Friday, July 31, 2009


On the whole, seasoned genre buffs usually don't find much to be appalled by but the new indie film Deadgirl, co-directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harelmight, might prove to be an exception. This is a film that boasts a genuinely queasy premise - if hard-up, socially regressive high school dudes came across a naked woman, chained to a bed in an abandoned hospital basement, and who just happened to be a zombie in no position to protest her mistreatment, would they fuck her? And the answer is: "of course". Not everyone would, no, but for some a free lay is an irresistible proposition. At that is just one of the nasty truths that drive Deadgirl.

I recently reviewed Deadgirl for Shock Till You Drop and while I felt that it didn't quite hit the mark as well as it could've and I gave it a corresponding 6 out of 10 review, I also think that it ranks as something more than just an interesting failure. It bottoms out too far from the finish line but yet I have a feeling that Deadgirl will have a longer stay in my thoughts than some movies that were more accomplished over-all. What it says about male sexuality and men's victimization of women has the uncomfortable air of truth and that makes it hard to push aside.

The main perpetrator of crimes against this dead girl, J.T. (Noah Segan), is a very plausible lowlife. As written by Trent Haaga and portrayed by Segan, J.T. is a loser's loser. What this dead girl is to him isn't just an outlet for his sexual frustration, but a receptacle for the anger he carries against his whole powerless, disenfranchised existence. J.T. doesn't just like to have sex with the dead girl, he enjoys brutalizing her as well. Ostensibly, he's had to harm her to prove to himself and others that she isn't, well, alive (as though that alone gives him permission to do what he pleases) - but the extent that he inflicts injury on her speaks to a rage that goes beyond sexual frustration. It's the kind of adolescent rage that fueled tragedies like Columbine - a selfish rage that inflates the importance of one's own pain but yet can't perceive the pain of others.

As a psychological study, Deadgirl is potent stuff to a point. It convincingly suggests that all some boys really want from the opposite sex is a black-eyed vessel to abuse in any way they please. As it progresses, though, Deadgirl loses some of its acuity to the service of plot points. It begins to feel less organic as more characters are introduced and the strengths and weaknesses of all the characters begin to feel more scripted than natural. As it gets closer to its third act, Deadgirl's moves become more conventional - even including a (living) damsel in distress during the climax as J.T. evolves into more of a scheming villain with plans of recruiting a reluctant buddy to his cause - and that, well, kills it.

I sorely wish the second half of Deadgirl had been as discomforting as the first. While it'd be wrong to accuse Deadgirl's conclusion of going soft (no pun intended), in making J.T. into a bad guy doing bad guy things, Haaga and directors Sarmiento and Harelmight minimize the troubling elements of the character and of the film as a whole. What we see early on in Deadgirl aren't actions born of love, or of friendship, but those of cold, clammy self-interest.

A Heads-Up On The Collector

The short version of what I'm about to say over the course of this review is this: if you value your time, stay the fuck away from The Collector. If you just need to know what's up with The Collector in a word or two, I'm telling you straight-out: It Sucks. The Collector has permanently extinguished any desire on my part to see any further efforts from the writing/directing team of Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton (The Collector marks Dunstan's directing debut). I was hoping that being the writers of the last three or so Saw movies wasn't proof that they didn't have any business dealing in horror but The Collector has put a nail in that thought. I'm sure they're great guys and all and I hate to begrudge anyone for living their dream, but The Collector is a big sucking hole of nothing if I ever saw one.

The premise here is cool - a thief desperate to come up with the cash to cover his girlfriend's loan shark debt goes to pull a job at a remote house at which he's been doing construction work. Once inside, though, he discovers that - oh, shit! - the family is being held hostage and tortured by a psychopath with a flair for ingenious death traps. But in telling this story, Dunstan and Melton fail to make any fucking sense, to provide even the barest motivation for their killer, or to tie up even one dangling plot thread. This is not a case of artful ambiguity, it's a case of raging incompetence.

First, there's the physical impossibility of what The Collector is up to, which goes way beyond demanding a healthy suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. This character would have to spend at least a full fucking weekend in this house with a crew of assistants to rig it up the way that he does but yet we're supposed to believe that all these death traps - involving pulleys, wires, acid, razor blades, and spikes - were set up in the span of a few hours. And as The Collector clearly took the family hostage (save for one junior member who's in hiding) in the basement prior to laying these traps on the above floors - the question then becomes one of who, exactly, are these traps even meant for? It's not as though The Collector knows that the thief will be crashing the party and no one else in the house is going anywhere. Far be it for me to tell a serial killer how to manage his shit - but wouldn't The Collector's time be better spent torturing his hostages rather than getting out a ladder to hang knifes from the chandelier?

