Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Night HE Came Home...In 3-D

This past weekend I saw Martin Scorsese's Hugo and found it to be not just one of the best films of the year but also one that proves how terrifically effective 3-D can be and how some films can benefit from it.

Beforehand, a trailer for the 3-D release of Titanic screened and while Titanic is a movie I have no interest in revisiting, seeing how stunning it looked in 3-D was nearly enough to convince me to see it again on the big screen.

In the lobby was a standee promoting the February release of The Phantom Menace - again, another movie that I have no special interest in but yet I can't help but be intrigued as to how it'll play in 3-D.

With these two films returning to theaters in 3-D next year, along with Disney's dimensionally enhanced Beauty and the Beast, I had to wonder when a classic horror movie might get the same treatment and which movie would be the ideal candidate for that and my immediate thought was of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978).

Halloween is damn near custom made for 3-D, beginning with the floating jack o' lantern in its title sequence that moves from deep in the back of the screen...

...All the way to a tight close-up of one of its glowing eyes to the point where we can see the details of the pumpkin's lit insides.

Carpenter's prowling, seemingly weightless Panaglide shots are ideal for the 3-D format - beginning with the famous POV opening scene...

...In which Michael Myers begins his career in evil.

There's so much in Halloween that would naturally play well in 3-D, from the sight of the escaped Smith Grove patients wandering in the rain...

...To the fall leaves that blow through so many shots (actually painted leaves that had to be rounded up by the crew after each take and reused)...

...To the various moments when we're placed just behind Michael's shoulder as he watches his prey in the background...

...To shots like this, with Michael standing amid billowing sheets...

...Or this one, where we're placed in the backseat of Annie's car (I find it eerie, by the way, that in this scene we find ourselves "sitting" exactly where Michael will later wait for Annie).

There's already a deliberate sense of depth to the composition of the shots in Halloween, wherein suspense is achieved by emphasizing the importance of background vs. foreground - and that's something that 3-D would only enhance.

Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey also staged many of their shots so that the audience would be observing the film's action through the separating element of a window...

...Or sometimes multiple windows...

And Halloween is a film in which danger often materializes in the background of shots, rather than just lunging out (although there's plenty of that, too).

Carpenter has often cited 1953's It Came From Outer Space as a seminal moment in forming his love of movies. As he said in John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness, by Gilles Boulenger:

"...At the beginning it was lightly in 3-D. but when this meteor appeared to come out of the screen and exploded, the impact gave me the impression that a lightning ball had struck me, and I got terrified...That's where I think probably the beginning of that love for horror and scaring people came because I got so scared and it was so much fun to be scared."

Given the impact that 3-D had on both his love of horror and on his eventual career, how fitting would it be for his most celebrated film to be re-released in 3-D?

In his review at the time, Roger Ebert described Halloween as "a visceral experience" and said "we aren't seeing the movie, we're having it happen to us." To see it in 3D would only amplify that.

The idea of converting Halloween to 3D will surely strike some as an unconscionable move, a cheap gimmick that would only desecrate a classic. But I maintain that it would be a treat and not a trick. It'd be The Shape like you've never seen him.

And do I even have to point out how cool it would be to see Donald Pleasence's irreplacable Loomis in action in 3-D? No, I didn't think so.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Rat For Turkey Day

In most North American households today, the meat of choice will be turkey. But can I suggest making room for some prime rat on this day of thanks? Specifically, I'm thinking of the rampaging rodent that wreaks havoc in 1983's Of Unknown Origin.

Of Unknown Origin stars a pre-Buckaroo Banzai, pre-Robocop Peter Weller as Bart Hughes, a young and ambitious Wall Street banker living large in a Manhattan brownstone (although the movie was actually filmed in Montreal, Quebec) with his trophy wife Meg (Shannon Tweed, now Mrs. Gene Simmons) and young son Peter (Leif Anderson). As proficient as Bart is at navigating the professional rat race, he finds himself tested with the real deal when Meg and Peter travel to Vermont to visit family, leaving a work-strapped Bart home alone with an unexpected and unwanted visitor.

