Sunday, May 29, 2011

All Dressed In White

For a sub-genre that was often labeled as "anti-women," the slasher films of the late '70s and early '80s showcased many exceptional horror heroines. One of the best was He Knows You're Alone's Amy Jensen, as played by Caitlin O'Heaney. Written by Scott Parker and directed by Armand Mastroianni, He Knows You're Alone tells the tale of Amy, a good Catholic girl, as she nervously prepares to walk down the aisle with her boyfriend Phil (James Carroll). When we first meet Amy and Phil, Amy is saying her goodbyes as Phil is leaving on a weekend getaway with his buddies. That leaves Amy in the company of her girlfriends Nancy (Elizabeth Kemp) and Joyce (Patsy Pease).

What Amy and her friends don't know is that Amy has gained the attention of Ray Carlton (Tom Rolfing), a serial killer that preys on brides-to-be, killing them before they reach the altar. We never learn much about Ray as he methodically stalks Amy and all those around her, but we do know that the Grim Ray-per previously murdered the fiancee of police detective Len Gamble (Lewis Arlt), and that Gamble is obsessed with taking down this maniac before he can strike again.

Amy's doubts about her future with Phil are amplified by the presence of her ex-boyfriend Marvin (Don Scardino, known also from 1976's Squirm). A morgue worker with a goofy, good-natured sense of humor, Marvin is still smitten with Amy and is eager to talk her out of marrying Phil. Scardino and O'Heaney have a natural chemistry and, save for the dourest roles like Ray and Det. Gamble, the film's performers all have an ease and amiability about them.

As Amy, O'Heaney is every bit as personable as famous Final Girls such as Adrienne King, Amy Steel, or Jamie Lee Curtis but yet it seems to me that she's something of a forgotten horror heroine.

It's ironic that O'Heaney should be so seldom remembered as her face was right on He Knows You're Alone's posters. No other slasher heroine, not even Jamie Lee Curtis, was featured so prominently in an ad campaign. This is not so surprising as these actresses were not movie stars but even after the success of Halloween made Curtis a bona fide Scream Queen, Avco/Embassy didn't use her face on the one-sheets for Prom Night. Instead, it was a close-up of the film's ski-masked killer holding a shard of glass. Similarly, Terror Train's poster used the image of the killer in a Groucho Marx mask and conductor cap rather than Curtis (during her horror career, Curtis was only featured on the poster for the non-slasher The Fog).

But yet it wasn't Rolfing glowering at us from the posters for He Knows You're Alone, instead it was O'Heaney in a moment of wide-eyed terror. Right out of the gate, she got a star treatment that no other Final Girl received.

After He Knows You're Alone, O'Heaney went on to have one of the better careers of any Final Girl, landing a starring role in the short-lived but well-remembered 1982 ABC adventure series Tales of the Gold Monkey, where she continued to do her share of screaming.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Gentlemen's Guide To Vampire Slaying

With rare exception, John Carpenter's films have traditionally met with disdain or indifference and have had to wait - sometimes for years - to be embraced by fans and critics. Thirteen years after its release, I think it's time to get an answer on 1998's Vampires.

Of Carpenter's latter-day pictures, Vampires is usually held up as proof that, even if he isn't coming up with a classic like The Thing, he's still got some chops. But fans of the John Steakley novel Vampire$ insist that Carpenter squandered the potential of the book. Still others fault Vampires for indulging in misogyny, citing the abuse that Sheryl Lee's character suffers throughout the movie.

I can't speak as to whether Vampires does its source novel justice because I've never read it but the misogyny charge is more easily addressed. The bottom line is that it's kind of a bum rap. Oh sure, the hooker character of Katrina that Lee plays isn't exactly treated like a lady but her abuse at the hands of James Woods' merciless vampire slayer Jack Crow has been misreported and misremembered. The character that Crow really uses his pimp hand on is Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee), a young priest assigned to aid Team Crow.

Reviews of Vampires commonly cite the ugly incidents of abuse regarding Lee's character (a recent mention of Vampires in Fangoria noted that "seeing hooker Sheryl Lee getting the crap beaten out of her every five minutes ain't funny") but the actual film tells a slightly different story. In the wake of a car crash, Crow slaps the recently bitten Katrina a couple of times to get her to wake up and walk. Later, he pulls open her mouth to check for fangs and then pushes her face away when he's done but there's none of the beat-downs that some people seem to remember. The only time that Katrina is struck by anyone is when Crow's right hand man Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) slaps her after she's infected him with a vampire bite.

Contrast that with the abuse that Father Adam receives. This poor milquetoast gets the full treatment. At one point, Crow violently yanks him out of the passenger seat of the truck he's in, throws him down on the side of the road, and kicks him across the dirt as he helplessly tries to crawl away. Later, in a hotel room, when Father Adam attempts to make a phone call to Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell), Crow takes the phone from Father Adam and cracks him across the face with it, sending him flying into a nearby wall. Still later, there's a confrontation in another hotel where Crow is looking to get information out of Father Adam and he chokes him, stuffs a washcloth in his mouth, then takes a knife and slices open his hand. I believe he also delivers a punch to his gut sometime during all this. Crow doesn't have the time to beat the shit out of Katrina - he's got his hands full with Father Adam.

Some would say that any way you look at it, Crow is just too unlikable and that Carpenter made a miscalculation in letting his behavior be so over the top. Carpenter is no stranger to anti-heroes but even many fans of Napoleon Wilson and Snake Plissken find Jack Crow to be too much to stomach. I say that Vampires does have its faults but that its abrasive characters aren't one of them. While I wouldn't refer to the movie as camp, there's clearly an element of over-the-top humor here that has gone slightly unappreciated. I mean, when you have a nice Catholic priest being beaten like a dog and then afterwards be asked by his abuser if that sexually aroused him, you've got to concede that the movie is deliberately crossing a line.

