Thursday, April 30, 2015

Things Happen In The Night

These days, Marvel has the golden touch. Everyone with rights to a fictional franchise wants to emulate their successful model of a shared universe in film and on TV but no one else quite has the knack to achieve it. It was a much different story in 1989, though, when the TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk debuted to tepid response.

Back then, even the goal of using the established character of The Hulk to spin another Marvel character into their own live action series was a bar set too high. The second of three Hulk TV movies made after the cancellation of the show in 1982, Trial continued the trend started in The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988) of pairing ol' Jade Jaws with another Marvel hero in the hopes of launching them into a show of their own. Both movies failed in that regard but while Returns badly botched the introduction of Marvel's God of Thunder with its poor depiction of Thor, the street level Daredevil fared far better.

Shortly after David Banner (Bill Bixby) leaves his latest job as a farm hand for fear of Hulking out against a bullying co-worker and arrives in the big city (which we assume to be The Big Apple but it's not specified whether the movie actually takes place in New York), he becomes involved in an incident on a subway car in which two thugs in the employ of Wilson Fisk (John Rhys-Davies) harass a female passenger (Marta DuBois) and incur the wrath of Banner's gamma-powered alter-ego in the process. Post-transformation, Banner is picked up by the cops and finds himself in jail, facing charges of attacking the woman on the subway. Banner's plight brings him legal counseling in the form of Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil (Rex Smith).

Thanks to his heightened senses, the blind lawyer senses David's innocence (as a bonus, he also knows the real criminals are in the employ of Fisk, who Murdock is gunning for) and is determined to help clear his client while David can only worry about what the stress of a possible trial would do to his raging alter-ego (which leads to the only time in Trial that the Hulk actually appears in court - during a nightmare suffered by the anxious Banner, a cheat that led many fans to cry foul).

After Banner has Hulked his way out of jail, post-nightmare, Matt tracks him as Daredevil and reveals his true identity to David as a gesture to gain his trust. Eventually Matt also learns the truth about David's cursed nature and while the Hulk's unpredictable nature makes a true team-up impossible, Banner and the sightless superhero do join forces in order to rescue DuBois' damsel in distress (who finds herself as a prisoner in Fisk Tower) and to take down Fisk as well.

Meant to serve as a pilot to a Daredevil series, Trial was no more successful on that count than Returns had been in spinning off Thor. But in terms of being a respectable adaptation of the character, Trial is no embarrassment to DD. No, it's not nearly in the league of the best of what the comics had accomplished, but it treats the character with respect and the warm bond that develops between Bixby's Banner and Smith's Murdock is a highlight of the Hulk's TV legacy.

Written by Gerald Di Pego and directed by Bixby himself, Trial is strictly a meat and potatoes affair. There's nothing fancy about it and it isn't out to service fans with shouts out and Easter Eggs referencing the wider Marvel U. But like the best episodes of the Hulk series, it has an adult tone and doesn't condescend to the audience. Comic book adaptations are more ambitious now and take much more care to hew to the comic's mythology but, as much as I appreciate that, I like the simple attention to telling a good story that Trial represents.

The Trial of the Incredible Hulk made its debut on May 7th, 1989 to high ratings but also to fan grumblings due to a lack of screen time for the Hulk, rightly regarding it as more of a Daredevil movie than a Hulk one. Adding insult to injury, Tim Burton's Batman arrived in US theaters on June 23rd and seized the pop culture zeitgeist that summer, leaving Marvel's chintzy TV movie to be regarded as a joke.

On the upside, Marvel's done a good job of catching up since. And, you know, that chintzy TV movie isn't so bad. Or actually bad at all, in my opinion. Marvel's live action adaptations have become far more sophisticated since but there's a charm to how rudimentary Trial is.

It's a nice reminder of a time when this kind of stuff was not at the forefront of popular culture and when fans were grateful for any live action appearance of their favorite characters. True, Trial bears evidence of all the weaknesses of superhero adaptations of the time but yet it has a number of strengths to recommend it and while nostalgia surely plays a part in my own feeling towards Trial, I don't think you necessarily need rose-colored glasses to appreciate it.

