Saturday, April 30, 2011

Because I Could Not Stop For Death Wish V, Death Wish V Kindly Stopped For Me

I love unexpectedly coming across the exact movie that I need to see at the exact time I need to see it. And it's even better when it's a movie that's been under my nose for years. That's how I felt when I happened across Death Wish V: The Face of Death last night on AMC. I had watched Fast Five earlier at the theater and, while I didn't hate it, I sure didn't love it - not even as a junky action movie. It sounds foolish to say that it was too ridiculous but yet, it was too ridiculous. To be fair, the filmmakers clearly were not striving for realism. If they were, they wouldn't have Paul Walker's character of former FBI agent Brian O'Conner bust Vin Diesel's jail-bound "Dom" Toretto out of a bus en route to prison by causing a crash that sends the bus flipping over and over about twenty times until it's a smashed, shattered wreck and then cut to a news broadcast informing us that everyone on the bus was unharmed!

Essentially, Fast Five is a cartoon. More than that, it's a summer movie - an entity with even less regard for the laws of physics than a cartoon. For the most part I'm good with that but seeing Diesel and Walker hauling a huge bank vault behind their cars during the film's climax - having ripped the vault out of the bank's walls - and see them be able to reach high speeds with this mega-ton weight dragging behind them (and not have both cars wrapped around street lamps at the first sharp corner they take)...well, the movie just kind of lost me. Not in a way where I felt animosity towards the movie, just in the sense of, this nonsense ain't for me. Other nonsense, yes, just not this nonsense.

Flipping through channels at home later, I came across Death Wish V - a movie that I'd never watched but that turned out to be ideal viewing and a much more suitable action fix for me than Fast Five. How was it that I had ignored this movie for so long? The pinnacle of the Death Wish series, for me, has always been Death Wish 3 (1985) - possibly my favorite '80s action movie. But I never gave either Death Wish IV or V a chance to win me over. Why? Well, when Death Wish IV came out in '87 I was likely too preoccupied with college to catch up with it and just let it slip away. And when Death Wish V came out in '94, it seemed potentially too sad to see the aging Charles Bronson shuffling through a last gasp sequel.

Well, it looks like I'll have to make a point to catch up with Death Wish IV: The Crackdown now because after watching just a few minutes of Death Wish V on AMC last night, I was immediately hooked. Sure, I had missed the first fifteen minutes or so but luckily I was able to get up to speed without much difficulty. Turns out that Paul Kersey is now living under witness protection. When his girlfriend Olivia Regent (Lesley-Anne Down) sees her ex-husband, Irish mobster Tommy O'Shea (Michael Parks), try to muscle in on her fashion business and Freddie "Flakes" (Robert Joy), one of O'Shea's goons, attacks Olivia - permanently scarring her face - O'Shea has created a new enemy in Kersey. When Olivia is later shot and killed by Freddie under O'Shea's orders, it's war.

So, this is standard Death Wish territory. Thankfully for sensitive viewers like myself, by Death Wish 3 they had left the repulsive rape aspect of 1 and 2 behind (I don't know if it reared its head again in 4) so it's more palatable as entertainment to watch Kersey be pushed into action once again.

And, by the way, what a freakin' tragic character this guy is. I mean in Marvel Comics, the vigilante known as The Punisher was born when ex-soldier Frank Castle saw his wife and two children caught in the crossfire of a mob hit in Central Park. That incident alone was enough to spur Castle into waging a never-ending one-man war on crime. But Kersey, man...watching him have any slim semblance of a normal life be annihilated by violence, over and over, it makes you wonder if the makers of the Death Wish sequels could've shown a little mercy and had Kersey just continue to hunt criminals because he knew he had an appetite for it without having the man's life be shattered anew each time.

But...that wasn't the Death Wish formula. Kersey always had to have his hand forced and once O'Shea does that in V, it's on. Directed by Allan A. Goldstein, Death Wish V is not an example of stylish action fare. It's by the numbers all the way as Kersey methodically makes his way through O'Shea's men (one kill, as Kersey poisons a goon in an Italian restaurant, leads to the rhyming newspaper headline "Chicki Paconi Killed By Canoli"), saving O'Shea for last. But after sitting through the bluster of Fast Five, Death Wish V hit me just right. It's an unremarkable movie, sure, but it was comforting to see Bronson - a guy who was effortlessly macho without having to be muscle-bound - inhabit that familiar role of a stone cold avenger with ease.

And the supporting cast is great, too. You've got Joy (Atlantic City, Amityville 3-D) and Parks (Twin Peaks, From Dusk Till Dawn) who both make for interesting, quirky villains (Parks, in particular, seems to be improvising his part). In addition, there's Kenneth Welsh (Twin Peaks, Survival of the Dead) as a cop sympathetic to Kersey and couple of familiar faces that were once common on the big screen in the '90s - Saul Rubinek (True Romance) and Miguel Sandoval (Jurassic Park) - but are most known for their TV work now.

Death Wish V strains credulity at times but only in the casually absurd way that modern action films typically do (for instance, I was unaware that open pools of acid were found in clothes manufacturing shops). While I could gripe that it takes Kersey a little too long to get his rampage on, at the same time I appreciated the leisurely, almost laconic, pace of Death Wish V. As a movie, it's not overblown or bombastic; it's not worried about losing the interest of the audience. Instead, it's a movie that mostly relies on its array of interesting faces to hold the audience's attention. That, and the promise that every despicable character will get theirs in the end.

A respectable farewell to the character of Paul Kersey and to Bronson as a movie star (his only remaining work before his death in 2003 was for the trio of late '90s made-for-TV movies, A Family of Cops), Death Wish V is the kind of B-level action movie that still had a good chance to hit theaters in the mid-'90s but not so much after that.

