Friday, February 26, 2010

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back To The Sewer

It's not often that the horror community feels good about remakes - especially lately - but The Crazies has put some wind in the sails of the idea that, yeah, some properties can be revisited to good effect.

So what better time than now than to beat the drum for a remake that really needs to happen? With dozens of remakes currently in the production pipeline and more announced every day, it baffles me that a new C.H.U.D. isn't one of them. Released in 1984, this tale of mutated creatures running rampant in the sewers of New York City is pretty rank but has still gone on to become the stuff of legend.

The acronym "C.H.U.D." is such a part of the geek vernacular and the notion of monsters in the sewer is so irresistible (The X-Files had one of its best hours - and introduced one of its most revolting creatures - with a C.H.U.D. riff in its second season called "The Host") that the idea of a C.H.U.D. remake seems like a natural (as natural as the idea of doing this remake in 3-D - forget the world of Pandora, taking audiences on a tour of NYC's sewer system is what this technology was made for!).

As The Crazies proves, it's movies with a strong concept but a shaky execution that really lend themselves to updating and that describes C.H.U.D. to a 'T.' Even the asshats at Platinum Dunes couldn't help but make a better C.H.U.D. than C.H.U.D. - and even if they couldn't, a new C.H.U.D. movie would mean that there'd inevitably be a new FANGORIA cover featuring the new (KNB-designed, no doubt) C.H.U.D. on it and for that not to happen is just wrong.

The world needs a new C.H.U.D. even more than it needs a new Boogens and I wouldn't say that if it weren't true.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

We All Go A Little Crazies Sometimes

"There are moments when we cannot believe that what is happening is really true. Pinch yourself and you may find out that it is."

The above quote is from Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) but it readily applies to the madness experienced by the residents of Ogden Marsh in the superlative remake of George Romero's The Crazies (1973). As in Romero's film, a government-invented toxin is accidentally released into a small town's water supply, causing exposed members of the population to burst into uncontrollable violence. Unlike the original, however, this update wisely doesn't opt to split its narrative between the plight of the afflicted townspeople and the military's efforts to contain the outbreak. Instead, the screenplay by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright stays with the townspeople from beginning to end, letting us only encounter the military as a hostile, invading force.

While Romero's film spoke to the paranoia and distrust of government that was running high in the US in the tail end of Vietnam, the new Crazies is equally timely in speaking, without any polemics, to the paranoia and distrust of the government of our current Tea Party era (as well as stoking our ever-escalating fears of infection). Throughout the turbulent late '60s and early '70s, the horror genre was rife with cautionary tales expressing distrust towards the institutes sworn to protect us and this new Crazies is a bracing call back to those days. We've seen this type of movie before, yes - but we haven't seen it in awhile, and seldom this well put together.

Timothy Olyphant (HBO's Deadwood) is in fine form as David Dutton, the sheriff of Ogden Marsh. Genre regular Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Silent Hill, Rogue) plays his wife Judy, the town's doctor. David and Judy are expecting their first child and life seems idyllic for them and the rest of their quiet community until one afternoon when a man (Mike Hickman) carrying a shotgun wanders onto the baseball field during a high school game and forces David to draw down on him. In the wake of this senseless act, further incidents tell David that something has gone terribly wrong in Ogden Marsh. This is confirmed when all contact to the outside world by way of phones and computers is terminated and military forces start to round up townspeople.

Although its narrative doesn't feel hurried, The Crazies moves at a breakneck pace with the crisis mushrooming from one scene to the next. David and Judy find themselves in enough perilous situations, replete with last minute rescues and resourceful escapes, to make this a potent combination of Grand Guignol and cliffhanger serial. Technical credits are outstanding with special note going to the work of cinematographer Mazime Alexandre for giving The Crazies such a strikingly pretty, yet appealingly grainy, look.

Without ever feeling deliberately retro, Alexandre (who did the cinematography honors for all of director Alexandre Aja's films save for Piranha 3-D) provides The Crazies with the kind of lived-in feel and natural warmth that used to be a familiar sight to genre fans. Had it adopted the same slick look of most modern genre fare, The Crazies would've surely forfeited much of its effectiveness.

I liked director Breck Eisner's episode of the anthology series Fear Itself ("Sacrifice") well enough but The Crazies decisively establishes him as someone with a real talent for horror. This is a remake that's wholly respectful of its source material and yet handily tops it.

Ironically, The Crazies is the best new millennium remake since another Romero redux, Zack Synder's 2004 Dawn of the Dead (in what must be a purposeful nod to Synder's film, The Crazies also uses a Johnny Cash song during its opening). By showing how expendable an American community can be, The Crazies suggests with timely cynicism that the only health the government is ever out to protect is their own.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

You Don't Have To Be Crazy To Work Here, But It Helps

As a follow-up to Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, I felt like taking another trip to the nuthouse by way of the 1972 Amicus-produced omnibus Asylum. With a screenplay by novelist Robert Bloch of Psycho fame, Asylum has one of the best framing stories ever concocted for an anthology as Dr. Martin (Robert Powell), a candidate for the position of new director of the Dunmoor Institute for the Incurably Insane, is met by Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee) and given a bizarre test in lieu of an interview. Dunmoor's former director, Dr. Starr, has lost his mind Dr. Rutherford tells Dr. Martin that if he can interview the institute's solitary confinement patients and deduce which one is the ex-director then the position will be his. Each patient's tale is a separate segment and the wrap-around story comes to a satisfying conclusion of its own.

