Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Horrorfest 2007 Report #8: King’s World


Perhaps no other person has contributed so much to the institution of horror in American entertainment than Stephen King. His reputation for his prolific body of work feeding off the fears of the public is common knowledge, but since he is a writer and not a filmmaker—as can be evidenced from his own attempts to contribute to movie making with efforts like “Maximum Overdrive” and “Sleepwalkers”—many people don’t realize just how many films exist that are based on his works. Probably more than any other writer’s in history. He outsells Agatha Christie and Jesus, and he certainly has had more popular films based on his work.

I have even considered dedicating an entire Horrorfest to the film works of Stephen King, but can’t see limiting myself to one artist like that. But I believe this year’s Horrorfest has encompassed more of King’s work than any other thanks to the inclusion of TNT’s mini-series based on King’s collection of short stories “Nightmares & Dreamscapes”. With that collection of eight hour-long films and two other feature films based on his works screened during this year’s festival, I certainly created a Stephen King sub-festival this year. I only wish Frank Darabont’s adaptation of his short story “The Mist” had been released to theaters three weeks earlier, and I could have included that one this year as well.

“Nightmares & Dreamscapes”

Battleground. When I was twelve or so, Dungeons & Dragons ruled my life. Even when we weren’t gaming, my friends and I would get together to paint little figurines of orcs and goblins and skeleton armies. During this time I was inspired to write a short story in which a young gamer’s collection of Dungeon & Dragons figures came to life and attacked him.

Many years later, I was reading Stephen King’s short story “Battleground” in which a hit man is attacked by a box of plastic army soldiers. As I read, I thought to myself, “Gee, I could swear I’ve read this story before.” No, I don’t think King stole my idea. In fact, I believe he had published it long before I wrote mine and even collected it in his first anthology of shorts “Night Shift”. And I’m sure his story is much better than what my juvenile mind could muster. But that same thought echoed through my memory as I watched the filmed version of “Battleground”.

“Battleground” is certainly a unique film experience. Not because of its concept of toys come to life, which has certainly been seen many times before in much lesser films. No, “Battleground” is unique because during its hour-long running time not one word is ever uttered by any of its characters.

William Hurt stars as the hit man in yet another wonderful performance by the actor. This hit man is possibly given more weight in my mind because of Hurt’s spectacular performance as a crimelord in David Cronenberg’s great film “A History of Violence”. Of course, that performance was distinguished by an exquisite speech given by Hurt. This role is distinguished by Hurt’s incredible ability to convey an entire history and ethos without one word of dialogue to help. “Battleground” isn’t nearly as impressive as a plot as it is as an example of the influential combination of taut filmmaking and a seamless performance.



Crouch End. There is a type of horror film that is just plain bizarre. The feature “Don’t Look Now”, which I viewed earlier in this festival, might fit into this category, at least considering its conclusion. “Crouch End” is mostly bizarre. It involves American newlyweds, played by Eion Bailey and Claire Forlani, honeymooning in London. They are invited by a colleague of the husband to visit in a place called Crouch End. No cabbies want to take the couple to Crouch End and when one finally does he warns the couple not to stay because Crouch End is a “thin spot” between dimensions.

That’s when all the weird stuff begins. Most of which is entirely inexplicable. Something happens to the husband that changes him and forces him to cross over while the wife tries to get them back to their own dimension. There are never any fully explained details about this other dimension, and I kind of liked that.

“Crouch End” is certainly horrific, but the events this couple is put through are so strange there is little for the audience to connect to. Bailey does a great job altering the husband’s fairly charming personality into something darker after he begins to yearn to stay in Crouch End, but the otherworldly nature of this other dimension is tough to grasp. Instead of being disturbed by what was happening, I found myself struggling to understand it instead. Sometimes weird is just weird.



Umney’s Last Stand. There is a line in “Umney’s Last Stand” uttered by a writer, who has decided to write his most popular character Umney out of his universe so he can write himself into his place, which really struck a nerve for me. He speaks of how selfish and full of themselves writers are. Are we all so selfish? I dunno. Maybe. We all play God, especially us critics. King’s writer calling me selfish hurt. But I couldn’t flatly deny its truth.

Clyde Umney is a private investigator who inhabits a typical 1930’s fantasy noir world. Sam Landry is the author who has decided to take the place of his most successful creation to avoid real life. He says, “I’ve been going through an interesting period in my life. There is nothing more detrimental to a writer’s output than an ‘interesting period’.” This is certainly true.

William H. Macy plays both characters with his usual mastery of the mannerisms of the not quite comfortable. And director Rob Bowman does a great job contrasting the cute style of Umney’s world versus the quite serious predicament he finds himself in once his creator turns the tables on him. Bowman directed some of the best and quirkiest “X-Files” episodes. He does a good here balancing the humor of Umney’s lack of understanding of his circumstance and surroundings with the dark nature of what Landry has chosen to do not only to his creation, but to his own existence. It is a lesson learned for this writer.



The End of the Whole Mess. Mad scientists have long been a staple of the horror genre. They were more popular in the days of “Frankenstein” and other universal creature features, but they always represented a weakness that comes with genius. Obsession leaves blind spots, and the mad scientist is the most obsessive genius.

Mad scientists never seemed to be up Stephen King’s alley. He always seemed to prefer the more deliberate evil. The kind that keeps you awake at night. “The End of the Whole Mess” is King’s take on the mad scientist. King’s scientist has good intentions, but never stops to ponder the possible consequences of his actions. It is also the tale of two brothers and how family members have trouble abandoning their habitual roles with each other, even when it goes against their better natures.

There are two brothers, one a smart documentary filmmaker, the other a genius who can’t seem to find his place in the world. The brothers are played by two underrated actors, Ron Livingston and Henry Thomas respectively. When the violence of the human race becomes too much for the genius to handle, punctuated by the events of 9/11, he finally finds his calling and devotes his work to developing a cure for human aggression.

But the results of this cure are not the typical “Body Snatcher” event of everyone becoming the same. No, King has always preferred horror based more on real things that scare him personally. In this case that horror is Alzheimer’s. The human race is pacified, but soon it becomes apparent that the cure has made people more susceptible to this harsh degenerative mind disease. Since everyone contracts the disease at a much younger age, it seems no scientist will be able to stay focused long enough to develop an antidote. Let’s hope the human race can be spared such a pathetic fate.



The Road Virus Heads North. I never read King’s “Nightmares & Dreamscapes” anthology, but like “Battleground”, “The Road Virus Heads North” is from another of his collections that I did read. The two also share a much simpler premise than any of the other entries here. A man finds a disturbing painting at a garage sale on his way from Boston to his home in rural Maine. As he gets closer to his destination he realizes the painting is changing, its backgrounds suggesting that it is following him. The picture’s intentions cannot be good.

“Road Virus” is a strange story that doesn’t have a typical plot arc. It doesn’t quite seem fully explored, yet that isn’t a drawback. It again exemplifies King’s attempts to try out ideas that scare him personally. This idea of a picture coming to life is almost a child’s fantasy and because of that doesn’t really seem to deserve a full exploration in an adult context, and that works here. Although King did use the device in one of his full length novels “Rose Madder”, which has yet to be made into a feature film.

