Saturday, October 31, 2009

October Review

Okay, so being unemployed for 3 weeks out of the month allowed me to watch a total of 38 horror movies, old and new, seen-before and never-seen-before. Yes, that disturbs and alarms me as well. Anyway, here's how they stacked up:

Canvas of Blood (1997)
Mind, Body & Soul (1992)
Danger on Tiki Island (1968)
Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders (1996)

Superstition (1982)
The Horror Show (1989)
Final Exam (1981)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
Abby (1974)
Tormented (1960)
Night of the Demon (1980)

Trick 'r Treat (2009)
The Burning (1981)
Galaxy of Terror (1981)
Zombieland (2009)
Graduation Day (1981)
Dr. Giggles (1992)
Blacula (1972)
Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
The Man from Deep River (1972)
Shakma (1990)
How to Make a Monster (1958)

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)
Dog Soldiers (2002)
The House by the Cemetery (1981)
Fight For Your Life (1977)
Horrors of Malformed Men (1969)
Paranormal Activity (2009)
Phantasm (1979)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
J.D.'s Revenge (1976)
Dr. Cyclops (1940)
Cannibal Apocalypse (1980)

This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (1967)
Black Sabbath (1963)
The Exorcist (1973)
Curse of the Demon (1957)
Island of Lost Souls (1933)

Yeesh. Time to see some art movies or something.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ruby (1977)

Okay, I haven't actually seen this movie, but I stumbled upon this trailer and isn't it kind of craptacularly awesome?

An Exorcist ripoff with Piper Laurie riding the success of her character from Carrie and featuring all manner of wind-machine hauntings, wheelchair flops, Lesbian romances (?!) and underwater skeletonfights? Yes please.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ghostbusters (1984)

Typically, a big budget is considered to be the best way to ruin a comedy - Evan Almighty, Land of the Lost, name your own. Ghostbusters is a rarity, a movie that ambitiously seeks to be a whole bunch of different things - raucous comedy, horror film, tentpole adventure movie - and does them all well.

One of the reasons why the movie succeeds so well, for me, is that it clearly takes place in a real world. Even though the movie brings the audience into a world populated not just by ghosts, but ultimately by elder gods out of something written by H.P. Lovecraft, the filmmakers slowly and carefully introduce the different fantastical elements to draw the audience into the fantasy. The production design and cinematography have more in common with the gritty , high-contrast look of a 1970s movie than with the more plastic, shiny tentpole movies that Hollywood would put out later in the decade and up to the preent - basically, the look of this movie is a lot closer to Dog Day Afternoon than Men in Black. So when the Staypuft Marshmallow Man arrives at the movie's climax, it's both ridiculous, but totally embedded into the world of the movie.

As the release of Paranormal Activity shows, spooky things are scarier when they happen in the context of a normal, naturalistic setting. Now, I wouldn't say that Slimer or the other ghosts in this movie are scary for me nowadays, but when I first saw this in theaters at the age of seven, the Library Lady and the Taxi-Driving Ghoul were enough to freak my shit out. And I think it's in no small part because of the naturalistic way the movie presents them.

Of course, this naturalistic production design and cinematography are primarily at the service of letting the comic actors do their thing, and the bulk of the movie is about giving Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, and all the rest weird situations in which to play. Good actors given unusual things to do - what else does a movie need?

In recent times some have found a Reagan '80s pro-business, anti-government regulation subtext in the movie, with the small businessmen of the Ghostbusters contending with the petty bureaucrat played by William Atherton (the go-to slimeball character actor for about a decade). There's a little bit of validity to this argument, but I'd say that primarily the attitude of Ghostbusters is more in the classic American tradition of refusing to kowtow to authority of any kind, be it a government pencil-pusher or a forgotten deity. If the Marx Brothers had ever made a ghost movie, it would probably look something like this.

More than anything, though, this is the Bill Murray show, pretty much refusing to take any given scene seriously, nudging the audience, but never getting obnoxious about it, the way that Jim Carrey or Eddie Murphy can be prone to do. Indeed, there's a touch of pathos to Murray's performance, especially in his scenes with Sigourney Weaver, that would later blossom (if that's the right word) in Murray's movies like Groundhog Day and Rushmore.