The framework of Asylum holds up wonderfully. It's an ingenious set-up and Asylum is still a neat little movie (it's amusing to see Rutherford and Martin engaged in the same psychiatry vs. surgery debate that's so key to Shutter Island) but I have to admit that I was thrown off by the age of the cast. It's nothing negative towards Asylum - just the opposite, in fact - but while I thought I was fully aware of how youth-orientated horror movies have become in recent years I found myself really taken aback to see how filled with old or middle-aged faces Asylum is.

Take a look and ask yourself: Would we ever see a horror film cast with actors like this today?

Not a chance.

Even the few young people cast in Asylum - such as Powell, Britt Ekland, or Charlotte Rampling - look damn near ancient by today's standards. What's really jarring to me in watching Asylum now is knowing that when I first saw Asylum on TV as a kid, it never occurred to me to notice the age of the actors because a cast like this was normal then. It didn't seem odd or unusual to me at the time to see this many mature faces in a horror movie. It was invisible to me then but now it immediately jumps out as being so different than what we've become used to.

I'm all for horror movies centered on teens and twentysomethings (hell, I'll probably be buying the Sorority Row remake on DVD today) but I lament the fact that somewhere along the way, horror movies (and, to be fair, the entire culture) became myopic to anything that isn't young.

Older actors automatically gave films like Asylum a sense of character, a sense of gravity, a sense of life lived. Now it seems like the only thing too scary for modern audiences to bear is the reality of aging. It makes for a rueful comment on today's mania to appeal to the very young that Asylum has come to look more like a nursing home.

Friday, February 19, 2010

It's A Madhouse! A Madhouse!

The fortress-like mental hospital that Martin Scorsese explores in Shutter Island instantly joins the ranks of Hill House, the Overlook Hotel and the Danvers State Mental Hospital (Session 9) as one of the great eerie edifices of horror. Adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island is a glorious Gothic contraption that finds Scorsese working in top form.

Scorsese previously tried his hand (with great success) at making a horror-thriller with 1991's Cape Fear but whereas Scorsese's direction in that film felt like he was utilizing every trick at his disposal, flexing his prodigious cinematic muscles to over-compensate for somewhat pedestrian material, he doesn't go for the same kind of bells and whistles here. Although every facet of Shutter Island benefits from Scorsese's meticulous attention, the focus is primarily on story and performances rather than eye-grabbing camera moves.

To read my full review, click over to Shock Till You Drop.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Phailure Is Not An Option

There are few characters in film more driven than Dr. Anton Phibes. The famed concert organist (with a doctorate in Theology) lost his beloved wife Victoria during a failed surgery and, although he is believed to have perished in a fiery car wreck en route to the hospital, he survived to apply all his wealth and knowledge towards exacting his revenge on the operating staff he blames for his wife's death.

The ornate death traps (fashioned according to the Twelve Plagues of Egypt, as described in the Old Testament) and precision planning that are Phibes' telltale handiwork have been famously adopted by subsequent movie villains - like John Doe, from Se7en (1995), Jigsaw from the Saw series, and most recently, Clyde Shelton from Law Abiding Citizen (2009). In each of these films, these highly intelligent villains (anti-heroes, really) have a near-omniscient ability to plan ahead and to account for every probability. While it would be better for the world if these geniuses would use their gifts to advance the greater good, that isn't much fun. Deep down, we all feel we have a few scores to settle and to imagine having the skills and the means to do so is an irresistible dream - so to hell with the greater good.

That's a selfish notion to hold and it's probably no wonder that 1971's The Abominable Dr. Phibes (directed with great style by Robert Fuest) made such an impression on me as a child. Children - even good ones - have an innately selfish streak and Phibes, like all revenge seekers, is a selfish, self-absorbed character. Even though his wife's death was an accident, he feels justified in taking whatever lives he deems responsible for his loss ("Nine eternities in doom!" he repeats like mantra). Watching The Abominable Dr. Phibes again, I was struck by how blameless Phibes' victims are. Phibes really is completely unreasonable in his vengeance - what's arguably the most horrific death of all, death by locusts, is reserved for the mere nurse who assisted in the operation - and I doubt if this story would be told the same way today. A few innocent victims are caught in the crossfire in Law Abiding Citizen but in general, everyone that Clyde Shelton targets has some kind of crime to answer for - even if the crime is simply compromising one's values to play along with a flawed, often corrupt, legal system.

Were The Abominable Dr. Phibes made today, surely we'd learn that there was some catastrophic screw-up during the operation on Phibes' wife. A screw-up, and then a subsequent cover-up. There would be a real reason for Phibes to punish these people by any means necessary. Instead, these are earnest, well-meaning professionals who simply failed to save a life in their care. Victoria Phibes died because no physician, no matter how skilled, can save every life. Phibes is someone who doesn't handle disappointment well, however. In fact, it makes him go nuclear.