As Bart struggles to deliver on an important work assignment that could vault his career to the next level, he discovers that his upscale home is infested with a rat. And not just any rat but a Total Asshole Rat that fucks with Bart at every turn. Bart's guest initially just seems like a major nuisance, first announcing its presence by chewing through the drain hose in the dishwasher, causing a flood in the kitchen. But soon it's clear that this rat has a real hate-on for Bart. Unwilling to call in an exterminator - a move that will surely result in his home (which Bart renovated from the ground up) being trashed - Bart takes matters into his own hands.

Naturally, this rat proves difficult to kill. And as one attempt after another fails to produce a dead rat, the rat's counterattacks against Bart escalate in return. Immersing himself in all things Rat, Bart soon becomes the kind of person who can't even attend a posh dinner party without turning the conversation into a long lecture on Rattus norvegicus.

At one point late in the film, a copy of Herman Melville's Moby Dick makes an appearance - an unsubtle nod to Bart's growing Ahab-like obsession. By the climax, full-on war between man and rodent has been declared but in the end, only one can be the big cheese.

Directed by George P. Cosmatos (Cobra), Of Unknown Origin was adapted by Brian Taggert from the book The Visitor by Chauncey G. Parker III. Even though the film is largely a one-man show with most scenes involving Weller alone in his home, when Bart does venture out to go to work or to solicit professional advice on rat disposal, plenty of familiar faces are on hand. Besides Tweed, there's Lawrence Dane (Scannners), Kenneth Walsh (Twin Peaks), Keith Knight (My Bloody Valentine), and Maury Chaykin (War Games).

For reasons unexplained, 1983 proved to be something of a banner year for rat fans as just over a month before Origin's November 24th release date, on September 9th, the anthology film Nightmares - featuring the story "Night of the Rat" - was released. But whereas the Nightmares segment had featured a family terrorized by a giant rat of mystical origin, Bart's foe was just a normal, if hefty, rat but tenacious enough to drive a successful, educated professional into a savage showdown, street rules only.

Of Unknown Origin isn't a lost classic by any means but it's a taut effort that had a decent rep back in the day but seems to have fallen into obscurity in the years since. In light of current real world events, it's interesting to see a Wall Street executive portrayed as a sympathetic protagonist - as practically an Everyman, even. Today, the rat Bart faces would likely be perceived as a symbolic stand-in for the economically oppressed masses but in '83, it was no more than determined vermin with Bart locked in a turf war, protecting his home. Sure, his turf was a little nicer than our turf but that was nothing to begrudge him. Not back when things seemed to be a little more even-handed in the world.

Still, rich or poor, everybody should be thankful for what they've got.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dinner With Max Jenke: The Original Recipe

Well, after giving the new review format a test spin I've decided that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Or, as my wife said when I asked her what she thought of the changes: "You've been doing the same thing for years. You shouldn't try to jazz it up now."

I could keep going with it - and I do appreciate the supportive comments, by the way - but all I really needed to do was break myself out of my own lingering funk and I feel like I have.

Every horror fan knows that no horror franchise ever did itself a favor by veering too far from its formula. So, with that in mind I think it's wise that I return to the basics here straightaway - before I get to the point where DWMJ finds itself in the blogging equivalent of "tha hood", space...or Hell.

A Dawn Like Thunder

The Dish: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1

What's In It: Kristen Stewart as eighteen-year-old Bella, the one true love of the immortal vampire Edward Cullen, played by Robert Pattinson. Taylor Lautner also stars as Jacob, a werewolf and former love interest of Bella's.

Tastes Like: An unexpectedly funky addition to the pregnancy horror sub-genre, a film able to keep company (thematically, at least) with the likes of Grace (2009) and John Carpenter's Pro-Life (2006), from Season Two of Masters of Horror.

Extra Flavor: A too-briefly seen Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) as Aro, leader of the Volturi vampire clan.

Nutritional Value: While Breaking Dawn - Part 1 has been roundly trashed by critics as being insipid, wrong-headed, and an affront to both art and progressive thinking in general, it merits more than the curt dismissal it's received. I'm pretty out of the loop when it comes to Twilight (the only other chapter in the saga that I've seen was the Catherine Hardwicke-directed original and - surprise! - I've read none of the books) but I found Breaking Dawn - Part 1 to be an intriguingly twisted film by the standards of mainstream fare.