(Presented as part of the Class of '84 Blog-a-thon hosted by This Distracted Globe.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

Well, it's nice to know that the totally misbegotten sequel to a big studio hit has a long tradition behind it. This movie is pretty much a failure on every level except as camp. How does a mega-million-dollar corporation let something like this happen? But if not for bizarre studio choices we wouldn't have Citizen Kane or Inglourious Basterds either, so anyways.

Anyway, while it's a dismal failure as a horror movie, there are some nice redeeming facets. John Boorman is a stronger visual stylist than William Friedkin ever wanted to be, and there are some great images in this movie, from climbing the mountains of Ethiopia to some ridiculous cliff-top monastery to buzzing around on locust-cam (which is awesome) to a weirdly trippy telepathic encounter with the demon Pazuzu in Louise Fletcher's head. And of course, Ennio Morricone does the score, so the movie has that going for it. And John Boorman is definitely more of an outside-the-box thinker than Friedkin or William Peter Blatty, with a more expansive visual and spiritual sense than either of those filmmakers.

But all the visual virtuosity in the world means neither jack nor shit when your story is incomprehensible and dopey. So otherwise, this is the one where Louise Fletcher has a box with flashing lights that allows people to enter each others' thoughts, where a tired-looking Richard Burton hams it up when he's not sitting motionless (there's a nine-minute scene where Burton just sits and watches other characters do things without saying a line or even having a facial reaction), where Linda Blair finds herelf tap-dancing in the middle of the movie for some reason, and where this happens:

(hat tip to Christian Divine.)

And I still don't know which character is supposed to be The Heretic - Blair? Burton? Von Sydow? Pazuzu? Chief? McCloud?


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

J.D.'s Revenge (1976)

This played at the New Beverly Tuesday night in a double bill with Blacula, and even though I hadn't heard of this movie before, I think it was the more entertaining of the two. It's a pretty simple set-up: nice guy Glynn Turman gets put into a trance by a Bourbon Street hypnotist and then gets possessed (as will happen) by the ghost of vengeful 1940s gangster J.D. Walker.

The trailer makes it look a lot sillier than it plays in the actual movie - director Arthur Marks allows the possession to sink in gradually over time (just as William Friedkin did in The Exorcist) so the audience isn't plunged too quickly into ludicrosity and zoot suits.

Ultimately, the movie is less about a spooky ghost story than it is about Glynn Turman biting deep into a double role and chewing hard. I can't think of many performances where it's so obvious that the actor is truly relishing the over-the-topness of their character, and Turman's joy in his performance as the totally unrestrained pimptastic J.D. is infectious. His outdated hairdo, not so much, but when he starts going all razor-happy and slashing the husbands of random women he just had sex with? The New Beverly audience ate that up.

Ultimately, J.D.'s Revenge doesn't take its premise very far, just deep enough to be a satisfying b-movie. With a little more effort and psychological character development, this could have been a classic.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Exorcist (1973)

Speaking of movies with backlashes, here's another one, although the backlash against this movie is less about commercial hype than it is about political correctness, so let's get this out of the way: yes, The Exorcist is ultimately a movie with a regressive attitude towards gender roles (two priests must do battle against an unruly female) and towards morality (stark medieval good vs. evil).

All that said, The Exorcist still stands for me as one of the all-time great horror movies, simply on the basis of its ability to create tension and scares and on the basis of sheer storytelling. There's hardly a wasted second in William Friedkin's original cut, with a relentless build towards the final showdown between Max Von Sydow and the demon inhabiting Linda Blair; indeed, this movie is a good example of how a focussed, energetic director's work can transcend a mediocre screenplay - just look at the opening sequence, which introduces Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin, a character who will then disappear until the last half hour of the movie. It's a sequence loaded with an overpowering, foreboding mood, but with virtually zero narrative connection, either to the rest of the movie, or really, within itself. But because Friedkin knows what he's doing, the mood and editing propulsiveness carry us through this sequence and into the main body of the movie.