Phibes' victims in the original film were - to a one - just hapless scapegoats, wholly undeserving of their grisly fates. Rather than have the character return to the land of the living in 1972's Dr. Phibes Rises Again (in which his new victims were conveniently made to be morally suspect, even villainous), perhaps the sequel should have followed Phibes into the afterlife where he could've found someone to pay for making such an imperfect world in the first place. Now that's a truly biblical revenge I'd have liked to have seen.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Wolfman (2010)

As a film, The Wolfman has a fair amount of problems but its title character isn't one of them. As re-imagined by the expert hand of FX genius Rick Baker, the new model Wolf Man puts the 'lycans' of the Underworld series to shame. As a kid, the Wolf Man was always my favorite of the Universal monsters and to see this new version - that shows so much love for make-up legend Jack Pierce's classic Wolf Man design - running loose on the big screen gave me pure joy.

It's been ages (since 1948's Abbott & Costello Meets Frankenstein?) since anyone thought the Lon Chaney Jr. Wolf Man was scary in the least - cool, always, but scary not so much. The Benicio Del Toro Wolfman, on the other hand, is an intimidating sight - scarier than any werewolf has been in years. That's a real accomplishment for Baker and director Joe Johnston as the 'classic' werewolf look that they're sticking close to has long become the stuff of kid's entertainment - as seen on the Monster Squad TV show of the '70s and the Teen Wolf movies of the '80s. If nothing else, this remake performs the valuable service of reminding audiences that the old-school Wolf Man can still be a monster to be reckoned with. This isn't the demonic were-dog of An American Werewolf in London or the Disney-inspired Big Bad Wolves of The Howling (a look co-opted by 2002's Dog Soldiers), this is the classic, back-to-basics Wolf Man - and it works. It's a shame that the movie around the new Wolf Man isn't better but horror fans are accustomed to wading through a mediocre (or worse) movie in order to savor a great monster.

The love story that's supposed to be the heart of this movie is on the thin side (whether that's due to lack of chemistry between Del Toro and actress Emily Blunt or it's because the films feels truncated of any footage that doesn't advance the action and horror elements is hard to tell) but the werewolf is, to borrow a word favored by Anthony Hopkins' Sir John Talbot, "glorious." The only scene with the Wolf Man that didn't work for me - from an FX standpoint - was the Wolf Man's race across the rooftops while being pursued by the police. It just looked too silly, with too much CG enabling the Wolf Man to run on all fours (this effect came off fine in other scenes where it was only glimpsed quickly but in this prolonged sequence it didn't work). But aside from that, the werewolf material is where the movie triumphs. Even the CG used in the transformation scenes is mostly impressive. Sure, practical FX would've been nice to see but the CG used here to change Lawrence Talbot from man to wolf is a far cry from the sub par CG seen in An American Werewolf in Paris (1997).

Given how troubled a production this was, it's a marvel that The Wolfman is any good at all. That it isn't as good (much less great) as it clearly had the potential to be is sorely disappointing. What the movie would've been like in the hands of its original director Mark Romanek will never be known but I think given the situation he stepped into, Joe Johnston did a heroic job of salvaging the project. He wasn't able to make this into a classic, unfortunately, but even filmmakers who are pure of heart can fall short of the mark. Hopefully the longer cut promised for the DVD release will alleviate some of the movie's pacing problems (the first act, especially, is way too hurried) and give its underdeveloped characters some meat.

I'm sure there'll be complaints that this movie caters too much to the ADD-afflicted crowd and while I agree that is a problem when it comes to the obvious sacrifice of character moments, I think the movie's cheap 'jump' scares and R-rated gore FX are just fine. I read so many critics (in the fan press and otherwise) who always disapprovingly harrumph about filmmakers who resort to cheap scares in horror movies but cheap scares are part of the fun of horror movies. There's cheap 'gotcha' scares in Psycho, The Exorcist and Jaws for crying out loud, so let's not automatically scold filmmakers for trying to make the audience jump out of their seat.

As for the gore, some might feel that a true Wolf Man movie shouldn't cater to the blood and guts crowd but as a fan myself, I've always wanted to see the Wolf Man put his claws and teeth to better use and man, this totally delivers on that front. This is a really violent movie, complete with decapitations and even gut-munching.

On the one hand, I would've liked for this to have been a movie I could share with my young son (we've watched the original Wolf Man together) but on the other hand this'll be perfect for when he's older. Hell, maybe we'll watch it now - it's all just pretend anyhow, right?

Looking back on The Wolfman, my first thought is that I really want to see it again. For all the aspects of the movie that didn't work, I can't stop thinking about the parts that I liked. The cinematography by Shelly Johnson is stunning - a reminder of how much the horror genre left behind when the gothic style went out of fashion - and at risk of heresy I'd also argue that Rick Baker tops his own work in An American Werewolf in London here.

The transformations here can't compare with AWIL (though it gives that film such a run for its money, others may disagree) but the final look of the Wolf Man here is so classic that I can't help but prefer it to the hell-hound of AWIL - a design that always looked a little goofy. Of all the classic monster revamps since Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), this is easily the best. It's flawed, yes, but at its best it's like an Aurora model kit come to life - and I find that hard not to like.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dirty Hairy

When it comes to taking a bite out of crime, McGruff the Crime Dog has nothing on the elite squad of super-powered were-cops serving nightly notice to the scum of Los Angeles in Full Eclipse (1993).

