Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Saturday the 14th

I expect that Sgt. Tierney, as fine a policeman as he may have been, never looked too deeply into Alice Hardy's mad tale of being dragged into the waters of Crystal Lake by a boy named Jason. In coping with the messy aftermath of a major crime, he wouldn't have had time to be distracted by any wild stories. Besides, Alice's account was almost secondary when the facts so clearly spoke for themselves. Right?

Surveying the slaughter the day after, it must've seemed like an open and shut case. Pamela Voorhees, having been unhinged since her son drowned at Camp Crystal Lake due to counselor neglect back in the summer of '57, went on a killing spree spurred by the planned reopening of the camp. But yet, as neatly explained as the events of Friday the 13th might have appeared to be, there were still a few details that ought to have raised the eyebrows of even a lawman like Officer Dorf.

For instance, how did Mrs. Voorhees - a woman in her early '50s - manage to lift a grown man like Ned into an upper bunk without serious difficulty?

Then there's the curious manner in which Jack was killed. A lot of women Mrs. Voorhees' age have to ask for help unscrewing the lid off a jar of pickles but apparently this one is so jacked that she can drive an arrow right through both a mattress and some dude's neck. Damn!

But Tierney must really had to scratch his head at the condition he found poor Bill in. In fact, I'll bet this sight single-handedly blew his mind. Not because of the awful brutality of it, but because he couldn't begin to understand how a fifty-something woman, working alone, could have possibly lifted a grown man off the ground and then impaled him to a door with arrows. That's a mystery on par with the building of the pyramids, I'd say. Definitely the kind of thing that would make a cop ask a lot of questions.

In fact, this case is nothing but questions. Like, how did Mrs. Voorhees hurl a grown woman through a window? Brenda wasn't a heavy gal by any means but we're talking at least a buck nineteen of dead weight. Try throwing that over your head through a window and see how well that works out.

Not only does Mrs. Voorhees do something with pure brute strength that ought to require the use of a plank and fulcrum...

...But after sending Brenda crashing through the window, Mrs. Voorhees is able to run back to the location of her jeep and then drive in to meet Alice and somehow not even appear winded! Had Mrs. Voorhees lived to make it to trial, there isn't a defense lawyer in America that couldn't have convinced a jury that she wasn't the killer. Or at least that she didn't have multiple accomplices.

Maybe Tierney realized that nothing about that terrible night added up. But what could he do - his only living witness wasn't making sense, babbling on about a boy in the lake. As for how a girl could possibly have lopped someone's head off with a swing of a machete, well, that was just one more incredulous detail to add to the legend of Camp Blood.

It's a story not meant for any police report, but one to be told around a campfire.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Savage Sword Of Conan

As Robert E. Howard's sword-slinging Cimmerian is a man of few words, I'll keep my comments on this latest cinematic incarnation of Conan the Barbarian short. Basically, I got a big kick out of it. It's not all that good by any objective standards but as a blood-soaked, barbaric romp, it entertained me. Now, I should say that I've never read Howard's stories. If I had, I'd probably feel a lot more affronted by how cheesy the new Conan is. But I haven't, so there you go.

Conan director Marcus Nispel has made something a name for himself by helming remakes of fan favorite properties like Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Friday the 13th. He hasn't made a good name for himself by doing this, but he has made a name. I would say this is better than his other films but maybe that's just because I'm less invested in the world of Conan so whatever atrocities he may have committed against the character, they aren't ones I'm likely to notice or be bothered by. You know, like that whole having Jason living in a series of underground tunnels thing in the Friday the 13th remake. That sure got my attention. Jesus, what the hell was going on there?

Anyhow, even without my whole not knowing anything about Conan thing, it's pretty clear that Nispel's Conan isn't much more than a celebration of brutality but as the word "Barbarian" is right there in the title, I can't call chicanery. This is one of those movies where you're either on its side from the first scene or you're immediately ready to walk out. Its opening is one of the most outrageous I can think of in recent - or even in way fucking back - memory. When a movie begins with a baby floating peacefully in the safety of its mother's womb only to have the womb pierced by a sword and then reveal that the mother is on the field of battle, having just been fatally wounded by an enemy, you can consider my attention gotten.

As Conan hacks and slashes his way through various enemies throughout the course of the film - some of them supernatural, some not - my interest held steady. It might be a slog to some but I've sat through truly tedious examples of this sub-genre over the years and this new Conan isn't one of them. Go on, watch Yor: Hunter from the Future or Steel Dawn if you want to try your luck.