And the performances are almost uniformly great; We all know that Max Von Sydow and Ellen Burstyn are great actors, but where did Jason Miller come from and why wasn't he in more films? And Linda Blair's performance, natural and easy-going as a normal girl, genuinely diabolical when possessed, is easy to attribute to special effects, but has to be seen as one of the best performances by a teenager, ever.

I need to add, however, that the version I watched on Friday night wasn't Friedkin's original director's cut, but the 2000 'special edition' which is basically William Peter Blatty's preferred Producer's Cut, which adds in a bunch of redundantly superimposed demon faces and a dumb 'happy ending' scene at the very end of the movie, among other details. Now, I think William Friedkin has about as much interest in convincing his audience of the existence of demons as Sam Raimi did in Drag Me to Hell; Friedkin's career shows that he's more interested in telling stories for the sake of telling stories. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if Blatty actually believed in his own shaggy dog tale, since pretty much every choice in his cut of the movie makes it more strained and pretentious.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Paranormal Activity (2009)

When you have a horror movie without stars in it and without a standard premise for a marketing hook, it becomes necessary to market it as "The Scariest Movie of All Time". And then when when people go to see it and it's a perfectly respectable scary movie, but not so scary that everybody watching it has their eyeballs explode in terror and the ushers all quit because the seats are covered in the aftermath of everybody shitting their pants, then a pretty standard backlash ensues. It happened with The Blair Witch Project, and it's happening again now with Paranormal Activity. And it's dumb and pointless.

Yes, Paranormal Activity is another ultra-low-budget, shot-on-home-video film with semi-professional actors, just like Blair Witch, with a tiny scope and scares built up more out of suggestion and mood than anything else. And like Blair Witch, it works. Director Oren Peli slowly and carefully crafts a mood of discomfort in what is supposed to be the most comfortable place of all - the modern middle-class suburban home - and proceeds to demolish any sense of safety through prudent use of sound effects and a smart use of visual space. On its face, a movie like this seems simplistic, but when you look at some of the failures in the genre over the last ten years - Blair Witch 2, Quarantine and, worst of all, Cloverfield (I still haven't seen Rec) - you realize that crafting a mood through camerawork and sound design isn't quite so easy after all. And mood is where a movie like Paranormal Activity lives and dies. And in this case, to this particular movie-goer, it was a success.

Granted, it's a small-scale movie with characters who aren't fully-inhabited literary characters, a la the characters in, say, The Innocents or The Haunting. Nor, however, do they need to be. But they are unique individuals, brought to life by solid (if unspectacular) performances, and rounded out by a dash of subtextual conflict - this is as much a movie about dealing with a douchebag boyfriend as it is about a vengeful demon, and the conflict between the characters is just as important as the conflict with their invisible tormentor (and in some ways, it's the same conflict).

One last note: the ending, which was apparently added well after the movie screened at festivals in 2007 and 2008, is a little dopey. It's appropriately big and climactic, yes, but it's also kind of a lame Hollywood wink at the audience. But I guess it's hard to argue with Steven Spielberg when he's giving notes.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pieces (1982)

This scene is pretty much all you need to know about the partially-Spanish-made 1982 slasher Pieces - a college coed has just been murdered, chainsaw-style, in a locker room, and Lynda Day George here has discovered the body.

What I especially like about this moment is the total bewilderment the other actor has on his face - how is he supposed to react to this insane bit of performance? I'm just surprised he isn't cracking up.

Hopefully without sounding pretentious, Pieces is the ne plus ultra of the cheesy '80s slasher movie, a ludicrously-written, horribly-performed, completely gratuitous piece of trash exploitation that is nonetheless totally delightful. It's a movie that opens with a pre-teen murdering his mother with an axe, and ends with (spoiler alert!) a corpse squeezing a guy's crotch from beyond the grave. It's also a movie where this happens:

"My kung fu professor". God bless the schlockmeisters.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Final Exam (1981)

Ugh, save me from the '80s slasher movie where NOTHING HAPPENS. There's a reason why there were so many Halloween ripoffs in the early '80s: they were cheap to make. All you needed was a small cast of unknown actors, a few simple locations (a house or two, a college gym, a summer camp) and a decent special effects guy with some gore experience. Put it all together and you have a huge rate of return - the first Friday the 13th cost less than $1 million, and grossed more than $30 million.

