Saturday, July 31, 2010

Shit My Horror Dad Says

The round table discussion continues at TCM this week as Richard Harland Smith leads an assemblage of Horror Dads to talk about their experiences as fans and fathers. To give it a read, click here.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Glutton For Punisher

With all the attention-getting news out of Comic-Con, it's hard to say what was most exciting. I mean, when you get a glimpse of The Infinity Gauntlet it's tough to focus on anything else. But I was especially stoked to learn that Marvel now controls the movie rights to The Punisher. I suspect most people would say that three Punisher movies were more than enough - maybe even two too many - but I'll respectfully disagree. I'm a nut for The Punisher and I'll welcome as many attempts to film the character as possible. I guess I feel the same way about any comic character (guess who's pumped for Ghost Rider 2?) but I really love seeing Frank Castle go to war with the scum of the Earth.

Starting with the 1989 Dolph Lungren Punisher, I've mostly dug how Marvel's vigilante has been depicted on screen. I mean, I did raise an eyebrow at such elements as Lungren's Frank Castle spending so much time naked in a sewer and the absence of his signature chest skull but overall, that first movie was true to The Punisher. That's the thing about The Punisher, he's hard to entirely screw up. The only thing that could make a Punisher movie utterly fail is if he decided to go soft on crime.

While Lungren's film was an adequate attempt (especially for the '80s, not a great time for Marvel characters on film), the 2004 reboot, with Thomas Jane, was an improvement. It wasn't quite perfect but it was solid. Jane was a nice pick as Castle and having Roy Scheider as his dad was cool. Not so cool was John Travolta as a weak adversary. Also not so cool was the sometimes curious tactics employed by this Punisher. I just can't wrap my head around why anyone involved with this film thought it'd be smart to have the Punisher bring down Travolta's character through an elaborate scheme involving a fake fire hydrant and a series of traffic tickets for his wife. It seems more like Ashton Kutcher's M.O. rather than Frank Castle's. Not very Punisher-y at all.

That said, most of the 2004 Punisher was commendable. The film didn't quite recapture the right darkly absurd tone from the Garth Ennis-penned comic tales that they lifted most of the supporting characters from (like Joan and Spacker Dave) but at least the movie acknowledged the comics and it felt like an old-school action movie so props to director Jonathan Hensleigh for that.

The real motherload came in 2008 with Punisher: War Zone. It would've been cool to see what would've happened had Hensleigh and Jane reunited. It would've been cool to see what a Punisher movie could've been like with a more layered, literate script. But none of those things happened on this troubled production. On the upside, director Lexi Alexander cast a total beast as Castle (the imposing Ray Stevenson), indulged in more stylized comic book visuals, gave the Punisher his most famous foe from the comics (the maimed and mutilated Jigsaw), and served up all-out violence. Even better, the MPAA let it all slide by with an R. Whereas previously this movie would've been hacked down to a twenty-minute short, Punisher: War Zone went to theaters apparently untouched by the ratings board. Nice!

The fact the movie tanked (not surprising, given Lionsgate's half-hearted marketing) didn't give me much hope of ever seeing The Punisher on film again but I'm glad to find out that won't be the case. I'm not sure how Marvel will handle a Punisher movie on their own that is substantially different than any of the three films that have come before it but I'm interested to find out. The obvious way to approach it would be to take some of Garth Ennis' stories (like "The Slavers") and really stick to them. Ennis' lengthy Punisher run is one of the all-time greats, a run I'd put up against Frank Miller's Daredevil or Walt Simonson's Thor.

If they stuck to Ennis' ultra-grim version of the character and its despicable roster of villains, you'd have something really special. It also might be too rough for most audiences but who knows?

As a fan, I have to say I don't much care how well the next movie is received by the general public. History tells me that even if it bombs, I can still look forward to much more punishment at the movies.

Go Frank, go!

Summer Shocks 1990: Class of 1999

There's no way around it - the early '90s were a dry time for horror. Whereas the '80s were an embarrassment of riches, the '90s were more often than not just an embarrassment. Still, there was some fun to be had and I actually have an odd affection for this era of horror. There's something about looking back on these lean years that makes me nostalgic. One of these days maybe I'll figure out how to put in words. In the meantime, I'm looking back on the summer of 1990 for Summer Shocks this week.

It was a better summer overall than the dismal summer of 1989 but still not a very horrific one with many of the best offerings being such genre splicers as the horror comedy Gremlins 2, Sam Raimi's action-horror film Darkman, and the dark kid's film The Witches. The fact that Disney marketed their killer spider film Arachnophobia as a "thrill-omedy" says it all about where the attitude towards horror was back then. Straight-up horror just wasn't welcome.