Conan the Barbarian is the kind of movie they don't make anymore and, based on its stillborn performance at the box office, they will continue not to make them. But that's ok. They made this one, I got to see it in theaters (in 2-D, thankfully), and that's enough to make me happy. I do kind of feel bad for star Jason Momoa, though, that this movie tanked as hard as it did as he makes for a good Conan.

At this point I've kind of already said more that I planned to so I'm gonna wrap things up here. You know, after praising this movie - which is far from the first movie of questionable quality that I've raved about - I've gotta wonder if I'm just too supportive of crap and if people just automatically roll their eyes or shake their heads sadly whenever I say I liked a movie like this. If so, I can't blame them. I always like to go with my gut first when it comes to judging how I feel about movies and, as the line goes, I've come to the conclusion that my gut has shit for brains.

Then again, I have been quick to call out nonsense like Skyline so I shouldn't be too hard on myself. Second-guessing your opinions is a waste of time. By Crom, it's the kind of sissy move you'd never catch Conan doing.

Dark Tidings

Unless you were a kid in the '70s, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is probably a title you're unfamiliar with. And if you did happen to catch up with this 1973 TV movie along the way on VHS or DVD, chances are it didn't resonate with you the way it still does for many Gen-Xers. It's a cult film but hardly a classic. Even those who were given sleepless nights by it as children would be hard-pressed to say that it remains frightening today.

As one of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark's original audience, producer Guillermo del Toro does a fine job of retooling this now-hokey childhood traumatizer into a film that ably works for an audience of 2011 while still retaining enough of the '73 version for fans to recognize. This being the first feature of director Troy Nixey, his contribution to Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is inevitably going to be somewhat overshadowed by the presence of del Toro on the project - especially as this film boasts so many trademark del Toro touches from its story elements to its production design (del Toro wrote the screenplay along with frequent writing partner Matthew Robbins). It will take further films from Nixey to really determine what kind of filmmaker he is but this is unarguably a finely directed film and based on its smooth execution, it seems that the producer/director relationship behind it was an artistically harmonious one.

A key change in this remake from the original is that, unlike the '73 Dark which featured a lonely and neglected housewife (Kim Darby) as the protagonist, here the heroine is a young girl named (after Darby's character) Sally (Bailee Madison). As the movie opens, Sally has just been figuratively dumped on her father's doorstep by her mother. In this case, her father's doorstep is Blackwood Manor, a gloomy piece of Rhode Island real estate that Sally's architect dad (Guy Pearce) is in the midst of restoring with the assist of his new interior decorator girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes).

Sally is miserable in her new surroundings and with her new semi-step mom figure. But then she discovers a long-shuttered basement to Blackwood Manor from which Sally can hear strange whispers, promising friendship. But viewers of the original - as well as anyone who takes in the grisly prologue to this film, for that matter - know that whatever is calling out to Sally only intends to bring her harm.

It was wise of del Toro and Robbins to switch to a child protagonist as Darby's Sally seems like a relic of another time, when (sadly) it wasn't so jarring to see a grown woman be so unable to help herself. To try and retell that character's story for today's audiences would've been disastrous. And while the idea of a kid protagonist can be cause for concern, with expectations of a cloying or obnoxiously precocious character, Madison thankfully doesn't play one of those typical movie kids who seems too advanced for their years. As for Pearce and Holmes, while neither is playing the most vivid of characters, they're both fine in their roles.

In changing the central characters of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark from a young married couple to an ill-fit family unit, del Toro and Robbins still left the basic bones of the original storyline intact and that means that this remains a very simple tale - perhaps too simple for some, given the pedigree behind it. Del Toro's name on a film automatically raises critical expectations and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark may be too modest of a production to please those who go in looking for something along the lines of Pan's Labyrinth. Staying true to the spirit of the original, this is meant as a straight-forward spine-tingler and for those who aren't necessarily genre fans, that might not be enough. For myself, I loved that this was just about crafting a small, solid genre piece. It's not out to rewrite the book or bust any conventions and it doesn't try to be an FX extravaganza.

From the previews, I was worried about the creature's look. I expected to be turned off by the CGI but unless I'm forgetting some other film (or films), this might be the first case in which wholly CGI monsters are pulled off effectively (as opposed to, say, Jurassic Park or Starship Troopers where CGI was combined with other methods).