The casting of Tom Berenger in the lead role here adds validity to the material and what is produced by director Sergio Mimica-Gazzan is moody and terse. Wisely, too much is never shown in regards to action. This keeps the horror primarily psychological. Seeing the action of what develops would cheapen it and spotlight the fantastical nature.



The Fifth Quarter. Like many of King’s non-horror stories, “The Fifth Quarter” shows just how mature King can be as a storyteller. For the second time in this anthology of films, the direction is handled by “X-Files” veteran Rob Bowman, who makes no attempt to bring in the element of the supernatural that he is most known for as a director.

I would place this story among other prison tales of King’s, such as “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile”. “The Fifth Quarter” tells the story of a repeat offender whose wife and child have waited patiently for him to get out of prison and turn over a new leaf. But the very night of his release, he is visited by an old colleague who has been duped in a robbery scam. Will he return to the criminal life to take revenge for his friend? Will he come back with the riches his friend had been promised? Will this last scheme land him in the joint once and for all?

The story does a good job of exploring the realities of the situation in which these people of desperation find themselves, and finds a good foundation of humanity on which to base the criminal’s actions. Jeremy Sisto and Samantha Mathis do the leads a couple of solid performances, making this one of the most pleasurable films of the series.



Autopsy Room Four. “Autopsy Room Four” marks the only story from “Nightmares & Dreamscapes” that I have read. It is one of those adaptations that loses something in its translation from words to images. It follows a man who has been mistaken for dead all the way to the autopsy room. Representing yet another of King’s personal fears, the idea itself is quite intriguing. What if you found yourself on the cutting table in the autopsy room, perfectly conscious of what was happening, and unable to give any sign that you were still alive to stop the doctors from cutting you up?

The success of the premise lies in the storyteller’s ability to place the audience within the head of the victim, something that is much easier to accomplish on the page than it is in the medium of film. I recently argued the differences between John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” and the Rob Zombie remake which each try to place the audience in the killer’s head with different approaches. Zombie’s version tries to explain the psychology behind the killer and what shaped his mentality to lead him to such evil. This was ineffective, since it destroyed the unknown element that makes this killer frightening. Carpenter simply places the camera in the killer’s point of view. An effective method that would prove impractical for a story like “Autopsy Room Four” since it would involve a nearly hour-long shot of the ceiling of the autopsy room.

This film opens with a POV shot from inside a body bag, but then depends upon voice-over work and flashbacks to tell the rest of its story. It is a good attempt to recreate King’s panicked psychology, but too much of the humor comes across as goofy and the terrifying element of being stuck without anyway to communicate is lost with the man’s perfect ability to communicate with the audience. I admire this story quite a bit, but some things are better left on the page.



You Know They Got a Hell of a Band. This is by far the worst film of the bunch. “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band” seems like the doodlings of a writer who is trying to break a block. King is a great fan of classic Rock ‘n’ Roll and has utilized his passion for it in many of his works. Here it seems as if he had a silly idea and one day when he couldn’t think of anything else to write, tried to write some “Twilight Zone” horror homage to the great Rock ‘n’ Rollers who had already moved on from this world.

In this story a couple, who are trying to get away for a romantic weekend, get lost on a backwoods road and stumble on a town inhabited by the dead legends of Rock ’n’ Roll’s heyday. Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, Dwayne Allman, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Roy Orbison, even the line-up seems pasted together from too broad a palate. Stealing the age old horror tradition of creating a world from which the victims cannot escape, they must endure an eternity of the music they once loved, but has now become their hell.

The only thing goofier than the premise of meeting rock icons that will not let you leave their strange purgatory of an endless jam session, is the idea that filming this could be approached in any serious fashion. The whole thing seems shameless and should have been left on the cutting room floor.



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1408. This ghost story is from the same Stephen King collection as “The Road Virus Heads North”. Again it is not one of King’s greater works, but somehow it warranted a feature-length film. “1408” follows a ghost hunter who has made a career out of following something he doesn’t even believe in; that is until he checks into room 1408.

It isn’t a bad story, and it makes for a not bad film. But as I said, nothing special. John Cusack brings a good deal of energy and humor to the writer in the film. What I find most interesting, however, is the fact that this story ended up in a feature length theatrical release while all those stories from “Nightmares & Dreamscapes” fit so wonderfully into an individual hour-long format in an anthology series.

In order to stretch the story of “1408” into a feature length film much had to be added. This tends to be where Stephen King adaptations go wrong. I don’t know why people feel they need to adjust what is essentially just a pure entertainment to make it more entertaining. What is done to “1408” is nothing too severe, but I think it would have fit better into TNT’s “Nightmares & Dreamscapes” format. King himself seems to prefer working in TV because they allow him to keep more of his material in tact despite the more restrictive content constraints.



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The Dead Zone. With this early ‘80s novel and film adaptation we venture into classic King. “The Dead Zone” tells the story of a teacher who is involved in a car accident on his way home one evening; and after a five-year coma, wakes to find he has the ability of second sight. But at what cost? Not only is the life he knew gone for ever, but his “gift” takes a toll on him physically. He resents this curse until one day he meets a senator who he sees will one day be President of the United States and will bring about nuclear war. Finally his gift has purpose.

Directed by David Cronenberg, auteur of the sexually grotesque macabre, this film capitalized on both King’s and Cronenberg’s early popularity. Cronenberg’s involvement could have wound this film up on my “Master Class” essay, although this is a fairly tame effort for the Canadian director, which did not explore his typical early career themes of sexuality.

But Cronenberg was certainly the right choice, since he kept the focus clearly pinpointed on how this “gift” alienated the hero from society, rather than turning him into some superhero. Like King’s novel, Cronenberg takes his time developing the story and never even introduces the future president until after the halfway point. Like King he, spends a good deal of time on the more minor storyline of a serial killer who has eluded the police department of Castle Rock, Maine for many years. In desperation the sheriff enlists the teacher’s unique abilities in uncovering the identity of the killer. This storyline allows Cronenberg at least a taste of the sexual perversity he had all but trademarked at that point in time, while clarifying the hero’s reluctance to utilize his abilities.


Saturday, October 27, 2007

Resident Evil: Extinction / ** (R)


Alice: Milla Jovovich
Carlos Olivera: Oded Fehr
Claire Redfield: Ali Larter
Dr. Isaacs: Iain Glen

Screen Gems presents a film directed by Russell Mulcahy. Written by Paul W.S. Anderson, based on the Capcom video game series. Running time: 95 min. Rated R (for strong horror violence throughout and some nudity).

I’ll admit it. I’m not a video game fan. I don’t like playing them, and I’m not good at them—two facts that are probably related. But my general displeasure with video game movie adaptations has nothing to do with this. I am a film fan, and any story that is told well interests me no matter what its source. I state this because there has been an ongoing argument about why film critics seem set against video game adaptations. The most interesting of these debates has taken place between Roger Ebert and horror icon/video game creator Clive Barker. Much of this clash has been documented in Roger Ebert’s weekly Answer Man column, archived at rogerebert.com.