Having finally watched it, I'm bummed that I never gave Death Wish V a chance on the big screen but truthfully, even if I had I doubt if I would have appreciated it quite as much as I did seeing it for the first time last night. In 1994 I surely would have balked or rolled my eyes impatiently at the sight of Kersey using a remote control soccer ball to slay a target but now it seems like the right kind of fun at the right time.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Red Hot Night Of Hate

It's a weird irony that, since the '70s, as B-movie genres became upgraded to A-level event pictures, audiences have become increasingly disdainful and dismissive of actual B-movies. The advent of cable and home video has only helped develop that mindset as whereas once it was common for Hollywood product and their scrappier competition to go head to head in theaters (in the summer of '83, for example, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn could be playing next door to Return of the Jedi), nowadays anything that smacks too much of low-end cheese has to settle for a direct-to-DVD release or VOD or whatever. Horror fares a little better as low-budget horror has proven time and again that it can thrive in theaters but when it comes to sci-fi, with rare exception, the big screen is now reserved for the likes of Avatar or Transformers.

This divide, in which films are often segregated by their budgets, has fostered a false sense of sophistication in audiences where the line between good and bad is typically believed to be solely about production values. Years ago, audiences were more apt to see past budgetary limitations and recognize if there was a sense of craft at work. By the time a sci-fi picture like Screamers came out in 1995, though, the sight of an abandoned quarry doubling as an alien landscape wasn't going to cut it with viewers - especially not with a long past his Robocop days Peter Weller starring, surrounded by a cast of also-rans.

Granted, Screamers isn't a cruelly neglected classic - its limitations don't begin and end with its budget. But yet it was an endearingly pulpy B-movie (scripted by Dan O'Bannon) that showed a fan's affinity for the genre and I got a kick out of being able to see it on the big screen. Six years later, I felt the same way, only more so, about John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars.

Set in the 22nd century, Ghosts of Mars takes place in the far-flung year of 2176 on a partially terraformed Mars as a team of police officers travel by train to a remote mining colony in order to bring murder suspect James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube) back to Chryse City to face charges.

Under the direction of their commander, Helena Braddock (Pam Grier), Officer Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge, in a role that originally was meant to be played by Courtney Love), Sergeant Nathan Jericho (Jason Statham), and rookies Bashira Kincaid (Clea DuVall) and Michael Descanso (Liam Waite) arrive in Shining Canyon only to discover that it's a ghost town. Even worse, a closer investigation reveals that many of its inhabitants have been slaughtered, their bodies decapitated and hung upside down.

The prime suspect in this massacre would be Williams, but he remains locked in his cell.

Before long, the officers discover just how angry the angry red planet is as they learn that the spirits of the beings that once inhabited Mars have been released from a tomb - an inadvertent blunder by an archaeologist named Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy, her character's name a likely tribute to legendary matte artist Albert Whitlock) - and these spirits have possessed most of the population of Shining Canyon, turning them into a barbaric tribal army dedicated to wiping out any aliens on Martian soil.

The spirits compel their hosts to mutilate themselves in a fashion that would make a Cenobite proud but this mangled mob needs a leader and the role of head cheese is reserved for a warrior that the film's credits refer to as Big Daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone).

Big Daddy Mars, like the rest of his possessed posse, doesn't speak and instead puts all his energy into trying to slaughter any humans that he and his followers can find.

Finding themselves outnumbered by a couple of hundred, the police officers are forced to enlist the aid of Shining Canyon's prisoner population - including Williams - as deputies. If any of them are going to survive long enough to get back on the train to Chryse, every able-bodied human has to fight. The catch is that once a warrior is killed, the spirit possessing them will exit that body and search for a new host.

Against such insurmountable odds and enemies so ferocious, how can a rag-tag band of cops and criminals possibly survive the long Martian night? I don't know for a fact that nights on Mars are particularly long, by the way, I'm just sayin' it anyhow.

If this scenario of cops and criminals forced to fight side by side against an overwhelming enemy sounds familiar, it might be because it sounds so similar to Carpenter's 1976 classic, Assault on Precinct 13. On the whole, Ghosts of Mars plays like a greatest hits from Carpenter's filmography. Elements not just from Assault but also Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing (Grier at one point even shouts the phrase "Who goes there?" at a fleeting figure, perhaps as a wink to The Thing's source material, the John W. Campbell short story Who Goes There?), and Prince of Darkness can be found dotting the film's landscape. And besides the call backs to his own films, the influence of a Carpenter favorite, 1967's Nigel Kneale-scripted classic Five Million Years To Earth can be felt.

To some, Ghosts of Mars was a playful culmination of Carpenter's reoccurring themes - an instance of the aging master riffing on his own familiar motifs. For others, it was a lazy recycling of his earlier, better work. For general audiences, it was just a B-movie, better left ignored.

My feeling on the film resides in the first category. It's not perfect by any stretch but I really dig Ghosts of Mars and I'm glad it saw the light of day on the big screen. It was definitely a throwback, not just to Carpenter's older pictures, but to an older style of sci-fi filmmaking. Right off the bat, the movie had me on its side with its use of miniatures and models (and with its pulsing heavy metal score - featuring Carpenter himself along with Steve Vai, Buckethead and Anthrax).

This was not a film that put all its eggs in with CGI. Most of the computer effects are reserved for the billowing red clouds of Martian dust (memories of the hassles of getting real fog to blow the way he needed it to on The Fog surely would've discouraged Carpenter from even thinking about using real red dust or mist on GOM) and the sudden decapitations several characters suffer as their Martian opponents hurl circular blades at them (with inhuman strength, clearly, as these blades don't simply lodge themselves in their victim's necks but slice clean through them). For the most part, though, this is a film about the future that is a fond reminder of the past.

Derided by many as being insufferably corny, I think it's clear that Carpenter was out to embrace the pulp aspects of Ghosts of Mars, without regard for how well that would sit with modern audiences. The movie plays like a comic book with Carpenter employing the use of balloon and diagonal transitional wipes and Dutch angles.

Carpenter and Larry Sulkis' screenplay incorporates scenes that Carpenter the Western buff must've always wanted to film, like a fight on a moving train as warriors try to board our heroes' transport. This is not supposed to be in the slick style of, say, Blade Runner or The Matrix. This isn't an example of future-noir. Instead it's a shoot-out at the sci-fi corral.

