Peter M. Bracke, Ramsey Campbell, Chas. Balun (R.I.P.), David J. Skal, and Joe Kane (aka The Phantom of the Movies). That none of those venerated scribes - nor many of the magazine's most notable past contributors like Carnell, Ryan Turek, or Kier-La Janisse - are found in the pages of Fango #300 feels like there's just too many people missing to call it a proper party. Even longtime Literary Associate Linda Marotta sits this issue out (but at least Philip Nutman is still around!).

Fango is in a transitional time and this issue is proof of that. I think Alexander made a Herculean effort, given the time and resources available, to pull out the stops for #300. Issues like this don't come together overnight and it's a better anniversary issue than it probably has any right to be. Alexander and managing editor Michael Gingold contribute the lion's share of the reviews and it's enjoyably batty to see Uwe Boll offer his opinion on The Shining, Vincent D'Onofrio (!) give a shout-out to High Tension (2003), and to see Gene Simmons and Lamberto Bava share a byline (!!) on the issue's back page. And it's also welcome to see underappreciated films like Parents (1989), The Last Wave (1977), and The Burrowers (2009) get some notice.

It's a bummer that the first issue of Alexander's editorial reign to date that I haven't been 100% keen on is this anniversary issue but that doesn't dampen my enthusiasm at all for where Alexander has been taking the mag and where it's heading. His arrival in the editor's chair has been a great shot in the arm to Fango and I have no doubt that some of its best days are ahead. To have an anniversary issue so early on in his editorial run is a monster of a hill to climb and given the circumstances, I think Alexander was wise to spotlight something that every horror fan can come together on - classic movies. Although I dearly wish that a place could've been found among this issue's 300 films for The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966).

Cheers to Fango at 300! May it continue to be the biggest name in horror journalism for another hundred issues and beyond!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Marvel Costume Cavalcade

The above pic is of the first Halloween costume I ever wore - well, not the exact costume itself but the same model, as issued by famed costume supplier Ben Cooper, Inc. - so I think I know a little something about how to dress like a proper Marvel superhero (looking back at this costume for the first time in decades, I'm guessing that the puzzling addition of yellow to a Spidey suit was strictly a safety consideration for young trick or treaters). That means the release today of pics from both the upcoming Spider-Man reboot and the Captain America film has got me ready to give my expert opinion.

First, Captain America:

Cap is a tricky character to get right (just see the Albert Pyun-directed 1990 film for evidence of that) but everything I've seen about this movie makes me think that Joe Johnston and co. have nailed it. I think the costume as seen in this pic is note-perfect. It closely follows artist Bryan Hitch's redesign of the Cap uniform as seen in the Ultimate Universe with just a few tweaks. By incorporating a more military feel to the traditional Cap costume, Hitch was able to shed some of the inherent goofiness of Cap's look while still honoring its iconic essentials. It doesn't surprise me that the makers of Captain America have decided to follow that direction in the film and it also doesn't surprise me how perfectly that look translates to live-action. If I had to grade this, just look to the 'A' on Cap's helmet.

Now, Spidey:

Eeerrr...this is the first look of Andrew Garfield as Spidey and I've got mixed feelings about it. Based on this stand alone pic, I think Garfield is definitely the right guy for the part on a physical level. He's got the right gangly look and I like that director Marc Webb hasn't tried to bulk him up they way Raimi did with Tobey Maguire.

But the costume...if this is really the final costume and not just the early version that Peter wears during his short-lived stint as a wrestler, let's just say that it's going to take some getting used to. Say what you will about the Raimi films, one thing they should be applauded for is getting the classic Spidey costume on screen. You'd think that would be a no-brainer, as the original red and blue Spidey suit (designed by Jack Kirby, not early Spidey artist Steve Ditko) is so classic that it seems dumb to tamper with it. Clearly, though, others feel differently.

With the Raimi films already proving the case for Spidey's classic duds, obviously what you want to do for your semi-controversial reboot is goof around with the costume for no apparent reason. I don't want to complain too much without knowing whether this is really the main outfit that Garfield is wearing but it's got some serious lameness going on. I don't think Flash Thompson would be such a big Spidey booster if ol' Web-Head wore an outfit like this in the comics. On the upside, at least it's not the CG shit that Warners and Martin Campbell have stupidly saddled Green Lantern with. And also, it's still red and blue so thumbs-up for that. On the downside, what is up with the fucked-up Spider emblem? It looks more like a Rorschach blot than a spider. And why does the web design on the chest just kind of dribble-drabble away as it travels down to his torso? It's Spider-Man so why be half-hearted about sporting the webs? And what's going on with the gloves? Not too crazy about what I see there, no sir.

As some have pointed out, there's a hint that Garfield may be wearing mechanical web-shooters as you can glimpse something metallic on his wrists. If that's the case, I'm jazzed. I didn't hate the organic shooters at all but as a fan, I'd be pumped to see them go old-school and bring the classic mechanical shooters to the big screen.

All nit-picking aside, I'm still on board with the new Spidey flick. If that's the final costume we're seeing (sans mask), I can live with it if everything else is up to par. I might even come to love it if the movie around it is good enough. But looking at the two pics that have come out today and comparing how immediately classic Cap looks to the "eh, I guess it's ok" way that Spidey looks, it does make me wish that all of Marvel's properties would revert back to their control.

And yes, when they get around to making a Dr. Strange movie, I do want him to look like this:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ghoul, Interrupted

In this first week of the new year, I find myself in a bit of a funk. Maybe it's just the inevitable post-holiday comedown. Maybe it's a feeling of uncertainty about the year ahead. Whatever the case, I haven't been feeling 2011 yet. Maybe I just did my "movies to look forward to next year" column way too early. That's something to usher in the new year with and I did it back at, like, Thanksgiving. Clearly, that was a dumb move on my part and here I am paying the price for it.

But really, what I need to get me roused for this year is for John Carpenter's new film The Ward to secure a theatrical release in the US. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival back in September to mostly positive notices and while no one was calling it the second coming of The Thing, most reviewers sensitive to Carpenter's work hailed it as his strongest effort in many years and a film that showed that Carpenter's chops as a genre craftsman were still in place. That sounds like something worth celebrating to me. It opens this month in the UK but no distribution plans have been announced for the US.

Set in a mental hospital in the '60s, with an all-girl assemblage of troubled patients (led by Amber Heard, of Drive Angry), The Ward is part Girl, Interrupted and part ghost story as the ward these girls are housed in appears to be haunted. The full trailer is up now and I defy any Carpenter fan to say that it doesn't look like a winner:

2011 isn't exactly packed with horror offerings so a fall release for The Ward seems like a smart bet to me. And for that matter, is it too much to ask that Joe Dante's latest offering, The Hole, get the theatrical release in the US that it deserves? I mean, come on - it looks great:

I've resigned myself to the fact that I'll probably never see a Romero or Hooper film on the big screen again but I feel like those guys have been given their chances - and then some. But Carpenter and Dante?

I say their days on US screens shouldn't be done.