If it's not the first, it's definitely the first in a while. After seeing so many contemporary monster movies, like Super 8, being let down by disappointingly designed, lazily rendered, instantly forgettable CGI creatures, I was thrilled to see how well the tiny homunculi were realized here. Nixey keeps them in the shadows for the most part but when they need to be revealed, there's as much detail to them as if they'd been sculpted by hand. And they're able to express real emotion as well, with some of their reactions being among the most memorable shots in the film.

There are a few points to quibble with - the relationship between the gruff handyman (Jack Thompson) and the creatures is only vaguely explained and even seemingly impossible, given the length of time the creatures have been sealed off for. And for such malicious creatures, it's curious that they refrain from killing at times where they have ample opportunity, conveniently leaving fallen characters a chance to recover.

I also must've missed out on why Holmes' character has a vintage Polaroid instant camera. At first I thought it was because the story was set in the '70s but cellphones abound so that explanation is out.

The easiest reasoning is that it's a nod to the original in which Darby's Sally used flashbulbs at one point to ward off the creatures (at least I seem to remember that she did) and, in the end, I like that del Toro and Nixey inject this anachronistic tech into their modern movie with no excuse given. In fact, no one even comments on it - although even a young kid in our digital age would remark on what a strange sight it is. The camera is there simply because del Toro and Nixey wanted it to be there. As fans, they understand that in a horror movie, anything to set the proper mood comes before logic.

Mood is something Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has in spades. The production design of Roger Ford is outstanding and even when nothing "big" is going on - which, honestly, is for most of the movie - it's a pleasure to soak in the marvelous sets and autumnal locations (this was filmed in Melbourne, Australia - which does a mostly good job of subbing for New England). For many, this will be an easy film to shrug off but I appreciated the skill behind this minor, but lovingly made, effort.

It's a lesson in the do's - and don't's - of horror filmmaking.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Fright Night: The Vegas Edition

Some films, no matter how old, can be updated without having to suffer more than the most cosmetic changes of fashion. Others are inescapably products of their time. 1985's Fright Night is an example of the latter. Screenwriter Marti Noxon (responsible for penning several Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes) and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) make a game attempt to bring writer/director Tom Holland's vampire tale into 2011 with their newly released remake but their film is ultimately more anemic than full-blooded.

In 1985, the original Fright Night was a fresh breath of Gothic air in the middle of a decade not known for its embrace of classic monsters. At a time when slasher superstars like Jason and Freddy were on the ascent, it was novel to see an old-school vampire on the big screen. Unlike other '80s offerings, like Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983), that deliberately went far from the classic cinematic image of the vampire as seen in the Hammer cycle of films, Fright Night homed in on that. By having horror host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell) be a washed-up, one-time Peter Cushing type, Holland made his film into a love letter to the vampire movies of yesteryear.

In 2011, however, vampires are hip and popular in a way they weren't in 1985. That means the Fright Night '11 team isn't working under the burden of having to restore the commercial luster of an iconic monster - not with the Twilight series as well as HBO's True Blood and the CW's Vampire Diaries making bloodsuckers into modern day cash cows. If anything, the challenge here is how to remind audiences that vampires are supposed to be scary and not love-lorn puppies.

In the original, Chris Sarandon - as vampire next door Jerry Dandridge - was portrayed as a slightly melancholy, romantic figure but that's become such a played-out notion that Noxon and Gillespie fly in the face of that, making their Jerry (Colin Farrell) into a predator more akin to, as one character says, "the shark in Jaws."

As Jerry, Farrell plays the role as a cutthroat survivor. There's no hint that he has any instincts beyond satisfying his hunger. I like that angle, as it dispenses with any romanticism, and I like the fact that the new film portrays Vegas, with its transient population, as being a perfect place for Jerry to operate. When neighbors vanish in Vegas, unlike in a typical suburbia, it's not immediately seen as a cause for alarm as it's an area where few people put down permanent roots. The Vegas locale also gives Jerry a ready excuse to cover his windows without arousing suspicion as many Vegas residents work all night on the strip and sleep during the day.

The cat and mouse game that the new Jerry plays with the new Charley Brewster (Star Trek's Anton Yelchin) is much more ruthless than in Holland's version - at one point leading to a nice spin on traditional vampire lore. We're familiar with the old trope about vampires not being able to enter a home unless they're invited by its occupants - the celebrated novel and film Let The Right One In even took its title from that bit of myth - but we've never seen a vampire circumvent that by destroying the home itself. When Jerry wants to get at Charley as well as his mother Jane (Toni Collette) and girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots), he rips up the gas lines from under their lawn and blows up the house, and I think that's pretty cool.