The film's dialogue - represented by lines like "I want you all jacked and ready and double-tough!" - is not supposed to be naturalistic. It's the kind of stylized dialogue that Carpenter had been using since Assault in which characters speak with a kind of poetic bravado and employ timeless phrases rather than current slang. As Carpenter said in the book Prince of Darkness, "Movies date very quickly. I try to pick lines that are enigmatic in specific but work in the long run."

Ghosts of Mars' entire cast plays it just right. When Ballard attempts to shame Williams for the criminal choices that he's made and he retorts by calling her a hypocrite, taking a dig at Mars' matriarchal society, with "You've just got the Woman behind your bullshit!" for me, that's right up there with any of my favorite Carpenter lines.

While at the time of its summer 2001 release, Ghosts of Mars was disparagingly associated with the two big budget Mars movies that had preceded it in 2000 (GOM was the Deep Star Six to Mission to Mars and Red Planet's The Abyss and Leviathan), it really belonged to a genre trend that was still on the horizon. In 2002, both Resident Evil and 28 Days Later kicked off a new era of popularity for zombies but Carpenter had already made the first zombie movie of the new millennium (just as 28 Days Later's rabid hordes were living people infected by a virus rather than truly members of the undead, Carpenter's possessed mob of "mindless motherfuckers" also deserves to be regarded as zombies). Most filmmakers to follow over the next few years did it slicker but Carpenter was there first.

Mocked for making a movie that was behind the times and out of touch, Carpenter proved once again to have his finger more firmly on the pulse of genre cinema than most.

And, given that the bulk of the decade to come would see the United States embroiled in controversial wars abroad, it's interesting to note that Carpenter made a movie that was an eerily prescient allegory about the perils of battling an indigenous population.

Ghosts of Mars doesn't rank with Carpenter's best but, like all his work, it stands up to a reevaluation. Blockbusters come and go but well made B-movies, like the kind Carpenter excels at, always find a more devoted audience in the end.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Shame-Free Summer Preview

With May just around the corner, film critics are busy listing their picks for the summer movie season and, unsurprisingly, there is little "whoo-woo-ing" or jumping up and down to be found towards the movies slated to debut from May through August. When it comes to selecting a short list of movies that they're maybe, kind of, sort of looking forward to during the coming summer, critics typically spotlight whatever Pixar movie is being released plus a few indie pics expected to bring some relief from all the brain dead blockbusters. And in the interest of making it look like they're not completely above the idea of having fun, they'll toss in a big title or two but usually with the caveat that "as guilty pleasures go, this one might not be too embarrassing..."

Well, this is one fan who shamelessly lives for the summer and week after week of supersized movies (although I'm not completely indiscriminate - Green Lantern looks atrocious). As what we think of as a "summer movie" has slowly encroached upon the rest of the calendar year (even January now hosts its share of FX-laden action and sci-fi) the specialness of summer has dimmed a little but it's still summer, damn it, and there are still some movies so massive that only the summer can hold them.

I'm all for indie films and quirky efforts but I came of age in the late '70s and early '80s, when films like Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist and E.T. were released. Those are the experiences I'm chasing after when I go to the movies in the summer (and, frankly, when I go to the movies the rest of the year too). I'll be checking out the likes of The Troll Hunter and Kidnapped this summer but it's unlikely that these smaller films will come to any screens in my area so I'll have to watch them on VOD. That's cool, but nothing beats sitting in a theater with a big bucket of popcorn and for that, I'm most looking forward to the following films:

(in order of release)

Even before the good reviews started to come in for the God of Thunder's movie debut, I was jazzed to see this. Come on - it's a Thor movie! How crazy is that? It's not surprising that Marvel properties like Spider-Man and The X-Men have made it to the big screen but I love that less likely choices for cinematic stardom - characters not so well-known by the general public - are getting the blockbuster treatment. So far, I've dug what Marvel Studios has done since they took control of some of their characters - the first Iron Man (2008) remains their best effort to date (although, a few quibbles aside, I also liked 2008's The Incredible Hulk and last year's Iron Man 2) - but I'm hoping that with The Avengers on the horizon that they'll raise the bar for themselves this summer.

It's entirely possible that I might regret taking the time to watch this one. Please don't think I'm not aware of that. Director Scott Stewart's previous film, Legion (2010), definitely wasn't any great shakes. But I'm willing to take the gamble on a post-apocalyptic western-flavored vampire tale. It looks silly and action-packed so I'm in. Plus, it looks like there's a fight scene staged on top a moving train and that's a movie convention I can never say no to. I just wish that the vampire creatures weren't CG.

Super 8
I'm not a fan of J.J. Abrams but this ode to classic early '80s Spielberg looks promising. I just hope that it'll deliver the monster movie goods. Every Spielberg fan wonders how his planned "scary alien" movie Night Skies (with FX by Rick Baker and, I believe, a John Sayles script) would've turned out had he not decided to abandon that project in favor of E.T.. Almost thirty years later, the period-set Super 8 (produced by Spielberg) might be as close as we get to an answer.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Michael Bay is often portrayed as an enemy to cinema and in some ways I agree but at the same time I have a feeling that this movie will be the absolute last word in giant robots and I can't sit that out.

The second Transformers film got dumped on by almost everybody for being too stupid which I thought was unfair to Bay just because the first movie had been stupid too but yet most people seemed to love it.

If you're going to like one dumb movie, for consistency's sake you shouldn't slam the next dumb movie - especially if they're more or less the same dumb movie. But that's just me. Anyway, all the derision heaped on Revenge of the Fallen might be good news for T:DOTM because I bet Bay felt like he had something to prove with this movie. Even when you're making movies based on a line of kid's toys, you don't want people making snarky comments about your skills.

