Thursday, May 29, 2008

Night Moves

For a film that's been lingering on the shelves for almost a year, anticipation for the home invasion romp The Strangers has remained awfully high. In fact, in recent weeks it seems like the horror community has been actively rallying around this film for it to really deliver. It's got a simple premise going for it, seemingly a hard one to fumble - an attractive couple in an isolated home find themselves under attack at the hands of several masked assailants. But even with a simple story to tell, a lot can go wrong.

Thankfully, under writer/director Bryan Bertino's watch, very little goes wrong in The Strangers. Well, almost everything goes wrong for its protagonists (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) but for audiences who are banking on being seriously scared, everything's golden here.

I won't say that this is a perfect film, and I'd also hate to oversell how unnerving it is. But really, there's only minor tweaks I wish had been made. For example, I would've liked for Bertino to have cut a brief flashback showing us an earlier moment in Speedman and Tyler's evening. It's a pointless, distracting moment that seems to only be there to pad the film's running time. I also wish that a line spoken towards the very end of the film had been dropped. In fact, I'd be surprised if this line had even been in the film initially as it feels like it was dubbed in after the fact as an appeasement for test audiences who felt uncomfortable with so much ambiguity. But I'll emphasize that neither of these issues affected my overall satisfaction with The Strangers.

As for ranking its scare factor, I'll just say that I'd put it in the high end of movies that have done a number on me (some other movies in that company would be The Blair Witch Project and Halloween). As with any horror movie, I'm sure there are people who will watch The Strangers with total indifference while others are cowering in their seats but macho I ain't and this film prompted at least a few shrieks out of me and forced my hands up to my face a few times.

What can I say? It scared me good.

Bertino really has a handle on how horror films are supposed to work and his use of sound (or sometimes lack of sound) and framing (such as his frequently Carpenter-esque positioning of psycho and prey) comes in second to none. And as a writer, Bertino wisely avoids serving up even a hint of an answer regarding Speedman and Tyler's ordeal. My worst fear with this film going in was that the chilling line spoken by the killers - "...Because you were home." - wouldn't turn out to be quite true, that there'd be some underlying reason for the attack on this particular couple in this particular house. But no, the audience is left on their own to wonder what it all means.

Some will likely read that as a debit, feeling that the onus was on Bertino to graft some greater meaning onto his film's events - especially in this age of tell-all origin stories where suddenly audiences have to be spoon-fed the backstories as to why Leatherface or Michael Myers commit the henious crimes that they do. So for a contemporary genre film to resist that call for pat answers (especially outside the realm of something with a more arthouse intent like Funny Games) is gratifying.

I'm sure that someone like Rob Zombie would look at this material and see an opportunity to delve into the Stranger's broken home lives so it's to Bertino's credit that The Strangers is about nothing more than the fact that on any given night someone you never met could come to your door with a knife or an axe or a gun and try to end your life. If there's a reason for it, then it's not scary - it's just violent.

Some viewers might also carp that The Stranger's opening narration removes any suspense from the film. Outside of saying, "You have seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, haven't you?" I can say that opening with a tease as to some brutal event and then rewinding to show us what led up to it is a storytelling device that always works for me. If anything, rather than encouraging boredom, it's knowing just a little of a character's grim future that makes me more uneasy waiting for their date with the inevitable.

It's been fashionable in recent years for filmmakers to evoke (or outright remake) the iconic horror films of the '70s. But while some of these movies have worked better than others, The Strangers is the first to feel like its scares don't come up short in comparison.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Best News Ever!

The instant winner for Best News Of The Week, if not Best News Ever, is the announcement that Friday the 13th: The Series will finally be debuting on DVD. I came across this happy news over at Dread Central and promptly placed my pre-order for Season One at Amazon. No release date has been confirmed, no specs have been reported, and no box art is available - but I have to have this set. I've been waiting patiently for this day for years, wondering why it was that so many inadequate genre series had seen a proper DVD release (I'm looking at you, Swamp Thing!) while the only way to own Friday the 13th: The Series was to shop the bootleg tables at horror conventions. The demand was there - so what was Paramount waiting for?