I actually enjoyed the first “Resident Evil” film, even though it shared the same mentality that is the downfall of so many video game adaptations. Many video games are based on the idea of interactive combat, which can be a whole lot of fun to test personal skills against but doesn’t really make for great storytelling. Yet so many video game adaptations rely heavily on the combat and violence of their source material to tell their stories. “Resident Evil: Apocalypse”, the second in the series, leaned so heavily on creating the most grotesque monsters to slaughter the cast and to be slaughtered by the heroine that it was laughable. There was no sense of purpose to any of the carnage and no discernable story, at least to the uninitiated. The original “Resident Evil” at least retained a flavor of the social commentary found in zombie movie classics like “Night of the Living Dead”.

For the third go around, not only has screenwriter/producer Paul W.S. Anderson (“Starship Troopers”) killed off almost the entire population of the planet and brought them back to life as flesh eating zombies, but he seems to have resurrected director Russell Mulcahy (“Highlander”, “The Shadow”) from the dead to helm “Resident Evil: Extinction”. The team also seems to have put a little more thought into this episode. Gone are all the grotesque creatures, save for action sequences at the beginning and end of the film. Yes, there are zombies throughout, but they come across more as part of the post-apocalyptic landscape that the heroes have to navigate to survive rather than a focal point for mindless action.

The Umbrella Corporation is still kicking around in underground bunkers, running experiments on the zombies that their recklessness created. And the few survivors of their virus outbreak must “keep on the move,” in the words of Alice (Milla Jovovich), another escaped Umbrella experiment whose blood holds the key to controlling the zombies. How she knows that normal humans must keep moving to survive is in question, since she is neither “normal”, nor in the company of others who are, at least at first.

A large convoy of normal human survivors is on the move, led by another tough girl, Claire Redfield (Ali Larter, NBC’s “Heroes”). Their caravan looks like something out of “The Road Warrior”, which I suppose is fitting since the midwestern landscape has gone the same way as that post-apocalyptic setting. Claire’s caravan of road warriors is strategically led by a former colleague of Alice’s, Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr, “The Mummy”). Alice and the caravan cross paths in an imaginative sequence that recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. Zombie birds are much more interesting that some giant CGI mutant monster.

Meanwhile, Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen, “The Last Legion”), also returning from “Resident Evil: Apocalypse”, has been busy embracing all the worst qualities of your typical mad scientist. Isaacs—recklessly and against orders—continues his experimentation on zombies, looking for a vaccination that might “domesticate the infected”. He uses a seemingly endless supply of already fully developed adult clones of Alice to procure the serum. Someone needs to point out to the fellow, however, that it shouldn’t be necessary to murder each of the clones in order to draw their blood. In theory, if he didn’t kill each clone in a pointless recreation of the first film’s beginning each time, he would only require one clone from which to draw blood.

There are holes and lapses in logic in just about every crack and crevice of this movie. Hell, many of them are just standing out in the middle of the road waiting to be run over like so many dumb zombies, but I’m willing to accept that logic must take a back seat to the action and to the skimpy, impractical costumes worn by Jovovich. Certainly “Extinction” looks better than either of its predecessors. Mulcahy’s direction is smoother and more dramatic than Anderson’s work, and bringing the action out into the brightly lit desert climate serves it well.

While critics might seem to have a “holier than thou” attitude toward films like “Resident Evil”, I’m still drawn to them for the same basic reasons as their target audience. I just want to have a good time in the theater watching an attractive heroine kicking ass on some frightening monsters. But seeing Milla Jovovich’s perfectly made up face beaming in what ought to be sweltering desert heat isn’t sexy, it’s distracting. What would best serve video game enthusiasts would be putting some hard thought into the development of their movie adaptations, not cheap thrills.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Clive Barker is going to be leading the revolution in that direction if his comments to Ebert are any indication. Follow this link to read some of their discourse.



Friday, October 26, 2007

Horrorfest 2007 Report #7: Serial Killing 101

Most slasher flicks are more focused on the slashing, the blood, and the guts of the whole process of serial killing than they are on the foundations, motivation and planning. In fact, your typical dead teenager horror movie villain has no motivation or planning behind their practices and somehow continues to get away with their grizzly deeds. Perhaps the best slasher villains don’t have reason behind their actions, but just exist as a personification of evil, as I suggested in my analysis of the “Halloween” franchise earlier this year. But sometimes it is good to see something that suggests it all has some sort of point.

Of course, one reason for slicing someone up could be for monetary gain. That is the case with the potential torture porn flick “Turistas” (2006). I say “potential” torture porn because the scares never quite materialize and the torture only appears for a brief but functional scene. This film, which was once titled “Turistas Go Home”, would not fall under the horror genre title if it weren’t for a gruesome surgery scene around which the entire plot of the film is based. It involves a group of young beautiful tourists who decide against their better judgment that it would be fun to take a bus into the mountain area surrounding Rio de Janeiro. After a bus crash that made me wish I was watching “Romancing the Stone”, because then my laughter would have been appropriate, the beautiful people discover that it is common practice in these Brazilian jungles for European accented doctors to cut up stupid Americans and sell their organs on the black market.

For all its efforts to disturb and disgust, “Turistas” is really a simple thriller. It doesn’t really have much wrong with it other than characters that make senseless choices. It’s hard to care for people like that.



There is a much better film out there about selling organs on the black market from a few years back called “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002). Directed by the great Stephen Frears (“The Queen”, "High Fidelity”), it stars Audrey Tautou and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a gripping thriller about the organ trade and how something so terrible can exist. That one is worth a look, even though it lacks the serial killer.

Now, Kevin Costner’s “Mr. Brooks” falls back on a simpler motivation for its titular serial killer. He just likes killing people. But it takes a very unique look at that killer and his meticulous techniques in another slasher story trapped in a thriller format.

This movie has such joy in what it is doing. The most delightful element is William Hurt appearing as Costner’s “conscience.” He’s more like an anti-conscience as he urges Costner’s Brooks into killing again after two years of abstinence. The fact that a personification of Brooks’ conscience is never explained is wise, and Hurt is such a pleasure to watch the question of his presence never arises until the film is done and over.

As for the rest of the film, it is ambitious in the way it throws so many elements into Brooks’ life; a daughter that has dropped out of college for mysterious reasons, a witness who blackmails Brooks into taking him along on a killing, and a detective going through a nasty divorce. Writer-director Bruce A. Evans juggles all of these elements very well, adding layer upon layer to each character’s presence and purpose, all the while exploring a lifelong killer’s meticulous process. The film only falters in its final moments, an example of a film that should have rolled its credits one minute before it does.

Just as a killer needs to remain true to his nature, “Mr. Brooks” struggles between its unique nature and its more typical template. Had it remained steadfast in its final moments it would have glowed as an unusual Hollywood treatment, exuberant in its own glorification, and true to the beast within.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Horrorfest 2007 Report #6: Anthology of Horror

The anthology format has never fit with any other film genre the way in which it has been embraced by horror. I haven’t really explored many anthologies during my previous Horrorfests. Frankly, anthology films are all too often sub par. But this year, I seem to have started a bit of a new tradition for anthologies with the inclusion of the anthology series “Nightmares & Dreamscapes” (to be discussed in a future report). Also, just released to DVD for the first time is the feature-length film of the classic horror anthology television show “Twilight Zone: The Movie”.