A case could be made that Carpenter let Woods improv a little too much, allowing him to play his role like a parody of a macho hard-ass (in contrast, Baldwin delivers a sincere, low-key performance as the loyal Montoya) but it's also hard to deny that his performance helps to make Vampires memorable. Even if it sometimes feels as if he's trying too hard to get a laugh ("Garlic? You wanna try garlic? You could stand there with garlic around your neck and one of these buggers will bend you fucking over and take a walk up your strada-chocolata!"), at the end of the day you've got James Woods as a vampire hunter so even if it isn't perfect, it's still pretty awesome.

From the start, Carpenter has shown a kinship with anti-authority figures - from criminals to rock and rollers - and Vampires may represent his most gleeful celebration of that rebel streak (it's neck and neck with 1996's Escape from L.A. - sending the whole planet into the Dark Ages is awfully hard to top as a "fuck you"). In the wake of L.A.'s failure to reestablish him as a commercial force, Vampires seems to be a case of Carpenter acknowledging, with a middle finger held high, that he's out of step with Hollywood, out of step with the public, out of step with what's fashionable, and not giving a fuck about any of it. This is not a movie that was made by someone looking to ingratiate himself to the masses.

At the time of its release, Vampires suffered from comparison with the much slicker Blade, which had proceeded it into theaters by a few months. That film was state-of-the-art in a way that the lower-budgeted Vampires wasn't and I think that initial perception of not being "top of the line" still haunts Vampires. But while Vampires' action isn't so hot (watching one vampire after another be dragged out of their nest via a steel cable gets to be sluggish), the practical FX from KNB are nicely accomplished. More importantly, the relationships between the characters play out in a satisfying fashion and that's something that doesn't date with the passing years.

Yeah, in the short run it might have been cool if a bigger budget had allowed Vampires to compete head on with other films in the market then but I still love it when Father Adam steps up and blows a hole through the traitorous Cardinal Alba's chest, or when Montoya fights on after having his neck ripped open and he rides to Crow's rescue.

Those are the moments where Vampires' heart lies and whether the film is ever seen as classic Carpenter or not, that's something that time won't be able to drive a stake through.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Death Proof

When most horror fans think of the '70s, they immediately think of The Exorcist or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. While I think of those classics too, being as young as I was at the time, I wasn't all that aware of those films during the '70s themselves. Back in the day, '70s horror for me was symbolized by PG-fare like Empire of the Ants, not The Hills Have Eyes.

If you had asked me then what my favorite horror movies were, 1977's The Car would have ranked right near the top of my list. It's the kind of movie I surely would have (foolishly) scoffed at as an adult - and probably even as a teenager - but as a young kid I was entranced by it. Chronicling the small Utah town of Santa Ynez's death duel with an ominous, and apparently hell-sent, black Lincoln Continental whose driver is never seen, The Car is simple and direct and does not sell its title character short. If you want a movie about a killer car doing killer car things, The Car is not going to disappoint you.

Written by Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack, and Lane Slate and directed by Elliot Silverstein (Cat Ballou), The Car has been perennially pissed on since its debut but Gen-Xers have always held it in high esteem as one of our generation's great guilty pleasures. Adult critics and genre fans saw only a low-brow rip-off of Duel crossed with The Exorcist (or even, "Jaws on wheels"). Kids saw a movie that was kick-ass from start to finish. We're simple that way.

For years I went along with the notion that The Car only seemed good to me because I saw it when I was so young and impressionable. Seeing it now, though, I've gotta say "screw that" - it's a flat-out cool movie. Sure the dialogue is occasionally hokey but the cast (including James Brolin, Ronny Cox, and R.G. Armstrong) never winks at the camera or condescends to the material - to a one, they all try to keep their reactions true to their situation. And the action is choice. When The Car does a barrel-roll in order to wipe out two approaching police cars at once, it's still spectacular.

Abetted by cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld (Young Frankenstein), Silverstein takes great advantage of the scenic, panoramic locations (it was an inspired choice, by the way, to have this film take place in a dry Southwest town so the Car can kick up dust clouds everywhere it goes). Many scenes benefit from the sense that with such wide-open vistas, with nothing but road or flat desert, there's no safe place for The Car's victims to flee to. It's a strategy that really pays off when one victim to-be does get inside their house but to our shock we see that it might as well have been made of matchsticks.

The Car was pimped out to be a horror superstar, ready to roll into sequels (the end credits show us that The Car has survived the fiery finale and is now cruising the highway alongside an unspecified city) but apparently no one cared about that back in 1977 as it played to poor box office (the fact that Star Wars opened just twelve days after The Car may have caused the movie to be overlooked). But man, The Car makes the shark in Jaws look about as lethal as a goldfish. From its tank-like design to the distinctive blare of its horn to the sizable body count that it racks up, The Car was custom-made to be a horror heavyweight.

Thanks to its opening quote by Church of Satan leader Anton LaVey, The Car has always been seen as a film that was riding on the dying fumes of the post-Exorcist wave of horror but I also think it deserves some credit for anticipating the slasher craze yet to come. Some might say the fact that The Car is, well, a car disqualifies this film from being categorized as a slasher pic but yet while films like Psycho, Texas Chain Saw, and Black Christmas are more obvious antecedents of the slasher sub-genre, as a body count movie featuring creative kills, with many scenes of the killer stalking its victims - complete with POV shots as we witness events through the hellish tint of The Car's windshield - The Car resembles assembly line slasher moviemaking as we came to know it. More importantly, The Car introduced what would become a key component of slasher cinema - the notion of the supernatural-based, invincible killer.

Like popular slasher icons to come such as Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers, The Car is impossible to kill and displays an uncanny talent for showing up in impossible places - as when it suddenly appears parked in Brolin's garage. In talking about Death-Proof, his contribution to Grindhouse (2007), Quentin Tarantino claimed that he wanted to do his version of a slasher movie but with a car as the weapon but The Car got there first.