At least in the Saw films, as incredulous as I may find them, there's a half-baked logic behind Jigsaw's traps. They're always made with a specific purpose in mind. In The Collector, it's like "um, just in the chance that someone - I don't know who - might possibly come into this hallway to pull a golf club out of this caddy bag, I've got an elaborate wire and pulley system rigged up to yank them to the ceiling!" And maybe this is next gripe is just my own hang-up but after watching a movie called The Collector, I feel that the most basic question that ought to be answered by the end of the film is what this psycho is fucking collecting and why! But as the end credits rolled here, I still had no clue. Yes, we know that he takes one living victim from each home but the movie never gives a satisfying answer as to why. One captive says that he's being used by The Collector as bait - as if that says it all - but we see no indication of how that actually plays out. Bait in what way? Bait is something that you use to bring someone to someplace they wouldn't normally go. But the people The Collector goes after are already in their own homes. Why "bait" someone if they're already where you want them to be? And if you really need someone to go someplace specific in their own home, do what always works - make a noise! It'd be a lot more efficient than hauling around a trunk with a struggling human being in it.

And while anyone who's seen Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007) knows that backstories for killers can be tiresome and unnecessary, here there really needed to be some kind of explanation as to why The Collector was targeting the people that he goes after. At least give some insight - as Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986) did - as to how he chooses his prey. There is a nod to how he comes across these households but the level of preparation that The Collector exercises deserves to be addressed by more than just - "oh, yeah - that dude delivered a pizza to their house! That's how he knows to go there!" That's not the actual scenario that we see happen in The Collector by the way, but it's awfully close.

While The Collector is pretty grisly, which will surely win it some undiscriminating fans among the gore set, unless my brain starts hating itself I sure as shit won't be adding it to my DVD collection.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Strong Enough For A Ninja But Made For A Woman

Why the ninja craze of the early-to-mid '80s faded out is still completely puzzling to me. I mean, like, puzzling in the way that crop circles and the disappearance of the settlers of Roanoke, Virgina are puzzling. Then again, I was honestly shocked when The Master (also known as Master Ninja) only lasted thirteen episodes in 1984 before being cancelled by NBC. Why the hell would people not watch ninjas on TV for free - especially in 1984, for crying out loud, when absolutely nothing else was on! Would people also not bother to eat free doughnuts delivered right to their couch? Apparently they fucking would! Sure, The Master wasn't that great, but damn - it was on TV! For the really hot ninja action, everyone knows you had to go out to the movies - for the likes of Ninja III: The Domination (1984), the conclusion of the Ninja trilogy.

As a trilogy, the Ninja films were unrelated to each other - with the only constant being actor Sho Kosugi, who played a different role in each one. And while Enter the Ninja (1981) and Revenge of the Ninja (1983) were straight-forward action films with crime elements, Domination brought the series to a supernatural conclusion. Domination 's lengthy, action-packed opening follows a ninja assassin as he makes an early morning attack on a group of men at a private golf course. This attack quickly turns into a full-blown massacre as nine-irons are a pale match against ninja stars and the unknown assassin leaves a trail of bloody bodies out on the green as the local law shows up by foot, car, and helicopter to give this ninja a taste of police hospitality. While ninjas are supposed to be all about stealth, taking on the world seems to be this ninja's style. He's the Sarah Palin of ninjas - he's going maverick! And that approach kind of/sort of works until the police unload about 80,000 rounds of ammo into him. Still, this dude proves his awesome ninja cred by continuing to elude the police by burrowing his bullet-riddled body under the ground under the cover of a smoke bomb. That's advanced ninja technique right there!