In past Horrorfests I have looked at some older B-movies and even Z-movies from AMC’s horror anthology DVD releases “AMC Monsterfest”. I looked at another film from the series this year. And I’ve never quite been able to figure out just how to deal with television episodes that I may have watched during the month of Horrorfest which might relate.

I’m including all these highlights from this year’s festival, plus a look at the wonderful IFC documentary on horror films of the late 60’s and 70’s “The American Nightmare”, in a unique collection of odds and ends in this very essay.

I have been a fan of the television series “The X-Files” ever since I used to go home from college on the weekends and find myself at my friend Jud’s sister’s house for a younger version of family holidays. We offspring would gather at those times that generally were meant for family gatherings to inject a little bit of pier sanity into the holidays. Emily and Osian were hardcore X-Fanatics who recorded every episode of the then fledgling series. Long before DVDs and the current television DVD phenomenon, it was something to see people so devoted to a series they would stack their walls with VHS tapes dedicated to capturing every airing.

I started watching the sci-fi series soon after I was introduced to it by Em and Os. And I cursed their names after I had dropped some seven hundred dollars or so collecting the entire series on DVD as they were released. Being one of the first TV series to grace DVD, the industry hadn’t yet learned to price them as affordably as you can find TV DVD today. But the success of TV DVD certainly can be attributed in part to the success of that particular series on DVD.

Most recently I watched a 7th season episode titled “The Goldberg Variation”, which refers to a case of a man graced with extremely good luck. The man in this episode of “X-Files”, however, does not look at his good luck as a gift, but rather a curse. He’s trying to get a sum of cash for a reason I will not disclose here, but seems to be going about it in a very roundabout way for someone who could just walk into the local cigarette shop and buy himself a winning lottery ticket by way of his extremely good luck. This guy’s problem is that for every bit of good luck he receives, the people around him seem to pay with bouts of extremely bad luck. A mobster has a contract out on his life, but his goons can’t seem to get the job done because they cannot survive their own attacks on the guy.

“X-Files” became known most for its “mythology” episodes, which told the ongoing story of Agent Mulder’s and Agent Scully’s struggle within the FBI to learn the truth behind a supposed alien invasion in which high members of the FBI were duplicitous. But it is the quirky one-off episodes, like this one, that really make this television series an enjoyable entertainment and emphasize the elements of sci-fi and horror upon which the series is based. There is a great deal of humor incorporated into the series and the relationship of the two leads make it a television landmark deserving a look from horror enthusiasts.



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The 1962 Z-movie horror flick “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” is not good cinema. With its terrible acting, sets that look as if they were cobbled together in someone’s basement, and a less than compelling storyline about a surgeon who has developed a method to keep the brain alive even when the body has died, this film is an unfortunate representation of the quality of many a horror flick. Even today, the reason studios produce so many horror films each year is that they are easy to make cheaply and can appeal to an audience without much promotion or favorable reviews.

It has become a fairly common practice for studios not to screen films they suspect will not be well received for critics. In 2006, major Hollywood studios more than doubled the amount of films not screened for critics from any previous year. This year that number of films was matched by mid-summer. In most cases, these films not screened for critics are of the horror genre, although the studios are now beginning to follow suit with other genre films, like gross-out comedies and spoofs. It is a bit frightening to think that studios can have so little confidence in the quality of their products yet no fear that it will make any difference with audiences.

Now, I’m sure back in 1962 “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” was not pre-screened for critics. But many promotional practices were different back then and the film was hardly the product of a major studio. It was one of a plethora of releases from the widely popular independent distributor American International Pictures (AIP), which released a wide variety of cult favorites, ranging widely in quality. AIP brought classic film adaptations of such literary classics as “Julius Caesar” and “Wuthering Heights” to American audiences as well as distributing Martin Scorsese’s first film “Boxcar Bertha”, but titles like “The Thing with Two Heads” and “Black Mama, White Mama” were the studio’s staple. Certainly they had little confidence in “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”, since that isn’t even the title of the film in its own credits. Its real title was “The Head That Wouldn’t Die”. “Brain” does sound the slightest bit more interesting. Don’t you think?



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IFC has produced a number of documentaries over the past few years chronicling independent filmmaking in a variety of genres and time periods, including “Baadasssss Cinema”, “Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema”, “The Spaghetti West”, “A Decade Under the Influence” and “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession”. While these docs make for great montages and good chronicles of their respective subjects, “The American Nightmare” is by for the most in depth investigation into the motivations behind the films studied in any of these docs.

In my previous Horrorfest report “Nothing is What It Seems”, I discussed how the horror genre is often used as a vehicle for directors to comment on matters other than the literal horror depicted. “The American Nightmare” is a testament to that fact. Although, as director Tobe Hooper observes, it is often decades later before it becomes apparent just what is being reflected about the world in which these films were made.

“The American Nightmare” shows interviews with the ‘70’s greatest independent horror maestros, including Hooper, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, George A. Romero, David Cronenberg, John Landis, and creature designer Tom Savini. The doc takes focus on one film from each of the directors, except for Landis whose “An American Werewolf in London” did not release until 1981. Romero is the only director with two films featured, “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), but they are perhaps the most important of the lot. Other films featured include “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (Hooper, 1974), “The Last House on the Left” (Craven, 1972), “Shivers” (Cronenberg, 1975), and “Halloween” (Carpenter, 1978).

Writer/director Adam Simon isn’t interested in the making of these horror classics or even the scares contained within them. Simon focuses more on the events that were going on in the world at the time these films were made. The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the oil crisis, the Iranian hostage crisis, American consumerism, and the sexual revolution dominate the stories these directors have to tell about the times their films reflected. These underlying subjects are what have turned these films into enduring classics.

It is surprising to see filmmakers speaking so intelligently about their projects and the world that birthed them when compared to the vapid DVD making of documentaries you see accompanying movies today. John Carpenter even apologizes for ruining everything with “Halloween”. That movie’s amazing success spurred the copycat filmmaking and slew of dead teenager plotlines that still dominate the genre more than twenty years later.

My only regret about this doc is that Simon didn’t study more of these directors’ outputs from that era. It would have been nice to see more about the inspiration for such films as Cronenberg’s “The Brood” (1979), “Scanners” (1981), and “Videodrome” (1983); Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977) and “Deadly Blessing” (1981); Hooper’s “Eaten Alive” (1977) and “Poltergeist” (1982); Carpenter’s “The Fog” (1980) and “The Thing” (1982); and Landis’s aforementioned “An American Werewolf in London”. Of course, by the time many of these films came along, these independent directors were working for the major studios.



***

Speaking of John Landis, Warner Bros. has finally released the Landis produced anthology project “Twilight Zone: The Movie”. As a Steven Spielberg fan, I have been waiting for a long time for this release, since he directed one of the four segments. Landis helmed the first segment and the fun prologue (which can be viewed below). The final two segments were helmed by Joe Dante (“The Howling”) and George Miller (“The Road Warrior”).

This feature film based on the classic sci-fi/horror anthology television series had a shadow cast over it when an on set helicopter crash took the lives of star Vic Morrow and two child actors. Although Warner Bros. went ahead with the theatrical release of the film, the production company was bogged down for some six years afterward in court trails to determine who, if anyone, was at fault for the accident. Landis was the primary target of the legal process, and the suit went a ways toward derailing this talented director’s career.