Well, I'm guessing that it was corporate apathy rather than taking the extra time to compile a host of special features honoring the show's contribution to the genre - I'll be stunned if this set includes anything other then the episodes themselves. But that's fine. I just want to be able to watch the series in a quality better than the shoddy dubs I've gotten accustomed to over the years. It's almost twenty years later and I'm still clinging to my VHS recordings from the original broadcasts, some slightly less crappy VHS recordings from the Sci-Fi Channel in the mid-to-late '90s and a dubbed disc set lifted from the Canadian horror channel ScreamTV so to see these episodes again in something even approaching a crisp transfer is going to seem stunning to me.

Not that the show itself really lent itself to being called "stunning" but the series is a long-standing favorite of mine, a staple of my college years, and while it can't stand in the same company as something like The X-Files or the original Outer Limits, I do think that it's a more accomplished show than its been given credit for over the years. It's by far the best of the spate of syndicated horror shows that made scare fare big on the small screen in the late '80s when shows like Tales from the Darkside, Monsters, Werewolf and War of the Worlds were vying for airtime.

Unlike The Night Stalker, which already strained credibility by its second TV movie by having reporter Carl Kolchack just happen to stumble across another supernatural story (an issue that the Night Stalker-influenced X-Files overcame by having its FBI agents specifically assigned to bizarre, unexplained cases), Friday the 13th: The Series had the perfect set-up with its antique store of cursed items.

As created by Frank Mancuso, Jr. and Larry B. Williams, Friday the 13th: The Series introduced viewers to the owner of Vendredi's Antiques, Lewis Vendredi (played by genre regular R.G. Armstrong), who made a deal with the devil to sell cursed antiques out of his shop. When he tired of being Hell's puppet and tried to break the deal, Satan claimed both Vendredi's life and his soul, leaving the store in the hands of Vendredi's niece and nephew, Micki Foster (Louise Robey, sporting an iconic '80s hair-do) and Ryan Dallion (John D. LeMay). The two cousins unwittingly began selling off the shop's inventory in an effort to unload their obligations to the store before being told by an old, globe-trotting associate of Vendredi's - occult expert Jack Marshak (Chris Wiggins) - that the items contained in the store were all cursed. The three then devote themselves to retrieving the sold items, returning each to a vault in the basement where their evil can be contained. They rechristen the store Curious Goods and as the show's opening narration concluded each week "...they must get everything back and the real terror begins!"

While never especially scary, Friday the 13th: The Series was an often grisly and fast-paced series with a level of violence exceeding anything else on TV at the time (much to the concern of the Religious Right, who pressured Paramount to pull the plug on the series) and the resolutions of each episode were frequently downbeat rather than celebratory. And as the series developed, Friday the 13th proved to be more cinematic and visually ambitious than its budget and rushed production schedule would suggest. One episode (the Dracula-themed "The Baron's Bride") was filmed primarily in moody black and white, for example, years before The X-Files would do the same to critical acclaim with its Frankenstein homage, "The Post-Modern Prometheus". And Tales of the Undead, the story of a cursed comic book aiding the revenge of a Jack Kirby-esque artist, featured crude but clever comic book transitions to depict that episode's curse in action.

Directors such as David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, William Fruet, Armand Mastroianni, Tom McLoughlin, and Rob Hedden all turned in solid work and many of the guest actors (including legends such as Ray Walston and Fritz Weaver) essayed memorable performances - in some cases actors would return to play unrelated roles in later episodes (such as the late Denis Forest, who would appear in four of Friday's best - "Cupid's Quiver", "Brain Drain", "My Wife As A Dog" and "Mesphisto's Ring" - and Storm of the Century's Colm Feor who was featured in two notable episodes, "The Maestro" and "Mightier Than the Sword"). And while the main cast may not have had the charisma of some of the show's guest stars, they brought a sense of camaraderie to the series with Micki as the beauty of the show, Ryan as the resident geek with his love of comic books, and Jack as the sage father figure who'd already seen much of life's darkness (a memorable episode, "The Butcher", harkened back to Jack's brutal days in WWII).

Sadly, this trio's natural chemistry was abruptly ended when LeMay left at the the end of Season Two and Steven Monarque joined the show in its third and final season to fill the role of a more traditionally handsome leading man as 'Johnny', a character more predisposed to brooding (and with more romantic potential) than John D. LeMay's departing Ryan but yet some of the best episodes of the series - "Crippled Inside" (penned by L.A. Confidential's Brian Helgeland), "The Long Road Home", "Hate On Your Dial", and "Stick It In Your Ear" - can be found in Friday's final season, which overall took a more intense, mature turn.