This resourceful - but soon-to-be-dead - martial arts master gets lucky by coming across Christie Ryder (Lucinda Dickey), a young telephone repair worker on a pole out in the middle of nowhere. Christie is unmistakably modeled after Jennifer Beals' character of 'Alex' in Flashdance (1983). Whereas Alex had a blue-collar day job as a welder while being a dancer at night, Christie performs what is generally considered "man's work" for the telephone company and is an aerobics instructor on the side. When Christine goes to offer the wounded ninja some assistance (FYI: never approach a wounded ninja), he hypnotizes her and gives her his sword before dropping dead. At the police station, she's informed that this ninja had assassinated a "very important scientist" (by the way, most movies would've made a whole subplot about who this scientist was - what project he was working on, and who hired the ninja to kill him - but Domination drops the matter completely after just that one line) and on her way out, Officer Billy Secord (Jordan Bennett) takes the opportunity to hit on her ("Rough day, huh?"). At first, he gets turned down but like a determined stalker, he refuses to take 'no' for an answer and soon he's attending her aerobics class. What Secord doesn't know, however, is that there's another man in Christie's life - the ninja who's possessing her soul. This fitness queen is about to find out that you haven't had a real workout until you've been possessed by a ninja!

Christie eventually allows Secord to visit her apartment and what a first visit it is as she showers as he waits for her and then comes out dressed only in a towel. But if you think that's moving fast, once she gets changed, Christie straddles Secord on her couch and pours a can of V-8 down her chest because nothing says sex like a can of 100% vegetable juice! Christie's a health nut and she doesn't believe in being bashful about it. Thanks to this bold move, not only is Secord saved the embarrassment of later slapping his head and saying "I coulda had a V-8!" but he goes on to have a passionate relationship with Christie. Still, the ninja sharing her soul is busy making Christie hunt down the cops that killed him with these scenes of Christie cornering her prey carrying an element of '80s slasher movie-style kills - the best of them being Christie's triple-kill hot tub massacre of a cop and his two lady friends.

Eventually Sho Kosugio enters the picture as Yamanda, a fellow ninja looking to drive the evil ninja out of Christie (a flashback lets us know that Yamanda's got an old score to settle) but not before the ninja assassin uses Christie to launch another free-for-all brawl with the law - and not before veteran character actor James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China) is called upon to diagnose Christie's condition and gets more than he bargained for, leading to a scene of Christie strapped with a harness around her waist (a common precaution in dealing with the possessed, apparently - safety first!) and literally spinning head over heels over and over in a ninja-induced fit so extreme that Christie may later want to incorporate this move into her aerobic routine. It's a moment so silly, it belongs in a Zucker Brother's film.

With scenes like the above, the horror elements of Christie's possession go unfulfilled - even though one scene references Poltergeist (1982), with Christie getting sucked into a closet full of light. But saying no to Domination is like saying no to a sundae. A ninja sundae, at that. Director Sam Firstenberg was the go-to guy for '80s ninja action with this, Revenge of the Ninja, American Ninja (1985), and American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987). But this entertaining genre mismash of ninja action, supernatural thriller, and light romance is the best of the bunch. I give it four out of four ninja stars.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's Like I Told You, Only The Lonely Can Play

There are no groundbreaking splatter effects in The Hearse (1980) - no exploding heads, no chest-bursters, and no splinters to the eye. What The Hearse has in spades, is solitude. When The Hearse was released, this tale of a thirtysomething woman spending a summer alone in her late aunt's home who finds herself stalked by a ominous hearse, seemed passe in a horror field that was in the midst of being irrevocably altered by the new age of make-up FX. Next to the likes of Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), The Hearse was old-fashioned - too soft to matter to a new generation of adrenaline junkies. Even Halloween II (1981) had to resort to the kind of explicit violence not found in the 1978 original in order to appeal to an audience of '80s horror fans who were becoming accustomed to the rush of graphic gore. But what once seemed simply tepid now seems like an invitation for reflection. Just as heroine Jane Hardy (Trish Van Devere) goes to her aunt's home to have an opportunity to think about the changes in her life - including her recent divorce and the death of her mother - so to does The Hearse seems like an opportunity to think about the way characters in horror films were once allowed to be haunted people, and not just haunted.

When Jane leaves San Francisco to go to her aunt's home in the small town of Blackford, she's going with the purpose of some soul-searching. In her words, she nearly "cracked up" after her marriage failed and this getaway to a small town and an empty house might be a way to recharge herself. From the vantage point of 2009, what jumps out about The Hearse is how uncluttered Jane's life is. This is a world before cable was a household necessity. Before VCRs and home video game systems were commonplace. Before DVDs, home computers, cellphones, BlackBerries, and the internet - before MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. To our eyes, which spend so much time scrolling computer screens, Jane might as well be a Luddite. In fact, by modern standards, the whole town of Blackford could be an Amish community. It's so free of everything we now take for granted, it makes the Ingalls family look like The Jetsons.

