Saturday, June 28, 2008

Phantasm II

Amid the bright hues of the '80s, writer/director Don Coscarelli's Phantasm II (1988) forged a dark path through a wasted America of violated graveyards, abandoned towns, and ghoul-ridden mortuaries. With Angus Scrimm at his cadaverous best returning as the Tall Man and with his arcane arsenal of flying spheres capable of even more diverse acts of mayhem (they have so many astounding applications they deserve their own not-found-in-stores infomercial), Coscarelli's sequel to his 1979 cult classic was a satisfyingly macabre follow-up.

Phantasm II is essentially one long chase as the survivors of the original film - young Mike Pearson (James Le Gros, replacing A. Michael Baldwin) and balding ice cream jockey Reggie (the returning Reggie Bannister) - hit the road in their black Hemi Cuda to hunt down the elusive Tall Man and kill him once and for all or die trying.

Seamlessly picking up from the last moments of Phantasm (with some ingenious sleight-of-hand from Cosarelli, making it convincing that not a minute has passed for these characters), we see Reggie put down his guitar and jump into action, saving an unconscious Mike from being dragged off by the Tall Man's diminutive minions. Reggie gets himself and Mike to safety and - thanks to a gas stove - is able to blow Mike's house to debris as the Tall Man watches.

When we next see Mike in present times, he's intent on seeking out a young girl named Liz (Paula Irvine) who he's developed a psychic rapport with (and who also has visions of the Tall Man) but because Mike never backed off from telling his tale of the Tall Man, first he has to bullshit his way out of the mental institution he's currently incarcerated in. Once on the outside, Reggie tries to convince Mike that they only imagined their incredible ordeal of years ago. But when the Tall Man strikes again, exacting a catastrophic toll, Reggie is forced to team with Mike on a do-or-die mission of vengeance.

Even though the '80s were known for its portrayals of macho invincibility, Coscarelli doesn't depict Mike and Reggie as Rambo-esque action heroes. Instead, they're credible, fallible characters - always a frustrating step behind the Tall Man, working past an array of lethal booby-traps and taunting messages ("Come East if you dare!"). When they do offer some signs of bravado (as Reggie calls out to one henchman: "Come on, you Mutha!"), it's quickly followed by a humiliating smackdown.

More often than not, the overwhelmed duo are seen openly doubting what they'll be able to accomplish against the Tall Man's forces. Mike and Reggie are portrayed as soldiers embedded in enemy territory - rousting mausoleums, prowling cemeteries, and torching funeral homes - and like most foot soldiers, they're denied a view of the big picture. From one bloody skirmish to the next, they can't ascertain whether or not their missions are thwarting their foe's larger goals.

But the audience never has a privileged view of what's going on, either. In true Phantasm fashion, by the end of Phantasm II we have no clue as to what the Tall Man's goals are. Is he from another planet, or from another dimension? We don't know. But to me, it hardly matters. The action is fierce, the gore is gratuitous by late '80s standards (compared to what the MPAA was letting, say, the Friday the 13th sequels get away with at the time, Phantasm II was spectacularly nasty - like the moment where a drill-equipped sphere burrows its way through a henchman's body), the car and weapons are memorably bad-assed (check out the four-barreled shotgun!), and the chemistry between Le Gros and Bannister has a natural camaraderie (I wish Le Gros could've continued in the part, in fact, rather than Baldwin reclaiming the role).

It may not have a proper beginning or a real ending but for all its loose-ends and open ambiguities, Phantasm II feels oddly complete to me. It may not tell the most coherent tale but by sticking close to the grave, Coscarelli's morbid instincts prevail. While the Phantasm saga may have been sidelined, Phantasm II is a lasting reminder of a time when Cosarelli still had all his balls in the air.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Make A Man Out Of The Hulk!

Bringing Marvel Comic's irradiated Jekyll and Hyde, The Incredible Hulk, to the big screen seems like a project that should come together naturally. After all, the TV series adaptation was a huge success in its day (1978-1982) and that was back when the best they could do to realize ol' Gamma Genes on screen was to put a body builder (Lou Ferrigno) in green make-up. So when the first attempt to make a movie version of The Hulk in 2003 under the direction of Ang Lee didn't score the kind of hit that such a popular character seemed primed for, Marvel didn't waste any time trying to get it right a second time.

But while the general consensus is that the new film (directed by Louis Leterrier this time around) is closer to what fans wanted to see in a Hulk movie (lots more smashing, including a climatic thrown-down between the Hulk and his comic book adversary The Abomination), it doesn't look like it'll end up making much more change at the box office than Lee's much-derided, artsy version. So what's the issue here? Is it a case of people feeling burned by the first film and deciding to wait till cable or DVD on this new version? Are audiences just confused as to what this new film is - is it a sequel, a remake, or something else? Did the stories about star Ed Norton's dissatisfaction with the final cut of the film keep some potential viewers away? Or is there just a very finite number of people who are willing to go see a Hulk movie and no matter what approach is taken, any Hulk movie will hit the same ceiling every time?

But after watching Marvel's latest try at creating a Jade Dynasty on film, I think the truth is simply this - they need to make a man out of the Hulk. Marvel Studios needs to realize that the Hulk should be played by a person. And the scene that really drove that home for me in the new version was Lou Ferrigno's endearing cameo appearance.

Ferrigno did a brief cameo in Lee's Hulk but here there's more of an overt effort to honor him, giving him a nice scene with Ed Norton. He looks every bit as fit today as he did in his prime and he makes the most out of his brief screen time. And after the scene was over, it was so plain to me what was wrong about this otherwise entertaining movie - any CG Hulk only comes across as a placeholder for the real thing. Think about it - if they made a Hulk movie in twenty years or so, would anyone be clamoring for the CG Hulk of '08 to make a cameo?

I'm not saying that Ferrigno himself needs to play the role again (although physically, I'm betting he could) but that casting a real person in the role would make all the difference. There are examples of CG characters that are perfectly rendered and that blend seamlessly into the environment of their films - maybe the best example being Gollum from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Ring series.