Many critics and viewers cite Cronenberg's "Faith Healer" as the series' finest installment but as good as that was (boasting a notable performance by Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman), Friday the 13th Part VI's Tom McLoughlin wrote and directed my own personal favorite - an episode called "The Playhouse". This poignant episode centered on two abused siblings who find refuge in the wonderland of a playhouse but only as long as they can provide the souls of children for the playhouse to feed on. This episode exemplified the macabre atmosphere of the series as well as its prevailing moralism and was as perfect an hour as Friday the 13th: The Series ever saw.

With its DVD release due to bring the show renewed attention, maybe Friday the 13th: The Series will come to be more widely recognized as the best horror program of the '80s. At the very least, thanks to Paramount finally heeding the demand for this still underrated show, it won't continue to be cursed by negligence.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

I Was A Teenage Were-Cicada

When the monsters of an earlier era carried various swooning female victims back to their lairs, it was mercifully left to the imagination what these companion-starved monsters may or may not want to do if they had some time alone with a woman. While the Creature from the Black Lagoon might’ve had designs on becoming an inter-species rapist, for example, the mores of the time kept things chaste between him and Julie Adams. The makers of 1980’s Humanoids from the Deep, however, didn’t need to pull any such punches – this was the ‘80s after all and audiences didn’t need to be molly-coddled anymore. But Humanoids from the Deep only told part of the sordid story. Two years after Humanoids, a film arrived that dared to show the long-term effects of forced monster intercourse, or FMI for short: 1982’s stirring coming of age tale The Beast Within.

Beginning with a flashback that takes place in the early ‘60s, we see Eli and Caroline MacCleary (Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch) as a newly married couple en route to their honeymoon when they run afoul of car trouble on a deserted rural road (in the Deep South, natch). After Eli runs off alone to the nearest service station for help, his defenseless bride is dragged into the woods and sexually assaulted by an inhuman thing (kids, don't honeymoon in Mississippi!).

After this awkward incident, the narrative jumps ahead to the present day with the MacClearys worriedly attending to undetermined health problems with their seventeen year old son Michael (played by Paul Clemens) as the boy’s long-denied heritage is becoming sorely apparent. And by "sorely", I mean Michael’s suddenly taken to venturing out at night to put a major hurt on people. He also flares his nostrils a lot, which is real uncomfortable to watch.

As it turns out, the thing that raped Michael’s mother was a man-turned-monster called Billy Conners and Billy (through means never adequately explained by the script) is now sharing the mind and body of Michael in order to exact vengeance on those who originally brought Billy to his inhuman state. For reasons further unknown, this possession and Billy’s skin-shedding emergence from Michael is also linked to the lifecycle of the insect species known as the cicada. Go figure!

What follows is a more lurid version of ‘50s tales like I Was A Teenage Werewolf that addressed the angst and physical self-consciousness of adolescence in monster movie terms. There’s also a hint of Cronenbergian body horror involved as Michael’s ordeal calls to mind the transformations of Rabid, The Brood and The Fly.

As Michael situation becomes more and more dire and as those who fear the wrath of Billy Conner grow more desperate (a group that involves almost everyone in Nioba, Mississippi), the makers of The Beast Within are called upon to bust out some classic early ‘80s effects work. While lots of horror films in the early ‘80s used state-of-the-art means to accomplish previously impossible transformation effects – none exploited these effects with the quite the same gratuitous gusto as Tom Burman's work on The Beast Within. This is a film that stubbornly refuses to concede that less is more and it has the show-stopping on-camera transformation to prove it. The ads for this film dared audiences not to flee their seats during the last thirty minutes of The Beast Within and damn if the last thirty minutes of this movie don’t shovel on the horror as promised.

Director Phillipe Mora didn’t go on from The Beast Within to do much worthwhile, unfortunately, lending his talents to the likes of Howling II and Communion. But this tawdry little B-movie has a faithful following to this day. Tom Holland, later to go on to direct Fright Night and Child’s Play, wrote the script based on a novel by Edward Levy and while it isn’t a tremendous script (I’m guessing that Levy’s novel wasn’t anything special to start with), it has a nice skuzzy, Southern Gothic vibe to it and it duly piles on the grotesqueries.