So how can you find an even higher rate of return? Cut your costs so that your entire movie consists of young actors chattering in nondescript locations, with no extravagant gore beyond a stabbing or two. So in that respect, a completely bland, generic slasher movie like Final Exam actually has more in common with a Mumblecore movie, except less pretentiousness and (thankfully) more murders.

Final Exam is set on a thinly-populated college campus right at the end of a semester. There are maybe a dozen kids around, and they all talk about how they need to pass their exams and how they're in love with each other and yadda yadda. There's a nerdy guy who manages the football team (read: he accounts for the equipment) and another guy rushing for his fraternity who winds up tied to a tree and covered in whipped cream. And that's ALL that happens from between the initial pair of deaths (5 min. in, making out in a convertible) to the next death scene (55 min. in, tied to a tree). Okay, add in the bizarre frat prank in which a bunch of guys launch a paramilitary terrorist attack on the campus and kill a dozen students - just kidding? (That actually happens, but nobody cares much). Now, if you're a good enough screenwriter, you can develop characters in such a way that the audience doesn't care that there's nothing particularly interesting happening on-screen - but even the Scream movies were smart enough to pepper in a death scene at least every 20 minutes or so.

It doesn't help that Final Exam's killer is totally nondescript - lacking in motivation and even in any kind of cool iconography, he's basically just a middle-aged dude in slacks and a khaki shirt out to kill coeds. Like, give me someone I can't find in real life, already, jeeze.

I'd like to give the movie credit for the couple of minor thrills and laughs that I got out of it, or the six seconds of nudity it contains, but there aren't enough to write home about. Just a bland, generic '80s slasher, lost to time.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

The New Beverly All-Night Horrorthon 2009

God, I love the New Beverly, LA's grungiest non-porn repertory theater. This year, as last year, they showed an all-night horror movie marathon in the lead-up to Halloween and I was there, here's the quick rundown:

Dog Soldiers (2002): I had seen Neil Marshall's directorial debut before on DVD; on a second viewing it's still a pretty kickass action/horror hybrid, but at the same time some of Marshall's inexperience felt more prominent, along with the screenplay's seams. Either way, still a fun, smart little movie. 7/10

The Burning (1981): This should be the title for a horror movie about a skin disease, but it's actually a Friday the 13th clone produced by Harvey Weinstein, and like a lot of other movies from very early in the slasher era, it actually has its own identity and some strong moments. Still, not much to write home about, beyond the presence of Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and (somewhere in there) Holly Hunter. 6/10

The House by the Cemetery (1981): This was when things really kicked in for me because of my love for the films of Lucio Fulci, the weirdest and least rational Italian horror filmmaker of the era. Like all of his movies, this one is loaded full of bizarre images only connected by fleeting dream-logic: mannequins losing their heads and bleeding, little girls appearing out of nowhere to give cryptic warnings, monsters that bleed maggots. Good stuff! The former owner of the titular house was a - get this - Dr. Freudstein. 7/10

At this point, the organizers showed three Tales from the Crypt episodes, and while they were fun, I think it would have made more sense to just show a single episode as a palate-cleanser. Three in a row was a bit much.

Superstition (1982): Probably the weakest movie of the night, and one that didn't actually involve 'superstition' per se but rather the vengeful spirit of a witch haunting a house and causing peoples' heads to wind up in microwaves and saw blades to fly across the room and kill people. I nodded off during the second half of this rather slow-moving movie and missed some of the explanatory stuff, but I don't think I missed much. 4/10

Fight For Your Life (1977): I had also seen this one before at the New Bev, basically a Last House on the Left variant with a vicious white racist (William Sanderson, in a great performance) holding an African-American family hostage and spewing the most amazingly awful torrent of hate-speech at them for an hour and a half. Of course it all ends with the family rising up and striking back at their oppressor. I wonder if, at the New Beverly, there was a single African-American person watching it last night or if it was all complacent white hipsters like myself. 7/10