After Fisk has been momentarily vanquished (if not brought to bear for his crimes) and David and Matt have said their goodbyes (with Banner finding himself a little less alone, telling Matt "I have a brother in the world now."), Trial ends with Matt Murdock's office mates at the window of their legal firm, observing that the skyline of the nearby Fisk Tower seems to have been altered (we the viewers know that it's because a structure fell away to allow Fisk's flying car to take off, leaving an enraged Daredevil stymied yet again). Not being able to "see" the topic of discussion himself, Matt nonetheless joins his friends at the window and wryly observes, as they stand in the warm glow of a new day, that "...things happen in the night."

It's the last line of dialogue of Trial and the last time that anyone would see this live action incarnation of The Man Without Fear. It's a shame that this DD didn't get his own series as Trial shows that he had plenty of potential. As derided as the black ninja costume he sported was by some at the time, it was later adopted by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. when they did their Man Without Fear miniseries in 1993 and which in turn influenced the initial look of Daredevil in the new Netflix show. If nothing else, it would've been great to see what the title sequence for an early '90s DD show would've been like.

Back in the day, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk didn't do much to advance the cause of Marvel on film but I think time should render a kinder verdict to it. To that, I say "case closed" or rather, "Excelsior!"

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Worth Following

If David Lynch had directed Halloween, the result might look something like It Follows, the dreamy, unnerving sophomore feature from writer/director David Robert Mitchell (2010's The Myth of the American Sleepover). Set in a Detroit suburb, It Follows tracks the plight of Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty teenage blonde whose new boyfriend (Jake Weary) has made her the target of a deadly, inexplicable specter of which little is known except follows.

Making explicit the cautionary themes of the '70s and '80s slasher boom wherein kids were advised of the perils of getting it on, the titular stalker of It Follows is put the the trail of new prey through sex (which marks this as a ghostly cousin to David Cronenberg's 1975 shocker, They Came From Within). Jay's new boyfriend is trying to shake "it" thanks to a previous sexual encounter and he sleeps with Jay in a deliberate bid to give the ghoul someone new to pursue.

What this ghoul is or what its weaknesses (if any) may be is knowledge that the kids in It Follows don't have access to. It's normally a given in horror films that whenever a monster or any supernatural force is introduced, an expert will eventually come along who knows what it is and all the rules that come with it. Or else there's at least someone around who's smart enough to put all the pieces together. But It Follows has none of that. There's no sage mystics, no experienced hunters, not even any helpful Google searches. There isn't even an attempt to bring in the cops or any parental figure. It's a refreshing break from convention and the fact that these kids don't always make the best decisions (including a climatic attempt to dispatch the ghoul that seems both logical and entirely daffy) can simply be attributed to the character's youth.

Some viewers will surely look at the actions of the kids in It Follows and believe they could do better if put in the same circumstances but I only judge the actions of characters in horror movies based on whether I think their actions are believable, not whether they're successful. And I found the kids in It Follows to be very believable.

I also found them to be likable, something I'm rarely able to say about modern horror films. But as with the young cast of last year's Ouija, the kids in It Follows show a genuine interest and concern for each other and I hope this'll prove to be the new norm in genre films.

For years, it's been a given that if there's a horror movie with a teen cast, there always has to be at least one major jerk among them (usually more) but that's not the case with It Follows. Some bad behavior does occur but no one's actions ever seems born out of everyday mean-spiritedness and, for me, that goes a long way.

While Mitchell works very well within the scope of his low budget (the film is wonderfully photographed by Mike Gioulakis), occasionally his ambitions exceeds his means - as with a lake side skirmish between the kids and the invisible entity that can't help but look ridiculous. But yet I found that the film's chintzy, low-tech moments only added to its charm. There's so much slickness in films today that it's endearing to me to see a movie that isn't afraid to wear its limited resources on its sleeve and go the extra mile at the same time. The Paranormal Activity films are also low-budget affairs, of course, but I think that they've always been a little cautious when it comes to doing more than their budget would allow.

Here, there are some attempts to extend past what the budget can convincingly deliver. That it doesn't always work seems forgivable in the spirit of showmanship.

I'm also willing to cut It Follows a pass for whatever faults it may possess simply out of gratitude for bringing a much-missed sense of melancholy back to horror. That's a quality that used to be common to the genre but which steadily evaporated once the '70s gave way to the good times of the '80s and a party atmosphere began to prevail.

In the manner of '70s horror, It Follows exudes a quiet sorrow, observing its teen protagonists as they drift aimlessly through their directionless lives (the only characters we see holding down jobs are stuck at a rinky-dink ice cream shop and there's never any talk of ambitions or plans for the future) all while they're trailed by a death-dealing entity that they can neither understand nor fully anticipate. They only know that it's out there and getting closer all the time.

