Monday, February 21, 2011

The Horror Show

1979 was a banner year for horror. We're talking about the year that brought Alien to movie screens. And Phantasm. And The Brood, among others. Horror was entering a boom period kicked off by Halloween's success in '78. Sadly, I couldn't experience much of it first hand. In '79 I was still far too young to see any of the theatrical releases of the time, leaving me to get my horror fix on the small screen.

I didn't feel too deprived, though, what with Tobe Hooper's adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot arriving on CBS in 1979. Also airing on CBS that year was The Horror Show, a two-hour retrospective on horror in cinema - from the silent film era all the way up to the present day. Screened in theaters outside the US (see the poster at the top of this blog post), "60 Magical Years of Movie Monsters, Madmen And Other Creatures of the Night" was how the special's content was described. Time Magazine critic Richard Schickel wrote and directed and Anthony Perkins served as narrator and host.

At the time, I didn't know anything about Schickel's credentials as a critic. I don't even think I had read much in the way of movie reviews at all up to that point. Critical insight was not what I was tuning in to this special for. I just wanted to catch a glimpse of as many horror movies as I could during the clip-heavy show.

It's probably impossible for younger generations to imagine not having instant access to virtually any movie but in the pre-home video, pre-cable, pre-internet world, there were many, many films that fans had - frustratingly - only been able to read about. I looked to The Horror Show as a rare opportunity to see more than just still pictures in books and magazines of movies both new and old that I only knew through their reputations. I didn't know exactly what clips were being shown but given how few horror films I had been able to see up to that point, I knew there was a better than average chance that I would be seeing a lot of footage that was new to my eyes.

And even to see clips from movies that I was already familiar with would be a treat. Not being able to own movies (looking over the thousands of titles in my collection, it's hard to remember what that was like now), and having to wait until some TV station would schedule a repeat of, say, Frankenstein (1931) or King Kong (1933) to see them again meant that any chance to see a favorite scene again was not to be taken for granted.

I begged my mother to let me stay up and watch The Horror Show, even though the fact that it didn't end till ten o'clock end meant it ran well past my bedtime. She consented, and I was glued to the TV from start to finish, loving every minute of it - although I did get impatient waiting for the show to get to some of the newer horror films.

The Horror Show only aired once (I'm guessing around October), and in those pre-VCR days, I was unable to preserve it to rewatch. But I always thought about it and always looked for it at conventions over the years. Now, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, I've finally been able to see it again after - choke! - thirty-two years.

Unfortunately, it doesn't hold up. Schickel's narration is rife with the kind of empty armchair psychology critics like to use to explain why audiences are drawn to horror, coupled with bland observations about the movies themselves.

What I find interesting in watching it now is in seeing all the important movies of then-recent vintage that go unmentioned. Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Willard (1971), Jaws (1975) and The Omen (1976) are all included (some of Perkins' hosting segments are conducted in front of the Psycho house and on the set of Jaws) but nowhere to be found are Night of the Living Dead (1968), Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Carrie (1976), Halloween, or Dawn of the Dead (1978).

At the time, those omissions sailed over my head (not only had I not seen any of those films but outside of Halloween, I don't even think I knew they existed) but now their absences are so glaring. And for the special to end by focusing on sci-fi films like Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), The Omega Man (1971), and Silent Running (1971) and completely fail to mention George Romero or rising stars like John Carpenter or David Cronenberg...well, it shows that Schickel didn't have much of a handle on modern horror.

At the time, though, neither did I. I just knew I was fascinated by monsters and madmen and aliens and I was eager for anything that catered to my interest. The Horror Show pre-dated my exposure to FANGORIA, or Famous Monsters (for whatever reason I hadn't encountered either magazine at that point) or Stephen King's non-fiction essay, Danse Macabre (1981). As a study of the genre, The Horror Show has proven to be all but entirely useless but as it was my first primer on the history of horror I can't help but regard it fondly.

If nothing else, I have to marvel at the passage of time The Horror Show represents. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) just celebrated its twentieth anniversary but in 1979 Psycho hadn't even reached that milestone yet. It's so odd to be reminded of a time when the likes of Psycho, The Exorcist, Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween were all part of recent history.

