Monday, February 27, 2012

An All-Star Tribute To Terror

For the first time since I've been old enough to care about and/or stay up for the Oscars, I skipped this year's ceremony entirely. It wasn't any deliberate decision to boycott but rather an admission of total apathy. Even though I've often scoffed at the Oscars in years past, I've always felt connected enough to watch - if only to goof on them. This year, I didn't even care enough to do that.

On the upside, the occasion of the Oscars did inspire a couple of blog posts I that I really enjoyed from Kindertrauma and Freddy in Space, both coincidentally involving events that occurred twenty years ago.

Over at Kindertrauma, Unkle Lancifer waxed nostalgic about Silence of the Lambs' 1992 Oscar sweep while Freddy in Space posted the same year's genre's answer to the Oscars - 1992's broadcast of The Horror Hall of Fame, enthusiastically hosted by Robert Englund and billed as "an all-star tribute to terror."

Lambs' big night ought to have signaled a change in how horror was perceived by critics and studios but instead it just led - at least in the short term - to studios cashing in on the public's appetite for horror while labeling their films "psychological thrillers." Over time, Lambs' standing as a genre picture has become more widely acknowledged and studios have become less embarrassed to call their horror films horror but in '92, the perception of "horror" was closer to what was seen in '92's Horror Hall of Fame - the third and final outing for the annual ceremony that began in 1990.

Oscar hasn't been generous to the genre since '92 and as far as publicly honoring the genre goes, we now have the Scream Awards rather than the HHoF but the Scream Awards aren't exclusive to horror and also they're a little too "cool" for my taste. It's hip to be a geek now - sometimes obnoxiously so - and the Scream Awards reflect that. But in '92, being a genre fan was still regarded as dorky and The Horror Hall of Fame was, in turn, a little dorky itself - which exactly is why it's still endearing to watch.

In a way, 1992 was the best of both worlds. The genre achieved real prestige with Silence but was still off in its own private nerd corner with The Horror Hall of Fame. A year like that is worth its weight in (Oscar) gold.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Horror Of A Long Time Ago

Early on in the 1981 slasher fave My Bloody Valentine, after the sheriff and the mayor of Valentine Bluffs have gotten the heads-up that crazed ex-coal miner Harry Warden might be back in town to resume the killing spree he started in 1960, an administrator from the mental hospital that Warden was committed to two decades earlier comes up empty in the search for Harry's files and tells the exasperated sheriff "Look, in twenty years any number of things could've happened!" as though she'd been asked to exhume records from the 1800's.

For all the times that I've watched MBV, I never gave this scene any notice - it's simply meant to drag out the mystery of whether Warden is alive, dead, or still institutionalized - but watching it recently, the suggestion that twenty years is such an enormous span of time made me more aware that I was watching a movie that was now over thirty years old.

As Richard Harland Smith pointed out in an interview with Final Girl's Stacie Ponder, the slasher cycle of the late '70s/early '80s is now approaching middle age. It doesn't seem possible that so much time has passed by and yet it has. And it doesn't seem possible that those films are so old now and yet they are. If you went back thirty years from the early '80s, you'd be talking about the stuff my mom watched as a kid, Atomic Age favorites such as Tarantula and Them! - movies that were percieved as cornball by most kids of my time (the first generation of Fangoria readers). It makes me wonder how kids today regard the slasher films from my day. For today's twelve and thirteen year olds, even the first Hostel is probably starting to look old.

The folksy ballad that plays over MBV's end credits sings about Warden's original 1960 murder spree as "the horror of a long time ago" but yet going back twenty years from today would be 1992. Would we refer to that as being "a long time ago?" No...we wouldn't, would we?

But when you realize that Dr. Giggles was released in '92 and that it turns (choke!) twenty this year, the answer is "yes." A sad, bitter "yes." That was a long time ago. Somehow knowing that Dr. Giggles is a twenty year old film makes me feel even older than knowing that Happy Birthday to Me celebrates its thirty-first birthday this year. At least I was a kid during the era of Happy Birthday to Me and the rest of that slasher cycle. But I was an adult when Dr. Giggles came out.

And, as it turns out, in twenty years time any number of things can happen - before in fact you even realize that twenty years have gone by.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Blaze Of Glory

Despite the critical slagging it got, the first Ghost Rider film wasn't all the way awful - at least not in my book. I liked the fact that it was almost slanted as a macabre kid's film. Sure, GR is a guy with a flaming skull for a head but that scary imagery aside, director and screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson gave his Ghost Rider movie a benign soul and a surplus of cornball one-liners. It was a silly, sweet natured film (Johnny Blaze's most prominent vice was a love of jelly beans) that just never, if you pardon the expression, caught on fire.

This reboot from the directing duo of Neveldine/Taylor (previously responsible for the Crank films) isn't nearly the same kind of softball effort. It's still PG-13 but it's an aggressive PG-13 that rides right on the border of being an R. The script, credited to Scott Gimple, Seth Hoffman, and David Goyer (assumedly some remnants of Goyer's old script from back when he and Blade director Stephen Norrington were working on a GR film are present in this version) is bare bones and just seems to have been used as a basic guideline by Neveldine and Taylor to get from one action scene to another. And I'd be surprised if Nicholas Cage was given any scripted dialogue because damn near everything that comes out of his mouth here sounds improvised.