The Beast Within is also blessed with a top-notch roster of character actors (the kind of predominantly older crew you never see in current horror movies) who lend conviction to even the most ridiculous moments. Besides Cox and Besch, there’s also L.Q. Jones, Luke Askew, and R.G. Armstrong. No matter how implausible the story gets, the seasoned cast keeps it real. Unfortunately, the one weak link is the Beast himself, relative newcomer Paul Clemens (who I remember from a Quincy episode from around that time but nothing else) who’s visibly overburdened by the chore of making the tormented teen an empathetic, yet frightening character.

Still, there’s a pall of grimness to The Beast Within that prevails over Clemens’ shaky performance. A lot of filmmakers would’ve flinched from following this pulp horror premise to its sorrowful end but Mora sticks to his guns. Few horror films can match the appalling denouement this film offers – a bitter conclusion that ends this silly rubber monster movie on a deeply tragic note.

That tragic note being this: that woman-raping swamp shit will always find a way to carry on their legacy.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

It's Dead To Me Now

Something happened today that really gave this horror fan pause, something that stopped me, um, dead in my tracks. Apparently George Romero's latest chapter in his Dead saga (or his reboot to a new series or whatever), Diary of the Dead was released to DVD this week. As I strolled through the aisles of my local Circuit City, there it was in the horror section somewhere between Dementia 13 and Dreamcatcher. But what surprised me to see it was the fact that I was surprised to see it. This is a new Romero movie after all - a new Romero zombie movie at that - and yet its arrival came as news to me.

Oh sure, somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that it was due on DVD soon. I've half-glimpsed the online ads for it that've appeared lately. But I never bothered to make a mental note of what date it was hitting stores. And that in itself is strange. A lot of movies fall through the cracks for me these days but I never thought I'd have such an indifferent reaction to a new Romero film. Not only was I surprised to see Diary of the Dead out in stores, but after seeing it was available I didn't even make a move to buy it.

Not just that, I didn't even make the minimal gesture of physically picking up a copy to look at the back sleeve to see the synopsis or special features! Seeing that this was out should've at least prompted a pick-it-up, walk-around-the-store-with-it, then maybe - grudgingly - put it back moment (with the intention to pick up a rental copy on the way home!). But yet I walked by Diary of the Dead like it was a box set of the Prom Night series.

Each Romero release used to be an event - as a kid I made it a mission to see films like Creepshow and Day of the Dead in theaters even though at the time I wasn't of age to see either. And even though the films he's made since haven't been his most exceptional work, I still looked forward to them - even Bruiser was a movie I rushed to watch on video. And as recently as Land of the Dead, I was hotly anticipating his latest film.

But Diary of the Dead is going to go unwatched by me and yet I couldn't even tell you why I can't bring myself to see it. The scathing reviews might have something to do with it but I wouldn't let that stop me from watching something I already had an interest in. Maybe it's just that I can't take any more zombies from the man. For me, as a fan, Land of the Dead closed that book to my satisfaction. Whatever the case, whatever is keeping me away from Diary of the Dead, all I know is that walking past Romero's latest without even a backwards glance made me sad.

Like something had died.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Piranha 3-D

Some movies should be kept top secret until maybe, I don't know, a few weeks before their release. I would say even a few days but I know that's unreasonable. And I don't mean they should be kept 'top-secret' in the sense that there's no test screenings or whatever. I mean that no one should know the movie is even being made. Because there's some movies that are just so promising and so exciting that once it's known that they're in production, it immediately puts other films that one might've otherwise enjoyed at an unfair disadvantage.

What I'm trying to say is that I don't know how I'm supposed to watch any movies between now and next July (that's right - not this July but July '09) and not have a mixed response to them. Because I'm pretty sure that films like The Happening, The Strangers, and Midnight Meat Train are not going to be in 3-D and that they also won't have any piranhas. I'm sorry but the fact is, knowing that Piranha 3-D (!!!) is coming out a whole year from this July is going to make it near impossible for me to settle for anything less until then. When I walk out of a movie like, say, The Dark Knight and someone asks me how it was, I might just have to impulsively punch them in the face and say "There was no piranhas in it, THAT'S how it was!"

To my mind, the Weinstein Co. should've kept this one under their hat for awhile. I mean, at least until this summer was over. After the summer, well, ok. That's do-able. After all, no one really expects a fall or winter movie to be a 3-D piranha movie. That just doesn't happen so I wouldn't hold it against those movies as much. But the summer? Come on!