I also, for the most part, enjoyed the revamped (heh) version of Peter Vincent, now played by former Dr. Who David Tennant. While Roddy McDowell's PV was a late night horror show, that just wouldn't work now. When Holland made his film, horror hosts were already a dying breed - that was the whole point of McDowell's character. So now Noxon and Gillespie have turned Peter Vincent into a cheesy Las Vegas entertainer - a Criss Angel-type magician whose stage show revolves around vampires.

It's a fairly ingenious update to the character (even if it's one that might be resented by many horror fans) that lets the new PV have some real knowledge and useful occult artifacts to bring to the table as Tennant's PV is a scholar of dark subject matter as well as a collector of rare items meant to thwart supernatural menaces. One of my main problems with the original Fright Night is that it was so idiotic for Charley to solicit Peter Vincent for help. I elaborated on this point in an earlier post but just to reiterate - for Charley to approach an ex-horror movie actor out of the blue and ask him for his expert assistance on killing real vampires is plain goofy.

While it's also nuts for the new Charley to do the same with the new Peter Vincent, this time around Charley is fishing for info rather than looking to recruit Vincent's personal assistance. It's not until Vincent has seen for himself what's going on that Charley asks him to go after Jerry with him. And this Vincent really has the tools for the job. It's not just McDowell putting on his old vampire hunter duds and playing the part for real, Tennant's Vincent is someone who has knowledge of what they're dealing with and possesses mystic items that they'll need. many ways, I found the new Fright Night to be a smart update. On the other hand, all the changes mean that this movie sure doesn't feel much like Fright Night, which begs the question: "why even bother?" Jerry isn't the Jerry we know, Peter Vincent is completely different, and the same goes for the new Evil Ed - now played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Ed is the most difficult role to update just because the original actor, Stephen Geoffreys, delivered such a one-of-a-kind performance as Charley's, er, quirky best friend that anyone would be hard-pressed to match it.

Fright Night was Holland's first outing as a director and I wonder if a more experienced director would've been quicker to rein in Geoffreys' over-the-top approach. It's a beyond-broad performance that, by rights, shouldn't work but yet somehow does. That leaves Plasse in the losing position of being an inevitably more subdued Ed. More problematic is the fact that, from a story telling point of view, the new Ed no longer serves much purpose. The character seems included solely because it's one that fans would expect to be there but it would've been better for this film had Evil Ed been left behind.

In the new film, Ed is now the one who discovers the truth about Jerry and who then must try to convince Charley. Ed is still a full-fledged geek in the way that his former best friend isn't (leading to a reprise of the line "You're so cool, Brewster!") so Charley doesn't want Ed back in his life - much less back in his life and with crazy talk about vampires. Charley, now with his hot girlfriend and his new non-RPG buddies, shuns Ed - until Ed's sudden disappearance leads Charley to pick up the threads of his lost pal's investigation.

For me, this just didn't work. If Fright Night is Rear Window with a vampire, it's better for the protagonist to be the voyeur who discovers for himself what's going on next door. That's a crucial element that needed to stay in place. Not letting us find out about Jerry through Charley's eyes gets the film off on the wrong foot. His broken relationship with Ed also makes us have to come around to liking Jerry, rather than instantly being on his side. It's just not sympathetic to have him be so dismissive of his former buddy and be so chummy with jerks. The trio of Charley, Amy and Ed in the original seemed comprised of all social misfits. While Charley and Amy weren't nearly as out there as Ed, none of them were part of the in-crowd and that was missed here, at least by me.

I'm willing to concede that some of my dislike for the new takes on Charley, Amy and Ed might be rooted in my affection for the original characters. However, one thing that doesn't work in the new film that I can't just attribute to nostalgia getting the best of me is the woeful special effects work. While it would've been unreasonable for Fright Night to stick to the same practical FX methods of the original, that doesn't mean that laddling on bad CGI was the answer.