The killer car is a familiar horror staple, appearing in films like The Hearse and Christine. But no other movie in this sub-genre has ever been as purely driven as The Car. I can't say that it ranks high alongside the '70s true masterpieces (the '70s was an incredible decade for horror, after all) but my nine-year-old self would be happy to know that, unlike many other films from my childhood, I don't look at The Car as a camp classic at all but as a damn fine ride.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Charley Brewster's War

Is Fright Night (1985) considered to be a true classic or is it just a really good movie? I'm leaning more towards the latter myself but that doesn't mean I don't think the upcoming remake has a lot to live up to. Let's face it - the new version is unlikely to have performances as memorable as those of Roddy McDowell, Chris Sarandon and Stephen Geoffreys or FX as dazzling as the ones devised by Richard Edlund, Steve Johnson and co. (Fright Night remains an '80s FX showcase just as impressive as the more celebrated likes of The Howling). Still, I do believe there's room for improvement - especially in regards to its main character, not-so-fearless vampire hunter Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale).

The original's premise is - on the surface, at least - like a love letter to horror fans. Charley Brewster is a high school student and horror buff who discovers that his new next door neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Sarandon), is a vampire. When the cops, his friends, and his family don't believe him, he turns to horror host Peter Vincent (McDowell) in the hopes that the actor's years spent killing vampires on screen will help save the day. Once a Peter Cushing/Vincent Price type horror star (hence the name that Holland not-so-subtly chose), the elderly actor hosts a faltering late night horror movie showcase called Fright Night.

How the title of Fright Night relates to the new version is unknown as, for obvious reasons, there's no horror host this time around (who even knows what a horror host is anymore?). Instead, Peter Vincent is now a Las Vegas magician (David Tennant).

When I originally saw Fright Night I thought its combo of Hammer-style horror with state-of-the-art '80s FX was great. However, there was one thing that always bugged me - Charley Brewster's quest to enlist Peter Vincent's help. Why the hell would Charley ask the actor who played his favorite vampire hunter to help him kill a vampire in real life? A very young kid might confuse an actor with the parts that they play - like, a kid younger than seven years old. But a teenager? No, I just never bought why Charley would go to Peter.

If Charley had been portrayed as already being friends with Peter because Charley was a fan and Peter's ego enjoyed the adulation and later on Charley must convince Peter that he thinks his neighbor is a vampire - not because he thinks that Peter has any experience killing vampires but because he's his friend and he needs someone to believe him - that would have been better. But for Charley to approach Peter out of the blue and plead with him to kill a vampire is absurd. I know it's supposed to be absurd in the sense that everyone is supposed to think that Charley is losing it but it's just too much. He comes off as being more challenged than crazy.

Luckily, it looks like the new film has none of that to worry about - just as long as Anton Yelchin as the new Charley isn't so confused that he thinks that David Tennant's character is a real warlock and not a stage magician.

Charley is supposed to be a stand-in for all the horror fans out there but I'd rather not be represented by someone so dense, thanks. It's just not flattering. And is Charley even really one of us? At one point he has to turn to his pal Evil Ed (Geoffreys) for tips on how to defend himself against a vampire. What kind of half-ass horror fan would need to do that? After all, Salem's Lot's Mark Petrie didn't have to ask anyone what to do when real vampires showed up in his town. It was just Game On.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Day You Count On For Terror Is Not Over

The murderous exploits of Jason Voorhees have spread out over so many films over the years that on this Friday the 13th, I thought it was worth remembering a time when the iconic character - and the Friday franchise - was still a fresh presence on the horror landscape.

In 1981, Friday the 13th Part 2 was released - not only was it the first Friday sequel but it was also the first slasher sequel. With its script by Ron Kurz and Phil Scuderi, Part 2 created a mythology that would steer this series into the annals of history as one of horror's most successful and long-running franchises.

Steve Miner, an associate producer on the first film, took over directing duties when Sean Cunningham was reluctant to encore on the sequel. Smartly taking a "if it isn't broke, don't fix it" approach, Miner aimed to deliver more of the same in terms of what made the first film successful (good looking teens and twentysomethings getting slaughtered) while striving to apply a little more craft behind the camera.

Miner shows his directorial chops up front in a lengthy and suspenseful opening sequence that reintroduces surviving Final Girl Alice (Adrienne King), now living alone after the traumatic events of the first film, trying to get her life back together, only to find Mrs. Voorhees decapitated head in her refrigerator. Jason finishes off his mother's killer with an ice pick to the temple and after a fade to white, the title sequence kicks in.

The movie picks up five years later as a new group of camp counselors are gathering for training near the area once known as "Camp Blood." Too near to it for many locals, including the sheriff and town looney Crazy Ralph, who both spread the word in their own way that setting up shop so close to troubled grounds is only inviting that same trouble to return. But do these kids listen? No, for them Mrs. Voorhees' killing spree is old business and any notion that her son might be prowling the woods is ridiculous - the stuff of campfire tales and local superstition. As practical joker and electronic game enthusiast Ted (Stu Charno) dismissively snorts: "five years ago, some girl fell out of a canoe." As the saying goes, those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.

Child psychology student and head assistant counselor Ginny (Amy Steel) is a little more thoughtful on the subject of Jason, seeking to put the legend "in real terms." Her mini-speech about the man-child she imagines the adult Jason to be isn't so flattering - calling him "a frightened retard" just ain't nice - but it's the only time in the series that anyone tries to wax philosophical about the character.

What Miner, Kurz, and Scuderi fail to have Ginny address is how Jason could possibly be out there in the first place. The legend of Jason was screwed up from the start but the original series just glossed over this and kept moving. What happens between Friday the 13th 1 and 2 makes absolutely no sense, however, and when the makers of the 2009 remake tried to retell the story, things didn't exactly fall neatly into place.