Of course, we live in an age where it's considered gauche to be a film fan, a horror fan even, and to actually get excited about these kinds of things. I'll read about the announcement of a movie like Piranha 3-D, immediately flip out because it's the greatest news ever, and then go to the discussion boards to see the reaction only to see that this miracle news has been greeted with nothing but scorn and indifference. And I have to wonder, "Jesus, what planet am I living on? When did movie fans become such a bitter bunch?"

Tell me about Piranha 3-D and I'm already imaging what the poster will look like and what the cover shot for FANGORIA is going to be (my guess for the cover text: "They're Swimming Off The Screen!"), while the reaction of everyone from 'DarkChyld98' to 'myndtrapp' is "Eh, looks stupid. It's about fishes? Please! And 3-D? Really? How lame!" I don't know - maybe I'm some kind of anomaly. Or maybe I didn't get the memo that cool shit isn't cool anymore - but I'm sorry, if Piranha 3-D doesn't ring your bells then maybe horror movies just aren't your thing.

I don't care that this is a remake of a movie that's bound to remain the smarter and more satisfying of the two (well, of the three if you want to count the made-for-Showtime remake from 1995). And I don't care that the director (Alexandre Aja) hasn't made a movie yet that's really impressed me (although High Tension and the Hills Have Eyes remake do have their fans) because none of his previous movies were 3-D piranha movies. As far as I'm concerned, this has the potential to be the Greatest Movie Ever. Or at least it might be The Only Movie That Matters in the summer of '09. And listen, if nothing else it'll be the only 3-D piranha movie out in July '09 and that's nothing to sneeze at.

Whatever happens, they HAVE to go on to do a remake of James Cameron's sequel Piranha II: The Spawning. Because the only thing better than seeing piranha in 3-D is to see flying piranha in 3-D.

I just don't want to know about it until the title is up on my local theater marquee.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"The One I Might've Saved"

Blogger extraordinaire and all-around mystery man ‘Arbogast’ put out a suggestion recently for fellow bloggers to write about “one they might’ve saved” – to select a single horror movie victim that they would choose to snatch away from their tragic end. In mulling over the question, it occurred to me just how many deaths in horror movies have moved me over the years. Horror films are often accused of desensitizing their audience to suffering but I’ve found it to be just the opposite. I’m such a bleeding heart, in fact, that I couldn’t just stick to my top choice and instead went with a list of ten characters.

Over the years, scores of characters in horror films have died appalling deaths. Some by elaborate means, some involving primal fears like drowning or being buried alive. Some have died alone in darkness and some within the false safety of a crowd. And many have died begging for their lives. But in trying to determine who I'd save, I realized that it wasn't so much about the details of their demises or how much pain we watch them endure - some of my picks' last moments occurred off-camera - but the sense that a vibrant life was senselessly snuffed out when all it would've taken to save them was a nudge in another direction.

So here’s ten characters that, given the chance, I would’ve tried to rescue:

10. Kate Miller (Dressed To Kill, 1980)

At least just prior to her death in Psycho, Marion Crane was able to enjoy a cathartic moment in which she seemed to be literally cleansing herself of her sins. But as her cinematic counterpart in Brian DePalma's Psycho riff, Angie Dickinson's sexually frustrated housewife Kate Miller enjoys an afternoon tryst only to learn - thanks to a doctor’s report she inadvertently comes across in the man's apartment - that the fellow museum goer she impulsively hopped into bed with has been diagnosed with syphilis and gonorrhea. And that’s the last demeaning discovery Kate makes in this life as her next stop is the elevator in which she’s slashed to death by her cross-dressing therapist, played by Michael Caine.

Whatever personal failings Kate Miller might've had as a wife and mother, I just don't believe that anybody deserves to be killed by Michael Caine in drag.

9. Karen White (The Howling, 1981)

When it comes to modern werewolf movies, most horror fans line up at the altar of An American Werewolf in London. But for me, it's always been about The Howling. And a big part of the appeal of Joe Dante's movie lies with Dee Wallace Stone's performance as TV anchorwoman Karen White. That her on-air self-sacrifice on behalf of the truth at the film's conclusion ("I'm going to show you make you believe!") goes unappreciated (they cut to a dog food commercial!) makes me wish she hadn't taken a bullet for a viewership unequipped to see her death as anything but an accomplished special effect.

8. Casey Becker (Scream, 1996)

The most heartbreaking detail of the opening scene in Scream is when Drew Barrymore's fatally stabbed Casey Becker removes her killer’s mask. Knowing that she recognizes who's done this to her but not being able to comprehend why this person has chosen to end her life makes her death especially poignant.