Made for HBO, Full Eclipse came and went with zero fanfare but it's a happily trashy comic book come to life. Directed by Anthony Hickox, who enjoyed quite a run in the late '80s and early '90s - well, "quite a run" if, like me, you're fond of the likes of Waxwork (1988), Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989), Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992), and Warlock: The Armageddon (1993) - Full Eclipse is as rip-roaring a werewolf extravaganza as an HBO budget will allow. Sometimes the lack of funds show (as when obvious opportunities for more stunt-heavy moments are passed by - a standoff between were-cops and gangsters simply fades to black before their battle erupts, for example) but in staging Full Eclipse's action scenes and transformation FX, Hickox shows his experience in the indie trenches by stretching whatever bucks he had to work with as far as they'll go.

Mario Van Peebles (Posse) stars as Max Dire, a cop who's buddy and partner Jimmy Sheldon (Anthony Denison) is planning to retire early from the force and marry his finance. Jimmy must've never seen a cop movie before or else he'd know that by opening his mouth about his future, he just ended it. Sure enough, the next call Max and Jimmy respond to - a hostage situation at a nightclub - ends with Jimmy being ventilated by a scumbag with an automatic weapon. Jimmy is lying in the hospital next to death when a mysterious figure in a policeman's uniform injects an unknown drug into his IV. Soon, he's out of the hospital and ready to hit the streets again. Not only does Jimmy show no signs of his injuries, he's become - in the words of a stunned Max - "Dirty Harry on crack!"

Jimmy's return to the force comes with a great chase scene attached to it as he leaves Max looking on gape-mouthed as pursues some perps on foot in a way that is strictly beyond human capabilities. Jimmy's plans to retire from the force and get married are quickly iced and Max has no idea what to make of the drastic changes in his friend. Soon after becoming a supercop, though, Jimmy makes a permanent change by taking out his revolver and blowing himself away in front of Max and a full bar of his buddies. Whatever new abilities he found himself in possession of, Jimmy clearly didn't care for the price tag attached to them.

A confused Max, reeling from Jimmy's suicide, is taken under the wing of Adam Garou (Bruce Payne, who had just recently been Wesley Snipes' foe in 1992's Passenger 57 and who eventually took over the role of the Warlock from Julian Sands), a hot-shit, high-ranking police officer with a reputation for getting results. Garou (the word 'loup-garou' being french for werewolf) is cocky and persuasive and he intends for Max to join his inner circle of cops who handle all the heavy shit. Among Garou's crew are Patsy Kensit (Lethal Weapon 2) as Casey and Hickox regular Paula Marshall (Hellraiser III) as Liza. Max is skeptical about what Garou is selling, especially when he sees Garou's squad collectively shooting up with some drug prior to kicking ass.

Max's 'just-say-no' attitude relaxes once a bullet to the gut leaves him the choice of either dying on the spot or taking Garou's miracle drug. Once he takes it and is instantly healed, Max knows why his old partner put a silver bullet in his brain - he'd become a werewolf. But what Jimmy, for whatever idiot reason, saw as a curse, Garou and his pack sees as an improvement - especially when it comes to doing a cop's work. Before you can say New Wolfman Jack City, Max is tackling his work with a zeal that makes other were-cops look like they're out to win a ribbon at a dog show.

Problem is, Max keeps asking questions and that doesn't sit well with Garou. If you think that Full Eclipse will come down these two werewolves (or Alpha Dogs) opening can after can of whup-ass on each other, then you're pretty much on the money. If there isn't quite as much full scale action as some might like, I think it just comes down to Hickox not having the dough to afford it. But he does what he can and Hickox readily embraces the comic book flavor of the story. When he has his were-cops pop their claws out of the back of their hands, like Wolverine (the dialogue references The X-Men at one point - before it became fashionable to include those sort of shout-outs to the geek community), it ought to be accompanied by an onscreen 'Snikt!'

Most werewolf movies are tragic tales but Full Eclipse shelves that in favor of action. Why a movie this high concept was made-for-cable instead of being a big budget production is mystifying to me. Maybe the story was regarded as being too goofy to pass for a 'real' movie, I don't know (I bet it wouldn't be such a hard sell to studios today) but I'll take it's junky charms over almost any modern werewolf movie outside of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. The mythology it invents is questionable (Werewolves become stronger during a full eclipse? I'd think it be the opposite but hey, whatever.) but that kind of stuff is easy to take in stride.