While these kids may lack the vocabulary to be able to articulate or explicitly acknowledge their existential dread, the words of T.S. Eliot and Dostoyevsky are up to the challenge and are woven into the film in a way that feels organic (a portion of Eliot's "The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock" is heard in a classroom scene that purposely echoes a similar scene in Halloween) and never forced and pretentious.

With Mitchell showing an intuitive understanding of the genre that stretches well beyond just knowing the simple mechanics of springing a scare, his film not only honors the classics that came before it, it also sets a high standard of its own for other filmmakers to follow.

Monday, March 23, 2015

My Back Pages

After watching the Blu-Ray of Doctor Mordrid (1992) the other day, feeling flush with nostalgia for the hey-day day (such as it was) of Full Moon, I pulled a copy of my long ago fanzine Gravedigger's Union off the shelf to re-visit my account of the Full Moon Roadshow I had attended in Boston back in June of 1993 with my pals Marty and Darren Langford and Marty's then-fiancee, Lori (Marty and I both worked at the same local video store chain, which is what gained us an invite to the FM road show as it was aimed at retailers). My write-up of the event wasn't a flattering one as I spent the majority of the two page article grousing about how disappointing most of Full Moon's output was and what a supreme huckster Charles Band was.

That said, re-reading it brought back fond memories of a fun night enjoyed by an impossibly younger version of myself and it also brought back an additional wave of nostalgia for my days as a fanzine publisher.

Looking back at the four issues of GU I put out in the '90s - a feat achieved only with the invaluable assist of ace designer Paul Bissex and with writing contributions from Marty, who penned a laserdisc (!) column - is a strange experience. Like the video store era that briefly brought Charles Band and my group of friends together on a June night in Boston, the era of the fanzine is a thing of the ancient past.

Flipping through the handful of issues I produced not only brings back memories of my own life as it was back then but makes me reflect on how much fandom has changed in the internet age - the faster ways in which we communicate and how differently information travels.

When a movie opens today you can tweet your opinion of it while you're still sitting in the theater and if you haven't given your two cents before the opening weekend's done, it's already old news. When I was publishing a 'zine, however, it didn't seem like a big deal that my review of, say, Warlock: The Armageddon wouldn't see print until many months after it had been in theaters. I was used to reading reviews of films in Cinefantastique long after the movies had come and gone so it didn't seem unusual to have a long delay but it seems incredible - almost incomprehensible - to me now that I would take, on average, an entire year to put together a single issue of a fanzine and that I wouldn't consider its content to be hopelessly outdated.

I used to think those simpler, pre-internet days (or at least back before everyone was online) represented better times but while they were good, I realize now that making them out to be that much better than the present is just - for the most part - nostalgia talking.

Yes, I do wistfully recall the days when news traveled more slowly, when thoughts had time to simmer, and when words were chosen more carefully - all of which the internet has abolished. But as much as I miss those days, the idea of going back to them after being spoiled by the immediacy of the digital age holds no special appeal.

And yes, while it was a labor of love to put together a fanzine, it's a fact that - internet or no - I would have eventually just stopped publishing. When I look at those old issues, I see something that only a young guy could've devoted so much time and money to. It's a safe bet that I wouldn't be in my forties and still be putting out a 'zine, that's for sure. I mean, anything's possible but I just can't envision it - not when even keeping up a steady pace on a blog feels impossible! I used to drive from Western Mass to Boston (about a 90 minute drive, on average) just to shop for stills to use in GU. Now, I have to feel really motivated to do frame grabs in the comfort of my home.

As much as I loved working on GU for the years that I did, and as much as the finished product was always something I was proud of, it never came close to broadening my world as much as being online has (then again, the fact that I only published GU once a year didn't help!). As opposed to the trickle of (much-appreciated) reader mail that GU would receive, the internet put me in the company of many great people who I likely wouldn't have otherwise never met - like my fellow Horror Dads, for example, or Shock Till You Drop's former head honcho Ryan Turek, or the bloggers that comprise the League of Tana Tea Drinkers. In general I'm not crazy about how the internet has transformed fan culture and I feel mostly disdain towards our age of tweets, selfies, and hashtags. I tend to pine for the way things used to be. But yet I can't deny that blogging did far more to introduce me to my fellow fans than being a 'zine publisher ever did.