Galaxy of Terror (1981): Probably not the best idea to put another very slow movie at the very end of the night, and this Alien-ripoff is pretty incomprehensible, but it still has Sid Haig chopping off one of his own arms, Grace Zabriskie captaining a spaceship and somehow ending up barbequed, and an attractive blonde actress basically getting raped and killed by a gigantic maggot. When you can't really tell if what you're watching is actually on the screen or just a product of your own movie-addled mind, you've had a good night. 6/10

Overall, a very fun night, although I wish that the programmers would range out a little further - a slew of '70s-'80s grindhouse movies is fine, but I'd love it if they could mix it up with maybe some '50s Hammer or something modern from France or Japan or maybe something more mainstream and classic in there - tossing in a John Carpenter or Wes Craven film alongside the no-name slashers. Anyway, 52 weeks to Horrorthon 2010!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964) & This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (1967)

As far as I can tell, Jose Mojica Marins basically pioneered the Latin American horror movie at about the same time that the British, Italians, and Japanese were all launching into the worldwide exploitation market. And like most of those movies, JMM's work is raw, pulpy, and an expression of raw id. Marins' alter-ego, Coffin Joe, is basically the world's worst undertaker, with an ego of colossal, Nietzche-esque proportions and a worldview somewhere between Hitler and Ayn Rand on the subject of the need to extend his bloodline by murdering whatever subhumans will get in his way.

Some critics have had a problem with the politics of Marins' films, and it's not hard to see why, since Coffin Joe (more technically, 'Ze de Caixao') is pretty much the only character in either of the two Marins movies that I've seen, with everybody else basically just showing up to cringe at or be enraged by Coffin Joe's antics.

Yesterday night the Silent Theater showed Marins' first two Coffin Joe pictures. At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is a fairly modest c-level production elevated, more than anything, by Marins' performance as Joe and his own ability to create mood. The plot is pretty flimsy - Joe wants women to bear him children, and kills a few people when they become obstacles - but it all works with a surprising degree of mood and gore, not to mention some blasphemy; the opening scenes take place on a Friday, and Joe rants about wanting to eat meat, and proceeds to blatantly chew on a leg of lamb while watching the local villagers in a religious procession outside his window, chuckling the whole time.

At Midnight was just the dress rehearsal for This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, a bigger, more violent, more outrageous sequel. Coffin Joe, brought back to life after the events of the previous movie by a retcon line of dialogue, is more intent on ever on his goal of creating a master race with the perfect woman, and basically kidnaps and auditions a group of young ladies for the job. If there's such a thing as tarantula-porn, this movie is it, with spiders crawling all over a gaggle of young women in nighties.

The high point of the movie, though, is a sequence in which Joe find himself transported to Hell, witnessing the torments of the damned in gory full-color. It's a crazy sequence, but it's marred by venturing out of the black and white mood created up to that point - seeing all the crappy papier-mache sets in full color causes them to lose a lot of their charm.

(I have more to say on these films but right now I've gotta go to the New Beverly's 12-hour horrorthon. Until later.)

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul: 6/10
This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse: 7/10

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Broadview Security

Anyone who watches enough basic cable has seen these ads, and I want to congratulate the fine people at Broadview Security for inventing a new subgenre: Fear Porn. Without the services of Broadview Security, you too will be the victim of a brazen daylight attack!

Basically, I think these things are terrible, blatantly exploiting peoples' (specifically women's) fears through slick filmmaking, and I hope the commercial-makers themselves were holding their noses when they cashed their checks.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Entity (1982)

This one played at the New Beverly about a month ago and I didn't know anything about it except that the premise involves Barbara Hershey getting raped by a ghost. Obviously this was a can't miss premise in the post-Exorcist era even if it sounds utterly ridiculous now. And sure enough, that's what happens, about five times during the course of the movie, each time accompanied by the most awesomely tasteless, throbbing music that you've ever heard in a rape scene in a movie. It's basically loud, insistent porno music, and it returns every time the ghost (or whatever) goes after Hershey.