Because of the anthology format, the tragedy had little effect on the film itself. Landis’s segment about a bigot who relives integral time periods of his prejudiced views does seem cut short, not having each prejudice fully played out, but ends in a way typical of an anthology entry with the existing film footage. Surprisingly, Spielberg’s entry is the weakest of the bunch, telling an upbeat story about folks in a nursing home reliving their youth. The final two segments are the best of the bunch, with Dante telling the story of a kid with the power to make anything he imagines a reality and Miller retelling the classic “Twilight Zone” story “Nightmare at 20,000 ft.” starring John Lithgow in the William Shatner role of a paranoid airline passenger who spots a gremlin tearing apart the wing of the plane.

Despite the amazing talent involved in the film, from directors to actors, Warner Bros. has been very cautious with it throughout the years because of the accident. The DVD release is bare bones, only including the original theatrical teaser along with the film. It seems a production like this would have a treasure trove of material for bonus features even without touching upon its tragic history, although a feature on that would certainly be more interesting than most DVD extras. Landis directed several films for Universal that were packed with extras for the DVD releases. Spielberg regularly produces two-disc sets for his films. And Dante and Miller have recently produced films for Warner Bros. filled DVD extras. It’s too bad “Twilight Zone: The Movie” has such a frightening history that the studio feels it is better to deny it to its audience.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Horrorfest 2007 Report #5: Nothing is What It Seems

There is this thing about great art where if you are just looking at it you can appreciate it for what it is, but if you pay close attention to it you will see a whole lot more. Any great genre film is good entertainment for what it is, but it is also about something other than what it is about. A zombie flick isn’t just about zombies. A serial killer is not just a sociopath. A bug is rarely merely a bug.

Of course, this attribute can be found in many of the films looked at in any given year of my Horrorfest. This year’s festival opener, “The Host”, is a great example of it. You can watch it as a creature feature about a giant salamander on the rampage in the sewers of Seoul, Korea. It’s exciting, quirky and fun. But if you look deeper into the subtext you could find what might be intended as critique on South Korean and American foreign policy.

There are three films I looked at recently that are not quite so subtle in their underlying agendas, but just as effective.

“28 Days Later” was a summer sleeper zombie flick from a couple of years back that went a good way to redefine the sub-genre of zombie horror, basing the zombies on a more plausible “rage” virus infecting people through their bloodstreams like a super-virus instead of just having zombies rise from the dead. The rage zombies were faster, more violent, and quite frightening.

This summer kicked off with the allocated sequel “28 Weeks Later”, which sees a London in the weeks after the rage virus has been contained as like some sort of war refugee zone. The American military has been brought in to facilitate the repopulation of London, contain and find a possible cure for the virus, and keep the peace among the traumatized British survivors.

The first film in the series also took a shot at the military sticking its nose into arenas for which it is not equipped, but the sequel is much less subtle about where its underlying themes are targeted. The London citizens who have been confined to high rise living in a very small section of the city are treated as if they are livestock and behave like scared sheep. Not just scared of what has become of them, but just as sheepish toward their caretakers.

The soldiers on the other hand are bored. Taking aim at people in their homes and chattering on about the people’s private practices, which are easily observed with the soldier’s high tech gear, just to keep from going crazy. Can highly trained specialists be expected to effectively execute orders for a task that falls outside of their field of expertise? Is a second outbreak of the virus inevitable in an environment that allows for no flexibility in the detailing of responsibility? It certainly is inevitable in a sequel where audiences are there for the blood.



***

Again near the beginning of the summer blockbuster season, William Friedkin unveiled his bleak psychologically driven personal horror adaptation of the Tracy Letts play “Bug”. While the stage structure of the story might lead some to say this isn’t a horror film, but a psychological drama, I would say the opening shot, which shows a dead man lying on the ground with blood all over him in a room made up of aluminum foil, suggests otherwise.

Ashley Judd stars in one of her wonderful independent performances, as opposed to her mainstream thrillers which tend to be less than. Judd plays a woman whose own fears are personal until she meets a man (Michael Shannon) to whom she develops a needful connection. Not only does he make his paranoia hers, but their fear begins to feed off each other until everything logically leads to the conspiracy that drives them to that dead man’s strange fate.

Their fear and paranoia is a reflection of the state of fear that drives our society with its school shooters, terrorism and wars against such things. While these two characters’ psychological downward spiral is fascinating enough in its own right, I wondered why the writer had added the element of the abusive ex-husband played by Harry Connick Jr. into the mix. Why couldn’t he just have been a concerned relative? Then it occurred to me that he was 1) a genuine fear for Judd and 2) did represent someone who was truly concerned for her. He really does love her, despite the fact that he hits her, that makes the threat of him more real than any of the paranoid delusions the couple comes up with, and yet still the contrived fear is more powerful than the real threat of the ex-husband.

Are we more concerned about false threats? Which is more dangerous, the threat of terrorism which is thrown in our faces on an hour by hour schedule by presidential contenders and the media alike, or the downward spiral of our economy? What would become of the war if our stock market crashed? While sometimes it may seem our liberties are being restrained in certain areas of our lives, perhaps it really is for our own good? And perhaps it is not some dark conspiracy that makes us seem trapped. Is it a conspiracy of our own making, or did someone else plant the seed of doubt?

“Bug” is a film that raises nothing but questions, and its only answer is that fear and paranoia beget fear and paranoia.



***

Earlier this year I reviewed Rob Zombie’s remake of the John Carpenter horror classic “Halloween” with much disappointment. During last year’s Horrorfest I looked at Zombie’s first foray into feature length horror “House of 1,000 Corpses.” “House” is more satisfying than his remake of “Halloween”, but still is uneven and meandering. His follow-up to that film is Zombie’s crowning achievement so far, the wonderfully rich and intelligent sequel to “House” which continued the story of the serial killing family of that film that in the second becomes known as “The Devil’s Rejects”.

I had been hearing praises of “The Devil’s Rejects” ever since its release in 2005, but I never imagined what a skillfully executed film it is. It almost doesn’t even qualify as a horror film in its own right. It plays a little like a modern western throughout most of its running time, one that happens to feature outlaw protagonists that are serial killers instead of bank robbers. But then in its final act it veers back into horror territory as the serial killing family has the tables turned on it by a vigilante cop who makes them his victims.

It is truly fascinating how it is even possible that Zombie can show his audience such reprehensible characters and then get that same audience to fall in behind those characters and root for them and even feel their terror as they are persecuted in the very same horrific style in which they have tortured and killed so many.

But what it the point of all this really? Well, I think for the most part it is primarily an entertainment, but there is something very basic Zombie seems to be saying about family and the way it is the core of our natures. Nurture is nature, rather than nurture versus nature. These serial killers bicker and banter back and forth with each other just like any family. They spark rage in each other that, considering their darkest nature, might lead you to think they would all kill each other; but that consideration never seems to enter their minds. Perhaps that is also because the crimes they commit against other people are not informed by emotions of rage so much as by some evil that is not connected to human emotion.