But for whatever reason, it doesn't work with the Hulk. Maybe the CGI itself is substandard but I don't think that's it. The CG in both Hulk films to date looked top of the line to these eyes. I just think a CG Hulk puts the character on an exaggerated plane that works fine in the comics but is a disadvantage to the live-action version.

The most frequent question or complaint I've heard from non-comics readers about both film versions of the Hulk is essentially "why is he so big?". I think for those who don't read the comic or only know the character through the TV show, the enormity of the movie Hulk is an automatic turn-off. I do think it harms the Jekyll/Hyde aspect of the character in that it's too hard to relate the CG Hulk to the live-action Banner - there's an instant credibility gap there. Most people can make the jump to believe that someone Bill Bixby's size could transform into a being Ferrigno's size but the change from Eric Bana and Ed Norton to their CG counterparts is just too much of a leap. And watching an animated character flex its CGI muscles just isn't that thrilling. I suspect a whole generation of kids were inspired by Ferrigno to go into body building - for a child to look at his Hulk was to imagine that they could be that strong if they tried. And that kind of emulation will never happen with a CG Hulk.

When I think of some of the best moments of the original series, they involve Ferrigno's performance. He was able to convey real pathos, as in the climatic moments of the two-part second season opener "Married" when he holds Mariette Hartley's dying character of Dr. Carolyn Fields (aka Mrs. David Banner), that's a scene that never fails to break me apart.

That's a scene between two actors that will live in my memory far longer than that of an enormous cartoon Hulk choking another oversized cartoon character with a giant length of animated chain. I mean, I'm all for action but there's plenty of action that can be accomplished with a real actor that will probably be more thrilling for being more human scaled. I never tired of seeing Ferrigno's Hulk trash assorted biker bars, discos, and bake sales on the original show, for instance, but the feats of strength of a CG character just aren't as exciting.

I guarantee you that if it had been Ferrigno that burst out of the ground to fight the Abomination at the end of this new Hulk, every audience that saw it would've gotten on their feet to applaud.

So please, Marvel - for the sake of one of your best characters, swallow your pride, go against what the leading FX gurus will tell you, and make the third time the charm. Keep Norton as Banner if you can but get a real person to stretch out puny Banner's purple pants.

Call this version The Rampaging Hulk and make some real green this time out.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The First Power

Back in a simpler time, Death Row criminals had to be forced to their appointed hour of execution and all was right with the world. But in the late ‘80s, a worrisome new breed of satanic psycho preferred to be taken off the tax payer’s hands rather than serve jail time. In films like Shocker (1989), The Horror Show (1989), and The First Power (1990), serial slayers who found themselves receiving their final justice courtesy of the state had a return ticket from Hell waiting for them and new opportunities to rack up a body count.

A short-lived trend, this spate of films didn’t yield any success stories but it’s hard not to applaud a wave of movies, no matter how meager that wave might’ve been, that gave Mitch Pileggi, Brion James, and Jeff Kober some of the best opportunities of their careers to chew the scenery as Horace Pinker, Max Jenke, and Patrick Channing (aka The Pentagram Killer) respectively. And even though it’s James who takes the individual acting prize in this contest (otherwise, this blogspot might've been called TV Dinners With Horace Pinker), it’s The First Power that deserves the highest overall accolades for its non-stop pace and gung-ho action sequences.

Lou Diamond Philips stars as Russell Logan, a no-bullshit cop gunning for L.A.'s latest maniac, the Pentagram Killer. As you might expect, this psycho’s telltale M.O. is – wait for it! – the pentagram that he carves into his victim’s skin (a grisly trademark that sets him apart from the equally vicious Isosceles Triangle Killer). Logan gets an anonymous tip from a psychic (Tracy Griffith) who tells him where the Pentagram Killer will strike next but offers her help only on the condition that if he captures the killer that Logan will not seek the death penalty. As this is apparently a psychic with a very narrow ability to read people, Logan agrees, uses her tip to catch the killer, and then totally surprises her by putting his latest collar into the gas chamber as fast as due process will allow. But as Logan's tipster warned, a death sentence is exactly what this unrepentant psychopath (played to eerie perfection by Kober) seems to want.

Soon after the execution, the Pentagram Killer is back in business and to Logan’s disbelief, he sees a robust Patrick Channing out on the streets again. His psychic friend reveals herself as professional medium Tess Seaton and Logan has no choice but to drop his skepticism and join forces with Tess (the fact that she's extremely easy on the eyes probably helps his decision) to take on Patrick, who now has “the first power” – the power of resurrection. Which means that Patrick now has the ability to instantly switch to any body that he chooses. As “first powers” go, that ain’t bad.

With Patrick free to kill with no earthly limits to his urges, Logan and Tess – along with the aid of an anxious, church-defying nun (Sister Marguerite, played by Elizabeth Arlen) – have to stop Patrick from eternally visiting his evil on our world. But with Patrick’s new-found immortality, he’s become the Hell-spawned Road Runner to Logan’s flat-footed Coyote.

First Power writer/director Robert Resnikoff puts action first and keeps his cast (and his stunt crew) on the run. And as this was made at the onset of the CGI-era, before every film started using CG – not just the big budget likes of The Abyss (1989) and T2 (1991) but the much lesser likes of Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1993) – The First Power does it all through death defying stuntwork (the breathtaking scene where Patrick leaps off a ten story building to the ground below and runs off without missing a step is the movie’s signature moment). And that's the main charm of The First Power to me - that everything is done by practical means.

If only the shortcomings of Resnikoff’s script weren't so glaring. Even for a movie about a cop chasing a body-hopping Satanic serial killer, it's pretty weak. It’s clichéd at every turn (even its production design reflects this: Patrick’s bedroom is earmarked with all the telltale signs of a warped upbringing, like a creepy clown painting hanging over his bed). And when it isn't being clichéd, it's simply idiotic. Like, exactly how does an overhead fan continue to keep spinning after it's been ripped out of the ceiling? And maybe things are different on the West Coast than they are here in the East but since when are enormous (and highly combustible) acid vats included as part of the sewer system?