I'm not anti-CGI (I love the Final Destination films and I don't think there's a single practical FX shot in that entire series). But, like any FX technique, it's got to look right and the CGI in Fright Night '11 just doesn't. Worse than that, it's often used in instances where no effects were needed at all. I can think of at least two moments - a swimming pool-set attack and a post-car crash confrontation - where a set of novelty store-bought fake fangs, rather than CGI, would've done the trick. As From Dusk Till Dawn featured better CGI vampire effects fifteen years ago, it's hard for to me to believe that no one involved in the execution and supervision of the CGI here wasn't aware of how lackluster this all looked. Or that director Gillespie didn't realize he was sabotaging his own film by including some of these shots. I don't know - maybe to some people this stuff looks ok but I don't see how that's possible.

Fans of the original might never have accepted some of the remake's character and story changes but I think they're all more or less defensible - perhaps save for Ed. But the FX is something that even total new comers to Fright Night can pick out as being a big mistake. If you're familiar with the original, then it's just that much worse. The giant Joker-mouth on Amy in the original might have been a little on the ridiculous side but it had a stylized comic book charm to it. It was a cool appliance and it was perfectly revealed. When they try to duplicate that here with CGI, it looks like something off the SyFy Channel. There's also no scene here that even touches - whether it be FX-wise or emotionally - the prolonged death of Ed, after he was staked through the heart in his wolf form by Peter Vincent. And Jerry's destruction has none of the cool factor of the original Jerry's climatic immolation. It's too bad that Gillespie can't pull his film from theaters and rerelase it in a few months with improved FX because I'd love to know how his Fright Night would play if so many of its moments weren't marred by lousy and/or gratuitous FX.

All complaints aside, I can say that I didn't hate the new Fright Night. If anything, the fact that I liked so many aspects of it (Farrell and Tennant, especially) makes my disappointment in its failings more acute. There are good moments and good performances but what could've been a fun vampire outing never quite pops the way it should.

Finally, how can you have a vampire film set in Vegas and not slip in a Kolchak reference? That's just bad form, man. For real.

Monday, August 15, 2011

If You Want Blood, You've Got It

Much like the Friday the 13th franchise during its '80s heyday, the Final Destination films are body count pictures sold on the appeal of their spectacular splatter FX. But unlike the MPAA-embattled Fridays, the FD films have never been forced to water down their main asset. With the standards of the MPAA being so much looser now, the makers of the FD films appear to have carte blanche when it comes to carnage as this fifth installment is a riot of hideous gore gags that rival anything the series has produced so far.

As far as Final Destination 5's storyline goes, if you've ever seen a single FD movie, you already know the drill: a group of people are saved from perishing in a cataclysmic accident thanks to an unexplained psychic vision. Soon afterwards, one by one each survivor meets a violent end in what appears to be freak mishaps. In FD 5, we begin with a group of co-workers from a paper factory riding together on a charter bus en route to a corporate retreat.

Sam (Nicholas D'Agosto) - an employee of Presage Paper and an aspiring chef - is the one who sees a horrific vision of mass death as their bus idles in traffic on a suspension bridge under construction and promptly causes his fellow workers to evacuate the bus and the bridge. Sam's vision of the bridge collapse is a masterfully executed disaster, the best FD opener since FD 2.

Director Steven Quale, an associate of James Cameron since the days of The Abyss who recently worked as second unit director and visual effects supervisor on Avatar, proves himself to be a perfect match for FD 5's elaborate mayhem and 3-D thrills.

I used to feel gypped that I had been too young in the early '80s to see the wave of 3-D horror films that hit screens back then but the last few years of 3-D releases has more than made up for it. While last summer's Piranha suffered from a poor post-conversion job, Final Destination 5 is a reminder of how much fun a 3-D horror film can be - as long as your idea of fun is watching someone impaled on a ship's mast, that is.

Writer Eric Heisserer (of the upcoming Thing prequel) gives Quale plenty of grisly material to work with. His screenplay may not win any awards - unless Fangoria's Chainsaw Awards includes a Best Screenplay category, maybe - but it triumphs over most of the series' entries by not stalling out after the opening disaster. Heisserer adds an interesting new wrinkle to the series' mythology by suggesting that if a person marked for death takes a life, then they inherit their victim's remaining lifespan. But of course, no matter what loopholes they try to find in death's design, longevity is not in the cards for most of FD 5's characters.

The actors here - including David Koechner and Courtney B. Vance - are all serviceable but the star of any FD film are its flabbergasting fatalities and FD 5 does not disappoint as every doomed character gets it in hardcore fashion (I'm still cringing over the gymnastics scene). One could carp about the lack of a compelling plotline but chances are anyone who would care about that wouldn't be watching the fifth Final Destination movie. If you've stuck with the series this far, I think you ought to know what you're in for.

