Sunday, October 31, 2010

Trick Or Treat With The Nightbreed

Around Halloween time, the classic monsters always get lots of love - as it should be. Good luck finding a horror movie marathon that doesn't feature Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, The Wolfman, The Mummy, or newer boogeymen like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. But what about the monsters of Midian?

Based on his novella, Cabal, Nightbreed was Clive Barker's second film as writer/director after his impressive debut with 1987's Hellraiser. Given the quality of Hellraiser, anticipation was high for Nightbreed, a film that was promised by Barker to be the "Star Wars of horror films," and the start of a planned trilogy. Unfortunately, whether it was a case of Barker's ambition not matching his talent this time around or whether heavy interference from the execs at Morgan Creek derailed his plans (or whether a combination of both is to blame), Nightbreed was greeted derisively as being more Howard the Duck than Star Wars when it came to theaters in 1990.

After all the build-up, the movie was a crushing disappointment. It opens wonderfully with the title scrolling slowly across the screen, containing fleeting glimpses of the film's menagerie of monsters. After that, it was pretty much all downhill, save for its astonishing array of night creatures. It's true that Morgan Creek badly fumbled the marketing for the film (making it look like a slasher pic and recycling the posters for 1988's Bad Dreams) but it has to be said that the film itself has issues. Some of those issues might've been minimized had the original, longer cut of the film seen the light of day or maybe not (hopefully one day fans will get a chance to judge that longer cut for themselves) but as is, Nightbreed is a frustrating film - bursting with imagery and ideas but dramatically unsatisfying.

Despite all its faults, though, I can't help but hold some affection for Nightbreed. When it first came to VHS, distributor Media Home Entertainment graciously allowed Barker to deliver an intro to the film (embedded below) that is endearing in its sincerity. The horror genre is filled with hacks looking to make a quick buck but Barker is a true believer, out to preach the gospel. You'd never see the directors behind movies like the Nightmare on Elm Street remake or Piranha 3-D making such an earnest, heartfelt plea on behalf of their films as Barker does here ("I hope the Breed will remain with you, as they remain with me."). It makes you want to give the guy a hug or something.

Sadly, Nightbreed isn't the classic that fans had initially hoped it would be. In fact, it just isn't very good. But a movie with this many monsters (and David Cronenberg as a killer in a button-eyed, zipper-mouthed mask) shouldn't be forgotten. Especially not on Halloween.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A New Stab At Halloween

This Halloween, I decided to do something really novel - watch Halloween. Yes, that Halloween. I know it's traditional to watch John Carpenter's classic at this time of year, what with it being the Halloween season and all but I usually forgo it. I mean, it's just too easy. I always feel that horror fans should dig a little deeper for their scare fare - even if it's just a little deeper into the Halloween franchise.

That used to mean reaching for Halloween III: Season of the Witch but in recent years even that once-reviled title has become a favored seasonal staple among fans. With little place left to go for hidden gems in the franchise - and believe me, I've even tried (and thankfully failed) to get on board with Halloween: Resurrection - I decided to stop making my life needlessly difficult and get back to the original for the first time in, well, I don't know how long.

I couldn't tell you what year it was when I last watched Halloween (somewhere in the mid-'90s) but I'll never forget that I first watched it in 1981 on its broadcast premiere on NBC. It was this showing right here:

In 1981, Halloween was part of recent history. Now it's older to today's kids than 1951's The Thing from Another World and 1956's Forbidden Planet were to Tommy Doyle and Lindsey Wallace in 1978. What I'm saying, basically, is that Halloween is fucking old. Far older than even seems possible. But then I see Jamie Lee Curtis on TV hawking yogurt to help mature ladies like herself poop properly and I'm like, yeah, a lot of time has gone by. Totally.

It's sometimes hard to find new things to notice, even in great movies, once you've seen them so many times but on this latest viewing of Halloween, one moment in particular caught my attention. At the end of the opening shot, after Michael is unmasked, his parents just stand there as the camera pulls back. His mother even calmly puts her hands in her coat pockets - talk about keeping a cool head!

Normally, when parents discover their six year old son holding a bloody butcher knife, some immediate action is called for. Taking the knife out of his hand, running to the house to see who - if anyone - was injured, that kind of thing. But Carpenter had his actors hold their positions as the camera pulls up and away from the scene.

Up front, Carpenter is telling us that he isn't interested in depicting reality. This isn't cinema vérité - it's a fantasy, a fairy tale. This archly artificial composition makes all the subsequent leaps we have to take in the rest of the movie possible. It signals the difference between a movie where we're listening to Donald Pleasence as the voice of reason rather than Simon Oakland. By the end of the film, Dr. Loomis' crazy talk has been proven 100% right and that Michael really is the boogeyman but from the start, Carpenter has put us in a heightened, subtly stylized world where that conclusion fits without question.

Another shot I've seen dozens of times but only now perceived something different about is the sight of Annie's body on the Wallace's bed with Judith Myers' grave.

This is an iconic image and yet it only registered with me on this latest viewing that not only did Michael pose Annie on the bed and not only did he display Judith's stolen headstone but before all that the sick freak made the bed. After all, this is the same bed where Lynda and Bob just contentedly fucked.

The simple explanation as to why Michael would do this is that Carpenter just thought the shot would look better that way. That's the pragmatic answer. However, this is a movie that Carpenter himself as described as about "the revenge of the repressed." Laurie, Michael - and even possibly Loomis himself - all have issues along these lines. Michael, especially, is not cool at all with the idea of sex.

Given that, it isn't such a stretch to regard that well-made bed as being symbolic of his severe pathology. What says "repressed" more than a killer that displays a corpse but is first compelled to smooth over all evidence of other "dirty" deeds?

In regards to Laurie, Halloween's repressed heroine, it occurred to me during this viewing how different this character was from the other horror movie roles that Jamie Lee Curtis went on to play. It's commonly assumed that Curtis portrayed the same "good girl" in Prom Night and Terror Train, that she lived in both of those films because of her character's pure virtue. When Scream came out, part of the slasher "rules" that scripter Kevin Williamson made such a big deal about was that the virgin always lives but both Kim (Prom Night) and Alana (Terror Train) had far more in common with the extroverted Annie and Lynda than with the shy Laurie (just try to imagine Laurie doing a provocative disco dance in front of her high school classmates - hell, she'd have to be hypnotized to accomplish that).

These characters were outgoing (bordering on vivacious), popular, and had steady boyfriends. Clearly they were not wallflowers in the Laurie Strode mold. So without getting lewd or making crass accusations, I'll just say that I think that the cliché of the virginal heroine was broken early on in the slasher cycle and that slasher history, in this particular instance, may need some amending.

In no need of amending, though, is Halloween's prized reputation. It's an easy movie to take for granted (even for those of us old enough to remember a time before Halloween) but seeing it again has given me a renewed appreciation for the consummate skill that Carpenter and co. brought to what in lesser hands would've just been a movie about a thug with a knife instead of a movie that defined horror for a generation. It's so good, I think I'll watch it again next Halloween.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Saw 3-D: The Most 3-D Saw Of Them All!

Is anyone really going to miss it when there isn't a new Saw film taking up valuable theater space next year? While there might be a few diehards out there who'll feel empty inside next October when it's the first Halloween in seven years without Jigsaw, I think Saw 3-D makes it pretty clear that this series is creatively spent. Then again, when has that ever stopped a horror franchise before?