And to unintentional comic effect, Resnifkoff keeps forgetting that Tess is supposed to be a psychic. At one point, Tess addresses a bartender as though he’s the bar’s namesake owner only to have him correct her that he’s not. And in another psychic lapse, she mistakes a plainsclothes cop trailing her as someone looking to pick her up, telling him that if he doesn’t leave her alone, she’ll call the cops!

Resnikoff showed an affinity for pulse-pounding action, however, and that’s where his movie delivers the goods. The First Power showed a lot of promise on the part of Resnikoff - not as a writer, of course, but his direction is confident. With everything accomplished on-set and in-camera with no post-production trickery, The First Power is unusually free of artifice for a modern genre film and Resnikoff never distracts from his story for the sake of attention grabbing camera moves. And yet this was the first and last feature film from him. According to his IMDB listing, Resnikoff completely vanished from the industry after The First Power. He didn’t go into another area, like writing or producing, he just left - severing his connection with film. A lot less talented directors have kept their careers going (to this day, even!) - so why did Resnikoff throw in the towel so soon?

If anyone ever bumps into this guy, tell him that The First Power rocked.

Also tell him that I'm waiting for The First Power Part II and I don't trust anyone else to do it right.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Silent Rage

Michael Myers might be a horror icon and all but don't you think he made his reputation the easy way? I mean, seriously - when you're an unstoppable killer, isn't it kind of cheap to make a name for yourself by taking on teenage girls and an old man? What would happen if a punk like Mike Myers had to go up against a real man for a change? How indestructible would he be against a world karate champion, for instance? Well, the producers of Silent Rage (1982) clearly had that same thought and delivered a film that was the closest horror fans ever got to seeing The Night HE Got His Ass Kicked.

In a bid to cash in on the then-thriving slasher craze, and also in a bid to give action icon Chuck Norris a believable challenge, Silent Rage pitted Chuck - as a determined small town Sheriff - against a human killing machine so relentless that if Chuck fails to bring him down, a nuclear air strike may be in order. Of course, nature alone could never create a being powerful enough to go up against Chuck Norris so Silent Rage's killer is the Godless creation of scientists who commit the foolhardy mistake of reviving a homicidal killer hovering on Death's Door.

And thanks to genetic engineering, this man can now withstand almost any form of physical harm. Of course no one knows more about inflicting physical harm than Chuck Norris so this super sociopath still has plenty to worry about.

Brian Libby plays John Kirby, a four-star whack job who goes on a motiveless murder spree as Silent Rage opens. He wakes up in the boarding house where he's been staying and receives a concerned call from his psychiatrist . We see Kirby subsequently struggle to talk while fumbling in vain for his medication, spilling his pills across the floor. We sense that he may be losing it - especially when he tells his doctor "I'm losing it, Doc! I'm looosing it!" He then does 'lose it' and chases his landlady through the house with an axe in what must be considered one of the Best Opening Scenes Ever.

A mailman on his route hears the landlady hysterically screeching for help (a mailman on his route in India could've heard her just as easily) and soon the local law rolls up, led by Chuck as Sheriff Stevens. Back up is available (well, kind of - the newest addition to the force is Stephen Furst, aka Animal House's chubby "Flounder") but Chuck goes in alone and shows Kirby why it doesn't pay to be an axe-murderer in his town. Unfortunately while being taken into custody, Kirby gets loose and the group of law enforcers on the scene have no choice but to gun him down.

Clinging to life, Kirby is taken to the medical facility where his psychiatrist (played by Ron Silver) works and where, it just so happens, groundbreaking genetic research is being done (!). Against Silver's ethical protests, Kirby is revived post-death (by Steven Keats and genre regular William Finley). Once Kirby gets his feet on the ground, his first house call is to his psychiatrist.

The home invasion that follows delivers some choice stalk and slash moments (there's a perfectly timed head-slam to the wall, for instance) and Libby's malevolent performance, spiked by quirky behavioral tics (like the way he'll often enter a room crouched rather than standing), makes Kirby stand out as one of the more formidable movie maniacs of the '80s. He's such a force to be reckoned with that only Chuck's best roundhouse kicks can end Kirby's rampage.

But before he and Kirby have their showdown, Chuck spends most of Silent Rage reviving an old romance between himself and researcher Alison Halman (Toni Kalem), a woman who he hasn't seen in six years but who now works at the same institute where Kirby's body was taken.

When they first meet in the film, Chuck bumps into Kalem in the halls of the institute and she promptly slaps him across the face for running out on her. Two scenes after that, they're in bed together. The next time they meet, it's right back in the sack for a cringe-inducing love montage that includes gratuitous hammock swinging. And in case it's never been said before, Chuck Norris should not swing in any hammocks. Ever.

Silent Rage may not be particularly great but it is a lot of fun - especially for aficionados of '80s cheese - and it delivered bigger and better slasher movie action than any of the Halloween and Friday the 13th rip-offs at that time, which were generally all structured as 'whodunnits' (and were also too low budget to incorporate the kind of stunt work seen in Silent Rage). And as routine as Silent Rage might seem and as much as this film is chasing Halloween's success, Kirby is a precursor as to how invincible Michael and Jason would later come to be depicted in their own series and Silent Rage foreshadowed the action-heavy approach the sub-genre would adopt as the '80s went on (think of the scene in Jason Lives where Jason crashes a motor home, for instance, or in Halloween 4 where Michael throws victims out of the back of a speeding pick-up).

At the time of Silent Rage, Michael had just been 'killed' in Halloween II and Jason was still the 'hillbilly' version seen in Friday the 13th Part 2 (both films from 1981). Back then, both these icons weren't quite the super-slayers they'd later become - they were merely just hard to kill. But yet in Silent Rage, Kirby survived blunt trauma as only Chuck Norris can deliver it and returned it in kind. As the U.S. posters said, he will "...push Chuck Norris to his limits. And beyond."

As a reminder of an exploitation era when slasher films and Chuck Norris were two of the best reasons to go to the movies, Silent Rage holds up as a satisfying genre crossover.

Click over to my pals at Kindertrauma for their awesome appreciation of Silent Rage, along with some other choice '80s action films that cross the line into full-blown horror.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Part Mystery Science Theater, part Rocky Horror Picture Show, and part A Nightmare on Elm Street, the uneven but fondly remembered Popcorn (1991) cynically chased after the fading slasher successes of the '80s, but offered a sincere celebration of the monster movies of the '50s - and the promotional gimmickry that was often used to sell them (in that regard, director Joe Dante would tread similar territory in 1993 with his affectionate William Castle homage, Matinee).