The trouble is this: for Mrs. Voorhees to be driven to kill anyone who dares to reopen Camp Crystal Lake, a path of vengeance that leads her to eventually be killed by Alice - which then sparks Jason's own bloody retribution - Jason had to have drowned as a child due to neglectful counselors. That's the event that starts everything.

So...ok. But if Jason did die as a boy in 1958, then how did he become a full-grown man? And if he didn't die, what was he doing in the woods from '58 to 1980? And hold on - if he drowned as a kid, why didn't they ever recover the body and give him a proper burial? The thought that Jason's body would have never been retrieved from Crystal Lake is insane. It's not like he fell off a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean - he's in a tiny-ass lake. Has there ever been a drowning victim in a closed body of water that hasn't been able to be recovered? I mean, hell - what kind of mother would Mrs. Voorhees be if she didn't insist on being able to lay her child to rest? Surely not the kind of fiercely devoted mother that we're supposed to believe she is.

What I'm saying is that the conundrums of the Planet of the Apes and Terminator series look as rudimentary as a child's arithmetic homework next to the brain-exploding impossibilities presented by the Friday the 13th series. But that's what happens when you take a sequence that could have only been a dream (Jason's leap from the lake at the end of Friday the 13th) and try to refer to it as being real.

Audiences at the time went along with Jason's return without a fuss and I think that's simply because the final shock of Friday the 13th was so incredible that people just wanted to see more of that character, period. Realism was not going to get in the way of a good boogeyman. It didn't matter that it made no sense that Jason could be alive and be a full-grown adult. The myth that Part 2 lays out is that Jason saw his mother beheaded and subsequently sought out his revenge on anyone coming into his woods. Simple. Easy to understand. Except if you thought about it for even the slightest micro-second.

But hey, in case you hadn't gotten the memo, there's a frightened retard on the loose.

Look, there he goes now!

Back when I first saw Part 2, I thought the sight of Jason's dilapidated shack was so creepy. Looking at it now, my main thought is that this is an awfully big place for a single dude. And again, by having Jason living in a handmade shack they're playing it as though Jason has been living in the woods for years like some cretin hillbilly but...that...doesn't...make...sense...

Of course, it's the body count that matters in a Friday the 13th film, not logic, and Jason dutifully scrubs as many of the film's young counselors as he can, putting up big numbers to match his mother.

It's well-known that the MPAA clamped down hard on this film, causing most of Carl Fullerton's make-up work (most famously, the scene of two lovers impaled by a spear) to disappear into legend before ever seeing the light of a movie screen. At the time, it was disappointing enough to know of the cut footage but today the lack of graphic kills stands out even more. In '81, gore FX were fighting to be seen across the board so even with its truncated bloodletting, Part 2 still kind of delivered the goods. After all, it wasn't every day that you saw a guy get a machete buried in his face. Today, though, in the wake of a decade where the Saw series, the Hostel films, and any number of other bloodbaths - from The Passion of the Christ to the most recent Rambo installment to the 3-D Piranha remake - all skated by the MPAA with ease, Part 2 looks laughably tepid.

Just as it was difficult in 1981 to watch the films of earlier decades and understand how some of them were ever considered shocking, it's sweetly sad to watch Part 2 now and remember that this was notorious fare back in the day. How is it possible that this movie - and, really, the entire early '80s slasher cycle - has now become an example of more innocent times? That's crazy, is what it is.

I don't have to remind any horror fan that Part 2 is the one where Jason sported a burlap sack before he upgraded to a hockey mask. Count me in among the many sack supporters out there. Everyone always cites The Town That Dreaded Sundown as the inspiration for Jason's look here and, hey, it's a real good look to emulate if you want to scare the crap out of people. The hockey mask is what turned Jason into a slasher superhero but the sack with its one eye hole cut out - that's just creepy. I think he rocked that look better than anybody - even better than Joseph Merrick. But that's a close race, I'll grant you.

I doubt if anyone, even very young viewers, who watch the early Fridays for the first time today finds any of them to be scary in the least but those who saw them when they first came out still remember the impact they had and while I think Parts 3, 4, and 5 all managed to produce some decent scares, Part 2 was the last time that the series was truly frightening.

I mean, just the imagery of Jason's candlelit shrine to his mother was so grandly ghoulish - putting the movie, if peripherally, in the company of films like Psycho and Deranged. The subsequent Fridays never approached anything like it.

As someone who was scared shitless by Friday the 13th Part 2 way back when, it's a curious thing to rewatch it now and see it through much different eyes. Other films of similar vintage still hold up today and even if they don't scare me quite as much as they used to, I can still get a buzz of adrenaline from Alien, Halloween, The Fog or even - to a lesser extent - the original Friday the 13th.

Part, not so much.

That said, there's still a lot to like about this entry. The sack fits Jason like a glove, Amy Steel was the best Final Girl the series ever had (and it's had a few great ones), and the climatic chase remains exciting.

Horror sequels were once reserved for classic monsters, like Godzilla or Dracula, or for blockbusters like Jaws, not slashers. Even Psycho, the godfather of the modern slasher, never had a sequel until Friday the 13th kicked opened the floodgates. Once both Friday the 13th and Halloween saw their first sequels appear in '81, it was a sign that a new era had arrived. Thirty years later, it's a kick to watch Friday the 13th Part 2 and be reminded of those simpler days. Happy Friday the 13th!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Fatal Five

Even without a numerical assignment and with a definitive-sounding "the" attached to its title, few horror fans were conned into thinking that 2009's The Final Destination was a sign that the franchise was making a graceful goodbye. Sure enough, just as calling Nightmare 6 Freddy's Dead didn't really mean that Freddy Krueger would stay dead and just as the title Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter turned out to be something of an exaggeration, this summer will bring the latest installment of the Final Destination series - simply titled Final Destination 5.