Another genre-combo, the sci-fi/horror/action film Class of 1999 wasn't as high-end as its major studio competition. Directed by Mark Lester (Commando), Class of 1999 was an unpretentious B-movie that delivered solid action and FX on a meager (by Hollywood standards) budget. One thing I love about the early '90s is that it was the last hurrah for cheesy genre pics getting theatrical distribution.

Yes, cheesy genre pics are still out there but they're much more polished productions. And they also have a chance in Hell of being real hits. In early '90s, you had films like The First Power, Popcorn, Eve of Destruction and Split Second in theaters and it was strictly the diehard genre fans who came to see them. Maybe that's what I liked the most about the early '90s. Save for the occasional blockbuster, you didn't have anyone coming to genre films thinking it was the hip thing to do. These days, being a geek and being up on geek culture is cool; back then it was kind of an underground thing.

I saw a lot of horror and sci-fi movies in near-empty theaters back then but it was always time well spent. Like the kids in Class of 1999, I learned a lot. To read my full Summer Shocks review, click here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

When I'm Not Busy Warping My Son...

...I'm talking about it with other Horror Dads!

Starting today, over at TCM's Movie Morlocks blog, I'm part of a roundtable discussion hosted by the super-classy Richard Harland Smith (a name familiar to Video Watchdog readers) on what it's like to be a father of young children as well as a horror fan. A terrific group of writers and filmmakers are involved in this roundtable and I've been having a great time shooting the breeze with them on how horror fandom has affected our approach to fatherhood and vise versa.

Read Part One by clicking here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Haunted Memory

They say that art has the power to heal and in the case of the just-announced Guillermo del Toro written and produced (and possibly directed) feature film version of the classic Disney attraction The Haunted Mansion, I hope that'll prove to be true. You see, I need del Toro's big screen Haunted Mansion to mend a bigtime trauma from my childhood in a way that Eddie Murphy's misguided 2003 Haunted Mansion adaptation could never have accomplished.

Back in the far-flung past, my newly remarried mother and my stepfather planned a family trip to Disney World as their honeymoon. We were going to drive from Massachusetts to Florida, hauling our trailer and stay in the Fort Wilderness campground at Disney World for a week full of Magic Kingdom enchantment. This was before Disney World expanded into all the Epcot Center stuff and the Universal Theme Park and whatever else they've got going on these days. But even with "just" the Magic Kingdom to look forward to, I was damn excited.

The one attraction that I wanted to see, the one ride that was going to make this trip unforgettable for me, was (surprise!) The Haunted Mansion. Even before any plans for us to go to Disney were hatched, I knew all about The Haunted Mansion. I had a book about it, a kid's illustrated book, that I used to read over and over. I would search for any kind of pictures about the actual attraction in books about Disney World. I was a Haunted Mansion junkie.

For the months leading up to the trip, being in The Haunted Mansion was nearly all I thought about. It was damn sure all I thought about during the long, two-day drive down to Florida. When we finally got to Disney World, it was agony waiting to get our trailer situated and to get over to the Magic Kingdom itself. I was done with waiting by this time - done with it!

Once we were through the gates of the Magic Kingdom, I dragged my mom and stepdad past whatever attractions were between me and The Haunted Mansion. The spinning teacups, Space Mountain, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride - all of that second rate shit could wait. As we got to the Liberty Square area, I could see the Mansion. It was finally right in front of me. But oddly, there didn't seem to be any line to get in. Hey, fine by me - I wasn't in the mood to stand around. But as we got closer, there was a sign on a post near the Mansion informing visitors that this attraction would be closed for renovation for the next two weeks. I repeat: CLOSED. FOR THE NEXT TWO WEEKS.

On reading those words, I literally dropped to my knees and cried out "NOOOOOO!!" My childhood had its share of let downs but Dear God, what a blow this was. The wind was completely knocked out of me. For all I cared, we could've driven back to Massachusetts right then. After that intial shock, I rallied and managed to have a reasonably good - sometimes great - time over the next seven days. I was, after all, a kid in Disney World. But for the rest of our stay, every time that I walked past that closed Mansion, it was like seeing the ghost of what might've been.

So while some might find the notion of del Toro tackling a Haunted Mansion movie as being beneath his prodigious talent level, I'm all for it. I never returned to Disney World since that trip thirty years ago and although I'd love to do so sometime - especially now that I'm married with a young son - the chances are slim that it'll happen. At least not anytime soon. So the thought of a truly outstanding Haunted Mansion movie - and in 3-D? - now that I can get behind.

