Thursday, March 31, 2011

Insidious Dreams

I've currently got my fingers crossed tight for Insidious, the latest collaboration between director James Wan and writer/actor Leigh Whannell, that opens in theaters tomorrow. So far I haven't been a fan of, well, anything that the pair have done (although I've liked aspects of all their films - especially 2007's Death Sentence - none of them have been entirely satisfying to me) but Insidious looks like a promising spook show.

Thinking about how much I'm rooting for Insidious makes me think about the long slump that the horror genre has been suffering through lately. It's not as bad as the Great Horror Drought of the '90s but it's still bad. We're going into April now and I can only give a legitimate rave about one film so far this year - the grittily atmospheric, period-set shocker Black Death. It's not a real robust time for horror as the most intriguing new stuff - films like The Woman, Hobo with a Shotgun, I Saw the Devil, and Rubber - is frustratingly relegated to limited release (although I believe Rubber is coming to VOD soon, thankfully).

As far as wide releases go, though, it's rough. I reviewed the exorcism misfire The Rite back when it came out in January but haven't done the same for other recent theatrical offerings like Season of the Witch, The Roommate, Drive Angry 3-D, Red Riding Hood, and Battle: LA because, well, none of them seemed worth the effort. I didn't bitterly hate all of them (except for Battle: LA, a film I believe is capable of inflicting brain damage) but I sure didn't love any of them (surprisingly, of the bunch, I enjoyed Red Riding Hood the most - it was overripe and silly but fun). Bad movies aren't limited to the horror genre, of course - it's a poor time right now for movies in general - but as horror is where my main interest lies, it's hard waiting for the tide to turn. Especially when last year was so weak itself, I had to struggle to find five films for a Best Of list.

Will Insidious be the film to turn things around? Here's hoping. A few weeks later, on April 15th, Scream 4 will also have a chance to give the genre a boost. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that there is a Scream 4, though, so I have given much thought to its box office prospects or how I feel about that franchise's return.

Horror had been so hot in the previous decade that a drop-off was inevitable. By 2010, the torture-porn fad had petered out, all the A-class picks for remakes were used up (except for those that no one was fool enough to attempt, like Platinum Dunes' aborted Birds remake) and the only successful new franchise was Paranormal Activity. While last year had its share of hits - like Paranormal Activity 2, Devil, The Last Exorcism, and Black Swan (though many would categorize that as drama) - it still felt like the genre had lost its momentum.

There's a serious case of fright fatigue going on that I'm feeling myself and if Insidious can't cure it in audiences this weekend, I hope it can at least cure it in me.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

First Rate Fango

In Fangoria #293, when Chris Alexander stepped into the role of Fango's first new editor-in-chief in over twenty years, the changes were slight (new columns, like Trash Compactor, Sound Shock, and Monster of the Month, made their debut) but they were enough to indicate that a new sensibility was at the helm. Over the course of the next few issues, the new direction became bolder, more solidified. But #298, with its illustrated, Famous Monsters-flavored Gene Simmons cover, is when the new era of Fango really started to feel like an official new era.

Whereas the first few issues of Alexander's reign were generally in step with what was expected from Fango, issue #298 was an issue that never would've occurred under the stewardship of former E-I-C's Tony Timpone or Bob Martin. #298 is where Alexander really started to make Fango fully his own - while still showing reverence for the mag's traditions.

After several issues of experimenting with the cover design, issue #299 settled on the perfect combo of new and old. The new logo won out over the classic Fango font but the much-missed filmstrip was finally back. And again, #299's striking cover choice of Black Swan showed a willingness to go where Fango wouldn't have gone before (they would've covered the movie, surely, but not made it the main cover feature).

Since the subsequent celebratory installment of #300, two new issues have been published and having just had the time to catch up on #301 and #302 back to back, I have to say it's amazing what a different mag Fango has become. Fango was never less than a polished production but in recent years its format had begun to feel calcified. What Alexander has brought to the mag - besides the kind of enthusiasm that only someone newly taking the reins could have - is a natural eclecticism and a willingness to throw the readership some curves. The old Fango standbys are still in place - Monster Invasion, Dr. Cylclops, Nightmare Library (even the M.I.A. Postal Zone has returned, along with a revivied version of The Pit and the Pen) - but there's an unmistakably personal stamp on the magazine that there hasn't been in awhile.

The strength of the Timpone era was that it refined what had been established previously by Bob Martin and Dave Everitt and took it to the next level. Under Timpone, Fango wasn't as quirky as it had been in its earliest years (no more articles on horror in wrestling, for example) but it was like the difference between Ditko's Spider-Man and Romita Sr.'s Spider-Man - both great runs but one more idiocyncratic and the other much slicker and with broader appeal. But while Timpone's approach had carried the mag through many eras of horror, the time had come for Fango to be a more unpredictable, more offbeat publication again and Alexander has delivered that.