So many modern ghost films have used the technology we're preoccupied with as a conduit for spirits to enter our world - TVs, video tapes, phones, cameras, etc.. After all, how else would we notice that something new had entered our lives unless it appeared on our web browsers? But in The Hearse, that conduit to the Other Side appears to be Jane herself - ostensibly because of her blood connection to her late aunt. But really, it seems as though Jane's quiet world, with all its empty spaces - both emotional and physical - is just naturally conducive to the supernatural with no special prompts of seances, Ouija boards, or incantations needed. The dead need no ceremony to feel invited. Even though Jane ultimately thwarts the evil force that pursues her, by The Hearse's conclusion, she may as well be a ghost herself. It's possible that she may go back to San Francisco but I think it's more likely that she will take up permanent residence in Blackford, retreating even more into her role as an outsider - free-floating in her own solitude. The fleeting glimpses we see of Jane's aunt peering from an upstairs window seem like less a view of the past than a premonition of Jane's own future - a lonely figure spending her nights furtively looking out from her haunted house.

Even in 1980, The Hearse seemed like a film that hailed from an earlier era. Now everything about is as ancient as parchment. It didn't seem like much then, but all I know is that it makes me feel good now.

Friday, July 24, 2009


If you'd like to get your year's quota of WTF? moments in one film, cut to the chase and go see Orphan - unquestionably the best sick pleasure of late. There's been concern in some quarters that this movie is doing a terrible disservice to the cause of adoption and, having seen Orphan, I will admit that if I'm ever in a position to adopt a nine-year-old Russian girl who dresses like Little Bo Peep, I will definitely think twice. So in that regard, Orphan has put a dent in my stance on adoption. Was closing my heart even just a little worth the tawdry thrills that this Dark Castle production has to offer? I sure hope so because I loved every trashy, irresponsible minute of Orphan.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously directed the entertainingly grisly 2005 House of Wax remake (also a Dark Castle production), Orphan is one wicked little movie. From the trailers, you might think - whether for good or bad - that this is going to be a standard killer kid film along the lines of The Bad Seed (1956) or The Good Son (1993) but Orphan is something else altogether. I mean, it is the same as those films in that a junior psychopath with a deceptively innocent facade spends the film's running time manipulating and scheming and even resorting to murder but Orphan is so much more gung-ho about being twisted than any other film of its type (I commend Dark Castle for going with their darkest material to date). The script by David Johnson (based on a story idea by Alex Mace) is a marvel of nastiness. And on a level of lesser concern, it's also a marvel of boneheaded logic - for instance, the orphanage where the Coleman's (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) find Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman, in a performance that's destined to go down as a cult favorite) should've really looked deeper into where Esther came from before placing her in any family's home. Instead, a concerned nun (C.C.H. Pounder) visits the Coleman's at their home weeks (!) after the adoption to suggest to the Coleman's that, ah, maybe they ought to seriously look out for this kid that's now a part of their family - living with their two young children, one of whom is deaf. Hey, thanks for the heads-up, lady! But if anything, gaffes like this help what otherwise would've been an impossibly grim movie to be taken as the lurid, over-the-top entertainment that it is.

To be sure, Orphan is not for the easily offended. There isn't a high body count, or much gore, but the psychological games that Esther plays with the hapless Coleman family are vicious. I don't want to go into spoiler territory - not so much to avoid tipping anyone off as to the secret of Esther's background (it's good but I don't think the movie will be ruined if one found out ahead of time) - but because I'd hate to take the surprise out of Esther's more outrageous deeds. If you like bad kids, Orphan is the best thing is come along in years.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Bear Facts

Whether it exists on the land, in the sea, or in the air, I've always had a healthy respect for wildlife - and by 'respect for,' of course, I mean 'fear of.' A key piece of early instruction in teaching me about the potential perils of the wild kingdom was 1976's Grizzly. A Jaws rip-off, wherein instead of an ocean of swimmers being picked off by a Great White shark, a forest of hikers and campers were being torn to pieces by a mammoth grizzly bear, Grizzly was - as the poster promised - "18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror". And as seven feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror is officially the point at which I soil my shorts, eighteen feet is epic overkill. This bear isn't going to raid your picnic basket for a jelly sandwich and an apple - it's going to maul your face off and have your guts for lunch. If you ever wondered what a Mack Truck with claws would look like, boy is Grizzly the movie for you.