Finally, I think that it's worth noting that this chintzy, made-for-cable were-cop movie is the rare (maybe the only?) film of the early '90s to have anything to say - in the aftermath of the infamous Rodney King beating and trial - about cops literally running wild in LA. Any social comment found in Full Eclipse may be incidental but given star Mario Van Peebles' family history, maybe it would've been appropriate to paraphrase the opening text of his father Melvin's debut film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), in service of Full Eclipse:

"This film is dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Wolf Man."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Guns Don't Kill Werewolves, Silver Bullets Do

In the late '70s/early '80s, the movie adaptations of Stephen King's novels were prestigious projects, handled by world-class filmmakers - Brian DePalma on Carrie (1976), Stanley Kubrick on The Shining (1980), David Cronenberg on The Dead Zone (1983), and John Carpenter on Christine (1983). Even the TV miniseries of Salem's Lot (1979) had Tobe Hooper calling the shots. These adaptations may not have always been completely satisfying to fans of the books (although in the case of Kurbrick's The Shining, it became accepted as a classic over time), but at least the talent was there. By the height of King's popularity in the mid-'80s, though, it seemed like the movies were just being mechanically cranked out - just as King's critics had begun to accuse his books of being. For an author to be so prolific, critics said, there was a danger of King becoming a brand name first and a writer second.

While that can be debated, in the case of the 1983 novella Cycle of the Werewolf, those critics may have had a point. This was a project that began as a werewolf-themed calendar for which King was called on to provide chapters for that evolved past the parameters of that original job into a slim book. As literary works go, it seemed like little more than an excuse to put King's name on another cover - although the book did make for an attractive buy for horror fans thanks to the illustrations provided by famed artist Berni Wrightson (Swamp Thing). With such a short story to tell and with Wrightson's numerous illustrations offering a visual guide, at least the odds of a successful movie adaptation (due to be renamed Silver Bullet) looked promising - despite the questionable merits of the book.

Produced by Dino De Laurentiis (who had good luck once in adapting King with 1983's The Dead Zone but never again - eventually helping King take a torch to his own movie career by convincing the author to direct 1986's Maximum Overdrive) and with a screenplay by King himself (who has consistently been a poor translator of his own work), Silver Bullet (1985) proved to be a disappointment. While Wrightson's interpretation of King's words had suggested a potent cross between Norman Rockwell and E.C. Comics, the movie was as bland in its atmosphere as a run of the mill TV production. Given that, it's ironic (or perhaps telling) that this turned out to be the sole feature film from director Daniel Attias, who would go on to a successful career directing television. More problematic for Silver Bullet was that the special effects by Carlo Rambaldi (of E.T. and Alien) were shooting blanks. FX geniuses Rick Baker and Rob Bottin had so recently stepped up the game in regards to transformation FX and werewolf design - in 1981's An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, respectively - that Rambaldi's work in Silver Bullet looked cheap and outdated in comparison.

Still, this tale of the residents of the small town of Tarker's Mills being stalked by a wolf in their fold does have a sterling cast to its credit. You've got Gary Busey as the lovable booze hound Uncle Red, there's Terry O'Quinn as Sheiff Joe Haller, Lawrence Tierney as bat-wielding bar owner Owen Knopfler, and Everett McGill as pastor Lester Lowe. And among these heavy hitters, '80s teen favorite Corey Haim manages to be ingratiating as Marty, the crippled kid with the pimped-out wheelchair nicknamed 'Silver Bullet.'

While most werewolf movies make no secret about which character is the werewolf and, in fact, usually center the movie on the protagonist's tormented battle with their bestial nature, Silver Bullet joins Amicus' fondly remembered The Beast Must Die (1974) in having the identity of its werewolf remain a mystery for most of the movie. While that mystery is about as deep as "who cut the cheese?" it does gives Silver Bullet a little something different to play with.

What Silver Bullet really could've used, though, isn't so much a better werewolf design or a smarter mystery to solve (although neither of those things would've hurt to have been improved on) but a far better climax. Had the movie gone out on a stronger note, it might've saved the entire film. When the climax of your werewolf movie involves the characters hoping that the werewolf is dumb enough to come to their house and attack them and having a silver bullet ready to shoot him with, that's pretty weak. It's such a weak climax, in fact, that King and Attias have to throw in some contrived suspense by having Busey's fed-up-with-fairy-tales Uncle Red take the bullet out of the gun just before the werewolf plows through the wall, leading to a mad scramble for the bullet. It's an ending that, with all the desperate fumbling on the part of the characters, shows King and Attias trying hard to make something out of nothing.

Among the several changes King made to his novella, I mostly wonder why Silver Bullet was turned into a period piece, with the film taking place in 1976 instead of Cycle's contemporary setting (in the novella's October chapter, Marty goes trick or treating in a Don Post Yoda mask). Had they gone further back, to the '50s, that might've been a good excuse to turn the movie into the adult remembrances of its protagonists as in the nostalgic Stand By Me (1986) but 1976 wasn't even ten years past when Silver Bullet came out. And while the movie is narrated from the present day perspective of Marty's sister Jane (played by Megan Follows in the past, with the adult voice over provided by Tovah Feldshuh), there's no impetus given for Jane's recollection of the events.

Today, of course, there's good reason for fans to recall Silver Bullet with 2010 marking the silver anniversary of its release. While it may not have aged into a classic, it does offer the pleasure of seeing Gary Busey in one of the warmest and liveliest performances of his career and that alone makes Silver Bullet into something golden.