As Popcorn opens, a young film student named Maggie (played by Jill Scholen, the underrated scream queen of The Stepfather and Phantom of the Opera) is haunted by strange, reoccurring dreams filled with disjointed images. Baffled as to the source of these dreams, Maggie intends to incorporate this vivid, subconscious imagery as part of her student film project but when the University's film department suddenly finds its funding cut, their professor (Amityville 3-D's Tony Roberts) offers Maggie and her classmates a chance to raise some money on their own by hosting a marathon of '50s horror movies - all with their vintage promotional gimmicks - at the local Dreamland Theater, a building soon scheduled for demolition. In this appropriately named "Dreamland", Maggie's waking world and her fragmented dreams will be fused into one.

While readying the theater for paying customers, the students come across a film made by cult guru Lanyard Gates who murdered his followers at the Dreamland years earlier in a deranged attempt at 'art' only to perish himself during the fiery incident (reminiscent of Richard Lynch's cult leader from 1988's Bad Dreams, who also fried his followers). Gates' film is called "The Possessor" and Maggie is overwhelmed to see that it corresponds to images from her own fevered dreams. Days later as the film festival swings into motion, Maggie notices a mysterious figure stalking the Dreamland among the garishly costumed crowds - and believes that this is Lanyard Gates, still alive. No one believes her, of course, but behind the scenes this same figure is stalking and killing Maggie's fellow students one by one with Maggie left to wonder why she's the final target of a madman's revenge.

Anticipating Scream (1996) by several years, Popcorn has the same sort of narrative self-reflections that Craven's film was celebrated for (in one layered moment, Lanyard Gates beckons viewers to "Come into my head!", from the psychedelic frames of "The Possessor" as Maggie watches the film within the very theater that she herself has spent so much time dreaming about), and the film gets good mileage from its story elements of reel vs. real. Although one wishes that director Mark Herrier had been able to bring some De Palma-esque flair to the script's well-conceived set-pieces.

Marking the first time since Black Christmas (1974) that Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby collaborated on a horror project, the two ultimately took their names off the credits - with Ormsby's writing credit going to the pseudonym Tod Hackett (and Herrier replacing Ormsby as director - this was to be Ormsby's first solo directing gig) and Clark's associate producer duties going uncredited (the 'Bob Clark' responsible for Popcorn's make-up FX is unrelated). Why both men decided to distance themselves from the finished film is unknown but Popcorn still bears the duo's creative stamp.

The films-within-the-film are Popcorn's real highlight, made with an exacting eye (and ear) to the conventions of the genre. The big bug film Mosquito recalls the atomic age likes of Them! and Tarantula; The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man (starring familiar character actor Bruce Glover) echoes films like The Indestructible Man in which men are transformed by science into rampaging monsters; and finally the Japanese monster movie The Stench, filmed in "Aroma-Rama", gets the shortest amount of screen time with no memorable clips to its credit - its humor is strictly limited to playing up the infamous bad dubbing of Japanese imports.

The gimmicks for Mosquito and Electrified Man are both out of the William Castle play book with a giant prop mosquito flown on wires over the audience during the climax of Mosquito and Tingler-esque electric shocks delivered to wired theater seats during the climax to Electrified Man. Ormsby's script turns these prankish gimmicks into lethal weapons to good effect. The giant mosquito is hi-jacked by the killer, for example, and turned into a deadly missile - spearing a hapless off-stage victim through the heart as the unknowing audience is still cheering the prop's cheesy appearance. Moments like this raise Popcorn above standard B-fare, revealing a fleeting inventiveness.

The overriding slasher storyline and the mystery concerning the killer's identity isn't much, however (even though it brings its own group of cinematic references to the table - with visual and thematic cues to Phantom of the Opera, House of Wax, and The Abominable Dr. Phibes) so as the larger plotline moves more and more to the foreground, Popcorn becomes a lot less fun. Towards the end we get the inevitable moment where the revealed killer rants to a captive Jill Scholen and the movie never quite recovers. It doesn't help at all that Maggie's lunkheaded boyfriend is called on to make a bumbling rescue attempt at the climax, swinging clumsily over the Dreamland's audience on his way to the theater stage with exaggerated cries of "Whoa! Whoooa!". It's not enough to completely undo the good vibe of the film but it might make you wonder: where's a lethal prop mosquito when you really need one?

The irony of Popcorn is that for a movie whose plot was so indebted to the lost art of selling cheesy exploitation films, its own marketing was so poorly handled.

Lackluster ads for Popcorn that referenced Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th and promoted "The Possessor" as predating them all were just confusing and didn't hint at Popcorn's quirky appeal. Despite its celebration of crowd participation and of the shared joys of movie watching, Popcorn played to mostly empty theaters - only to later find its audience one-on-one on home video.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Stan Winston

The 1972 TV movie Gargoyles wasn't the first monster movie that I saw. At an early age I was already familiar with all the Universal classics - Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolfman, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Mummy. But it's likely that Gargoyles represents the first time that I'd ever seen monsters in a modern film, a color film. If it wasn't, then it was the first film of its kind to leave an impression on me strong enough that I'd continue to remember it. And Gargoyles' impact was entirely due to the work of special effects genius Stan Winston. I didn't know his name at the time, of course. At the age I saw Gargoyles, I'm sure I believed that the gargoyles were real (I'm certain I did because years later I refused to believe that Chewbacca was a man in a suit). But Winston's work was leaving a mark on me long before I knew his name as an artist or even before I was aware of what special effects were. In the wake of his passing at age 62, some Gen-Xers have referred to him as "our generation's Harryhausen" and it's fair to say that he was the preeminent monster maker and FX man of his time.

I won't try to enumerate his accomplishment here as they're too familiar to every fan of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. But when I heard the news of his death, I instantly flashed on the many moments in his unmatchable catalog that left me awestruck over the years. I'll never forget watching the first Terminator (1984) with my buddies in the now long-gone Ingleside Mall theater and feeling an euphoric rush during that film's climax at the sight of the Terminator trucking on, sans skin.