Directed by the late William Girdler (Day of the Animals, The Manitou), who died way too young at age 30 in a helicopter crash, Grizzly was the biggest hit of his career. I first saw Grizzly not in theaters but on the ABC Friday Night Movie (inexplicably retitled Killer Grizzly for the occasion) in 1978 (the same year as Girdler's untimely death) and it completely fried my nine-year-old mind. I don't remember now how much of the grislier elements of Grizzly - such as shots of severed limbs, or the bear's prolonged thrashing of its victims - were actually left intact for that TV airing but I do know that what I saw back then was more than enough. Watching Grizzly again recently for the first time since '78, I had to give my younger self credit for not bailing on the movie early on as the attacks here were way more intense than anything I had seen up to that point.

Seeing a film - especially a horror film - at an impressionable age can make it seem far better than it actually is and Grizzly is no exception to that. Still, to Girdler's credit, over thirty years later it remains a solid film. Charged with bringing down the bear, Christopher George is his usual steady self as Chief Ranger Michael Kelly. George has the Chief Brody role here, butting heads with a bureaucracy too blind and arrogant to recognize the real danger at hand. Once the body count gets high enough, though, the Powers That Be finally let Kelly muster all his forces against the bear. Unfortunately, his forces include only Richard Jaeckel as nutty naturalist Arthur Scott (a well-meaning jackass who wants to take this two-ton monster in alive - guess how well that works out!) and Andrew Prine as Don Stober, a helicopter pilot and Vietnam vet. That isn't much of a task force to take down 18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror but as someone once said - you don't go to war with the army you wish you had, but with the army you have. Sometimes, however, the army you have gets completely bitch-slapped.

If Brody, Quint, and Hooper seemed outmatched against the shark in Jaws, they look like a crack commando unit chasing a minnow compared to the collection of walking lunch meat in Grizzly. The only way it seems possible for these guys to kill this man-eater is if they give it fatal indigestion. Of course, the last survivor does manage - by the skin of their teeth - to annihilate their foe and the lesson that's learned is when confronting a murderous grizzly, go right for the rocket launcher. That should be your Plan A - Plan B should be a nuclear strike. I don't know if it was out of a spirit of sportsmanship that Kelly and his crew were using rifles against the grizzly when they had a perfectly good rocket launcher on hand but it turned out to be the wrong approach. They might as well have been using a fucking musket. I know Davy took out Goliath with a slingshot but sometimes the only way to beat an overwhelming enemy is with overwhelming firepower. Believe me, if a grizzly bear could operate a rocket launcher, he wouldn't hesitate to use it on you.

In 1978, "awesome" wasn't a part of the popular vocabulary so I don't know what word I would've used then to describe the sight of a grizzly bear literally being blown to bits, leaving only a burning crater in the earth. I guess "cool" would've had to have sufficed at the time but "awesome" really is what it was. Seeing it again, I was happy to find that I didn't have adjust my childhood opinion of Grizzly all that much. While some it was sillier than I remembered (park rangers on the trail of a killer grizzly probably shouldn't be stripping down for a frivolous swim in a river), that's hardly anything to be embearrassed about.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Swimming In The River Of The Neon Slime

Director Gary Sherman's brutal Hollywood-set actioner Vice Squad (1982) is a film that most Gen-X genre fans were first introduced to through the 1984 horror 'greatest hits' compilation Terror in the Aisles. Why this film and other crime thrillers like Nighthawks (1981) and Klute (1971) were included in that film alongside the likes of Halloween (1978) and When A Stranger Calls (1979) is a mystery. But thanks to the glimpse that Terror in the Aisles provided of Wings Hauser's electrifying performance as the villainous pimp 'Ramrod,' those clips made seeing Vice Squad a priority. What's amazing about Vice Squad is that the film - and Hauser's performance - manage to surpass whatever expectations one may have. If you see one movie about a killer pimp in your lifetime, it absolutely has to be Vice Squad - otherwise you haven't seen shit.