From a reader standpoint, the biggest problem Fango faced pre-Alexander is that it had become easy to take for granted. As the senior horror mag on the stands, it often felt as though it was creatively lagging behind younger competitors like Rue Morgue and Horror Hound. That's not the case anymore. In #302 alone (whose cover appears at the top of this post), alongside coverage of Scream 4 and Insidious are looks at Hobo with a Shotgun and Rubber, an interview (begun in #301) with Wolfen director Michael Wadleigh, interviews with pioneers of German splatter like Violent Shit director Andreas Schnaas and Nekromantik's Jorg Buttgereit, an interview with exploitation queen Sybil Danning, Luigi Cozzi interviewing Dario Argento, the first installment of an ongoing short fiction feature, and a pull-out poster reproduction of the original US Deep Red poster. It's a hell of an issue.

If you're not reading Fango, you're missing out on the best horror mag on the stands. And if you haven't sampled Fango lately, next issue's incredible cover ought to convince even the most stubborn hold-outs to give it a try:

Friday, March 25, 2011

You'll Enjoy Mr. Barlow...

For the first time since our holiday roundtable for The Curse of the Cat People (1944), the Horror Dads have reconvened - and this time we've rented the Marsten House to discuss Tobe Hooper's 1979 TV movie adaptation of Stephen King's second novel, Salem's Lot. A nostalgic touchstone for Gen-X horror fans who watched the two-night miniseries during its original airing on CBS in October of '79, Salem's Lot is often offered up as proof that Hooper's legacy in the horror field isn't just limited to the early triumph of Chainsaw. But how well does it hold up now, after over thirty (!) years?

Click here to join Dennis Cozzalio, Greg Ferrara, Paul Gaita, Nicholas McCarthy, head Horror Dad Richard Harland Smith and yours truly for a return to that quiet Maine town of Salem's Lot...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Uncertain Future Of Big Budget Horror

With Paramount's in-development adaptation of Max Brook's zombie novel World War Z now looking to be the second case in recent weeks - after Universal aborted Guillermo del Toro's At The Mountains of Madness - of skittish studios abandoning ambitious horror projects in the face of cost concerns, one has to wonder if big budget horror has any future at all.

For the most part, I'm actually sympathetic to studio execs for not having the nerve to back a project as expensive as ATMOM. While it was practically a lock to have been a great movie - I think del Toro and producer James Cameron would've ensured that it lived up to all expectations - I doubt that it would've been profitable. Fans eager to see that project realized can proclaim that it would have been a guaranteed hit - but to be a hit as huge as it would've needed to be to justify a $150 million production cost? I don't know. And $125 million for World War Z seems damn high as well. But if - as reported - Paramount is aiming for that film to be PG-13, maybe it's just as well if that project fails to continue (although, to be fair, The Walking Dead gets away with as much gore on basic cable as I really need to see in a zombie movie these days).

Whatever the commercial chances of these two films, they were definitely projects that fans were hoping would raise the bar of artistic ambition on the current genre scene. Now that it looks like they're going to be shelved - likely permanently - it may be a clear sign that big budget horror is dead in Hollywood and that's a shame. While the lifeblood of the genre has always been found in independent cinema, big budget, studio-produced horror has its own vital legacy - as seen in The Exorcist, Alien, The Shining, John Carpenter's The Thing, and other classics.

As much as I love the raw, scrappy likes of The Evil Dead and The Blair Witch Project and the resourcefulness that they embody, I also love it when filmmakers get to make a horror movie with real money and top-shelf talent (both in front of and behind the camera). The Birds, for instance, couldn't have been done without groundbreaking FX work; Gore Verbinski's remake of The Ring took excellent advantage of its expanded resources without ever becoming crass; Zack Synder's Dawn of the Dead remake delivered apocalyptic sights that no other zombie movie had before; and I'm forever grateful that Cannon Films gave Tobe Hooper the money to make his sprawling, messy, utterly daffy Lifeforce.

That last example, of course, is one reason why studios won't automatically foot the bill for a lavish horror picture - because the risks can be catastrophic. These days, to play it safe, high-end horror films either have to be action/horror hybrids (like this year's Priest) or they have to be Twilight movies (or wanna-be Twilight movies like Red Riding Hood) and even those aren't nearly as pricey to produce as ATMOM or World War Z would've been. Which leads me to ask - why do those two films have to be so insanely costly? I know the price of everything is going up these days but $150 million for ATMOM? Really?

I admire del Toro for not wanting to compromise his dream Lovecraft project but isn't the history of horror - the history of filmmaking - largely defined by compromises? Many would say the fact that the mechanical shark in Jaws wasn't good enough to withstand more than the most limited of screen time helped that movie be the classic that it is. And in making The Shining, Stanley Kubrick had to substitute a hedge maze in place of hedge animals when it was determined that the special effects technology of the time couldn't successfully bring that element of Stephen King's novel to life but yet that maze proved to be one of the most memorable aspects of Kubrick's film.

