Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Very Cobra Christmas

I understand that most of you might already be out of the Yuletide spirit what with the clock about to turn over to 2012 but until the New Year is officially rung in, I feel like it's not too late to show some appreciation for an unsung holiday romp - Sylvester Stallone's action/horror hybrid Cobra (1986).

Before we go any further, for anyone who might be questioning Cobra's status as a Christmas movie let me offer a few screen shots as evidence:

See? Cobra is as Christmas as jolly ol' St. Nick! This George P. Cosmatos-directed film belongs to that small but much-loved subgenre of Christmas-set action movies - a group that houses the likes of Invasion U.S.A. (1985), Trancers (1985), and Die Hard (1988). Apparently the opportunity to juxtapose violence with the iconography of Christmas is too hard for filmmakers to resist. And frankly, who can blame them?

Despite its cop movie trappings of shoot-outs and car chases, Cobra represented a throwback to the seedier slasher stylings of the early '80s (one hospital-set sequence recalls 1982's Visiting Hours). In 1983, it would've fit in perfectly on a drive-in double bill with the Charles Bronson film 10 to Midnight, another film that straddled the action and horror genres by having a cop pursuing a vicious psycho.

And what a four-star psycho Cobra had in the form of Brian Thompson as the Night Slasher. A pure, unrepentant homicidal maniac, the Night Slasher is a killing machine who would eat lesser psychos for breakfast. The Night Slasher isn't one of those psychos who seems mild-mannered on the surface, either. No, just by looking at him there'd be no mistaking what this guy's favorite past time is. You'd be like, "That guy loves killing people. He loves it like kids love ice cream."

While even Joe Spinell's title character in Maniac (1980) tried to spend some time developing a social life outside of his hobby of scalping women, you can't even imagine the Night Slasher ever having the least passing interest in anything that doesn't involve snuffing out human life. I wouldn't even be surprised if his name had been legally changed to "Night Slasher" because, you know, why not? There's no way this guy is ever planning on holding down a job of any kind so there's no need to have a regular name like Bob or Chuck.

Worse yet, he's the leader of an army of kill-crazy sickos who travel around in a van at night and randomly jump out with their axes and slaughter any lone woman they come across.

Because he looks like a guy who could kill you with his bare hands without even breaking a sweat, Thompson is scary as hell just standing around but Cosmatos goes ahead and gives him a blade with a spiked handle that would make you nervous even if a little old lady were holding it, never mind a hulking psychopath.

In the annals of cinematic psychos, Thompson doesn't seem to get much attention (his most famous role remains that of the Alien Bounty Hunter on The X-Files) but I'm all about the Night Slasher. You could say that Thompson is playing nothing more than a one note character here but if the Night Slasher was more layered, he'd have much more to say to Cobra when they face off than "I want your eyes, PIG!" and personally I love that The Night Slasher never, ever has anything remotely clever to say. He's all business and he gets more mileage out of the word "pig" than anyone ever has.

As Cobra is an 87 minute movie that seems to only have about 20 pages of script (the entire last half hour seems based around a few loose ideas for action scenes), there's plenty of room in Cobra for time-filling montages - my favorite featuring Brigitte Nielsen as statuesque model Ingrid Knudsen posing with a group of robots.

I don't know what magazine or product these pics could possibly be for. Personally, I suspect that Stallone just wasn't over with his robot fetish from Rocky III (1982).

At the time, I was surprised that Cannon never went ahead with a Cobra sequel as clearly this was meant to kick off another franchise for Stallone. I don't know why a Cobra 2 never came to be but I think the real bummer is that no one ever had the notion to mount a dual sequel/crossover with the Chuck Norris hit Silent Rage, the 1982 film that pitted Norris as a small town sheriff against a nearly invulnerable, scientifically altered psycho, played by Brian Libby.

To have Stallone and Norris in their prime taking on the team of Libby and Thompson - man, what a gift that would've been to '80s action buffs. But, as every kid learns on Christmas morning, you can't always get what you want.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Say It Isn't So!

Fans of quality film criticism and of great writing in general suffered a blow yesterday as the mystery man behind Arbogast on Film posted his final blog entry, citing personal reasons for closing shop. Even though AoF's subheading promised "an investigation into the mystery of cinema that can only end with my death," I have to say I'm happy that much less drastic circumstances were responsible for the end of my favorite blog.