Briefly slated as the director of Paranormal Activity 2 before Lionsgate jerked him back to Saw duty on a contractual matter, Kevin Greutert again proves himself to be one of the series' best directors. That he doesn't deliver as strong a film as he did with last year's Saw VI comes down to the screenplay. Saw VI, arguably the best film of the entire series, was the first Saw to really tell a truly interesting revenge yarn. Saw 3-D, on the other hand, unwisely splits its time between a wrap up of the series' loose ends and a new storyline involving a survivor from a previous Jigsaw attack.

Dealing with the murderous mission of Jigsaw's successor, Det. Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), as he aims to settle his score with Jigsaw's widow Jill (Betsy Russell) should've been enough of a story for this final installment. Instead, scripters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton (on board the series since Saw IV) make that the film's B-plot while the main story is about Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flannery), a "reborn" Jigsaw survivor who has exploited his trauma for fame and fortune as a self-help guru. This storyline, while involving some of the series' most sadistic traps, is an ill-fit for the series' finale. All the attention paid to Bobby and his entourage makes the Hoffman and Jill material feel squeezed in rather than being the center of this final chapter.

Bringing things full circle, Cary Elwes is back as Dr. Gordon, appearing in limited - but crucial - capacity. Sadly, though, it seems that the creative team finally ran out of ways to involve Tobin Bell (understandable, as his character's been dead for the past four movies) so Saw 3-D gives him the least screen time he's had in any of the sequels - just one measly flashback. Bell always elevated any scene he was in so to have him absent from almost the entirety of Saw 3-D can't help but put the movie at a disadvantage. It's just one more sign that it's time to retire the series.

Then again, I think the series has been nonsense from the get-go. All the tedious moralizing, the half-assed philosophizing, the elaborate traps that would take a team of top engineers to build and implement, the exhaustive research into each victim's back story (call me old-fashioned but I like my slashers to be territorial guys - if you wander into Crystal Lake, or check in to the Bates Motel, or knock on the door of the Sawyer clan's house for gas, you're done) - all of it is asinine. What made Saw tolerable was the conviction that Tobin Bell brought to his role. He was able to sell Jigsaw, no matter how absurd the character's actions and motivations were. With no substantial screen time for him this time around, the movie doesn't have a strong anchor.

That leaves only the gore to carry the day and in true Saw fashion, Saw 3-D does not pull any punches. The 3-D is not an afterthought here - all the traps are designed to take advantage of the process. During the course of Saw 3-D, you see: a woman's midsection buzz sawed, a man ripping the skin off his back while trying to extricate himself from the seat that he's been superglued to, a car wheel turning a woman's head to mush, a man's lower jaw ripped off, a woman impaled through both eyes with metal spikes, a woman burned to death, someone's face torn wide open with the bear-trap mask from Saw, and, well...there's plenty more but you get the idea. And let me tell you, there's barely a cutaway to be found in any of these scenes - it's full-on gore. I'm calling bullshit right now on that whole unrated thing with Hatchet II. If Hatchet II was any more graphic than Saw 3-D, then it could've stood a trim or two and still been effective. This really is about as nasty as a movie needs to be.

The thing is, though, when I sat in the theater watching Paranormal Activity 2 last week, the audience was greeting the events on screen with gasps, whispers, and top of their lungs screams. At Saw 3-D, I only felt boredom from the crowd - as though they were only there out of a weary sense of obligation. Save for some morbid laughs directed at the misfortunes on screen, the audience was aloof and unaffected. Game over.

Monday, October 25, 2010

10 Favorite 2's

Coming of age as a horror fan in the '80s meant that I saw all the horror sequels I could handle (while wishing there had been a few more - come on, why was there never a My Bloody Valentine 2?). A lot of fans lament the preponderance of sequels but I think they're fun and it's easy enough for me to ignore the bad ones. With Paranormal Activity 2 in theaters now, reminding fans that not all sequels are a plague on the genre, I thought I'd give a shout-out to ten of my favorite follow-ups.

In no particular order:

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

The last hurrah for unrated horror in the '80s, with Tom Savini serving up the splatter on one of his last big FX gigs. The movie feels incredibly haphazard - due to the rushed production schedule imposed on Tobe Hooper by Cannon Films - but it's that frantic atmosphere that helps TCM 2 rank as one of the most genuinely unhinged horror films of the '80s. It's been said of the original TCM that when it came to the Sawyer clan, the performances were so convincing it was as though Hooper had found real-life psychos to be in the movie and I think that Bill Moseley achieves that same quality in TCM 2 with his performance as Chop-Top. You can almost feel the madness radiating off of him.

Amityville II: The Possession (1982)

Now this is some real paranormal activity! In telling the bleak tale of the family that preceded the Lutz Family at 112 Ocean Avenue, Long Island, Amityville II: The Possession ramps up the scares considerably from the tepid original. The special effects are nastier (in true early '80s fashion, bladder FX are given a major workout) and the whole tone is seedier. Amityville II's script was penned by Tommy Lee Wallace, who would shortly go on to direct Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and I think it's about time that Wallace that was given more credit as a horror hero in his own right. He's always in John Carpenter's shadow because he worked as a production designer and editor on Halloween and The Fog but, hey, he wrote this movie, wrote and directed Season of the Witch (a movie that gets more fans behind it every year), and directed the ABC miniseries IT. Amityville, Silver Shamrock and Pennywise - I call that a damn strong resume!

Creepshow 2 (1987)

I'll admit - I didn't like Creepshow 2 at first. In fact, I wanted to walk out when I saw it in the theaters. From the start, it was clear that issue #2 of Creepshow was a pretty low rent affair in comparison to the stylishness of Romero's original. Everything about it looked a little half-assed (although Ol' Chief Wooden Head is an impressive creation). But yet, over the years it's crept into my affections. How that happened, I don't know. The movie hasn't gotten any better, that's for sure. But yet that last segment, "The Hitchhiker," kind of makes it all worthwhile. Thanks for the ride, Creepshow 2!

Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

I'm not quite willing to call this a better film than the original Hellraiser but I do dig it just a little more. When horror was going soft in the late '80s, the first two Hellraisers were as bloody and extreme as the MPAA would allow. It felt like these were made exclusively for the hardcore fans - there was nothing about them that catered to the mainstream crowd. There were horror movies, red, raw and dripping. What I really love about Hellbound, looking back on it today, is that it's so filled to the brim with old-school FX. This utilizes all the pre-CGI tricks - prosthetic make-up, stop-motion animation, optical FX, matte paintings. You look at this movie and it screams "late '80s" but in a great way. It makes me nostalgic for the way movies used to be made.

Phantasm II (1988)

In 1988, this was the movie of the summer for me. Unfortunately, not many other people felt the same excitement and Phantasm II's weak box office performance made sure that this was the last of the Tall Man on the big screen. Writer/director Don Coscarelli did an outstanding job here, though, putting his bigger budget to good use. The stunts, the action, the FX - it all looked incredible. And while some fans missed Michael Baldwin as Mike, I really liked his replacement, James LeGros. I thought he and Reggie Bannister had a winning comic chemistry that was missing when Baldwin returned as Mike for Phantasms III and IV.