Mind you, I'm not willing to say that everything's great about our current age. But while I lament some the things we've lost along the way, I'm coming to realize that I may tend to give the past too much credit at times. Sentiments aside, maybe I shouldn't miss the old days all that much. Except for video stores. Those I'll never stop missing.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Phantom Of The Oscars

Somewhere along the way, the Oscars lost me. I'm not just talking about last night, I mean years ago. I don't know when it happened but while I used to look forward to the Academy Awards each year, now I can't be bothered with them and it's been that way for so long I can't even remember the last time I watched the Oscars out of any personal interest. This year, as with the last few years, my job at a TV station put me in front of the Oscars, rolling local commercial spots, but when my shift ended, my time with the Oscars was over and I didn't care to turn on the end of the broadcast once I got home.

Instead, I put on Scream Factory's new Blu-Ray Special Edition of 1989's Phantom of the Opera - because as far as I'm concerned, no Oscar winning film (well, no Oscar winner in 2015, at least) can hold a candle to a Robert Englund-starring Phantom. Sorry, Birdman!

With today's independent horror scene comprised largely of micro-budget found footage pics, it's almost a shock to be reminded of how lavish Phantom is, with its handsomely rendered period setting. Even great indie horror films today don't have the resources to look this rich anymore. If we ever see anything extravagant, it has to be a big budget enterprise, like Guillermo del Toro's upcoming Crimson Peak.

Watching Phantom also makes me miss the days when Robert Englund was a regular presence on the big screen. As much as I love him as Freddy, I love his turn as the Phantom even more. It's a shame this didn't become a new franchise for him as I believe the '90s would have been dramatically improved had Englund and director Dwight H. Little been able to re-team for even just one more Phantom film.

It's clear that Englund relished the role and the opportunity that it provided and I love how, in every scene, he tears into it. Rather than pulling out his tried and true Freddy mannerisms, with his role in Phantom he was able to indulge in grander melodramatics, play a more romantic side, and - for lack of a better word - be more operatic. He's hammy and over the top but in all the right ways.

Englund knows exactly what he's doing and everything about his performance is done with the knowledge that this character inhabits a heightened, unnatural world so whether he's simply entering a room or blowing out a candle, there's always an extra flourish to it.

While it's a safe bet to say that Robert Englund will never be called onto the Oscar stage and it's an unfortunate fact that a film like Little's Phantom will never garner any industry accolades, history shows us that even minor genre works tend to endure far past the point where films that were more celebrated and honored in their day have faded from popular memory. Awards are fine but on the grand scales of time, for a film to be remembered and appreciated many years after its release is something that out weighs Oscar gold.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Rip Van Jenke

I'm going to go ahead and take a few more steps out of the cave and emerge from my year-plus blogging slumber. No particular reason for it. Just time, I guess. With online communication being reduced more and more to tweets, gifs, selfies and emoticons, taking the time to string more than a few words together from time to time feels like more of a positive thing to me now than it did when I stepped away.

I should say straight off, though, that I feel more out of touch with the genre than ever. That's not a knock on the current state of horror, more of just a comment on how preoccupied I am with other things and how easy it is for me to just let stuff slip by. I still haven't caught up with The Babadook, for example. I don't even know if I spelled that right just now and I'm not even going to bother to double check it. For years, as a fan I felt I had to be on top of every new release. And now, I don't. I'm older, other matters take priority and I don't feel like I'm missing out if I don't see a movie right away.

That said, I still love movies - I just appreciate them on a more casual level now. And in step with that, I'll be blogging on a more casual level as well. With this post, though, my blogging output for 2015 has doubled that of 2014. That means even if I take the rest of the year off, I can still feel like I've been pretty productive! Woo-hoo!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Milk And Honey On The Other Side

In 1980, “innocence” is not a word that anyone would have ever believed could be applied to Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th. At the time, the vivid splatter stylings of Tom Savini raised the ire of moral watchdogs and other concerned parties so much so that the MPAA swiftly adopted a harsher stance towards splatter (a war that would go on to dominate the course of horror in the ‘80s with the ratings board being the one adversary that none of the decade’s famous horror icons could dispatch). But times have changed and "innocence" is now a word that suits Friday the 13th well. Today's jaded kids would probably just jump to calling it lame but innocent sounds a lot nicer. Even with its stabbings, throat slashing and beheading, Friday the 13th is tame enough by current standards that one could almost label it Friday the PG-13th. In stark contrast to the controversy that initially accompanied the movie, from our modern perspective Friday the 13th now radiates a wistful aura of untroubled naiveté.