Friday, February 5, 2010

FANGORIA: A New Beginning

When 'Uncle' Bob Martin exited the ranks of FANGORIA in 1986, it came as an out-of-the-blue shock to readers. For myself, as part of the first generation of Fango fans - someone who was among those splatter-happy Gen-Xers to embrace Fango as "their" monster mag as opposed to the baby boomers who had been raised by 'Uncle' Forry and Famous Monsters - to have Martin abruptly depart the magazine that he had instilled with his quirky sensibilities was a rude jolt. As a reader, I felt crestfallen - abandoned, even. But while I didn't know what to expect from newly appointed editor Tony Timpone back then, I could only hope that the magazine had been left in capable hands.

As it turns out, it was. To later day Fango fans, Tony Timpone has been the face of Fango for their entire lives. While Martin was brash, creative, and innovative, Timpone was a level-headed but passionate steward of the biggest brand in horror journalism. While Fango would not have existed as we know it without Martin's eccentric touch (with credit for its distinctive edge going also to Martin's co-editor for much of his run, Dave Everitt), neither would it have lasted for over thirty years now without Timpone's dedicated guidance. Martin had the good fortune to be Fango's editor during one of the biggest boom periods in horror history. Timpone, on the other hand, was dealt a much tougher hand. As Timpone took the reins of Fango, horror was under assault by the MPAA with new releases regularly being censored of all but the most timid acts of violence. On top of that (or perhaps because of it), the slasher boom had passed and horror's commercial fortunes began to dry up. Horror, which always had a shaky reputation even in good times, was now really unwelcome. But Fango doggedly rode out these lean years, with Timpone and managing editor Michael Gingold tirelessly waving the flag on behalf of horror fans.

While horror had rallied as a commercial force as the new millennium dawned and the genre was flush with hits again, another force was on hand to frustrate Fango's future - the rise of the internet culture. Whereas for years horror fans who wanted to stay informed needed to turn to Fango and other periodicals, now information and opinions were instantly accessible. But under Timpone's direction, Fango has managed to persevere through this challenge as well.

Whether the magazine could've met these recent challenges better than it has is a matter of debate but the fact is, Tony Timpone has steered FANGORIA through thick and thin. But now his stewardship of the magazine is ending. And whereas in 1986, the changing of the guard was something that was sprung on surprised fans in the pages in the magazine itself, in our internet age information travels much differently. While we are not privvy to all the details behind the upcoming change, what is known is that the April issue of FANGORIA will be Timpone's last as editor with writer Chris Alexander taking the helm afterwards.

I have mixed feelings about this news - but mostly very positive feelings. By 'mixed' I mean only that it's strange to know that the man who has been the keeper of Fango's flame for so many years is finally stepping aside. Some of my greatest memories as a fan were attending Fango's annual Weekend of Horrors with Tony always there in his familiar suit and tie (will we ever see another editor for a horror mag stick with such a conservative image - probably not, but I loved that Tony always stood out among the sea of pierced, tattooed, and black T-shirted fans) orchestrating the event as master of ceremonies. And when horror was under fire from conservative groups, Tony was a regular fixture on talk shows, calmly defending the genre's right to be provocative, edgy, and offensive. Regardless of whatever ups and downs have occurred during Timpone's tenure, editing Fango must've been very good for him because twenty four years later, he somehow looks exactly the same. That's either the sign of someone who's in love with their work and their life, or it's a case of uncannily blessed genetics, or both. Either way, I think it's safe to say that FANGORIA and Tony Timpone have been very good to each other.

But while I'm sad to see Timpone go, I'm extremely excited to see what Chris Alexander will do as Fango's first new editor in almost a quarter century. This will truly be a new era for the magazine and that's a wild thought to consider. I love Chris' writing - it's passionate, free-wheeling and not cynical in the least and it's the main reason I bought Rue Morgue when he was working as a writer there - and I always felt that his talents hadn't been properly put to use at Fango. What 'his' Fango will be like is something that only time will reveal but I have a feeling that Chris will be more of the Uncle Bob mold than of Tony Timpone. Besides being a fan of his writing, what interests me most about Chris taking charge of Fango is that for the first time, the magazine will be helmed by someone who grew up as a fan of the magazine, who's sensibilities were shaped during its golden era. As such, I hope his tenure as editor will be a combination of renewed risk-taking along with a respect for tradition. His early thoughts on his new position - as expressed to Shock Till You Drop - have me encouraged. Name-checking Chas. Balun is never a bad thing.

As Fango approaches its historic 300th issue (!), I hope its new leadership will be giving fans good reason to celebrate. Oh, and one more thing - BRING BACK THE FILM STRIP!!!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

FANGORIA: The Final Chapter?

Since 1979, FANGORIA magazine has been the premiere horror publication in the world. It's the only horror mag to have name recognition outside of the horror community (it's even been referenced on The Simpsons, surely a sign of pop culture immortality). Currently, though, it's future seems to be in doubt. It's website has been troubled for some time but as of this writing, it's been weeks since it's been active. An old version of the site popped up briefly and then was pulled. So what's the fate of Fango? And more importantly, should horror fans care about this aging icon?