While household names like Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader are always mentioned in the annals of classic movie villains, Ramrod could school them all. To call this character 'villainous' is like calling Saddam Hussein a capricious malcontent. As Ramrod, Hauser is on fire from start to finish in this film. While almost every movie villain is allowed at least a small moment of empathy, or some insight into their deeds, Ramrod is irredeemably evil and yet somehow Hauser avoids coming off like a cartoon bad guy. Even as you can't believe the extremes that Ramrod goes to as a character, Hauser's performance never feels overplayed or exaggerated. He makes it easy to believe that someone like Ramrod is really stalking the streets of Hollywood, able by sheer tenacity and force of will to frustrate the efforts of an entire police force to stop him. He's not superhuman, he's just bad but he shows just how far being truly bad can get you.

A lot of pimps in TV and film may have beaten hookers to death over the years, but not with the gusto that Ramrod does (and to MTV's Nina Blackwood, no less, in her role as a not-so-savvy hooker named 'Ginger'). Ramrod is so hardcore that he even literally rips the balls off a lesser pimp (played by Fred "Rerun" Barry of What's Happening fame), just because he hates it when other pimps can't keep their bitches in line. In the course of Vice Squad's tight 93 minute running time, Ramrod is on a mission to kill the hooker (Season Hubley as 'Princess') who helped the cops set him up after Ginger's murder. Once Ramrod escapes from custody while en route to the police station, the chase is on with Princess still turning tricks, unaware that Ramrod isn't safely in a jail cell. And whereas other criminals may have used their lucky break to flee further away from the law, Ramrod has no thoughts of letting Princess survive the night. To paraphrase a famous movie tagline, you will believe a man can choke a bitch.

Vice Squad is a movie that sadly could no longer be made today. It's lurid in a way that genre cinema is no longer allowed to be - an example of an era of exploitation when violence was still allowed to be ugly and hard to watch rather than sensationalized (ironically, one of the executive producers is Frank Capra Jr.!). Even the 'gritty' crime films of today, like Street Kings (2008), have a sanitized quality to them whereas Vice Squad - outside of the occasional canned-sounding cop dialogue - still feels like the real deal. And as riveting as Hauser is here, Hubley matches his intensity in her own way with a bravely unguarded and unapologetic performance. No movie made today with a hooker as a protagonist would ever pass on forcing an element of redemption onto the character's arc. But in Vice Squad, there's no change of heart for Princess. Even though she has a young daughter to think of (who's unaware of her mother's occupation), she isn't turning away from prostitution. A lesser movie than Vice Squad would've surely had Princess find a way off the street through the attentions of the concerned police sergeant (Gary Swanson) who's out to put Ramrod away - a movie-style romance between these two would've been a guarantee. But there's no such false sentiment to be found in Vice Squad. Princess has no illusions about life and she isn't waiting to be rescued. No matter how degrading her existence is, it's the only way she knows how to make a buck and throughout Vice Squad she never turns down an offer.

Even though Sherman allows Princess to make it through her ordeal intact, the sting of Vice Squad is that we know that the next night will only bring more of the same. As one character says, "this city sucks." And while you'd be hard-pressed to disagree, the movie itself is another story altogether.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Every Witch Way But Loose

Ten years ago, as the '90s were coming to an end, the genre was dominated by archly ironic, post-modern slasher films spawned by the success of the Scream franchise. In the last years of the last decade of the millennium, as the world fretted over the looming threat of Y2K, horror was being served with a self-aware wink to the audience. Some of the films of this era were entertaining on their own terms (yo, Idle Hands!) but yet it seemed wrong that serious scares had become so unfashionable. Into this atmosphere came The Blair Witch Project, a film that immediately joined the ranks of the original Halloween, Evil Dead, and Night of the Living Dead as an independent horror film that was a watershed moment for the genre.

The genesis of TBWP is well-known and the film's innovative marketing campaign, which blurred the line between fact and fiction, has similarly become the stuff of legend. Despite its polarizing effect on viewers, TBWP was a game-changer whose impact is still being felt today with the continued popularity of 'hand-held horror' films such as Cloverfield and [REC]. And the democratization of filmmaking, thanks to digital technology, has only made it more possible for those outside the establishment to follow TBWP's DIY example.

That the film's directors - Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez - and its stars - Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams - have yet to recapture the same success as TBWP, would seem to encourage the argument that TBWP was nothing more than a fluke, rather than a 'real' movie. However, I maintain that as a film - not just as an internet marketing phenomenon - TBWP is genius. My own experience with seeing it for the first time was ideal - months before the film came to theaters I had a VHS dub which I watched alone late at night. I knew all about the story behind the making of the film and had no illusions as to whether this was real footage or not but yet the film rattled me just the same.

