Saturday, October 30, 2010

Horror Thoughts 2010: Week 4

Beetlejuice (1988) ***
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson, Warren Skaaren
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix, Sylvia Sidney

Tim Burton’s second feature film, “Beetlejuice”, was a small surprise hit at the time of its release and has over the years become a surprise classic that many find the time to watch every Halloween. I hadn’t seen it in about 20 years myself, and despite my amazement over just how much Alec Baldwin has aged and changed physically over that time period, I was surprised at how much charm the movie still retains.

I was never that impressed by the performance of Michael Keaton as the titular Beetlegeuse. It’s not really a far cry from much of his comedic work in the early 80s. I think the movie works more because of the innocence that both Baldwin and Geena Davis are able to capture with their ill-fated couple, and the remarkable talent that is Catherine O’Hara. Of course, Burton’s indomitable penchant for the freakish but not-too-frightening has a great deal to do with the movie’s success as well.

Sorority Row (2009) **
Director: Stewart Hendler
Writers: Josh Stolberg, Peter Goldfinger, Mark Rosman (screenplay “Seven Sisters”)
Starring: Briana Evigan, Leah Pipes, Rumer Willis, Jamie Chung, Margo Harshman, Julian Morris, Carrie Fisher

I didn’t expect to like “Sorority Row”. I’m not even sure why I chose it for this year’s Horrorfest, beyond the fact that it was released since the last one. But this typical dead teenager horror flick did provide me with something I haven’t been able to do yet this Horrorfest. It allowed me to flex some of those frequently used formula muscles to try and predict every moment before it happened. This movie actually does a pretty good job, using the law of the economy of characters that says the killer must be one of the characters that we have been introduced to, of keeping a few characters in rotation as the prime suspect. That is as long as you don’t fall for the notion that it’s the dead girl come back for revenge, which is pretty ridiculous. Or is it?

Them! (1954) ***½
Director: Gordon Douglas
Writers: Ted Sherdeman, Russell Hughes (adaptation), George Worthington Yates (story)
Starring: James Whitmore, James Arness, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon

This Cold War classic might just seem like B-movie shlock to the untrained eye, but it’s really an impressive statement that holds up rather well 60 years later despite the bad special effects. What struck me most, seeing this movie for the first time since I was 10 watching the Saturday afternoon creature double features, is how straight forward and serious it’s played by the cast. James Whitmore is excellent as the patrolman who gets wrapped up in the U.S. government’s top-secret mission to exterminate a colony of nuclear testing mutated giant-sized ants. The best thing about the movie is how all the government double speak also reads as Cold War propaganda.

My wife asked me, “So are the ants the Russians?”  They most certainly are the ultimate representation of a socialist society with every member of the colony contributing equally to the colony as a whole. I also liked how the U.S. government is never questioned by anyone involved about covering the whole incident up for the public. Of course, this was back when everyone believed that even in not telling the whole truth the government was working for the good of the people; and eventually, when the time is right for it, the government does allow its citizens to know what has happened and how they plan to fix it. It sounds like an ideal world… except for the giant-sized ants.

Matinee (1993) ***½
Director: Joe Dante
Writers: Jericho, Charlie Haas
Starring: John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Jesse Lee, Lucinda Jenney, James Villemaire, Robert Picardo

I’ve long heard about how good this oft-overlooked film is. “Matinee” is a throwback to the days of B-movie matinees. It tells the story of a boy whose dad has been shipped off on one of the Cuban Missile Crisis blockade ships. He and his younger brother often frequent the matinee horror movies that were popular weekend filler at the time. A B-movie producer, played by John Goodman, has chosen the same Florida Naval port town to premiere his newest schlock flick “Mant!”, which features a good deal of in movie house special effects, like vibrating seats, flash bombs, and an amplified sound system.

The movie makes a great companion picture to “Them!”, because of the similar themes between that real Cold War schlock flick and the fictional “Mant!” featured as the film within the film. “Matinee” also helps illustrate the many common themes of the early 60s B-movie monster flicks with its subplot of the ongoing missile crisis. The serious themes of the picture might be what have made it difficult to find an audience for this picture. All its seriousness is blended fairly well by the filmmakers with a good touch of comedy, slapstick and romanticism, but the real threat of nuclear war always lingers in the background. A fun piece of cinema, and a good piece of history to boot.

