Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Road To Wellville

Twenty-five years after their hey-day, it's become fashionable to regard the slasher films of the early '80s - no matter how pedestrian they might be - as horror classics. At present, however, their late '80s/early '90s counterparts have not received the same kind of reappraisal. In fact, I expect the slashers pictures of that era will forever be regarded as substandard. But that won't deter me from giving some critical care to the mad medico known as Dr. Giggles.

Directed by Manny Coto, Dr. Giggles was an awkward attempt to create a horror villain for the '90s, with the resulting film destined to be remembered alongside such other would-be franchise starters as Shocker, Ghost in the Machine and Brainscan. But maybe I'm in need of medical attention myself as I (and I alone) continue to nurture an indulgent fondness for this movie. Fifteen years after its release in October of 1992, I hold that Dr. Giggles remains a slight but satisfying example of severed-tongue-in-cheek humor.

The script by Coto and Graeme Whifler (who recently wrote and directed the reportedly grim thriller Neighborhood Watch, his first effort since Dr. Giggles) brushes over their story's cliched beats - lunatic escapes from asylum only to make an expedient return to his hometown to stalk unsuspecting teens - with a series of grotesquely funny set-pieces that display a comic book sense of exaggeration (the film was in fact adapted as a four-issue miniseries from Dark Horse Comics meant to tie-in to the movie's release). And actor Larry Drake's portrayal of Dr. Evan Randall Jr., aka Dr. Giggles is purposely larger than life.

As Dr. Giggles uses every instrument in his medical bag (including some that would make the Mantle brothers cringe) to leave no patient breathing, the film fulfills the lurid promise made by the poster to 1981's Happy Birthday To Me, which promised to show "six of the most bizarre murders you'll ever see." That earlier film ultimately failed to show much invention when it came to annihilating its cast but Coto and Whifler take their medical theme and not only run to the wall with it but run it through the wall. Perhaps it's best that a Dr. Giggles 2 never happened as nothing is left on the (operating) table here. It's as though Coto and Whifler had planned a series of Dr. Giggles films, had come up with enough gore gags to fill them all but then decided that they'd better not take the possibility of even one sequel for granted and put their best ideas into this first outing, making Dr. Giggles its own "Best Of" of a series that never was.

They also exploit their medical motif with every possible pun and one-liner related to any well-worn medical cliche one might think of. The incessant corniess of such an approach may be the single most alienating aspect of the film but I love that Drake is able to deliver every groaner in the script with equal enthusiasm.

Giggles' victims - including future Charmed' star Holly Marie Combs, the late Glenn Quinn (best known for his role in TV's Rosanne), and '90s personality Doug E. Doug - are a pretty bland bunch but no more so than one would find in any other slasher film. This film is all about making Dr. Giggles himself into the next horror superstar. Unfortunately, the makers of Dr. Giggles forgot that the biggest horror icon of that time, Freddy Krueger, had only became funny as his series went on. It was the intense, genuinely scary first film that had created a demand for more.

Perhaps if he had been portrayed with a little more gravitas in this picture, Dr. Giggles would've gone on to be a successful send-up of his former self. As is, Coto and Whifler left audiences with no reason to see what a Dr. Giggles IV, V or VI might look like. It may have been a flawed strategy on their part in terms of launching a successful horror franchise but I continue to appreciate the 'sick' humor of their character's singular appearance.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cooper Was Right

In his role as the belligerent Harry Cooper in the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) as well as in his various behind-the-scene roles in that seminal film's production, the late Karl Hardman Schon (1927-2007) was integral in realizing Romero's masterpiece, making him one of the architects of modern horror.

But aside from the incalculable debt owed to Mr. Hardman by legions of fans, in honor of his passing I'd like to acknowledge a seldom-spoken truth about his most famous role. And that truth is this: Cooper Was Right.