What a shame, then, that The Horror Show did such a poor job of documenting that time when it was still fresh. For helping to stoke the fires of my then-burgeoning fandom, though, I have to always be grateful to it.

Below is the complete special. The final installment couldn't be embedded but I've posted the link.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Unknown: Origin

A lot of lazy reviewers have referred to the new Liam Neeson thriller Unknown (based on the 2003 French novel Out of My Head by Dider Van Cauwelaert) as being just another version of the actor's sleeper hit Taken. But, outside of the fact that Neeson is in a European city again (Paris before, Berlin this time) and kicking ass again, the two movies are completely different. Unlike Taken, in which the daughter of Neeson's character was kidnapped, the only thing that's been kidnapped here is the identity of Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson), an American botanist traveling abroad with his lovely wife Elizabeth (January Jones) to participate in a biotechnology conference.

As Martin and Elizabeth are checking into their hotel, Martin realizes that he left his briefcase behind at the airport and without telling Elizabeth where he's going, he immediately gets back into a cab to retrieve it. On the way, a terrible traffic accident occurs, sending Martin's cab into a river. Gina (Diane Kruger), the young woman driving the cab, heroically rescues the unconscious Martin before he drowns but she disappears once paramedics arrive on the scene.

Martin later wakes up in a hospital having been in a coma for four days. His memory is fuzzy on certain details and the accident itself is almost entirely blacked out but he remembers Elizabeth and as soon as he can sign himself out of his doctor's care, Martin is on his way back to the hotel to let his sure-to-be-distraught spouse that her missing husband is alive and well.

However, when Martin approaches Elizabeth in the middle of a social function, she reacts as though she doesn't know him and he's quickly confronted by her "husband" - Dr. Martin Harris (Adrian Quinn). Believing himself to be the authentic item, Neeson's character is angry and confused by this charade. But what good is knowing the truth if nobody believes you? Before long, even Martin is doubting whether he is who he thinks he is. Perhaps the excellent Bruno Ganz as Ernst Jürgen, a former Stasi agent turned PI, will get to the bottom of this mystery. Clearly, though, when Neeson's only friend is Frank Langella (as Martin's colleague, Professor Rodney Cole), you know he's in trouble.

With Unknown, Director Jaume Collet-Serra continues to impress. This is not as wigged-out as Orphan (2009) or House of Wax (2005) but it has its share of formula-tweaking moments. With Jones as a mysterious, icy blond (is Elizabeth being forced against her will to participate in this game or is she in on it?), rampant paranoia, and issues of mistaken identity, it seems like Collet-Serra was out to make his version of a Hitchcock film. But instead of a mere homage, there's ample evidence of Collet-Serra's own quirky sensibilities.

For instance, there have been many scenes in many movies in which a character tries to argue with their impostor over who's who. These scenes typically take a back-and-forth "I'm the real so-and-so!" "No - I'M the real so-and-so" approach as the two character take turns arguing. In Unknown, Neeson and Quinn argue their case to a third party who can only stand there bewildered as in the heat of their arguments, both men start to use the exact same words at the exact same time. It's a cool, almost surreal, moment that I bet was an embellishment by Collet-Serra rather something explicitly described in the script.

And without getting into spoilers, I also liked the unconventional way that some characters meet their ends. Not in a "creative death" sort of way but in that the circumstances of their exits defy the standard approach to offing characters in a thriller. You can almost hear the sly chuckle of the filmmaker as expectations are thwarted and subverted.

It's moments like these that make me all the more anxious for Collet-Serra to get back to a project where he has more room to cut loose. I've read that his next film may be a take on Dracula, called Harker, in which Jonathan Harker is assisting Scotland Yard in tracking the legendary bloodsucker. Sounds perfect to me - I'd love to see what Collet-Serra's version of a vampire film would be like. For now, though, Unknown is adequate entertainment. Some have taken the plot revelation of the third act to task as being preposterous but I found the story's twist - which owes something to, of all movies, Total Recall (1990) - to be reasonable.