I already mentioned my excitement for this movie in my summer preview and the glimpse that we've gotten of Final 5 this week of its teaser poster and trailer have only assured me that my excitement was not misplaced (when is it ever?).

When the first Final Destination came out in 2000, it was embraced as a novel twist on the slasher formula. It was a body count movie but instead of its cast of pretty young faces being stalked by a heavy-breathing psycho or even by a wise-cracking supernatural entity like Freddy, Death itself was picking off the film's characters.

Taking a page from The Omen series but sans any theological baggage, Final Destination had its characters perish in elaborate, and apparently freak, accidents. A slasher series without a slasher, the Final Destination films didn't have to axe its characters via such played out methods as machetes, power tools, or, well, axes. Sure, those instruments could all play a part but now the palette was expanded as everything around the characters - from airbags to gas grills - was potentially lethal. They say that variety is the spice of life but it's also the spice of death.

If the job of horror films is - at least in part - to remind us of our own mortality, then the Final Destination films have that covered and then some. When you leave the theater after seeing a Friday the 13th or Saw film, unless you're having issues with reality, it's not with the thought that Jason or Jigsaw - or anyone like them - might have their murderous sights on you. But yet it's entirely possible that you might die in some seemingly random manner. In real life no one being stalked by a cinematic slasher but everyone is, in a real way, being stalked by Death.

While I feel confident that I won't be done in by a machete-wielding psycho and feel exceptionally confident that I won't be killed in my sleep by a dream dwelling boogeyman, I know that there's every chance in the world that I could be turned to red paste in a freak accident on the highway or be sucked into an escalator or something. In actuality my death will probably be due to some much more mundane cause, like a heart attack or cancer but then again it might result from an incredibly unlikely and unforeseeable chain of events involving a jelly jar, dental floss, a house fly, and a kite.

The Final Destination films are not intellectual exercises (even though an analysis on their stance on Fate vs. Free Will might be interesting) but they do tap into something that is universally understood - that no one is immune to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If Death comes looking for me on August 12th, I'll be easy to find - I'll be watching Final Destination 5.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Mostly Mighty Thor

As a longtime Marvel Zombie, Thor has never been high on my list of the company's heroes. I've enjoyed him as a member of The Avengers but only sporadically followed his solo adventures over the years. I think it was a masterstroke on the part of creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to dip into the realm of gods and myth, thereby avoiding having yet another superhero birthed from an accident with radioactivity, but I've just never been that attracted to the character or the world that he hails from. I much prefer the street level Marvel heroes, like Spidey, Luke Cage, Daredevil, and Moon Knight. Compared to those earthbound types, I've always found Thor to be a hard character to relate to so given that, the God of Thunder's movie debut was the one Marvel movie I've been least excited for.

I think it was roundly agreed upon by everyone - even Thor fans - that Thor would represent the biggest challenge to Marvel Studios on the road to The Avengers. While it's easily accepted in the comics that Thor occupies the same shared universe as Iron Man and The Hulk, would the realm of Asgard be an awkward fit for the Marvel movies? Turns out the answer is no. Director Kenneth Branagh, working from a script by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne (based on a story by J. Michael Straczynski Mark Protosevich), has cleared Thor's biggest hurdle - the movie fits seamlessly into the world established by Iron Man 1 and 2 and The Incredible Hulk.

Thor may possess the powers of a God and he may live in a gleaming celestial city that defies our understanding but as he explains to scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), what may be perceived as magic from our earthly perspective is known as science where he comes from. Or something like that. The point is, Thor is a movie that makes it possible for a guy with a magic flying hammer to stand next to a guy in an advanced suit of armor and have it make sense.

Thor also strikes the right balance between time spent on Asgard and time spent on Earth. You can't ditch Asgard altogether because that's what Thor's all about and hardcore fans don't want that mythological aspect to be shortchanged. At the same time, for most audiences, Thor has to be put in more relatable context. This has also been true of the comic all these years. I forget which comic pro said this - I think it might've been John Byrne (X-Men, Superman) - but whoever it was essentially said that you can only have Thor residing in Asgard for so long then he has to come down to Earth and punch out The Absorbing Man. If Thor isn't a part of life on Earth, as readers we're going to quickly lose interest in him.

The makers of Thor certainly get that and the movie finds most of its humor and heart once Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is banished to Earth by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) for his crimes of arrogance. There's the expected fish out of water humor as Thor interacts with unfamiliar environments but it's all handled just right, never veering into exaggerated schitck. As a love interest, Portman is fine - if not particularly outstanding - as Jane Foster. I've read some people online claiming that the relationship between Thor and Jane isn't developed enough and that they needed another scene or two to make it believable but I disagree. All we need to believe is that Jane and Thor would be attracted to each other and that's a pretty easy sell. From Jane's perspective, she just met a God so I think she'd automatically be really interested in continuing that relationship. From Thor's perspective, Jane is a woman unlike any he's ever met so, likewise, it's easy to accept that he'd also want to continue to see much more of her (personally I think he's making a huge mistake in overlooking Kat Denning's Darcy but that's just me). So what I'm saying is that I bought Thor and Jane as a couple in the making. In fact, if there's any scenes between them that were cut for time or pacing, just leave 'em off the DVD - I'm not interested.

The other big, if less loving, relationship in this movie is between Thor and his scheming brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Everyone seems to agree this aspect of Thor came off great and I agree. Hiddleston makes Loki one of the most compelling villains in recent memory. He's a cunning manipulator but we also see his wounded pride and his deep-seated neediness. That Hiddleston will continue on to The Avengers as that film's arch-foe is very good news.