If del Toro can't make ATMOM for less than $150 million, I'd love to find out what kind of ATMOM adaptation Stuart Gordon would be able to make with, say, a paltry $50 million. Somehow I bet he'd prove it could be done. I mean, I'm sure he would've loved to have had more than just under $5 million for Dagon but that movie still kills. He made it work, rubbery fish faces and all.

But del Toro thinks big and - in the horror genre, especially - that kind of grandiose vision has to be admired. It's just too bad there may not be many more opportunities for that kind of vision to flourish. I'd like to think that we won't be forever deprived of any ambitious, big-budget horror projects in the future but when a film like Paranormal Activity can be made for $15 million and make back almost $200 million, as far as Hollywood is concerned, the best kind of scare will always be a cheap scare.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

This Used To Be My Playground

I hate seeing that sad sack "Looking For Work" post hanging around at the top of the page so I'm taking the joyous occasion of William Shatner's 80th birthday to knock it down. While Shatner's long and storied career enjoyed a rebirth when he began to take a self-effacing attitude towards his much-imitated mannerisms, I've always taken Shatner seriously. What some may see as hammy, I see as passionate. What some may see as ripe for parody, I see as iconic.

Most associated (obviously) with sci-fi, Shatner's got plenty of horror credentials on his resume as well - most notably the features Incubus (1966), The Devil's Rain (1975) and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977). He also starred in two of the most memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone - "Nick of Time" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."

Today, though, I'd like to give a shout-out to a 1985 episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater, titled "The Playground."

Based on a short story originally printed in the October 1953 issue of Esquire Magazine, "The Playground" was adapted by Bradbury himself, directed by William Fruet (Funeral Home) and starred Shatner as Charlie Underhill, a widower doing his best to raise his young son Steve (Keith Dutson).

Traumatized by the incidents of childhood bullying he endured, Charlie is an overprotective father, keeping Steve - who is five - away from the neighborhood playground. Chastised by his sister Carol (Kate Trotter) for not letting Charlie develop like a normal boy, Charlie is pressured to bring Steve to the playground.

In Charlie's eyes, though, the playground is everything he remembered - and feared. It's a filthy pit filled with feral children.

But is Charlie seeing reality or is he simply incapable of seeing anything but malevolence in these kids? When Charlie sees his boyhood nemesis, Ralph, frozen in time as a child, still stalking the playground, still taunting Charlie, it seems as if there really is more to this playground than just Charlie's bad memories.

Shatner's performance in "The Playground" doesn't feature much in the way of notable "Shatner-isms" (save for briefly breaking out some agonized expressions during the climax) but he has a nice chemistry with his onscreen son and the aura of middle-aged melancholy he projects is effective. At a time when Shatner was typically seen in full-on hero role - either as Kirk in the big screen continuation of the Star Trek series or as gung-ho cop T.J. Hooker on TV - the role of fearful, insecure Charlie Underhill was a well-acted change of pace.

As a study of the lengths that parents will go to keep their children safe from harm, "The Playground" is laced with poignancy. At one point, Charlie asks the question at the heart of this story: "How do you raise a boy?" It's assumed in our culture that boys shouldn't be coddled, that they should learn how to fight for themselves. But for Charlie, the idea of Steve having to endure the same abuse that he had is unacceptable. He'll do anything he can to get between Steve and a brutal world. While Charlie could've easily come off as a irritating worry wart, Shatner keeps the character sympathetic.

Charlie's tenderness towards his son and his still-vivid anguish over his own boyhood torments makes "The Playground" endure as one of Shatner's most admirably low-key efforts.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Looking For Work

As regular readers may have noticed, things have been slack around here lately. I tried to compose a Drive Angry review over the weekend but it just didn't happen. I didn't care for the movie but I couldn't get motivated to explain why. That means it's been well over a week since my last post and while I'd love to tell you that things will get back on track here soon, I'm not sure they will.

The problem is that I've been unemployed for some time now and the longer it goes on (we're on about the ten month mark now), the more dire my personal situation is becoming. When I first left my previous job due to the company undergoing a change in ownership, I felt good about my chances of finding work.

At this point, though, it's hard to stay upbeat. Recently my hopes shot up thanks to two interviews back to back but neither one yielded an offer and the strain of waiting for another chance at bat - and worrying that each succeeding prospect will similarly fail to pan out - is pushing everything else out of my thoughts.

Since this all began I've been optimistically telling myself that things will work out but being forced to contemplate the very real possibility that they might not - or at least not soon enough to avert financial disaster - is making it hard to give the same thought I normally would towards espousing the merits of Dr. Giggles. Movies and blogging have always been a reliable refuge for me but the grimness of the real world is occupying too much of my thoughts right now.

So, if posts are sparse around here - that's why. I just hope that the next time I say I don't have a lot of time to devote to blogging, it'll be because I'm swamped at work.