Lingering Aftertaste: I knew the basic storyline going into this movie: Bella and Edward wed, then consummate their union, and then face a life-threatening crisis when Bella finds herself carrying Edward's baby - a trauma that her human body is not equipped for. But that thumbnail sketch doesn't convey the oddness of the film. I'm assuming that screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg's adaptation is mostly faithful to the book, which only leaves me to wonder just how nutty author Stephanie Meyers is and what her personal views on marriage, sex, and motherhood are. Because what's on screen in Breaking Dawn - Part 1 is a vision of masochistic suffering.

In Breaking Dawn - Part 1, we have a story in which the main character loses her virginity in an act of lovemaking so powerful and violent that it leaves her bruised all over her body. After this one punishing night of passion (which she begs to have repeated but Edward, ever the gentleman, demurs - fearing causing further harm to Bella), she then finds herself pregnant with a child that is destroying her from within. In depicting the baby as a virus infecting - and mutating - its host, Breaking Dawn broaches Cronenberg territory. Bella's bodily deterioration is similar to (if less graphic than) Seth Brundle's in 1986's The Fly as both films traffic in imagery that reminds one of real life AIDS victims (at one point, Bella disrobes and we see that her body has become gaunt and skeletal) and Bella eventually craves blood to feed the new lifeform inside her, as does Marilyn Chambers' character in Rabid (1977).

I don't know if there's any data out there to confirm whether I'm right about this or not but I'm willing to bet that a large part of Meyer's readers didn't quite care for her conclusion to the saga because it is so far removed from the world of dreamy adolescent crushes that the series gained its mass audience with. My only previous exposure to Twilight is the original film but that's enough of a comparison to know that Breaking Dawn is surely not what a lot of Meyer's fans signed on for. This is a far cry from the innocent, wish-fulfillment laced romance of the first Twilight. Here, Bella is set on a path of suffering that she is willing to follow up to her own martyr-like death if need be.

While many of Meyer's readers likely hoped to see Edward and Bella together eventually, they probably imagined that the pair's life as a married couple would be much more fun than one night of painful sex followed by an instant - and potentially fatal - pregnancy. To have a story like this created by a woman and sold to an audience largely composed of women makes one wonder what the message is.

Maybe there is no message but it's hard not to see this as a staunch pro-life tract, on top of depicting marriage and motherhood as being womanly duties that must be endured with no soul searching or second guessing involved.

Star Ingredient: Director Bill Condon, who is probably best well-known to the public as the director of 2006's Motown saga Dreamgirls, but is known to genre fans as the writer/director of 1998's acclaimed James Whale bio-pic Gods & Monsters (in a Breaking Dawn flashback, Edward attends a screening of Bride of Frankenstein) as well as having penned the screenplay for the quirky Strange Invaders (1983) and directed 1995's Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh. Condon does an admirable job with Breaking Dawn - Part 1, perserving the arch, operatic nature of the material and delivering some surprisingly unsettling imagery within the confines of a PG-13 movie. He isn't able to prevent the movie from resembling a Bad Acting Contest (or to sell me on the virtues of CG werewolves) but Condon, who prior to his more prestigious successes was interviewed as part of Maitland McDonagh's 1995 book Filmmakers on the Fringe, knows his way around Weird. Breaking Dawn - Part 1's soundtrack may be loaded with candy-assed pop songs but Condon ensures that his movie is more than a bubblegum affair.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Cooking With Hellfire

The Dish: The First Power (1990)

What's In It: Lou Diamond Phillips, as a hotshot L.A. cop. Tracy Griffith as a just plain hot psychic with a connection to the killer. Jeff Kober as Phillips' quarry, the Pentagram Killer, executed in the electric chair but causing more mayhem than ever, as his malefic soul leaps from one body to another thanks to his eternal allegiance to Satan.

Tastes Like: The Exorcist (1973), heavily seasoned with the hardboiled police action of The French Connection (1971), with a dash of Wes Craven's Shocker (1989).

Extra Flavor: The Police's former drummer Stewart Copeland composed the score.