Captain America: The First Avenger
Besides Super 8, this is the summer movie that even most critics feel safe sticking their necks out for and saying "hey, uh, this looks cool." Because, you know, it does look cool. A lot of people who have never read the comics might think that Cap is just a propaganda tool but he's a much better character than that (if you're not reading the current Cap run by comic scribe Ed Brubaker, check it out) and I really hope that director Joe Johnston and co. can do Marvel's super soldier justice. All I can say is that I love the trailers that have been released so far. The Red Skull! The Howling Commandos! Shield-slinging action! Skinny Steve! GAAAA! I want to see this movie now!!

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The bitter taste of Tim Burton's 2001 remake (damn - has it really been ten years since that came out?) won't keep me from getting excited about some fresh ape action. Horror fans always like to talk about how they'd fare in the event of a zombie apocalypse but man, surviving a simian uprising is the real challenge.

Zombies are one thing but monkeys can friggin' wreck you.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
I've got my fingers crossed that this remake of the much-loved 1973 TV movie will turn out to be every bit as good as it's being rumored to be. I tend to like the movies that Guillermo del Toro produces more than the ones he directs so DBAOTD's got that going for it, at least. This summer is real light on horror so I hope the few fear flicks that are slated for release will be really strong. Just going by the trailers, I'd say this is gonna be the one to beat.

Conan the Barbarian
No one thinks this looks good - not even the people who made it, I bet - but I don't care. It's Conan. It's in 3-D. How could I even think about passing on it? Because it's by the guy who directed the remakes of Texas Chainsaw and Friday the 13th? Well, yeah...there's that. But hey, I didn't hate either of those movies.

Look, it's like this - the sword and sorcery sub-genre is a sadly missed staple of my movie going youth and a comedy that hearkens back to those films, like Your Highness, just isn't what I've been looking for to scratch that itch. I know this movie isn't going to even come close to the quality of John Milius' original 1982 Conan but it might be as entertaining as 1984's Conan the Destroyer and by Crom, I'd be ok with that.

Fright Night
Because of the talent involved here - specifically screenwriter Marti Noxon, a veteran of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - I'm not willing to write off this remake of the 1985 classic sight unseen. In fact, I'm legitimately interested in it. If nothing else, I get the feeling that this won't be a Twilight-esque depiction of vampires. I think that Colin Farrell's Jerry Dandridge will be a deadlier brand of bloodsucker in the old-school style and that's a welcome thing. I could list the many ways in which this movie simply can't compete with the original - no Roddy McDowell, no Stephen Geoffreys - but I'm hoping it'll have some strong points that are uniquely its own. Is that unlikely? Eh, maybe. But as Dandrige said in the original, you've got to have faith.

Final Destination 5
Other people can get excited for Harry Potter or Pirates 4 but my summer won't be complete until I've seen the latest Final Destination in 3-D. This franchise gets hated on by pretty much everybody as being sub-mental but I'll follow the series for however many installments they're willing to make. With their elaborate, splatter-iffic set-pieces, these are modern day Omen movies without all the tedious Biblical horseshit. And I love that after four sequels, there's never been an attempt on the part of the moviemakers to expand the series' mythology. We never learn why it is that one sap always experiences a psychic vision of death and there's never been any attempt to personify death itself. To me, that's perfect. The theme of every Final Destination film is that life is nothing more than a giant death-trap. With that simple thought as the base, the storylines don't need to be over-embellished. In fact, they can just barely exist and as long as the wise keepers of the franchise continue to understand that, consider me an unapologetic fan.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

New Decade. New Rules.

A lot of the talk surrounding Scream 4 has centered on how scripters Kevin Williamson, Ehren Kruger and director Wes Craven managed to cope with the challenge of adapting to a world that's changed so much since 2000's Scream 3. Some have complained that, despite its creator's efforts to incorporate such modern staples as the internet, webcams, smart phones and reality TV, that Scream 4 is still mired in the '90s.

What I haven't seen anyone remark on, though, is that Scream 4 lags almost a decade behind another slasher franchise that already made strides to change with the millennium.

In 2002, Halloween: Resurrection was the first slasher film to embrace the internet culture, reality TV, and the advances in video technology. Producer Moustapha Akkad was surely spurred by the then-recent phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project (1999) to make the latest Michael Myers outing into something that spoke to the current vogue for the found footage genre as well as the burgeoning appetite for reality TV. Clearly, just a simple stalk and slash picture wouldn't cut it with young audiences anymore. And just for good measure, rapper Busta Rhymes was brought in to lend the movie some street cred.

The Resurrection screenplay by Larry Brand and Sean Hood follows six college students who have been chosen to participate in an Internet reality show called Dangertainment masterminded by entrepreneur Freddie Harris (Rhymes) and his assistant Nora Winston (Tyra Banks). The students are sent into the long-shuttered boyhood home of Michael Myers, each equipped with a personal mini-cam that broadcasts their every move to the web. Their task as they spend Halloween night in the Myers' house is to look for clues for why Michael decided to go with "stabbing" as a career choice.

Sara Moyer (Bianca Kajlich) is the film's resident good girl (following slasher movie protocol, she has an irrepressible, smart-talking BFF - Battlestar Galactica's Katee Scakhoff as Jen Danzing) and it's her internet friendship with high school student Myles Barton (Ryan Merriman) that will prove to be a lifeline when the real Michael Myers returns home to put the danger in Dangertainment. Smitten with Sara, even though they've only communicated through e-mails, Myles ducks out of a bustling Halloween party to find a private room in which to follow Dangertainment's broadcast. Before long, the rest of the party decides to join him.

When it becomes clear that the mayhem they're watching is not staged and that Sara and her "co-stars" are lined up for a slaughter, Myles uses the advantage of the cameras set up throughout the Myers' home to feed Sara via her phone the information that she needs to survive.

Brand and Hood's screenplay pulls more than a few boneheaded moves that director Rick Rosenthal (encoring from 1981's Halloween II) was apparently ok with. Killing off Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode in film's pre-title sequence set in a psychiatric hospital was likely exactly what Curtis wanted in order to end her obligation to the series but it's not ok that her plan to destroy Michael should involve setting up a rooftop booby trap that's so goofy it'd be laughed out of a Scooby-Doo episode. I mean, Laurie has Michael step into a rope noose which, when Laurie springs her trap, has him dangling in the air - upside down, no less! Ooooo!!