What's most interesting to me about this movie is that it seems to exhibit cinematic split-personality disorder. On the one hand we have what we see happening to Hershey - she gets slapped and raped by invisible forces, and this is all seen objectively - there's clearly a ghost (or something) attacking her.

At the same time, the movie introduces Ron Silver as her psychiatrist, a sympathetic, rational guy who proceeds to make a very compelling case that Hershey's character is, in fact, nuts - that she's had an unhealthy sex life, that her relationships with men have been unstable, and that the whole thing is a figment of her imagination. This is combined with a number of subtle touches director Sidney J. Furie adds to the movie, constantly bringing in reflections and mirror images (like the above) to suggest that she's doing it to herself - this is all pretty convincing, cinematically, especially given Barbara Hershey's completely committed, nuanced performance...

Except for when the blue lightning bolts attack Hershey's son, or at the end of the movie, when scientists manage to trap and freeze the entity as a giant blob of blue goo. WHUH? I guess the filmmakers thought that making both sides of the debate convincing would be quirky and ambiguous, but...WHUH?

Anyway, Furie's direction is controlled and Hershey gives a very strong performance, so I recommend the movie on those levels, but otherwise it's a lunatic film (which also means I recommend it).


Monday, October 05, 2009

Trick 'r Treat (2009)

It's a strange feeling to be in a theater full of people who are having a different experience than yours. The best example of this feeling in my lifetime was when I went to see Eyes Wide Shut on opening weekend, and when the audience of mainstream movie-goers expecting a Basic Instinct-style erotic thriller actually got a lengthy dream-fugue on sexual morality, the audience's emotional strain (even, distress) was palpable, while I was grinning ear-to-ear at Kubrick's posthumous audacity.

It was a less extreme feeling when I went to see Michael Dougherty's Trick 'r Treat at the New Beverly on Sunday night, but I still had that feeling while the audience was going crazy about the film around me. Really? You guys are really that into this? Let me emphasize, Trick 'r Treat is not a bad movie, and it's clearly a labor of love. But it's not a great movie, and the reaction I was feeling was the reaction to a much better movie than the one I saw.

Trick 'r Treat was written and directed by Michael Dougherty, screenwriter on X2 and Superman Returns, and it's become famous for how long its release has been delayed - originally slated to come out in October 2007, it's only now getting a few token releases in advance of its dump to DVD. Such is Hollywood (and the foul effects of the Saw franchise). And then along the line, it became some kind of cause celebre among the world of horror movie bloggers. And I'm all in favor of movie bloggers championing disrespected movies...but there's still some weird disconnect here.

Trick 'r Treat is an anthology movie, and individual sequences within it are pretty terrific, especially the climactic sequence pitting Brian Cox against 'Sam', an enigmatic trick-or-treater/demon (he's that cute little guy in the picture up top). Well and good, but then other sequences, especially one involving Anna Paquin as a meek Red Riding Hood in search of a man, just fall flat - and Paquin's sequence got the biggest cheers and applause from the New Beverly crowd. Wha happa? Somehow, some crucial element of the the scene passed me by, because what I saw was a confusingly-shot, blandly-written episode with a predictable twist.

In fact, the movie as a whole, in general, suffers from confusing direction and misguided writing. Dougherty made the good decision to try and integrate his episodes into each other (unlike most anthology movies, like Creepshow, which stand separate), but the ways Dougherty chooses to interweave his stories don't really lead to anything. Dylan Baker, as a creepy school principal, is good within his own story, but it doesn't really add anything, or even make sense, for him to pop up within the Anna Paquin story. Brian Cox's presence as a character in two separate stories is established through a totally gratuitous photograph that appears very late in the movie - that's bad screenwriting, from a guy who's made hundreds of thousands as a Hollywood screenwriter. And so on.

Let me reiterate, I loved specific moments within this movie - Brian Cox fighting a junior pumpkinhead is up there with Karen Black vs. the Zuni fetish doll; Dylan Baker's performance is awesome as always; and the storyline involving a busload of special needs kids who die in a bus crash (see above) is nicely creepy and has a great payoff. But the movie as a whole? I hate to be a Halloween grinch, but it's only okay, not amazing, and hardly a modern classic. I really feel bad saying it - I want to encourage people to see this movie, but also not to have too-high expectations.