Even if this is the best sequel in the series by some measure, it's still a Final Destination film. That means that, in the end, it's all about the death toll and for those who enjoy such things, Final Destination 5 represents state-of-the-art slaughter at its finest.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

All The Damn Vampires

For most adolescent boys in 1987, especially those who considered themselves to be hardened horror fans, The Lost Boys wasn't a cool movie to rally around. Even though I didn't hate it, I still felt it was my duty to refer to it condescendingly as an "MTV vampire movie." That brand of high-handed scorn hardly made an impact on The Lost Boys' reception, though, as it became a hit in the summer of '87 and remains a cult favorite to this day.

Whether it was viewed as a positive or a negative, The Lost Boys absolutely was an "MTV vampire movie," aimed squarely at the hip youth culture of the late '80s (if Hot Topic had existed then, this movie would've been a goldmine for them). At the time it was easy to dismiss The Lost Boys as slick nonsense, more of a fashion show than a horror show, but today with neither vampires or MTV being what they used to be, it's a ripe time to develop a new appreciation for director Joel Schumacher's film. Whenever the most emblematic teen films of the '80s are brought up, titles like The Breakfast Club and Say Anything always hit the top of the list but The Lost Boys is so, so '80s. I would say that all it's missing is a Tangerine Dream score but the soundtrack is pretty perfect as is - and unmistakably '80s with tracks by Echo and the Bunnyman and INXS.

Before The Lost Boys, Schumacher made one of the classic "Brat Pack" movies, St. Elmo's Fire, and like that Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, and Emilo Estevez-starring film, The Lost Boys boasted a hot young ensemble of actors. Unlike St. Elmo's, though, The Lost Boys' cast were all virtual unknowns. I can't imagine anything like that happening today - the success of a big movie being allowed to rest on a cast of no names. Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland may have had famous fathers (Jason Miller and Donald Sutherland) but neither were anywhere near being stars themselves at the time.

Back then, a movie - especially a youth-orientated one - didn't need stars. In fact, the movies were supposed to turn their neophyte casts into stars but now studios are too cautious not to stock even teen pics with already proven draws.

If studios had the mentality then that they do now, who knows what kind of misguided cast would've made their way into The Lost Boys. Instead of Sutherland as vampire ring leader David, it probably would've been '80s pop star/actor Rick Springfield (who actually did play a vampire in the 1989 TV movie Nick Knight). What a loss that would've been as Sutherland makes for one of the great cinematic vampires. I seldom notice the character appearing in fan discussions of classic vampires, maybe because it's still not fashionable to champion The Lost Boys, but Sutherland really is outstanding here.

Interestingly, while it's no mystery what David and his crew are (even the posters proclaimed "It's fun to be a vampire"), the reveal of their bloodsucking nature doesn't come until late in the movie. It's not until the one hour mark that any fangs are bared. Making the wait seem negligible, Schumacher and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, along with the cast, do a fine job of making brothers Michael and Sam Emerson's introduction to their new home in the coastal town of Santa Carla ("the Murder Capital of the World" as some graffiti on the back of a billboard ominously dubs it) engaging without having to lean on much in the way of thriller elements.

Most movies would've portrayed the character of younger brother Sam (Corey Haim) as either a Mark Petrie-esque horror fan who's immediately sensitive to what's what in Santa Carla or else as a snooping type who happens across the existence of vampires thanks to his voyeuristic habits but instead, Sam is a happy-go-lucky comic book aficionado (but not a horror fan) who finds the assertions of the young vampire hunting duo of Edgar and Alan Frog (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander) - that Santa Carla is a haven for bloodsuckers - to be risible. It's a refreshing change of pace that Sam is not the typical lonely, introverted teen lead as seen in horror movies like Phantasm.

Also flying in the face of convention is the fact that Michael (Patric) is seduced into vampirism by another male vampire. Typically (especially today in our Twilight world), either Michael or David would've been written as a girl but in The Lost Boys you've got a male bringing another male into the fold. There is a female love interest for David in the form of Jami Gertz's character of Star but she's such a wanly handled element as neither Michael or David seem particularly interested in her.