Aliens (1986)

It's popular to give James Cameron shit nowadays because he keeps on making the biggest movies of all time but I continue to love his stuff. And even if I didn't, I would still give him a pass for life just based on this movie. The experience of watching Aliens in the theaters back in the summer of '86 was about as thrilling as they come. Composer James Horner's rousing score has become one of the most familiar in film - thanks to being utilized in countless movie trailers in the years since - but to hear it for the first time here, in tandem with Cameron's taut direction, was an unforgettable adrenaline rush. It's default thing to have women be bad-asses in movies and TV shows these days - it's become a tired cliche of its own - but few actresses carry it off as well as Sigourney Weaver did.

Evil Dead II (1987)

Even though I was a devout reader of Fangoria and Cinefantastique back in the day, when I saw Evil Dead II on the day it came out, I was totally blind-sided by the fact that it was a comedy. Nowhere in any of the on-set interviews that Raimi and co. gave, did they ever mention that they had decided to go completely bat shit with their follow-up. But that's what they did - in a very skilled way, of course. This wasn't some sloppy farce, it was some of the most meticulous movie making that had ever graced a low budget horror movie.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

When fans and critics talk about the greatest sequels in horror, Bride of Frankenstein is usually cited as the best of the best and I've got no problem with that. Personally, though, I've got to give it up for Dawn of the Dead. What a total leap this movie was for Romero and for the genre. Going from the black and white, claustrophobic Night of the Living Dead to the gaudy, satirical splatter-fest of Dawn was a colossal feat on Romero's part. No one could've seen this one coming. Hell, "splatter" wasn't even in the horror vocabulary before Romero himself coined it to describe this film. For years, this had the reputation as the ultimate horror film and, to me, it's still right up at the top.

Psycho II (1983)
As a two decade's later sequel to one of the greatest horror movies of all time, Psycho II had "fail" written all over it. But yet, in the hands of director Richard Franklin and writer Tom Holland - and with Anthony Perkins reprising his most famous role - Psycho II was a success on every level. It pulled in all the iconography of the original film, celebrating Hitchcock's masterpiece, while creating some iconic moments of its own.

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

Bag head Jason forever! When I think of my favorite Part II's, this the first one that always comes to mind. Steve Miner's follow-up to the smash success of Sean Cunningham's original single-handedly forged the future of the Friday franchise. For good or bad, we're still talking about Friday the 13th today because of the choices Miner made here. Had he not decided to stick with the slasher formula of the first film (Cunningham's notion was to make the Friday the 13th name an umbrella title for telling different horror stories - much like was later attempted with the Halloween series) and had he not decided to make Jason the killer (a move not logically supported by the events of the first film, and a creative choice that led Tom Savini to do the FX for The Burning instead of Part 2), Friday the 13th might've been a one-off success rather than becoming one of horror's biggest brand names.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

A few weeks ago, Hatchet II came out with a big push among the internet horror community to "support unrated horror." Personally, I think supporting scary horror sounds like a better way to go so I'm throwing my endorsement behind Paranormal Activity 2, one of the scariest horror movies to come along since, well, Paranormal Activity.

A common refrain among the positive reviews for this sequel is "I didn't expect this to be any good, but..." and I've got to say the same. Upfront, this movie had a very high likelihood to suck. The idea of a quick, cash-grab sequel to an out-of-nowhere indie hit reeked too much of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), a movie justly regarded as an instant franchise-killer and just a shit movie altogether. Happily, the team behind Paranormal Activity 2 are clearly a smart bunch who aimed to not repeat the mistakes of that film.

Original PA director, Oren Peli, returned as a producer and the new film's director Tod Williams (The Door In The Floor) and screenwriter Michael R. Perry (a TV writer who contributed to such '90s series as Millennium and Freakylinks) have proved to be completely in synch with the aesthetic established by Peli in the first film. The difference between the two films, from a production standpoint, is virtually imperceptible. Whatever minimal jump up in budget this sequel had has allowed children and dogs to be incorporated into the mix (child and animal actors being wild card factors that a low budget film would usually want to avoid) but other than that, Paranormal Activity 2 uses the same low tech cinematic tools found in the original.

As with Peli's film, Paranormal Activity 2 again demonstrates how effective the simplest scares are if they're executed the right way. A slamming door or a child's mobile moving on its own can be hair-raising if it's part of a story that the audience is engaged in. While some viewers will carp - as they did with Blair Witch - that there's nothing scary about these movies because they aren't explicit, it's heartening to me that so many people have embraced them. It's a sign that everyone isn't completely numb to the old-school appeal of things that go bump in the night.

The story of PA 2, admirably kept under wrap right up until its release, is more of a prequel than a sequel. Rather than focusing on just a tormented couple, here it's a married couple, along with their teen daughter from the father's previous marriage and a new baby that's just being brought home as the film begins. For those who found Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston to be an unlikeable pair, the family at the heart of PA 2 might be more appealing. I understood how Sloat's character rubbed people the wrong way - by design, he was generally a complete ass. But whether the filmmakers were deliberately responding to audience criticism of the first film or not, the family that PA 2 focuses on is extremely likable - even the teenage daughter, a character that would usually be a source of annoyance.

Just to note - once again, we're dealing with people that live well outside the income range of most Americans (this family has enough bread to have a live-in nanny) but outside of making me wonder why horror has inexplicably gotten away from depicting working class, or even middle-class, characters, I have to concede that the actors here are able to sell their characters as accessible, down-to-earth people.

In seeing how effortlessly PA 2 gets us involved with its well-off characters, I flashed back on William Friedkin's botched return to horror, The Guardian (1990). With Friedkin's film, one of the reasons why it didn't work was that as soon as you have a family rich enough to be hiring nannies, it's hard for everyone across the board to naturally empathize with them. These aren't the people next door.

At the time of The Guardian's release, Friedkin stated that horror doesn't work unless it's a blue collar thing and I guess he thought his characters were close enough to qualify as working stiffs but they didn't and Friedkin didn't find a way to make their troubles relatable. PA 2 doesn't have that problem. I'd be very surprised to read even negative reviews of PA 2 that cite the cast as a detriment to the movie.

The escalation of events in PA 2 and how things line up with the original is best left for audiences to discover on their own. I will say I was surprised at how gracefully it all came together, especially for a film that likely involved as much improvisation as this - and that was under the gun to be made quickly, to boot. A lot of films and TV shows today are all about building a mythology and that's something that usually puts me off as it seldom feels like organic storytelling. Here, though, I'd almost be willing to believe that Peli had it all planned from the start.

Speaking of Peli, I've got to say how much I like the fact that I know so little about him. Over the last decade or so, there's been a rise of horror filmmakers who've made a career out of working the horror community. Above whatever other skills they might have, they're experts at selling themselves to the horror fanbase. They say all the right things in interviews (fans eat it up like dogs if they think a filmmaker is speaking their language) and they're tight with all the right people within the online press. Basically, their thing is that they're "one of us." And that would be fine - if their movies were better. In light of that, I find it refreshing - and telling - that Peli doesn't pander at all to the fan community (I can't even recall reading a single interview with him in Fango or Rue Morgue) and yet he makes movies that are actually scary. Which, to my mind, is what someone who really knows horror ought to be doing. Call me crazy.