To see that sleek metallic skeleton continuing on with its mission to kill the future was a magical moment that obliterated any adolescent jadedness I might've brought into the theater with me that day. I was a newly-minted splatter kid back then, scouring video stores for the latest atrocities from Italy and elsewhere. But Winston's work in The Terminator - with images that looked as if they jumped straight out of pulp comic book illustrations - cut right through that and took my breath away. It proved to me that when it came to appreciating movies, that cynicism could never trump wide-eyed wonder. And Stan Winston delivered that message over and over again during the course of his career.

He didn't just make monsters - he made memories.

Thanks for all the great ones, Stan.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Appreciating Tom Burman

As special effects moved to the forefront of the sci-fi and horror films of the '70s and early '80s, many FX artists were catapulted to a new-found level of cult fame usually reserved for actors. Tom Savini reigned as the King of Splatter, FX-wiz Rob Bottin became an instant legend thanks to his work on films like The Howling (1980) and The Thing (1982), and still-active icons like Dick Smith and Rick Baker were held in high esteem as the elder statesmen of their field. But the craftsman responsible for this writer's most fondly recalled brushes with astonishing FX was the low-profile genius Tom Burman.

Burman (who entered the makeup union in 1966 and began his movie career under the mentorship of innovative makeup designer John Chambers, working as an apprentice on the original Planet of the Apes) never rose to the same level of name recognition and superstardom that many of his peers did. Maybe this was simply due to the fact that the films he was attached to underperformed in comparison to the likes of Friday the 13th and none of them proved to be as seminal in their influence as films like The Thing.

If anything, Burman (who first opened his own studio in 1971) usually had the bad luck to be associated with films that were met with complete derision, such as 1976's goofy eco-terror tale Food of the Gods. When I saw FOTG at age seven, it was the first horror film that I ever saw in the theater and I can tell you that it never occurred to me at the time that the movie unfolding before me was ridiculous (no, not even when a giant rooster dwarfed a farmhouse). Instead of feeling totally had by an inferior movie, I walked out of that theater completely traumatized (the sight of oversized maggots has never entirely left me). I took 1977's equally asinine Empire of the Ants pretty hard too, yet another film that Burman contributed to - he worked on the giant ants that menaced the likes of Joan Collins.

As the '70s went on, Burman's work found its way into films of a higher caliber, like 1978's well-regarded remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The sight of the cast's alien duplicates hatching from pods is still shiver-inducing and Donald Sutherland's graphic splitting of his own double's half-formed face with a rake remains one of the most revolting shots I've ever witnessed. And I've never forgotten the surreal image of the creature that - thanks to a vicious kick to a still-gestating pod by Donald Sutherland's character - emerged as a dog with its owner's face. The appearance of that creature was a moment that went by so quickly - and it was so hard to absorb the strangeness of what you were looking at before it was over - that it almost rates as an Exorcist-esque subliminal shot.

Burman Studios' contributions to William Girlder's final film The Manitou (1978) helped that film to emerge as one of the most delirious genre offerings of the '70s, thanks to the unforgettable sight of a Native American dwarf (!) emerging from a tumorous growth on the back of heroine Susan Strasberg's neck (Tony Curtis' awesome late '70s perm didn't hurt the movie, either). Burman also worked on John Frankenheimer's 1979 trash classic Prophecy. The famous 'inside-out' mother bear that stars as the movie's monster is an impressive man-in-a-suit effect but the sight that's hardest to shake is the sight of the little mewling mutant cubs caught in a fishing net. These malformed creatures are at once sympathetic and appalling.

In the early '80s, Burman Studios kept busy with credits on the underappreciated vigliante pic The Exterminator (1980), Oliver Stone's The Hand (1981) and a pair of well-remembered Canadian-lensed slasher films, both from 1981 - My Bloody Valentine (thanks to MPAA cuts, much of Burman's work on this slasher fave remains unseen), and Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday to Me was sold as featuring "ten of the most bizarre murders you'll ever see" and while that boast may have been a case of hyperbole, the film's famous death by shish-ka-bob may be the most recognizable early '80s horror movie kill thanks to being immortalized right on the film's poster.

With 1982's erotically angled Cat People remake, writer/director Paul Schrader followed his instincts to scale back his film's FX and in step with that didn't include as much of Burman's work as was shot. But what remains is still outstanding. For example, there's an autopsy scene - in which a human arm is discovered inside a dead panther - that compares well to the similarly grotesque autopsy scenes in The Thing. But the unchallenged highlight of the film is the horrific mutilation of Ed Begley Jr.'s character. When Begley as a jocular zoo attendant carelessly lets a caged panther get a hold of his arm, the following loss of limb was the most shocking act of physical trauma that I'd seen in any film up to that point - looking vividly real in a way that I've never forgotten.

But when you're talking about the mark that Burman left on '80s horror, it always has to come back to 1982's The Beast Within. With The Beast Within, Burman went head to expanding head with the other transformation scenes of its day and if he didn't trump them all, it wasn't for lack of trying. Unlike Paul Schrader, Beast director Phillippe Mora had no intention of leaving any of Burman's work on the cutting room floor. The film's centerpiece transformation, which depicts the final, freakish metamorphosis of a tormented teen (actor Paul Clemens) who sheds his skin to become a rampaging, insect-like creature, is - even by '80s standards - an unhinged, go-for-broke, special effects riot.

One could say that Mora's choice to linger on Clemens' transformation for as long as he does represents a case of misjudgement and that Mora should've trimmed the most exaggerated shots. On grounds of belivability, Burman himself questioned Mora's decision to include footage of one of the prop heads with the air bladders inflated to their limit (shots that were the result of some playfulness on the FX crew's part) - but Mora's instincts proved right; those shots always get the strongest reaction. This movie catered directly to the FX-crazed kids of the early '80s who didn't want movies to hold back and that's why The Beast Within remains so beloved among that set - because Mora knew the fans wouldn't think that anything was too over the top.