While no new entries will be coming (unless Arbo experiences a change of heart down the line), the good news is that AoF's blog archive will remain online as a resource. Personally, I think Arbo ought to compile his many posts and put 'em in a book. I know for damn sure that's a volume of film criticism I'd be happy to own.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Best Of 2011

This year wasn't exactly a booming one for horror but even if 2011 was somewhat soft for genre fare, it still delivered its share of memorable scares - even if some of the best were found on the small screen. Over at Shock Till You Drop, my top five of 2011 are listed, along with a few honorable mentions. Some might find my top pick questionable (or all of my picks, for that matter) but when I look back on 2011, there's no question what my number one genre addiction was.

All in all, I'd consider 2011 to be a definite improvement over 2010. Hopefully the films of 2012 will be even better.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Holidays

The Christmas crunch has taken its toll on my productivity here but now that the holiday is winding down at last, I expect to be blogging more frequently. Whatever holiday you celebrate at this time of year and whoever you celebrate it with, I hope it was a joyous occasion.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"What Happened To Old-Fashioned Horror?"

Here's a clip (posted by Freddy in Space as their Vintage Video of the Week) that will stir some memories for any horror fan who grew up in the '80s: a concerned report circa 1987 titled "VCR Horrors" from ABC's newsmagazine 20/20 on the rising appetite among America's young people for violent entertainment, then more readily accessible than ever thanks to home video.

Here, give it a watch:

Man, that's good stuff. Vintage cluelessness towards horror. But the kind of uninformed hand-wringing found in that report was a big part of what made the genre so appealing to kids back in the '80s - like heavy metal, horror was outlaw stuff, considered dangerous by most parents and teachers. Watching that report actually makes me a little sad that those alarmist days are gone for good. Now that the generation that grew up renting hardcore horror every week have become adults with kids of their own, it's hard for even the most extreme horror to be seen as a threat to the fabric of society. You know, when you spent your teen years watching films like Make Them Die Slowly and grew up mentally unscathed, The Human Centipede doesn't seem like a viable scapegoat for society's ills.

Along those same lines, you'd also think that a generation that grew up on such disreputable pop culture touchstones as EC Comics and Hitchcock's Psycho wouldn't have lost their shit over splatter movies but yet somehow they did. Luckily, no one from my generation is going to ever claim that filmmakers today lack the classy touch of William Lustig! If anything, they complain that today's movies aren't as gory as the ones they watched as kids. We want movies to be old-school, not old-fashioned.

This report also evokes a real pang of nostalgia for the era of the video store. All matters of convenience aside, getting movies off of Netflix or OnDemand or whatever just isn't as cool as getting a video off a shelf. I know that's the old-fogiest of outlooks and that everyone loves having movies at their fingertips now but, jeez, video stores added so much to the aura of horror in the '80s. Now that's all just a memory.

Even sadder is to revisit a robust Chas. Balun (who probably felt like his comments weren't entirely well-served here) and scream queen Linnea Quigley, both then in their prime. Beloved genre critic Balun passed away too young at age 61 in 2009 after a long battle with cancer and not only has Quigley endured a natural fade from her B-movie glory days but she also represents the kind of semi-famous exploitation starlet (whose ranks would include Michelle Bauer and Brinke Stevens) that just doesn't exist anymore.

But apart from nostalgia, the one thing that most people will probably take away from this report is how all the kids seem so grounded, sensible, and untroubled about their viewing choices (sez young Josh Butler: "This guy just goes around killing people. That's the plot of all scary movies."). It's enough to make you wonder why anyone would have ever worried about their psychological well-being in the first place.

But then, hindsight is 20/20.

Friday, December 9, 2011

2012: A Look Ahead

At every year's end, because I'm a giant nerd, I like to preview the upcoming year and go on about all the movies I'm most excited to see. But with 2012, there's so much coming out I hardly know where to begin. Obviously, a good chunk of next year's films will prove to be letdowns - I'm not expecting them all to be pure gold - but I never get discouraged when it comes to movies. When it comes to horror, I'm like a Pollyanna of Putrescence!