As you might expect, the ending of PA 2 is left open for a sequel (although off-hand I can't think of too many horror movies that don't naturally allow for a sequel). I'm not sure if I want to see the story continue but then again, I said the same thing after the first film. Whether they go ahead with a third installment or not, PA 1 and 2 can be safely regarded as one of the best one-two punches in horror history.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Most Fun You'll Ever Have Being Scared

Commercially, Creepshow was something of a minor miscalculation back in 1982. Sure, upfront it looked like the safest bet that anyone had ever made. Bringing together George Romero and Stephen King at their respective peaks? With splatter superstar Tom Savini supplying the FX? How does that NOT add up to the biggest horror movie ever? It wasn't for nothing that Cinefantastique's Creepshow cover story (in their Sept-Oct '82 issue) posed these three titans of terror together and asked the rhetorical question: "Are These The Scariest Men in America?"

But while the $8 million dollar movie (Romero's biggest budget to date) went on to do respectable business (making close to $20 million in the US), it didn't go through the roof. You'd think that horror fans would've been stampeding theaters to support this collaboration but perhaps they did and that just wasn't enough. The wider audience was soft on Creepshow, for some reason. And I think it comes down to the fact that Creepshow was all about paying homage to something that was before the time of the young audience of the early '80s.

Anthologies have always been a tough sell to begin with but Creepshow was also out to celebrate a series of comic books from the 1950s that were unknown to most of the under-21 crowd. The grisly lore of E.C. Comics hadn't made its re-introduction to the popular culture yet (that would have to wait until the debut of the HBO Tales from the Crypt show in 1989) so in wearing its influences on its sleeve, Creepshow came across as a big "huh?" for a lot of people.

Romero was definitely onto something when he said in a Cinefantastique interview in the magazine's April '82 double issue, months before Creepshow's release, that "I don't have a lot of faith in audiences anymore. It seems that if something doesn't click into immediate recognition nobody wants to figure it out or understand it." That's a pretty dead-on description of the initial reception of Creepshow. Unfortunately, this was supposed to be the film that would give Romero and King the chance to prove their box office mettle and give them the clout to do a theatrical version of The Stand. That a Romero-directed Stand never came to be may not be entirely due to the box office performance of Creepshow but had Creepshow been a hit on the level of Dawn of the Dead, rather than quietly coming and going from theaters in the fall of '82, you never know what might've happened.

While Creepshow may have only turned a few heads in theaters, today it's regarded as one of the most well-loved horror films of the '80s. For myself, this was the first R-rated horror movie I was able to convince my mother to take me to so it'll always have a special place in my heart. I had never anticipated a horror film with so much excitement before and despite my mother's reluctance to have anything to do with Creepshow, I was determined not to miss it (this was before our household had either cable or a VCR so if I missed Creepshow in the theaters, I was screwed). About a month prior to seeing the movie, I asked my mother to buy me the Berni Wrightson-illustrated adaptation and I read that thing to death in the weeks before Creepshow came out.

Creepshow has a vibe to it that never fails to pull me in. The movie is so amiable and so imbued with a good time spirit that it overrides any serious critical thoughts. With its replication of a comic book's visuals, it's the most meticulously designed film of Romero's career and it's sadly the last time he was able to have that killer combo of money and artistic freedom. Everything since then for him has been a little compromised in one respect or the other so that makes Creepshow really something to appreciate. If you're a horror fan, you've got to know it like the back of your hand. It's practically a law.

You can't do E.C. right without a moldy corpse crawling out of its grave and "Father's Day" brought it right out of the gate. People always talk about the hallway murder in Exorcist III as being a classic jump scare and, yeah, it is but that rotting hand jutting up into the frame in "Father's Day" as Nathan Grantham bursts out of the ground really does it for me. "Father's Day" showed me that just because I had read the comic adaptation, I was still going to be startled plenty by this movie. Oh, and how can you not love the disco stylings of "Don't Let Go"?

Reading the Wrighton adaptation made it difficult for me to immediately appreciate this segment as the sometimes-goofy looking FX work (no fault on Savini's part - it was just a hard order to fill for 1982) couldn't compare with the nastiness of Wrightson's illustrations. The adaptation played more heavily like a tragedy but the laughs of "Jordy Verill" are essential to the Creepshow experience. Stephen King plays the part of Jordy Verill so broadly that it ought to be a liability but his performance works and when anyone ever busts out quotes from Creepshow, it's usually this segment that they quote from first ("Meteor Shit!").

Having a phobia about the ocean and drowning, the early part of "Something To Tide You Over" is always uncomfortable for me to watch as Ted Danson and Gaylen Ross meet their watery demises. But Leslie Nielsen makes a terrific villain, born to smugly gloat, and all these years later, it's a kick to check out his character's once high-tech, but now primitive, home video equipment. Some might say that two segments about people coming back from the dead is too much for one movie but Savini's work on the wrinkled, water-logged ghouls is so good, it'd be wrong to complain. "Something To Tide You Over" also boasts my favorite score of all five segments.

When I saw Creepshow in the theaters, "The Crate" is the segment that sent my mom and my step-sister hauling ass out to the lobby. When the crate monster made a meal of Mike the janitor, they were out of there. They crept back in eventually but seeing all that blood as Mike was sucked into the crate was just too much. This is arguably Creepshow's best segment, thanks to Adrienne Barbeau heroically tearing into the role of the despicable, shrewish Wilma ("Just call me Billy!"). Every hateful expression she makes is gold.

Creepshow's most famous segment. The tale of a virulent bigot and manic bug-o-phobe who gets his (and then some) during a city-wide blackout, "They're Creeping Up On You" remains a tight little masterpiece of creepy-crawly terror with E.G. Marshall topping Creepshow's preceding portrayals of evil shit-heads with his performance as the wealthy, reclusive Upston Pratt, a man who missed his true calling as a rightwing talk show host. The final scene, as we see where all those bugs have got to, ranks as one of the great gross-outs of all time.

I wouldn't say that Creepshow is my favorite horror movie but yet whenever I rewatch these "jolting tales of horror," it somehow feels like it should be. It's definitely my go-to horror movie for the Halloween season. John Harrison's magnificent, goosebump-inducing score alone makes it choice Halloween viewing ('82 was a damn good year for horror soundtracks, between this and Jerry Goldsmith's Poltergeist score). And hell, I just realized that I've been talking about Creepshow all this time and I haven't even gotten around to saying anything about Tom Atkins as Stan, the comic-hating, asshole dad.

That's how great Creepshow is - you can talk about it forever and almost forget to mention that Tom Atkins is in it. Most movies, that would have to be the first thing you mention, just to keep people from walking away. But that's Creepshow for you.

It's a classic.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Con With The Wind

This past weekend, I attended my first horror convention in two years - Rock And Shock, in Worcester, MA. This is the seventh year it's been held and outside of my pass on last year's event due to family and money issues, I've been there from the start. Before Rock And Shock finally put a horror con in my backyard (I live in Western MA), from back in the early '90s my buddies and I used to travel to either Manhattan or New Jersey to attend whatever con we had decided on that year - either Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors or NJ's Chiller Con. Even after Rock and Shock made its debut in 2004, we still kept up our annual out of state excursions for a few years before it began to seem wiser (thanks to the expanding dealer space at Rock And Shock) to just stick closer to home. Now, even that is starting to seem questionable. While this year's Rock And Shock wasn't a wasted trip, it did make me realize that, for me, the heyday of horror cons is long gone. And man, I've gotta say that makes me sad.

To note the good things first, going to Rock And Shock meant I got to hang out with some friends who had a dealer table set up at the show (including a couple of the guys I started going to cons with back in the day). I also had the opportunity to meet one of my favorite bloggers in person - Emily, from The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense. And I'm also pretty pleased that I was able to fill the few remaining gaps in my Fango collection. So, all of that is good - certainly enough to justify the minimal time and money spent.