Sunday, October 04, 2009

Creepshow (1982)

Creepshow creeped me out before I even saw it. This was thanks to the Berni Wrightson graphic novel that came out the same time as the movie, which my Stephen King-loving mother bought and which I gobbled up (it being a lot easier and quicker to read than, say, The Stand). And, at the age of 5, it was my first introduction to the world of the E.C.-style comics that it was homaging, full of lurid love triangles and vengeful zombies and (worst of all) toothy monsters in crates. Thanks the the nightmares the graphic novel gave me, it took me a few years to actually get around to watching the George A. Romero movie.

So imagine my surprise as a pre-teen to discover that what had been nightmare fodder in print had been transmuted into something colorful and funny in film. As a filmmaker, Romero's kind of a point-and-shoot guy, more of a concept man than a true master of form, space, and color, and he has a tendency to moralize in his lesser movies. So the opportunity to make a movie that was all about style and fun and not about making sociological points seems to have loosened him up and given him the freedom to make a movie that actually has a visual style, for pretty much the only time in his career. Granted, it's a visual style largely borrowed from his buddy Dario Argento's films Suspiria and Inferno, but whatever works.

Of course, the quality of the stories varies, with the weakest ("Father's Day") up front, with the most boring characters and worst performances in the whole movie. From that point, things start to click. "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" is basically a one-man show starring screenwriter and non-actor Stephen King, and his performance is broad and ridiculous, but thankfully Romero knows this and pitches the tone of the story around King to make everything fit. King was never going to be up for an Oscar, but at the very least you have to give him credit for fully committing to his role as a dim-witted Maine hick, with more than a few traces of autobiography. This section also functions as the film's highest moment of tragedy, not bad for a story about a guy turning into Swamp Thing.

Episode 3, "Something to Tide You Over", is probably the most successful in the film in capturing that old-fashioned E.C. feeling of dismal deeds and ghastly justice from beyond, plus Leslie Nielsen and Ted Danson are both pretty good in it.

But for me, the highlight of the whole movie is "The Crate", in which we're told that Adrienne Barbeau deserves to be eaten by a baboon for committing the sin of being an Obnoxious Drunk. Barbeau is great in this segment, almost certainly the pinnacle of her acting career, and Fritz Weaver and Hal Holbrook bring their A-games as well (Weaver's incoherent babbling after each monster attack is a highlight of the movie).

Finally, the last segment, "They're Creeping Up On You" is one of the lesser ones, but (as I discovered seeing it at the New Beverly) it plays better on the big screen, where the claustrophobia and ickiness of the bugs can really take hold. E.G. Marshall demonstrates the real way to take a one-man segment and make it work (sorry, Steve King).

Ultimately, as much as I love this movie, I have to admit that the whole thing feels like something of a collection of Tales from the Darkside episodes strung together. Not that that's a bad thing either, but only in certain moments (like "The Crate") does it really take cinematic flight.

Two other tangential notes: It's an amazing thing to watch a horror movie that doesn't feature a single teenager; and Romero's version of how to make a comic-book movie is so much smarter and more appropriate than what Ang Lee tried to do in his Hulk that it's not even funny.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Jennifer's Body (2009)

Lame. There's a lot of untapped potential here in this story literalizing the hell of high school social relations into an actual story of demonic possession, but what ended up on the screen looks like it was about three screenplay drafts away from being ready to shoot - the character relationships are underdeveloped, the structure is clunky, things are set up and then poorly paid off, if at all.

I'll give the filmmakers credit: Diablo Cody's script does have its share of good dialogue and jokes, and the cast does a good job, especially Amanda Seyfried in the lead and Johnny Simmons as her boyfriend (and the rare actor in a teen movie who actually looks like a teenager). Even Megan Fox isn't awful as Jennifer, showing a lot more acting ability than Michael Bay ever bothered to try and get out of her.