The first question is one that no one except those in Fango's inner circle can answer but on that second question I'll answer with an emphatic 'yes!' - there's just no upside to Fango vanishing. These days, the news of any magazine fading from the scene is usually greeted by a chorus of "yeah, print is dead" but while it's convenient to get news online, it's no replacement for an actual physical entity. That may be a romantic, nostalgic notion on my part but I'll hold to it. Finding news on a website is no comparison to opening up a new issue of a trusted magazine.

While some would say that Fango already abdicated its throne to other print publications like Rue Morgue or the newer Horror Hound, I disagree. No offense to either of those magazines but neither of them can match what Fango has done better than anyone for over thirty years - that is, report on the genre in total, without bias. A comment that a reader left on Shock Till You Drop's recent editorial on Fango's woes sums up the greatest problem that Fango has had in recent years. According to an online user calling themselves 'The Chud,' "As far as I'm concerned, Fangoria lost any relevance they once had the day they put New Moon on the cover." And this, outside of whatever financial issues they may be suffering, is Fango's dilemma in a nutshell - getting called out for doing their job. Why wouldn't a horror mag cover one of the most successful monster franchises (vampires and werewolves) of all time? I guess the answer from some fans would be because Twilight isn't 'real' horror, that it's too popular outside the horror fanbase. And frankly, that's a bullshit answer - the same bullshit answer that Fango's critics have given for years, dating back to the days when Fango covered borderline horror properties with wider appeal like Addams Family Values or Jurassic Park, or TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

To look at that New Moon issue (#288) that 'The Chud' cites, while that issue does cover the latest in the Twilight saga, the same issue also delivers full articles on Richard Kelly's ambitiously weird Richard Matheson adaptation The Box, the newest Saw sequel, the kid lit adaptation Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, Lars von Trier's controversial shocker AntiChrist, indie pics like Blood Night: The Legend of Mary Hatchet and Train, and a lengthy retrospective on the original Halloween II (1981). No other genre publication covers that wide a range of films month after month - an accomplishment that Fango should be applauded for, not dismissed over.

When fans talk about Fango's glory days, they typically fail to recognize that the magazine was doing then exactly what they're doing now. To put Maximum Overdrive, or Rawhead Rex, or the latest Nightmare on Elm Street sequel on the cover is no better or worse than whatever cover choices they've gone with recently (whether it be New Moon, or Zombieland, or the indie slasher Laid To Rest). And while some fans want Fango to be more critical in their coverage (and if you look back at the old letters in the Postal Zone, this is a complaint that stretches back to Fango's earliest days), that's not journalism. To cover a film without bias isn't an endorsement of the film's quality - the set visits that Fango publishes are written well before these movies are completed - but simply a record of the film's making. While some fans might think that it's not important to cover certain films, they're wrong. If Fango had made those kind of preemptive judgements from the start, we would be missing decade's worth of valuable info on the making of hundreds of films that may have dismissed as inconsequential junk at the time but have gone on to become either classics, or just fan favorites. If anyone wants to know about any horror movie of the last thirty years - whether it be Near Dark, or Lifeforce, or Scream, or American Psycho - the best place (often the only place) to go for info is Fango back issues. And that's true right up to the present day. The same just can't be said for any other genre publication, then or now. That's Fango's claim to fame, that's their legacy, and that's why no horror fan should think it's time for Fango to exit the scene. As long as horror films are made, Fango should be there.

I do believe that whatever difficulties are plaguing the magazine now, that it will go on. The Fango brand is too known, too valuable to just be left dormant. But assuming new owners or new funds come in to save it (if it is in the trouble that it seems to be), what should longtime Fango editor Tony Timpone and managing editor Michael Gingold do to restore the mag's luster? While I think Fango's reporting is still strong, I think there's a few adjustments they can make.

First, go back to the original cover design. I was supportive of the move to alter the cover at first but while the first of the new covers (featuring Martyrs) was eye-catching, the mag has looked lousy ever since. One head-shot after another (which is all the new look seems to lend itself to) is just boring. For decades, Fango had one of the most instantly identifiable looks of any magazine. They need to go back to that classic logo and the old design.

Along with returning to the old cover design, Fango needs to get a fresher look for the inside. While there's no lack of good writing in Rue Morgue, the magazine's greatest asset is its look. When you look at an issue of RM, it's like looking at a work of art. To compete with online sources, magazines have to look like something worth owning and collecting. It used to be just about information but now design really plays an important part in enticing buyers. Even Horror Hound, which isn't nearly as slick as Rue Morgue has an appealing fanzine-style enthusiasm that makes every issue a must-own. I love their exhaustive coverage of movie memorabilia, with pages and pages of cool pics. To match those mags, Fango has to find a way to have a distinctive look of its own.

Content-wise, Fango ought to be looking to incorporate more opinions and analysis into their pages. This is something that they were doing years ago with Chas. Balun's GoreZone column Piece O' Mind and they need to get back to it. They need to find more smart, opinionated voices to talk about what's right and wrong with the genre. With information being so openly shared online, it's opinions and longer, more involved critiques of films, franchises, and fads that can only be found in the pages of the mag that's going to help make it more appealing to fans. It may be that Fango might have to curtail some coverage of films but maybe some reports should be online exclusives.