I don't know...maybe it's because Laurie's been kicking back in a mental hospital for a few years that this half-assed scheme seems like an effective way to dispose of Michael once and for all. I mean, hanging upside down does make the blood rush to a person's head and, as anyone will tell you, that's not pleasant. Assumedly, once Michael was at her mercy, Laurie planned to cut the rope or whatever and send Michael plummeting several stories to the ground. Would that hurt more than getting shot multiple times? Or more than being set on fire from head to toe? Because neither of those things were able to quite stop Michael previously, as Laurie ought to know. I mean, Michael fell off a second story balcony after Dr. Loomis emptied a full round of ammo in his chest and after that he just got up and walked away. Did Laurie forget that? Maybe her reasoning was that Michael isn't as young as he used to be so being dropped on his head from thirty, forty feet might do more damage than it would've before.

Honestly, though, even if Brand, Hood, and Rosenthal were all dumb enough to think this is how Laurie Strode should exit the series, you'd think that Curtis would've argued for something better - something that didn't make Laurie look completely moronic. Or maybe, God help us, this was the improved version. If this is what ended up being shot, I can only imagine what ideas were rejected along the way.

Besides having its most honored cast member go out like a fool, Rosenthal and co. allow the clownish Rhymes, while dressed to impersonate Michael, to verbally berate the real Michael (as Freddie believes it to be his cameraman in disguise). Did no one involved think that Halloween fans might be insulted by this? The error of having a C-list rapper get away with treating Michael like a punk is compounded when Freddie later unleashes a flurry of kung-fu moves on Michael and, again, survives to tell the tale. Is it any wonder that Resurrection is regarded as the worst in the Halloween series?

On the plus side, the notion of a group of viewers able to look on as Michael stalks his victims and being able to instantly advise Michael's prey on the best avenues for escape is a fitting high-tech analogy for the way that horror audiences have been shouting advice to the screen for decades. Unfortunately, constantly cutting back and forth from the Myers house to the group of kids at the party disrupts any chance for building suspense.

The one thing I do dig about Resurrection is Brad Loree as Michael Myers. Slasher fans tend to talk a lot about the different actors who have played Jason over the years but for some reason the different Michaels aren't discussed so much but I think that Loree was the best of the bunch since Nick Castle. He had the right body language and they designed one of the best masks for him. It's a shame that Rob Zombie cast Tyler Mane as Michael for his reboot as Loree was terrific.

As terrible as Resurrection is, though, as it was the last "official" Halloween sequel I can't help but have some affection for it. For all its missteps, I thought it left the series in an interesting place. Laurie was gone and the Myers house had been burned to the ground. How the next film would've continued without those familiar elements to lean on had me intrigued but Rob Zombie's 2007 remake put a quick end to that.

Some would say that's just as well. I say that while the later-day Halloween sequels were mostly awful and not looking to improve, Zombie's remake and sequel replaced them with something just as bad, if not worse. Moustapha Akkad's son Malek, who had been producing the Halloween sequels with his dad since 1995's The Curse of Michael Myers, took on the responsibility of shepherding the series after Moustapha was tragically killed (along with his daughter) in a 2005 terrorist bombing in Amman Jordan but while Zombie's name was able to gave the series a commercial shot in the arm, I have to imagine that Moustapha would never have signed off on it.

The one thing Moustapha understood about the series and Michael Myers was that you couldn't lose the boogeyman element. Once you turned Michael into just a psycho, you didn't have much. Rhymes' describes Michael as a "killer shark in baggy ass overalls" and I prefer that succinct take on the character to Zombie's efforts to portray him as the product of a crappy upbringing.

Unfortunately, what Moustapha didn't understand was that the series didn't need to jump on the latest technology or trends. Incorporating webcams and high tech in such a clumsy, pandering way only made Resurrection appear more out of touch. That's the same boat that Scream 4 finds itself in now. Thankfully, Scream 4 isn't anywhere near the unholy debacle that Resurrection was. And for those who think Scream 4 needed to embrace cutting edge tech more than it did, Resurrection proved almost ten years ago that the only cutting edge that should ever matter in a slasher film is a sharp blade.

Monday, April 18, 2011

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

In Scream 4, the film kicks off with spoofs of the fictitious Stab series - the films within the Scream films. Apparently, in the Scream-verse, Stab has chugged along to something like seven or eight installments. Unfortunately, unlike Stab's witty recreation of the events of the first Scream wherein Heather Graham was substituted for Drew Barrymore's character and Tori Spelling for Neve Campbell and the restaged scenes were given a glossy Hollywood horror sheen, the clips of these later-day Stab sequels prove to be soggy spoof material. Mostly they're just there to set up a pair of fake-outs as we think we're watching the opening of Scream 4 with two female friends alone in a house being stalked by Ghostface only to have it revealed that it's a Stab sequel and then the gag is repeated again with another pair of potential victims before Scream 4 properly begins.

The content of these mock Stab sequels is so banal, it made me wish that Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson would've tried to have some real fun in imagining where the phony Stab series might have progressed. If only they had seized on the starry precedent set by Hellraiser: Bloodline, Leprechaun 4: In Space, and Jason X and gave their bogus Stab sequel an out-of-this-world setting. Even John Carpenter had once lobbied for a Halloween sequel in which the indestructible Michael Myers would be shot into space (whether he really thought that was a good idea or if he was purposely out to undermine the series, who knows?) so taking a horror franchise out of earthly orbit is enough of a reoccurring theme to warrant spoofing. Yes, it would've meant that the fake-out scares of Scream 4 would've had to go by the wayside but I believe it would have been a worthy sacrifice.