Extreme violence has become so casually accepted in entertainment (thanks to the likes of The Walking Dead and Hannibal, TV is more hardcore than most R-rated movies were in the '80s) that it’s probably hard for kids today to comprehend that any form of bloody entertainment could be considered notorious as people tend to take an awful lot in stride now. But in the ‘80s, back when angry picketers marching outside movie theaters in outraged protest were a common sight, people weren’t so blasé about such things. No one seeing Friday for the first time today would be taken back by its gore but to audiences in 1980 it was genuinely gasp inducing to see an arrow puncture an exposed throat with no cutaway to break the illusion.

Unlike many other slashers of similar vintage, however, Friday the 13th was never psychologically oppressive. Many slashers of the era – emotionally ugly films such as Don’t Go in the House (1979) or Eyes of a Stranger (1981) – wallowed in grim realism but, in contrast, Friday was all about showmanship. While it was surely not a pre-thought strategy on the part of Sean Cunningham, the events depicted in Friday often vaulted over the laws of physics (think of all the far-fetched feats Mrs. Voorhees is capable of) and those leaps into the impossible allows the movie to play less as a sordid catalog of killings and more as a myth or, if you prefer, a campfire tale.

Cunningham never went so far into absurdity that his film strayed into (no pun intended) camp territory but from the start, Friday the 13th had one foot set outside of reality. The normal rules simply don’t apply at Crystal Lake (for instance, you can't really lop a person's head off with one swipe of a machete - not even if you've got a running start and you're swinging it with two hands). A funhouse sensibility was in place and it speaks to how primed audiences were to accept the impossible in the world of Friday the 13th that when Jason came back in the sequel, not just alive but somehow now an adult as well - a complete breach of plausibility that was (at best!) only half-assed explained - no one blinked an eye. Given that the original had already made reality a secondary concern, the return of Jason was a logical hurdle that very few viewers bothered to sweat.

Jason’s latter transformation into a full-fledged zombie and his venture into space were similarly taken in stride. Implausibility is imprinted deep in Friday’s DNA.

Other slasher films at the time did a far better job of presenting whodunits that played fair with the audience than Friday (even if they weren’t terribly sophisticated mysteries, for what it's worth movies like 1980’s Terror Train and 1981’s My Bloody Valentine did lay out legitimate red herrings for viewers to ponder - as opposed to Cunningham and scripter Victor Miller's move of never allowing Mrs. Voorhees to be a viable suspect) but yet Friday - garishly grisly yet also brimming with youthful, good times energy - soundly trumped its contemporaries as the better splatter showcase.

Given that Friday’s scares lost their potency well before the ‘80s were over, it’s no knock to say its scares don’t hold up in the new millennium but yet while its shock value has dissipated, the movie continues to exude the winsome feel of an eager to please show. It's a slasher film without a mean bone in its body. And even though that quality wasn't recognized at the time, I think it was always the underlying key to its success. There’s something wonderfully guileless about what a pure crowd pleaser Friday is – right down to its concluding “gotcha” of a gunk-ified Jason launching out of the waters of Crystal Lake. For all the reactionary responses that once erupted around it, Friday the 13th endures not as a controversial shocker but as a nostalgic keepsake of an innocent summer long ago.

Friday the 13th's innocence doesn't stop at its now-mild violence, of course. It's a snapshot of a simpler time altogether. A time with no Twitter, no Instagram, no social media whatsoever. None of the kids are snarky or ironic - not even Ned the prankster. They're all genuine and relatable in a way that one rarely sees anymore. But more than that, Friday was a film seated on the precipice of our greatest source of contemporary cinematic cynicism - the relentless franchising of the genre.

When Friday the 13th arrived, we didn't live in a world inundated with sequels, remakes, reboots (and now "recalibrations") yet. And the makers of Friday the 13th were as in the dark about what the future held as much as anybody. There was no strategy in place to milk this property to death, no belief that such a thing were even possible - there was just a simple desire to scare an audience. The knowledge that everything was about to change and that no one knew it at the time, the innocence that Friday embodies tied to the cynicism that it would go on to perpetrate, makes watching Friday the 13th a bittersweet experience - more so with each passing year.