Whatever the inner workings of these killers, “The Devil’s Rejects” is a wonderful example of horror/gore entertainment with an underlying current of depth that makes for great cinema.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Michael Clayton / ***½ (R)


Michael Clayton: George Clooney
Karen Cowder: Tilda Swinton
Arthur Edens: Tom Wilkinson
Barry Grissom: Michael O’Keefe
Marty Bach: Sydney Pollack

Warner Bros. presents a film written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Running time: 119 min. Rated R (for language including sexual dialogue).

As awards season reaches full swing over the next few months, there’s going to be a lot of talk about movies many of you will never see or have never even heard of. “Michael Clayton” will not be one of them. After all, this is the type of movie that generates awards because 1) it contains big-name stars giving powerful performances, and 2) it has the kind of mass appeal that will make it a film everyone can talk about. It will probably grab nominations of some sort for picture and performances. Because of this near-inevitability, I find myself in a strange position as a critic. To give them the benefit of the doubt, I often try to like movies more than they deserve, but this time around I find myself trying not to like this movie.

To be honest, there is very little to find fault with in “Michael Clayton”. Calling it formulaic is the worst I can do. It is a legal thriller that falls in the same mold as “A Civil Action”, “Erin Brockovich”, or “The Rainmaker”. It involves a class action suit filed against a major corporation that has put blue collar workers coming into contact with its product on a daily basis in danger of a health crisis. Unlike those other pictures I mentioned, “Michael Clayton” does not tell its story from the perspective of the plaintiffs or their prosecuting attorneys. Instead we are shown the wheelings and dealings of the corporate defendants and lawyers.

During the deposition of a plaintiff in the suit against agriculture giant U-North, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson, “In the Bedroom”), a senior partner at big time law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, strips down naked in an apparent mental breakdown. The firm brings in their “fixer” Michael Clayton to smooth things over with U-North’s chief legal council Karen Cowder.

As the fixer, Clayton’s loyalties seem to simultaneously lie with everyone and no one. George Clooney (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) plays Clayton almost as if he is disinterested in his position in the firm. For sure, he seems to have gotten the short end of the stick, having once been a trail lawyer, but finding now he has spent almost two decades with the firm as its fixer, never achieving partner, with no one even sure what it is he does for the firm save the senior partners. Like any hero in this type of plot, his life is falling apart as he recovers from a gambling addiction and restaurant venture that failed through no fault of his own.

Within the upper echelon of the firm’s hierarchy, he couldn’t be more respected. He’s referred to as a “miracle worker” and “the best in the business”, although he has to beg for any financial love. For a time, it seems as if Clayton’s approach and his reputation don’t match, but Clooney’s precise take on the character eventually reveals it is Clayton’s quite observation of situations and people, combined with his refusal to react the way others expect, that gives him the power to fix just about any fix.

As Clayton investigates his friend’s breakdown, it becomes a possibility that Edens’s strange behavior may be an act of conscience. Clooney never betrays where Clayton stands on this possibility, which lends credence to both Edens being truly crazy or actually onto something. Although there isn’t much here that hasn’t been explored in other films, rarely is it presented this well.

The exception to the norm lies within the corporate antagonist played by Tilda Swinton (“Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”). Swinton’s portrayal of Cowder adds levels that could never be explored with a more typical male antagonist. In fact, Cowder has been newly appointed to her position by her predecessor, played by a stone-faced Ken Howard (“In Her Shoes”). In her introductory scenes, Cowder is seen rehearsing her answers for an interview about her new position. There is little confidence in her rehearsed answers in the mirror, but during the interview she seems to have gotten it together.

As with Clayton, the film’s approach to Swinton’s character is again indirect. Never is her ability to fulfill the requirements of her position directly questioned, but there is a sense that as a female she might not be up to the task. Howard’s performance as her superior suggests a buried belief that she will fail. Cowder is certainly capable of abandoning any moral obligations she may feel in order to perform her duties; the truly interesting thing is that a man in her role would probably make the same decisions, with an outcome far less interesting.

The three performances by Clooney, Swinton, and Wilkinson are the most likely elements to get any recognition during the awards season and the most deserving. Some reviews have claimed that the thriller element pushed in the advertising campaign is exaggerated, and that “Michael Clayton” is really a character study. I would say this is untrue. It is a thriller, one that takes a uniquely probing look at the prime players on both sides of the field, but a legal thriller none the less in shape and form. It happens to be a very well executed drama that takes on a common formula with a specialized approach. It will be talked about among the best. And while it deserves to be in the conversation, by no means does it deserve to dominate it.



Sunday, October 14, 2007

Horrorfest 2007 Report #4: Killer Lamb Lives!

When I was in ninth grade, I was one of twenty kids who were selected to participate in a special science class program that placed gifted science students in an advanced program studying subjects the general student population would not get to in their high school career. I believe we studied physics in the spring semester. I remember next to nothing of that particular class because it was at the end of the day in the second half of the school year, and I sat in the back row with my best friend.

While the rest of the class was learning about how electricity travels from one spot to the next or some such thing, Trev and I were teaching ourselves how to make mini-skateboards and redefining the safety pin into some sort of fashion statement. There was one thing that I created during this period that I never did anything with, but has stuck with me trough the years. I wonder if Trev would even remember this concept I developed.

My obsession with movies was well established by this point in time, however undeveloped. Mine and Trev’s mutual obsession with horror fueled much of our musings. From these influences, I developed a character that would star in a series of films. Trev and I spent much of our time in that science class coming up with titles for this fictional film franchise.

The character was not a person, although it had a personality. It was in fact a lamb. The deadliest lamb the world had ever seen. So deadly, he was known as Killer Lamb. The franchise would start with the film simply titled “Killer Lamb”. Then, in an unprecedented move by the character’s creators, the second film would be titled “The Death of Killer Lamb”. But the series would be revitalized with its third installment “Killer Lamb Lives!”. All subsequent titles of the series would be takes on already existing film titles, such as “The Hunt for Killer Lamb”, “Killer in Pink”, “The Killer Lamb Club”, “Some Kind of Killer Lamb”, “Raiders of the Killer Lamb”, “Killer Lamb and the Temple of Doom”, “Night of the Killer Lamb”, “Lamb”, “Killer Lamb 2: Kill Harder”, “Killer Lamb: First Blood, Part II”, “Killer Lamb II: The Wrath of Killer Lamb”, (Yes, there were several second episodes to the series.) “Killer Lamb III: The Search for Killer Lamb”…. And I’m sure you more than get the point, but I was having fun.

I even continued my practice of Killer-izing movie titles well into adulthood and came up with one of my favorites in college, “The Violence of the Lamb”. What a surprise it was for me then to see the trailer for the New Zealand horror/comedy “Black Sheep” with the tag line, “Get ready for the violence of the lambs.” In watching this quirky comedy about genetically mutated sheep turned into crazed killing machines I did not feel my idea of a lamb on a killing spree was stolen; but rather that it had finally been realized. And not only do the lambs in this movie kill; their victims then become were-sheep. Sweet!!!