Plenty of movies test my tolerance but never so much that I don't go into the next one hoping for the best. And I find that even most of the bad ones are easy to look back on fondly, sometimes even more so than the great ones. Anyhow, all this is just a roundabout way of saying that I can't wait for the movies of 2012 to arrive, my first preferences going to the ones that (one or two exceptions aside) I know for sure will be hitting the big screen in my neck of the woods.

These movies, in particular:

20. Paranormal Activity 4
I didn't even think that the first sequel to Paranormal Activity would work but it did, as did the second, and now here we are expecting the third. These movies aren't everybody's ideal spook house but I really dig them. The challenge, naturally, as the series continues is for the filmmakers to maintain the "found footage" conceit while not making it seem shoehorned onto the film. The series is at a tipping point right now (most series peak with their 3rd or 4th installments) so it'll be interesting to see how PA 4 shapes up.

19. Silent Hill: Revelation 3D
I'm not a game player so I have no insight into how well 2006's Silent Hill represented its source material but I can say I really enjoyed that movie for its surreal, grotesque imagery. I wish that director Christophe Gans had stuck around for this second installment (or that he'd get a new movie of any kind going - it's been five years now since SH!) but hopefully writer/director Michael J. Bassett (Deathwatch, Solomon Kane) will do a great job at the helm. I definitely think a 3D film set in the world of Silent Hill has great potential so here's hoping this will be more than a half-baked follow-up.

18. Piranha 3DD
I didn't think that much of Alexandra Aja's Piranha remake. But I'd say that's mostly to do with the shoddy, post-coverted 3D as in other ways I thought it's heart was in the right place. With this sequel being shot in the 3D format to begin with, I'm hoping the results this time around will be much better. Plus, I'm rooting for director John Gulager to score a hit as I'm pretty fond of Feast (2005). If anyone has the right sensibility to make this movie work, it's him. Judging by the trailer, featuring David Hasselhoff, Ving Rhames with robotic legs, and more breast implants than you can shake a pool of piranha at, I think this'll be fun.

17. Lords of Salem
I'm not a fan of Rob Zombie's films to date. Outside of Devil's Rejects (2005), they're just not that good to my mind. And even Devil's Rejects I had issues with. But Zombie does has a flair for visuals that I'd like to see attached to a decent movie one day. Will this be the one? Hmm, probably not but I'm open to the possibility that it might be.

16. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D
Maybe it's due to spending my adolescent years in the '80s during the heyday of slasher sequels or maybe it's because I have shitty taste but I'm hopelessly addicted to horror franchises, no matter how many times I've been burned by them. I'm sure this will be lousy but a TCM film shredding its way into theaters in 3D is nothing that I'll pass up.

15. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
Most of the advanced comments on this sequel (reboot?) are from people saying that, hey, at least it looks better than the abominable first film. But I didn't hate the first film at all (even if it did have more than its share of lame bits) so imagine how excited I am for this one! Very fucking excited!

14. The Raven
The potential for this to be cheesy is high, I won't deny that. The concept alone screams silliness - that the real life Edgar Allan Poe was involved in solving a series of murders in which the killer was using Poe's stories as inspiration. But for me that's part of its appeal, that this is kind of a stylized, comic book-ish take on Poe. I've enjoyed director James McTeigue's films so far (yes, even Ninja Assassin) and I'm curious to see how John Cusack fares as Poe so consider me all in for The Raven.

13. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter/Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
I'm pairing these two films together because they're both new, big-budget entries in the monster hunter genre. And also because I can't really decide which one is more appealing to me. I guess Lincoln would have to take the edge just because it's based on a book that got fair-to-positive reviews (author Seth Grahame-Smith worked on the screenplay as well), Lincoln director Timur Bekmambetov did at least one film I liked (Wanted), and Tim Burton is producing. On the other hand, H&G director Tommy Wirkola did the Nazi Zombie movie Dead Snow, which I got a kick out of. Also, Jeremy Renner plays Hansel. Oh, and Wirkola claims this is going to be a bloody, R-rated movie. And it's in 3-D, too. Damn it, now I feel like I've got to give the edge to H&G! Well, let's just say they both look like fun and leave it at that.

12. The Bay
I haven't read too many details about this one - apparently it involves a biological disaster of some kind - but the fact that director Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man) is doing a horror movie, a found-footage movie at that, and one produced by the people behind Paranormal Activity, is enough to make The Bay a must-see.