After The Beast Within, Burman went on to contribute classic moments to 1983's Halloween III: Season of the Witch (has any kid in a movie ever died a more spectacular death than little Buddy?), some old-style ghouls to the minor but fun One Dark Night (by future Jason Lives director Tom McLoughlin - who previously had been a professional mime and was one of several mimes who wore the bear costume in Prophecy), and Brian De Palma's voyeuristic thriller Body Double (1984). Since then, most of his studio's work has been largely outside the genre - generally working on lighter fare such as The Goonies, Howard the Duck, Scrooged and Wayne's World (with a brief return to pod-territory with 1993's Body Snatchers). His most recent credits are for the TV dramas Grey's Anatomy and Nip/Tuck.

Burman's ongoing success is a professional legacy that speaks for itself but among the short list of those who impacted the genre in the '70s and '80s, Burman's name remains surprisingly undercelebrated. Even if the films he worked on were often uneven efforts, Burman's contributions were always outstanding and many of his notable early accomplishments went uncredited (those would include a partial involvement with William Findlay's make-up in Brian de Palma's Phantom of the Paradise, the melting effects from the climax to The Devil's Rain, and the creepy multi-eyed sheep seen in Ken Russell's Altered States). During an extremely competitive era for FX artists, Burman's work was second to none and the array of unforgettable images that he helped put on film are indelibly associated with the movie magic that transfixed me in my youth.

Thanks to my pal Unkle Lancifer of Kindertrauma who invited me to participate in this mutual admiration of Tom Burman. Please click over to Kindertrauma to read Unkle L's own thoughts on Mr. Burman's work complete with a full slate of Burmalicious pics!

If You're A Ninja And You Know It, Clap Your Hands

As Crazy Ralph would tell you, Camp Crystal Lake is cursed ground. For decades after the accidental drowning of her son, former camp cook Pamela Voorhees made it her mission to avenge Jason’s death and keep future generations off that Hell-marked property. After putting her unsightly man-hands to work on committing a pair of murders, setting a mysterious fire, and poisoning the camp’s water supply, it looked like the camp’s reputation was permanently fried and Mrs. Voorhees’ work in Jason’s name was done.

However, in 1980 when stubborn dreamer Steve Christie decided that Camp Crystal Lake deserved another chance to succeed and he hired a staff of young counselors to make it happen, Mrs. Voorhees had to redouble her efforts. That meant that acts of minor vandalism were yesterday’s tactics. Property damage wasn’t going to cut it anymore. No more half-measures – it was time to unleash the beast and kill every single person on the camp grounds (instead of “They Are Doomed”, the poster for the first Friday could’ve read: “They Fucking Asked For It!”).

But when Mrs. Voorhees’ jihad against the horny teens of Camp Crystal Lake was cut short – along with her head – and Jason himself was left to pick up the bloody baton from his mother, fans immediately started asking questions. Had Jason been alive the whole time and been living in the woods? Was he a zombie? Why couldn’t he be killed? Why did he bother putting a door on the filthy bathroom in his shack in Part 2 – was he expecting company, like ever? Why does someone who was born to shit in the woods even have a toilet in the first place? And does anyone know why his face looks completely different in every movie? And while those questions have persisted in fan circles over the years, no one ever seems to ask the real question: What the Hell was Mrs. Voorhees supposed to be?

When the original Friday the 13th was released, it was regarded as a pretty straight-forward tale. This unbalanced mother had suffered a terrible loss and no body count would be too high to atone for it. Yeah, the death of Jason was her motivation – that’s understood. The major contributing factors in that death, such as premarital sex and recreational drug use – those were grounds for execution. Yep, gotcha. But I want to know – how the hell did this middle-aged woman physically accomplish the acts she committed in Friday the 13th? I mean, seriously – how? With few exceptions, these are not the kills that most women her age could pull off. These aren’t even the kind of kills most robots from the future could pull off, frankly. What Mrs. Voorhees does in Friday the 13th is way outside the strength league of someone of her size, stature, and planet of origin.

Think about it: what woman could thrust an arrow through the bottom of a mattress, completely penetrate that mattress, and then drive the arrow even further all the way through the neck of someone lying atop the mattress? None, really – unless Ivan Drago underwent a sex change. And that’s not all. Somehow Mrs. Voorhees was also able to single-handedly raise an average-size dude – not a midget, mind you, a real guy – off the ground, hold his body against a wooden door and impale him against that door with arrows that she penetrated straight through this grown man’s body and into the door behind him with enough force to keep the body nailed against it. And she did all that shit in record time, too!

Mrs. Voorhees also hurled another chick’s dead body through a window and managed to place Steve Christie’s body up a tree. Come on – does any of this sound normal to you? After watching the original Friday the 13th more times than I can remember, and trying to make sense of what I was watching, I realize now that there’s only one possible answer:

Mrs. Voorhees was some kind of ninja bitch.

There’s no other explanation. If she isn’t supposed to be a ninja, then the movie is total bullshit. And no movie I’ve spent so much time watching could be that bullshit.

And apparently she wasn’t the only ninja bitch at Camp Crystal Lake that night. Mrs. Voorhees should’ve picked her prey a lot more carefully because even though Alice looks like the average girl next door, the average girl next door can’t decapitate a human being with a single swing of a machete, can they? No, not even if they use two hands. I mean, really – it took Conan at least two or three whacks with a sword to take Thulsa Doom’s head off at the end of Conan the Barbarian but in Friday the 13th, Alice separates Mrs. Voorhees’ head from those burly shoulders with one swing as cleanly as a lawnmower slices off the head of a daisy. And that says ninja to me.

I feel serene now that Friday the 13th makes sense to me. I just can’t believe it took me so long to put it together. But I probably shouldn’t be so hard on myself. After all, if ninjas were that easy to spot, they wouldn’t be ninjas.

And for anyone who might have cause to wonder – no, ninjas don’t usually resort to acts of biting and hair-pulling. But there’s nothing that says two warriors have never tried to settle their shit street-style.

Monday, June 9, 2008

These Rats Deserve A Better Reputation

Some say there are few things more heart-warming than the pitter-patter of little feet. And I happen to agree with that. As proof, let me tell you about my enduring love for 1982’s rats on 'roids classic, Deadly Eyes.