Nutritional Value: Although it's never gotten much attention, even on the cult film level, The First Power is top-shelf junk food. Writer/director Robert Resnikoff delivered a fast-paced action/horror film filled with the kind of CG-free stunt work that that used to be the bread and butter of exploitation movies.

Lingering Aftertaste: Resnikoff's only previous directing experience was a self-penned 1988 short film starring Terry O'Quinn (The Stepfather) titled The Jogger. He also wrote 1989's Jay Leno and Pat Morita buddy cop vehicle Collision Course. But after his big feature directing break with The First Power, Resnikoff was never heard from in the film world again - at least if IMDB is to be believed.

Resnikoff's vanishing act is a shame as The First Power showed some promise. Of the spate of late '80s/early '90s tales featuring executed killers returning to life, this was the only one that gelled into a decent movie. If The Horror Show's James Isaac could keep on making movies (including 2001's Jason X), then Resnikoff should've done the same. And for a film that came across as slick and generic in 1990, The First Power now has a pleasing old-school vibe to it but without feeling overly dated, thanks to untrendy wardrobe choices and to the film's action mostly taking place in non-descript locations like back alleys and water treatment plants.

Star Ingredient: What really brings The First Power together is Kober's wicked turn as Patrick Channing, aka The Pentagram Killer. This being 1990, Kober's character was naturally groomed to be a possible franchise star. Too bad that didn't happen as Kober had the chops to be a horror heavyweight and The First Power is a movie I would've liked to have seen a second serving of.

Dinner Plans

As a heads-up, let me tell you that some changes will be coming to the menu here. I always slow down a little on postings in October so that's not unusual but this time, rather than jumping right back in, the break had me thinking about how I feel about blogging and whether I still have the time to commit to it. The answer is that I do have the time (well, kind of), but that I could manage it better.

To that end, I'm going to adopt a formatted style to my reviews. Not every single post will rigidly stick to this style but I'm hoping that, in general, this will will allow me to be a little more productive here.

We'll see how it pans out. Call it an experiment.

Maybe more than anything else, I just feel like DWMJ needs a shot in the arm. A new coat of paint. Something...different. After over five years, I've been feeling some inevitable ennui creeping in.

That, coupled with my squeezed schedule, made it tempting to consider packing it in. But in the end, there's little chance of that happening. In whatever capacity I'm able to, I plan on staying put in my corner of the blogosphere.

The first new review will be up soon. Let me know what you think!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

11-11-11 Is The Loneliest Number

I'm not sure why today's date of 11/11/11 is supposed to be a big deal. Is it some Mayan thing? Or is it something out of the Bible? It's definitely not the end of the world, right? I know I could just look it up and find out but I'm not actually interested in educating myself about it. My appetite for knowledge has its limits.

I would, however, be willing to get the lowdown on 11/11/11 through the new Darren Lynn Bousman movie 11-11-11, opening today. Unfortunately, it looks like I won't be seeing 11-11-11 until maybe 2/20/12 or some other random date in the far-ish future. Even though Bousman and co. cannily made their film before its titular date arrived, 11-11-11 is only opening in a handful of theaters in the US today. Is is because the movie's bad? Eh, I doubt it. I mean, the movie could be bad (really bad, even) but that hasn't stopped movies from garnering wide releases before. I do know that 11-11-11 looks more up my alley than anything else Bousman's done to date. In case you haven't seen it, here's the trailer:

I rush out to see every horror movie so I guess saying "I'd rush out to see that!" doesn't mean much but 11-11-11 looks like enjoyable nonsense. But here we are on 11/11/11 and the movie is hardly playing anywhere. What gives? Maybe the answer is that its title stuck 11-11-11 not with a marketing tool but with an expiration date. I mean, honestly - after midnight tonight, the scare factor of 11-11-11 is seriously compromised. The Omen remake might have made a big event out of 6/6/06 but it wasn't as though the events of the movie took place on that date.