Schumacher clearly knew what he was doing and I appreciate now more than I did then how subversive it was in '87 for him to make a teen film that was so gay-themed (few would blink at it now - hell, Glee 3-D is out this weekend - but in the '80s it wasn't so readily accepted). Even without the homo-erotic tension between Michael and David, Haim's Sam would have had the gay front covered all by himself. You've got his wardrobe choices, which are, um, far more colorful than most straight teen boys would ever be comfortable with; he sings " Ain't Got No Home" by Clarence (Frogman) Henry (with what sounds like the line "I ain't got a man!" which isn't found in the original lyrics) while in the bathtub; and he has a beefcake poster of what looks like Rob Lowe in a half shirt pinned to his closet door rather than a poster of, say, The Fall Guy's Heather Thomas.

All of which is admittedly only circumstantial evidence but I don't think Schumacher is trying to be ambiguous about Sam's sexuality. Putting him in a "Born To Shop" T-shirt (rather, than, say a rock or heavy metal T-shirt) just can't be an accident and by the same token, neither is the fact that Sam is shown to be such an upbeat, angst-free kid.

As a horror film, The Lost Boys still isn't much to write home about but in the wake of Twilight, it looks almost bad-assed and its charismatic cast still charms (and not just its younger players - Barnard Hughes as Grandpa delivers one of moviedom's best last lines). The Lost Boys wasn't the movie I was looking for back in the summer of '87 but now it seems like exactly the kind of movie that summers were made for.

On a final note, no discussion of The Lost Boys would be complete without a shout-out to Jacked Up Sax Player. Seldom has such an impression been made with so little screen time.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Get Your Ape On!

While watching Rise of the Planet of Apes, besides being thrilled by the fact that the Apes franchise had been revisited with such intelligence and style, I had to flashback to an old review of E.T. by cartoonist Gahan Wilson that appeared in Twilight Zone magazine. In his review, Wilson observed that movies used to be sold on the appeal of their stars - silver screen icons like John Wayne or Clark Gable. Or, for genre fans, someone like Boris Karloff. But, as Wilson wrote, "stars are being replaced by a newer, better product: the non-human lead, or, as I like to think of it, the NHL."

Wilson marked E.T. as the film that would pave the way for more actors to be marginalized by non-human stars. Imagining the '80s to be the golden age of NHLs, Wilson cast his thoughts wryly into the future: "As we all grow older and nostalgic we may look back...with wrinkly smiles and quaver, one old fool to another: "Oh, they knew how to make NHLs back then, you bet - the real thing, the McCoy. Not like the crap you get these days."

Well, flash forward almost thirty years and the NHL is still thriving. In fact, it may soon be collecting an Oscar. Now, I know that a gifted actor - Andy Serkis, who has cornered the market on motion-capture performances - is behind Rise's lead chimp, Caesar, but hey, E.T. was voiced by Debra Winger so I'm still counting Caesar as an NHL. He isn't a puppet but certainly it's the combination of Serkis' performance and the technicians at WETA that brought Caesar to life just as much as it was Winger's voice coupled with the animatronic work of Carlo Rambaldi and his crew that made E.T. into a fully believable character.

In 1968, the original Planet of the Apes was a FX groundbreaker due to the astonishing prosthetic make-ups designed by John Chambers. At the time that film was a major gamble, relying on its convincing make-ups to keep audiences from finding the film unintentionally comical. Given that, it's only fitting that this prequel/reboot should be such a FX marvel as well. I don't know if the Oscar buzz around Serkis' performance will lead to anything but his work here (and the technology abetting it) is worthy of the highest accolades (as a side note, if anyone has issues with the CGI in this movie, they're nuts).

Director Rupert Wyatt and writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have crafted one of the better sci-fi fables of recent years. Rise could've been a heavy-handed slog, beating the audience over the head with depictions of animal cruelty and stacking the deck in the apes' favor but it's not as pedantic as that. While humans do engage in more than their share of bad behavior, they're not all villains and even Caesar is shown to be not entirely noble.

Playing out as sci-fi tinged drama for most of its running time, Rise's climax is an eye-popping simian showdown as police try to quell the ape uprising. Not only are the FX impressive but it's equally impressive that as a director Wyatt is able to put an action scene on screen that has such cinematic clarity. The trailers and TV spots have given away a good chunk of this section of the movie but it's still thrilling to watch it unfold in its entirety.

Unfortunately, it must be said that most of Rise's human performances come up short. James Franco seems under sedation as scientist Will Rodman. And the performance of Freido Pinto as Franco's love interest is notable for being one of the blandest I've seen in any film. The often times listless acting in Rise isn't enough to completely undermine it, though, and John Lithgow fares well as Franco's Alzheimer’s stricken father.