Sure, Duane Jones' Ben successfully marshalled the scared group holed up in that farmhouse into action, making him the heroic opposite of the craven character that Hardman portrayed so well. And yet Ben was also fatally wrong. Had the band of survivors listened to Cooper's advice to stay in the cellar, they all would've made it safely to morning. Well, all except for Cooper's daughter Karen - played by Hardman's real-life daughter Kyra Schon. But still, Cooper's insistence that the cellar would be a safe refuge turned out to be 100% sound. He may have been right for all the wrong reasons but regardless, his instincts on successfully weathering a zombie siege have proved to be self-evident. It's his atrocious people skills that did him in.

So here's to you, Cooper - if you weren't handicapped by such an abrasive personality, history might've told a very different story of the Night of the Living Dead.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Resident Evil: Extinction is the worst thing to happen to Sin City since Robert Urich. Under the direction of the once-promising Russell Mulcahy (and he's not just the Highlander guy in my eyes - his 1999 Christopher Lambert-starring psycho-thriller Resurrection was pretty sharp, I thought. And who doesn't love Razorback, huh?), Extinction is a laborious piece of work that manages to take the pulp potential of an army of zombies gathered en masse in post-apocalyptic Vegas and turn it into so much dust and sand.

Having regarded the first two RE's as being slick and somewhat accomplished, I had no worries that this third film would deliver more of the same. Unfortunately, just as Extinction re-imagines the Entertainment Capital of the World to be a dry, barren wasteland, in turn the movie itself is just as arid.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

For Those About To Rot, We Salute You

With the undead storming the big screen yet again in the latest installment of the Resident Evil saga, I wanted to salute the Greatest Horror Movie Poster Of All Time, the iconic one-sheet for Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1979). While there's been many examples of strikingly designed horror posters over the course of the last however many years - the posters for Rosemary's Baby, Jaws, and Alien come immediately to mind - it's Zombie that holds all of the cards. If horror had its own currency, this would be the face (what's left of it) on the $1 dollar bill.

It's a poster that makes you feel more alive just by looking at it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Savini: The Movie

Watching the behind-the-scenes featurette included on the DVD release of the 1981 slasher fave The Burning and seeing a young Tom Savini (who barely looks different than the Savini of today, by the way - what's this guy's secret?) work his magic on the set, I was struck by a notion: when will Savini get his own bio-pic? After all, just think of the scores of unforgettable moments Savini has presided over in his roles as make-up artist, stuntman, and actor. To follow Savini as he famously made genre cinema his own in the late '70s through the mid-'80s would be a treasure trove for genre buffs - the Boogie Nights of Splatter. Imagine seeing the filming of the motorcycle gang mall raid from Dawn of the Dead newly recreated, for example. Sure, we have Roy Frumkes' Document of the Dead in this instance but while Frumkes' on-set footage stands as an invaluable record, it's not the same as being able to recreate an event. Not to fudge facts, but to be able to dramatize real life - to be at the right place at the right time for every shot and reaction you need - in the way that only scripted filmmaking allows for.

As for the narrative arc, here's my pitch: after establishing Savini's childhood exposure to the work of Lon Chaney Sr., which set him on the path of being a make-up artist, we jump ahead to him losing the gig to provide the effects for the original Night of the Living Dead due to being drafted into the Vietnam War. He then goes on to experience the horrors of Vietnam through his assignment as a combat photographer (Savini has often said that the graphic sights he witnessed in the war greatly influenced his later work as an effects artist) and upon returning to civilvan life, he begans to 'bring the war home' by rendering unflinching imagery on screen with a realism that audiences had never seen before (and 1974's Deathdream stands as the first film - long before Hollywood addressed the issue in dramas such as 1978's The Deer Hunter and Coming Home - to comment on the effects of Vietnam).

After charting Savini's rise to celebrity status (his amusing guest apperances on Late Night with David Letterman could be recreated), and detailing his personal and professional dramas throughout the '80s (whatever those might be) the film would end on a high note with Savini's career coming around full circle back to Night of the Living Dead as we end on Savini's first day of shooting as the director of the 1990 remake of NOTLD. Or the film could continue further, documenting Savini's later-day cult fame found through his roles in the films of fans-turned-filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez as well as the inception of Savini's Make-Up Effects program, confirming his enduring impact on future generations of filmmakers.