7. Annie Hayworth (The Birds, 1963)

As a kid, I thought Suzanne Pleshette was incredibly cool as schoolteacher Annie Hayworth and yet there was an underlying melancholy to the character in that this whip-smart woman had forsaken any chance at a full romantic life by continuing to live in Bodega Bay to pine away for Mitch Brenner. Annie's death is gut-wrenching, even though we never see it on camera. Just young Cathy Brenner's description of her teacher's final act of heroism is vivid enough:

"...All at once, the birds were everywhere. All at once, she pushed me inside and they covered her. Annie...she pushed me inside!"

6. Tracy Mills (Seven, 1995)

Thanks to Seven's instant entry into the pop culture lexicon, "What's in the box?" became fair game for parody material but I still feel sick at Tracy Mills' fate. This was a character that would’ve been so easy to save, if only anyone had suspected she was in danger.

5. Joanna Eberhart (The Stepford Wives, 1975)

I was confounded by the decision on the part of the filmmakers behind 2004's Stepford Wives remake to turn it into a tongue-in-cheek spoof. Even though the original had its share of dark humor, William Goldman's script (based on Ira Levin's novel) never sold Joanna's sadness short. It’s one of those movies where I can’t help but want to intervene on the heroine's behalf as - in collusion with her callow husband - the Stepford Men's plans for Joanna (well played by Katharine Ross) come to their fruition.

4. Maureen Coyle (Psycho III, 1986)

Entering into a romantic relationship with Norman Bates and then paying a lethal price for it might be considered by some to be a classic case of getting what you asked for (as no nonsense private investigator Tracy Venable says when she sees what's become of Maureen: "You dumb, stupid, naive girl..."). But I think the fragile romance that develops here between Norman and Diana Scarwid’s nun on the run could've gone the distance.

3. Alex Kintner (Jaws, 1975)

One of the most indelible moments in Jaws remains the sight of a shredded inflatable raft nudging against the shore, sans the young boy who was just on it moments before. When they say that Jaws kept people out of the water, for me they were talking exclusively about this scene. To see this boy ripped apart just a few feet away from shore and practically within arm's length of the other swimmers crowding the water deeply scared me as a kid. And really, this is a character that shouldn't have needed to be saved in the first place. If Sheriff Brody had been allowed to do his job, rather than play political ball, the beaches would've been closed.

After all, they knew there was a shark out there.

2. Becky (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, 1986)

It's true that some women have terrible instincts for choosing men, but they shouldn’t have to die for it. Tracy Arnold gives such a sensitive performance as Becky in Henry that she deflects the instinct to regard her as being too dumb to live. Instead, her decent heart and sincere interest in shy Henry make her uncommonly sympathetic. There could’ve been a modest future for this girl, if only she had been able to recognize Henry as a sociopath rather than mistaking him for a gentleman. In a film filled with wasted lives and butchered bodies, it's the final sight of a suitcase left like garbage on the side of the road as Henry drives off alone that proves he only has room for death in his heart.

1. Ruth Mayer
(The Brood, 1979)

While it's the abused Candy Carveth who really needs to be saved in David Cronenberg's The Brood, it was the death of elementary school teacher Ruth Mayer that left me traumatized when I saw this film at an early age. When the Brood invade Ruth's classroom looking to bring Candy back to her mother at the Psycho-Plasmics institute, it seems as though the strong, capable Ruth (played by Susan Hogan) ought to be able to fend off their attack. After all, the Brood's sole previous victims were an old man and woman, both caught alone (and both slightly drunk) and unprepared to defend themselves.

But when Ruth becomes so quickly overwhelmed by the Brood, it's a devastating death. The sight of a classroom full of sobbing children standing over the battered body of their murdered teacher is just too heartbreaking.

And Cronenberg really twists the knife when Art Hindle as Candy's dad Frank rushes in to see Ruth's dead body splayed awkwardly on the classroom floor. Frank grabs the first thing he can to cover Ruth's bloody face and lifeless eyes - a crayon drawing with these words scrawled across it in a child's hand: "We Plant Pumpkin Seeds."

My thanks to Arbogast for inspiring me to reflect on the many horror movie victims whose deaths left such an impression on me.