With all the speculation about Fango's fate, hopefully news will come out of their camp soon. And hopefully it'll be news of the rebirth of the magazine that has served the genre well for over thirty years.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hair Club For Men

If casting Jack Nicholson as the madcap Joker in Tim Burton's Batman (1989) had seemed like a no-brainer, then the notion of casting him as a werewolf in director Mike Nichols' Wolf (1994) seemed like another commercial slam-dunk. But whereas the actor's indulgent, hammy turn as the Clown Prince of Crime (a performance that proved that even an over-the-top role can be played too over-the-top) led many skeptics to believe that Wolf would be another occasion for scene-stealing mugging on Nicholson's part, it turned out to be a restrained, even melancholy, outing. Rather than a horror comedy, or even a straight horror movie, Wolf was more of a drama about one man's midlife crisis fused with lycanthrope lore.

Nicholson stars as Will Randall, a managing editor at a New York publishing house in the midst of a corporate takeover. While Will feels confident that his young protege Stewart Swinton has his back amid the inevitable changes to come, he tragically fails to notice that his underling is played by notorious arch-weasel James Spader. Accordingly, Stewart has been secretly maneuvering to steal Will's job. When the publishing house's new owner Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer) leaves Will the choice between a humiliating demotion or the prospect of being middle-aged and jobless, Will finds himself at a personal low - until things get worse when he discovers that Stewart has also been screwing his wife (Kate Nelligan) on the side.

Luckily for the newly single Will, not only does he find himself in the unlikely company of Alden's gorgeous daughter, Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer) but the bite he received from a wolf on a Vermont back road in the film's opening scene has turned out to have some unexpected side benefits. Will finds that he no longer needs his reading glasses, and that he now has heightened senses of smell and hearing that Matt Murdock would envy. In turn, he rediscovers a competitive edge at work, launching an aggressive counter-attack against Stewart's machinations (making this the only werewolf movie to occupy itself with corporate gamesmanship). In these early phases, Will's metamorphosis seems to be a positive one (much like Jeff Goldblum's transformation in 1988's The Fly initially seems positive) - even if he has a hard time wrapping his head around the absurd idea that he's actually becoming a werewolf. Will's new super-senses prove to come at a dramatic price, though, as he discovers to his horror that werewolves are justly known for their wild side.

Not nearly as tormented by turning into a werewolf is Will's scheming protege. After Will instinctively takes a bite out of Stewart after he puts an ill-considered hand on Will's shoulder, their competition goes beyond vying for a job. Stewart is understandably mystified by what's happening to him but he is not at all unhappy about it. Finally he can act on his every shitty impulse - he can even be the straight-up killer he would've been too afraid to be before.

The climatic, fur-a-flying face-off between Nicholson and Spader is the most commonly criticized aspect of Wolf but while it does reduce the movie's central conflict to a comic book-style battle, I've always liked it just fine. Since life became a pissing contest between them (and Will does, literally, piss on Stewart's foot at one point), this is what these characters in their animal hearts have really wanted to do to each other. No more office politics, no more deals, no more maneuvering - just a one-on-one, no-bullshit fight to the death.

The legendary Rick Baker did the make-up honors on Wolf but while horror fans were eager to see how the genius behind the groundbreaking transformation of An American Werewolf in London (1981) would try to top himself, it turned out that Baker wasn't necessarily looking to take his game to the next level. He did a fine job but, as dictated by the material and by Nichols' choices as a director, Baker's work here is more akin to Werewolf of London (1935) than to An American Werewolf In London. There's no big transformation and as werewolves, Nicholson and Spader just look like guys with fake teeth and fur glued onto their faces. In the end, that might've been the biggest misstep of this project - from a commercial standpoint, at least. Baker had famously set the bar but instead of setting the bar again, Wolf was a werewolf movie that acted as though An American Werewolf in London (or Rob Bottin's exceptional work in The Howling) had never existed. Even Silver Bullet (1985) had tried harder to be competitive in this regard.

As part of the mini-revival of Gothic horror of the early '90s, Wolf was seen as a base hit rather than a home run. After the commercial success of Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1992, over the next few years Columbia went on to produce Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), Wolf, and the Jekyll and Hyde tale Mary Reilly (1996). None caught fire at the box office like Dracula had, though, and the classic monsters were temporarily shelved again (it's telling that when Universal revived The Mummy in 1999 that they went with Stephen Sommers' bombastic, CGI-heavy approach). However, the qualities that led to Wolf's failure at the time - it's classy, understated style - have allowed it to age very well. In selling Pfieffer and Nicholson as a viable couple, Wolf does a good job of making the unlikely affair between these two work by acknowledging the disparity in their ages and by portraying both characters as being wounded, cynical souls. This is not a carefree pair of lovebirds but two cagey animals, wary of further disappointments. These are people too smart to readily give in to happiness and in turn, their romance is a bittersweet one.

Appropriate to the well-to-do, educated professionals it depicts, Wolf's script by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick is laced with literate dialogue (even if the film's twists are too easily spotted) and the score by famed composer Ennio Morricone is outstanding - lending a dreamy, lyrical quality to the film's final moments. While Wolf is clearly the work of people whose true nature doesn't lie in telling horror tales, it has just enough of a full moon glow to it to succeed.