11. The House At The End Of The Street
I've been reading about this project for years. I seem to remember that it was due to be directed by Jonathan Mostow after he did Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines way back in 2003 but for whatever reason it didn't happen so he we are coming up on 2011 and now it's done (under director Mark Tonderai) and due to hit theaters. From what I've read of the plot description, this sounds like a generic psychological thriller but I have to imagine that if the script stayed alive all these years, after so many set-backs, there must be something more to it. We'll see.

10. Dracula 3D
The saddest thing about this movie is that I can't imagine that it'll get a decent theatrical release in the US. I'd love to be proven wrong on that but it just seems unlikely to me. I mean, the one and only Argento movie I've ever seen at the movies is Phenomena, under its US title of Creepers, and that was back in the day. But all that aside, I hope this movie proves to be a comeback for Argento. I find it sad when great directors go into a long decline and I'd love it if Argento could turn the tide on his latter-day career. And if nothing else, the fact that this is Argento, taking on Dracula, with Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing, makes this an instant must-see even if it unfairly goes direct-to-DVD here in the States.

9. World War Z
I have to say that the Max Brooks novel didn't do much for me. In fact, I didn't even finish it. And WWZ's director did that lousy Bond movie Quantum of Solace. But I'm all for a big budget zombie movie that delivers living dead action on a global scale so any reservations I have about this film will be put aside.

8. Sinister
One of the many new genre pics coming from the Paranormal Activity/Insidious producing team and clearly with that title, they're trying to make at least a spiritual (heh) connection to Insidious. The story - about a journalist (Ethan Hawke) discovering the truth about a home where a horrible tragedy occurred - doesn't sound like much but the fact that Scott Derrickson is directing makes me interested as I thought The Exorcism of Emily Rose was one of the best horror films of the last decade.

7. The Woman In Black
I'd love it if a classic-style ghost story could turn out to be a big hit (as well as being a good movie to boot). It's certainly not unheard of - The Others was huge back in 2001. And ghost stories are bigger than ever now with the success of the Paranormal Activity films so The Woman in Black has a better-than-average chance of pulling people in. We'll have to wait until February to find out how good WIB is or isn't but at least its trailers so far have been spooky perfection.

6. John Dies At The End
A new film from Don Coscarelli is always cause for celebration. Some fans might have preferred that he return to the world of Phantasm but I'm betting this will turn out to be one of the coolest films of the year. I haven't read the book this is based on but how can the combo of Coscarelli and star Paul Giamatti not result in greatness?

5. Dark Shadows
I was never a fan of Dark Shadows. It was ahead of my time as a '70s kid so I never saw it at the right impressionable age. By the time it aired on the Sci-Fi Channel in syndication in the '90s, that ship had sailed for me. But the idea of Tim Burton tackling a monster mash mixed with '70s kitsch sounds good to me. I haven't enjoyed a lot of what Burton has done lately but I have a good feeling about Dark Shadows.

4. Maniac
When it comes to William Lustig's 1980 supremely sleazy slasher classic, I've always loved its revolting poster but not so much the revolting movie itself. But despite my lack of love for the original, the idea of Elijah Wood stepping into the shoes of Joe Spinell is too batshit to ignore.

3. The Cabin in the Woods
The less I know about this Joss Whedon-penned film ahead of time, the better. All I need to see is its M.C. Escher-esque poster to know that this is not going to be a lazy, retro-flavored horror offering.

2. You're Next
I've read nothing but raves so far about this home invasion film. And now I'm done reading anything about it until after I see the movie next October. I'm really glad to see that with this and The Cabin In The Woods that Lionsgate is still very much in the horror game post-Saw.

1. Prometheus
Sometimes going back to past triumphs doesn't work out but I have a feeling that Ridley Scott will not fail with his return to the world of Alien. In fact, I bet this is going to be flat-out great. And if Prometheus does well, hopefully it'll encourage more studios to invest in ambitious, big budget horror and sci-fi.

Other 2012 titles I'm looking forward to are Sleep Tight by REC director Jaume Balagueró, The Tall Man from Martyrs director Pascal Laugier, the Guillermo del Toro-produced Mama, the all-star anthology The Theater Bizarre, Intruders from 28 Weeks Later director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, and Frontier(s) director Xavier Gens' The Divide.