And having now seen Thor, I'm also much more excited by the prospect of Hemsworth interacting with his fellow Avengers than I had been before. The trailers for Thor were some of the worst in recent memory and made Hemsworth's performance look like a potential embarrassment. What a pleasant surprise, then, to discover how terrific he is here and how effortlessly he's able to bring Thor to life. He conveys Thor's youthful arrogance, his pride, his sometimes unwise thirst for battle but also the positive attributes of bravery, loyalty and kindness that make him heroic. It's a performance comparable to that of Christopher Reeve's Superman in that Hemsworth manages to imbue this God-like character with a natural affability.

On a sour note, in step with the Marvel Studios films to date, the action in Thor is just ok. It's not bad but nothing near exceptional. This is one aspect where Marvel Studios really needs to step up their game. I understand that they're out to keep their budgets from skyrocketing and I like that the strengths of their films so far have leaned on an understanding of the characters and an expert eye for casting. And yet...when you're making movies about characters who design and wear the most advanced battle armour in the world, who transform into raging Gamma-irradiated behemoths, and who are pretty much Gods, then the action ought to be at least occasionally spectacular (I will say I loved the frequently Kirby-esque production design in Thor and I'm glad many actual sets were built for Asgard rather than just relying on CGI).

In Thor, the action is comprised of a battle with a race of Frost Giants, a battle on Earth with the metallic titan known as The Destroyer, and a final throwdown on Asgard between Thor and Loki and each one of these scenes, while competent, could've have used a lot more panache. When you think of the great action scenes in comic book adaptations - like the fight between Superman and the Phantom Zone criminals in the streets of Metropolis in Superman II (1980) or the fight between Spidey and Doc Ock on the elevated train in Spider-Man 2 (2004), those are scenes where the filmmakers really went the extra mile to take the kind of excitement that comic fans have enjoyed on the page for years and bring it to life in a big way.

And while there have been opportunities to do that in all the Marvel Studio films so far, scenes like the Hulk's fight with the Abomination or Thor's fight with the Destroyer have been flatly rendered. As Marvel Studios moves forward, they have to realize that the action of their films needs to start soaring.

During Thor's end credits, the Bond-ian promise that "Thor Will Return In The Avengers" appears and, as a building block towards that impending team-up, Thor plays perfectly (some have carped that S.H.I.E.L.D. feels shoehorned in but I disagree - I think it's natural to have them show up in the manner that they do and it's not necessary to have seen any of the other Marvel movies to understand that they're a F.B.I./C.I.A.-style organization).

It's true that Thor's reentry to Midgard has hit a roadblock by the end of this film but I think that's preferable to having Thor left on Earth. I'd rather have his entrance be a big deal in The Avengers rather than have his first meeting with Tony Stark or Bruce Banner occurring in the time between this movie and The Avengers.

As a character, Thor will never be at the top of my list of favorite superheroes but this movie is definitely near the top of my list of favorite superhero adaptations. It could've used some fine tuning, yes, but it's fun and well-acted. What's more, it's my six year old son's new favorite movie and that alone tells me that Branagh and co. hammered out a winner.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bat To The Future

If you had told me back in the '80s that one day there would be a summer movie season with big budget films based on Thor, The X-Men, Green Lantern, and Captain America, I would've found that almost impossible to believe (hell, I would've had a hard time imagining just one of those movies coming out). It's crazy how common big budget comic book adaptations have become - and with so many of them of a high quality. Before you remind of all the lousy ones, keep in mind that I grew up in the '70s - a decade in which my favorite comic book characters were brought to life in generally atrocious adaptations, like the hideous The Challenge of the Superheroes TV special or the two Captain America TV movies so even the lesser comic book films of today, like Daredevil (2003) or Fantastic Four (2005) seem at least passable to me. Movies like Catwoman (2004), however, are still godawful by any standards.

Today, "comic book movies" have become a subgenre unto itself. They're so much a part of the movie going experience now that it's odd to remember a time when they were considered a rare event. But that was the case back in 1989 when Tim Burton's Batman was due to debut.

As thrilling as it's been to see characters like Spider-Man and Iron Man come to the screen over the past decade and as mind-blowing as it is to know that Earth's Mightiest Heroes will gather next year in The Avengers or that Christopher Nolan will finish out his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, I don't think any comic book adaptation will ever be as hotly anticipated as Batman was in 1989.

Prior to Batman, the superhero movie genre consisted of the Superman franchise, which had begun brilliantly in 1978 with Richard Donner's original, continued in high style with 1980's Superman II, but then sputtered into embarrassment with 1983's Superman III (which, honestly, has a few redeeming qualities) and suffered its final nail in the coffin with 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (which has no value whatsoever).

And that was it. Marvel tried to get its characters onscreen during the '80s but, shamefully, Howard the Duck (1986) was the best they could do. So, for comic fans, the idea that Hollywood would attempt a serious comic book adaptation was a big deal. In the '80s, comics had enjoyed a creative renaissance with works like Watchmen, Daredevil, and The Dark Knight Rises - something that finally made the long-gestating Batman movie an appealing prospect to Warner Bros.

Once the ball got rolling on Batman, fans still had worries. The casting of Michael Keaton was so heatedly debated that the actor and Warner Bros. received death threats. But the casting of Jack Nicholson as The Joker pleased pretty much everybody and once pictures from the film started to be released showing how Keaton looked in the Batman suit (I remember someone on my dorm room floor bringing in a copy of Time Magazine with the first Batman pics and being so stunned by them), the anxiousness in the fan community started to turn into rabid anticipation.

Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy and Nolan's Batman have been generally well-received and caused more than their share of excitement but none of those films created the kind of mania that greeted Batman.

Everywhere you went in the summer of '89, you saw kids (and a lot of adults) in Batman T-shirts, Batman hats, and Batman haircuts, even. A lot of that had to do with Warner Bros.'s marketing muscle but a lot of it was also just a long unfed hunger for this type of film manifesting itself. This was truly an instance of the right film at the right time.