As for the bad...well, I think it's just a matter of times changing and myself getting older. In the age of the internet and DVD, the search for hard-to-find movies and TV shows just isn't what it used to be. Things are accessible now in a way they weren't before. Either people have the capacity to burn their own discs or they know someone who does. Back in the day, it was a truly big deal to go to a con. It meant I could finally get, you know, episodes of Night Gallery - a show that hadn't aired in syndication in my area since I was a kid. Finally having the opportunity to own stuff that was otherwise unavailable was huge. I remember how pumped I was to finally own a copy of The Boogens, which had been an early HBO favorite for me, or Deranged - the Ed Gein-inspired film that I had read about for years but never had the chance to see. When you left a convention back in the day, you left with stuff you had been waiting forever to own. Even if it was just a shitty VHS dub, you were psyched. In the back of your mind, you were already planning to search for a slightly better copy at next year's show. There's many movies that I bought year after year as long as I thought I was getting a slight upgrade.

I remember how exciting it was waiting for the doors to the dealer rooms to be open and to feel that incredible rush as you got your first look at what was on the tables. For years, I brought the same old backpack with me and after just twenty minutes, that backpack would already be stuffed to bursting with VHS tapes. After a few hours on the floor, my friends and I would break for lunch at a local Wendy's or something and compare our respective hauls. Then we'd mull over what was left that we hadn't bought that we might possibly want to go back for then we'd return to make a last round of the tables. After that, it was off to Penn Station to take the train back to Western Massachusetts.

Our trips were one-day affairs back then. We'd take the Amtrak out of Springfield, MA early in the morning and arrive in Manhattan a few hours later. By five o'clock that afternoon, if not sooner, we'd be on the train back. But even though we only hit the con for a few hours, it was an event that the whole calendar year revolved around. When we'd get back to my friend Marty Langford's house, we'd inevitably stack all our tapes on his living room floor and put each one in the VCR for a minute to really see how the quality was. If you happened to have a tape where it looked like you were watching the movie through a dirty rag (which most times was the case), oh well - it was nothing to complain about.

Today, I have very little patience with lousy transfers. We've been spoiled by the age of DVD and Blu-Ray. I used to think nothing of trying to squint through a cruddy dub of something but when I watch something now, I want it to look good. Great, if possible. So when I make my tour of the dealer tables now and see all the gray market discs spread out, I'm not that enthused. Of course, there's some dealers out there like Synapse with legit discs but it's all stuff I can get online anyway so it's no big deal to find it at a show. "It can always wait for another day" is how it feels now but that's not how it used to be.

I remember being in dealer rooms where there was no room whatsoever to move. It was shoulder to shoulder all the way. You had to push your way from one end of a dealer room to another. You emerged exhausted from cons like that. At Rock And Shock this weekend (and, really, at every previous Rock and Shock I've been to), it was all wide open spaces. Not a cramped moment to be had. Attendance could've been excellent for all I know (I saw huge lines for guests like George Romero) but I know that walking through that con, there was none of the urgency that I remember from the '90s and into the early 00's. I used to have to fight my way through a wall of people to see what a dealer had on their table. Now I can see it all from five feet back with barely a body standing in the way.

Conventions were still a blast for me up through as recent as 2006. By that point, the group of us that went together to shows had expanded by a few members and we were spending the weekend - or at least Saturday nights - at Chiller Con in New Jersey. In a lot of ways, those last few years were the best cons since my earliest cons of the '90s. I wasn't buying as much anymore but the trip was still fun, the old sense of camaraderie was there, and it still seemed like an event to me. It was so recent into the DVD era that there were even still a few diehard dealers still putting their VHS dubs out.

But Rock And Shock had started in 2004 and with my son having been born in 2005, the appeal of leaving town with the guys - even if just for a night - began to fade away and with the reasons to going to a show becoming harder and harder to justify, it became easier to just make my one and only con of the year be the nearby Rock and Shock. That meant there wasn't a big trip involved anymore - just a matter of a forty minute solo drive. But while it feels just like the old days to walk up to the DCU and see a big line of fans waiting to get in, the show itself is anticlimatic. Worth going to, yes, but nothing stellar. Even if I was still going to Chiller, I think I'd feel just as underwhelmed. It's just different now and there's no getting around it.

I hope that when my son is older, his interest in going to cons might revive my own interest. He's a budding horror nut (surprise, surprise) and to be able to see the con experience through his eyes should be fun. But even then, in the back of my mind I'll know that it will never be quite what it used to be. Every movie or show my son loves as a kid, he'll own on DVD - there's never going to be that nostalgic thrill of finally finding something that had been lost or unavailable for years. He'll already own it - and own it in a Blu-Ray special edition, or whatever the latest format is. Tomorrow, I'll be swinging by my local Best Buy to get the documentary The Psycho Legacy and the fourth season of Tales from the Darkside. That'll be more than I bought at Rock and Shock this weekend.

I think of riding on the train with my pals, heading back to Western MA from those early cons with a full backpack of videos and I think "those were great times." And man, they were - irreplaceable times. As a horror junkie, there was no greater "fix" to be found. Nowadays, I'm anxiously awaiting the release of Vampire Circus on Blu-Ray.

On the one hand, I'll finally own an amazing copy of a movie that I've always loved and all I have to do to get it is to order it online. On the other hand, the experience of opening up my mailbox to get that package likely won't compare with seeing that title handwritten on a VHS label and having to reach through a mob of fans to the dealer's table to grab it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

If Your Life Was At Stake...Would You Kill A Child?

It's another gathering of the HorrorDads over at TCM's Movie Morlocks. This time around, Richard Harland Smith, Dennis Cozzalio, Greg Ferrara, Paul Gaita, Nicholas McCarthy and myself are taking on the 1976 Spanish shocker Who Can Kill A Child? This cult favorite is disturbing stuff and if you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and put it at the top of your Netflix queue. After watching it, you'll likely wonder how eight Children of the Corn films have failed to generate even a tenth of the unsettling effect of this movie. This is killer kids done right.

Our discussion is chock full of spoilers so if you're unfamiliar with the movie, read at your own risk. Personally, I think a great film can't be truly spoiled by hearing plot details. If you haven't seen Who Can Kill A Child? yet, hopefully reading our thoughts on it will prompt you to go ahead and experience this disquieting gem for yourself.

3 Humans, 1 Tract, And A Multitude Of Banner Ads

When banner ads for the DVD release of director Tom Six's notorious mad science tale The Human Centipede first appeared on several of the movie sites I frequent, I paid them no special mind - outside of idly wondering if I'd ever get around to watching this tale of a sicko surgeon with too much time on his hands (I probably won't). But the more I kept seeing them, with their animated diagram of three people on their hands and knees joined in the manner that the film's title promises with the accompanying text of "3 Humans, 1 Tract," it occurred to me that these ads - in which there's even a helpfully illustrative arrow that enters through the mouth of the first person, and moves all the way out the ass of the last person (see below) - were a hell of a thing to be blasé about. I mean, I know that I'm pretty desensitized but when did so much of the rest of the world go down that path, too?