I also have to give special mention to The Pact, from writer/director (and fellow Horror Dad!) Nicholas McCarthy, which will make its premiere at Sundance in January.

And with 2012 representing an apex for geek cinema, I have to give some mention to the non-horror offerings that I'm jazzed about:

10. Kill Bin Laden
I don't know what the eventual movie of Kill Bin Laden will be like but I love that it has a title like an exploitation film. It makes me wish that director Kathryn Bigelow would shoot it like an exploitation movie, too.

When someone gets shot in a movie now, instead of a squib exploding, the burst of blood is added by computer in post-production because that way there's less hassle to go through, less set-up involved. But I think squibs have to make a comeback for this one. It should look like an old-school action movie kill when Bin Laden gets riddled with bullets (even if he only got put down with, like, one bullet in real life, it has to be at least twenty in the movie) and then cut to the title filling the screen and roll end credits. None of that will happen of course so, really, my excitement over Kill Bin Laden is for a version of the movie that will never exist but I'm sure Bigelow will make a great movie nonetheless.

Still, to my mind the only man qualified to kill Bin Laden on screen is Tom Savini.

9. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
The '80s would not have been half as much fun without the magnificent output of Cannon Films so the fact that a documentary about the studio responsible for Chuck Norris' career, among other things, is on the way is nothing but good news.

8. Chronicle
I hadn't heard a thing about this movie until I saw the trailer a month back or so. I don't know anything about Chronicle yet other than what was shown in that trailer but I'm intrigued to see how well the found footage genre and the superhero genre go together.

7. The Raid
It looks like this Indonesian action film that everyone is going nuts about might actually get a decent release in the US so I'm optimistic that I'll actually see this on the big screen and not just have it come to DVD where inevitably, like so many other indie and foreign films, I'll forget that it even came out.

6. Looper
It's been awhile since Bruce Willis was in a movie that I really loved. It's also been awhile since I've seen a really great time travel movie so I'm hoping that Looper from director Rian Johnson will kill two birds with one stone. Advance word has been super-strong so I'm hoping that unless ill-advised tampering gets in the way that Looper will be a 2012 highlight.

5. The Expendables 2
Some people thought the first Expendables wasn't all that but I thought it delivered exactly as promised. The only thing missing from that film for me was the Cannon Films logo on the front. The sequel still won't have that Cannon Films logo, sadly, but it will have Chuck Norris and Van Damme (along with reportedly bigger roles for Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger) so this'll be a true Mt. Rushmore of '80s action icons.

4. Django Unchained
It's Tarantino. Kurt Russell's in it. That didn't add up to much with Death-Proof (even if Russell was great as Stuntman Mike) but I feel like after Inglorious Basterds that Tarantino is going to be on a roll for awhile.

3. Skyfall
After the high of Casino Royale, it was crushing to have Quantum of Solace be such a bore but I hope that Skyfall can restore Daniel Craig's tenure as Bond to its original excellence and that Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) will prove to be an inspired choice as director.

2. The Amazing Spider-Man
It would've been nice if Sam Raimi and co. had been given one last crack at the web-spinner but maybe a reboot of the franchise was in order. Some are balking at another telling of Spidey's origin but that doesn't seem like such a chore to sit through to me. Andrew Garfield looks like he'll make for a perfect Peter Parker and I love that they're finally going with The Lizard as the villain (even if it's a crime that Dylan Baker never got to go there in Raimi's films).

1. TIE: The Avengers/The Dark Knight Rises

It's natural to try and pit these two films against each other and their camps of supporters will divide along the usual lines of Marvel and DC fandom but at the end of the day, I think most comic fans will have to say that we're just lucky to have both films to look forward to - and in the same summer no less. With The Avengers, you've got a true cinematic first - a superhero team assembled over the course of multiple films with an eye to comic book-style continuity, penned and directed by a genuine comic book aficionado. With The Dark Knight Rises, you've got the concluding chapter of a Batman trilogy that's been helmed with pure artistic integrity from the start. No matter how these films turn out, just the fact that they were made in the first place is proof that geek cinema is hitting a high point.

And if you read all of the above, it's proof that you're as big a horror/comic book/movie nerd as I am. Congratulations! Let's keep comparing notes in 2012.