This film brought me so much pleasure. Its hero is tortured with a phobia of sheep, due to a traumatizing childhood incident. It has environmentalists who are numb to the realities of the world through their own fanatic idealism. There is a scene right out of Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask” inspired by Gene Wilder’s frisky livestock vet. To quote Jonathan King’s wonderful “Black Sheep” screenplay, “That brings a whole new definition to ‘animal husbandry.’” The scene where a sheep drives a truck off a cliff brings back memories of “Toonces the Driving Cat” from “Saturday Night Live”. And who would’ve thought that mint jelly is to zombie sheep as holy water is to demons.

While it is really a silly premise that only gets past the half hour point by remaining resolutely clever and utilizing the charm of its New Zealand cast, there is little to take fault with in this set up. You don’t have to worry about taking it seriously, which frees your mind to catch all the references to horror clich├ęs and even specific horror movies. The sheep sticking its head through the locked bedroom door―“The Shining”. The flock of sheep feasting on the victims in the field―“Night of the Living Dead”. The transformation scene―“An American Werewolf in London”. “Black Sheep” may not be high art, but it is a whole lot of fun.



***

Each year there is a movie or two that is a quirky, yet understated comedy along with being good horror. Trev helped guide me to another of these films this year in the independent release “Dead End”, not to be confused with the new direct-to-DVD release “Wrong Turn 2: Dead End”. No, “Dead End" was quietly released to probably 2 or 3 U.S. theaters in 2004 after a world tour of theatrical releases and film festivals. It effectively fell through the cracks.

“Dead End” involves a family driving to Christmas dinner through a winding dark back road. The quirky actor from “Twin Peaks”, Ray Wise plays the family patriarch, which should tell you a little about the film right there. After a Griswold family vacation moment of falling asleep at the wheel, the dad sees something in the woods and stops the car, never a good thing to do in a horror movie.

While the plot from this point is something predictable for the horror palate, the execution in this ultra-low budget picture is something of an exquisite rarity. Writer-directors Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa do a wonderful job of capturing the family dynamic of being trapped together on a road trip to a holiday outing no one really wants to attend. Their acute observation of familial behavior adds authenticity and humor to the material. I loved the way the brother and sister bickered, but really seemed to love each other deep down; and the mother’s (another brilliant quirky actor, Lin Shaye) and father’s relationship has that lived in and sick of each other but used to it feel that long married couples have. And what a splendid joke that the boy friend’s death is handled as if it were an acceptable loss for the trip.



***

As quirky independent horror films go Anthony Shaffer’s “The Wicker Man” (1973) stands atop the cult heap. I was lucky enough to screen that film during last year’s Horrorfest. I was not so lucky to screen the Nicolas Cage 2006 remake this year. I don’t know what is up with Cage lately. He seems to be pursuing passion projects based on material of which he has personally been a fan, but the results of this film and this past Spring’s “Ghost Rider” have only inspired passionate distaste.

At least David S. Goyer had abandoned his writing credit on “Ghost Rider” before it was finally filmed, but Neil LaBute’s adaptation of “The Wicker Man” is inexplicable. LaBute has been responsible for some of the more scathing explorations of gender relations in such films as “In the Company of Men”, “Your Friends & Neighbors”, and “The Shape of Things”. What he does by turning “The Wicker Man” into a feminist tirade is inexcusable.

LaBute has been criticized before for his treatment of women on the screen, but most of those critiques were overlooking the nasty statements he was making about men. Here LaBute and Cage have completely flipped the traditional roles of men and women in horror. The women are the authorities in “The Wicker Man” and hold all the cards over Cage’s powerless victimized police officer. This entailed changing some crucial details of the original screenplay in which the whole town visited by the police officer, women and men, were duplicitous in his fate.

I suppose this can been seen as some extreme form of women’s liberation ― Look, we can be monsters too! ― but isn’t this missing the point of equal rights? Am I wrong to think the desire for equality is supposed to be striving toward some sort of peace? Perhaps I am, but more important is the fact that this movie just plain stinks.

The original “Wicker Man” is a mysterious parable about faith and its relationship to society. There are scenes of disturbing imagery and even more disturbing ideology. This update lacks any sort of real mystery in the way it forces relationships on the characters that are unnecessary, such as Cage’s connection to the girl whose disappearance he has come to investigate on a secluded island. LaBute makes the cult nature of the people living on this island apparent from the beginning, whereas the original made this island community look like a normal town for a while, if just a little bit eccentric.

What ever the differences, Cage’s and LaBute’s vision of “The Wicker Man” is not scary, creepy or even remotely interesting. Rent the original instead.

This is one of those scenes created for the new version that is absolutely pointless and makes little sense in the context of the resolution of the film.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Horrorfest 2007 Report # 3: The Master Class

Nicolas Roeg – Don’t Look Now (1973)
Alfred Hitchcock – Lifeboat (1944)
Ingmar Bergman – Hour of the Wolf (1968)

I often try to screen some classic films during my annual Horrorfest. This year my classic films seem to also honor classic filmmakers; Europeans who built respected careers with their works and aren’t really known as horror directors but just plain great directors. This year three directors make up the Master Class of Horrorfest.

Nicholas Roeg is the only of these three directors who is still living. He has not enjoyed the lifelong success of the other two, but during the seventies he became very revered for his output of “psychedelic” films which embraced the pop culture of the youth, while showing a deft handle on the craft of cinema. A renowned cinematographer throughout the 60s, his debut film as a director “Performance” starred rocker Mick Jagger in his very first acting assignment. Roeg later cast David Bowie as the lead in his alien come to Earth film “The Man Who Fell to Earth”. Perhaps his most widely praised film is the Australian outback set “Walkabout”, which he followed with another highly respected film “Don’t Look Now”.

While much of his films focus on the idea of the outcast and alien, “Don’t Look Now” was his only film to venture into the genre of horror. More of a character study drama than a horror film, the supernatural plays a large role in this thriller featuring one of the most reluctant heroes to visit the screen. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a couple recovering from the accidental drowning death of their daughter. He is an historic preservationist working on a church in Venice. He is a practical man with little interest in the spiritual world, even that of the church he is restoring.

Christie’s mother has had trouble copping with her daughter’s death until she meets a blind woman who claims to have seen their daughter. Her interaction with this woman changes her outlook and brings the focus of their grief on Sutherland’s father. He appears to be gifted with the same spiritual sight as the blind woman, but refuses to accept it, just as he refuses to accept his own grief over his daughter’s death. Where all this leads these characters is entirely unpredictable and in some ways utterly strange.

What makes Roeg’s film so unique is the father’s unwillingness to take the role assigned him. He refuses to see his visions for what they are. Meanwhile, the threat against him draws ever closer. The horror sneaks up on the characters in the same way it sneaks up on the audience. It seems like this is just a slightly off kilter drama, until suddenly it becomes something entirely different. To say you can’t see the ending coming is an understatement.



***

Alfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense, but he rarely dabbled in all out horror. “Psycho” and “The Birds” are the only films he made that could really be classified as horror. Most of his work are thrillers; some political, some romantic, some psychological. It is that obsession he had with the psychological thriller that keeps much of his work on the cusp of horror, even when it cannot be classified purely as horror.