The movie itself...well, it was pretty flawed. For a long time I nursed a fanboy grudge against it for the many ways in which it disappointed - like "why did Alfred let Vicki Vale into the Bat-cave?", "why did they have to have The Joker be the criminal to kill the Waynes?" or "how the hell can one bullet bring down the Bat-wing?". I still believe that these are all legit gripes, not just nerd bitching, and I also maintain that Nicholson was not the most effective Joker. At times his performance is inspired, other times it veers too far into buffoonery. And man, are those Prince tunes a jarring, ill-advised addition to the soundtrack or what?

But its irritating elements aside (a thumbs down for the Vicki Vale/Joker/Bruce Wayne love triangle too) there's so much else to love in the movie that I can never completely dismiss it. For one, the fucking Batmobile is a work of art. That's the definitive Batmobile to me (and I love that they incorporated the rear jet engine from the Adam West Batmobile). Just the whole look of the movie is astonishing. The design work of Anton Furst remains brilliant. His vision of Gotham, with its gothic architecture, is one of the few urban dystopias that isn't trying to ape Blade Runner (1981).

Today's comic book movies are largely set in the real world - both for aesthetic reasons (Marvel's heroes have always inhabited real locations, like New York, rather than fantasy cities like Metropolis) as well as budgetary (the cost of creating an entire world out of sets and filming on soundstages would be a hard sell to studios today) and while that's worked out ok, when you look at Burton's Batman it's hard not to feel that something has been lost. This wasn't just filmed on the streets of Chicago or New York and it wasn't a world that was created in a computer. It was handmade. We're not likely to see its kind again.

For a long time I thought that Batman suffered from the idiosyncratic Tim Burton being forced to shoehorn his style into a more conventional framework but now I think it was actually to the film's - and Burton's - benefit. It's still an eccentric film (just for the casting of Keaton alone - a move that proved to be inspired) but yet there's still the kind of fisticuffs and action beats that comic fans would demand from a Batman film (as constrictive as the Bat-suit often appears in this film, I admire how well the stuntmen were able to convincingly sell the fight scenes - especially the ones with the Joker's henchmen in the church tower). There's a creative friction between Burton's sensibilities and the writer and producer's sensibilities that ultimately serves the final product well - as opposed to Batman Returns (1992), which favored Burton's quirky whims above all else.

Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) are superior in many ways to Burton's original Batman but they weren't the galvanizing event that Burton's film was and the same will be true for next year's The Dark Knight Rises. That film might be (oh, let's just say it will be) better than Batman but it won't be the same kind of epic deal. The world has just changed too much. It's not just that fans and the public are accustomed to comic book films in a way they weren't in '89 and it's not just that audiences practically take these movies for granted now (although both those statements are certainly true). It's also due to the fact that in '89, going to the movies was so much more important. People still love movies, they still flock to them in sizable numbers, but nothing like back in the day.

Back then, yeah, you had the promise of eventually being able to see a movie on cable and home video but the theatrical window was so much longer then. It was ages before a movie would make it to home viewing. And thanks to our age of rampant piracy, anyone who really wants to can get a copy of any new release before its opening weekend is over. Hell, some stores are so brazen as to sell bootlegs right out in public. Thor is opening tomorrow (well, midnight tonight) in the US but thanks in part to it being released two weeks ago in the rest of the world, it's already available on bootleg for anyone who cares to see it that way. If you were a comic fan in '89, you were hyped out of your mind to see Batman and your ass would be at the theater. Not just opening day but repeatedly. Today, a lot of fans will be happier to just download Thor or Green Lantern rather than see them in theaters even once and that strikes me as sad.

Shit, fans used to fall over themselves just to see a trailer on the big screen:

Now people are good with watching this stuff on their phones. It's just a different world (he said sadly).

As much as I enjoy Nolan's take on Batman, I can't help but feel they've shortchanged a generation of younger fans by being dark to the point that no responsible parent would take their kids to see them. It's incredible to remember that in '93, Batman Returns was vilified in some quarters for being too frightening for children but yet you never hear a peep over the violent content of Nolan's films - at least not in respect to it being inappropriate for kids. I guess that's because it's taken for granted that these movies aren't meant for kids in the first place but - pardon me - I find that to be a little nuts. Come on - it's Batman!

I would love to take my son to see a Batman movie but even when he's seven next year I'd be very leery about taking him to The Dark Knight Rises. Not only do I suspect it wouldn't be appropriate - I'm pretty sure it just wouldn't be fun for him at all.

The approach of Nolan's films is just too adult - it's not thrilling from a kid's perspective. For ones who are ten or eleven and up, ok. But that still shuts out a lot of kids who would love to see Batman in action. As an adult I appreciate where Nolan has taken the franchise but yet I like the balance between fun and darkness that Burton achieved and I wish that in the future someone could do the same again. Perhaps whoever makes the next cinematic reboot of Gotham's Guardian can move forward by reaching back into the past.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Cabin In The Woods

You might recognize the above piece of rural real estate as the Tennessee cabin in which director Sam Raimi and co. filmed The Evil Dead (and which was destroyed by fire shortly after shooting was completed). Like many fans in the US, I first learned about the existence of Raimi's debut film by way of Stephen King's rave review in the November 1982 issue of Twilight Zone magazine. While at the Cannes Film Festival in May of '82 promoting Creepshow, King attended a screening of The Evil Dead, had his mind blown by it, and then set out to spread the word.

While Raimi's film languished without US distribution, King championed it in his TZ review, calling it "a black rainbow of horror" and, more famously, "the most ferociously original horror film of 1982." I found it all the more tantalizing that the photos from the film that accompanied that article were in grainy black and white rather than in color. It only added to the film's mystique (as King related: "...The film has a weirdly convincing documentary look that no one has seen since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead"). At the time of King's review, The Evil Dead was a horror film so under the radar that even Fangoria hadn't covered it yet.