And in closing, I'd like to give a shout out to my original "One I Might've Saved":

When I first saw The Blob as a kid, I just wanted to reach through the TV screen and knock that stick out of the old man's hands. Six simple words could've saved this idiot's life:

"Put it down, you damn fool!"

Sorry man, I really wish I could've been there for ya.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Tom Atkins!

The news that Tom Atkins (The Fog, Escape from New York and Night of the Creeps among others) has been cast in the upcoming remake of My Bloody Valentine has made my heart swell just a little.

I love Atkins and miss his once-regular presence on the genre scene. I don’t know what role he’s been cast for in MBV but I hope it’s more than just a glorified cameo (if this sticks close to the original, I'm guessing that he'll be the old bartender who tries to warn all the young kids about Harry Warden). Before this announcement, I had just assumed that Atkins had simply quietly retired from acting (after all, the guy is pushing 80 by now) but it’s great to find out otherwise.

My favorite Atkins role remains that of Dr. Dan Challis in Halloween III: Season of the Witch. As the only man on Earth with a chance to avert the mass slaughter of the nation's children on Halloween night, this divorced, drunken dad makes for a profoundly unlikely hero. I've never read any interviews with either Atkins, director Tommy Lee Wallace, or producer John Carpenter in which they discussed their thoughts behind this character but I love the fact that they thought that portraying Challis a womanizing, alcoholic coward was the way to go.

While the affable Atkins has no problem making Challis likeable regardless of his actions, the character is almost never shown rising above the level of slime. For starters, he really likes his booze. That's not a crime (thank God!) but it's just not the kind of thing we're used to seeing in horror movie heroes - especially when there's so much at stake. For another, Challis hits the road to sinsiter Santa Mira and the Silver Shamrock toy factory with Ellie, the barely legal daughter of a slain shop owner, in order to investigate her dad's mysterious death and once the door closes on their motel room, the nearly 50-year-old Challis shows no hesitation in getting Ellie (played by Stacey Nelkin) into bed. Atta boy, Challis!

Even better is that during the throes of passion, in the next motel room over a woman inadvertently causes a Silver Shamrock chip to fatally misfire in her face. Ellie immediately voices her alarm at the sudden sound ("What was that?") only to have a preoccupied Challis mumble into her breasts "...Who cares?".

And as soon as Challis and Ellie catch on to the fact that something seriously sketchy is up in Santa Mira, Challis' immediate response is not to figure out how to root out what's going on but to ask Ellie "You wanna leave?". Yep, that's definitely my kind of guy.

When push comes to shove, of course, Challis does do the right thing. And if he doesn't quite succeed in saving the day, well, you can't win 'em all. As long as he can get his ass to a bar stool, it's understood that Challis will find a way to get over it. To paraphrase Atkins' loutish Creepshow character, "That's why God made Happy Hour, babe."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Burnt Offerings

Proving that it doesn't pay to be a crusading D.A. in Gotham City, here's an early look at how Harvey Dent fares against the underworld in this summer's Batman sequel The Dark Knight. As you can see from the above picture (concept art, not finished character make-up), it's not a sight for the squeamish.

For me, this look is just a little too real for Two-Face. As a fan of the character, I always liked the fact that Two-Face's disfigurement was more iconic than just an injury. Becoming Two-Face did more to Dent than just make him hard to look at. After all, he was splashed by acid and yet the scarring magically split his face into two perfectly divided halves - as though the accident was simply the trigger event to manifest something that was already inside of Dent. And Dent's scars were always depicted with a quality of baroque grotesqueness that would've been right at home in Chester Gould's Dick Tracy.

He may never have been anyone's idea of handsome but in the comics, there was something strong about Two-Face that shone through his appearance and made him exempt from pity. Here, though, the character just looks tragic. I know some fans like to applaud the 'real-world' approach that director Christopher Nolan is bringing to his Batman films but making a burn victim into a super villain strikes me as being not-so-fun.

All I know is this - if the action figure for Two-Face is true to this look, it might be the first of its kind to come with its own barf bag.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Putting the "I" In "AIEEEE!!"

It definitely makes sense to try and include the iconography of Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust in advertising his follow-up. I get that. But yet there's just something strange about a poster that uses one of the most notorious and appalling images I've ever seen in a film as part of its title font. I bet someone in the Cannibals camp must've been feeling proud when this concept dawned on them, though ("Hey, shouldn't the "I" be that chick with the pole rammed through her?"). And it just makes me wonder if there could be a whole alphabet of movie atrocities waiting to be discovered.