Years ago, a movie like The Human Centipede would've only been known - and whispered about - by the most hardy and dedicated connoisseurs of the bizarre. Only by patronizing the seediest of theaters or scouting the bootleg tables at conventions would one ever come across the likes of The Human Centipede. This is a film that once would've had to fight to exist and then fight even harder to reach its audience. Now it's a freak show that's as easy to obtain as clicking on an ad. You don't have to actively seek this stuff out anymore, you don't even have to be a knowledgeable movie junkie to be aware of it. Someone going to Shock Till You Drop to check out the latest news on Breaking Dawn can be instantly introduced to The Human Centipede. And if you don't buy it online, you'll see it stocked in plain sight on your next trip to Best Buy, or Target (for more on that, check out this recent post from my fellow Horror Dad, Dennis Cozzalio, over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule).

I grew up during a time when slasher movies were regularly targeted by angry picketers and were the subject of offended screeds by movie critics. Now, apparently, you can make a movie where people have their mouths sewn to other people's asses and it's no big deal. This doesn't outrage me, it just astonishes me.

Once upon a time, The Human Centipede would've been a strictly underground sensation. Now you can get it out of a Redbox at your local supermarket. What used to be only fit to exist on the outer fringes of cult culture is now part of pop culture. I never would've imagined that a movie like this would be made - and so widely available - with barely a peep of controversy but now I have to think we're not too far off from seeing Human Centipede: The TV Series.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Soul Asylum

Denial plays a big part in my outlook as a horror fan. You can call it optimism, if you like, but denial is closer to the truth. Optimism is when you have no facts to go on but yet, based on a sense of faith, you still hold high hopes for whatever new situation you're facing. Denial is when you're given cold hard facts but choose not to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

You see, even when a movie has every sign of being atrocious, I convince myself that it might actually turn out to be good. I'm so adept at bending my head around reality that I'm ready to believe a movie that has been on the shelf for ages, gone through multiple reshoots, post-production 3-D conversion and a title change to boot might actually be a winner.

So even though Wes Craven's latest outing, My Soul To Take, fit all of the above criteria to a "T" and was also denied critics's screenings, I still figured that Wes wouldn't let me down. Having now watched My Soul To Take, though, I realize that I didn't have the one crucial piece of information beforehand that really would've told me what was up. I knew about the troubles with the movie, sure, but what I didn't know is that Wes Craven had totally lost his mind.

It's a big surprise to all of us, I know. I mean, he's produced two of the best remakes of recent years - The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and The Last House on the Left (2009) - so you don't think a guy like that is going to make a movie like My Soul To Take but there you go. It's a crazy world we live in, that's for sure.

Seriously, I don't even know where to begin with this one but here goes: a serial killer called the Riverton Ripper is found out by the police and killed during an escape attempt. On the night he was killed, seven children - including his own son - were born. Sixteen years later, these kids have to contend with the frightening possibility that the Ripper's soul may be living inside one of them.

I like the basic set-up. Unfortunately, Craven went off the deep end with the telling of his tale. The biggest problem is that no one in this film behaves as though they come from this planet. There's a disconnect from reality here that's just jarring. For example, at the high school, everything that happens is controlled by "Fang," (Emily Meade) an adolescent dictator who has her doting minions inexplicably following her every instruction - even down to administering daily beatings (referred to as "punitives" in the film) to those that Fang deems deserving. Fang is still in high school at age nineteen, by the way. This is usually the kind of person that would be roundly mocked as a loser, not be calling the shots. We're also supposed to believe that for a school show and tell session, two of the Riverton Seven - the troubled, possibly schizo, Bug (Max Thieriot) and his best bud Alex (John Magaro) - create an elaborate California Condor costume, one that's capable of spewing fake vomit and shit on their classmates. I know that at age 70 or whatever, Craven is a long way from his teen years but his bizarre - almost surreal - take on high school life is worrisome.

Then there's the issue of the identity of the Ripper, a mystery that's never engaging. Maybe because the movie is so full of nonsense, it never seems worth getting interested in unravelling the story. After all, how much can you care about what happens in a film when a blind character - Denzel Whitaker as Jerome - is able to make it unassisted to someone's house, climb a rope into a second story bedroom window, and fight the Ripper? We don't see any of this happen, mind you, we just have it related to us in a lengthy monologue from Jerome after he's been discovered severely wounded in the closet.

Listening to Jerome's credulity-defying (as well as dramatically inert) description to Bug of how he ended up in his closet, all I could think of is "why the hell is this character even blind to begin with?" Not only does Jerome's disability not play any role in the plot but thanks to Craven apparently not understanding what the hell "blind" means only adds to the sense that Craven is off his nut. Yes, I know that blind people are very capable and they can do a lot without any assistance but come on now. Maybe Craven got all his info on the blind from watching Daredevil, I don't know.

I'd like to be able say it's heartening that MSTT is the rare modern horror film with a real personality to it. As a bid to try and launch another franchise character there's some obvious market-minded thinking involved but yet this isn't the processed garbage found in a Platinum Dunes remake - it's evident that Craven is pouring some real spirit into his work. There's plenty of talk about the human soul and of good and evil and morality that make it clear that even after all these years of toiling in the genre that horror isn't just an easy buck for Craven. He cares, he respects his audience, and he's still putting a little of his deeper self into his films. This is the first original script he's penned since 1994's A New Nightmare and it fully bears his imprint. But then there's the inescapable fact that it's lousy.

Craven has always gotten into trouble the more metaphysical his material is. Down and Dirty is where Craven shines (The Hills Have Eyes, The People Under The Stairs). Anything Goes Craven (Shocker, this crap), not so much.

There's a germ of a good movie here but Craven never finds it past the clutter of his ideas and his faltering dramatic instincts. I did like some of the performances, Emily Meade in particular. But overall, My Soul To Take is just Too Much To Take.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

There's no William Shatner mask and no Rob Bottin FX but Prince of Darkness (1987) is a John Carpenter joint that is essential to my JC love. Although its title conjures expectations of a classic depiction of Satan complete with horns and cloven hooves, Carpenter went for the unfamiliar instead.

When an aging priest dies on the eve of a pressing appointment, a long-kept secret of the Catholic church involving 'The Brotherhood of Sleep' is revealed to a fellow priest (the much-missed Donald Pleasence). This secret hidden in the basement of the abandoned St. Goddard's church is so ghastly, and the importance of unraveling its implications so pressing, he must reach out to physics professor Howard Birak (the also much-missed Victor Wong) to help grapple with the enormous danger at hand.

Birak corrals a group of his brightest students (including Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, Dirk Blocker, and Dennis Dun) to stay at the church for a weekend to study the mysterious canister of green, glowing liquid stored in the basement of St. Goddard's church and determine the nature of its swirling contents firsthand as well as translate an ancient book that records its history.

This examination will not prove to be an easy task - X-rays reveal that the canister is fitted with a locking mechanism that only can be opened from the inside, so no direct samples can be taken. Even worse is that everything about this liquid defies all accepted notions of science. As the contents of the container grow in power, it psychically extends its will and possesses the group of students and academics (as well as an army of street people, led by rocker Alice Cooper).

Written by Carpenter under the pseudonym of Martin Quatermass (in a nod to Nigel Kneale, writer of the Quatermass series), Prince of Darkness was the director's much-anticipated return to low budget horror after discouraging experiences with big projects such as The Thing (1982) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986). That he choose to play to his strengths and make Prince of Darkness a siege film in the manner of his acclaimed Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is not surprising. What is surprising is the level of earnest philosophizing that finds its way into the script. There's a heightened, poetic quality to much of the dialogue - which Wong and Pleasence naturally prove especially adept at delivering - and the younger characters in this film (who may be college students but are still unusually mature both in age and temperament by '80s horror standards) are not just tested physically by their ordeal, but as they fight on through day and night, their accepted concepts of good and evil, of science, and of reality itself, are all proven to be wrong in a darkly-told case of finding themselves 'Through the Looking-Glass.'