Seeing Ghostface lurking on a space station would've been a wonderfully cheesy way to kick off Scream 4. And honestly, I wouldn't have minded if it had been the real story to Scream 4, either. It would've been ridiculous, yes, but I have to say I miss the days when horror sequels would stray into strange, misguided territory. Back in the day, it frustrated me to see a phony Jason behind the hockey mask or to see the real Jason fighting a telekinetic teen or stalking Times Square or to have the Halloween series derailed by the odd mythology of the Cult of the Thorn (having already been really derailed by the machinations of crazed mask maker Conal Cochran) but in hindsight I appreciate the room for spontaneity that existed then. As inept as some of those sequels were, and as much as they showed a deep misunderstanding of the creative properties involved, I miss the willingness to deviate from the program.

In the '80s and '90s, there wasn't much thought as to whether fans might be affronted or outraged by the direction of a sequel but the keepers of today's franchises always stay on script (with the sole exception being the Child's Play films, but that series has sadly been on hold since 2004's under appreciated Seed of Chucky).

The Saw films never took any zany detours (no Jigsaw Goes To Washington, for example) and likewise, for however long the series lasts you'll never see Paranormal Activity spring any surprises on viewers. At least the Final Destination films can keep ballooning its set-pieces to increasingly absurd levels but in general, the days of horror franchises doing anything to challenge or test their base are over. Walking out of a movie like Jason Goes to Hell, I would've told you that's what I always wanted but I'm not so sure anymore.

Being too cautious is ultimately what gutted Scream 4. I enjoyed it myself but as I said in my review, it's a movie that favors the old guard over the new blood and horror is always about new blood. That's how it's continued to survive. As confounding as some of the horror sequels of the past were, in hindsight I like that they only followed formula to a point. It's true that most of the creative leaps those sequels took didn't pay off but at least the attempts were memorable. It's easy to tell one Friday the 13th from the other - but can anyone other than the most attentive Saw fan tell those sequels apart?

While the box office for Scream 4 on its opening weekend wasn't exactly dismal, it was definitely lackluster compared to its predecessors. The series now ironically finds itself in the same position of the '80s warhorses it used to mock - a once thriving franchise whose audience has shrunk. If another Scream comes around, maybe they'll decide to throw caution to the wind and set their sights a little higher.

Like, maybe as high as the moon even.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Something To Scream 4

The Ghostface disguise that each of the killers have worn in the Scream films was sold in the original Scream under the brand name of "Father Death" but in Scream 4, the invisible killer waiting in the wings is Father Time. Facing a string of psychopaths is no picnic but the simple passing of the years can be awfully arduous in and of itself.

The surviving cast members of the series - Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette - are all back, reprising their signature roles. Ten years after the events of the last film, Deputy Dewey is now Sheriff Dewey and Gale Weathers is now Gale Weathers-Riley. Sidney herself is now an author, having penned the tale of how she overcame her past in a book titled Out of the Darkness. As part of her publicity tour for the book, Sidney is making a stop in her old hometown of Woodsboro on the occasion of the anniversary of the Woodsboro massacre.

As usual, where Sidney goes, tragedy follows. Timed with Sidney's arrival in Woodsboro, two young girls are murdered and Sidney's niece Jill (Emma Roberts) receives taunting phone calls from a new Ghostface killer. Dewey is tasked with heading the investigation into this new murder spree while a frustrated Gale, unhappy with her retirement from journalism, is eager to spring back into action.

Surrounding Jill are her circle of friends, a group as young as Sidney and her friends were back in the original Scream. There's Jill's Billy Loomis-esque ex-boyfriend Trevor Sheldon (Nico Tortorella), her far-too-hot-for-high school friend Olivia Morris (Marielle Jaffe), her acerbic, movie buff pal Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere), and the founders of Woodboro High's cinema club, Robbie Mercer (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie Walker (Rory Culkin). Which of these characters will be hacked to pieces and which ones will hang around for awhile as potential suspects? Or, to put it in proper slasher movie terms: "who will survive and what will be left of them?"

Speaking of which, while many elements in Scream 4 call attention to the fact that this is a film of 2011 - Facebook, texting, twitter, and webcams - the change that horror fans will notice most is the increased splatter. When you see a graphic shot of a murder victim's intestines spilled onto the floor in this R-rated movie, that's when you know that this installment of the Scream saga is taking place in a much different era than the original trilogy. The original Scream was repeatedly slapped with an NC-17 but now Scream 4 - the bloodiest in the series yet - has apparently skated past the MPAA on it's way to an R with nary a single cut. That's what a decade's worth of torture-porn will do for you, I guess. Or, to paraphrase the film's tagline - new decade, new MPAA rules.

The first Scream arrived at a point in horror history when being edgier than Dr. Giggles (1992) was enough to turn the genre on its ear, now there's films like 2009's The Human Centipede to contend with. Never mind the Saw series, that's kid's stuff - in a world where horror fans can get their hands on a copy of A Serbian Film (2010) if they're so inclined, the return of the Scream franchise can't help but be more quaint than cutting edge.

But...sometimes quaint is ok. Franchises represent cinematic comfort food and there's nothing wrong with seeking that out. Yes, horror sequels can still be scary to a point but ultimately they're about recreating a ride that the audience knows and enjoys and on that count, Scream 4 does a solid job. In many ways, Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven are explicitly attempting to recreate the first Scream and while it doesn't come close to being as strong a film as the original, Scream 4 is arguably better than either of the previous sequels.

What makes Scream different from other ongoing fear franchises isn't its sense of self-awareness (that's a trait that the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series already possessed before the first Scream came into town) but that it continues the story of its protagonists rather than that of its villain. Typically slasher series would bring back the sole survivor of the previous installment only to kill them off (Alice in Friday the 13th Part 2, Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3). Occasionally, there'd be a little continuity from film to film - the character of Tommy Jarvis remained at the front of three Friday the 13th sequels in Fridays IV-VI and Andy Barclay was Chucky's nemesis in Child's Play 1-3. But yet there was never any doubt that Jason and Chucky were the real stars of those movies. With Scream, though, it's hard to imagine any sequel being successful without the involvement of Campbell, Cox, and Arquette.