This movie got some scorchingly negative word of mouth last December coming out of the Butt-Numb-Athon in Austin, TX, but maybe being screened amid a clutter of other (and, frankly, probably better) films wasn't an ideal showcase for it because this has "geek favorite" written all over it. It isn't in the upper echelon of comic book adaptations, like X: Men: First Class - instead it's a much scrappier, looser piece of work but taken on its own terms it's a lot of fun. Even though ex-stunt biker Johnny Blaze's vehicle of choice is a motorcycle, this movie is like some pimped-out jalopy - moving at improbable speeds, threatening to explode at any moment.

Neveldine and Taylor are famous for their death-defying shooting methods and Spirit of Vengeance is full of shots accomplished by means not to be duplicated at home. Their chaotic style isn't the most ideal fit for 3-D but I was surprised to find that it wasn't nearly as jarring as I expected. I still suspect that 2-D would be the better option in this case but I wasn't put off by the 3-D presentation.

Encoring as Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider, Nicholas Cage really tears into his dual role this time around. In the first film, the actor's natural eccentricity gave a welcome bit of color to an otherwise dull character but his performance here is destined to be legendary within the Cult of Cage. Given a second chance to bring this character to life, Cage doesn't hold a single quirky impulse back. He also really tears into the Jekyll/Hyde nature of Blaze and some of the film's best moments involve Blaze trying to keep the demon inside him from bursting free.

Not only is Cage playing Blaze again but he's also playing the Ghost Rider himself. In the first film, GR was a strictly CG creation but here it's Cage who is providing the movements for GR and it really makes a difference. If nothing else, this GR would've looked better to begin with because Neveldine and Taylor and their FX crew dispensed with the shiny, too-clean (as well as too tiny to my eyes) skull of Johnson's film as well as with the cartoony CG flames and really delivered a GR that looks 100% intense. Here the skull is charred and scuffed and the flames look convincing with plumes of thick black smoke coming off them. But as good as GR looks from an FX standpoint, it's really Cage's performance that sells it. His body language is great, giving GR a repertoire of distinctive movements that show that this character isn't just something belched out of a computer. The Ghost Rider is depicted as much more of a classic movie monster this time around rather than as a superhero and Cage clearly relished the chance to play that end of the part. As great as some of his lines as Blaze are, I loved some of his wordless bits as GR just as much.

This movie certainly isn't going to be an across the board crowd pleaser but then, brimstone bikers aren't for everyone. Nor is Nicholas Cage's acting nor is Neveldine/Taylor's style of filmmaking. So what you've got with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a movie that will inspire either admiration or confusion. Comic book adaptations are the stuff of mainstream blockbusters these days but Spirit of Vengeance is one film that puts the cult crowd first.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Back In Black

It's ironic that the new Hammer Studios production The Woman In Black is being hailed by most as a return to classic Hammer horror. Not because it isn't a fine film but because its ghostly narrative resembles nothing in the classic Hammer catalog. Hammer was always about very physical threats. When you think Hammer you think of Christopher Lee's face dripping blood as Dracula, or his ravaged visage as Frankenstein's Monster, or him violently smashing his way through the French doors of Peter Cushing's study as The Mummy. Hammer wasn't about intangible, spectral chills, it was about Dracula spectacularly disintegrating to dust in the sunlight.

But because The Woman In Black is an old timey period piece, that's enough to make it classic Hammer in the minds of many. Whether it really fits the Hammer mold or not, it seems like today's Hammer has finally found the movie to put them back on the map after their remake of Let The Right One In landed with a disappointing thud in 2010 (even though that grisly vampire tale had more in common with classic Hammer than The Woman In Black does).

An adaptation of a 1983 novel by Susan Hill (which I haven't read) which has been previously adapted into both a long running play and a 1989 BBC TV movie (neither of which I've seen), The Woman In Black is a studious attempt at creating a classic English ghost story. Not being able to compare it to its predecessors, I can't say how well it works as an adaptation but as a newcomer to the material I thought it was great, spooky fun.

With all the terrible tragedy that the story encompasses, "fun" might not be the best word for it but for anyone looking for an eerie tale well told, The Woman In Black fits the bill nicely. Director James Watkins (who previously directed the grim Eden Lake) and screenwriter Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) clearly have an affection for genre fare and they make The Woman In Black into a sure-footed yarn. It doesn't deliver anything cutting edge but it has the instant vibe of a comfort food sort of film as well as one that's ideal for younger viewers just starting to explore the genre.

Watkins goes for more than his share of jump scares but I think that's fine for a movie like this that's looking to elicit a few fun shrieks. A lot of fans look down on jump scares but I enjoy them as a genre staple and Watkins pulls off a few very effective ones here.

I had read that Daniel Radcliffe comes off as too young to play a widower with a young son but his performance as solicitor Arthur Kipps didn't strike me as being off at all. Yes, he looks young but not to the point of distraction. I've also read some complaints that the ending is a little too treacly or sentimental but I found it satisfying.

At heart it maintains the story's grim tone while at the same time providing the kind of "up" moment that only a supernatural film can allow. For me, it worked (apparently every prior version of WIB - the novel, the play, and the TV movie - have sported different endings). Without spoiling anything I will say that given what transpires, I find it funny that anyone would claim that it was too cheery!

That said, I did leave the theater with a smile on my face. I took my six year old son to see it as his first horror movie in the theaters and it turned out to be a perfect choice (although I will say it wouldn't be perfect for every six year old - parents approach with caution). The Paranormal Activity films have shown that there's a big audience looking for supernatural scares but The Woman In Black proves that these scares don't have to be of the "found footage" variety - that there's still room for traditional storytelling and old fashioned craftsmanship. It might not quite be the kind of Hammer film that the studio originally made its name on but it still manages to feel like the return of an old favorite.