Based (reportedly very loosely) on James Herbert’s 1974 novel The Rats, Deadly Eyes sics an army of jacked up rodents (realized through a combination of dachshunds in rat costumes and rat puppets for close-up shots) who've ingested steroid-laced grain on the unsuspecting populace of Toronto. Sam Groom stars as Paul Harris, a high school teacher and single parent (recently divorced) who strikes up a romantic relationship with a no-nonsense city health inspector Kelly Leonard (Sara Botsford). To their mutual horror, the two – along with the majority of Paul’s students as well as the odious city officials who Kelly butts heads with – discover that their position on the food chain is now up for negotiation. That’s bad news no matter how you hear about it but when you learn it by way of a stampede of super-sized rats, it’s really tough.

As scripted by Charles Eglee from Herbert's novel and a screenplay by Lonon Smith, Deadly Eyes is oddly structured in that until the climactic half hour or so, the main characters have little-to-no clue that something is wrong in their community (besides health code violations and promiscuous teens, that is). The rats are responsible for a handful of slayings but these deaths go undiscovered by the protagonists. Up until the rats stop going after all the easy pickings – such as unattended infants and Scatman Crothers – and start gathering en masse at local hot spots like bowling alleys and movie theaters, Deadly Eyes’ main storyline revolves around Paul’s romantic escapades. Besides his quick-moving relationship with Kelly, he’s also being hotly pursued by Trudy, the school's head cheerleader (natch!) and Paul has to deflect Trudy’s school girl advances (actress Lisa Langlois plays Trudy as what passed for a manipulative tramp in 1982 but the character seems downright chaste by today's standards) as gentlemanly as he can – but not before at least one obligatory awkward moment can happen with Kelly catching Paul in a compromising position with Trudy.

But director Robert Clouse (Enter the Dragon) knows just when to stop dwelling on Paul’s love life and Deadly Eyes proves itself to be exceptionally generous where its vermin is concerned. After feeding the appropriate number of secondary characters to the ever-growing rat army at proper intervals, Clouse pulls out all the stops for the finale. In Deadly Eyes’ last half hour, the rats manage to strike simultaneously everywhere that the film’s characters happen to be (in depicting all this mayhem, Close’s editing strategy seems to have been “when in doubt, cut to a rat”). These characters are in separate locations across the city but yet each of these areas is hit equally hard at once. Impressively, the rampage at the Bruce Lee film festival (!) results in every last teen character in Deadly Eyes being annihilated. While it would’ve been just as easy to spare at least one of Paul's students, Eglee and Clouse decided that it’d just be better if these kids all died. That’s how Deadly Eyes rolls.

By the end of Deadly Eyes’ trim 87 minutes (a running time padded by at least ten minutes of gratuitous shots of rat puppets slurping up blood), men are separated from mice and rats meet fat cats (seldom have arrogant politicians gotten the satisfying comeuppance that they do here). Over the years, fans and critics have treated this earnest effort as if it were trash but I’m happy to argue otherwise.

Deadly Eyes might be infested with rats, but it’s not garbage.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Silver Bullet

In the mid-'80s, it seemed like producer Dino De Laurentiis was on a mission to make Stephen King's work look as bad on screen as possible. Save for the sole quality effort of The Dead Zone (we'll assign the credit for that to the talented team of director David Cronenberg, producer Debra Hill, and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam), De Laurentiis and King made for a toxic combination. It seemed like every six months, De Laurentiis would have his name on another King disaster but in reality there were only three films - Cat's Eye, Silver Bullet, and Maximum Overdrive. But as these three efforts all appeared over the course of just two years ('85-'86), the impression was that De Laurentiis-produced King adaptations were everywhere and that these films were single-handedly putting '80s horror into a slump.

But there's always a silver lining to bad times and fittingly, the werewolf opus Silver Bullet (adapted by King himself from his Berni Wrightson-illustrated novella Cycle of the Werewolf) has attracted a cult following that views it fondly. And although I never would've thought so after I first saw the film back in '85 and had little good to say about it, the Silver Bullet cult includes me as a member, too. It's still a mediocre film, to be sure. But it scores points by being one of the more warmly felt horror films of its day without its emotions ever becoming cloying.

The cast is appealing (even though many of the side characters suffer from King's impulse to make the majority of his small town people cartoonishly crass), with Corey Haim's wheelchair-bound hero Marty Coslaw making for a sympathetic lead and his chemistry with his resentful but still-loving sister Jane (Megan Follows) and drunken but devoted Uncle Red (Gary Busey) never seeming forced. I also admire actress Robin Groves' performance in the role of Marty and Jane's mom, Nan (Groves' other genre credit is as the lead in 1981's haunted brothel movie, The Nesting). They all come across as real people and the presence of character actors such as Terry O'Quinn, Lawrence Tierney and Everett McGill further lend a convincing authenticity to Silver Bullet's onscreen community.

The scares are soft, the werewolf effects are a complete joke (creator of the film's werewolf suit, veteran effects man Carlo Rambaldi, left the industry altogether shortly after Silver Bullet), and the film's mystery as to which one of Tarker's Mill's residents is secretly a werewolf is so thin that King's screenplay doesn't even bother to provide any red herrings to avert suspicion. But there's something about the nostalgic vibe of this coming of age story that makes Silver Bullet an easy film to return to. In director Daniel Attias' hands, Silver Bullet is a briskly told tale that yet somehow doesn't seem to be in any hurry. Maybe it's the fact that horror films usually hurtle through their narratives in the space of a single breathless evening whereas the events of Silver Bullet extend over many months that this film is able to convey the sense that we all live with fear every day; that horror is rarely just an isolated intrusion but instead ebbs and flows like the cycles of the moon, victimizing our communities, striking close to our homes - and yet our day to day lives continue on.

Whatever the case, Silver Bullet is a movie that really hasn't gotten any better with age but yet its faults seem much less important than they did to me at the time - just like all the things that disappointed us so bitterly when we were young.