Rise can't claim to have the knock-you-on-your-ass power of the original POTA but judged on its own merits, Rise is damn effective, with Serkis' performance towering above everything else.

I also liked how the niggling question of how apes could form a serious threat to humanity was handled. Sometimes dominance is a matter of being the right species at the right time. I just hope that this does well enough to warrant a sequel as the prospect of a follow-up done with the same amount of care is very ape-ppealing.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Nothing Stops This Undead Super-Killer

By the summer of '86, everyone knew what to expect from a Friday the 13th movie. Since 1980, the Friday the 13th films had been an annual event and - as critics were quick to note - each one had been virtually identical to the last. Despite the curve ball that 1985's Part V had thrown by having Jason Voorhees replaced by a copycat killer, all five Fridays had served up similar slasher shenanigans - each one made with the same blunt, no-nonsense approach, with any artistry reserved for their make-up FX. Given the history of the franchise, no one expected much in the way of surprises from the sixth film but in August of '86, writer/director Tom McLaughlin showed what a little extra effort could accomplish within the Friday formula.

Prior to this film, Jason had been something of a mystery. Introduced via flashback in the original Friday as a mongoloid child with buoyancy issues, his appearance at the end of that film as a moss covered avenger dragging Final Girl Alice into the waters of Crystal Lake was only meant to be a dream. But by 1981's Part 2, reports of Jason's death were shown to be greatly exaggerated. His curious upgrade from dead child to living adult never received much in the way of explanation but the impression given in the early Friday sequels was that however it was possible that Jason was up and about, he was still just a really tough dude - nearly impossible to kill but still mortal.

When Jason was slain in 1984's The Final Chapter, it seemed like an affirmation that he really was only human after all. He went down pretty decisively thanks to a machete to the head (among other grievous injuries - the machete was just kind of like that one last piece that brings the Jenga tower down) and stayed dead in A New Beginning. But Jason fans weren't having it with any copycats so the keepers of the franchise were forced to put their star slasher on the road to recovery. With Jason Lives, any further ambiguity about Jason was put to an end. From then on, Jason was no longer either some backwoods hillbilly with a knack for ignoring pain or an undead thing coughed up from Hell. Instead, he officially became a zombie.

McLoughlin opened his film with Jason's spectacular resurrection as Tommy (Thom Mathews), Jason's killer in The Final Chapter, refuses to leave well enough alone and digs up Jason's body, stabs it in the chest with an iron fence post, and then watches agape as a bolt of lightening strikes the post, sending a surge of electricity through Jason that revives his rotting corpse. Then, it's Game On.

Before Jason Lives, the series hadn't exactly been Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer but it wasn't too zany either. Like, no one would've ever thought about having Jason doing far-out things like battle a telekinetic teen or go into space. But after Jason Lives, that stuff didn't seem like such a stretch. Despite the familiar ingredients he was working with, McLoughlin made a monster movie rather than a slasher pic and after that, the latter Friday films inevitably became much more comic book. That's something that exasperated me at the time but now I'm pretty fond of even Jason Takes Manhattan.

Life's too short to hold grudges, I say.

I'm still not that taken with the nudge-nudge style of humor found here but McLoughlin did score an impressive cast of performers who were skilled across the board rather than the hit-or-miss groups that had populated the previous films - and he showed a real eye for atmospherics. This is the first Friday that didn't look cheap, the first where some thought clearly went into the visuals beyond considering the best angle to shoot the FX. Something else that McLoughlin should be commended for is how he kept his storyline moving in a way that previous Fridays didn't. By having Tommy spend the movie breathlessly pursuing Jason all while fighting the pissed off local law who are convinced he's nuts, there's a relentless pace here that the other Fridays didn't have. There's no time for any Strip Monopoly games or idle guitar strumming in Jason Lives, I'll tell you that.

McLoughlin's film, with its more mainstream sensibilities (this is dangerously close to being family-friendly), pointed the way towards a potentially more upscale future for the Friday series but no one helming a subsequent Friday pic ever ran with that. They did, however, continue the monster movie angle (Jason was once again revived by electricity in Part VIII) and embraced the opportunity to incorporate more fantastical elements. Jason Lives did it best, though, and twenty-five years later it remains the last real highpoint of the series and a great memory of the summer of '86.