Unknown isn't a great movie by any means but it is an entertaining one and within the confines of an outwardly conventional thriller, it finds room to rise above the routine. With an opportunity left for Neeson's character to return, if Unknown spawns a sequel - or a whole franchise - perhaps this first film will be redubbed Unknown: Origin.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying

This Valentine's Day, please spare a thought for that love sick fool, Dracula, as portrayed by Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). You might think that you know what it's like to suffer a broken heart but stand back because this Dracula will school you all in how to carry on like it's the end of the world.

A single manly tear? Forget it!

There's just no consoling this immortal crybaby!

It was a shock to see Dracula helplessly blubber like this back in '92 and, honestly, I'm still not used to it. I know it's tough to be a stiff-lipped stoic when it comes to matters of the heart but did no one involved in this production ever suggest that Dracula's waterworks had gotten out of control?

A hit from Cupid's arrow is more devastating to this Dracula than a wooden stake through the heart. So on the occasion of Valentine's Day, I salute this emotional school girl. And a Happy Valentine's Day to all!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Black Day For Blue And Yellow

It's become a common sight to see video stores going out of business but I was still jolted when I passed by the longest-running Blockbuster in my area today and saw it sporting a "Store Closing" banner.

Most of the Blockbusters around here have already folded - but this particular location (the night my parents finally bought a VCR, we rented our first tapes from there - I forget what my parents got but it was Pink Floyd: Live in Pompeii for me) had managed to weather the changing times...until now.

In Maitland McDonagh's 1995 book Filmmaking on the Fringe, Joe Dante described an abandoned ending to his 50's nostalgia piece Matinee (1993). As he said: "in an earlier version of Matinee, the main story was a flashback, and the script ended with the theater being demolished to make way for a video store. It was too depressing."

But not quite as depressing as this, I think:

And even these shitty vending machines will be obsolete as more and more people opt to obtain their films through digital means.

I'll admit, over the past few years I've probably gone into a video store maybe three or four times at the most. But's sad to see them vanish altogether. It's like watching my past evaporate. Working at the two local chains that I worked at during the '90s (Movie Shops and Flix Video, represent!) was a joy. I even met my wife during my last year behind the counter, when she began renting as a customer. So I owe, well, everything to my time in video.

It boggles my mind to think that the next generation of film fans won't even set foot in video stores, never mind work in them. I know that in another five or ten years, there will still be some drive-in theaters scattered throughout the US but the same can't be said for video stores.

And if that thought doesn't make you feel old, this will:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Get Down With The Sickness

Over the years, I've ridden through some pretty desolate times for the genre so it'll take more than the likes of Season of the Witch, The Rite, and The Roommate to put a dent in my faith in horror. That said, I'm glad to report that the first horror movie of 2011 to be worth a damn has arrived in the form of Christopher Smith's Black Death. Taking place in the plague-ravaged Britain of 1348, Black Death is a grim, period-set tale that effectively hearkens back to the likes of Mark of the Devil (1970) and Witchfinder General (1968).

Historical horror films were a staple of the genre when I was growing up. I loved the grotty, gnarly feel to films like Blood on Satan's Claw (1971) and felt it was a shame when those movies fell out of fashion. Black Death won't inspire a flood of imitators but as a flashback to a style of film that doesn't exist anymore, it's very satisfying. Except for some bursts of hyperactive editing in the fight scenes, you could slap an AIP logo on Black Death and pass it off as a film made in the late '60s/early '70s.

I don't think it's an instant classic (although I do suspect that it will hold up well to repeat viewings) but it's very good and "very good" is worth a lot these days. I highly recommend giving Black Death a look on VOD.

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

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Unlovely Truth About Time Travel

In the 1995 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's novella The Langoliers, mystery writer Bob Jenkins (Dean Stockwell) ruefully proclaims that he, and a number of his fellow passengers on American Pride Flight 29, have discovered the "unlovely truth about time travel." Finding themselves stuck in an expired moment from the past, thanks to their plane having inadvertently been piloted through a rip in time, they witness a swarm of "Pac-Men from Hell" whose function it is to devour yesterday once it becomes today. As Jenkins notes, this is why no one will ever be able to venture back to witness the building of the pyramids, or to prevent the events in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963. Once the past is gone, it's gone, and woe to anyone who should find themselves out of step with time.