His 1944 film “Lifeboat” is surely not a horror film, although less frightening films have been included in Horrorfest before. In many ways this tale of open sea survival from the story by John Steinbeck is really just a form of American propaganda to carry audiences through the end of World War II. It seems to say that Nazis are evil,with no two ways about it. Don’t be fooled by empathy. But it also dabbles in a frequent undercurrent of Hitch—the idea of normal ordinary people committing that awful sin of murder for the greater good. What does killing a man do to you, even in the middle of a war?

When a merchant marine ship is sunk in the Atlantic, a small band of survivors must make the best of it in a lifeboat. The fact that one of the survivors is a German from the very ship that sunk the merchant vessel complicates matters. Do they leave him to die? Does that make them murderers? The German captain stays, but after several betrayals the group is unanimous about his ultimate fate.

What they do breaks down all boundaries between class and status, and redefines all their moral standards. Is their decision a good one because no one dissents? Will everyone be able to live with what they have done? Would they have survived had they not done it? Hitch raises all these questions almost subversively underneath the veil of patriotism and the idea that in war everything is black and white; when in reality, these questions prove it clearly is not.



***

The films of Ingmar Bergman are certainly not films that would generally be considered to belong to any genre, yet almost all of them deal with the depth of human psychology that drives all three of the films discussed here. In my very first Horrorfest I looked at my very first Bergman film, “The Seventh Seal”. Again, certainly no horror flick, but with the presence of death in the story and the horrors of human psychology driving the events, I felt it fit.

“Hour of the Wolf” is probably the closest Bergman ever got to a horror film. Like “The Seventh Seal”, “Wolf” stars the great Swedish actor Max Von Sydow. Sydow plays an artist on the verge of losing his sanity. Bergman takes his time in revealing that this is what is really happening as the artist’s story is told by his lover (Liv Ullman). The two have begun an isolated existence on a secluded island, but soon find the island’s landlords to be intruding upon their idyllic environment.

Sydow’s artist seems to be strangely connected to this eccentric family. As he interacts more with the family on the island, he becomes moody and less accessible to his lover. At one point, he recalls an incident involving a young boy that drives the creep factor of the film through the roof. The boy is more of a creature than a human, and soon we discover the same goes for the island’s other inhabitants.

It is easy to mistake Bergman as a dialogue driven director, rather than a visually driven one. “Hour of the Wolf” is a wonderful example of how visual Bergman could be in his direction. Note the wordless wonder Sydow’s artist exhibits as he enters the castle for the second time and sees the family’s strange existence for the first time. Notice the man who walks up walls, or the naked woman, wonderfully focused in the background of the shot, as Sydow begins his final descent into madness. This picture could act as a class in itself on gothic images in cinema.

As I write this, I'm thinking I was wrong to claim that no film of Bergman’s could qualify as a genre film. But while the subject of “Hour of the Wolf” is a very personal character study of a particular man, this is most assuredly a horror movie. And really a good horror film often requires very personal character study. This is a film that can lead to nightmares, and isn’t that the point of Horrorfest?


Monday, October 08, 2007

The Game Plan / ** (PG)


Joe Kingman: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Peyton Kelly: Madison Pettis
Stella Peck: Kyra Sedgwick
Monique Vasquez: Roselyn Sanchez
Travis Sanders: Morris Chestnut

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Andy Fickman. Written by Nichole Millard & Kathryn Price and Audrey Wells. Running time: 110 min. Rated PG (for mild thematic elements).

A few of years back, an NBA-fan friend of mine told me he couldn’t wait to see “Like Mike”. This shocked me coming from someone I knew to be a big fan of Italian art horror films and a constant derider of the happy Hollywood mainstream. He explained that it was the off-season and he was going through a major basketball jones.

Well, unfortunately for us NFL fans, it is not the Hollywood norm to put out football movies during the off-season. But after the sleeper success of last year’s Disney pic “Invincible”, the House of Mouse has decided to try to capitalize on football fever once again this fall with the more kid-targeted football-themed “The Game Plan”. Still, I never would have considered seeing this vehicle for former college football star Dwayne Johnson if it hadn’t been for my six year-old boy, Jack, who is proving to be quite susceptible to the Disney Channel’s aggressive ad campaigns.

While “Invincible” told the compelling true story of a Philadelphia Eagle fan who won a spot on the team against all odds—a story screenwriters wouldn’t even consider making up— “The Game Plan” sticks to the more tried and true Disney strategy of having a cute kid come unexpectedly into a successful adult’s life and showing them all they are missing out on in life. Because this is what the movie is really about, football doesn’t much enter into the plot.

Johnson (“The Rundown”) is Joe Kingman, quarterback of the Boston Rebels and professional football’s richest and most eligible bachelor. Kingman is at the height of his career, landing record-breaking endorsement deals, when an 8-year-old girl named Peyton Kelly shows up at his penthouse claiming to be his daughter. Madison Pettis (of Disney Channel’s “Cory in the House”) plays the plucky Peyton.

The movie progresses through a series of accidents all too typical of inexperienced movie parents and super-intelligent kids who conveniently know more than they should except when they need to pretend that kids don’t know rules. In one scene, some sort of food substance is splattered all over the kitchen, and in another the kid uses too much soap for the bath, flooding the penthouse with bubbles. Somehow we never see these messes being cleaned up. There is Kingman’s manly bulldog, Spike, who is eventually dressed up in a tutu by Peyton. And when Kingman has a date, Peyton sabotages it with a vehemence only practiced by little girls in movies against women that are unacceptable companions for their single dads. In order to keep the score somewhat even, Peyton is not entirely truthful with Kingman about how she came to show up at his door that night.

While there is some humor in juxtaposing a single man’s life with the responsibility of becoming a parent, this father and daughter seem to exist in a strange isolation within Kingman’s luxury apartment, where they mostly only interact with each other. As a parent myself, I think the filmmakers miss several opportunities to explore the humor and exasperation of parenthood by keeping their relationship so isolated. For instance, take the date that Peyton sabotages. While the pair’s witty banter proves the 8-year-old is smarter than the 21-year-old fashion model, the sequence ends when Peyton weasels her way into the date by feigning allergies to the baby sitter’s dog. Why not go to the restaurant and see how the two girls interact in public? Public outbursts are always the most embarrassing for a parent.

Other characters seem to exist as at least a half-hearted attempt to expand the father/daughter relationship. Kyra Sedgwick (TNT’s “The Closer”) makes the most significant supporting contribution as Kingman’s anti-paternal agent, but I would rather think of her as a performer who is above the flatulence jokes that inevitably make their way into every children’s movie. Roselyn Sanchez (CBS’s “Without a Trace”) shows up as a never fully explored potential love interest for Kingman. And Morris Chestnut (the aforementioned “Like Mike”) plays apparently the only professional football player who has a family of his own.

“The Game Plan” certainly has its heart in the right place, and Johnson shows a range here that proves he is ready to move on to more challenging material than action heroes and athletic situational comedy dads. But this is far too much of a stick-to-the-rulebook production. It is a shame that writers can’t be more creative with a comedy like this and call a few audible plays of their own. But there is one thing this movie got 100% correct about being a parent, we will do anything for our kids, even go to substandard films. And it was worth it just to see my boy’s smiling face shining up at the screen.


Buy it: Football DVDs