As we see the old gang back together again in Scream 4, all of them inching closer to middle-age (or already there, depending on how you define "middle-age"), it occurred to me that the Scream series might be turning into horror's version of the original Star Trek movies. The ST movies featuring William Shatner and the original TV crew were all about rounding up the old Enterprise gang that fans loved and putting them through their paces, even as the aging cast members became increasingly wrinkled and slower moving. I'd get a kick out of seeing the same thing happen with Scream and - judging by Scream 4 - we're well on our way. As one character says to Sidney (I'm paraphrasing here), "let's face it - you're not the young ingenue anymore."

The extra mileage on Campbell, Cox, and Arquette gives their characters a sense of melancholy that may not be reflected so strongly in the writing but that can't help but seep through the performances - especially when they're surrounded by actors half their age.

I remember reading an interview with Sigourney Weaver at the time of Alien 3's release in which she made a remark about the character of Ripley, saying that after all she'd been through that "survival had lost its allure." That phrase came to mind for me during Scream 4 as I wondered if after fifteen plus years of facing off against one psycho after another - a series of brutal ordeals predated by the rape and murder of her mother - if Sidney Prescott should be exhausted with life altogether.

In real life, yes, anyone who's suffered the traumas that Sid has suffered would likely be - at best - suicidal. And Dewey and Gale probably wouldn't be faring so well either. But this is the movies, and more importantly, a franchise. That means these characters have to soldier on in the face of events that would leave others quivering in a corner. For a brief moment towards the end of Scream 4 it looks as though the movie might actually embrace a ballsy, bleak ending but then the film's real climax kicks in.

It's a move that's undeniably chickenshit on an artistic level but yet it's also an unavoidable affirmation that we're watching the fourth - and most likely not final - installment of a successful horror franchise. Had the movie ended at the earlier point, fans would've surely cried bullshit and let's face it - when you're making the fourth entry in a series, who the hell else are you even making it for if not for the fans?

As the credits rolled on Scream 4, though, I found it ironic to note that while the original Scream had belonged not just to its youthful cast but equally to the young generation that responded to the film's sensibilities, that this reboot of the franchise should not be interested in passing the torch to its younger players. The high school characters in this film are all but inconsequential (this is not entirely an unwelcome move, by the way - having watched the original Scream again just within the past week, it's amazing to me the difference in talent between that film's cast and the group of potted plants that populate this movie). Fifteen years ago, Scream was an upstart horror film that succeeded by leapfrogging past the staid franchises around it but Scream 4 makes it very clear that the franchise's allegiances lie firmly with the old guard and not with the new blood.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

For a film referred to by many as a modern horror classic, the original Scream doesn't get much love from the horror community. Fans of the slasher sub-genre are an especially rabid bunch but they just don't have room in their hearts for Scream. Go to any horror convention and try to find anyone sporting a Scream T-shirt. You'll see plenty of fans proudly wearing their Halloween T's and even third-tier slashers like The Prowler and The Burning are represented but Scream? Forget it. I just wonder how well Scream would rank with horror fans had it never become such a hit. I'll wager a guess that we'd be hearing a lot of "man, people just didn't get that movie - you had to be a horror fan to really understand it!" whenever Scream was talked about.

But of course they can't say that because Scream was an enormous hit - a great word of mouth success that introduced a new legion of fans to the genre. Everyone has their own "gateway drug" that got them into horror and for many, Scream served that purpose. But is it a good movie unfairly dismissed by hardcore horror buffs or just a painfully overrated exercise in smartassedness? A little of both but ultimately I'd say more towards the former than the later.

The worst thing about Scream is the aspect that brought it the most critical acclaim and notoriety - its self-referential, film-savvy dialogue. Critics (who, by and large, hate horror films) latched onto this aspect of Scream and used it to intellectually justify their enjoyment of what would otherwise be just another slasher film. But scripter Kevin Williamson, using the character of film nerd/video store clerk Randy (Jamie Kennedy) as his mouthpiece to explain the "rules" for surviving a horror movie, shows himself to be a lazy study of the genre.

Among the several rules that Randy tries to educate his peers about, the much-touted "virgin" rule holds no water. It's a myth that needs to be put to rest. I know that many have read John Carpenter's Halloween as some kind of essay on puritanical values with Jamie Lee Curtis' virginal babysitter Laurie Strode surviving where her more ho-ish friends did not. However, while one could perceive an underlying irony to the fact that Laurie is a repressed character who aggressively attacks her assailant with phallic instruments, it's a stretch to say it's anything more than a plot convenience to have Michael's victims preoccupied with fucking or with planning to fuck and it sure as hell didn't create some kind of hardline "rule" for subsequent slasher movies.

Even Friday the 13th, the other big flag bearer for the "have sex and die" school of thought, doesn't adhere to that rule. Laurie Bartram as Marcie was way more of a "good girl" in that film than Adrienne King's Alice was. Hell, Marcie was in bed by herself reading a book when Mrs. Voorhees lured her out for the kill. And come on, Ned's death alone immediately torpedoes the virgin rule. And Shelly in Friday the 13th Part 3? That guy got no action and he still ended up stone cold dead. One might argue that there's a sub-clause to the virgin rule reserved for practical jokers but Scream fails to address that possibility.

And before we move away from this topic altogether, let's just say that it's unconfirmed that Jamie Lee Curtis always played the virgin in slasher films. Not to be lewd about it but I'd argue that her characters in Prom Night, Terror Train and Road Games were far from being the same sort of virginal wallflower that Laurie Strode represented. So Scream's biggest convention-smashing moment, where Sidney (Neve Campbell) gives it up for Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and thereby makes herself into a potential victim, can't be considered to be a radical reinvention of slasher cinema or a liberating blow for Final Girls wherein they can now be sexually active but still achieve survivor status. I mean, fifteen years before Scream, Ginny (Amy Steel) in Friday the 13th Part 2 not only slept with her boyfriend but went out and got tanked at a local bar and still lived to tell the tale so it's annoying to read interviews with Williamson where he pats himself on the back for breaking the rules of the slasher genre. You can fool critics about this shit but not real horror nerds, man.