Fantasies about returning to the past are legion - found in everything from Somewhere in Time (1980) to Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) to Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) - but King's tale gleefully slams the door on all that. In his dyspeptic take on the nature of time, every second that ticks past is ruthlessly, efficiently consumed by the toothy "timekeepers of eternity." Essentially, The Langoliers expresses the notion that one must live in the present or not at all.

That's a useful thought to keep in mind. Whether it's because of my age, or because I've been unemployed of late and can't help but feel fearful of the future, I find myself preoccupied with comparing the present unfavorably to the past. Sometimes I even miss the days of getting my information from newspapers and magazines rather than from the internet. Crazy, right?

There will always be a tantalizing glow that surrounds the past but, even without the threat of omnivorous creatures from beyond space and time, it's dangerous to linger in that beckoning light for too long.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Zombies March On Antonio Bay

In John Carpenter's The Fog (1980), the hour between midnight and one belongs to the dead as the coastal town of Antonio Bay is visited on the celebration of its centennial by the long-dead men whose betrayal and murder made the founding of the town possible. A much-loved entry in Carpenter's filmography (if I had to choose only five horror movies to be able to watch for the rest of my life, The Fog would have to be one of them), The Fog enjoys a reputation as a great ghostly tale. But I contend that The Fog is less an old-fashioned ghost story than it is Carpenter's version of a zombie movie.

The shambling, leprous crew of the long-sunken clipper ship The Elizabeth Dane are not ethereal spirits. They're the walking dead, risen from their watery graves to exact revenge. Carpenter described The Fog prior to its release as being his tribute to EC Comics - beating Stephen King and George Romero's Creepshow to the punch in this regard by two years (even the seaweed-strewn ghouls of that anthology's "Something To Tide You Over" bear a close resemblance to The Fog's soggy seamen) - and if there's one thing that EC's tales were most known for it's the living dead.

The crew of the Elizabeth Dane may not be zombies in the Romero tradition but they keep perfect company with the Templar Knights of the Blind Dead series... well as with the undead Nazi soldiers of Shock Waves (1977), a zombie gang that also arises from the depths of the ocean.

Unlike the Romero school of the undead, these cadaverous crews aren't randomly born from plagues or viruses. They aren't comprised of our family, friends and neighbors; instead they're part of ages old, members-only clubs.

The Fog's zombies also have a kinship with the resurrected son of W.W. Jacob's 1902 short story "The Monkey's Paw." As that story's grieving couple hear their slain son knocking on their door in the dead of night after he's been wished back to life, so to do the dead in The Fog insistently knock and wait for the unsuspecting occupants to let them in.

At the film's climax, though, the crew of the Elizabeth Dane forget to knock and mount a full-on siege on the town's church - a climax filled with imagery that's instantly identifiable as classic zombie movie iconography:

The grasping, rotting hands of the dead bursting through windows? The living desperately trying to man the barricades? That's a zombie movie! But let's take a closer look at what we're dealing with here.

I know it's hard to see in this darkly lit pic, but come on...

An undead face crawling with worms? In a police line-up, you couldn't tell that apart from a Fulci-style zombie!

I've blocked most memories of the 2005 Fog remake from my mind but I do recall that the new version gave the crew of the Elizabeth Dane many more supernatural abilities and let them dispatch their victims in more fantastical, less hands-on ways than Carpenter did.

I'm sure the makers of the new film (Carpenter and Debra Hill participated in the remake as executive producers but I would think their involvement barely extended beyond accepting a paycheck) thought it would be way more cool to have their CG-abetted ghosts be able to do more than just attack their victims with swords and hooks.

But that just shows how little director Rupert Wainwright understood the movie he was remaking. He thought The Fog was a ghost film, the poor dope, when it's always been a zombie movie in disguise.