Just the same, I'm always game for horror movies centered on religious hooey, half-baked prophecies, and ignorant superstitions so I'm bummed that 11-11-11 isn't playing in my neck of the woods. While I'm sure that it wouldn't have proved to be a horror heavy hitter, it's too bad that 11-11-11 wasn't given a better chance to one up its competition.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

All Creatures Great And Small

H.G. Wells' 1896 novel of scientific shenanigans, The Island of Dr. Moreau, is a genre touchstone that I feel I must have read at some point in my life but as I can't remember a single thing about the book, maybe I didn't. I can, however, finally say that I've now seen all of Moreau's screen adaptations, thanks to the recent Criterion release of Island of Lost Souls (1932).

The 1977 AIP Moreau adaptation starring Michael York and Burt Lancaster was my first exposure to Wells' tale. That film doesn't hold up well, probably because it was never good to begin with, but when I first saw it on TV at the age of nine or ten, I was impressed. Years later, I had high hopes for the Richard Stanley adaptation but how his take on the material would've worked, we'll never know and in its place is the junky, doomed-from-the-get-go 1996 version that John Frankenheimer put together out of what Stanley started.

But the original adaptation, Island of Lost Souls, the one that everyone who's seen it agrees is the best version of Wells' novel, had always eluded me. It seems like a movie that should've been on rotation on TV back when I was a kid. All the classic horror and sci-fi films of the '30s screened on TV on a regular basis when I was growing up in the '70s but if IOLS was ever on, I must've missed it. I don't know its home video history either but I get the feeling it hasn't been in circulation as much as other films of similar vintage. Or maybe it's been out there the whole time and I've just been too lazy in catching up with it. Either way, I've finally filled in that gap in my cinematic education.

Of course the danger in coming belatedly to a classic is that you'll have the unfortunate reaction of wondering what all the fuss was about - especially with a film that's as old as IOLS is. It's impossible for a viewer today to be hit in quite the same way as audiences of 1932 were by this film. That said, IOLS - directed with atmospheric flair by Erle C. Kenton - earns its reputation. It's genuinely nightmarish and the deep depravity of the material hasn't been dulled by time.

The story is one that everyone is familiar with - one of the maddest of all mad scientists, Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), reigns as a cruel god among the island of man-beasts that he's created within the walls of his "House of Pain." When an outsider - here, Ed Parker (Richard Arlen) - finds himself trapped there thanks to an accident at sea, he finds himself in danger of being caught up in Moreau's ghastly practices.

Wells' story is frequently described as a cautionary tale against the abuse of science (reportedly Wells wrote the novel as an anti-vivisection tract) but on screen, what you've got is an occasion for a menagerie of monsters (led by Bela Lugosi, in his most make-up heavy role) and one kind-of-hot Panther Lady (Kathleen Burke). I don't know how dated I thought the creature make-up would appear in this film but I was surprised by how amazing it still looks. And this wasn't a film like Frankenstein or The Wolf Man where all the effort of the make-up artists went into making one character. Here, there's huge crowd scenes where every extra is monstered-up and while some make-ups are more complicated than others, none of them look just thrown together.

Then there's Laughton as Moreau, decked out in his white suit with his bullwhip always at the ready to crack at his man-monsters as they sulk through the bushes and lurk in the trees. Without making the character cartoonish, Laughton doesn't give Moreau even a hint of redeeming qualities.

This is a man so venal that - outside of the unchecked sadism of his anesthesia-free experiments - he tries to have his Panther Lady seduce Parker in the hopes of getting his abominable creation pregnant. When the romantic approach doesn't seem to be working out fast enough, and Parker's beautiful finance Ruth (Leila Hyams) has arrived on the island, Moreau sees a more expedient opportunity and sends one of his hulking man-beasts to break into Ruth's room at night with the implication that this creature will surely rape her.

This is no case of Beauty and the Beast, no case of The Creature from the Black Lagoon carrying Julie Adams away for unspecified purposes. When Moreau's monster enters Ruth's bedroom, there's no doubt as to what will happen unless someone intervenes. This is appalling stuff even now - it's not surprising that this film was banned in Britain on its original release. This may not have been scorned on the level that Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) was but it was a film that, in its day, went too far for many.

Like Richard Matheson's also thrice-adapted novel I Am Legend (1954), The Island of Dr. Moreau arguably hasn't had its definitive adaptation yet - and likely never will - but Island of Lost Souls is certainly a classic and if you've never seen it, rush to get the Criterion DVD. Even if you have to run on all fours to do it.