A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) *½
Director/ Writer: Wes Craven  
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Nick Corri, Amanda Wyss, Ronee Blakely, John Saxon, Robert Englund

I added this horror “classic” to my list this year because I’ve always hated it. Whaaaa?! I never understood why it was so popular. I believe the success of this and the “Friday the 13th” franchise have held the horror genre back from being a legitimate study in human nature for more than almost 30 years at this point. But it’s been more than 20 since I’ve seen it, and I felt that maybe I should give it a second chance.

I should’ve let well enough alone. This movie is terrible. It isn’t scary. It’s just plain goofy. Sure, there are some genuinely original images created by Craven in this first outing for Freddy, like the hand coming up out of the bathtub and the face and hands pressing up against the flexible wall, but those are the only positive contributions this movie offers to the horror genre. The acting is terrible (even Johnny Depp had yet to find his footing). The premise is poorly executed. And Freddy is one of the least scary horror monsters ever created. He’s not scary because there is nothing real about his threat. Yes, if he’s in your dreams they become real, but there’s no reality offered here at all. The teens don’t have any real concerns. Nancy’s divorced parents offer no real conflict to the story. And Freddy’s dream world seems nothing like any dream I’ve ever had. This film is crap, crap, crap.

Scared Shrekless (2010) ***
Directors: Gary Trousdale, Raman Hui
Writers: Sean Bishop, Gary Trousdale, William Steig (book)
Starring: Mike Myers, Conrad Vernon, Cody Cameron, Dean Edwards, Antonio Banderas, Cameron Diaz

I really like the new trend in network Holiday programming taking popular CGI film franchises and producing new TV specials with the original voice talent. Over the past couple of years we’ve seen Christmas specials from “Shrek” and “Madagascar”, a Halloween special from “Monsters vs. Aliens” that was better the movie, and now a new Halloween offering from the “Shrek” franchise. This one follows a fairly typical horror anthology model of offering three different stories framed by a fireside story telling sequence, and it stays true to the Shrek model of skewering pop culture by referencing many films, songs and celebrities. It’s nothing brilliant, but it’s fun for the kids and the adults, too.

Vampyr (1932) **
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer
Writers: Christen Jul, Carl Th. Dreyer, J. Sheridan La Fanu (novel “In a Glass Darkly”)
Starring: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko, Henriette Gerard

The silent film era is a tough one to judge today. At the time, filmmakers were really just discovering what they could do with film and photography, and many films are based solely on the discovery of new film techniques. “Vampyr”, considered by some to be a silent horror classic, although it’s not truly silent, is really one of those films. There are a great many techniques discovered by German filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer here. The moving camera work is some of the best I’ve seen from the era. The story, however, and the way it is told, is very dry and bland. This is the follow up to Dreyer’s masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, and it’s surprising at just how little passion can be found in this film. If you’re looking for a silent vampire movie, the one to go with is Murnau’s “Nosferatu”

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) **½
Director/Writer: Wes Craven
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Miko Hughes, Robert Englund, David Newsome, Tracy Middendorf, Fran Bennett, John Saxon, Wes Craven

As the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise progressed, the series became more and more about Freddy, and Freddy became more of a cartoon character than a horror monster. Then they killed him, and horror aficionados everywhere unleashed a sigh of relief. Freddy was dead. Maybe the respectability of the slasher genre could be salvaged. But then, Wes Craven announced a “New Nightmare”. To everyone’s surprise, the seventh entry was somewhat of a return to core horror movie values, a movie that played upon real fear, rather than franchise packaging.

Craven’s only solo creative investment since the first film, “New Nightmare” imagined a scenario where the lead actress from the first film is haunted by the fictional monster of Freddy through a new script being written by Craven himself that acts as a prognostication of the events that will terrorize the actress and her family. The premise was really quite brilliant, and when it’s not trying to shock the audience with already patented Freddy-isms from the franchise, it’s quite effective. Unfortunately, by its end, the movie devolves into the same tired Freddy clich├ęs and practices; but for ¾ of its running time, the movie works.


Alan Bacchus said...

Agreed. A Nightmare on Elm Street sucks. And THEM is terrific.
Another B-Movie that features a giant ant and which holds up really well is The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Andrew D. Wells said...

I loved The Incredible Shrinking Man as a kid. I loved that opening with the fog bank on the water. I watched it every time they played it for the Saturday creature feature.