Maybe I shouldn't get my hopes up too much. The last time I looked forward to The Haunted Mansion, it didn't work out so well. I can't help it, though - the kid in me is still dying to get into that ride.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Summer Shocks 1989: Jason Takes Manhattan

When it comes to horror franchises, I'm all about Friday the 13th. Halloween was a classic, no doubt, but as a series it was a weak player. Friday the 13th, though, they knew how to roll those movies out and the first movie hit when I was exactly the right age to be affected by it. Awed by it, really, because of the fact that I was too young to see it immediately - the same with its first two sequels (The Final Chapter was the first Friday I saw in the theaters, thanks to my mom generously consenting to take me and my best friend). But having those films be off-limits to me for a few years only made them become larger than life in my imagination. Had I been able to see the Fridays in the theaters from the start, they wouldn't have had the same mystique for me.

Like everyone else, as the '80s went on I thought the series became pretty pathetic but in looking back, nostalgia wins out. If I had to choose my least favorite of the Paramount Fridays, it'd have to be The New Blood. A lot of people love that one but while I'll give it up for the amazing look that Jason had in that film (John Carl Buechler really rocked the make-up on that - it doesn't get much better than seeing Jason's exposed spine), the ending is so atrocious that I just can't enjoy the movie. Jason Takes Manhattan has a dumb ending, too, it's just not quite as dumb as New Blood's. That's an arguable point, I know, but I'm sticking with it. Admittedly, I thought Jason Takes Manhattan was garbage back in '89 but over time, I've forgiven it for sucking.

In light of how turgid and joyless so much modern genre fare is, I give Jason Takes Manhattan points for being fun and not the least bit full of itself. It's the kind of film that could have only come from the pre-internet age. Thanks to the threat of online backlash, studios and filmmakers are way too hip now about the danger of going too far off from what the fans of a franchise expect. This doesn't stop them from making shitty movies, of course, it's just that they make them shitty within a more focused parameter. They toe the line a little more but that usually just makes for more cautious crap, not better films.

Jason Takes Manhattan comes from a time before studios thought catering to the fan base would be in their best interest and I kind of like that. Today, geeks are seen as a force to be reckoned with (Comic-Con begins tomorrow, in fact!) but the masochist in me is weirdly fond of the days when we weren't made to feel so entitled. And Jason Takes Manhattan remains the poster boy for those times.

For my full Summer Shocks review of Jason Takes Manhattan, click here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Summer Shocks 1988: The Blob

To watch the 1988 remake of The Blob today is to be newly annoyed by its belly flop in theaters over twenty years ago. Man, they pulled out all the stops with this movie but yet audiences just didn't show up. Quality-wise, this movie doesn't need to hide behind any of the usual excuses of "it's good for a cheesy horror movie". No, it's just good, period. It's a genre film, simply out to entertain but it's well-written, well-acted, well-directed, and doesn't look down its nose at the audience. It's shocking how seldom all that comes together, even in the most prestigious productions. And yet you get the feeling that no one involved with The Blob thought they owed anything less than their best work. The result is an absolute top of the line movie about a flesh eating blob from outer space. I have a lot of affection for the 1958 original but this is clearly the superior film in every way. And while Rob Bottin's work on The Thing is forever getting (deserved) props, I think Tony Gardner's fabulous Blob FX don't get nearly enough acclaim.

To read my full Summer Shocks review click here.

By the way, I saw Predators and liked it but I'm waiting to see it a second time before writing a review. I want to be sure that it really is good and that I wasn't just cutting it slack for not sucking.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Summer Shocks 1987: Predator

I'm relieved to see that the early word on Predators is very positive. Personally, I think even a bad Predator movie is kind of fun to watch - unlike most fans I didn't entirely hate either of the AvP movies - but it'd be really cool to see a really great one again. In 1987, the original Predator was hot stuff, for sure, one of that summer's best.

I remember seeing the trailers for it and flipping out over the camouflage FX for the Predator. To see that shape jumping out of the trees with that kind of pixelated, shimmering view of the jungle reflected it on it was like - wow, I've got to check this out!

There wasn't much question that I'd be checking it out anyhow - it was a Schwarzenegger movie and that was an automatic event back then. In the '80s, he couldn't choose a losing project if he tried. Some movies hit bigger than others but nothing derailed him and Predator remains one of the highpoints of his career.

Growing up in the '80s, I believed that cool movies like this would always keep coming along. Over time, that hasn't always proved to be true and looking back on Predator now is an occasion to appreciate that a perfect summer movie is never something to take for granted.

To read my full Summer Shocks review at Shock Till You Drop, click here.