It's my feeling that Williamson should've really boned up on his slasher films before writing Scream - you know, bothered to take the time to give himself a little refresher course - but as Scream made him rich and famous and the toast of the town and all that, maybe it wasn't so important.

As a send-up or deconstruction of slasher cliches, I think Scream is a big bust. However, it gets other things right. For one, Wes Craven's direction is at the top of his game. This was the first film he shot in widescreen and he utilized the framing to excellent effect.

His direction feels energized here and one almost wishes that this could have been his farewell to the genre as it's a real high note to his career with the murders of Casey (Drew Barrymore) and Tatum (Rose McGowan) being classic set-pieces.

The cast is also outstanding. In past slasher films, there'd be a breakout performer or two that stood out as someone to take note of but Scream's cast is filled with sharp actors - Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Rose McGowan, Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette. I may find some of the characters grating (particularly the morose Sidney, with her perpetually pinched expression) but I couldn't argue that the performances were lacking (although it could be said that Arquette's comic tendencies should've been reined in some as they throw off the mood of the film on more than one occasion).

As for Williamson's script, while it gets a lot wrong in observing the genre, it succeeds on other fronts. Historically the bane of slasher films was always how to fill the time between kills. The answer to that was usually "have them do whatever." So as characters would wait for their turn to get slaughtered, if they weren't getting laid or getting high they'd be shown engaging in everything from Strip Monopoly, doing their laundry, skinny-dipping, or watching movie marathons on TV. Scream did away with that kind of wheel-spinning by adopting a more soap opera-ish approach - supplying Sidney with a tragic backstory involving her slain mother, thereby giving the characters a lot of plot information to convey and a ready antagonist in the form of tabloid TV journalist Gale Weathers. Sidney wasn't just an unassuming teenage girl like most slasher heroines - she was already the center of a media firestorm.

Unlike most slasher films of the past whose running times often felt padded, Scream truly moves. After the intense charge of the lengthy opening scene, the movie barely lets up and by the one hour mark, the characters have already arrived at Stu's house where the climax of the movie takes place. Essentially what follows is a forty-minute finale where the stakes are raised right off the bat with the murder of Sidney's BFF Tatum - a move that reminds the audience that no one is safe in this film - and then events quickly roll toward the final face-off between Sid and Ghostface and the resolution of the film's mystery.

The revelation of the killer's ID's is what really makes Scream. Not just the novelty factor of having the killer actually be two killers working together (a twist that let it be plausible that the killer could appear anywhere at anytime) but the fact that it was two peers of the characters and that their motivations were so purely sociopathic.

In past slasher films, the killer was either a figure of pure evil (like Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger) or else their rampages were rooted in some personal humiliation or injustice (Mrs. Voorhees and Jason, or the killers in The Burning, Terror Train, Prom Night, or The Funhouse). Also, you had the occasional sweaty loner - as seen in Don't Go In The House, He Knows You're Alone, Eyes of a Stranger, Maniac, and Visiting Hours. Scream was different from all other slasher films in that its killers were directly from the protagonist's own immediate social circle and that they were so devoid of empathy and humanity.

One might say that killing is killing and that it's all evil but while that's true there's a difference between a character that's depicted as being the Boogeyman and someone who's supposed to have a real world motivation. And on that other level, there's a difference between a character like Terror Train's Kenny Hampson and Scream's Billy Loomis and Stu Macher. Characters like Kenny and the other "wronged" slasher villains have a kernel of humanity to them. They commit heinous, unforgivable acts but on some level we're invited to understand their position as victims of some kind of abuse. Mrs. Voorhees is a nut but she's also avenging her dead child. Cropsy of The Burning is a murderous psycho but some snot-nosed kids burned him into a misshapen lump so he's understandably got issues. Prom Night's Alex Hammond witnessed his beloved sister's senseless death so his killing spree seems pretty justified. But Billy and Stu...not so much. These two are not outsiders. In fact, they're part of the popular crowd. They both have attractive girlfriends. They come from well-to-do families. They've suffered no special traumas. Billy might be bummed about his parent's divorce but in the end, life is pretty good for him. And from what we see of Stu's life - it all looks like gravy. I mean, look at the friggin' house he lives in:

And yet these privileged kids have no qualms about murdering their friends.

Billy and Stu are chilling characters and Ulrich and Kennedy tear it up once the masks come off. Some might say that Lillard shamelessly overacts but I love his performance - especially as it escalates in Scream's final act. He's seldom given enough credit as being one of the great screen psychos. He's scary and pathetic all at once. There's something that rings appallingly true about the way he's capable of coldly butchering - or at the least, being an accomplice in butchering - people that he's known for years but snivels when wounded himself and whines at the thought of his crimes being exposed to his parents. Stu can't conceive of the pain of others, no matter how great, but is acutely sensitive to his own suffering, no matter how minor. That's a true sociopath and Billy has the same dead soul to match.

Finally, Craven and co. hit gold when they discovered the Ghostface mask.

Just as Halloween wouldn't have been the same had Tommy Lee Wallace not pimped out a William Shatner mask, Scream wouldn't have succeeded if that Ghostface mask not been found at one of the film's locations - left behind by the grandchildren of the home's owners. Even after it's been parodied in the Scary Movie satires, I still find that mask to be incredibly creepy. As slasher disguises go, I consider it second only to Michael Myers' mask in being able to conjure an instant feeling of unease.

For some horror fans, Scream will always be disdained. It revitalized the genre but that failed to earn it much gratitude. It's too clueless about the horror and slasher conventions it seeks to knowingly tweak to be a great film in my book but it does kick a little ass here and there. If nothing else, it's miles better than Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), a post-modern slasher film so inane makes Scream positively shine in comparison. Horror fans like Behind the Mask a lot because, you know, it seems to be made just for them but in this case, I'll side with all the teenage girls who go for Scream.