Initially I had put in the tape simply as a quality check but after just a minute I was compelled to keep watching. By the time Mike and Heather approached that Godforsaken house in the middle of the woods during Blair Witch's final moments, I was in a full-on cold sweat and in trying to sleep afterwards I experienced something I never have with horror films - a genuinely restless night. There was something about the movie that I couldn't be blasé about. It wasn't the hype - the first trailer hadn't even premiered and I didn't have a computer at the time so I was out of the loop when it came to the film's internet campaign - it was just about the movie itself.

For some people, TBWP will always be bullshit. Some people just don't find it the least bit scary and that's fine. For those like me who find it terrifying, its effect is something that can't quite be explained. I think the movie is like a psychic Rorschach blot and some people see something vividly frightening while others just see some spilled ink. I do find that people who disregard the movie tend to take the perspective of "that wouldn't happen to me". You know, "...all they had to do was follow the river" or "why didn't they just climb a tree" or "I would never go into the woods without a gun" and that kind of practical, pragmatic talk. And to me, that's the denial stance of people who are, deep down, spooked by the idea of losing control - of facing a dilemma that will not respond to reason. The situation the characters in Blair Witch face is like the Kobayashi Maru - it's a no-win scenario. And I think that - more than the film's jerky camerawork, and more than the bickering between the lost trio - is something that some people can't wrap their heads around.

Whether they win or lose, the last survivors of a horror movie usually earn the right to look even the most implacable monster in the eye - there's an opportunity for some comforting last-minute exposition, a way to Understand It All. But in Blair Witch, Mike and Heather descend into that terrible basement understanding nothing but their own fear. Everything else is darkness.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Got Wood?

Confession time: I've never seen an Ed Wood movie. I've seen parts of them, in the course of late-night channel surfing way back when, but never a whole film from beginning to end. For that matter, I've also never seen an H.G. Lewis movie, an Andy Milligan movie, or an Al Adamson movie. While almost every exploitation fan is familiar firsthand with the work of these heroes of Grade-Z cinema, I've let them pass me by entirely. I've never even watched a Ray Dennis Steckler movie, even though I believe that anyone who utilized the pseudonym 'Cash Flagg' is automatically worth admiring. With so many cherished bodies of work left unwatched my me, I have to belatedly question why that is.

In the case of Ed Wood, I can pinpoint my reluctance to explore his films to the first place that I discovered them - Michael and Harry Medved's 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards, a 'celebration' of bottom of the barrel cinema that is credited for giving Wood's 1959 opus Plan 9 from Outer Space its reputation as the worst film ever made. Reading The Golden Turkey Awards was the first time I was introduced to the ironic school of film appreciation in which fans revel in a filmmaker's ineptitude and incompetence. In the case of Wood, there's a whole legendary oeuvre of films to mock, deride, and snicker at. Even as a kid, though, that perspective on movies turned me off. I love more than my fair share of so-called "bad" films, but I've always gone into them with the sincere hope that they'll be good. I never use the term 'guilty pleasure' to describe something I like and I bristle when people qualify their enjoyment of a film with the cop-out of "it's so bad you have to love it!" That's a half-assed way to embrace something and that doesn't appeal to me. So early on, Wood's inclusion in the Medveds' book tainted his work for me. After reading The Golden Turkey Awards, it seemed like to be a part of the cult of Ed Wood meant being a party to douchery.

Wood's personal story, though - with his indefatigable ambition and mad dreamer's persistence - is one I love. And I suspect if I had encountered his work on my own I might've embraced it and probably resented its eventual enshrinement in the annals of underachievers. But the heartfelt entries in Cinema Styles' Ed Wood Blog-a-Thon are proof that when it comes to appreciating Ed Wood, it doesn't have to be about snarkiness. I should probably take it on myself to further my experience with Wood's films but it seems too late for that now. My interest is in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Just Because It's So Awesome...

...And just because after a week of inactivity, I've got to break out of my rut, here's the trailer for 1982's The Beast Within - a film that remains the last word in were-cicada cinema. It's too bad that the kind of hyperbole seen in this trailer has gone out of style ("...Even YOU may not survive!"), because I think every horror movie ought to be sold this way.

On a side note, if there's anything freakier than Paul Clemens flaring his nostrils (at 0:42 sec), I don't want to know about it.

Saturday, July 4, 2009