Perhaps realizing that he was asking a lot of the horror audience's patience by subjecting them to involved discussions of religion, tachyon particles and quantum physics, Carpenter didn't pull any punches with the gore. The physical appearance of one doomed character chosen to rebirth the essence of evil undergoes a bodily transformation that makes the ravages Linda Blair suffers in The Exorcist look like a mild head cold. With this character's flesh entirely covered in glistening pus (with make-up FX courtesy of Frank Carrisosa), Carpenter achieves the kind of vivid, putrescent horror that would do Lucio Fulci proud.

It isn't all about being graphic, though. Embodying Prince of Darkness' apocalyptic vision is the recurring image of an eerie 'broadcast' transmitted from the future date of 1999 into the sleeping minds of the film's characters wherein we see a dark figure emerging from the church's entrance, its arms spread open as it steps across the threshold ready for its close-up. Shot on video, it's a haunting example of 'hand-held' horror that anticipates the faux-doc, shaky-cam approach popularized by The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Carpenter goes for low-tech scares in other ways, too. Years before Francis Ford Coppola adopted an old-school movie magic approach for Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Carpenter and his team utilized photographic tricks dating back to the days of silent film - methods pioneered by the likes of George Méliès (A Trip To The Moon, 1902) and cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan (Metropolis, 1927) - accomplishing the illusions of Prince of Darkness in-camera.

In preparation for this blog post, I had to ask myself "is there anything about Prince of Darkness that isn't awesome?" My answer to that was "No, damn it! HELL, no!" See, I could've just simply answered no there - especially if I was just talking to myself - but I went the emphatic extra mile because Prince of Darkness is that good. This is a much more overtly horrific movie than Carpenter's made before or since - jam-packed with nightmarish imagery (when someone who's body is crumbling as it's consumed from within by hell-sent beetles tells you to "pray for death," that's the ultimate sign that shit has gotten real). When I have the itch for classic Carpenter, more often than not, Prince of Darkness is just the (old) scratch to fix it.

Prince of Darkness may not have the same legendary rep as either Halloween or The Thing but as far as I'm concerned if you're talking signature Carpenter, then you're talking Prince of Darkness.

* This post is part of John Carpenter Week at Radiator Heaven. Go there to check out all the Carpenter love you can handle!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Darkroom Down Under

In honor of the recent DVD release of the classic anthology series Thriller, the duo of Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri have launched the A Thriller A Day blogspot to review each and every episode of the show. Along with the reviews, they've had some of the talent involved in the DVD release stop by to talk about all things Thriller.

One of those guests is writer/producer Alan Brennert who shares audio commentary duties with writer David J. Schow on the Robert Bloch adaptation, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper." A full time novelist these days, Brennert's past credentials include his work on the '80s revival of The Twilight Zone and the '90s The Outer Limits. But Brennert's biggest claim to fame - at least to me - is that he contributed to the short-lived horror anthology Darkroom (penning one of the best installments - the series' opening story "Closed Circuit").

For those unfamiliar with the show, Darkroom ran on ABC on Friday nights from late fall of 1981 to early winter of 1982 with James Coburn as the show's Rod Serling-esque host and lasted a scant seven episodes before cancellation. Unfortunately, despite the impressive talent that was involved - actors like Billy Crystal, Ronny Cox, Helen Hunt, Rue McLanahan, and David Carradine, directors like Rick Rosenthal (Halloween II) and Paul Lynch (Prom Night) and writers like Robert Bloch and William F. Nolan - Darkroom has never been given any kind of a home video release. But during Brennert's swing by A Thriller A Day, he casually mentioned this piece of information:

"By the way, after all these years Darkroom has just been released on DVD in Australia, the only video release of any kind it's ever had."

I was floored to read this and a quick check revealed that, indeed, an Australian home video company called Madman has given Darkroom a Region 4 release. While it doesn't appear that any plans are afoot to release the series elsewhere yet, the fact that it's finally been given a release somewhere makes me believe that sooner or later, it'll be issued on R1. The thought of Darkroom on DVD has always seemed like a pipe dream to me so I'm ecstatic to find that a US release isn't that far-fetched anymore.

Darkroom wasn't the cream of the TV horror crop but it was a fun show that deserves more appreciation. Even if it wasn't of the same caliber as '60s classics like Thriller or The Twilight Zone, it was the closest thing to them that the early '80s offered, serving up eerie tales that have stuck with Gen-Xers for decades - which is especially impressive given how seldom its brief run of episodes have been re-aired since their original broadcast. For the short few weeks it was on, I couldn't wait to see what developed in the Darkroom. Of course, back when the inimitable Ernie Anderson was doing the voice-overs on ABC's promos, as in the clip below, it was always easy to think you were in for something special:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Case You Hadn't Noticed

Originally scheduled for US release way back in August of '08, it's been a long, trying journey for Case 39. But here we are in October of '10 with the supernatural shocks of director Christian Alvart's tale finally up on the big screen. That minor victory aside, things haven't been working out so well in Hollywood for the German director. He made a great impression on his home turf with the 2005 serial killer thriller Antibodies but in the US, his two films to date - Case 39 and last year's Pandorum - haven't received much acclaim or brought in much business. I hope studios will keep giving him more chances, though, because he's good. Pandorum was one of my favorite genre offerings from last year - a really strong, atmospheric sci-fi horror pic like we haven't seen in ages. And now Case 39 (which was filmed prior to Pandorum) is a better film than its reputation would lead you to believe.

That's not to say that Case 39 is a misunderstood gem or anything. It's kind of a mess, really, but it's a better mess than I expected. Written by Ray Wright, who had a hand in the recent Crazies remake, Case 39 has an intriguing first half and a silly but still highly watchable second half. When social worker Emily Jenkins (Renee Zellweger) is assigned a case involving a ten-year-old named Lilith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland, of Silent Hill) whose parents are clearly a pair of nuts, Emily makes it her mission to protect Lilith and get her out of that home. At first, bureaucracy and the Sullivan's wily ways keep Lilith out of Emily's reach but when the Sullivans try to actually roast Lilith in an oven (!), Emily is there to put a stop to it.

Rather than put Lilith in a state-run home until a foster family can adopt her, Emily puts on her mommy shoes to take her in as her temporary caretaker. That's a nice gesture but a big mistake, as it turns out, because Lilith is some kind of demon or something. Whatever Lilith really is, Emily lives to regret being conned by this hell spawn's innocent act. Before long, Emily is secretly paying visits to Lilith's parents in the psycho ward just to get the full story on what she's dealing with. Can Emily's psychologist friend (Bradley Cooper) or her cop buddy (Ian McShane) be any help? The odds don't look favorable.

Evil kid movies live or die on the strength of the performance of the kid and happily for Case 39, Ferland plays Lilith just right. Unfortunately, a lot of people will likely see Ferland as playing a knock-off of Isabelle Fuhrman's performance in last year's instant cult favorite Orphan without knowing that Case 39 actually predated Orphan. Ferland doesn't have as complicated a character to play as Fuhrman did but she does a great job anyhow.