Once The Evil Dead did finally score a US release through New Line Cinema, there was no greater "gotta-see" movie for horror fans (sorry, Xtro!). Being only about thirteen at the time, I begged my mother to tell the box office attendant at our local multiplex that it was ok that I see it - even though no one under seventeen was allowed. My mom failed to make a convincing case on my behalf (looking back, I don't think she tried that hard) and I walked away from the theater that day, bitterly disappointed and unable to do anything other than take a long last look at the poster hanging in the theater window with King's ecstatic blurb splashed across it.

Man, sometimes it sucks to be a kid!

Eventually, I caught up with the film on home video and my every expectation was met. If I had any bones to pick with it at the time, I don't remember. I do know I felt it was as scary and nerve-rattling as any modern horror classic I'd seen. Like, Texas Chainsaw good. That first viewing of The Evil Dead was a real white knuckle experience for me. I don't think anyone who discovered the series post-Evil Dead II (1987) can understand that at one time, The Evil Dead was widely considered to be terrifying.

Sure, the movie had its share of humor (mostly courtesy of the jocular performance of Richard DeManincor - performing under the stage name of Hal Delrich - as the boorish, beer-swilling Scotty) but the sheer relentlessness of The Evil Dead was the quality that stuck in viewer's minds. It was a movie that kept piling shock on top of shock in an avalanche of grotesque gags. At the time, few would've thought to equate Raimi's work with The Three Stooges or with anything overtly comic.

After Raimi's comic influences became more pronounced in the sequels and once Bruce Campbell's portrayal of Ash changed from that of someone who was pathetically slow to rise to action (in The Evil Dead, Ash stands by immobile while Scotty has to grab the ax from him and do the honors of dismembering Shelly) into an ass-kicking blowhard, the original was put in a different context.

For those who remember how raw and scary The Evil Dead once was, can it still hold up after nearly thirty years, sans the splatstick baggage of its sequels? I wondered about this in the wake of reading about Liongate's acquisition of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's meta-spin on the kids-in-a-cabin subgenre, The Cabin in the Woods.

I've got to say, it's been a long, long time since I've watched The Evil Dead. Even after buying one DVD release after another from Anchor Bay over the years, I never actually sat down and rewatched it. Some favorites I revisit often, others kind of fall by the wayside. Inevitably, there's a lot of movies in my collection (too many, actually) that I just never find the time to watch. But now, having finally given The Evil Dead a fresh spin, it bums me out to say that the movie does not hold up so well.

The early part of the film is especially painful with the interactions between the film's young actors often feeling awkward and unnatural. Their forced exchanges aren't helped at all by Raimi's distracting habit of panning back and forth from one speaker to the next (I wonder if there might have been some technical reason, perhaps audio-related, driving this decision). But even when the dark forces are finally unleashed about half an hour in, the scares are more hokey than they are harrowing (by the way, the infamous rape scene - as the woods violate Ellen Sandweiss as Cheryl - remains an unfortunate black mark on an otherwise good natured spook show). Maybe it's because I was young when I first saw the movie but I just hadn't remembered it as being so freaking...corny.

Tom Sullivan's makeup work still deserves a round of applause. It's rudimentary but effective - especially the make-up on the possessed Cheryl. Besty Baker's white-faced look once her character of Linda has turned into a Deadite packs less of a punch but it still has a satisfying evil clown-type demeanor. Why Sullivan never took off in the FX industry or as a movie maker in general, I don't know, but his work in The Evil Dead remains one of the film's strongest assets.

Back in the day, The Evil Dead was a splatter fan's dream. Characters were maimed every which way (although even as a kid I always thought it was a frustrating tease that Ash never actually used the chainsaw on a Deadite) and Raimi's camera never flinched. At every turn he was going for the gory gusto. Not only did Raimi have Ash decapitate the possessed Linda with the swipe of a shovel but then he had her still-writhing body spewing blood in Ash's face from the open neck. I loved that dedication to gruesome excess at the time but watching The Evil Dead now, I found that I was more impressed by the surreal moment where Ash touches a mirror on the wall to find that it's turned into a pool of water than I was by the movie's many splatter highlights. The gore has just not dated well.

Or rather, the presentation hasn't dated well. There's nothing here that has the punch that classic splatter scenes of similar vintage like the chestbuster in Alien (1979), the arrow through the neck in Friday the 13th (1980), or the exploding head in Scanners (1981) still do.

And in retrospect, I also think incorporating so much stop-motion footage was not such a hot idea. At the time I think Raimi probably felt it was the only way he could deliver a show-stopping climax but now watching the Necronomicon wagging its clay tongue, have to admire the effort more than the execution. Which is kind of how I feel about The Evil Dead as a whole now.

Throughout The Evil Dead, Raimi's natural talent for visuals is apparent. His camerawork is innovative and it's clear that Raimi was trying to bring a lot of ambition to a simple story but for most of the film's running time it seems like he's working around his cast rather than with them and shoehorning moments in rather than have them flow naturally. Tellingly, it's not until Campbell has to fight alone against his possessed friends and the invisible forces around him that Raimi really begins to find his groove.

Every time the prospect of an Evil Dead remake comes up, fans practically riot but I don't think it's such a lousy idea - at least, not anymore I don't. Raimi brilliantly semi-remade his own movie with Evil Dead II (which I have also rewatched recently and found that it really has held up over time) but when he did he deliberately didn't go for hardcore scares. I'd love to see a more seasoned and skilled Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Bruce Campbell presiding over an Evil Dead remake that delivers what the first film did at the time but doesn't deliver now - the ultimate experience in grueling terror.