Sound like a movie to you? Yeah, I think so too. Sure, I'm just daydreaming here but honestly - I think a Savini movie needs to happen one day. Lon Chaney Sr. had his own movie (1957's Man Of A Thousand Faces, with James Cagney) and Savini deserves at least as much.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Make Every Wish A Death Wish

I couldn't let the opening of The Brave One (which puts director Neil Jordan in the company of exploitation filmmakers such as Meir Zarchi and Abel Ferrara) go by without a nostalgic nod to Death Wish, the 1974 vigilante classic that forever associated actor Charles Bronson with street justice.

Bronson's portrayal of Paul Kersey makes me think of Nicholson's Jack Torrance in The Shining. When The Shining begins, Nicholson is supposed to be this affable, normal (if flawed) family guy who only goes crazy once the specters of the Overlook worm their way into his brain. But of course, we know from first sight that Nicholson would be every bit as bat-shit had he spent the winter caretaking a condo in Hawaii. Similarly, from the start of Death Wish, Bronson already looks like he's ready to blow a Buick-sized hole in anyone fool enough to share a sidewalk with him long before his wife and daughter suffer their brutal assault. The makers of Death Wish might've served Kersey's character arc better had they cast a meeker actor in the role so his turn from left-leaning dude (we're told he was a Conscientious Objector during the war) to dispenser of hot justice wouldn't feel so predetermined but ultimately Death Wish isn't about portraying a character's journey - it's about Charles Fucking Bronson making punks shit their pants before they die.

1985's Death Wish 3 is actually my favorite of the series. By that time, Kersey was essentially the Rocky of violent death (and just like the Rocky films, the Death Wish series had abandoned the relative believability of the first two films in favor of crowd pleasing cartoonishness by the third entry) so to have him coaching a neighborhood full of AARP members on how to kill gang members with extreme prejudice was as rousing as movies could get. I remember an elderly Martin Balsam getting thrown down a fire escape during the course of the film and that was just so wrong. Trivia Minute: Gang Leader Gavin O'Herlihy (coming across here as the poor man's Frank Doubleday) was originally the long-lost older brother 'Chuck' from Happy Days.

I hope Jordan scores a winner with The Brave One but I don't think the ruthless sensibility a movie like this should have will be there. But for whatever reason, Bronson and director Michael Winner (who stayed with the Death Wish series throughout its first three installments) found wasting human trash to be a wish come true.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Dinner and a Movie

Welcome to Dinner With Max Jenke, a blog concerning my ongoing - and sometimes personally exasperating - love of horror and exploitation. And say hello to our dinner companion at right, Max Jenke, as played by the late character actor Brion James in 1989's The Horror Show. Why Max? And why are we having dinner with him? Well, the notion of sharing a table with the feral-faced fiend just struck me as funny. My only other candidate for this blog's name was Nancy's Hall Pass so it was going to be an arcane '80s horror reference either way.

My tastes tend to be eclectic, so there's no telling what my reaction to any given film might be. I'm often genuinely surprised myself by the films I end up liking or disliking - which is an experience I always welcome. I hate feeling that my reaction to any movie will be a foregone conclusion. One of my main gripes with film criticism as it exists today, in fact, is that the Internet culture seems to foster a rush to judgement. There seems to be a need to reach a popular consensus even before a movie is released rather than to grapple with differences of opinion or to surprise each other with divergent views.

I think a lot of writers don't want to risk looking unsophisticated in front of their peers, especially in a medium like the Internet where - as opposed to publishing in a magazine or newspaper - there's so much immediate feedback and readers show so little patience for views they consider to be foolish or out of step.

Well, I have no issues at all with looking foolish or being out of step. I love horror movies - and if you do too, I know we'll get along just fine.