And where's the obvious tagline, by the way? Come on, with that Predator 2-esque shot overlooking the City of Angels, it can only mean that "They're In Town...And Looking For A Bite To Eat!"

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Paws For Effect

For horror fans, the early '90s were an often galling time (although I guess for horror fans, every time is an often galling time but anyhow...). Thanks to the stigma that horror had developed during the '80s, the filmmakers behind well-made, crowd-pleasing efforts such as Silence of the Lambs, Cape Fear and Misery demurred from using the horror label while ham-handed offerings like Ghost in the Machine, Brainscan and Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice were flying the flag for horror whether anyone wanted them to or not. But while these latter films didn't do the genre any favors, I'd like to show some attention to one of my favorites failures from this time - 1993's dog-eared tale of science gone wrong, Man's Best Friend.

When a movie gives you Lance Henriksen as a brilliant, driven, self-justifying douche bag of an animal experimenter, and you have him out to retrieve his (ahem!) pet project - an escaped super-canine named Max who has a laundry list of scientifically granted abilities and a potentially (ahem!!) hair-trigger temper, I'm already in. As Dr. Jarret, Henriksen walks over every other performer in the film, exploding at random moments in the interest of warning anyone in earshot about his missing mutt's imminent meltdown ("He is gonna SNAP!!").

But while Henriksen is coming apart before our eyes, his tail-wagging time bomb is comfortably curled up at the foot of Ally Sheedy's bed. Sheedy's character of TV reporter Lori Tanner is someone who desperately wants to score their big break and blowing the lid off animal abuse seems like the smart way to go. But after breaking into the EMAX facility after hours to film Henriksen's handiwork and show the world just how shitty Dr. Jarret treats the four-legged world, she lets Max out of his cage and ends up taking him home against the strongly-stated protests of Perry, her live-in boyfriend (played by Fredric Lehne - who recently had a recurring role on TV's Supernatural as the Yellow-Eyed Demon).

Max is essentially a furry Frankenstein's Monster - he's not evil, he's just more dog than the world can handle. And writer/director John Lafia (Child's Play 2) does a pretty good job of hitting all the bases that you'd want a killer dog movie to get to. Cats, mailmen, newspaper delivery boys and over-zealous pet control officers are all on Max's "to bite" list. Oh, and Max also makes time to show the neighborhood's lone hot collie what love is - although he doesn't do it gently.

If Man's Best Friend isn't all that it could've been (disappointingly, initial plans to have Max undergo a final transformation, revealing himself as a cyborg creation courtesy of FX wiz Kevin Yagher were scrapped during filming), it isn't just a sad little pup of a movie, either. To my mind, any movie where a dog pursues a cat up the side of a tree and then proceeds to swallow the living cat whole (apparently they must've given Max some anaconda genes, too!) is automatically a film of at least some merit.

But the clincher - and the scene that makes me wish that a Man's Best Friend 2 could've been in the cards somehow - is a scene late in the film where Max knocks poor Perry to the floor, proceeds to lift his leg over Perry's prone body and then, well, pees on his face. That'd be a hard thing for anyone to get over - even under the best of circumstances - but earlier in the film, Lafia established that Max's urine is so acidic that it could fry the paint off a fire hydrant. So one can imagine that a big honking faceful of it wouldn't exactly feel like butterfly kisses.

After his mutilation, Perry is removed by ambulance, never to be seen for the rest of the film. But my fondest wish for Man's Best Friend 2 was that Lehne could've returned as Perry, having survived his ordeal to become the world's foremost expert on the dangers of genetically altered canines - but yet with a new face something along these lines:

Even better would've been if actor John Getz could've joined Perry in a reprise of his unlucky Fly and Fly 2 character of Stathis Borans. For those who don't remember, Borans was vomited on multiple times by Jeff Goldblum's tragic Brundlefly character and the corrosive properties of fly vomit (man-sized fly vomit, at that) left Borans down by a few appendages.

As corny as it sounds I do believe that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger and I really would've liked a definitive answer on whether having a man-sized fly regurgitate corrosive bile on you or having a dog spray their super-strength fire urine in your face is the better character builder.

Unfortunately, we'll never know - although if Perry's injuries forced him to utilize a seeing eye dog, I'd automatically have to give it to him. The combination of adversity and irony is just too hard to beat.