The most curious aspect of Case 39 is the lack of explanation - supernatural, scientific, or otherwise - regarding Lilith's origins. Most monster or demon movies make a point to name their creature and give them a cooked-up mythology of some kind. Because that mythology is how the film's characters know how to stop it - whether it's going to be a wooden stake, a silver bullet, an exorcism, or whatever. Is Lilith deep down a good girl who's been possessed by a demon? That'd be an expected way to go. That way, Emily could purge the demon from Lilith's body and live happily ever after with the real Emily. Is Lilith some kind of alien, maybe? A shape-shifter? We don't know. We never know. There's not even any educated guesses thrown around. More than anything else, I think this is going to keep audiences from enjoying Case 39. Too much ambiguity, too many unanswered questions.

From a dramatic standpoint, the lack of revelations about Lilith make it hard for Case 39 to build to a rousing third-act climax. There's no exorcism to perform, no incantation to say, no mystical dagger to use. Once Emily knows that Lilith is truly evil, it's just a matter of taking her out but yet the proper manner of accomplishing that is never known. Emily is forced to go improv with her child-killing skills and try whatever seems deadly enough until something sticks and Lilith doesn't get back up again.

Having expected the worst from Case 39 and finding it to be...not that bad, I don't know what kept this one out of theaters for two years - maybe the studio just thought it sucked that hard. But that hasn't stopped other movies from making their release dates so Case 39 should've been given a break, too. Alvart has the skills to make a good horror movie and he makes the most out of Case 39. I liked that this was, at heart, a horror movie about how parents can feel held hostage by their children. There's been plenty of killer kid movies over the years but they usually take the approach that the people around the parents keep figuring out what's up with the kid - and getting killed for it - while the parents remain oblivious until the last act. Here, it's the parent that is clued in but everyone else thinks they're crazy for suggesting that their kid is evil.

I wonder if this is why the studio was so reluctant to get behind Case 39 - that they felt it was too hard to sell a movie about an adoptive mother who wants to kill her kid. All the ads for the movie make it look as though Lilith is being pursued by demons and that Emily is trying to protect her, not that Lilith is evil herself. In fact, I think there was material shot just for the trailer to give the impression that Emily and Lilith are under attack - we see them cowering in a corner together, hiding under a bed - because I'm telling you that no scenes like that are in the film itself. There's also a glimpse of a demon (check out the 1:42 mark) and a scene of Lilith being sucked into her bed that aren't in the final film. Check it out:

This trailer is completely deceptive and I'm not sure why the studio went that route. One of the strongest aspects of the movie is Ferland's performance - why keep it a secret that she's the villain of the film? Orphan did so well for Warner Bros. last year on the strength of its ad campaign that featured the evil Esther front and center. Then again, that same campaign also drew a lot of heat from adoption agencies who claimed the movie put adoption in a bad light.

I bet Paramount feared that another film about another evil adoptive child would've gotten the same kind of flak and chose to sell Case 39 as an entirely different movie than what they had. It's too bad. Case 39 still might not have been a hit but it should've been sold for what it really is. As is, what we have is a cinematic case of false identity.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Shadow Of The Vampire

The fact that a new vampire film is in theaters that isn't part of the Twilight saga ought to be cause for celebration. But for many it's a problem that Let Me In - a remake of the 2008 Swedish film, Let The Right One In - exists. After all, Let The Right One In is a very recent film - not some dated classic. And if people were not so reluctant to read words at the bottom of the screen, one of the best genre films in recent memory would not need to be retold.

All this is true. In a perfect world, studios would look at a movie like Let The Right One In and say "man, we'd be assholes to try and touch this." And in a perfect world, there'd be no hesitation on the part of the average moviegoer to sample foreign fare. But we don't live in that perfect world. If Let Me In introduces a wider audience to a great story, then I don't see the need to disparage it as a matter of principle. When the remake is atrocious, as in the case of Pulse (2006), the abomination masquerading as a remake of Kairo (2001), then yes - that's bad. But when the remake is as finely made as Let Me In, then why be high-handed about it?

While Let Me In does nothing to eclipse the artistry of Let The Right One In, writer/director Matt Reeves has attentively preserved the tone of the original. It's still a melancholy look at a lonely, bullied kid who finds a lifeline in the form of a vampire. Only now instead of Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) and Eli (Lina Leandersson), it's Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Abby (Chloe Moretz) who develop a strange, sad bond. And instead of taking place in Stockholm, we're in New Mexico. It's still 1983, though, and it's still in the dead of winter.

The major story beats and set-pieces are all pretty much the same as in director Tomas Alfredson's film - even down to the way they're staged. But it feels as though Reeves is honoring Alfredson's work rather than just mimicking it. Reeves does bring in some new scenes and tweaks a few existing ones. He also prunes some of the extraneous story elements from the original, making for a more efficiently told tale. From the start, there's a palatable sense that Reeves "gets" the original - and its source material novel - and that in his hands, Let Me In was never in danger of becoming the movie that fans feared it might be.

However, there are some ways in which the remake just can't compete. As strong as the child performances are here, it's difficult for Smit-McPhee and Moretz to surpass the work that Hedebrant and Leandersson did in the original. Those two kids - Leandersson, especially - just had a look and vibe that can't be duplicated. Smit-McPhee and Moretz are outstanding but as you watch them, you're looking at actors. Skilled actors, yes, but still actors. There's an inevitable (if faint) air of Hollywood to Let Me In. When you watch Leandersson as Eli, you easily buy into the reality that this girl (or whatever) is a vampire. With Moretz, you're seeing Hit-Girl as a vampire. That's not enough to derail Let Me In but it's one reason why it can never have the unique mystique that the original does.

Let Me In is also less enigmatic than the original, with Reeves choosing to be more explicit about the relationship between Abby and her caretaker (Richard Jenkins) than Alfredson and novelist/screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist were about the relationship between Eli and her caretaker (Per Ragnar). I thought that this tragic pairing of young and old (or rather old and very old) was one of the eeriest and most affecting aspects of the original but it wasn't clear to every viewer what the nature of that relationship was (was this man Eli's father, or perhaps a pedophile?). By including an old film strip from a photo booth capturing Abby side by side with her guardian when he was just a boy himself, Reeves confirms that this person came into Abby's life decades earlier and has grown old as Abby's protector. Now the cycle is starting over with Owen.

There's so much that's wise about Let Me In that it's glaring when Reeves makes a bad decision. The single poorest choice on Reeves' part was to depict several of Abby's attacks and her gravity-defying movements through CG. It looks silly and I can't believe anyone connected with the movie thought it was the right way to go. It only occurs a few times but it's a few times too many. A secondary issue with the use of CG is that it makes Abby appear so capable and deadly that it makes us question why she would need someone to hunt for her. If Abby is so ferocious - moving like a Reaper from Blade II - then a companion doesn't seem so essential. And if we question Abby's need for a companion too strongly, that could derail the entire movie. After all, as with the original, Let Me In really isn't a love story. It's about Abby choosing someone that will serve as her protector and guardian. Reeves should've been more aware of the problems he was potentially creating before deciding to invite CG in.

Some slight missteps aside, though, fans of the original who wanted to guard a film they loved from the machinations of Hollywood should be relieved that Let Me In has emerged as a smart, sensitive movie. That it exists in the shadow of a better film shouldn't discount the excellent work that Reeves and his collaborators have done.