The problem is that the movie's emotional connections don't connect; we know that Jennifer, the school's hot slutty bitch, has a strong, co-dependent relationship with Seyfried's geeky character Needy, but the relationship is skin-deep - the movie's idea of investigating these characters is to give them a gratuitous kissing scene. Not that I'm against girls kissing, but Cody's screenplay does such a poor job of building up to it, or tracking the follow-up, that it really serves no useful purpose (beyond the obvious).

On top of all this, Karyn Kusama directs like a first-timer, with no sense of space or mood. But my biggest complaint is the presence of Adam Brody as the lead singer of a band who sell their souls to Satan in exchange for success. Yeah, they're responsible for turning Jennifer into a demon, but their connection to the story is so incredibly poorly managed that they really distract from everything else. Okay, my BIGGEST complaint was the huge number of plot holes, but I could just keep going on forever.

So in conclusion, what Jennifer's Body tells me is that Jason Reitman was the unsung hero in making Juno coherent and emotionally engaging.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Schlocktober Begins: Hausu (1977)

Sweet jeebus, I went the entire month of September without making a single entry here? Dammit. It was a busy, stressful month, a time now relieved by the magic of...(drum roll)...Unemployment!

So here's the deal: I have no job to go to and it's October, so my goal for this month is to actually make a blog post every day. And the best way for me to do that is to set myself a goal: Review a horror movie every day (more or less). It'll be a grab bag of stuff I haven't seen before and stuff I've seen a hundred times before, just whatever I happen to be watching at any given time, so it'll be eclectic. For starters, the insane Japanese horror-fantasy that I saw at the American Cinematheque last week, Hausu (aka House).

The first thing you have to know about Hausu is that one of the credited screenwriters is the director's then-seven-year-old daughter. From that point, the brazenly Oedipal layers of the story make perfect, unironic sense: a teenage girl (named 'Gorgeous' in the version I saw. Other girls are named 'Mac', 'Prof', and oddly for a Japanese movie, 'Kung Fu') is planning to go on a vacation with her father, a trip ruined when the father suddenly introduces his new fiancee, amidst much wind blowing and scarf flapping, thus destroying their fragile and quasi-erotic father-daughter bond. Gorgeous cancels her plans and instead decides to go with her gang of schoolgirl friends to visit her lonely aunt, whom she hasn't seen in years. Once at the aunt's big, creepy house, things start to get strange...

Okay, that's what would happen in any other movie of this genre type, except that Hausu has been irremediably strange from its first frames, working as a heightened parody of teenage-girls-in-peril movies from the get-go, using every trick in the book: frames within frames, flashbacks, wacky sped-up Monkees-style comedy montages, you name it. Things are already strange and then get stranger.

The best way I can explain Hausu to someone who hasn't seen it is as a mash-up of Argento's Suspiria and Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris. And it should be noted that neither of those movies is exactly well-known by the mainstream. Hausu is definitely a fringe movie - specifically, it's the kind of movie that's so fringe, it's the kind of movie that people who have seen just about everything seek out in order to hit a new high of audio-visual bizarreness. Yeah, maybe you've seen Lucio Fulci destroy an eyeball or ten and maybe you've seen Herzog stage a little person cackling at a pooping camel, but have you seen a piano eat a girl? Or maybe a man turn into a heap of bananas, for no reason whatsoever? These are the treasures granted to the viewer by director Nobuhiko Obayashi in Hausu.

So it's not exactly a movie that integrates its wild imagery in the service of a coherent statement about what life is like for teenage girls, or within a fairly traditional patriarchal structure, or so on, like, say, Carrie or any good episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; rather, it's a deliberate, anything-goes, screwball fantasia. Even the 'scary' moments, like the below Youtube link, are more about reaching a heightened aesthetic experience than about actually communicating the horror of being electocuted by a killer lampshade. The director is clearly making an extended, fantastic gag of a movie, and your enjoyment of it will depend on your own willingness to follow a chain of surreal dream-logic and parodic weirdness as far as it can go. And within its own crazy worldview, there are nuggets of fairy-tale gold in this film.


(Next up: either Jennifer's Body or Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell. Or maybe Firestarter or Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Don't pressure me!)