My thanks to the fine folks at Kindertrauma for inspiring this blog. Please visit them post-haste for a slew of Silver memories!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Bishop of Battle

Some of my favorite movie going memories from the early '80s involve not just the movies themselves but stopping off post-show at the Dream Machine arcade stationed opposite the entrance to the Sack Palace Cinemas in the Eastfield Mall. I saw my movies on Saturdays back then and on those afternoons, Dream Machine was always loud and always packed. But although I enjoyed playing the likes of Galaga and Centipede, I never pursued the video game experience for its own sake. I've never owned a home system and as arcades themselves have become obsolete (no malls in my area have any arcades now), my sole contact with the world of video games has gone with them.

With no actual arcades left to return to, when I'm feeling nostalgic for my days as a quarter jockey, I turn to "The Bishop of Battle" segment of the 1983 anthology film Nightmares.

Along with Nightmares' other three segments ("Terror in Topango", "The Benediction" and "Night of the Rat"), "The Bishop of Battle" was originally produced for TV (reportedly intended for Darkroom but I don't recall ever seeing this rumor confirmed) but when these shorts (all directed by Joseph Sargent) were deemed too intense to air, Universal resourcefully packaged them together as a feature film.

Back then, I was easily wowed by the release of any new horror movie so the fact that despite being a regular FANGORIA reader I had never heard anything about Nightmares prior to the first commercial I saw advertising its release didn't seem like a cause for concern. Hell, even the ads said "Each summer one film opens that you've never heard of..." And it was totally true - I had never heard of Nightmares!

But even though Nightmares didn't quite end up being "this year's sleeper", as its posters promised, its "The Bishop of Battle" segment was an immediate favorite for me. Emilio Estevez starred as video game wiz J.J. Cooney, who we first meet along with his buddy Zock (Billy Jayne) hustling players for cash. J.J.'s the unchallenged superstar of the arcade but in his quest to make it to level 13 of the game Bishop of Battle (the Bishop is voiced by actor James Tolkan, still most famous as Marty McFly's ball-busting principal in Back to the Future), J.J.'s grades are suffering, he's brushing off cool chicks (Moon Unit Zappa), and alienating a concerned Zock.

When the manager of his local arcade has the temerity to clear the place at closing time and force the bitter J.J. to walk away from the Bishop of Battle, J.J. takes it upon himself to break into the arcade in the middle of the night for some uninterrupted playtime. Luckily for J.J., his arcade is apparently sans any burglar alarm as he forces the door open and no cops show up to investigate. Unluckily for J.J., he triumphantly breaches level 13 only to discover that the last level of the game is winner-take-all. The climax of "The Bishop of Battle" sees the arcade turned into a war zone as elements from the Bishop of Battle game emerge into the real world to show J.J. what a battle is really like.

And while J.J.'s skills fail against Bishop's computerized mind and otherworldly weaponry, from the standpoint of 2008, we know that eventually the Bishop met an enemy that even he couldn't beat: the apathy of teens who moved on to other games to play. Poor Bishop - he's so 1983.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Photo Finish

When Fear Itself, TV's latest crack at the anthology format, debuts on NBC this week most fans and critics will likely be looking to compare it to standard bearers like the original Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. But I'll be setting a much lower bar for it - I'm just hoping that it compares well to the short-lived Darkroom, which ran on ABC for a scant total of seven episodes from November 27, 1981 to January 15, 1982.

Darkroom didn't earn any acclaim during its fleeting few weeks of existence but it was a huge show for me. I was in seventh grade at the time and thanks to the syndicated runs of TZ, Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Night Gallery (and even the UK import Tales of the Unexpected) I was an avid anthology junkie. But Darkroom would be the first that I'd be able to watch first run.

Hosted by James Coburn in the role of, um, some dude in a darkroom, Darkroom aired during the height of the early '80s horror boom (the reason it was on the air in the first place) while explicit new R-rated horror films were debuting in theaters every week (also the likely reason that the timid Darkroom tanked). I was twelve at the time and my parents didn't allow me to see horror films in the theater and we didn't have cable or a VCR yet so whatever horror movies I was able to watch on TV were never new, everything was always a second hand experience for me.

So while Darkroom was useless to the older, horror-hardened crowd who could see Happy Birthday to Me on a Friday night rather than watching the neutered network version of horror on TV, for me each episode of Darkroom was a bonafide event. It didn't occur to me that it was a lame show that no one else would care about.

I should also mention that I was mightily impressed by the violent Robert Stack cop show Strike Force that ran at 10pm after Darkroom on ABC (and which at nineteen episodes barely outlasted Darkroom's cancellation). I think that prior to the age when I was old enough to drink, the few weeks that those two shows aired back to back were the best Friday nights I ever spent.

But while I couldn't recount much of Strike Force today, almost thirty years since their broadcast, I still vividly remember almost every Darkroom episode. The one most fans point to as being the series' finest hour is "Siege of 31 August", which starred a pre-Robocop Ronny Cox as a family man and troubled Vietnam vet whose past and present collide when his son's toy soldiers begin to come to life.

This maturely meant episode was definitely the story where the show's producers pulled out all the stops - staging an impressive showdown in a barn between Cox and the tenacious toy soldiers in a climax that mixes miniature FX, rear projection, blue screen work, and models and live actors in forced perspective. But I also loved the series' cautionary premiere episode "Closed Circuit", which starred Robert Webber as a TV newsman who finds himself being replaced by his own video image and the nasty "Catnip", penned by Robert Bloch, which pitted a neighborhood thug against a vengeful witch and her black cat.

In the course of its short run, Darkroom boasted a number of talented contributors. Author Robert Bloch and Hammer screenwriter Brian Clemens were among the show's scribes and director Rick Rosenthal (Halloween II) and Paul Lynch (Prom Night) helmed the vast majority of the series' installments with Curtis Harrington (Night Tide) directing an episode scripted by Clemens ("A Quiet Funeral"). And in front of the camera, stars like Helen Hunt, R.G. Armstrong, Quinn Cummings, Claude Akins, Esther Rolle, Billy Crystal, and David Carradine could be seen.

The show may have failed in the eyes of seasoned genre fans who regarded it as nothing but a facsimile of true horror, but it made a lasting impression on this viewer. When you're young, sometimes a facsimile can be just as important as the Real Thing.